Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End of the Year

I'm still cleaning out here - up to garbage bag Number 5, and am impatiently waiting for the recycle bin to be emptied so I can put more stuff in. Does my office look any better yet? Not really, until you look closely. The huge set of shelves in the corner, which previously groaned under the weight of tons of paper and stuff, are now almost empty, and all that is going back there will be in labelled boxes. It's a case of making room in order to create order!

I'm also still considering my goals. Yesterday I read the post on J.A. Konrath's blog - he has compiled his suggested goals for the past four years, and they make very interesting reading. And he is right - we should focus on things we have control over, and keep moving forward. Kristi Holl has posted on her blog about her planned study program for 2009. She's going to be doing her own MFA at home, a great idea and something that is in reach for everyone.

We all need to create our own path to follow, and work out what will take us further along it. I'm like Kristi - I'm in the mood for more study, although I don't want to spend the time on an MA (especially the academic exegesis side of it). I have just received the second Margie Lawson lecture packet - this one is on Deep EDITS, and will take what I've learned so far and extend it into language and crafting sentences.

I see many knick-knacks on the internet that are about helping you set goals and create mission statements. A lot of them also want you to set a financial goal to aim for. Various studies show that the average writer earns about $6000 a year from their writing. It's not like a weekly pay packet you can depend on. One year you could earn three times that amount, the next you might be lucky to earn half. Maybe the goal for a writer is to increase their yearly earnings by a percentage. Aim for a 10% or 20% increase each year, and part of your strategy needs to be to work out where that money will come from. I feel tired just thinking about it!

But I will be thinking a lot about my 09 goals this week, because I'll be sharing them with my special writing/crit partner next week. Deadlines are good! I'll also be looking over my 5 year plan (I still can't get beyond Year 3 but I'm trying), which I created after doing Randy's seminars. More importantly, I'm going to be looking at what I can do right now, and over the next two months, to set it all in motion for 09. All the goals in the world are pointless until you get started on them.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Wombat Wish

This has nothing to do with books! Apart from the fact that I have written two wombat stories (unpublished) and included a wombat in the new Tracey Binns story, due out next May. I have a "thing" about wombats. Have had for years, long before Jackie French made them famous with her picture book, and there have been other picture books about them too. But in the six-and-a-half years we have owned some bushland north of Melbourne, I have never seen a wombat there, despite mountains of wombat poo, and many scratchings and holes everywhere. (I don't count the one in the distance on the hill because I didn't have my glasses on!)

Yesterday, I finally got my wish. I went for a long walk, and decided to venture up the other side of the dry creek for a change. I walked along an animal track (usually made by kangaroos or wombats or both) and followed it down to the creek bed where I scared a little swamp wallaby into madly hopping away. I stopped for a moment to pull grass seeds out of my sock, headed back and heard more thumping. Another wallaby? I froze. Waited. Looked. And there was a wombat, not twelve feet away.

It's unusual to see them out in daylight. They usually come out at dusk to graze for food. I think I caught this one unawares. It froze too, waiting. I edged around to get a better view through the bracken. It sniffed the air. Luckily, the breeze was blowing towards me. I took lots of photos, and waited, finally sat on the ground. Watching and marvelling. The wombat scratched some fleas, sniffed around, couldn't seem to decide what to do, but as I was being as quiet as I could, it stayed.

Then a small branch fell from a nearby gum tree, and it bolted down its hole, which was just three feet away. I heard its feet thumping as it escaped underground, probably hoping I'd just go away and leave it alone. Which I did. Feeling very lucky and very special. And hoping among all my photos that at least one would do the experience justice. I'm happy!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cleaning Out

Early in 2007, I signed up for a series of teleseminars run by Randy Ingermanson and Alison Bottke called Clean Up Your Act. Originally, it was Lecture #1 that interested me - how to de-clutter your office. Did I ever need that! But in the end, the office went on as usual, I kept stepping over and around things and writing on the kitchen table, and my focus shifted to the strategic planning part of the seminar series. It was very helpful and made quite a difference to how I approached and planned things.

But ... the office. Eighteen months later, it's worse. And to make things even worser (Craig said I could use that word), I have a room out in my backyard that is also full of all sorts of stuff. Some furniture, some of my daughter's things, but mostly mine. Boxes of magazines, boxes of papers, old files, research materials, books, old clothes, old computer bits - you get the picture. Where on earth was I to start? In fact, that's really what's stopped me from making any headway with it. Every time I looked at how much there was, I felt like crying, and had no idea where to start.

Well, I finally worked out that starting point. It's a shelf. Any shelf. One shelf at a time. Doesn't matter which one - they're all bad news! And the floor. I had to clear at least half of the floor before I could start on a shelf, because otherwise there was nowhere to put the stuff on the shelf I wanted to keep, or the garbage bag. On the other hand, it doesn't pay to clear too much of the floor because that's a big incentive to keep more of what I should be throwing out.

So, in true Craig Harper style, I'm making myself accountable. To everyone who reads this. I'm posting a photo of my office, and I'm admitting that it got worse after I took this photo, so you really understand how desperate I was beginning to feel! But this time, with a Christmas and New Year break coming up, I have no excuse. I'll have time to spend at least an hour every day on this until I have conquered it. We've cut right down on gifts this year, so I won't be adding a whole pile of new stuff either. This is not a resolution thing, it's simply a commitment to making my life easier, and better for writing.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Standing Back From the Words

My friend K and I have just swapped manuscripts this week, and are currently reading and critiquing. We'll talk in a day or two about our feedback - so much better than trying to do it all on the page - but both of us are asking for a critique that focuses on the big picture. Fiddling around the edges, copyediting, strengthening verbs, smoothing out sentences - these are all things we can usually do ourselves, although it does help when someone points out the clunky bits.

It's one of the hardest things to learn as a writer, I think. The ability to be your own critic, to see what is not working, to pinpoint plot holes, inconsistent character stuff, stilted dialogue ... and then to know how to fix those things. We get too close to the words we write, we fall in love with them when we re-read, or else we are so self-critical that everything sounds like rubbish and we want to throw the manuscript in the bin. Some of the other things that can happen are being too nice to our characters, because we love them and we don't want bad things to happen to them. The result is no conflict and no tension. Or we confuse real life with fictional life, and include a whole heap of detail and action that has no purpose other than filling up the page.

I've been working on this particular novel for several months, and have just completed an intensive rewrite. While I was rewriting, I was right up close to the characters, and trying to get closer. At times, this meant the plot changed, and I know I didn't always keep track of those changes. And I also left some threads hanging, plot elements that were unresolved. I couldn't think about those things while I was focusing so much on character.

But once the manuscript went zapping off into cyberspace, via email to my critiquer, it gradually retreated from me. I had no desire to go back and read it again. Instead, I have been mentally reviewing the story - from a distance. I've been thinking about those plot holes, about those hanging threads, and about the minor character whose role was one I couldn't work out. I knew I didn't want to lose her, but neither did I want to build her up into a bigger role. Why was she in the story?

I'm keeping a notebook by my side, and every time a new question about the story, or anything else that I think is a problem, pops into my head, I write it down. And sometimes (it might take two minutes, it might come two hours later) I can see a solution and how to fit it into the narrative. I'm also thinking about character arcs, about how the main character changes or grows, and whether I've shown that strongly enough. I'm thinking now about theme - what am I really trying to say with this story? Have I shown it, or is it still vague and unsatisfying?

Distance is the key for me. Finding a way to stand right back and just consider the story with a critical eye. The overall story, not the actual words. If you're facing a busy Christmas period where you're not going to get much writing done, maybe you could keep a notebook handy and do some daydreaming/thinking about your novel while you're stirring food or washing dishes or slumped in an armchair, recovering from over-eating. Don't watch the same old horrible Christmas shows on TV - give your brain some writing work to do!

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Writer's State of Mind

How many times have you heard it said that a writer needs to read lots, and read widely? I've talked before about reading as a writer - today on someone's blog I was reading about how if you do a lot of analysis of plot and story structure, you can predict what is going to happen in most movies. (I try not to. Predict, that is.) But the edict is, in fact, true. The more you read, the more you read as a writer, the more your writing benefits.

Trouble is, my brain often isn't in the mood for certain books. When I'm very tired, when I've read a lot of student work, when I'm totally engrossed in a current project - I often can't read literary fiction. My concentration isn't up to the task. I have books that I keep on a reading pile for months, knowing that I'll manage them one day - just not right now. I indulge in what I love - crime fiction - instead.

