Monday, January 28, 2008

Writers' Conferences

One of the best experiences for a writer is a writers' conference. It doesn't matter if you're new or more advanced, published or not, being among other writers who share your passion is inspiring. No more strange looks (you're writing about what?), no more sneers (so where did you say I can buy your books? nowhere yet?), no more guilt trips (what do you mean - you can't come to the beach/mall/playground with us, you're writing?), no more questions from family like "When are you going to get a real job?"

At a good writers' conference you'll get the following things:
1. You'll meet lots of other writers who feel just like you. You'll share experiences, the lows and highs, pass on good advice, re-inspire each other and make life-long friends. I know because that's happened to me!

2. You'll listen to other well-published writers speak and realise their paths to publication were long and tough, and what got them there was perseverance and hard work, not some magical, mystical talent. You'll realise that a little bit of talent goes a long way if you're prepared to listen, learn and practise, practise, practise. They'll inspire you too. I still remember Linda Sue Park and her two pages a day, no matter what. They'll also remind you that part of being a writer is to read, read, read.

3. You'll hear editors and publishers talking about what they might be looking for, what makes a manuscript stand out, what fads and trends are passing or passed, what their house publishes. They'll add to your market research (that you're already doing - right?) and put a human face on the rejection letters. They'll remind you that competent and pretty good doesn't cut it in the world today, and that you need to work hard to find your own story and tell it as only you can. They'll also remind you that they love books as much as you do, and they really are looking for new voices.

4. You'll also hear agents, hopefully two or three, talking about their business, how they work, what they're looking for. It'll sound a lot like editors, only more so.

5. You'll find new ideas springing into your mind, from things people say, things you see, things that pop into your dreams each night as you sleep after a long day of talking about writing and books. You'll take lots of notes, write down every idea that occurs to you, buy books that appeal to you, make a list of others to borrow from your library.

6. At a lot of conferences, you'll have a manuscript consultation option. If you've been working on a project and it's not ready, you may pass on the consult. But if you decide to take it up, you'll prepare the best submission you can, and think about what you want from the consult. No editor or agent will give you a contract on the spot, based on ten pages! But they might ask you to send the whole novel. They might ask you to talk about it more. They might ask you questions, about the novel and about you. Be ready. Make the most of it.

It's a good idea to "take stock" before a conference. What do you want from it? What can it give you? Why are you paying this money? Where do you sit in the row of writers that spans "complete newbie" to "well published". What advantages does that seat give you? What is going to be most useful to you in terms of sessions and talks? If you are published, is there a professional stream for you? (otherwise you are going to be bored by sessions that tell you what you already know). Are there agents and editors there you are interested in?

It's also a good idea to make a list of the things you are NOT going to do. 1. Drink too much and make a fool of yourself. You can almost guarantee that when you do, an important editor or agent will be in the audience. 2. Pitch yourself to agents and editors in their down-time when all they want is a drink and some peace and quiet. 3. Whine. It doesn't help, and it makes you look like a total amateur. 4. Show off, even when you have something to show. Say no more.

We have our second international SCBWI conference coming up in February in Sydney, and the program looks terrific. I love conferences, I love getting together with other writers, and I love coming home inspired all over again.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Healthy Writer

We sit at our desks for long periods of time. We drink lots of coffee, maybe smoke, when we take a break (or even as we write). We eat chocolate or chips, or get fast food for dinner because we've got no time to shop and cook. We stay up late, night after night, or drag ourselves out of bed at dawn to write, because that's the only time we have in a busy family/work life.

The result of all of this is obvious. We are overweight, unfit and tired. Just like most of the population. We make resolutions to go to the gym, walk regularly, eat more fruit and veges, but it doesn't happen. Oh well, we sigh, just like everyone else.

Except we aren't like everyone else. When everyone else collapses on the weekend, or after dinner, and watches TV or naps, or goes out and parties, the serious writer is writing. Other people's R&R time is usually our writing time, especially if we have to work in a regular job to pay the bills. A writer who wants to write, and complete projects like novels and short story collections and film scripts, is writing when everyone else is chilling out.

The problem that arises from this is simply a physical and mental tiredness that stops you from writing at your best, and may often stop you from writing at all. I've blogged here before about how that tiredness influences everything about our writing, not just getting the words down on the page but also how you feel about them. If you are feeling bright and healthy and energetic, revision is a pleasure, not a pain. Rejections sting for a few minutes then you can shrug them off and move on. Words zing onto the page because you feel zingy!

