Friday, May 30, 2008

National Libraries - not just books

We've just had a budget here. Everyone hangs out to see if they've got tax cuts, or bonuses, or interest rate reductions, or maybe more money for education and health. Sometimes what seems like small stuff gets ignored. Like the cut in funding this time to the National Library of Australia. I know the NLA does things like archives copies of every publication produced in Australia. I know they have a great research library in Canberra. I know they host writers' events (I went to one last August). I know they have been producing a great history book series for kids called Making Tracks.

What I have also discovered, thanks to an article in The Monthly by Gideon Haigh, is that the NLA also holds an amazing range of artifacts (like Chinese woodblock-printed sutras from 1162), it is endeavouring to archive an enormous amount of web material that disappears daily, and is trying to retrieve some very important Nobel laureate material from 1980s computer disks. The Library is, on many counts, about preserving history through printed materials.

I blogged recently about digital photos - how my photos taken with my old SLR camera and printed on photo paper will last a very long time, and my digital photos on my computer might disappear at any time, thanks to a virus. The NLA is also breaking new ground in doing things like digitising old newspapers (so you can find stuff in them). As well as dealing with five semitrailer loads of material that gets deposited with them each year.

So what did the government do? Well, they cut funding, didn't they? Just like most governments, federal, state and local, are cutting funds to libraries all over these days. Who needs books, for goodness sake? One of the reasons I'm fond of apocalypse stories (the ones where the world ends for some reason) is that nearly always the thing that saves the survivors is they find books. Books that survive techno-meltdown, nuclear disaster and plague, let alone the power going off. Books that tell them how to do things like build houses, deal with injuries, make their own power and restore communications.

Funny how books can do that. Because they survive. As a librarian said, the Chinese book from 1162 can still be opened and read. Ten years from now, anything on CD or DVD will probably be unreadable, unless you've got a player stashed out in the shed somewhere that you can resurrect. But seeing as there are dozens of them in the local rubbish dump every week, how likely is that? Yep, buy more books. Treasure them. They'll last. Gee, you can even read them again in 20 or 60 years. Or give them to your kids!! Fancy that.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


The past three weeks have been filled with workshopping of students' writing (some people call it critiquing - I think workshopping applies more to groups perhaps). Many of the students are in their first year of study in our writing course, so giving and receiving comments can be a very confronting experience. You may have been working on your novel for several months or years, and this might be the first time you have had a group of critical readers provide you with feedback. It can make you doubt everything you thought you were trying to do.

Or the story you have offered up might be the first "real" story you have ever written. Before now, everything you wrote was just for fun, or for your journal that no one else reads. How do you cope with people saying things like "I don't think you need the first paragraph" or "You've used a lot of repetition and it didn't work for me" or "You are not deeply enough inside the character's head so I didn't really get into the story". You might think your prose resembles Proust on a good day, or you might secretly feel that everything you write just plain sucks. Either way, the feedback is going to come right at you.

Giving feedback is a skill. It's hard to be critical without being harsh. It's hard to make comments on someone else's work when you think you don't know anything. Who am I to say what works and what doesn't? you ponder. Well, you're a reader, for a start. You read published books. I'm betting you've read quite a few that have made you think How the heck did this get published? This guy can't even write a coherent sentence. You stand in the bookshop or the library, read the first couple of pages of a novel and put it back. Something didn't appeal - the voice, the character, the plot that was beginning to unfold - and you move onto the next one.

In a workshop, you have to read everyone else's work. You can't just put it back. You have to put aside your aversion to fantasy or romance or what you think is literary pretentiousness, and focus on craft. Did the opening grab me? Why not? Did the voice work? Why not? Do I feel like I want to read more about this character? Am I already starting to care about what happens to her? Why not? The first part of workshopping is to see what works and what doesn't in this piece of writing. The second, and more important, part is to try and make helpful suggestions.

Why is this more important? Because it works two ways - it stops the writer from feeling like they're in a black hole (everyone thinks my beginning sucks, but I have no idea how to fix it!), and it adds greatly to the skills of the workshopper. It's a two-way street. Learning how to read your own work critically and then rewrite it effectively is one of the most difficult skills for a writer to learn. The best place to start learning it is in a workshop. It's not just what they all say about your writing, it's what you see in other's stories and the constructive suggestions you come up with that will feed back into your own craft.

