Thursday, July 31, 2008

Great Beginnings - Day Four

Today I'm going to start with what I think is a great beginning. Actually, every novel I've read by Michael Robotham has a great beginning. Maybe it's because he was a journalist and he knows what you need to pull the reader in. It was hard to choose, but I've picked Lost (and a big thank you to Michael who gave me permission to use this):

The Thames, London
I remember someone once telling me that you know it's cold when you see a lawyer with his hands in his own pockets. It's colder than that now. My mouth is numb and every breath like slivers of ice in my lungs.
People are shouting and shining torches in my eyes. In the meantime, I'm hugging this big yellow-painted buoy like it's Marilyn Monroe. A very fat Marilyn Monroe, after she took all the pills and went to seed.
My favourite Monroe film is Some Like It Hot with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. I don't know why I should think of that now, although how anyone could mistake Jack Lemmon for a woman is beyond me.
A guy with a really thick moustache and pizza breath is panting in my ear. He's wearing a life vest and trying to peel my fingers away from the buoy. I'm too cold to move. He wraps his arms around my chest and pulls me backwards through the water. More people, silhouetted against the lights, take hold of my arms, lifting me onto the deck.
'Jesus, look at his leg!' someone says.
'He's been shot!'

Why do I think this works? Look at all the story questions - we know he's in the water, clinging to a buoy, but we don't know why. We don't know who he is but we know he's in trouble (maybe dying from hypothermia because of the way his mind is wandering). We know it's freezing cold. We know that underneath what's happening to him, this guy observes things and notes them mentally (important in terms of a large plot element). And Robotham makes us wait through the meandering mental stuff to that moment of shock - he hasn't just fallen in, he's been shot.

Part of this is pacing, and part of this is that balance between not giving the reader everything up front (making us wait, making us want to find out) but not confusing us. He tells us at the top that this is the Thames in London - a simple device that saves a lot of time and trouble. The other Robotham book I'm reading at the moment, The Suspect, starts with the main character, a psychologist, up on a hospital roof with a teenage boy who is about to jump off. So both books start with life-and-death situations. That works for me!

Danger Zones in Beginnings
Yesterday I talked about the dangers of using a prologue as your beginning, so I won't go there again, but here are some others:
Starting with Setting
Setting on its own is boring. Once upon a time, novels used to start with two pages of setting before a human entered. Nowadays, readers often skip long setting descriptions - you may not like it but it's true. Setting is not action. It's not movement forward. And it very rarely is conflict. You could say that a snowstorm implies conflict - not until there's a human in that storm, in danger. And I'd still rather start with the character and his/her fear of that storm, and desperate desire to survive. Readers don't connect with setting on an emotional level. It's not really a hook or a question.

So you can certainly start with some setting - of course you need it somewhere in there, because it's part of situating the reader (that was yesterday's post) - but the key element here is that your setting needs to be vital to what is happening. The action or conflict. The excerpt above has the icy Thames as its setting - have another look and see how many words are used that actually only describe the place. Apart from the heading, none. Every single word to do with setting is strongly connected to the main character and what is happening to him.

Starting with Dialogue
It's great to start with dialogue - I've done it myself. What doesn't work is dialogue that has no speaker identification, and hangs out there in limbo as a stream of sentences. The reader very quickly gets annoyed because they don't know who's talking, where they are, and often it's not apparent what the dialogue is even about. It looks snappy and fast-paced, but 99% of the time it doesn't work.

Starting with Backstory
Apart from the boredom factor, starting with a whole heap of backstory is Telling. What you're really doing is trying to explain to the reader why your character is like they are. Show us in the story, don't tell us all this stuff at the beginning (don't tell us any time in the story). We read to discover, we read to be surprised, we read to understand. If you give us all this backstory, you aren't letting readers do their job (yes, you have to give the reader room to be in the story too).

Starting with a Dream
Oops, I'm guilty of this! But I made darned sure that the dream was: a) very short and dramatic, b) very dreamlike, c) very clear to the reader what it was. A dream doesn't work when: you don't tell the reader until pages later and they feel tricked; it goes on and on without much purpose; you make it too much like a real dream which is fragmented and weird and nonsensical; you make it too orderly so that it's obvious you're trying to use it as some kind of device to give the reader information; it's boring; it doesn't move the story forward in any way.

