Friday, February 29, 2008

SCBWI Conference in Sydney (2)

Here are some session summaries and high points:
Julie Romeis (Chronicle) - Trends in the US Market
While Gossip Girls and books like the Lightning Thief are hugely popular right now, in two years time it will be different. Write what you want to write and be a trend-setter, not a trend-follower. There are more novels being published now but there will inevitably be a move back to picture books. The huge funding cuts for schools and libraries have meant that publishers have had to pull back from publishing aimed at those markets, and look more at books that will sell in stores and places like WalMart (big retail).
There are more licenced characters and more "books with bling" (sparkles and glow stuff) - these are the covers that make kids take them off the shelves, and there are more fun books being produced rather than educational. There is also a big shift to graphic novels for as young as 5-6 year olds (Baby Mouse early readers). US publishers are interested in international authors but they still need to be writing something unique or different.

There was a session on picture books that I wrote the SCBWI report for - it will be up on the Australian SCBWI site next week, I believe, along with my report on educational publishing.

What are they publishing?
Linsey Knight (Random House) - everything from picture books to YA, and they are also doing a lot of series and mass market stuff. They buy in from overseas as well as local authors.
They are always looking for people who can tell great stories, are interested in chicklit for YA but it needs to be a fresh voice.
Anna McFarlane (Pan Macmillan) - are doing 41 books this year, of which 8 are new writers. She talked about the first-time authors and how their manuscripts were accepted - 4 from the slush pile, 4 from agents.
Leonie Tyle (Random House) - Leonie has recently joined RH and has her own imprint. She is looking for literary, high quality books, and plans to publish 12 books per year. She said the 9-13 age group are very savvy readers and consumers, and publishers are actively targeting them right now. She will be more interested in novels than picture books, but is putting illustrations in novels (this was an obvious trend - it came up several times).

New Voices
Sarah Foster from Walker Books talked about new voices in their program this year, including The Stone Crown by Malcolm Walker - this book needed a lot of work but the author's voice was strong and he had great characters, plus he was willing to do a lot of rewriting and work hard with the editor. Walker are also publishing a new series called Lightning Strikes, 10,000 words, aimed at upper primary (10-12) - pacey, funny stories.

Julie Romeis (Chronicle) talked about a book she had published while at Bloomsbury - Ophelia. She was attracted to the book idea first, but always she knows if she's going to love a book by the first page. The writing and voice leaps out at you.

Lisa Berryman (HarperCollins) sees that it's her job to recognise potential - voice is everything in a book to her, and it determines your response to it. She talked about Alexandra Adornetto and that her submission was perfect, as well as the book and writing were great. (If you haven't heard of AA, she wrote her first book at 13, and her second is about to be published.)

Steve Mooser (president of SCBWI International) was at the conference and did a useful presentation on writing funny books. I might post about that at another time.

Overall, the sessions provided a wealth of information for those who want to pursue publication. The main points that I came away with (and they were mentioned many times) are:
* That you need a great voice working in your story, and you need a story that has a different or unique perspective. Publishers look at thousands of manuscripts every year, and that first page has to be working in terms of voice and action to capture their interest.
* Publishers are constantly looking at marketing and how a book is placed out there - what will make someone buy it. Covers are important, but so are efforts by authors - websites and school visits in particular. Word of mouth will still sell more books than advertising.
* Series are popular but there are drawbacks - booksellers don't always like the idea of having to fill shelves with them. But kids like them, and they become collectables.

Thanks to all the publishers who attended the conference and were so approachable and patient.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

SCBWI conference, Sydney (1)

Have just returned from Sydney and our bi-annual conference. Straight into teaching on Monday morning, but luckily I resisted the late-night gabfests (tempting though they were) and got some sleep while I was there. The Hughenden Hotel, where the conference took place, was also where many of us stayed. It's very old and historical, with a dungeon and lots of little rooms and things like ceiling roses and embossed tiles. Sydney was hot and muggy to us Melbournites, but probably just nice for the northern writers!

Guest US editor was Julie Romeis from Chronicle Books, with publishers from HarperCollins, Walker Books, Penguin, Random House, plus Leonie Tyle who is establishing a new imprint of her own at RH. Rick Raftos was the guest agent. They were all very generous with their information and advice, and I saw quite a few writers who were glowing after their manuscript assessments. We all ate far more delicious food than was good for us!! I went for a walk around the circuit in Centennial Park on Sunday morning, which helped me feel better about all those cakes.

I'll post more about individual sessions shortly, but I wanted to mention the pitch session on Sunday afternoon. This was interesting as, instead of participants having to write a pitch (like the paragraph in your query letter) and have it critiqued, they had to actually stand up and do a two minute presentation. Quite normal in the screenwriting world, but pretty scary for children's writers who've never done it before.