So this is a good time of the year for me in terms of reading. I've been working up to it. A couple of months ago, I read The Spare Room by Helen Garner. I don't care if people are arguing over whether it's fiction or not. I just wanted to enjoy her evocative, cutting prose. I also read An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, and some literary short fiction. Now I'm reading Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. Every time I pick it up, I fall into a different world, and while I'm not reading it, I wonder what it is about literary fiction that makes it such a different experience.

A lot of readers talk about style, about voice, about language. Yes, it's all of that, but I've read (or tried to read) many literary novels that are nothing else but style and language, and it's been like watching paint dry. Endlessly pointless and mind-numbing. With a literary novel that draws you into the world of the story, there's more than language. Yes, it's a big part of it, but there is such a sense of rich detail, of depth of character, of the skill of being able to make small things and events so fascinating. I've never been to a prep school in the US, but while I read this novel I understand two things - what it's like in that kind of school, and what it's like for this viewpoint character, who is unlike any other character I've ever read about. And above all, I still empathise and understand and want to know what will happen to her.

Is there a plot? I would say it's a chronological, coming-of-age kind of story. No major crisis (so far) but there is growth and change. It gives the reader the satisfying experience of seeing a character evolve before she is aware of it herself. Yet she is aware, and is not that far behind. Will this end up being one of my favourites? Maybe not. But it will be memorable, and when someone asks me what I've read this year that I enjoyed, Prep will definitely be on my You Should Read This list, especially for writers.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Goal Setting Strategies

Everyone has a different method for goal setting - mine pertains to writers and writing projects. Rather than try to cover all the possibilities, I thought I would tell you what works for me, along with some added ideas. The first thing is to look at time frames - do you want to set goals for the year? Is this too much like New Year's resolutions? If so, shorten your time frame to three months, starting on a certain date (the sooner, the better).

Next, write down a list of everything you are working on at the moment, or want to work on in the near future. For some people, this will be one thing, probably a novel. For others like me, this may be five or six things. I probably won't work on them all, but this is my starting point. Then I look at my list and prioritise. What has a deadline? What am I most passionate about? For a three-month period, I then list my top four. For twelve months, I list the top four, and then if there are others, I number them in order of current importance to me.

Then I add other things that will be important for me to achieve in the time frame. This might be editing or proofreading that will be due on a new book. It might be a conference or two, a trip overseas, or perhaps I will decide I want to focus more on poetry writing and I decide to aim to write a poem a week. For everyone, this list will be different. If you begin by writing everything down, even more personal goals, you will at least then be able to make decisions about how you will spend your time. There's nothing worse than constantly feeling there are so many things that you want to achieve, that you have no idea how to organise yourself or where to start.

As I have said in my last post, there is also something about making this list that helps your goals to become more concrete and real, rather than hopes or dreams. (I often have a dream goal, by the way, something that is probably out of my reach in the near future but it's nice to hold out as special.) When you have decided on your top four, or perhaps decided that there is one major project you want to focus on, you can move to the next step.

For each goal, what do you need to do in the next four weeks to start working towards it? A long time ago, I attended a session where the person running it said: "If you are not prepared to spend five minutes per day on something to do with working towards that goal, then take the goal off your list". That sounds harsh, but it is valuable advice. If you are writing a novel, then maybe you can't write every day, but how about spending five or ten minutes on non-writing days either editing a page, or doing some research, or reading a writing book about an aspect you are struggling with?

Last year was the first time I had broken my yearly goals down into four-week blocks. It was useful for several reasons. One was it made larger goals (like writing a novel) not so huge and unattainable. Instead of write my novel, the small goal became write two chapters. It allowed me to take into account smaller jobs, such as submitting a picture book text, and make sure they got done. It also allowed me to vary my writing work during the four weeks - as well as two chapters, I might also have writing some poems on the list, or developing an idea I'd had for a short story.

One of my current goals for the next four weeks is a huge clean-out of my office (it's supposed to be a writing space but it looks like a monster has been in there and thrown every single thing up in the air). By giving myself four weeks, I've also given myself a deadline. A very necessary thing because I've been planning to do this clean-out all year! By including it in my four-week goal list, I also know that I will now devote regular small blocks of time to this goal, which makes it less like something that will give me nightmares. I can intersperse it with writing (a good way to stretch and get off the computer - lift and carry boxes and books!), as well as other small things on my To Do list. And every time I achieve another square metre of tidiness, I'll feel good.

My method may not work for you. Some writers need to set weekly goals of so many thousand words, or so many hours of writing. If you only have one project you want to focus on, another method may work better. I tend to have several things on the go, so my problem is focus and time management. If you have a method that works great for you, why not share it with us?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Setting Goals in Writing

Today, my writers' group is meeting for the last time this year, having lunch and relaxing (and giving back last-minute critiques!). Usually on this final day, I take along everyone's goals that they wrote down way back in March, and we read them out and admit how many of them we didn't reach. This year, we won't be doing this. Back in March, when we would normally talk about goals and then make our lists, it seemed everyone was prevaricating, saying how they didn't really want to, because they never looked at them again, or didn't do anything towards making their goals attainable.

Right now, you're probably thinking: If that's how they feel, then goal setting for them is a waste of time. You may well be right. But for me, not having a range of things to aim for, dream about, take small steps towards, would feel like having my left hand missing. I may not achieve all of my goals every year, but I know that at the very least, writing them down is an important step. Sometimes I may not refer to them again for months, sometimes I get to December and look at that list and think, Hey, I actually managed to achieve that!

This year I discovered that at the top of my list I had written "Work on finding a new method of revision for my novels". Back in February, I'd already been thinking about this aspect of my writing, and knew it was an area that needed some dedicated focus and effort. I remember reading several books on revision, and making notes that I then passed on to my students. Writing took over by July, and I wrote two children's novels in the following months. First drafts, that is. Then I embarked on Margie Lawson's lecture notes on Empowering Character Emotions, and that's where I found what I needed for my revision methods.

So when I read my list of goals, I said, "Aha, I achieved that without realising it was one of my main aims for the year". Was that coincidence? No. And that's where I feel people who dismiss goal-setting don't get it. The brain is an amazing thing. I have learned that if I put something inside it, add more material and ideas, add a firm mental commitment that this is something important and I need to keep working on it - my brain will quietly work away in the background (sometimes a very murky background!) and then come up with the goods when I'm ready.

It's not hocus-pocus, it's having faith that the instrument inside your head can actually work for you, even when you're not conscious of it. It works for solving plot problems, for finding that crucial last line of a poem, for developing your characters, so why shouldn't it work for more "practical" things? But you have to give it the opportunity and the "feeders" as well. And a list of goals, written down and reviewed every now and then, is a great starting point.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Books as Gifts

Over the past few days, there have been numerous articles in newspapers and magazines about the forthcoming (here already?) Christmas buying rush. Or the fact that everyone is expecting there will be no buying rush this year and many shops and businesses will go under, or at the very least, make huge losses. Here in Australia, the government has given people on pensions and benefits (but not the dole - obviously you are still being labelled bludgers and deserve nothing!) a big bonus of $1000+ to inspire you to spend up big as Present Day approaches.

Well, boring old me would be taking that $1000 (which I won't be eligible for) and putting it towards my house, rather than running out to KMart or Myer and having a little shopping spree, but it seems most of "those who are supposed to know these things" think everyone is going to go berserk and buy, buy, buy. When you add in the lower price of petrol and reduced mortgage rates, of course we all now suddenly have hundreds of extra dollars to splurge. (Never mind those whose Xmas present from their employer was a goodbye letter - even where I work, there are plenty of those letters going out tomorrow.)

Anyway, in all of these reports about what the predicters predict we'll all be spending our money on, every list I have seen so far has included books. BOOKS!!! Good gracious, they'll be telling us everyone is going to be reading them next. All jokes aside, I am pretty happy that books are finally being recognised, as one pundit put it, as a value gift. One that lasts. One that can be "used" over and over by different family members. One that gives hours of enjoyment, not just a couple of minutes before it breaks into twenty pieces. Yaaaayyyyy!!!

I have joined the "books as gifts" tribe (OK, I was a founding member from way back) and been buying them for little family members, as well as recommending my own - as you do - to others who might be interested. I'm also planning to donate some copies of my own books to the Wishing Tree. And to all of you who love children's books and already know you will be buying them as gifts this year, can I make a plea? Please don't wander into a bookshop and ask the assistant for a recommendation. It's 90% certain you will be handed something that is considered a "classic" or something by a celebrity. They don't need your purchasing power! Please either ask writer friends for recommendations on new books and authors, or take the time to sit in the children's section and do some reading.