Starting with Your Character Waking Up
Everybody wakes up. Yawn. Waking up starts the day - it doesn't start any significant action. Unless your character wakes up and their house is on fire. In that case, we can skip the stretching and the looking for the slippers and the banging on the alarm clock and the cat jumping on the bed and the smell of the spouse brewing coffee and the shower and the ... You get the picture. Waking up doesn't provide movement forward, precipitating action and immediate conflict and reaction from your character. An earthquake or a fire or a bomb might. (To this Danger you can add any other everyday habit a person does which is ultimately boring.)

Starting with a Character Who is Not Your Main Character
This is a viewpoint thing, and part of situating your reader. If you make it absolutely clear that the first character the reader meets is not the main character, you could get away with it. But the reader expects that the first voice they hear, the first person they "see" will be the Number One person in this novel. We can't help it - it's a reading habit, I guess. We're looking to invest in the main character, we're wanting to care about them, follow them through the story. You start with someone different, it's confusing. The last thing you want is to confuse your reader, so I'd advise against this. (This might be a reason someone wants to use a prologue - so they can start with a different character. Same question as yesterday - if you were told to get rid of it, could you?)

OK, that's my list of the most dangerous ways to try and start a story. I'm sure you could find examples where writers have done any of the above and done it well. That's the key, though, isn't it - doing it well.
Now for your 200 words. You can email it to kidsbooks at optusnet dot com dot au. Put it in the body of the email (you can put your name at the bottom or not), and I will post each one separately which will allow readers to then contribute comments. My final suggestion is that before you send it, read it out loud to yourself. Listen for clunky sentences, and see if it flows. It's a good test!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Great Beginnings - Day Three

In response to posts over the last two days, we're going to start with some stuff about prologues. Why is the anti-prologue sentiment growing? I tend to think it's for the same reason that we are told not to write rhyming picture books. Because so many people do it badly. In my "travels" (meaning conferences, forums, blogs, newsletters etc), I've heard that editors at fantasy publishing houses are not keen on prologues simply because so many are one of the following: a prophecy, a curse, or an info dump. The first two are outdated tropes, and the third is bad writing. It can apply to any kind of prologue.

Out of interest, I just went to one of my bookshelves and picked out eight books - four of them had prologues. That surprised me, I have to admit. So I took a closer look. Please note that my comments that follow here are my own personal preferences/opinions. You may well disagree.
Book 1 is A Thin Dark Line by Tami Hoag. The prologue is like a poem, presumably "written" by the killer. Another one doesn't appear until page 153. My vote: not necessary, doesn't add anything.

Book 2 is Mercy by Jodi Picoult. In the prologue, a woman holds a yard sale where she apparently sells stuff as a way of telling her husband their marriage is over. It creates intrigue - why, who are these people? Does it add anything vital to the story? Well, it introduces story questions, but when I launch into the actual story itself, I instantly forget everything in the prologue. My vote: probably could do away with it, or move it.

Book 3 is Indigo Slam by Robert Crais. (You can tell I read a lot of crime!) He hasn't called it a prologue (good thinking) - it's called SEATTLE. And the next bit is called Three Years Later: Los Angeles. So we're being given backstory, involving characters who are not the main players. My vote: this works because it is chock-full of action, fear, more action, and the feeling that I will get to find out what happens to these people, and it will matter.

Book 4 is Every Dead Thing by John Connolly. The prologue is 12 pages, and is a mix of alternating bits - the main character narrating the precipitating incident that changes his life, the villain buying flowers, and a whole heap of excerpts from police reports. I guess it's a prologue because it's about something that happens before the actual story starts, and it's about the main character. My vote: it doesn't really hold my interest. Lots of it feels like I'm being fed information. Could he have done this another way?

Obviously lots of writers use prologues. There is nothing to stop you having one. But let me ask you this - if your book was about to be accepted for publication, the offer on the table was $50,000 advance, and the editor said, "The advance is yours and the first print run will be 50,000 copies - if you lose your prologue" - could you do it? If you honestly think you could, maybe you should seriously consider it.

Situating The Reader
Opening paragraphs are tricky. We want to include story hooks or questions, we want to capture the reader's interest and make them excited about what's coming next, we want to create intrigue, we want those zinger first and second sentences, we want to grab the reader by the throat. Yep, yep, all of that. But what we don't want is for the reader to think What the heck is going on? Who are these people? Where are we? Who's talking? What is that stupid monkey doing in the car? Is this 1946 or 2008?

It's probably the key reason why beginnings are so tricky, because as well as all that hook stuff, you have to let the reader know these things: who the main character/narrator is, what POV the story is in, where and when the story is taking place, what kind of voice the story has, what the tone is, what genre it is, what level of language to expect, why the story is starting here. You have to pack all of that into the first couple of paragraphs, as well as hooking the reader into the story! No wonder we rewrite our beginnings a hundred times.