The publishers' panel was fairly brutal and honest, but they needed to be. I guess they were showing us (verbalising) what goes through their brains when they read someone's query letter and/or submission. It was a bit like Miss Snark in action. It soon became apparent who had a grip on what their story was about, and who was still talking in abstracts. Some people chose to read a bit of their story, which didn't always work. Others presented story outlines that really captured the audience's imagination.

One of the highlights for me was Ellen Hopkins, whose verse novels I greatly admire, not only for their stark subject matter but also for her poetry and the way she uses words on the page. Her session was moving and educational, and I also got to talk to her about verse novels the next day. And she showed us all that Nevada is not just Las Vegas, and there are some beautiful mountains and scenery up north.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Confidence Tricks

I have to admit that I have got sucked in to the current series of The Biggest Loser. I'm not sure why, but I think it's the people! While I enjoy transformation stories (can't stand novels or films where the main character never learns anything and stays the same), this has become more than just the potential of each person to achieve weight loss. Every time one of them opens their mouth, I'm watching their face and listening to the tone of their voice to work out what they are really saying. There's a fair bit of fibbing going on, I think! When the young guy came out and said a few snarky things last night and then laughed, I laughed too, just because he was being genuine.

Also, in last night's episode, the Blue team was given a really hard time by the Commando, leading to one person suddenly losing all their confidence and growing self-respect. Yet, another in the team came out of the really tough session overjoyed that she had won through and survived. Two completely different reactions to the same thing! I keep making mental notes about how I can use all of this in my fiction writing, because of course no two characters will, or should, react in the same way to the same thing.

How much self-confidence a character has says a lot about how they view themselves, how they see the world, how they will react to events and disasters, how they will tackle problems. In today's society, weight has become a huge issue - it's as if it overshadows everything about who a person really is. Even being too slim is liable to get you criticised. Your body weight starts to define you - if you let it. But it's so hard not to. You're battling the whole world, it feels like.

One of my favourite things about The Big Loser is that when someone is voted out, the producers follow up a couple of months later to see how they're going. The two so far have both come out vowing to keep up what they've gained - not so much the weight loss but the feeling of a healthy body and the knowledge that they can exercise and they can achieve what they want. On their own.

Is your character that tough? Probably not at the beginning of the story. In class yesterday, we talked a little bit about the middle of a story. After you've got off to a roaring start, and you know more or less what your ending might be, you are facing the middle - the place where your story might sag. Yet if what is happening in the middle is that your character is gaining what they need to win through, that's fertile ground to cover. What doesn't kill me will only make me stronger. It's a familiar saying, but in your story, that's what your character is doing. Gaining confidence, growing, learning new skills, gaining strength (inner and outer), overcoming many obstacles. You just have to make sure you're really testing them, really making them grow, rather than letting them off too easy!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Books and More Books

The last week has been total, full-on, brain-burning teaching stuff. Of all sorts. I'm teaching two online classes this semester, and although I've done it before, the five wonderful students who climbed on board with me for Poetry 2 a couple of years ago knew they were guinea pigs and we worked through a lot of material. This time, the students are expecting a top-notch learning experience, and I've been working hard to get everything ready. Of course, as with any institution, the problems that arise tend to be bureaucratic, and it can be stressful to work your way through each length of red tape without losing your temper. I hope our students beginning their classes tomorrow, via the internet, will view me as a calm, serene duck, and not see the madly paddling feet underneath!

On-campus classes also start tomorrow, and I have mostly dispelled my panic through careful planning and thinking through everything that needs to be ready, and using lots of lists. Once classes begin, everything gradually moves into a routine and settles down. It's the "beforehand" stuff that drives us to the brink. However, I'm looking forward to all of my classes, which is a good sign.

Since the brain has been sending out smoke signals (saying, "Give me a break, will ya?"), I've done little writing this week. There are some times when enough is too much, and although I wanted to write, I needed to sleep more. That hasn't stopped me thinking about the novel I'm working on. And deciding that the slippery feeling I'd been getting while rewriting the last 4000 words or so was a sign that I need to print out everything so far and have a critical read-through. When you're writing a scene and you can't work out what's supposed to happen next or why (and the original version is right next to you and it doesn't make sense anymore), that's the time to spend more brain power on that scene, and what comes before it, and less finger power on the keyboard. For me, anyway.

In a quick reading roundup, it has occurred to me that I've been reading quite a few middle grade and YA novels recently with a lot of violence in them. I had to read Tunnels by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, if only to make sure my novel wasn't in any way similar. It wasn't (a relief, especially after an agent expressed concern about this despite not having read Tunnels). There was a huge amount of action and violence in the second half of this book, much of which kept up the tension and excitement level quite well. But there were also huge amounts of description, too much, so that I had trouble visualising what was going on, and where. I do think some of this could've been trimmed for a better story.

