Sunday, December 30, 2007
The concert was fabulous, and went for over two hours. Her voice is absolutely amazing, and it was great to hear some older songs as well as plenty off her new album (above). I remember in high school that any time we had some kind of talent concert/contest, at least two girls would have a go at a wobbly, out-of-tune version of To Sir, With Love. Tina Arena revives it with her beautiful voice, as with several other classics.
In between songs, she chatted a bit, which was nice, and one of the things she talked about was being at school and singing professionally at the same time. Her mother wouldn't allow her to work in Years 11 and 12, but at the school's last assembly, her friends persuaded her to sing To Sir, With Love - I can imagine what that must have been like! She also talked about teachers who had nurtured and supported her, which made me think about my own high school teachers.
If you haven't heard her sing before, this is a link to a YouTube video of My Heart Will Go On
and another to Sorrento Moon. Anyone in France reading this will be very familiar with her - she is famous there and has released an album in French, although she now lives in London because she said in Paris she can't even go to the supermarket without being recognised. She is now 40 and, she says, has finally got to the point where she doesn't care what anyone thinks anymore. The new album is all her own - she decided what would go on it and how it would sound. She sounded more pleased about that than anything!
Thinking back to seeing her in YTT, and of her career since then, I feel that she epitomises the artist's life, whether it's in music, writing, art, acting, composition - you're in it for the long haul. There's a joke about how overnight success usually takes at least ten years, but it's true. I've been reading recently about writers who achieve success early and how many of them burn out or just fade away. They haven't done the "hard yards" that most people do, being rejected for years but persevering nonetheless, moving one step forward and being shoved back three, developing the thick skin you need to survive things like bad reviews. So here's to perseverance, to finding your place in the writing world and sticking to your dreams, no matter what.
Saturday, December 29, 2007
My reading, however, has been slowed down by a stick, specifically a bamboo stick that took it upon itself to poke me in the eye. OK, so I was holding it at the time, but I'm sure it had a mind of its own and decided to "get" me. Maybe someone slipped some paranoia into my drink over Christmas. Needless to say, I didn't let it stop me too much and finished reading one of my presents, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray. It's a YA novel, described as Gothic, but it's historical crossed with magic stuff. I did like it more than Twilight but that's probably because the main character had a bit more "gumption" and there were no vampires in it!
After sticking to one of my goals for 2007 (which was to only work on one project at a time), I've now decided that that is not working well for me - I feel like too many things are left unrevised or incomplete. So for 2008, I'm going to try to manage my writing projects better, and use my writing time more effectively. Sometimes I feel like half an hour is not enough to work on my novel project so I end up doing nothing. Now I'm going to try to use those smaller bites of time to work on poems or picture books. The forms are different enough that I can keep them separate in my mind.
Other goals are still in the mulling stage. There's no point setting a goal like "Get my novel published" as this is out of my control - it's someone else's decision. But I can say "Send my novel out to X publishers" instead. Mostly I think I want to manage my time more effectively. It seems to just dribble away. Having two new subjects to teach in 08 won't make it easy, but becoming more organised is probably the sensible thing to do.
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
At this time of the year, I tend to read so much that I go cross-eyed, but I didn't want to end 2007 without commenting on some of the best of the past few weeks. A big cross-section, starting with Louise Rennison's latest, Luuurve is a Many-Trousered Thing. The cover above is the US one - do they think the American readers won't understand Luuurve? But it is a nicer cover than my plain purple one, I must admit. Although Angus looks very benign. Needless to say, this new addition to the Georgia Nicholson diaries made me laugh out loud. Five stars for readers under 14 (and me).
I also loved Val McDermid's new book featuring Tony Hill, and since I've commented on this before, I won't do so again. It's strange, but Sue Grafton's new one, T is for Trespass, had me yawning for the first four chapters, then I got into the swing of it. She has quite determinedly kept Kinsey, her detective, back in the 80s, so no mobile phones or GPS units or anything very technological. Just plain old detective work. When you read a lot of crime fiction, it's a jolt to discard the CSI expectations and move back in time!