But it's also why we come back and rewrite the beginning after the novel is finished. It's like writing backwards. It's a lot easier to get voice and tone working after you've been doing it for 90,000 words. You're in the groove, you hear the narrator's voice, the tone of the novel is settled and consistent. None of that is likely to be happening when you first write page 1. And even if you are a writer who rewrites as you go (I have to write the whole first draft before I can revise), you will still need to look again at Page 1 and Chapter 1 when the thing is finished. In other words, don't panic. That's what revision is for.

Remember, too, that you created the novel, so you know the characters and setting, you know what is coming next. The reader doesn't. What often happens is the writer either leaves too much out (not realising there isn't enough there to "signpost" the reader), or overdoes it, ending up with a beginning that is way too slow and explanatory. I think two key things your opening pages (I'd say opening chapter, actually) should not have are backstory and flashbacks.

What they should have is the precipitating incident, action, conflict, and movement forward. Within these will be hooks and story questions. These are the things that make the reader want to find out what will happen next. The exercise for today is to look at your opening 200 words (no more) and identify the hooks and story questions in there. I think you should have at least three. Post one sentence only from your 200 words that you think has a hook or question in it.

Tomorrow, I'm going to post on the things that are dangerous to open with, and why. And some ways you could break the rules on them. I'm also going to post the email address tomorrow for your 200 words. I was going to put it up today, but I think you'd rather read the Dangerous List first. And then if you use something on the list anyway, we can decide if you've succeeded or not!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Great Beginnings - Day Two

Today I went for my usual walk, and it occurred to me that my 20 minutes+ is a little like a novel. I start out a bit slowly, with joints and muscles creaking and cold, and if it wasn't for the music blasting through my headphones, I might well give up and stay home (it's pretty cold here right now). But what keeps me going is not just the promise of better health and the virtuous feeling of "having walked" (kind of like that virtuous feeling of "having written"!), but the sense of setting out yet again, about to see what's new today in the neighbourhood, and the music in my ears. I choose to put things on my mp3 player that will stimulate me and keep me walking, even when my toes and face are numb.

Does the beginning of your novel provide that sense of adventure? Of rousing voice and music? Of keen interest in the possibilities in front of you?

I talked yesterday about how well-published writers already have their "contract with the reader". They've set it up through publishing several novels that show what they have to offer. But if you're a new writer, you don't have that behind you. So your job is to create a beginning that will hook any reader right into your story. Today we are focusing on two things: starting in the right place, and the first sentence. I'm going to begin this by giving a link to J.A. Konrath's blog post on bad beginnings. It's worth reading.

Starting in the Right Place
We all need to start somewhere. My friend T, who is a fantasy writer, has rewritten her novel about a million times (only kidding) but one of the key things she has wrestled with is where to begin. I think she has changed her opening chapter about eight times. This doesn't mean rewriting it - this means starting with an entirely new chapter. Do you start with the viewpoint character? Not always. I'm seeing a lot of prologues (I took 20 books off my shelf last night and checked) where the writer has started with another character, hence labelling it Prologue.

Is this a good thing? Not very often. It gives your reader the sense that you didn't know where else to put this stuff, so you stuck it at the beginning and called it a Prologue. Sometimes it's OK, sometimes the reader skips it or wonders what you think you're doing! If you need to show a different character's POV, ask yourself why. Have you done it throughout the book? I see crime novels where the writer seems to think I need to have the "villain's" side of things. Mostly, I don't, so it annoys me. Can't you take that prologue stuff and thread it into the story? And if you did, wouldn't it create more story questions and raise the tension?

Very often, in a student's story, I'll suggest they start on Page 2, or 3, or sometimes 8! But sometimes I will also suggest they start earlier. It may well be that a flashback they have inserted on Page 3 actually needs to be dramatised and become the beginning. I can hear you thinking: So how on earth will I work out where to start? I'll go back to Hooked for what I consider is very good advice - start with the inciting incident.

The inciting incident is what propels the story into motion. It implies, and must have, action, conflict, drama and movement forward. It's not description or exposition or backstory or characterisation - it is purely and simply a key point of action that makes your main character act or react. If you are starting with something that doesn't demand action or reaction, you're probably not starting in the right place.

The First Sentence
Is your first sentence a zinger? Will it make me read the first paragraph?