I also read The Road of the Dead by Kevin Brooks. Brooks never holds back in his novels (I still remember one that starts with the father dead in the lounge room) but this one is very scary. He does a great job of description, and the setting is the dark and lonely moors in England. Tiny village with horrible characters, and two brothers who want to find out who murdered their sister. Then, for a complete change of pace, I read The Arizona Kid by Ron Koertge. I loved this, not just because it's set in Tucson (and I love Tucson) but because of the voice and the characters. Each character has their own story, each character evolves and changes, not just the main character. The dialogue is snappy and moves the story along, with added touches of humour. Two very different books, but I recommend both.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Big 10

Earlier this week, StatCounter told me my blog had reached the milestone of 10,000 reader visits. Sounds like a lot, but that's over a couple of years! Still, it made me happy to know that a fair few people had dropped in to read stuff, and some of them have even left comments. I actually started this blog in 2004, firstly to record short reviews or comments on books I had read. It was like a personal reminder of what I liked and what I didn't (us writers are always on the look out for recommendations of good books to read). Then I went to New York and the Chatauqua Writers' Workshop, and wanted to keep some kind of diary that friends and family could read if they wanted. Four years later, I'm still here, and still enjoying it. It's a different kind of writing, and it's fun.

The photo above is from the "something old, something new" line of thinking. This is my old something. Apologies for the not-so-good photo but it's very hard to get away from reflections! Anyway, this is (obviously) a cup and saucer. It's from a very old porcelain tea set that we think belonged to our great-grandmother. It has been handed down and now what is left of it belongs to my sister and me. For my birthday, she had one of the last remaining cup-and-saucer sets mounted in a box frame for me. I never understand people who throw stuff out when someone dies - once it's gone, it's gone forever. (And I freely admit I am a hoarder.)

The "something new" is not out yet. It's not even on the UQP website, but I have seen the final cover for my new book Tracey Binns Is Trouble. It's out in May. I'll post a cover when I have permission.
Something borrowed? I promise to return the Estleman book on popular fiction to you really soon, T! And if you want to see blue things, you can look at the bluebells and pincushions on my Bush Notes blog.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Same Old, Same Old

Once again, the Weekend Australian Review has trotted out an article on creative writing courses. It seems as if I've read this kind of thing several times in the past couple of years. It starts as a whine about how creative writing degree courses are taking over from traditional literature courses, and continues in that vein. Tony Birch from Melbourne Uni complains that new students come to the course "naive" about how difficult it is to get published. Er, they're just out of high school, mate. How much do you expect them to know? Isn't that what you're there for, amongst other things?

Another point is made about universities sucking up massive fees from students wanting to do creative writing, but not giving the "product" the respect it deserves. Ultimately, isn't it up to the publishing world to publish a book? Since when does a High Distinction guarantee that a student novel will be published and sell lots of copies? Um, never. Everyone pays HECS fees at our universities now, no matter what they want to study. I quote from the article: "There are numerous mature-age students willing to pay universities $100-plus an hour to sit in a postgraduate writing class."

I have a solution for them! Come and study creative writing at TAFE with us! There, it will cost you $1.37 an hour and you'll learn just as much. In fact, you'll probably learn more, especially if you're looking for hands-on writing, workshopping and industry knowledge. OK, OK, promotional spruiking is over. Seriously, what really annoyed me about this article (apart from the fact that TAFE courses were not mentioned at all) was that nobody bothered to ask the students about why they were choosing to study creative writing and not literature or history or engineering.

There were various academics who talked about and around the subject; some even acknowledged that a uni teaching gig was good to have, and helped to pay the bills. They talked about how important reading is for a writer, and how students have to be made to read more. I hate to tell them this, but most people who want to be writers have to be encouraged to read more. It's one of those weird anomalies. But the article writer, Rosemary Neill, never once asked any students - why are you doing it? Why are you studying writing, and not just sitting at home (for free) and doing it?

Maybe that's a whole other article, one that would be five times as long. Because we do ask that question of our students, and we get a dozen different answers. Everything from career change or following their passion to job skills (we are a professional writing and editing course) and wanting to learn something specific like researching and interviewing. Believe it or not, we actually ask this question in the selection interview, before they even get into the course! It's an important question. You might be surprised how many people don't give "getting published" as their first answer. It's usually in there somewhere, but most people are aware that their skills need improvement, and they want to learn the craft. It's a great start.

Friday, February 08, 2008

It's All Useful

Years ago, I attended a screenwriting course. It was over three or four Saturdays (can't remember exactly now) and although we did watch a movie or two, mostly the lecturer talked and gave us handouts and homework. At the time, I thought I might try my hand at writing screenplays. I'd written a play (a teen rock musical with a composer), a bad movie script, and dabbled a bit, but I knew I needed to know a lot more before I could have a serious try at it. So I went along to this course.

