Friday, June 29, 2007

The Interruptor

There are all kinds of interruptions in life. In my house, the heat from the fan heater is most often interrupted (read "hogged") by this cat, who plants herself in the prime position.
In my writing life this week, it has been paint. Specifically, having the hallway and doors painted. It's great that I don't have to do it, but the house smells very strongly of paint, to the point where I feel like I've been drinking it! And the painter has been around so it's been hard to focus on the novel (not that I need any excuse to procrastinate!).
Then yesterday morning, I woke at 5am with the first three lines of a short story in my head. They wouldn't go away. Every time I woke up, they were still there. Finally I got up and wrote them down, and kept writing. Three pages later, I had the start of a story that came from nowhere. I don't even think I was dreaming about it.
My other aim while on leave - apart from writing - was to continue cleaning out my office and getting rid of stuff. This means moving a large number of books out to a new bookcase. But the new bookcase has not arrived at the shop. So I am dodging piles of books and archive boxes and trying not to touch wet paint.
It's about now that I'm wondering why I didn't book for two weeks in Vanuatu or something. Because, in order to help the paint to dry, we have all the doors and windows open, and it's about 12 degrees. Maybe if I imagine myself lying on the beach in the sunshine with a great book to read, I'll feel warmer. There's certainly no point trying to get close to the heater...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Another writing book

Along with the other two books I'm "consulting" right now, I've added "Writing the Popular Novel" by Loren D. Estleman. He's been around for years as a western and crime writer, and I haven't read as many of his books as I'd like to. In particular, I now want to read "Bloody Season", which is his novel about Tombstone, Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral.
Estleman has a direct style, and his book warns you that you'd better be serious about writing - his routine is five pages a day. I like the little quotes at the end of each chapter, and one talks about how Agatha Christie killed off both Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple in books that were published after her death, thus ensuring that no one else would be able to write novels about them. Not that that would stop anyone these days (that's why the prequel was invented) but apparently no books have been published with Poirot or Marple in charge.
This, of course, would just add more fuel to those who are placing bets that Harry Potter will die in Book 7.
Back to Estleman - one of the points he makes is about relying on the internet for accurate information. His comment about those who believe vows of accuracy: "any credentials posted on a Website are liable to come from the same bozo who posted the misinformation in the first place." That gives you an idea of what the book is like! Down to earth and direct. And useful.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Books about Writing

There are always new books coming out, and I blogged recently about "Chapter After Chapter" by Heather Sellars, which is more about actually being a writer rather than the nuts and bolts of writing fiction.
At the moment, I'm working my way through "Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint" by Nancy Kress. This is very definitely a writing how-to book, with lots of interesting points on all those things associated with character, such as motivation and conflict. I find it useful to read a book like this while I'm wrestling with a rewrite/revision, as I can focus on the bits that relate to what I'm trying to achieve with the manuscript. The current version of this particular novel of mine has, let's face it, too many "issues" to do with the main character and they get in the way of the story rather than deepening it. So something had to go, and I've more or less decided which issue will bite the dust. It's a middle grade novel (or upper primary) so I need to focus on the tension and pace of the story and allow the mystery/suspense elements to integrate more with the family stuff. The bullying issue will still be there, but in a different way, not in terms of a big backstory element that was slowing down the narrative drive.
Kress's book has a great chapter on the motivationally complicated character. There's a tendency with kid's books to think that it is all about one thing, one character goal, one need or desire. But many stories start with the character wanting one thing, then further complications and disasters lead her into wanting a much bigger thing. It's part of the character and plot arcs, and means tension rises effectively. It also means you have to keep your eye on the ball (excuse the cliche) and make sure your story doesn't get out of control. Everyone struggles with mixed motivations and emotions, e.g. it's possible for you to dislike someone and feel sorry for them at the same time.
Kress also talks about whether your characters are changers or stayers. And that you should know this about all your major characters. Not everyone has to change. Not everyone has to change in a big way.
The other book I'm skimming at the same time is "You Can Write a Mystery" by Gillian Roberts. This is very much a down-to-basics book (hence the skimming over the standard character/genres/point of view stuff) so my interest here is in her pointers on plotting. How to lay clues, red herrings, create other suspects, etc. My novel isn't strictly a mystery, more suspense-oriented, but my plot does need a restructure, so anything that makes me think more about specific problems to be solved is useful.
Yesterday, I had a reading pig-out again. Finished "Bad Luck and Trouble" by Lee Child before going to bed. Great read. Every now and then I stop and look at how he uses short sentences - an interesting stylistic thing that adds to the main character, Reacher, because it makes you feel like he is a man of few words before you even get to his dialogue.
I make my second year students do my version of close reading on several different excerpts, and even though some of them complain, if they start to see and understand even one or two things about language and style and sentence construction, I'm happy.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