While I loved Meg Rosoff's first book, How I Live Now, I thought the second, Just In Case, had such an annoying main character that I almost didn't finish it. With the third, What I Was, I was blown away by the wonderful writing, and the way in which the quiet plot unfolded. Another main character on the outside, but this time he had enough complexity and self-awareness to create an empathy that grew as I read on. Highly recommended.
I've just finished Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce. He wrote one of my favourite kid's books, Millions, and I was sorry that so many of the character and story bits that made it stand out for me were lost in the movie. Framed is similar, in that there is a narrator/main character who is totally convincing in his naivety and view of the world. Like the character in Millions, Dylan has his own passions and obsessions even though he is only about eleven, and these very subtly drive most of the story.
Anything disappointing? Well, yes. The Alibi Man by Tami Hoag. I guess I never really warmed to the main character, the mystery seemed a bit flat and predictable, and I'll no doubt study this one again to see what it was that didn't work for me, and try to work out why. On my pile or being read now I have The Writer's Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes (am reading a couple of chapters a day) and the latest issue of Blue Dog, which is one of Australia's best poetry mags right now. I'm also dipping into a collection of short stories by Nancy Kincaid, and the Lonely Planet guide to France. And looking forward to reading Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld - nabbed it in a book sale. Will it live up to its hype?
Monday, December 24, 2007
Over on Kristi Holl's new blog, Writer's First Aid, she's been talking about fitting writing into a busy life - how do you manage it when you aren't a full-time writer? How do writers with jobs and kids and family find time to write? I've been reading The Writer's Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes this week, and he devotes several pages to this. What's interesting is the number of writers who say they wrote their first novel by finding half an hour or an hour here and there, and sticking at it until it was finished. When you really want to do something, you'll do it. What was even more interesting was how many of those writers said that now they're writing full-time, they're not getting any more words on the page.
Keyes says, "In addition to having to schedule time effectively, writers with day jobs have access to a rich, ongoing source of material." He also suggests that when you are driven to write and don't have time to squander on too much worrying about what you're writing, you write from the heart, giving it all you've got, and you stop thinking about the censors. By censors, he means all the people who would rather you didn't write, or want you to write something "nice".
It's true that when I'm not working (i.e. on holiday), I probably don't write a huge amount more than when I am. But what happens is my brain frees up for other things, like coming up with new ideas and new ways of tackling revision. It also allows me headspace for revision - because true revision means seeing the work in a new way that includes those brilliant flashes on how to fix or change things and make them better. Sometimes I get frustrated and feel like I'm writing the same old thing, and having several weeks free often means that suddenly I discover new story ideas.
The free time also means I can read with more effect - a strange thing to say, but I mean that if I'm reading writing books, the information sinks in better. If I'm reading fiction, I'm more aware of reading it as a writer. Somehow, even if it's only for two or three weeks, writing full-time makes me feel more like a writer. I'm making the most of it!
Sunday, December 23, 2007
A friend has given me Don't annoy me. I'm running out of places to hide the bodies. And my other fun one is If you can't be a good example you'll have to be a terrible warning.
For a couple of years, I've had a quote from Clint Eastwood stuck on the front of my work diary: I tried being reasonable. I didn't like it. And another near my desk from Eudora Welty: I'm often asked if universities stifle writers. I don't think they stifle enough of them.
Another favourite was a car sticker: My only domestic quality is that I live in a house. Someone stole that one off my car! And I still have one in my home office that says: It's always darkest just before it goes totally black.
I have to admit I can see a theme here, and no doubt budding psychologists would have a field day with most people's choice of quotes and homilies. But for 2007, this is what I've had stuck on the front of my diary: Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan "Press on" has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. (Calvin Coolidge)
I haven't decided what will go on my diary for 2008, but I'm on the look-out for something both funny and inspiring. All suggestions gratefully received!