My recommendations for picture books are: anything by Emily Gravett, especially Wolves or Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears; It's Not a Box by Antoinette Portis; anything by Mo Willems (my current favourites are Knuffle Bunny 1 & 2); anything by Bob Graham; Dougall the Garbage Dump Bear by Matt Dray; Dust by Colin Thompson and 13 others. And if you want a wider selection to amble through, look at the CBCA Notables List.
There really are so many wonderful picture books out there that never get a guernsey, never get even a small mention - all you have to do is spend a very enjoyable hour or two reading to find some new favourites of your own!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Blanket Marketing

We've just had local council elections here in Victoria, and it's been interesting to watch the various campaigns from those wanting us to vote for them. In my area, I've found it astounding to watch one candidate in particular, and his tactics. Every street in our area has a large poster of him on someone's fence**, there are even larger posters along the main road, I've had three letters from him personally addressed to me (one was hand delivered the day before the election and then the guy put another one in my letter box, not addressed to me or my street number!), more brochures in my letterbox, and then another one on my car windscreen at the local shopping centre.

I wondered several things about this guy - why was he so desperate to be elected, for a start? He wasn't promising anything much that was different. And where did all the money come from for his "waterfall" campaign? Every time I turned around, there was more stuff pouring out from him. I began to feel like he was the last person I'd vote for! But local council elections are weird. Lots of people stand as candidates, and because there's not much going on around here, they all sound the same. It's compulsory to vote, so how do you decide? Well, unfortunately it seems like a lot of people around here voted for the person whose name they recognised! Because they'd seen it on bits of paper every time they stepped outside their door.

Will he make a good councillor? Who knows? Probably very few of those who voted for him can predict this. Time will tell. But he sure ran the kind of advertising blitz/campaign that you couldn't avoid. It's like book publishing. We ask - why does Dan Brown need more publicity and advertising for his books? Why does James Patterson? Or J.K Rowling? Why can't the publishers stop spending marketing money on these famous writers and use it for less well-known writers? Many mid-list and newly-published writers fret about how they have to market their own books. Why is it so?

My guess is that a big publicity campaign for James Patterson is, first of all, already paid for by his earlier mega-sales. Nothing like investing in a sure thing. And a publicity campaign for his new book probably means a million extra sales. A big campaign for a mid-list author (especially if reviews and word-of-mouth don't add five stars) might mean an extra 10,000 copies. The more you see of James Patterson and his books, the more you hear about how great they are, the more likely you are to be tempted into buying one.

That's probably little comfort - OK, none at all - to the mid-list and new author. I read something today that said, in Australia, most mid-list children's authors are only selling around 1500 copies of their books. And that publishers rely on the best-sellers to stay afloat. It seems like a chicken-and-egg situation, doesn't it? What do you think?
** Needless to say, all the local kids had drawn Hitler moustaches on every picture of him!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

When You Stop and You Shouldn't

Today is the last day of NaNoWriMo, and all around the world, thousands of writers have either completed their 50,000 word target or at least have written many more thousand than they thought they could. The problem is: now what? 50,000 is not a novel (unless you're writing YA or middle grade). If you're writing an adult novel, you may only be 1/2 or 2/3 of the way there. Can you keep it up?

The first thing I'd suggest is Don't Stop! You may not feel you can keep up the relentless pace of NaNo - 1666 words a day - but what you need to do now is slow down a little (let some normal life back in, perhaps) and set yourself some realistic daily targets. And stick to them. NaNo has probably already shown you (again) that you can find time to write when you have to or need to. It's just that most of the time, we LET our daily life take over and consume us. Set a target of 500 or 800 words a day. If you feel you're slowing to half-time, set 833!

I'd strongly advise you not to stop and re-read what you have written so far, even if you are feeling pretty proud of yourself. Sometimes, re-reading your NaNo draft, however rough it might be, can be enough to send you into a depression so that you stop, and then give up. You have to keep reminding yourself that it is only a draft, the raw material that will eventually be crafted into the thing you were aiming at all along. Resist the reading!

If you have used NaNo to complete a project, resist the urge to re-read it straight away and put it away for a couple of weeks. Go work on something else. See a few movies. Read some great books, and one or two not so good. Then come back to your novel and try to read it without the Big Red Editor leaning over your shoulder. You could decide that it was just all good practice, and that the novel came out so badly that it belongs in the bottom drawer. It's more likely that you'll have that manuscript ready to revise, ready to see with new eyes. Keep at it. The first draft can be the hardest, but you've done it now.

I didn't attempt NaNo this year, which was just as well. Hong Kong doesn't allow for much personal creativity in terms of keeping a novel in my head and working on it. But my own personal "Don't Stop Here" time is around 12,000 words or so. That's the point at which I'm often flagging, feeling maybe the impetus for the story is fading, wondering what it is I'm trying to do. If I stop here and re-read what I've written so far, it can be so depressing that I want to give up. I've learned not to stop, to just keep going, no matter what. Where is your Don't Stop point?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Carrie Chau Christmas Display

If you click on this, you will see a strange being with a small child in its mouth. Somehow that appealed to my children's writer self. There was another one outside.
The past couple of times I have been in Hong Kong when the Christmas displays start going up, I've seen mostly huge amounts of silver and red. I think one year there were massive three metre high poinsettias out of silver and red - maybe fibreglass? This year, at Times Square, was a display by Carrie Chau called Indigo Child. I've heard all the stuff about indigo children before, but this exhibition moved a really long way from fluffy, cute Christmas stuff!

Some figures (statues? they were very solid, possibly concrete) carried hatchets and had one sharp fang protruding from a smiling mouth. All were quite bizarre in some way, but really worth looking closely at for small touches. The prints and T shirts inside were tame by comparison, but I did like the lamp shades. And the two "beasts" with children in their mouths...

Friday, November 28, 2008

Quotes that Get You Thinking

As I'd never got around to cancelling the newspapers before I went away, I came home to a large pile of them, waiting to be read. I love the weekend papers, so of course I couldn't just throw them in the recycling pile without at least scanning them and reading the most interesting bits. The first quote that appealed to me was from Amanda Lohrey, an Australian literary novelist, talking about why she needs to write full-time.

"You need a lot of time to waste: to dither and daydream and read books you didn't know you wanted to read and go for long walks. You might only have 15 productive hours a week but you don't know which hours they are going to be." This is the pleasure of full-time immersion in the act, isn't it? Not just the actual typing, but allowing the ideas and words to gather in whatever way they will, roll around in your head, jostle with each other, and finally break out onto the page. When you think about it like that, somehow jamming them in between hours of paid work, especially work where you are required to use the creative part of your brain a lot, suddenly shows itself as a crazy way to write. But that's where many of us are, so we learn to deal with it.

The other quote was from Deborra-Lee Furness (Hugh Jackman's wife) who said: "... as soon as you put someone up on a pedestal, you lower yourself. So what's next? Resentment." She was quoting someone else in the interview, behavioural expert John Demartini, but it's something to think about. She was referring to celebrities and the way our society puts them on pedestals, but it can apply to anything. That famous writer, the famous motivational speaker, even your doctor. You create an image in your mind almost of perfection where the person is concerned, and when they don't live up to it, or don't do things your way, they take a big tumble (in your mind, at least). Is this really where tall poppy syndrome comes from? Or is it some form of jealousy? More to ponder as I go off to count bricks.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

This Techno World

Wi-fi is wonderful – when it works. And when you can connect properly. And when it doesn’t cost you a week’s worth of coffee for half an hour. These days we kind of expect the internet to be available whenever we want it if we are in a big city. Hong Kong is no exception. Once upon a time we’d send postcards or airmail letters – I can remember being in South Africa in the late 70s and writing my dad a seven or eight page letter every week. He probably nearly had a heart attack every time he got one. Wondering if I would ever make it home safely! Of course, by the time he read my letter, I’d moved on elsewhere and that drama was over.

Now we rely on emails to keep in touch, and I also use Skype. In France it was great to be able to connect easily and talk for free. By the way, the French pronounce it wee-fee, I was told. And when you’re feeling a bit lonely, emails from home can cheer you up and make you feel not so far away. It’s funny how the further away we are, the more simple it is to stay in touch. That’s not globalisation, that’s just technology.

So here I am in HK airport, catching up on emails before I fly home**, and everywhere there are signs saying free wi-fi. Do you think I can stay connected? And once I’m connected, every page takes about five minutes to load. The hotel I was staying at only had wi-fi in the lobby. Nothing like trying to do your emails with your laptop on your knees, slowly burning away layers of skin! And it was expensive too.