How do writers party?

Now that we've had the official launch for Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!), some of my writer friends decided we needed an unofficial celebration (despite the number of kids whose eyes lit up at the mention of champagne, our school launch went without!).
A few people had other things on, so our numbers were small - small enough for us all to sit around, drink champagne, eat a mountain of food, and talk about books and writing and publishing. And websites and publicity and agents. And other stuff too.
It's great to celebrate a new book with a bunch of people who understand exactly how hard the journey is, and that it's a new mountain to climb each time. My writing group always celebrates each publication success with a cake, but sometimes a whole book needs more.
Writers tend to be solitary. It's the only way to get the job done. Socialising and doing housework and running kids around and cooking and going to (paid) work all keeps us from writing, so when we do wrestle free time from the daily grind, we have to be alone. I don't even listen to music when I write anymore. Silence is bliss.
I write in another world - my made-up world - and emerge from it blinking and a little dazed. Now that I have two weeks leave, I have a rewrite of a middle grade novel to finish. And I'll be doing it alone. My kitchen table will be my writer's retreat.
But it was great to have a writers' gabfest night before I head into solitude.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Errors that are catching

There are some errors that drive me nuts. I see so many people write, "I thought to myself." Er, unless your character is telepathic, who else would they be thinking to?
Wrongly placed apostrophes grow like mushrooms. If you see the wrong it's in a story, it won't be long before you'll also see your's and her's.
Miss Snark and others had a field day a few months ago on her Crapometer - the problem was the people who talked about having written a "fiction novel". A novel is fiction. That's like saying an automobile car.
I thought it was obvious. Then today I received my email newsletter from Borders and it has a discount coupon on it - 20% off a fiction novel.

All Readers are not created equal

I've just finished reading King Dork by Frank Porter, and I'm a little mystified on how to comment on it. It's YA, it's about a guy who believes (probably correctly) that he is the biggest dork in his school, and the novel is about a couple of months in his life. He and his friend are in a band, although neither of them can really play the guitar and it takes them a while to find a drummer, but he can't count beyond 3. The dork has a very weird mother and a hippie-like stepfather, he obsesses about a girl he groped and kissed in the dark at a party (first time ever), and also obsesses about his father's death and reads his dad's old books from high school to try and find out more about him. Towards the end, he also tries to find out how his dad really died.
That's about it really.
I was trying to describe it to my friend, G, and saying that it was quite a long book but nothing really happened. She said, "Do you mean the dramatic story arc just stayed low (imagine her hand in a very gentle upwards slope) instead of having that big rise in tension and drama that we're used to (hand veers sharply upwards)?"
Um, yes. I did keep reading it to the end, but it was an effort. Then I started wondering who the intended reader is. Some girls might like it, and feel sorry for the main character. In trying to work out what kind of young male reader might like it, I came up with either: 1) guys who think they, too, are dorks and identify with the character and story, 2) guys who like music and the whole wanting-to-be-in-a-band plotline, or 3) guys who like reading (there are quite a few) and like the characters anyway.
I don't think I'm the intended reader - not just because I'm not a teenager, but because I do like stories with bigger dramatic plot and character arcs. I find them more interesting and satisfying. I'm going to keep a look out for reviews on this book, especially those written by teen readers. Or if you've read it, please do post a comment.
I've moved on to the new Lee Child. Jack Reacher rules!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Delving Into Point of View