What is the solution? Unfortunately, there is no magic wand for this stuff, but here are my thoughts on what makes me write better:

1. Sleep. I am an 8-9 hour a night person, and if I don't get good sleep, I fall in a heap very quickly. So I watch very little TV and go to bed early. Boring, huh? It works for me. I know there are people who insist they can survive well on 5 hours a night, but all the sleep studies now (and there are lots of them because scientists have realised what lack of sleep can do to us) show that it affects alertness, ability to process thoughts, ability to respond, moodiness, irritation, concentration, etc etc. It's actually quite scary what the effects are. Maybe they could add writer's block to the list.

2. Walking, or some form of exercise. It gets me off the chair, it lets my brain think more freely as I walk, it wakes me up, it gets me out in the world. I actually like walking in the rain (with an umbrella) better than anything. But I do have to force myself to do it some days, even though I know it will make me feel good.

3. Less coffee and alcohol. I limit coffee to one a day now, but it has to be a decent one. Not instant. And if I have it in a cafe while I'm writing or thinking about writing, even better. Alcohol - I'm always trying to do better there!

4. Where I write - making sure my computer use is not going to make my neck and shoulder condition worse, which was caused by that in the first place. So the chair and the desk and the keyboard and the monitor all need to be working for me, not against me.

5. Eating better. Skipping breakfast is silly. I've come to believe that breakfast sets you up for the whole morning. I hate lunch - it's the most boring meal of the day to me, but I try to have something with protein in it because of my iron and energy levels. Dinner is up to you! I hate sitting around after dinner feeling like a lump of lead is lying in my stomach, so if we've eaten something heavy, I'll go for a walk afterwards. That helps me sleep.

If I feel good physically, I feel great mentally. I want to write, my brain is full of ideas and words, I can tackle anything with energy and concentration. My biggest struggle is work - it exhausts me mentally and physically - but I can cope if I stay healthy. It's one of my big goals for this year, and I hope it feeds into my writing every day.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Art of Revision

I've been doing more reading on revision this week, not just for myself but also for use in class. In trying to distill what you need to revise successfully, I came up with some pointers:

1. You have to read critically - that means read other published work. Books and stories in your genre or form, books outside your genre, any book that might give you a great or bad example of writing. Any book that does a good job of something you struggle with (at the moment, I'm working on deepening character - how to do this with a character who has a very hard outer shell). Read to see how accomplished writers work with words, with character, with plot, with theme. Stop reading just to put yourself to sleep at night and start reading as a writer. Learn from it. If you can't see what makes a great novel great, you'd better study it some more.

2. Find out how you can put distance between you and your writing. That might mean putting your story or novel away for a week, a month, a year, until you can look at it with a critical eye, and not fall in love with your own words again. It might mean reading it out loud to yourself, or onto a tape. It might mean psyching yourself into another mental realm and pretending that the novel wasn't written by you. Whatever works for you, whatever leads to you being able to cut ruthlessly or see where there are gaps and shallowness.

3. Learn to separate the stages of revision. Understand that there is structural revision (the big picture stuff) and revision on a paragraph by paragraph basis. And then there is line editing, on a word by word basis. That's where most people trim and tighten. Understand the difference between re-visioning and revision. Re-visioning means re-imagining your novel, seeing it in a new light, seeing other possibilities for it. That's where distance helps. It's also where mental space helps - it's almost a re-dreaming of your story, and that's not going to happen in half an hour, crammed into the end of the day.

4. Acknowledge to yourself, no matter how hard it might be, that fiddling around the edges and changing a few things here and there is not rewriting. True rewriting is retyping the whole thing from scratch, writing it as a new piece of work. You may refer to the original - some people don't even do that.

5. Only give it to a trusted reader or critique partner/group when you are sure you have done everything you possibly can, or are capable of at this point, to make it the best you can. Don't ask people to critique something that you know you can still work on, or something that is OK for plot but you haven't done the line editing. Why should they spend their time on your punctuation and grammar? Think about what you want or need from the critique. If you want to know if the voice works, say so. Ditto for plot, character, pacing. Make the best use of your critique person's time and energy.

6. Take your critiques seriously. Don't say, "Oh, they weren't good readers, they just didn't get what I was trying to do." If that's the case, that's your fault, not theirs. Take heed of all comments, consider them seriously. Some may be of no use to you. Most should at least raise the question of "Did I do that well enough? Why has that comment been made?" Don't take any critique personally. It's not about you, it's about the story.