But just down the road, there were cafes where it was free to connect, or you could buy a 24 hour card for about AU$4 and get access that way. Everywhere people with laptops were doing their emails while drinking coffee or tea, or maybe catching up on work. Not so good to talk on Skype, however, with twenty other coffee drinkers listening in!

Mobile phones were also so easy – we just bought a pre-paid sim card (at a very cheap price) with a HK phone number and away we went. I read somewhere that the mobile phone business in HK is based on the premise that people buy new phones every three months (keeping up with the latest) whereas in Australia it’s every two years. So while I guess HK phone dealers are making more money out of actual phones, in Australia it seems the companies there are making their $$ out of access. And such poor access it is too. No doubt distance is a big factor, but does it have to be so hard? And do we have to be so far behind?

Technology is great, when you can use it the way you want to for a reasonable cost. When it intrudes in your life or sends you bankrupt (as with teenagers who end up with mobile phone bills of thousands of dollars), it’s not so good. Like most things these days, it’s whether you control it, or it controls you. I’m keen to see how the new arrangement with Google and book scanning/publishing works. I do hope it won’t be another situation where the author is at the bottom of the food chain and ends up losing out.

** Needless to say, my connection dropped in and out a dozen times so this blog post never went anywhere. I'm uploading back in Australia!

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Language of Food

Only two more days in Hong Kong, and I feel like I'm hardly ready to leave. Lots of hard work completed, lots of great students in sessions, and more learning about the different cultures and people of HK. I love the public transport system here - so easy and simple. You buy an Octopus card and use it on everything. Train, bus, tram, ferry. You can also use it in some shops to pay for things. How easy is that? You put more credit on it at the station or the local 7-11. Why our government in Victoria can't simply buy this system is beyond me. Four years on a system that still doesn't work? MyKi is a waste of time and money. Buy Octopus!

As always in HK, we are eating a lot of noodles. At a function on Wednesday night, it was interesting to see that nearly all of the food was Western-style. Baked potatoes, sausages, fish, salads, cheesecake, chocolate etc. Sue and I ate two huge plates of green salad. We both had a craving for fresh greens! But noodles are great too. As are dumplings, her favourite. We have fallen into the habit in restaurants and cafes of perusing the menu and talking about all the things we'd try if we were more adventurous - jellyfish, pig's knuckles, duck gizzards, beef tendons - but we know we won't. We just order either noodles or dumplings!

I have found a couple of places that serve my favourite drink - hot ginger tea. But there are many other flavours, and jasmine tea if you want something refreshing. There are literally hundreds of cafes and restaurants in Wanchai, where we are staying, and people eat out all the time. When a filling meal is AU$4-5, why wouldn't you? And here, sharing food is part of the pleasure. I've even shared tables with complete strangers at busy times. And looked suspiciously at what they're eating!

After a month in France, where I seemed to eat cheese, especially goat's cheese, nearly every day, it's the complete other end of the spectrum to focus on noodles instead. But if you are staying in a new place, why would you stick to steak and potatoes? Or go to McDonalds? Exploring the food of a country is part of the experience, and seeing how other people eat is part of learning more about them. It's the same in stories too - what your characters eat can be an important part of who they are. Now that's food for thought!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hong Kong Days

I'm back in Hong Kong, teaching writing classes and running professional sessions again for Women in Publishing. This is a city like no other, and it always seems to take me a couple of days to get used to the different atmosphere and pace. Out on the streets, it's always busy - more people around at 11pm than in the middle of the day in Melbourne. I keep forgetting most shops and businesses don't open until 10am so while it's busy here, it doesn't pay to get an early start. You'll be the only one!

I've been reading Craig Harper's posts while I'm away, and one this week about changing your view of "normal" has struck home. I am down the Causeway Bay end of the island, and catch trams everywhere. They are tall and skinny, and there is always one just around the corner, but I tend to know where to get off by the landmarks - buildings, shops, signs. Today I boarded a very full tram and decided to go up to the top so it would be less crowded. The trouble was, everything looked completely different from up there! It took me ages to work out where I was - for a few minutes I thought I was going the wrong way.

So in one tram ride, I was forced to look at the world from a different point of view (literally) and it was interesting, to say the least. It made me think about how that can be applied to so many things. We look at them in a certain way, as a habit, because it's either what we're used to, or it simply doesn't occur to us to try it from a new vantage point. That's happening with the revision I am doing on my novel right now - forcing myself to use a completely different method is helping me to look at my writing in a much more critical way, and leading to the kinds of changes and improvements that somehow I'd never been able to achieve before.

I could apply this to exercise as well. I don't jog. Never have. It probably goes back to school, when I was overweight and under-confident. Now I am giving it a go, and finding I don't look ridiculous (the treadmill has a mirror in front of it that I can't avoid). And instead of watching the screen that tells me how far I have jogged, which was depressing me, now I look at the clock and measure progress by time.

What can you change about the way you write or revise? If you're doing NaNo for the first time, you might already have seen what a new approach can do for you. But we should never assume that the way we write is the only way that works, and the same goes for the way we revise and rewrite. It's like taking your notebook or laptop to a cafe instead of staying home all the time. Maybe ask your writer friends how they approach creating characters, or revision, or plotting, and try their method for a change. As Craig says, step away from "normal" and see what happens.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Writers Everywhere

I'm about to make a serious attempt at packing for Hong Kong. I have all my class materials ready (I'm teaching a range of classes and PD sessions) and am at the point of making a list so I can stop panicking that I'll forget something. I'm the person who, on the way to the airport, is trying desperately not to imagine I have forgotten something crucial. After all, if you have tickets and passport, most other things can be "managed". Still, I've been working on the list for the past 45 minutes and adding something new and vital on a regular basis.

Regardless of my packing paranoia, I know I will have a great time. Susanna and I meet dozens of wonderfully keen writers every time we visit Hong Kong, either at our YWCA classes or with Women in Publishing. We feel a bit like butterflies, touching down and then flying off again, but this time we will be making serious efforts to network more, and find ongoing connections. Last year, we were there during the Australian elections and were quite astonished at the level of enthusiasm. The Kevin 07 brigade were noisy and cheered loudly!

I'm taking my novel, my lecture notes from Margie Lawson, and my highlighters. I'm expecting some focused rewriting time, if only because I can't bear to watch more than two minutes of Fox News or CNN, usually the only TV channels we can get on our hotel TVs. That's a good thing for a writer! I won't have time on this trip for tourist things, but I will have blocks of hours where I have the opportunity to focus on my own work without interruptions. I just have to be firm with myself and stay off the internet.

It might be a good reminder to think about all the people doing NaNo, for a start. But also I will be taking some time to meet up with writers and talk about writing. I've been fortunate to be able to travel quite a bit in the past few years, and the biggest bonus is the writing friends I've made around the world (Hi, Kristi!). The writing community is special - SCBWI members meet up all around the globe, writers of all kinds are happy to chat over a glass of wine or a coffee and just talk about what they're doing. It is a community, one to value and nurture.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

What's In a Title?

These days - a lot! It's part of the marketing, and if you can't come up with a snazzy, jazzy title that will just zing your book off the shelf (note the ZZZs) then the publicity department will do it for you. I first got clued in to the whole title thing when I was writing poetry. If you know anything about poems, you know all the things that a title can be: it can act like the first line of the poem; it can act like a label to signal what the poem is about; it can be like a line of the poem that adds more meaning; it can clue the reader into other layers of meaning. In short, a title for a poem is important, and if you call your poem Untitled you are either missing out through ignorance, or you're lazy, or you're trying to be obscure or clever (duh). At least, that's what other poets will think, because we all spend a lot of time on titles. It's important. It's worth the time.

What made me think about this topic? A visit to Borders. I love my independents but when you want to wallow in a huge range of choices and spend ages just looking, Borders is it. And the coffee helps too. But I found myself in front of the New Releases shelves, and in particular, the new Nonfiction section. Which in this part of the store, was 90% memoirs. I don't read a lot of memoirs (although I am reading Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett right now and loving it) but even so, a scan of the books made me shudder. Because of their titles.

I should have gone back with a piece of paper and written them down, but this is kind of what I saw. Six shelves of display copies, many with pastel covers and foggy photos. And the titles went like this: Shattered, Lost, Beyond Hate, It Wasn't Me, Left Behind, Scarred, Child No More, Not My Child, No Mother For Me, etc etc. I had never seen them all lined up like that before, and it was awful. I am sure that every single person who has written a memoir like that has important, heart-wrenching stories to tell. But I'm not going to be reading them.