Group workshopping that is a bloody free-for-all is not worth one cent of your time and effort. Good feedback is a lesson in tact and diplomacy. As the writer, you have to remember it's not about you, it's about the words on the page. You want readers? You want to get published? The workshop will help you down that path. Although having a critical reader or mentor can be a wonderful experience, I've also seen some people whose mentors have influenced their work and not helped to make it better. The group provides a variety of readers and comments - even though not all may be useful, you learn to take what is and make your writing better.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Depths of Character

A character template is a handy thing - you start with gender, age, family background, physical description and, of course, the thing your character most wants or needs (the thing that drives them throughout the story). Really, that thing is what they believe will make them happy, just like us real people. A guy might believe a Maserati will make him happy, a girl might believe having Mr X fall in love with her will make her happy. But the question goes deeper than that. What both of them really want is to be loved and made to feel special. The guy believes the Maserati will attract the kind of gorgeous girl who will love him for himself, not the car - the car is "bait" and will make him look cool. Sadly, this kind of guy usually still loses out, or finds a girl who rips him off.

The girl who wants Mr X, on the other hand, may well find he is a horrible person and falls in love with his friend, Mr Y, who loves her and is perfect for her. Both of these situations could make a story. So you can ask yourself - what does my character believe (at the beginning of the story) will make them totally happy, and what actually does make them happy by the end? Just that shift alone develops your story in more depth, and in more interesting ways.

Another question to ask is what your character is most afraid of. Not spiders or heights, but deep down. Are they afraid of being abandoned? Of being poor? Of being unloveable? Some people have a fear of intimacy because of things that have happened to them - major betrayals, significant deaths. If you can place that character deep into the one situation they are most afraid of, you have instant conflict and a meaty story problem that is both external and internal.

You could ask what your character's secret dream is. Is it to win Wimbledon, when he is a good tennis player but not a world-beater? Why do people have unrealistic dreams? How close will he get to achieving it? What will he discover along the way? That he is a failure? Or that he is really the world's best coach and he finds a kid that will win Wimbledon and who he can help? And again, what does that dream really mean? Does he want fame and fortune, and sees tennis as a way to get it? He can still have it by being a winning coach, perhaps. Or maybe he ends up envious and vengeful.

I also like to ask what happened to my character in their life that makes them who they are. With someone who is only, say, 12, probably the thing that will affect them forever is going to happen right in my story, so I have to work with knowing enough about them to make the story real and meaningful. I also need to think about how they will deal with the terrible things that are about to happen to them, and how they will change and grow.

In writing about someone who is 40, I look at their childhood and their teen years. There is great potential to give a character backstory that deeply affects the story you are telling in the here and now. Did she witness a murder? Did he lose his father? Not every character has to be abused, by the way. It might be a good idea to avoid that, as it raises a whole other bunch of issues that may have nothing to do with the story you want to tell. Be judicious about this - you are the architect of this life. I like to ask students to write about their character in this way - what was something that happened to them as a child or teen that somehow changed the way they saw the world forever? What is their world view now? Optimist or pessimist? Do they believe in God or not? Are they cynical or fatalist? Are they trusting or wary? WHY?

I do a lot more than this - small things and large. It depends on the character. Some of them, like Tracey Binns, spring into life as if they were just waiting for me to come along and find them. Other characters I struggle with and have to write a lot of the story before I "find my feet" with them, and then the revisions change a fair bit. There are lots of small writing exercises that can help. A fun one I set in class is this: your character rushes out their front door (you decide where they're going and why they're in a hurry) and finds something dead (you decide what) on their doorstep. Write a scene that shows how they react, how they feel, and what they do about it.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Getting Inside Your Character

In all of my classes at the moment, we are workshopping (critiquing). This means I am reading and commenting on around 52 lots of pages over 3-4 weeks, ranging from short stories to picture books to novels, which includes fantasy, crime, literary, humorous, YA and little kid's stories. For many students, this is their first experience of getting multiple comments on their work, from people who may not read the same genre or have done any past critiquing of other's writing. It's a lesson in diplomacy, tact, encouragement and helpful feedback.

The one thing that comes through for me is the lack of depth in characterisation and point of view. It's totally understandable - you come to class, you spend a lot of time reading, writing, discussing - and then suddenly you have to produce something. It's been hard enough taking in all the information and how-to stuff. To put it all into practice at once is a big ask. But my main feedback in 90% of what I am commenting on is: you are not deep enough into knowing your viewpoint character and seeing the world through their eyes, speaking with their voice, acting with their impulses and motivations.

My new book Tracey Binns is Trouble is just starting to get reviews (brilliant one in the Sunday Age today - very exciting!), and as part of my own publicity efforts, I created a Tracey Binns website. What was fantastic about this (apart from the fact that I had a lot of fun with it) was the way in which it really helped me get even further inside the character of Tracey. I had to stop being me (old, boring writer) and become Tracey (12 year-old smartypants with lots of energy and kid humour). I imagined what the site would look like and sound like if I turned it over to her, what kinds of stuff she'd put on it, what she'd say about things like Teacher's Notes that the publisher kindly gave me to add in.