7. If you have revised and revised and revised, learn to see when enough is enough. Do you want to revise again because you're too scared to send it out? Or do you really think another revision will help? If you are up to Draft 15, ask yourself what you are doing. Have you really done 15 drafts, or 15 "picking at the edges"? If the story isn't working after 15 drafts, you need to work out why not. You may have to abandon the story. It has still taught you an immense amount along the way. If you have to, let it go. Don't hang everything on one manuscript. Write more. That's what writers do.

8. If you revised a bit, sent it out and have 20 rejections, you have to make a decision. It's probably not publishable in its present state, but maybe only 100 rejections will convince you - how honest are you being about it? Is it fabulous? Is it a manuscript that sings? Or is it competent? Does it need another big revision? Suck it up. Do it. Or start something new.

Note: If it's a story that just won't leave you alone, you should keep working on it until it's fabulous. Otherwise it'll give you nightmares, interrupt your daydreams and intrude on your other writing.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Wednesday Wars

I'm impatient. I hear about a great book and I can't wait weeks and weeks (months and months) for my local Borders to decide whether they're going to get it in from the US or not. So I order it on Amazon and then try to forget about it until the doorbell rings. I had heard a lot about The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt on the CCBC discussion list, and stopped reading the posts in the end when people started picking it to bits and giving away the story (I hate that - I always stop when they give spoiler warnings).

Last week, the Newbery Medal was given to a poetry book (yaaayyy!), Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! that hardly anyone had heard of. That's the nature of awards. The Wednesday Wars was an Honour Book. I started reading it and finished it in two days. I would've finished it in one day but I wanted to think about it and savour what was happening in the story. And now that I've finished, I'm still thinking about it. This morning, I was explaining to my friend G what it was about, what happens, what the characters' journeys are, and I realised that by doing this, I was seeing even more things in the book than I had on my own (I guess this is why some people join book groups, not just for the wine and socialising!).

To sum it up, I loved this book. Its most successful element, I think, is the narrator's perspective - how the writer has created a character who really does see the world as a seventh grade boy would. He believes the teacher hates him, he doesn't see that his father is a selfish, bigoted man, he doesn't understand his own abilities and capacity for learning about life, he can't see the point of reading Shakespeare. Yet, on his journey through the story, he gradually comes to understand all of these things, and more. He comes to see the possibilities of his place in the world, that he doesn't have to be what others want to force him to be.

That is a pretty amazing accomplishment in any novel. To slowly but surely unravel a character and depict him learning how to sort out what and who he is ... I'm not going to say that this is amazing for a middle grade novel, because I have read lots of middle grade and YA novels that accomplish this in such depth and subtlety that they leave many adult novels for dead. It is simply a wonderful novel. For a reader of any age.

I have also realised that what I don't like in children's fiction is a writer who feels they need to spell everything out. Kids are not dumb. There have been posts from teachers and librarians who have kids who love The Wednesday Wars. The same way they love The Dark is Rising, Northern Lights, Bridge to Terabithia, in fact any novel that invites them into the story by giving them room to imagine, speculate, wonder and work stuff out for themselves. That's why those novels last and the mass market series that are churned out, two or four a month, don't. There are some series that will endure (look at Little House on the Prairie) because the writers were passionate about the stories they were telling, and the themes continue to resonate. But I doubt any series that is written to a set formula will last beyond five or ten years. I guess that's the nature of the marketplace at any time, isn't it?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Achievement Index

Yesterday, I finished the first draft of a novel for upper primary readers (or middle grade) - it came in at around 44,000 words, more than I expected, and has a couple of subplots that may need to be pruned, not to mention a character that started as one kind of person and morphed into another. Sometimes characters do that. This is the novel I started for NaNo, and had to abandon due to a very busy time working in Hong Kong, followed by an even busier time catching up when I got back (gee, thanks for making me submit the same student results three times - don't you just love antiquated data systems?).

But over the Christmas/NY break, the period when we all set goals and have high hopes for the new year, I simply committed to writing more. Writing regularly. And have recently found a website and blog of a guy who both makes me laugh and gives me some good ideas. Now Craig Harper is a motivational speaker but is also a personal trainer (and got his start in business as such) - he's also a funny writer who gets his message across, with warnings about irreverence and rudeness. He's not actually that rude - he just tells it as he sees it. Anyway, something I got from Craig's posts was the idea of an achievement diary.