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
At this time of the year, the desire for silence and solitude is almost overwhelming for me, especially after such a busy year. I planned three days alone - reading, walking, sleeping, daydreaming, meditating. No writing unless I felt like it. No work. No appointments, not even social ones. Except for a trip to Borders first thing where I bought a wonderful book (more on this in a moment). By 2pm yesterday afternoon, I was fully into my little retreat, relaxed and contemplating a massage at my local Chinese massage place. Then my daughter arrived unexpectedly, with her usual dramas going on, and my retreat disappeared.
However, today I am back on it again, daughter dispatched to the outside world, while I take the phone off the hook and retrieve my reading books, preparing to settle down into the silence again. The book I am reading is called A Writer's Paris by Eric Maisel, and I was immediately taken into it when I read about the art of flânerie - strolling. "The flâneur is an observer who wanders the streets of a great city on a mission to notice with childlike enjoyment the smallest events and the obscurist sights he encounters." He calls flânerie "delicious, dreamy strolling" but he also calls it ambling, which is what I love to do in Hong Kong.
In fact, as a writer, I love to do it in any place that intrigues me. I am planning a personal three-week writer's retreat in France next year, and I intend to spend as much time as possible on strolling/ambling and simply being there. Writing will no doubt happen, but I am beginning to feel that a retreat needs to have a different purpose. I am used to having time off work and cramming in as much writing as possible before deadlines descend. This is not a writing retreat. This is a writing frenzy. A retreat restores the imagination, silences the everyday babble in the brain and allows ideas and dreams to emerge.
I haven't yet formulated any goals for 2008. But if you're a writer and feeling out of touch with your writing, maybe you can put a retreat on your list of goals. It may mean you rent a hotel room on the coast for a weekend, or borrow someone's house in the bush. It may mean you send the family away and you stay home with the phone off the hook. The key to a retreat is solitude, and allowing yourself to indulge in it. I'm planning for my next one already.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
So it was no surprise to me to see he'd written his first adult novel, Ocean Road. If you want to write realistic, hard-hitting stuff, you may well turn to adult fiction if the gatekeepers in YA have given you a hard time. However, Parry might well have listened to Garry Disher, who writes adult and children's/YA fiction, who once said that the world of children's/YA publishing was much kinder and supportive, and he preferred it.
In a review of Ocean Road, Richard King has seen fit to make comments such as "The problem with the book is the lack of an interesting voice at its core." This after quite a few nice comments. And "the narrator's internal life seems to be almost non-existent". Somehow, I can't imagine Parry, whose original YA voice got him into such trouble, writing an adult novel that has apparently been deemed dull. I'll have to go and have a look for myself.
In other sections of the Review, Graeme Blundell manages to spend nearly all of his meagre eight column inches rabbiting on about a series of male crime writers' new books, and gives Sue Grafton 16 words. Hello, GB, try having a look on the latest crime writers' display of books in any bookstore and it'll be at least 50/50 male/female. Wake up, lad. I read Val McDermid's latest while in HK (I love Tony Hill - how could you not when VM finally starts to give us some wonderful, intriguing backstory), Grafton's T for Trespass was good but not brilliant, while Tess Gerritsen never gets a mention. Shame!
But the Review did give us a piece on Kathryn Fox, Australia's latest answer (so they say) to Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs. Fox talks about starting her first novel and taking herself off to writers' workshops (presumably to find out more about writing???) where she was "amazed at the outright amateurishness of many would-be novelists, their lack of appreciation of the industry's fundamental conventions." Sorry, Ms Fox, but I take issue with your scorn. Everyone has to start somewhere, just like you, and it's not as if the publishing industry puts out a guide for amateurs.
In fact, the course I teach in takes pride in educating new writers into how the industry works, how to be professional, how to rewrite, take editorial advice, workshop, edit, negotiate, etc. It's part of the learning curve. Expecting beginner writers to understand how it all works from Day One is like expecting aspiring professional tennis players to understand what it's like to play at Wimbledon. You have to learn as you go, work your way up to it, take on board every bit of help and guidance you can as you go along.