A couple of years ago, a critic called them "misery memoirs". Can't you tell by the titles? So I went onto Amazon and did a search on "memoir" and what a much cheerier list I found! Are You There Vodka: It's Me, Chelsea, Half-Assed: A Weight Loss Memoir, When A Crocodile Eats the Sun, Running With Scissors, and Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. How jolly are they?

Sometimes my titles just come out of the blue before I even start the story. The Too-Tight Tutu was one, Tracey Binns Was Trouble was another. As for Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!) - I couldn't have developed that afterwards - it was another one that popped into my head and wouldn't go away. But i do think that years of writing poems and being aware of what a title can do has made a big difference. My current novel has been without a title for several months. Then someone asked, "Doesn't it have a title yet?" And after a few minutes of serious thought, now it does.

A title is important. A genius title can help to sell a book. It's part of that instant attention/ gratification thing we have going these days. If you're not sure about your book title, there are a few things you can do. Brainstorm ideas, look on Amazon or B&N for books similar to yours and try to come up with something different, look at anthologies of poems and see what poets have achieved, make yourself write down 20 possible titles and test them out, use your thesaurus and your friends and anything you can find to come up with word associations. Imagine seeing your book in a catalogue or in publicity material. How do you want it to sound? Look at other book titles and say them out loud. What appeals to you? Does it convey the tone of your book? Try whatever you can to find a great title - it's worth the effort.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Renovate Your Writing Life

Right now, thousands and thousands of people are having a go at NaNo - writing their hearts out to try and get down 50,000 words in a month. I'm totally into revision mode and my head couldn't come up with a novel-length idea if my life depended on it, so I'm passing this year. But I have plenty to think about as I pull my first draft to pieces, dissect it with pens and coloured markers, and then attempt to rewrite based on notes, new ideas and what I see are gaps or soft spots. This is a slow process. Apart from anything else, it's adding around 20% extra words (I'll be in big trouble if I end up with 50,000 extra words!).

You might be thinking So what? You do that kind of rewriting all the time. Do you? Everyone seems to rewrite in a different way. I'm beginning to think that just fixing what your critique group picks up is maybe not the best way to go. It's the easy, fast way, for sure. There have been times when I have sat down and started a whole novel all over again, from scratch, barely referring to the first draft. While this has got me closer to making the novel work the way it needs to, it hasn't been a "cure all" process. Sometimes all it's done is introduce new problems!
So this process I am learning is exciting, different, intensive and needs a lot of perseverance.

Which brings me to the Renovate Your Life workshop I attended last Sunday. A few people I know read Craig Harper's website articles and email posts regularly, so they have an idea of what his thoughts are on things like goals and motivation. That was one of the interesting aspects for me - the discussion about staying motivated. Basically, he says the feeling of being motivated and enthusiastic never lasts (true), that you might attend a workshop or read something great and feel motivated by it, but that will fade and then what do you do? The people who achieve stuff, who get where they want to go, don't rely on motivation.

I have days when I think my writing is going so well, that it will last for weeks and weeks, and I'll finish my wonderful novel and it will be brilliant. Ha! Within a day or two, doubt sets in. The novel concept is stupid, I can't write, no one will want to read it. Why am I bothering? At times like that, it's very hard to feel motivated. And telling yourself that your goal is publication and won't that be wonderful doesn't help at all. The brain, in its infinite pessimism, just mutters, "Yeah, what about the bad reviews." So Craig is right. When motivation disappears, what is left?

For a start, what Bryce Courtenay calls BIC. Bum in chair. Setting small goals, such as 500 words a day. Bribing yourself. Re-inspiring yourself with writing books. Everyone has their own "tricks". Work out what gets you moving, and use it. Some of the things Craig talked about included:
* we get in our own way - over-think and under-do.
* we shut doors on ourselves, and say things like "that's not me - I couldn't do that".
* we sabotage ourselves, and talk ourselves down, or out of possibilities.
* we don't plan our lives, we just let them happen (he suggested would you just get in a car and let a trip from Perth to Sydney happen? without planning for money, petrol, maps etc?).
* we look at our history and let it stop us from trying new things or changing.
* we play the blame game.
* we look for shortcuts and quick fixes.

There was a lot more than that, of course. Plenty of positive ideas for change and achieving what you want. I think he's planning to release a DVD of the session at some point. But while all of those things are about life in all its aspects, I couldn't help applying them to writing in particular. And a point about hours hit home with quite a few people there - we often use the NO TIME excuse (I know I do). Count up how many hours a week - honestly - that you spend watching TV. Then take four of those hours and write instead. That's a starting point to think about.

Whether you're doing NaNo or not, maybe take some time to consider the whole motivation and perseverance idea. NaNo is excellent motivation for getting that novel down that's been inside you for months or years. But what will keep you going afterwards? If you're not doing NaNo, like me, what is keeping you writing right now? And next week? And next month? On a good writing day, when it's all humming along, is there anything you can capture and nurture, to use on the bad days? What motivates you for the long distance?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Still Learning...

It's been quite a week. I have worked every day on the course, and subsequently my current novel (applying the various bits to the work in progress), and am quite astounded at what I am seeing. There are times when I truly think "Why was I writing like that? It is awful! Why couldn't I see what was missing?"
Ah, grasshopper (as Mr C would say), that's because it is far easier to see what is wrong in front of you than work out what is not there. Obvious mistakes are easy to fix. Gaps, holes, missing links, shallow characters - they're not so easy because in your head, they are there. It's just that you have to learn to see they're not yet on the page.

After 20 years of writing, you'd think I'd know that. And I do. But I had got out of the habit of being able to pick it up. Not sure why. Something more to think about. But I am now on Chapter 3 of my current novel - the coloured markers have been getting a thorough workout, and I can see every day how the words on the page are getting stronger. After the mark-up, I then have to rewrite.

As for Mr C - better known as Craig Harper - today was the day for the Renovate Your Life workshop. It's going to take me a few days to digest it all. I will come back when I've got it all sorted through in the mental intake and filing system. Suffice to say, when I came home, I ate, and then I got stuck into the study and marking up of my novel. The painting of my door frames didn't happen. Priorities, grasshopper, priorities.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Learning and Learners

I'm working hard on my course right now, and learning heaps. There's nothing like being able to take a chapter of your novel and apply all the exercises and coloured markers as you go, then return to the manuscript and rewrite. What comes out can be a revelation. For a start, I've ended up with an extra 500 words, a 15% increase. That's because the course is about developing character emotions and depth, and if you've done any work on showing-not-telling stuff, you'll know that at high points in the story, showing works so much better, but takes more words.

So ... I'm still working through it all (the course is called Empowering Character Emotions by Margie Lawson), and realising that I will need to go back and re-read and re-do the exercises several times. Is it because my brain is getting old? I don't think so - I think it's more a case of I've settled into certain patterns of learning (skimming and taking what I think I need), and I'm having to deliberately slow down and concentrate and go over things to get top value.

All this has got me thinking about ways of learning, or not learning, that I've seen over many years of teaching writing. You may not have taught, but I bet you've seen one or two of these in a class you've attended:

* I already know everything. I'm a fantastic writer, I'm brilliant, but undiscovered. You are here to acknowledge my brilliance. And that means that boring stuff like grammar and punctuation is irrelevant in my case. Besides, the editor will fix that.

* I'm here to learn but you're wrong. Never mind that I've paid good money and am spending valuable writing hours in this room, and just because you are the teacher and you're widely published doesn't mean you know anything about what I write. Because I'm special.

* I don't want to show anyone my writing. Yes, this is a workshop and that's what you do, but someone might steal my ideas. No, I can't send my workshopping by email, because people steal stuff on the net too.

* I only want to write what I want to write. Why are we doing these stupid exercises in class? How will an exercise on writing dialogue help me write better dialogue? Why do I have to listen to what other people have written? After they've listened to me, I'll have a snooze, thanks.

* What do you mean - I need to rewrite this? Everything I write comes out perfect first time. I put a lot of thought into it. So it's fine as it is. OK, I'll fix the apostrophes. And the bit where the character with one eye is looking through binoculars. That was meant to be funny. Didn't you get it? It works for me.

* I was up really late last night. Not writing. At a party. So I'll just put my head on the desk and have a quiet nap. I'm not disturbing anyone. What's your problem?