We tend to whip ourselves over what we don't achieve. I set myself 2000 words today and I didn't achieve it. Whack! That's a recipe for depression. So I went up to my local KMart and found a simple diary for simply noting where I was and what I'd managed to get through each day. And also my energy level (because I have major iron problems and have to keep track). In my new diary, I record what I wrote, what I worked on (plotting, planning, thinking, dreaming, notes, ideas - they all count in a writer's life) and whether I have done the two other things that help me as a writer - meditation and walking.

Why meditation? Because I'm a perfectionist and AR and get really tense over minor issues. After years of meditation in a very On-Off way, I'm giving it a real go this year to help my stress levels. Why walking? Because I hate jogging, and I don't have time for the gym right now. So those two things help my writing.

But today, I didn't write at all. I dug a trench. Hmmm, yes, a real one. But because I've been writing regularly and reading writing books and thinking about writing a lot, I couldn't help but view my trench digging like a writer. Set the scene: local council requires entrance to property to have a culvert (in simple terms, the ditch/drain needs a pipe in it for water flow). Gateway looks fine, ditch currently shallow, two people with shovel, spade and mattock should manage.

We talk a lot in fiction about raising the stakes. First stake: excavation must be finished today so when large pipes are delivered next week, they can go straight into the hole. First complication: shallow ditch conceals ROCK. A variable kind of rock. At one end, we have compacted clay, but for more than half the ditch, we have the original road bed made up of compacted quarry rock and gravel set like concrete. We attack it. We chip, hack, dig, shovel - we are not getting very far. Second complication (raising the stakes): it rains. Initially, it drizzles, then it decides to pour for a a while. Dirt turns to mud. Rock stays pretty much as rock.

Further complications include: neighbour (whose driveway we are entering from) coming down to inspect our progress (but without offers of assistance, despite his ownership of tractor and blade); more rain; bigger rocks; our physical capacities deteriorating by the minute. I wish I could say a lightning bolt hit the ditch and blasted it out for us. I wish I could say the earth grew softer and easier to remove. This is not fiction. None of this happened.

But I did feel quite proud of our efforts. We excavated, by hand, a four metre trench, in the rain, and managed to crack quite a few jokes along the way. Why not lighten the load with some fun? I remarked on trying to imagine what it was like being on a chain gang (maybe I can use that one day), but mostly I thought about how different this was from sitting at a computer, making up a story. Instead of spending my hours inside my head, trying to be anyone except myself, I spent several hours totally inside my aching, tiring body, feeling every ache and pain, splattered with mud, soaked to the skin. I may never recover, but now it's over, it was great!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Money from Blogging?

Having downloaded the short course I mentioned previously (from Simple.ology) I worked my way through it and came out the other end, loaded with information and things to think about. The course told me lots of things I already knew, but also explained some terms and aspects of blogging that I didn't. So it was fairly useful. Am I going to act on what I read? Probably not. For the reasons I gave in my last post - I'm not comfortable having ads on my blog that I don't have any control over (see Kristi's comment under that post as a good example of what can happen).

I did consider becoming an Amazon affiliate, but again, they supply the ads and the format, and what I saw looked like it just wouldn't suit how I want my blog to appear. What was more interesting was the link to copyblogger, and the articles I read there. Everyone has a different perspective on this stuff - some people vow they are making lots of money, others say the ad game is too controlled by Google and the other big companies and very few bloggers are wealthy from it.

The question is - what am I supposed to be selling? My answer? I guess I'm hoping if you like my blog, you'll buy my books. But seeing as how most of them are kid's books, you'd need to either have kids or be one! Kind of reduces my customer base a little. And besides, my website does a better job of that than my blog does. As I said before, I just like the idea of writing something that other people enjoy reading, and maybe get something out of it (if they're writers and readers). It seems like I'm not destined to be the next Donald Trump. Just as well. I don't have hair that's booffy enough.

At the moment, I'm working hard on finishing off an online course on how to write picture books. It's due to start on 18 February, and it's for the TAFE where I work (Professional Writing & Editing course). I've been working on this for two years now, and some funding last year enabled me to write most of the content. Some of the material has been adapted from course materials I use in Hong Kong, but as I go along, I keep adding more and more. For instance, last week I interviewed Diana Lawrenson about her nonfiction picture books. That interview will be added as a link in the unit, and I have lots of other great links to articles as well.