Tracey is not polite. She likes to say what she thinks, she has some weird likes and dislikes, but she also is good at sharing - so she shares her favourite recipe with you. As I am writing another book about her, creating this site became part of getting back inside her head and hearing her voice and what she says about the world around her. She'd love you to visit!

Very few people are going to create a website for their character, especially when the book isn't even finished, let alone published. But it's that kind of character development and work that helps to create a strong voice in the work, and also goes a long way towards the reader feeling that this is a real person, with a story that is interesting and engaging. In class, we start with character templates and timelines, but that's just the beginning. There are other methods that help - free writing, drawing pictures, imagining dreams and daydreams, interviewing the character, writing other stories about them - and all of them help the writer move more deeply into their head and heart. I think it's an essential part of what brings a story alive, and worth the hard background work.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Where Reading Takes You

First of all, let me send out a million commiserations to all those poor Australian kids who had to sit government-orchestrated tests today. Trust me, whatever the results try to tell you - you are doing OK. And the tests are crap. You want to know how your teachers feel about those tests? Read this. I cannot believe that this government is venturing down the road of No Child Left Behind. To me, it's like saying our teachers are useless and need a good testing kick up the rear end to make them better. NOT. Who knows more about the kids in their classroom than a teacher? Who knows more about where those kids come from? For crying out loud, we have kids entering our schools every year who don't know which way up to hold a book! You think a test is going to solve that?

OK, time out for a few moments while I try to calm down.

What does reading do? I've already gabbed on here about what reading does for someone who wants to be a writer. I'm seeing students right now who want to write children's books who read 5 or 10 and think that's it. No, it's not. You have to read 20 or 40 or 100, and then think about who those books are speaking to, what the voice is doing, what the language is doing (not dumbing things down), how things like pace and action and dialogue are all working together to create a "cracking good read" (shades of Basil Brush there).

But it's much more important for us to think about what reading does for our kids. I was talking to someone today (Hi, M!) who said her son (8) is writing a book. And he's doing a pretty good job of it too, even with the grammar and punctuation. Straight away, I asked her, "Is he a keen reader?". Yes, she said. And that just proved to me yet again that reading lots of books leads to an innate, basic understanding of not only how a story works, but how a sentence works. If you read plenty of books, of any kind, or poems, articles, even encyclopedias, you just come to understand how sentences work. You don't need to know subject-verb-object in parsing terms, you just know it by reading it over and over.

I read something today about the nose-dive in the amount of reading that 18-30 year olds in the US do (it was from a magazine called Narrative) and how the editors have decided to try to do something about it by focusing the magazine on that reading age group. But they also talked about much younger readers - how kids in the 11-13 age group are also reading less. There's been a lot of stuff about this recently, and every project designed to get people reading again is great. But it does ultimately come back to schools - primary schools. If someone isn't reading by Year 7, you're unlikely to get them back.

There is a big push here to refund schools so that they all have teacher-librarians (a dying breed). A librarian from the NT blogged about how he wasn't sure if it was worth going back to uni to train as a teacher-librarian. Hello? If you are already a teacher or a librarian, why do you have to go back and pay HECS and study some more? They teach or work in a library, they love books, they love reading, they want to get kids to love reading. Why do you need one more piece of paper (that cost you more than a few thousand dollars) to prove it?

I have commented before about how reading is reading, and any kind of reading is great. It is. But now I'm going to go one step further and suggest that what fiction reading can do is set your imagination on fire. It takes you to other worlds, it shows you things about the world in a way that facts seldom do, it tells the stories of other kids like you, it shows you about issues like refugees in a way that newspaper reports don't (or show falsely). Reading a book takes stamina, but a great story will carry you away to a world you didn't know existed. A poor reader who finally finds a book they love, a book that transports them, that gives them hope and courage - how is that reader going to find that book on their own?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

New Syndrome reported

In the Age newspaper this weekend came the information about a new syndrome, and I believe I am suffering from it. It's LLHCS - Late Life Holden Caulfield Syndrome, recently discovered by Michael Leunig, writer and columnist. He named it after Holden in The Catcher in the Rye, a character who "saw clearly the world's phoniness and despaired because people always applaud the wrong things."

Leunig also says that along with this syndrome, as he gets older, his bulls*** detector just seems to get stronger and stronger. This could be a curse or a blessing. I'm with him there. My tolerance for BS at work is getting lower and lower which, when you work inside what amounts to a bureaucracy, is not a good thing! As for the rest of my life, no doubt my friends would say, "That's not news to us!!"

On the other hand, George Clooney observed that this may finally be the time in US history where young people are going to stand up and vote at last, and have a say in who runs their country. I guess it might all come down to their BS detectors too. Have they got them turned on to full power yet?