It can be hard to get inside your character's head. Sometimes the plot idea comes first and the main character seems a bit fuzzy, or you can't quite decide who they'll be. And because character backstory, motivations and actions/decisions all feed into the plot, if you go ahead and develop your plot without doing the work on your character, you end up with someone who doesn't feel "real". Her/his voice is bland, actions seem inconsistent, motivations unclear - all this leads to the reader not being fully engaged with the story.
It's almost a rule in fiction - if the reader doesn't care what happens to the main character, they won't want to read the book. I say almost a rule because characters like James Bond work differently, but mostly your main character needs to be strong and engaging.
Then comes point of view. Beyond whether you tell your story in first person or third person (intimate/subjective - there are different terms for this), if you are using that close POV, the reader wants to feel they are right there with the character, thinking their thoughts, feeling their emotions, experiencing their life with its highs and lows.
Sometimes this inner bonding with your character comes easily, maybe because they are part of you, or express a part of you that you explore via the story. You hear their voice, seem to know them intimately before you've written more than a dozen pages, understand their strengths and failings and how these will figure in your story.
But more often, you have to make them up, and then make them real. Masha Hamilton (at the Pima Writers' Workshop) said that probably only 10% of what you know about your character will appear on the page. The rest is all the stuff you need to know and understand about them, their life, their backstory, in order to be able to write about them convincingly.
There is a trap within first person narrative. It's the assumption that once you "get" the voice of that narrator, the rest will fall into place. If you are able to write your character onto the page as you go along, great. But you have to do a lot of writing to get there.
It's easier to do the background stuff first, even if it looks like a lot of extra work.
I see a lot of students struggling with POV, and ending up with pieces of writing or chapters where everything seems to happen at a distance, as if the narrator is just reporting, or it's the author who is doing all the work and the narrator is looking over her/his shoulder. A simple sign that this is happening is when the narrator refers to their mother as "my Mum" (as in - My Mum said, "Where are you going?"). When you are right in the POV, your narrator would usually just say Mum - Mum said, "Where are you going?".
This is where I am right now. I am up to Rewrite Number 8 on a manuscript that I haven't looked at in nearly a year, and I've kind of lost my grip on who my characters are, why they're doing what they do in the story. I also need to do a lot more work on my other major characters, to avoid them being one-dimensional and poorly motivated.
My mantra is: Every character has their own journey in the story.
And I need to know what it is. Out with the notebook and pen, and away I go.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Website Problems

I've been having some annoying problems with my site in the past few weeks - mainly that although I can update and change/add text, I can't upload any photos or book cover images. They upload from my end but when I look at the site, they don't appear. I've tried everything - reloading, taking other images out, disarming the firewall (temporarily) and, finally, completely uploading the site from another computer.
No luck. So I am forced to conclude that it's my ISP that is the problem. I am supposed to have 10MB of space, and you would think that if I had somehow exceeded my limit, then taking material and images off the site would make room for the new ones. When I called my ISP Tech Help, they said they had no way of checking if I was over the limit and even if I was, I couldn't buy any more!
To say I am not happy about this (especially with a new book just out and some great photos to add) is an understatement. So I've gone away and paid for hosting with another company, and in a few days will undertake the big move. A bit daunting as I am not a website expert - I tend to stick with what I know and keep my fingers crossed.
Stay tuned for screams of frustration (or, hopefully, cries of joy).

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Chili Again

My recipe - I warn you that this is just a good estimate. I tend to cook without recipes for things I'm familiar with, or I try to reproduce something I've eaten in a restaurant by guessing. Not always successfully.
So I'll give this a name (because I like titles):
500gm good beef mince - brown it in a non-stick saucepan and then drain off the fat.
Add 1 large chopped onion, cook for a couple of minutes. Then make a hole in the mince and onion so you can put the following onto the hot surface of the pan: 1 tsp chili powder, 1-2 tsp minced garlic, 1 tsp minced ginger, 1 tsp cumin, 2 tbsp tomato paste.
Cook the spices etc for half a minute, stirring so the paste doesn't burn, then mix into the mince. Add one tin of chopped tomatoes (can add two if you really like lots of tomatoes in it). I also add stock powder - about 1 tsp (then you can add salt later if you think it needs it). Cook for about 15 minutes, add a tin of kidney beans (what size is up to you), and cook another 30 minutes.
I serve it with rice, but you can serve it any way you like - rice, burritos, tacos, etc.
If you want it really hot, you can increase the chili powder, but I find chili can be vicious in powder form - it's often stronger than you think!
And like curry, it improves with age, so leftovers next day might be even better.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Hot Chili on a Cold Night