The great advantage of doing it all online is the wealth of material that is now available on the net. Students can have access to information at the click of a mouse. Still, there's nothing like going to the library or bookshop and looking at all of the wonderful picture books that are around. So students need to do that as well. More and more people are choosing to study online these days - even some of our students prefer to study at home at times that suit them rather than come to the campus. I studied most of my arts degree by distance learning (before the internet so it was study guides and late night reading and thinking). At the time, it was a fantastic option, and I was motivated to keep going because I really wanted to learn, mostly about writing and literature. I'm still learning, and I still love it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Thoughts on Blogging

I originally started this blog way back in January 2004 (can't believe it's been 3 years!), and have found it really useful to post photos and "what am I doing" stuff while I am away at writers' conferences and workshops. Taking good notes in sessions so I can blog about the topic has been a great way of helping me to focus and get more out of what I hear. It also saves me a million emails while I'm away. I haven't been using StatCounter for that whole time, but currently it says I'm coming up for Visitor Number 10,000. It's fascinating to use it to see where my readers are - especially on a day when there are eight people in Norway visiting. It makes me wonder how and why.

My focus here has always been books and writing. I also like to keep track of what I've read and post brief comments, not lengthy reviews, and often my comments will be from the writer's point of view - what did I learn from reading this book? Nowadays, there is a lot of talk about platform - how we should be using our blogs as a way to build our platform - but for me, it's about knowing that people are reading what I write and getting something out of it. Even if it's only a bit of a laugh!

However, since many of the newsletters I receive talk about what else your blog is supposed to be doing, I decided to follow up on a little course.

I'm evaluating a multi-media course on blogging from the folks at Simpleology. For a while, they're letting you snag it for free if you post about it on your blog.

It covers:

  • The best blogging techniques.
  • How to get traffic to your blog.
  • How to turn your blog into money.

I'll let you know what I think once I've had a chance to check it out. Meanwhile, go grab yours while it's still free.

I'm not keen on having ads on my blog - especially when you have no control over them. As a writing teacher, I think it's part of my job to educate writing students about agent and publisher scams, and we are in this situation right now. A keen student is very excited about getting an agent. A bit of Googling on my part revealed it's a scam agency. We're going to have to break the bad news to him (I hate that kind of thing - people who suck up other people's dreams to make money). So if I ended up with one of their ads on my blog, I'd feel obliged to shut up shop and go home.

What I would love is more comments. Some of my favourite blogs, like Paperback Writer, Editorial Anonymous and A Newbie's Guide to Publishing, get lots of comments, but then these people are providing a great service with the information they give out. Why should I duplicate someone else's efforts? I agree that blogs can be a great way of connecting with other writers and readers, and this usually happens via the Comments section. So if you've got something to say, go for it!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Watch Your Language

Oh dear. Someone in the marketing department of the Victorian government has been using their thesaurus instead of their dictionary. Over the past few years, there have been a few TV ads encouraging people to move to country Victoria, particularly if they own a small business. The idea is to rejuvenate country areas by getting people to move there and start up businesses, buy property, send their kids to the local schools, etc. Great to see, and a good idea.

However, the latest ads (I saw one on TV tonight) have moved to trying to encourage people to move to Provincial Victoria. Firstly, Victoria is a state, so we don't have provinces. We have local government - councils and shires. And secondly, provincial is a strange word to use instead of rural or country. Who thought that one up? Because if you look in the dictionary, provincial as an adjective is defined as "an unsophisticated or uncultured person". (Australian Modern Oxford) Hmmm, not really the look they were going for? And look - there's website where we can all look at how to be "provincial" together. What was wrong with country and rural? Are they no longer trendy?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Setting the Burke Way

I've almost finished reading James Lee Burke's latest book, The Tin Roof Blowdown, and yet again, am marvelling at his descriptions, the way he evokes Louisiana over and over again with such beautiful language. Yet this is a crime novel. Mind you, crime writers often focus on a sense of place in order to help create the world of their novel in more vivid detail. Stuart MacBride's Aberdeen and Peter Robinson's Yorkshire are two fine examples. MacBride's descriptions of granite and rain are memorable, and add such atmosphere to what's going on in the story.