Is your first paragraph gripping and intriguing and fascinating? Will it make me want to read the first chapter?

Tomorrow's post will be about the ingredients. But today I want to focus on what keeps us reading. How do you write a first sentence that zings? With a lot of persistence and hard work! Very often I feel that I can't start a new story or novel without a great first sentence that will get me excited and determined to follow it up with even better sentences. Almost as often, I will come back later, in the revision process, and delete that first sentence or paragraph and persevere until I write the zinger. The one that will keep any reader glued to the page.

Here are two of my favourite first sentences:
"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." (Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeta Naslund) - there is so much in this: recognition of Moby Dick, a strong voice, a woman who is willing to declare herself up front, intrigue (so what will she tell me?).

"The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say. About anything." (The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness) - a friend read the first paragraph of this book and said "That voice and bad grammar would put me right off". I love it - it tells me immediately that something different is happening, and I want to know what, and who this person is. (Yes, it's two sentences, but the second one is short.)

And some crime examples:
"I don't mean to bitch, but in the future I intend to hesitate before I do a favour for a friend of a friend." (L is for Lawless by Sue Grafton)
"The old lady had changed her mind about dying but by then it was too late." (City of Bones by Michael Connolly)
"The day I got the murder book, I was still thinking about Paris." (The Murder Book by Jonathan Kellerman)

I want to make a point here - many of my favourite opening sentences come from middle grade and YA novels. These writers know they've got a tough audience. They know how important it is to scoop the reader in. My crime examples above come from writers who aren't sleeping on the job - these are not their first novels by a long way, but they still understand how important it is to grab the reader by the throat and hold on. And build on it.

Today's exercise is a double-barrel (if you choose, otherwise choose just one). In the Comments, post your favourite opening line from a novel or story - don't forget to tell us where it comes from, and you could also say why you like it, why it works for you. Two sentences allowed only if one of them is less than three words.
And you can also post your own opening sentence of your novel or story - but make sure it's a goodie!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Great Beginnings - Day 1

Where else would you start a series of posts about Beginnings except Day 1?
Seriously though, I'd like to offer a range of ideas, advice and thought-provokers this week, along with the opportunity for you to send me your first 200 words for feedback later on. Possibly a la Snark. As in some straightforward give-and-take from me and other readers about what works and what doesn't in your opening. I'm also going to offer some prizes! The kind you win simply by chipping in with your comments and your 200 words (or feedback). They'll be books - what else? And I'll announce them next week. Here we go.

Why a Great Beginning is Important
Hands up if you've heard or read something like the following: "A totally engaging beginning is the key to interesting any agent or editor in reading your manuscript. You need to start your story with action, character and voice; you need to hook your reader on the first page, and keep them hooked." I think we've all heard this so many times that we yawn now, and we say things like "Yeah, but my story/novel is atmospheric and I have to set that up first" or "I need that bit of backstory and it fits on page one and it saves me doing a flashback later" or "this prologue is vital for the reader to understand the rest of the novel".

Can you hear the buzzer? It's buzzing you out of the game. It really doesn't matter how great your novel might be, if you can't write an engaging, active first page, no one is going to keep reading. Not the agent, the editor, or the person in the bookshop with $15 to spend and 5000 books to choose from. That may sound harsh. But anyone who has ever been an editor or slush pile reader of any kind, whether for a publisher, a magazine, an agent or a story competition, will tell you the same thing. If it hasn't grabbed them within the first page or two, it'll get put into the NO pile.

Yep, you've heard that before too, so I'm not going to labour the point any longer. I want to move onto the constructive stuff, not the doom and gloom parade. One of my favourite books is about beginnings - it's Hooked by Les Edgerton. And on page 7 Les says: "A good, quality story beginning is a microcosm of the work entire. If you capture the right beginning, you've written a small version of the whole."

Now this fascinates me. Les is saying that if you work really hard on your first chapter (or paragraph for a short story), and you learn everything you can from it in terms of establishing character, voice, setting, and then go onto scene construction, pacing, plotting and dialogue, you can apply what you have learned and succeeded in, and create a whole novel like that. Sounds simple. I agree with him about 80%, because Chapter 1 probably won't help you much with plotting and sustaining 90,000 words, but it'll be a darned good start.

The Contract With The Reader
There are two sides to this. On the reader's side (starting with the end first), what he or she does in a bookshop is attempt to decipher the book in front of them. Publishers do a lot of work to make this easier. They create a cover that says crime or romance or literary; they tell the bookshop where to shelve it; they write a blurb that gives you an idea of what the book will be about; they market the book as a specific genre. But the other thing they "help" with is the first page. Because after all that other work they do, the last thing they need is an author who begins their romance novel with an opening page that reads like a murder mystery.