It seems everyone has their own special recipe for Chili (if they eat it). Mine has onions and kidney beans in it, and plenty of hot chili. But while in Tombstone, I spotted a Tombstone Chili Mix. Having just visited Boot Hill Cemetery, I was a bit reluctant, but Meg assured me she had tried it and could vouch for its tastiness. So I brought some home, and even declared it to Customs and Quarantine. It passed.
It's been very cold here in Melbourne this week. Frost and ice. I keep waiting for it to snow. So it was a good time to break out the chili mix. The recipe was quite simple but required "1 12oz bottle of cheap Mexican beer". There is no such thing in Melbourne, so I bought a bottle of Sol beer (cheaper than Corona) for $3.29, and prepared to get cooking.
Did it taste good? Yes, it did. Did it feed 6 Gringos, as the packet suggested? No. It fed two hungry gringos with a bit left over.
Did it warm us up without stripping the lining off our stomachs? Yes, very definitely.
So, if you get the chance, try some Tombstone Chili. Wyatt Earp's Original.
My other souvenir from Tombstone, also thanks to Wyatt Earp whose stamp of authority is on it, is a poster that warns "UNATTENDED & UNRULY CHILDREN WILL BE ARRESTED AND SOLD AS SLAVES".
I'm thinking of making copies and posting them around my local supermarket.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Recent bloggings

My friend, Tracey, has spent the weekend at the NatCon (SF and fantasy convention) in Melbourne, and has posted highlights of the sessions she attended on her blog: Speculating About Fiction.
I've also been following the blog of a children's editor, which has some interesting comments and explanations about the world of editing and publishing: Editorial Anonymous.
I had to replace Miss Snark with something!
Tracey has also inspired me to start a mini-blog - we are using them for tiny poems and images, as a way to keep the creative juices flowing. You might like to try one too!
Playing with Words and Quicksilver.

The publishing journey of a story

A new book comes out, and after you launch it into the world, you have to then jump on board and keep madly paddling (yes, a bit of a strained metaphor - never mind). Your buying audience can't purchase a book they don't know about!
When I talk about publishing, what people are interested in, I find, are stories about books that sink or swim in interesting ways. I think it illustrates what publishing can be - yes, a business, but often things can happen to your books that you never anticipate.
My picture book, Wednesday Was Even Worse, was a CBC Notable Book, yet 18 months after publication, the small publisher decided to close down. While quite a few of their titles were sold on to a big publisher, Wednesday was not one of them, so it was remaindered. I bought as many copies as I could afford (trust me, you always wish you'd bought more!) and requested my rights back. Later, when I'd sold all my copies, I spoke to the illustrator and she said she'd be happy for me to reprint the book myself. Except somewhere along the line, paperwork had exchanged hands and she doesn't have the right to give me that permission.
Big publisher doesn't want to reprint (who would, five years later?). Stalemate. It seems I finally have to let this book go and either submit text only to new publishers, or just keep my few remaining copies as souvenirs.
A situation I imagine quite a few authors find happens when out-of-print clauses come into operation, but when the text is illustrated, things get complicated. Nevertheless, I was glad to see Simon & Schuster appear to be backing down on (what I call) their infinity clause.
I digress.
The other end of this publishing journey is the story that will not die. Or the story (in this case, a short story) that keeps being reprinted. Quite a few years ago, a small feminist crime publisher was producing anthologies of short crime fiction. I had published two stories with her, and she asked for a story for the next collection that had "lots of dialogue please - I have too many exposition-heavy stories". I wrote a story called Fresh Bait and, to date, as well as the original anthology, it's been published four times elsewhere and a young film-maker has written a script from it and is planning to make the short film this year.
You just never know what is going to happen to a particular story or poem or novel. And that's why you have to get expert help with your contracts! It's not the everyday nuts and bolts of the publishing industry you're guarding against, it's the weird and wonderful that might happen in the future.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Style Queen launched!