* What do you mean, my novel sounds like a re-run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I think I've been really original. No, I don't read horror or vampire novels. Or any other novels, really. I watch TV though. Yes, I've seen every episode of Buffy. How did you know?

* Yes, this is science fiction (or romance, or horror, or middle grade). No, I don't read that genre. But look how much money you can make from it.

Thankfully, these students and writers are very few and far between. Over the years, I have had the great pleasure of working with/teaching hundreds of keen, enthusiastic people who really do want to soak up every single thing they can, and improve their writing as much as possible. That's why I'm still doing it. And I love being a student, too. Better get back to my homework.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Back to "School"

In Saturday's Age newspaper, there was an article about US novelist, Francine Prose, who says she believes writing can't be taught. Now, for someone like her who has been teaching writing on and off for twenty years, I find this an odd thing to say. Does she mean that in twenty years, she has never seen a writer grow and improve, and finally get published? Hmmm, she is either a bad teacher or she has no interest in her students outside the classroom (and they haven't bothered to tell her of their successes).

In the past six months, I've received wonderful news about my former students who have had novels and stories accepted, including one who was shortlisted this year for the Vogel Award (hi, Demet!). These are all writers who we have seen take huge steps forward while studying our course. I'm sure you could argue that they would have made those improvements anyway, if they had just kept writing and reading, but I'd disagree with you. To me, being a writer is always about learning and improving, and working on your craft. Do we hear this said about artists who go to art school? Or musicians who go to the Conservatory of Music or similar schools? No. Why on earth people have to continue to "service" the myth that the only true writers are those with some kind of magical, special talent is beyond me.

Yes, talent helps. I've also seen people that want to write who put words on the page which are unreadable. Either they are unable to get a grip on language and sentence construction (and are often unwilling to learn) or in the translation from brain to page, something falls flat. Those people may never write something publishable. I've also seen talented writers who don't want to put in the hard yards. They don't actually love the act of writing enough to stick at it for years and years. So perseverance is a key factor.

But so is the utter willingness to learn and grow, and the determination to improve. When it comes right down to it, if you feel that every story or every poem or every book you write needs to be better than the one before, or every draft must be better than the one before, you're on the right track. A writing course helps enormously. Suddenly you are surrounded by other writers, thousands of ideas, hours and hours of advice and information, deadlines, workshopping - it's an experience that, if you fully engage, can't help but make you a better writer. So as well as being taught, you are also learning to teach yourself. Courses don't last forever.

This week, I am going back to school. Totally self-imposed, but at my own pace. A while ago, I paid for Margie Lawson's course (lecture notes) on Empowering Characters' Emotions. I must've read the first two lectures about four times, but to be honest, I wasn't in the right place to undertake it seriously. Now I am. Now I have two novels that need major revision, and that revision, in both cases, has to focus on character. So before I start either revision, I'm going to sit down and work my way through the course. I already know what's in it, I know what I want to get out of it, and I'm ready. Is that the school bell ringing?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Littlest Pirate Sails On

Way back in 1998 or so, I was writing a large historical novel about pirates. I'd done hours and hours of research and I was halfway through what would eventually be 120,000 words. I needed a break. So I decided to put the novel aside and write something completely different. Maybe fairies or animals or something ... What came out was a story called The Littlest Pirate. Originally I thought it was a picture book, but Penguin accepted it and published it as an Aussie Nibble (after I added some more words).

Three more stories about the Littlest Pirate have followed - The Littlest Pirate and the Hammerheads, The Littlest Pirate in a Pickle, and now The Littlest Pirate and the Treasure Map (out next year). All are chapter books in the Aussie Nibbles series. Along the way, the books have gone to the UK (published there by Happy Cat Books) and a couple to the US (Running Press). Then one was picked up by a Spanish publisher, and another by a Serbian publisher. The little guy was sailing far and wide!

Now, ironically, The Littlest Pirate has just been published here in Australia as - you guessed it - a picture book (cover above). The editor and I trimmed and tidied, and the illustrator, Tom Jellett, created Nicholas Nosh's story in full colour. It looks fantastic! Dare I say - it's on sale now, perfect for Christmas gifts. $19.95.
The one thing I have learned from Nicholas's voyages around the world is this - you just never know where a book might go, or what might happen to it. Next time you want to sign a contract for your new (or first) book without carefully considering the terms or getting advice, think again. Like I said, you just never know...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Editor/Publishing Insight

Quick post to direct you to this interview with Chuck Adams - one of the most insightful interviews I've read in a long time about what it's like to be an editor with both a large and small publisher, and some inside thoughts about the publishing industry.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Are Readers Fickle or Set in their Ways?

My cats drive me crazy. One day they'll eat only fresh meat, the next they turn their noses up at it. I try one brand of canned food that they like - a week later they refuse to eat the same thing. I end up feeding cat food to our chickens every now and then (and boy, they don't complain!). But I feel like I'm locked into this expensive guessing game about what they'll eat this week and what they won't. And yes, I've tried the kid's version - Either eat this or go without. They go without. And then reproach me with ribs showing. (Actually, they're probably sucking up to the neighbours...)

Are book buyers the same? We have this series craze going on in Australian children's books at the moment. If you don't have a hot series idea, you're kind of on the outer. Not because you can't write, but because the perception is that kids buy more series books and the stand-alone novels are only bought by "serious" people like librarians and teachers. Series have become a kind of collectible. My daughter was doing the series thing 18 years ago, but back then it was a case of "find a book I like and I want another one". Series still buy into that notion, but there's more to it now.

There's the TV show, for instance. Saddle Club. Old Tom. Spongebob Squarepants (I still don't get that one!). And the trilogy that morphs into more and more books, as long as there's a demand. There's also the Magic Treehouse, the Aussie Bites and Nibbles, the Go Girls - the collectibles. How many have you got? Which is your favourite? More and more, it seems like novels that are shining little beacons of originality, without any brothers or sisters to make them into a series, are struggling. Maybe that's the way the marketplace works right now, but it's a great pity if series are all we are left with.

But to answer the subject question - personally, that is - I'm in the middle somewhere. I love series where the main character is engaging and the voice is strong. A good example is Michael Connolly's latest - The Brass Verdict. His viewpoint character featured in The Lincoln Lawyer, but Connolly also includes, as a major character, Harry Bosch who has been the MC in many other books. We get another, diffferent look at Harry, which is fascinating in itself. But at the same time, I also love a novel which is about ideas and language and story, like The Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Houses in New England. I wanted to slap the main character, and I don't want to read about him again, but the rest of the novel was great.

I think, as good readers, we all like variety. I can go from a literary novel to a crime novel to an in-depth feature article to some history and enjoy all of it, for different reasons. If I didn't read widely, I'd be bored. Everything informs everything else. I read Kate Mosse's book Labyrinth (and then saw many of the places that feature in the book) but I actually like the factual history books better. That's not usual for me, but so what?

I think what bothers me a little about the mass market series books for kids is the idea that they might stop there and never discover what else is out in the wide world of books for them. That's where librarians come in. Public and school. We're fighting the battle here to keep school librarians, and not winning. It shows, in our levels of literacy and engagement with reading. On the news two nights ago, they talked about the new curriculums for schools. One news service actually mentioned that part of the new approach is to encourage teachers to read books out loud to their students.

Whoo-hoooo! If there has been anything that I have heard from teachers in the US, complaining about No Child Left Behind, is that this school draconian testing system has killed reading to the kids. And teachers everywhere over there have seen the terrible consequences of a program where all that matters is tests. At least here it looks like the testing over the past couple of years has shown that we have an awful lot of kids who can't read and write very well. Fingers crossed that the new approach might start to produce confident, enthusiastic readers at last. And really, I guess, does it matter what they start with?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Word Counts

You may not have heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) which is in November every year. It really should be International NoWriMo, as thousands of people all over the world now join in. The idea is that you write 50,000 words in the month of November, which means around 1666 words per day, plus a couple of extra (your title?). On the NaNo site, you can join up for free, and you get your own page where you can log in, record the number of words you've written and watch the graph rise.

I haven't done it for a couple of years, mainly because November is our major time of year for marking and providing feedback on student work, and writing creatively just doesn't work in the available brainspace left (which is usually zero). I would love to attempt it this year, except for one thing - I don't have anything of 50,000 words to write. I'm working on something at the moment, and am about 28,000 words into it, but as it's a children's novel, I'm thinking it'll be finished by another 8,000 words or so. I could revise something else, but the idea of NaNo is that it's new work.