That brings us back to you - the writer. It's a good question. Why would you start a romance novel with a murder or a crime? Why would you start a thriller with a long description of a city, no matter how interesting that city is? Why would you start your novel with two pages of dialogue, with no hint of who is speaking or where we are? Why would you start your novel with three pages of description of the major characters? (Please don't say because you are a great writer and you can get away with it!)

Take a look at what is currently on your bookshelves. Pick out ten novels at random and read their opening paragraphs. I have no doubt that the first thing you will think is: this beginning is too slow, too descriptive, doesn't start with the viewpoint character, has a prologue, etc etc. But very often the writers "breaking" those rules about beginnings are established. They already have a "contract with the reader" that will not be broken.

One example I'm reading right now is the latest Janet Evanovich novel about Stephanie Plum. There were a lot of paragraphs in Chapter 1 and 2 that I skipped, because JE was summarising stuff I already know from previous books. I gave her a bit of leeway, because in there was some humour and some action, and a promise of more of the same from previous books (but I am getting a bit over it all - I'd like Stephanie to break out now, maybe find a new job and/or a new disastrous love, but no doubt 1 million other readers would say no). I put up with it. But I'm getting less and less inclined to spend $$ on JE. She's wasting her opening chapter on things I bet 95% of her readers already know, so JE? Get on with the story!

It is easy to criticise publishers for "pigeon-holing" books into this genre or that, but let's face it, we all want to know what we are getting. What we are paying money for. I expect the first pages of a book I read, while standing in front of the shelves groaning with books, to promise me something, and to live up to that promise. A big part of that is to do with where I find it in the shop.

However, if I pick up something new, by a new writer, I'm keen to see what the contract is offering. Is it going to be an engaging character voice? A zinger of a plot? Lots of laughter? A new twist on an old story?
Ask yourself this: what does your opening page offer the reader in your contract? Are you promising them a certain kind of genre? A character they will love by page 2? An action-filled story that they will still be reading at 3am? A fantasy world that they will fall into and never want to leave? A story that reflects something happening (or that they wish would happen) in their own lives? A use of language that will stir their imaginations and their souls, and leave them gasping for breath?

OK, here is today's exercise. Please post in the Comments section. What is the contract you are offering your reader? Is it genre-based? Is it going to be about character and voice? When a reader (any reader, be it agent, editor or someone with money in their hand) picks up your novel and reads Page 1, what is in the contract you are offering them? Start your contribution with "This is what I promise you will get..."

Friday, July 25, 2008

Remember These?

Slate online has a very interesting piece about early readers for kids, questioning the use of PG13 film characters in a new series. (Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk). The link is here. Most of the piece is in the form of a slide show! And it shows pages from classic readers, as well as the new ones. It took me right back - not just to the Cat in the Hat but to A Fly Went By, Ten Apples up on Top and Frog and Toad. Great classics that helped us all learn to read. Worth a look just for reminiscing!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Book and the ...

It seems that the popular topic continues to be "the future of the book". Industry articles talk about publishers resisting the move into multimedia, while some publishers out there are already producing the book that goes with the website, game, cards, toys, music, etc. In the middle, the author continues to wonder where they'll be in ten years time.

One article I've just read on The Futurist website is called The 21st Century Writer. It talks about all the usual stuff, but instead of predicting writers will become extinct, it makes a few interesting suggestions. One is about what readers want now:
the key to book publishing in the future is recognizing that readers are after more than information. They’re seeking an intellectual connection with an author and a community experience organized around an idea. Publishers have to look at what is still scarce, says Rushkoff. “While the book isn’t scarce, I’m scarce. I can only be in so many places. So there are a lot of different experiences that attend the book that [readers] should be participating in, to think about the book as a way to promote a set of ideas. How to work with those ideas is limited.” Those attendant experiences can include lectures, classes, even parties. The more personal the experience, the more people are willing to pay for it.
This got me thinking about writers' festivals - most of which are really readers' festivals - and the reasons why people go to them. I think what Rushkoff says is right. Readers want to see their favourite authors, hear what they have to say, and listen to new ideas. Many times I have heard disappointed audience members talk about writers who gave boring, academic papers instead of relating directly to the audience and being more open and engaging. Reading a paper puts you behind a podium, at a distance. Some readers are interested in the story behind the story, some just want to see the author talk about their books and writing. But again, an author who talks only about their latest book, like a walking advertisement, is disliked intensely.