More CBCA Conference notes

This is the wonderful Liz Honey, signing one of her books after our poetry session. Talking to people now about the conference, a week later, means I am remembering more of the highlights and things that stuck in my brain. Such as the way that, as the conference went on, more and more people started to say how sick of the word literacy they were. How often it was used an excuse for doing stupid stuff like testing (instead of helping kids to enjoy reading), how so many "experts" used it as a topic to beat their chests about and make a noise while contributing little of value. How it is used as a big stick to threaten schools and teachers. So inevitably the suggestion came that we ban the word and go back to talking about literature. I'll say yes to that.

There was an inevitable small stoush over the CBCA shortlists being elitist, and how any "popular" book that made it to a shortlist was a token gesture (to whom, I wonder). The other main point of disagreement was over what some called "trashy" books, suggesting they should be banned or children actively dissuaded from reading them. One would have to ask why. Reading is reading is reading, isn't it? I'm often amazed at those who do studies on reading and forget to include things like websites, comics and nonfiction books, focusing only on fiction. Lots of people don't read fiction, but they do read. And then of course there are people like me (and I have discovered some of my students!) who will read anything, even the back of the cereal box at breakfast.

There were lots of book launches, not just mine, and piles and piles of new books in the Trade Fair. The Fair is definitely freebie time, and I came home with several new books that were being handed out like those food samples at the supermarket. I avoid the food and love the books. (I also have to celebrate winning a door prize at the Saturday night dinner and - lo and behold - the prize was books. Yaayy!)

One interesting panel session was about the survival of picture books. Ann James would have to be one of our best illustrators in Australia, yet she said although she is doing better work now than ten years ago, she is earning less, due mostly to deep discounting practices, where a creator can end up being paid five cents per book for deep discount sales because those royalties are not based on RRP. Five cents compared to $1.30? Tell us about it! Unfortunately, the guy from ASO, where a lot of those dd sales often go, said he had no idea that was the case. I say unfortunately because after the session several people said they had heard him speak before and he certainly did know that was the case. Logically, how could you not?

One issue that did come up in informal delegate discussions quite a few times was the cost to attend the conference. I knew several people who couldn't afford to go, even for one day, although the keynote speaker talks were open to the public for $25 each. However, if you wanted to attend the whole thing, you were looking at around $700. Not a problem if your school or library pays for you, but out of range for most others who were genuinely interested. Who do we want to attend these conferences? Obviously teachers and librarians from schools and public libraries, and other professionals in the children's book arena. Does the CBCA want new authors there? What about those interested in books simply because they love reading and maybe have kids? It's an ongoing problem - obviously they have to cover costs, and venues now are expensive, as is catering and organising. It is something to think about before the next one.

Monday, May 05, 2008

CBCA Conference

Where to start? Some terrific keynote speakers were the highlight for me. Shaun Tan (below) spoke about his life as an artist and illustrator and used an amazing array of images. This one is from his book The Lost Thing. He also showed his drawings from his first day and second day of school, and one of a T Rex from when he was seven - absolutely gobsmackingly good!
Another great speaker was Neil Gaiman. His session was one that was open to the general public, who swelled audience numbers by a hundred or more. He included poems based on fairy tales in his talk, and said some very interesting things about the craft of writing and ideas that come from 'what if'. Emily Rodda was also good, and made us laugh.

My favourite speaker of all, though, was Bernard Beckett from New Zealand. Text launched his book Genesis and Bernard spoke for about five minutes. I could have listened to him for another hour or more. He was very genuine and passionate, and kept everyone entranced. I have bought a copy of his book, which was recently optioned for a movie. The guy from Text made a point of saying how they were actively looking right now for great YA novels (got one in your bottom drawer? it has to be really good!)

The top photo is of Elizabeth Fensham launching my book Tracey Binns is Trouble. She said some lovely things about the book and read some bits from it. The launch was in the trade fair so it was very noisy, but we gathered a small crowd. (Yes, that's me hovering in the background.) I was pleased to be able to get Tracey's website up before the conference, and it was a lot of fun. Plus an excellent way to get even more in tune with the character. She kind of took over and wrote the site herself.

On Sunday, I chaired a session called Wild About Poetry, and we had Liz Honey, Meredith Costain and Moira Robinson on the panel. Lots of issues raised and discussed, and the outcome is a proposal for an Australian Children's Laureate. Now wouldn't that be wonderful! All we need is some money. And lots of people to get behind the idea. In the final session I sat behind two women who are part of the conference committee for the 2010 Brisbane event, so I hinted in a big way that another poetry session would be very popular.
More reports soon.