I couldn't tell you now (without going back to my folder of notes, because I never throw anything out) what I learned about screenwriting in terms of formatting and opportunities and stuff like that, but I have never forgotten the work we did in that class on character psychology. It was the first time I'd ever worked hard on character motivations in terms of who they were inside their head and why. Abandonment, fear of intimacy, abusive parents, alcoholic parents, power plays, control freaks - I think I learned more in that class than I've learned anywhere since.

Have I written a screenplay since? No. But every piece of fiction I've written has included, in some shape or form, psychological backstory and motivation. I now research my characters in terms of psychology and what makes them tick. I know that I need to make sure that how they are behaving right now is consistent with past events and the effects of those events. Today I was researching the effects on a male character of consistent physical beatings as a child and teenager. Something in my story wasn't adding up when I wrote about this character, and I realised it was because I didn't really understand where he'd come from, and what the long-term effects of that abuse might be.

I say might because if you read any psychology articles or texts, the first thing they'll say is that no one can predict the outcome of a particular experience. There are a number of factors that influence what might happen later. But it's very easy as a writer to say, "Oh yes, this happened and so later on he does this, and is like that" without actually verifying that a drug addiction (for example) is a possible/probable outcome later on. The character could have become a hitman! Or committed suicide. Or suffered anxiety attacks and withdrawn from the world. But you need to know what the range of possibilities are.

So this screenwriting course introduced me to how to create psychological depth in characters. Great stuff! Writing short stories for adults over the years has taught me how to write tightly plotted, pacy chapter books for kids. Writing poetry has taught me heaps about imagery and metaphor, and using the best words in the best way. Writing radio plays taught me lots about strong dialogue. Studying a unit at university years ago on performance, that was mostly about how actors fill up the space on the stage, taught me a huge amount about action, dialogue and pacing.

I think if you want to write novels, don't limit yourself to just learning about how to write novels. Learning how to structure a screenplay will teach you lots about plot and cause/effect. Not to mention dialogue. Watching movies will teach you about showing and telling. How is that actor showing distress? Puzzlement? Embarrassment? Go and write some poems. Write lots of poems. Read lots of poems. Discover what language is capable of, if you use it effectively. And yeah, don't forget the grammar and punctuation stuff. That'll teach you how to write a sentence that says what you want it to, create the effect you want for the reader, without being obscure, overblown or confusing.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Where Did the Time Go?

I guess you have about the same number of hours in the day as I do - 24. Doesn't seem enough, most days, does it? I often wish for 28 or 30. But it's not going to happen anytime soon, and while I have had short periods of time over the past 6-7 weeks where I have been able to stay home and write (as opposed to going to work to earn money and NOT write), I've been thinking a lot about what happens to me when I do go to work. And do my 7 hours or so.

With all good intentions to come home and have a cup of tea and then buckle down to writing, what has happened is I come home and collapse into a comfy chair and my brain shuts down. I think the 6-7 weeks of some weeks at work and some weeks off (making up for the fact that I had to start back on 1 January while others were still cavorting, or camping, or chilling out) has given me a really good picture of my writing life. Or non-writing life.

I'm as clever as the next writer in coming up with excuses why I'm not writing. I was digging a ditch. I haven't been sleeping well. I had to clean the fridge. But all excuses aside, what I have seen in the past weeks is that when I have spent 7 hours at work, I don't write when I come home. Partly this is because I do spend 7 hours working. I have a part-time job, with a lot of things that have to get done, so we don't have lunch hours, for example. We have lunchtime meetings while we eat. Bad work practice, I know, but we are all part-timers and our department gets more done than most others with full-time staff. It helps that we love what we do, and we want to do it really well.

But it does mean that when I get home after a full day, I am stuffed. Maybe I'm getting old. Whatever. That's the reality. My brain says NO.
But right now, I am working on a revision of a novel that is important to me. It's working, it's developing, it's deepening. I can't afford to let the ball drop right now. I don't want to lose the momentum and the sense of being right inside this story and the characters. But I head back to work tomorrow, with no more time off in sight.

So, after some thought, I have decided that on the days I work (three of them each week, on average) I will have to get up very early and spend at least an hour on my revision before I go to work. I don't function exceptionally well before 7am, but it will be a lot better than being brain-dead at 5pm. It helps that my husband has just had his work hours changed and he'll be up at the same time (we'll fight for the shower first - something has to wake me up!). I may not last. I'm not a good morning person. But this is what has to happen for me to keep this revision humming along. Stay posted. I may, as my mother used to say, end up running off screaming into the bush.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Mailbox Problem

It doesn't really matter what's coming in today's mail - acceptances or rejection letters - when this is in there waiting. I did try to coax him out, but to no avail. He's obviously waiting for some important letter. I could spray him with insect killer but somehow I don't have the heart. So my husband can get him out for me. (You thought I was going to put my hand anywhere near that?)