Some examples from Burke: "The wind had died, and the islands of willows and cypress trees had taken on a gold cast against the sunset. Clouds of insects gathered in the lee of the islands, and you could see bream popping the surface and occasionally the slick, black-green roll of a bass's dorsal fin on the edge of lily pads."
"Tolliver tried to keep his face blank, but when he swallowed he looked like he had a walnut in his throat."
"His elongated, polished head and the vacuous smile painted on his face seem to float like a glistening white balloon above the people around him."

And an example of description moving the reader from one physical head to another's mind. "The cream he used in his hair had started to run and she could smell it on his skin. It smelled like aloe and body grease and candle wax. In her mind, she saw a bullet punch through a black man's throat and, behind him, the skullcap of a teenage boy explode in a bloody spray." When a writer is using detail like this, it adds such extra depth to the story and its characters.

The novel is set during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and I got an extremely vivid picture of the devastation, much more so than all the newspaper reports and TV footage. The way that Burke uses the five senses brings the wreck of New Orleans and surrounding areas to life in a way that flat images on a TV screen cannot. "The rice and sugarcane fields were encrusted with saline, the farm machinery buried in mud, the settlements down by the Gulf reduced to twisted pieces of plumbing sticking out of grit that looked like emery paper... Drowned sheep were stacked inside the floodgate of an irrigation lock, like zoo animals crowding against the bars of their cage."

It's probably inevitable that the novel itself is fairly depressing, perhaps a reflection of Burke's deep dismay at the aftermath of Katrina, what people did to survive, how they died, and the depths to which people sank in order to make big money out of the repairs. Dave Robicheaux, the main character, seems destined to always make the wrong decisions, to back the wrong people, refusing to listen to anyone but his own flawed inner voice. Burke's insights into the brutal Clete Purcell failed this time to make me feel any empathy for the character. I was beginning to wish they'd both retire to the Bahamas and become retired fishermen or something.

After so many books about one character, where does a writer take it next? Redemption? Disaster? It seems that Dave R. has had so many disasters and deaths in his life that there is nothing left that could change him in any significant way. He seems locked into a downward slide to destruction - the only question left being, Who will he take with him? Still, if you love Burke's writing, this novel is worth the effort, if only for an inside look at Katrina and what happened to the people who lived there. As a sidebar, in the novel Robicheaux's daughter, Alafair, is writing a crime novel. Burke's daughter, Alafair Burke, recently published her first crime novel. Having found it in the library, it's next on my reading list.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

What Planet is That?

Two items in the newspapers recently caught my attention and imagination. One was about a man who was moving a house. He'd separated it into three sections, and wanted to move it to some land near town but to do this, the sections had to be taken across the town bridge. When they were halfway across with the first part of the house, a man coming the other way on the bridge stopped his car and refused to move. The house section was too big to pass, and too big to reverse. The man in his car would not reverse, no matter what. In the end, they had to jack the house section up, on the bridge, so the man could drive underneath it.

The second item was about a man in England who has celebrated Christmas every day since 1993. He has a turkey dinner with mince pies and watches a video of the Queen's Christmas message, and opens presents he's given to himself. Now, another newspaper has declared that this is a hoax, and the guy is only saying he's done it to promote a single he's just released. But imagine if this was true?

We've probably all heard of or met people like this, and you wonder, "What planet are they living on? How could you behave like that?" As writers, we also think - that is too weird to write a story about. No one would believe it. How could I make that character credible? Sometimes it's enough to use them as a minor character in some way, like comic relief. Or as a villain. I knew someone a few years ago who I eventually realised had psychological problems and couldn't see the damage she inflicted on others. Could I use some of that in a character?

It's easy to create characters like us. We take a little of ourselves, little bits of several other people we know, add some oddities and complexities, and we have someone we can write a story or a novel about. But what this can lead to is continually writing about the same kind of character, someone you're familiar with, someone who doesn't light any fires under your story or your imagination, but someone who doesn't make life difficult for you as the creator.

It's a useful character exercise to take someone weird (or who seems weird to you - we all have different ideas of what is "not normal") and write about them. Write a story that shows who they are, why they behave the way they do, and what happens next. Does the man on the bridge hate the man with the house? Does he have a fear of reversing off the bridge because long ago he did it and ended up in the river and nearly drowning? Maybe the Christmas man lost his family on Christmas Day and he's trying to pretend they're still with him. Or his father has disowned him and he's extracting some kind of revenge.