The writers that make me cringe are the ones who have been around for a long time and refuse to understand it's a business. They are pining to be discovered, and blame everyone else for the fact that they are not published and famous. Ms Fox may well have come across some of these in her own quest to write and be published. Get used to it! It happens in every industry, and most particularly in the arts. Don't disparage other people's dreams. Get on with your own.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
I wonder all of these things because I have no deadline, other than some I set for myself. For the first time in many years, we have no plans for Christmas Day (other than maybe finding somewhere to feed us and then do the dishes, i.e. a restaurant). There are places we could go, places we have been invited, but we might possibly stay home, take the phone off the hook and veg out. I might write. Read. Sleep.
The urge to write is always there, but I recognise when the brain is out of action. And that's now. Instead, I am reading, planning to watch some movies, walk, relax, maybe get a massage for that troublesome neck problem my poor computer use created. I know the time will come when I'll have to write because I can't not write any longer. Sometimes it's good to just stop pushing the words out and wait for them to want to emerge on their own. In the meantime, I'm thinking about my two current projects - both novels - and allowing myself to ponder over some new ideas for them.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Earlier this year, the FAW (Fellowship of Australian Writers) asked if we would be interested in reading at Federation Square sometime, so we thought December was a great opportunity to launch Issue 29 of Poetrix. We invited all the contributors who lived in Victoria to be guest readers (and eight of them came along, which was terrific) and several of us read poems by interstate poets.
The venue is quite inspirational, in the Atrium in the area above the BMW Edge theatre. They had a great sound system there that meant outside noise became irrelevant, and people wandered in and out of the space (some even stayed to listen). The photo above is of one of our readers, Helen Cerne, and part of the audience, with the background of the glass walls and ceiling. This triangular web is characteristic of Fed Square, and is also on the walls outside. Thanks to everyone who was involved - it was a very enjoyable afternoon, and ended with an even more enjoyable Western Women Writers' dinner! It's going to be hard to top this with our celebrations for Issue 30.
Saturday, December 08, 2007
These days, we are often expected to read nonfiction if we want "reliable" information, yet I know many fiction writers who research their material just as deeply as nonfiction writers do. I commented recently on a book by William Dietrich about Attilla the Hun. While I was away, I read a crime novel by Barry Maitland - Silvermeadow. It told me a huge amount about modern shopping centres or malls, how and why they are constructed (leading to demise of the high street shops) and the theory behind them.
Silvermeadow is a fictional shopping centre that could be any huge centre near you. There is quite a bit of information about the Gruen transfer theory, and the following is from Wikipedia:
In shopping mall design, the Gruen transfer refers to the moment when consumers respond to "scripted disorientation" cues in the environment. It is named for Austrian architect Victor Gruen (who disavowed such manipulative techniques) and lately popularized by Douglas Rushkoff.
The consumer's decision-making consciousness subsides and he or she is more likely to make an impulse purchase because of unconscious influences of lighting, ambient sound and music, spatial choices, visual detail, mirrored and polished surfaces, climate control, and the sequence and order of interior storefronts, etc.
The effect is marked by a slower walking pace and glazed eyes.
As writers, we have to avoid info dumps and shovelling in huge dollops of the factual material we slaved so hard to discover in order to make our stories "real". But by giving the info through the character, having a character who needs to find out this stuff, it makes the job easier.
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Mostly, no. There are always exceptions, and the one that everyone tends to quote is the guy in American Psycho. Because lots of people read that book, or said they did. But did they read it to find out what happened to the main character, whether he came good? Or because it was so violent and disgusting that they were waiting for him to get his come-uppance? Some people read it because it was cool to say you had. I've never heard of anyone, even reviewers, who said they liked it, and liked the main character.
Like is probably a misleading word. What we usually talk about is empathy - we feel something for the mc, perhaps pity or some kind of identification, and we grow to care about them. But that usually only happens if the writer gives us something in the first few pages to latch onto. Something hopeful. Something that suggests this character has another side that we might like if we're let into it a bit more. We keep reading because we hope the character will redeem him/herself, show they aren't so bad, show they can change, show that they will come to understand the world and themselves a little more. (OK, my him/her and them is a bit mixed - please ignore it.)