A challenge to strike fear into the heart of most children's authors - capture and hold the attention of 130 kids at once! Altona Primary School here in Melbourne kindly agreed to "host" the launch of Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!), and their 5th and 6th graders piled into the school's multi-purpose room. Purpose today? Launch and talk.
I explained to the kids that normally at a launch we have a big celebration with champagne, and I was a little worried at the number of kids whose eyes lit up at the thought of a glass of bubbly or two! But it was more likely the mention of the word party.
After a lovely intro by student Sarah, Federal pollie Nicola Roxon made the official launch speech and then it was over to me. I told them what the book was about, and described how a verse novel works. When I said, 'Like lots of little chapters' I could see heads nodding. Then I read a few poems to give them an idea of what happens. After a few questions, I then did an 'author talk' about how a book gets published.
It's always fun to show them drafts of stories with crossings-out and scribbles everywhere, and then to show stages of galley proofs, with more scribbles and notes. Also my chapter books with illustrations go through several stages, with roughs and final pics. I have lots of research stuff to show as well, including lots of pirate pictures and examples.
The students asked some really good questions, including 'Why are there often blank pages at the back of a book?' I threw that one over to Christine Alesich, my editor at Penguin, so she could explain the whole thing about multiples and big sheets of paper in printing.
It was a fun morning, and the next day, I was able to go back so a lot of the kids could get a copy of the book (signed by me!).
APS has a great reading and literacy program, and it shows in the students' interest in books and reading, and their thoughtful questions.

It's been an odd week of reading - I finished off an old Tami Hoag mystery, still musing over her continual 'head jumping' in terms of point of view, and wondering if the average reader would notice it happening. I leapt into my new Sarah Dessen YA novel - The Truth About Forever - and enjoyed it immensely. She has such rich characters, and even though on the surface there might not be a huge amount happening in terms of action, underneath everything is working very deeply.
I've also been reading the Poets & Writers magazine, especially the ads. There are so many MFA writing courses in the US, and so many conferences. I keep asking: Why doesn't that happen here? (The last time I asked that question, I ended up organising one myself. Hmmm.)

Saturday, June 02, 2007

One Tucson thing I will miss

The Santa Catalina Mountains (I was somewhere up on top there yesterday). I love the way the shadows move across the mountains as the day goes on. Every time you look up, the mountains look different. Around 4-5pm is the best time. (This is about 6.30pm.)

Mt Lemon - 7500 feet up

I love waterfalls, but at this time of year in Tucson there aren't any. I did see a great water track down the side of a mountain that will be a spectacular waterfall when it rains, but it's not quite the same. However, I also like mountains and rocks, so I drove my rental car up Mt Lemon yesterday, and took lots of photos. (I am getting good at driving on the wrong side of the road but I do keep trying to get in the passenger side of the car every now and then.)
Up on the mountain it is about 10 degrees C cooler than down in the desert, and it's fascinating to see the changes in vegetation as you go up. First there's saguaro cactus and desert plants, then there's scrubby trees (many were dead, because there is a drought here and people have told me the cacti are suffering too), then there are wonderful spruce forests.
In Australia, you can smell eucalypts in the bush; here it's the the smell of spruce, and it is different from Australian pines. I contemplating walking - hiking, everyone calls it here - but the bookshops were calling me and it was a bit hot. Maybe next time.
I managed to fit in three bookshops yesterday afternoon, but how I will carry my bags today is another question. I have discovered that my suitcase is basically stuffed (as in broken from being bashed around by the airline luggage department) but I think it will make it home OK. As long as no one drops it from forty feet up.
I feel like I only just got here and now it's time to leave. But I'm already lining up which books I'll read on the plane. So much to choose from...