Strong stories come from great characters who have good and bad sides, light and shadow, deep motivations, backstories that have affected who they are. Characters don't just have likes and dislikes - in fiction, they have obsessions and dreams, hates and loves, and deep, sometimes irrational, fears. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster says that one of the reasons we read fiction is to fully understand characters completely in a way we can never do with the people in our lives, even our nearest and dearest. To allow your reader to experience that in your novel, you first have to do it as the writer.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Last Word on Goals

It's now the 5th January so the goals thing is done. You've either worked yours out, or you're not going to bother. Kristi reminded me that setting too many goals is often our downfall. They seem so unattainable and the list so huge that we give up in despair. So my strategy this year is to have two writing goals - two general ones - and then set two-monthly deadlines. What is often left out of all the goal-setting and small steps advice is that most writers need deadlines.

Been meaning to write that short story all year? Nothing like a big competition closing date to get it done. Been thinking about rewriting that novel but never seem to find the time? A conference with a manuscript consultation appointment will move you every time! So I figure if I set small goals every two months - not too many - I will move forward. Small goals are things like rewriting something and submitting it by XX date. A magazine submission. A certain number of chapters revised. An article written and put on my website.

What are my two general goals? One is to develop a new method for myself of revision. I feel as if my revising of stories and novels in the past has been haphazard. Often I'll sit down and start a novel all over again because I can't figure out what needs fixing or how to fix it. Some people would say that's the only way to revise, but I'm not so sure. The revisions I've done of two novels for publication (with the help of editors) in 2007 showed me that, with editorial guidance, I can rewrite to a much higher level, but sometimes I'm not able to do it sufficiently well on my own, i.e. before the manuscript goes to an editor.

A couple of years ago, I felt the same about my plotting - it was a weak area and I made it my goal that year to read and work on that aspect. It paid off. Now I think I can do it with revision. The weird thing is, I can show any student or fellow writer how to rewrite and make their work stronger (comes from ten years of teaching) but it's still hard to do for myself. I've started reading Revision by Kit Reed, and have another book lined up after that.

My other general goal is to write more regularly. My strategy for this is to have several things on the go at once - several different things: a novel, poems, a picture book, an article. If I don't have time to work on the novel, I will be aiming to spend at least 15 minutes or more on a poem or something shorter. Linda Sue Park's two pages every day, no matter what, is the kind of routine that makes writing a habit that's impossible to break, rather than something extra crammed into your life. So my novel projects will continue to move slowly forward, but so will other things.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

You Are Writing

You have some time alone at home and you think about writing. There are several things you could be working on, ideas jotted down, stories and a novel started, but you can't quite decide what to choose. You haven't written for a while, just a few days, but then you try to remember the last thing you wrote and you realise it has been several weeks since you picked up a pen, let alone turned on your computer.

Your computer for writing, that is. You've spent plenty of time emailing and net surfing - doing research and networking, you tell yourself - but writing? No. No wonder you feel a little unsettled, a little afraid. What if you sit down to write now and nothing happens? What if those ideas, those stories you started, now look like rubbish, not worth the effort? What if everything you have ever written is a waste of time? You tell yourself that's stupid, you are giving into writer's paranoia. Stop right now or you'll give yourself a good case of writer's block.

Block. Maybe that's why you haven't written for so long. Maybe you're blocked, and you didn't realise it. Except you're realising it now, with horror and dismay. How could this have happened? What about the novel you started? You've written 12,000 words of it. You started it during NaNo and had to stop because you had no time. It's probably awful. Most NaNo novels are. You could just put it aside and start something new. But what?

You feel like crying. You had four hours alone in which to write, and already you've wasted nearly two of them, riffling through papers and old drafts of things, agonising over whether it's worth turning your computer on, wondering how you could possibly call yourself a writer. It'd be easier to go and vacuum the carpet, or clean the bathroom - something useful - and think about writing another day, when you're up to it. When you're not blocked.

You pull a writing book from your shelf and open it at random, hoping for a gem of an idea to inspire you before you give up for today. Instead, you read a paragraph about a famous writer who has to force himself to the desk every day. And another paragraph about how real writers just write, no matter what. Showing up at your desk is all that's necessary. You think - how hard can that be? I should write. Maybe I'll just try to add a paragraph to the novel.