Mind you, the requirement that it be a new novel is not supposed to stop you. You're supposed to just write and write and write, and see what comes out. It's why there is a companion book called No Plot? No Problem. But I don't really work like that anymore. I've stuffed up too many novels by not working out first what they are going to be about. All the same, it's tempting...

NaNo or not, word count tallies are useful at any time. Although I bribe myself to write by saying "Just one page", I'm disappointed if I end up with less than 1,000 words. It's a mental target that makes me feel good when I reach it. 2,000 words makes me feel brilliant! When you're in the middle of a novel and starting to flag, wondering if you'll ever finish, and what on earth were you thinking anyway, looking at your word count can make you feel so much better. Wow, have I written that much?

Setting a word count target per week can be useful too. Some days we just can't get to the computer when life butts in, but if we can catch up the next day, and head for that word count, we don't feel so bad. The trick is to find the right target for you. 10,000 words a week may well be too many. 500 is way too few (you knew that, right?). I aim for 4,000. It's realistic, it's an amount that will get me many steps closer to a finished draft, and it's also a number that I know I can exceed, all going well.

Do you have word targets? Or do you count hours? Or pages? Are you doing NaNo this year? Why? Share some thoughts with us.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

I'll Deal with my Procrastination Tomorrow

Over on Kristi Holl's blog this week, she's been talking about procrastination, and what's known as writer's block. Mostly they are the same thing, I think. And although there are many reasons why we procrastinate about writing, I'd say the biggest one is fear. Fear that what we are putting our hours and heart and energy into will be criticised or rejected. Fear that when we sit down to write, nothing will happen and we'll never write again. Fear that we are just not good enough - for anything. Fear that something or someone will give us a big fat F on our story.

I know of many people who stopped writing (or drawing) in school because of a snooty or critical teacher's comments. Often these were people whose work didn't conform; they didn't colour inside the lines, so they were told they were no good. It can take forty years to get over something like that, and find the courage to start again. That's why so many people in their 50s rediscover their art - they finally realise it's up to them.

This photo above is not a book (it'd have to be a pretty grubby book!). It's a large slab of concrete. Intended to be the foundation of a house. And it will, maybe not as soon as I want it to be, but I hope I'll get there one day. But I have found that the process of trying to get this house built has filled me with as much fear, and caused as much procrastination as any book I have ever written - probably more. Mainly because of all the people (read: bureaucrats) who have tried to stop me or put huge obstacles in my way. They've all contributed to that horrible gut-churning feeling of "Why am I doing this? How can I continue against the odds?"

The bureaucratic nightmare has mostly consisted of either changing the rules without telling me (and then saying No, you can't do that now), or being unreasonably slow and obstinate about petty things, or literally going back on previous agreements. But I haven't given up yet, although I've used many words in private that I wouldn't use in public!

But it reminds me in so many ways of writing - that is, writing for publication. I'm all for writing because you love it and it enriches you. Writing for publication is different. It brings out all those fears we have about "are we good enough?" No matter how often we tell ourselves, "It is the work that is being rejected, not me", it still cuts to the bone. And it can cause that procrastination bug. If you don't write, nobody can criticise or reject you. While one part of you is saying "I want to write, no matter what", a secret - or not so secret - voice is saying "But it won't be good enough and someone might tell you so".

All I can say is: Do it. Sit down and do it. Just like every now and then over the past three years (and probably more years to come) I have had to tell myself, "Make that phone call, write that letter, complete that paperwork - make it happen". I have a big piece of concrete now. It's lovely and smooth, and I like to run my hand over its surface and marvel at it. Just like I love to see a pile of manuscript pages grow, and the word count on a piece of notepaper next to my computer grow too. This week, along with developing my plot and deepening my characters, I'm getting my bricks delivered. What about you?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

What's Different About This Story?

I won't go into all the gushing descriptions again about the hot chocolate I had at the Cafe Francais in Place de Bastille in Paris. Suffice to say, I doubt Angeline's could've done much better. This lovely cup of chocolate above, although it looks amazing (and the inside of the glass was coated in chocolate that melted as I drank it), still came third in my list of great chocolate in France. Second was in a small cafe/bar in Gruissan.

My point is: isn't chocolate just chocolate? Aren't they all made from the same ingredients? True, but to me chocolate becomes a metaphor for stories. Aren't all stories the same? Aren't there all these writing books that say there are only seven/twenty/thirty-six plots, and every story uses the same ones? The obvious answer is that chocolate (in a cup or in a packet) does differ enormously, depending on the quality of ingredients and their mix, just like the quality of a story differs depending on the skills of the writer.

I would take it one step further. It's also about how the writer sees their story and their characters, and how aware they are of the possibilities, as well as what has already been done. Does the chef at Cafe Francais know about Angeline's chocolate? How could s/he not, given the publicity and word-of-mouth it gets? Did the chef set out to better Angeline's? And having very likely succeeded perhaps (especially on price), why aren't they publicising theirs more widely? Perhaps the chef went to Angeline's and said "I can do better". Perhaps not.

As writers, one of our key "jobs" is to read - we need to know what has already been done (and done to death) in our genre or area. We need to read with an eye to working out how that story worked and why it was different. And then we need to come up with a story and characters that stand out from the crowd. Yes, there are many similar stories, but it's how you approach it that counts. And if you do so armed with the knowledge of what to avoid, you'll be better off.

Which brings me to Simon Beckett. I love discovering a new writer - as my friend K says, then you hope they've already written twenty books so you can have a wonderful time reading them all. Beckett only has two to his credit so far but they are great. His main character is a forensic anthropologist. Sound familiar? Like Kathy Reichs? Ah yes, but Beckett has done something different with the FA genre, mainly with character and great setting. I recommend both of his books - The Chemistry of Death and Written in Bone.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Next Book

This is a topic that doesn't come up very often in general writing conversation, and it has several different aspects to it. Often, it's published writers who talk about it, and unpublished writers don't want to hear that after your first book is accepted, printed and out there, it doesn't all magically fall into place and become easy. I've heard it said many times: Getting published doesn't solve all of your problems, it just gives you a new set of problems!

I was reminded of this when reading Cynthia Leitich-Smith's blog today. As she is celebrating ten years of her website, she has been asking writers the question - Over the past decade, what are the most important lessons you've learned about your craft, the writing/artistic life, and/or publishing, and why?

Today's answer was from Nancy Garden, and among other wise and helpful things, she said: I think the most important lesson I've learned about my craft--or at least about myself as a writer--over the past decade is to slow down!
By that I don't necessarily mean to write less, and I certainly don't mean to take more time off (what's that?), but what I do mean is to be sure to give each new book or story all the time it needs before sending it off to one's editor or one's agent.

This is one of those aspects of 'the next book' - the feeling that, once you have one run on the board, you have to keep producing those books at a good rate, and not let a time gap open up. After all, you're building a reputation, a publishing track record, and if you take too long, publishers will forget who you are. But as Nancy says, handing over an under-cooked book won't do you any favours either. You have be sure every book is the best you can possibly make it. I always feel my next book has to be better than my last one. Maybe not always possible, but good to aim for. And it does take time.

Another aspect of this is genuine pressure from the publisher when your next book is part of a series or trilogy. I heard a fantasy writer say once that her first book took ten years. No one was waiting for it, and she could re-work it to her heart's content with no one looking over her shoulder. When it was accepted, suddenly the second one had to be finished within a year, and when she looked at her draft of it, she realised nearly everything had to be thrown out. To get it in on deadline, she spent many, many nights and weekends on it, always conscious that it was "expected" by someone. Sometimes that kind of pressure can cause major writer's block!

Series are similar, but different. Because you are faced with not just one more book, but maybe four or six or ten. What happens if you get to Book 4 and decide you now hate your main character? Or that the original series concept bores you to death? Sometimes a publisher will put impossible deadlines on you, in order to get the series established in the market. How would you feel about writing four books in eight months? What if you make your name with a series but desperately want to write 'the book of your heart' and the publisher says No?

There is an up-side to this, of course. Expectation of the next book can fill you with confidence, while the first book filled you with the fear that no one would ever want it. A contract does wonders for making you feel justified (especially to scoffing family) about all that time and energy you spend on writing. A solid series concept can make you feel more secure about writing the next one and the next one, because you've done all the hard groundwork and you know what you want to do with it. However, these days the next book is never 100% guaranteed to be published, so at least make sure you get some money up front!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Literacy in the Workplace

The Age featured a large article this weekend on literacy in tertiary institutions and the workplace, citing Monash University as one uni that has come out and complained about having to teach their first year students grammar and punctuation, saying this is the kind of stuff they should have learned at high school. How true. But how to fix it? Or more to the point, how to get the students to care about it, so they also want to fix it?