The most common reaction to an unlikeable main character is to stop reading. Who cares if he/she dies? Wins through? Changes on Page 299? If we're up to Page 20 and the character is awful or stupid or apathetic or depressing, we stop. Plenty more books out there.
The villain, of course, is a different animal altogether that I've talked about here before. This issue came up because of a book I've just read. The Watchman by Robert Crais. If you're a Crais fan, you'll know that his detective is Elvis Cole, whose sidekick is Joe Pike. Inscrutable, iron-faced, unfeeling Pike. Now Pike gets a book all of his own, with Cole as the back-up. If you want to read something where the main character is unemotional, cold-blooded, and acts like a machine, and then see how the writer gradually unpeels him, little by little, to reveal his vulnerable side, this is the book for you.
Crais never overdoes it. All the way through, Pike remains the consummate soldier of fortune, able to kill without compunction when required. Yet every so often, we see a little crack of light, and even though most readers probably won't finish the book "liking" Pike, I think they'll understand him better and feel that empathy I mentioned.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
My friend K has said many good things to me about being overtired, unwell and not eating properly, all of which are sound and excellent reminders. The great thing about HK was eating lots of fresh food and walking miles every day. I have come back feeling physically good, and want to continue. Hence regular drinking of Chinese tea, walking, and buying fresh fruit etc for eating. But the mental tiredness is a big issue. December is a good time to evaluate the year.
I have written around 110,000 new words, rewritten about 50,000, and edited probably another 100,000. For my teaching, both in Melbourne and in HK, I've put in about 100 hours of writing on class materials, manuals and online modules. I've helped to produce two issues of Poetrix magazine, reading around 1000 poems and then proofreading. I can't even begin to calculate how much student writing I've read and graded and given feedback on - probably 80-100,000 words.
Good gracious - no wonder I feel so stuffed!! And no wonder some recent rejections (of various writing kinds, not just manuscripts) have depressed me more than they usually would. A writer has to develop a thick skin to survive, and an ability to say, "OK, how can I make this better?" When you're really deep-down tired, it's much harder to get up off the ground and fight back.
It's also harder to write new words. My friend T, who managed her 50,000 words for NaNo by way of writing 15,000 of them in the last two days, said on her blog that there were times when she was so tired that she was writing absolute nonsense, not even connected with the story. As writers, we tend to think that because we sit all day, we don't need to look after ourselves as well as someone who does labouring work, or who plays top-level sport. That's not true at all. It's the lack of sleep, bad eating habits, coffee/alcohol/ciggies (pick your poison) and lack of exercise that affects our writing more than we realise.
There was an article in the Weekend Australian yesterday about the effect of less sleep on kids - one hour less a night can mean a sixth grader learning at the rate of a fourth grader (just one example). Sleep is vital to writers too - it's where we restore our imagination and creativity, either by dreaming or simply giving our poor brains a rest.
There's a great recipe for better writing - sleep more! I'll be in that.
Saturday, December 01, 2007
However, there was one thing that struck me as something to remember as a writer - the gold temple above is called the Temple of Absolute Perfection. Never a state I'm likely to achieve in my writing, so no point stressing about it. We always just write the best story we can, and maybe perfection is over-rated! We finished our visit with a cup of tea in a restaurant behind a waterfall.
This is my memo to myself about concentration and focus. This man paints pictures on bottles and domes - but he is painting on the inside. He uses a long, thin paintbrush and does it very, very carefully. Again, however hard I work on my writing, he puts my level of concentration to shame, but maybe it's something to aspire to.
In the last few days of my Hong Kong trip, I read the latest Louise Rennison/Georgia Nicholson book Luuurve is a many-trousered thing... and, true to form, she made me laugh. All of the books in this series look deceptively simple to write, yet she manages to create the point of view of a self-obsessed teenage girl while being funny and portraying really effectively what it's like. There's not much around in YA that's humorous so I'm not surprised these are so popular with both teens and their mums!