You turn on your computer and open the file. You remember what your novel is about, but you can't remember the last chapter you wrote. It's probably terrible. Should you read it? It might depress you even more. You scan the first part, then find yourself laughing. That bit was good. Aha, now you remember what happens in this chapter. Where did that idea come from? It's better than you remembered. You get to the end. You've left it mid-sentence, like a signal that you had every intention of coming back to it. And here you are.

What happens next? That's right. You finish the sentence and add another. A new idea emerges and you run with it, knowing that it's right, that it fits, that it will surprise the reader (it surprised you) and that it will lead to a new part of the story which will be fun to write. You love this character, and the central idea still excites you. Yes, you can do this!

Two hours later, you've written 2000 words. It's the most you've written for weeks. It felt great. It worked. See? All you had to do was sit down and write. How hard was that? Real writers write. Yeah.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Thoughts on Goal Setting

Today I received an email from someone who said they don't bother with resolutions because they never stick to them. It got me thinking about resolutions vs goals, and how we use them. For New Year, people seem to mostly make resolutions about personal issues - I will stop smoking, I will lose weight, I will spend more time with family, I will not kill my boss/spouse/mother-in-law. But goal setting is more about work, or at least achieving something that is important to you which requires planning and taking small steps.

You might want to try to get your novel published. So you have to write it, rewrite it (however many times), print it out, research suitable publishers, maybe approach agents, then send it out (however many times). One of the key things about goals is breaking them down into bits that don't freak you out, if you just do them one at a time. It's also good to have long-term goals, which could be your biggest dreams, and see how you can take small steps towards them too.

I first did goal-setting many years ago (probably about 18 years, I think) and had the weird experience a while ago of finding that piece of paper. That's what comes of being a hoarder. I do remember that at the time I wrote down things that I never thought would be achievable, such as attend a writing conference in the US and have a collection of poems published. In fact, nearly all of the things I listed have happened, because they were important to me and I really wanted them. You could argue that I was going to achieve them anyway, but I am not so sure. I do think that the simple act of writing them down makes them real, and helps you to believe they are possible.

I've been reading some articles about goals and planning lately, and they said that only 5 people in 100 do goal-setting, and only 1 in 5 follow through with their steps and achieve what they want. That's 1 in 100 who get there. Now you could think that shows that goal-setting is a waste of time, so why bother? To me, it says that anyone can be that one person, if you want it enough. If you're prepared to plan, set goals, work out the steps, take them one at a time. And imagine if you are that one person - wow, you're way ahead of 99 other people!

OK, I'll stop sounding like a goals evangelist now. Because I have to admit, even though I do goal-setting every year with my writers' group, I usually them put mine away and don't refer to them until December, when we all sit around and cheer those who achieved some of theirs. I do personal strategies instead, month by month, and follow those. So it has occurred to me that I should combine them and make them both more useful.

And if you're thinking about your own writer's goals for the year, you might like to visit J.A. Konrath's blog here. Some great food for thought.
(And the photo is there because I like it. It was taken at Lake Eildon a couple of years ago.)

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Odds and Ends

Low tide, when all the rocks are showing. You can make that as deep and meaningful as you want! Or metaphorical. Often when we walk along this beach, several of the rocks have shags perched on them. As a kid, I used to think when Dad said 'like a shag on a rock' that he was talking about some mystical creature. And that the creature was alone and lonely. But down here, there's always more than one, with pelicans and black swans nearby.

2007 has ended, but I have to mention that one of my favourite books was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I discovered his short stories through some collections I have, plus another anthology that Meg Files recommended which has three stories from each writer in it. (Wish this was available and affordable in Australia for our students.) I've been reading another collection of stories by Alexie that I had to put down as they were a bit depressing - but that's more likely to be my reading mood at the time - I will go back to them. This book, which has won major awards, is fabulous. If you want a great example of YA voice, one that is real and startling and true, this is it. It was a brilliant reminder of what a writer can do in terms of original voice, story and theme by writing what they are passionate about. Is this novel autobiographical in any way? Does it matter? That's always a semi-interesting question but not very relevant to me.

I'm still looking for quotes that will entertain and inspire me in 2008. So far I like this from A Writer's Paris - The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. (Marcel Proust)
And from the author himself, Eric Maisel: It is never someone else's fault that we aren't writing.

Do I have goals yet for 2008? No. Don't rush me! They're hovering around the back of my brain like beautiful butterflies, waiting to land. If I make a grab for them, I'll be left with dust and broken wings. Yes, metaphorical to the end...