The grammar stuff can be pretty boring, I admit. I used to teach it in my course. But we have two great editing teachers now who do their best to make the classes interesting and engaging, along with trying to instill the basics into people (young and older) who didn't get it at school. I have my own personal theory, based on some linguistics stuff I've read about, that the years from about 11-14 are the ones where this kind of basic knowledge best sinks in. Research has shown that children who have been isolated from language (the extremes are the ones kept locked up in cellars and attics) can recover and learn correct sentence construction and grammar if they start before about 14. After that, something in the brain, presumably to do with maturity, stops "taking it in".

Our course is about writing and editing, in all its various forms and genres, from business writing to picture books and poetry. We have a simple grammar and punctuation test for applicants that very quickly sorts out who has a grasp of the basics and who hasn't. Someone who has no idea where to put a fullstop in a sentence (never mind a comma) may well fail Editing 1, a core compulsory subject. It makes a big difference to us how an applicant performs in this test (there are other selection criteria as well) as we don't want to accept people knowing they are likely to fail.

However, the other big component in this is how much they want to learn. It constantly amazes me how often students will say things like, "That's the editor's job to fix my grammar after they've accepted my story." Not. Poor grammar and punctuation in a piece of writing means automatic rejection 99% of the time, and very few people write brilliantly enough for this to be overlooked. Many older students, who felt they didn't learn the basics at school, and understand how important they are, put in 120% in Editing 1, and get there by sheer hard work.

But a lot of younger students find they know even less than they thought, and also find they can no longer get away with Spellcheck and guessing. When they discover that the only way forward is to work really hard and learn it all properly, they can't be bothered. A 51% Pass in Editing 1 means you are still getting 49% of your grammar wrong!

In The Age article, they also quoted a number of employers who said they can tell just from letters of application for jobs who is OK with grammar and who isn't. One said that errors in a letter tell him that the applicant didn't care enough to make sure it's correct. It's all about first impressions, and if the first impression you give is that you don't know how to spell or write a decent sentence, that doesn't bode well for you getting the job. That's a big bonus for students who complete our course successfully - they may never write a best-selling novel, but they are going to be way ahead of many other job applicants in terms of their language ability.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Last Days in France

I only had one day in Toulouse, but found two museums of interest (and lots of nice shops). The first museum focused on very early Toulouse, with a lot of Roman remains and history. It's interesting to see how a city can be built on a city that was built on a city, etc. Many of the artifacts in this museum were discovered when they were digging out a new underground metro station. Romans settled and lived and built in Toulouse from about 100BC to 450AD, when the Visigoths and Vandals invaded.

Given that the Visigoths and Vandals were on the move from the Germanic areas, pushed out by other invaders, I thought it was quite astonishing that the Romans were overcome, given that they were solid fighters and had built virtual fortresses. But maybe complacency had crept in? The other astonishing fact I learned at this museum, thanks to a helpful guide, was that the Romans invented concrete. The other thing I saw was the Via Domitia, the original Roman road - in a big square in Toulouse, part of the original road is exposed underneath. I expected it to be smooth (for horses and carriages) but it was pretty rough and rocky.
Of course, on my last day in Paris, I had to make up for missing Notre Dame, thanks to the Pope. My mountain climbing in Languedoc, to look at Cathar castles, was good training for the 387 steps right to the top of the North Tower. The bell started ringing on the way up - some people behind me seemed to think it was their death knell as they struggled ever upwards! I must have about 20 photos of gargoyles from different cathedrals and churches around France, but this one on the top of Notre Dame has to win the prize for being the most gross.

Inside the cathedral, the morning mass was taking place. Several hundred people sat in the middle section and tried to listen, while many hundreds more wandered in and out, took photos, talked, took more photos... They must be used to it, I guess.
And finally, I have to agree with the various websites that rate airports. Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is truly terrible. And airlines like BA that provide eight staff to help people do e-check ins, and two at the bag drop make it more abysmal.
But I am home again, feeling like I could sleep for a week, and sorting through my 561 photos.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Photos from Land of the Cathars

I took around a hundred photos! These are just a sample.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

In the Land of the Cathars

Carcassone on Sunday - a walled city on the hill above the modern city. Walls, moats, wells, turrets, chateau, and lots of souvenir shops and cafes. For some reason, entrance to everything was free, which was a bonus. We spent about 5 hours there, wandering through the winding streets, and we also went through the chateau from top to bottom. Imagined being up the top, firing arrows at the people below, and living in the stone rooms. Cool in the summer but no doubt freezing in the winter. Much of the old city has been restored, but there are still original elements everywhere.

I loved Carcassonne - until I spent the whole day yesterday climbing mountains (literally) to see three Cathar chateaux (castles). Queribus, Peyerpeteuse and Puilaurens. All the stairs I climbed in Paris and Menton in no way prepared me for the rock clambering up to each of these 12th century fortresses. But each one was worth it. As I drove along the valley below and looked up, they appeared on the ridges just as they would have hundreds of years ago. Stunning. And seemingly impenetrable, unless you laid seige to them, I guess.

Peyerpeteuse is probably in the best condition (all are just remains now) but in each one there is enough of the original walls and rooms and stairways to imagine how it would have been to live there. I loved every minute of it (OK, I didn't love the last thirty metres or so of each climb, when I thought my heart was going to fall out of my chest and lie gasping on the rocks). I've taken a million photos, but can post none of them yet as the internet cafe doesn't have the capacity to upload stuff. Will put some up next week.

As for research for my novel, you can't beat it. All I have to do is close my eyes and I am back at the castles, wind whistling past my ears, as I gaze down across the valley...

Friday, September 19, 2008

In Katherine Mansfield territory

One of the reasons I came to Menton was because this was where Katherine Mansfield, the New Zealand writer, lived and wrote for some years. On the street map Avenue de Katherine Mansfield looks big and important, but when I trekked up there, it was not so. The avenue was a small hilly street that quickly turned into what was more like a driveway, and then actually became someone's driveway! But I did find the house where she lived, and this is the memorial. Two plaques, one which is about her birth and death dates and a quote from a letter to Middleton Murray.

The other plaque lists the books she wrote while living there. Of course, I wanted more. But this is all there is. And in the neighbouring street, Rue Webb-Ellis, there is no statue of Webb-Ellis that I could find, just a train station. Webb-Ellis, by the way, is credited with "inventing" the game of rugby union (go All Blacks!). Despite these two minimal tributes, which were the initial inspiration for coming here, I love Menton and can recommend it to anyone at all for a visit.
On the one hand, this is an awful photo - out of focus and hard to discern. On the other, I love it. On the way home from dinner last night, on impulse we decided to follow some stairs up from our street and see where they led. It turned into a fascinating journey through a labyrinth of steps, archways, twists and turns, unexpected doorways and more steps, and finally the church at the top. In the dark, despite some lighting along the way, I felt that sense of life in much earlier times, when narrow pathways and tall houses with barred windows were the essence of the village. Mysterious, evocative and entrancing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Writing at the Coast

With a view like this from the window as I type, there really is no excuse for not feeling inspired, is there? Except there is so much to see and do and wonder over... and eat, of course. I am in Menton, right near the Italian border, and the weather is lovely. We are in an apartment high above the bay, but in the old quarter, so that to get to where we are staying, we climb up through a dark, narrow passageway of many steps, then a little way up our winding street, then through an iron gate and up four flights of stone steps that have felt probably millions of feet over the centuries.

So I am inspired, and have written more in my journal, and a new poem, and today I went to Nice and saw some Roman ruins that gave me more ideas. It's all about feeding the creativity, in many different ways, right down to the elderly men playing boules in the park who tried to persuade me to throw a few boules with them (I said no, thinking they probably couldn't move fast enough to get out of the way of my missiles!).
This is someone else's inspiration - an installation, for want of a better word, outside the Monte Carlo casino in Monaco. It's a huge shiny mirror (convex? or concave?) that shows both the fountain below it as well as the entrance to the casino. In front of the casino, where I managed to lose E10 on the poker machines, just so I could say I'd been there, you might be able to see a lot of tourists, but also a Bentley and an Aston Martin and a Lamborghini. None of which belonged to me.
Naturally, wherever I go I will find a pirate if there is one to be found. This handsome buccaneer stands outside the Pirate Lolly Shop in Menton, and very kindly allowed me to have my photo taken next to him without demanding any gold. Mind you, as he is a statue, he would've had a hard time getting his hand up to grab my money anyway.