Authors also make the mistake of assuming the audience have all read their books. I will often go to a session with an author who I may never heard of, but who sounds interesting. If all they do is spruik their latest offering, it's really boring. I don't know what they are referring to! But if they talk about the ideas in the book, or the research, or about their work as a writer generally, the interest and engagement level rises. They are sharing something I can't get from the book.

I attended a session at the crime writing festival last weekend, one with Michael Robotham and Peter Temple. Because this really was a festival that seemed to focus more on writing, both of them talked at length about their processes. That included things like how being a journalist led to or influenced their fiction writing, and how they learned to write dialogue, among other fascinating topics. I was happy to get a book signed by MR afterwards (and permission to use one of his openings in my workshops next week) and came home even more intrigued to see how the rest of the book I was reading of his turned out.

As the Futurist article also says, an author can only be in one place at a time. That kind of festival experience is limited to how many days there are in a year! But it may be that video podcasts, interactive websites and short films will help to broaden the experience of "invoking the author" and exploring ideas. I'm signed up for a couple of Virtual School Visits in early September, and I am looking forward to seeing how it all works.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Where Shall I Buy Books?

The issue of parallel imports has come up again here. For those who don't know about this, currently there is a rule (law?) where a local publisher has 30 days in which to publish a book from overseas, as a local production, or booksellers are then allowed to import it. Say David Sedaris's new book comes out in the US on 1 June, then if a publisher here has bought Australian rights, they have to get it out here by 1 July. The idea is that it stops mass imports of overseas books, and supports our local publishing industry. I have to say I find the whole thing a bit confusing, and I have come to think that really it only applies to best-sellers. For a book with a limited audience of maybe 500 Australian buyers, nobody here is going to publish it. They'll just import a small amount after the 30 days.

I guess booksellers don't like the 30 days rule because anyone who wants a hot new (limited interest) title will buy it from Amazon or B&N. They won't wait. But as an occasional buyer of these books, I'm not going to bother with a local bookshop anyway, not even Dymocks or Borders. Why not? Because you go in to said bookshop, they find it for you on the computer, you put in a special order and you wait. And wait. And wait. Sometimes 3-4 months. And when the book finally arrives, you pay double for it. Why on earth wouldn't I buy online?

With Amazon or B&N, I go online, I find exactly what I want, I pay with my credit card and usually within 3 weeks or so (sometimes longer if it's hard to get, but not if it's new and available) the books turn up on my doorstep. I do pay quite a lot for postage - I think this is where Amazon makes a nice profit! - but often I am paying US$12 for a hardcover and less for a paperback. The current excellent exchange rate makes it an even better deal.

Of course I am going to buy in a local bookshop when it's available. My bookshop receipts show that they're ahead in my purchase dollars by about 5 to 1. But for things like writing books, it's a no-brainer. My local Borders and Readings both have lots of writing books for sale, often even newish ones I want. But the average price for a paperback is around $40 or more. I assume that's freight plus profit zooming the price up. So I will go and buy the same book online for $12 plus postage, which ends up being around $20-24.

Here's two concrete examples. I am very keen to read a new YA novel called Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. It's not in any of my local bookshops so far, and may not be for another couple of months. When it is, it's likely to be in hardcover (imported) and be around $30+. On Amazon, I can buy the hardcover right now for US$11.55 plus postage (around $9 if I just buy this one book). I can also buy secondhand copies for $9.57 from Amazon, but I won't because I want to support the author. Yes, I'm going with Amazon. On the other hand, Ellen Hopkins' verse novels are always available in Borders here, and at a very reasonable price, so I will buy locally.

My other example is about secondhand. I teach several writing subjects that involve looking at aspects of the hero's journey. This year, we wanted to cover the heroine's journey and I found some information on the net for the class, but I decided I wanted a copy of the book by Maureen Murdock. No bookshops here had a copy or could get one in for me. It was originally published in 1990. But on Amazon, I was able to buy a secondhand copy for twenty-two cents!! Plus US$12 postage. It's been three weeks and it hasn't arrived yet, but I'm not in a hurry. I'm just glad to get a copy.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Workshop Coming...

Over on Paperback Writer's blog, she is in the process of setting up a week of workshops on people's blogs (they are volunteering to run something on a topic and she'll be the central "linker", I think). It will start 28 July.
It sounded like fun, so I've put my hand up to run a workshop here on my blog - my topic is the first 200 words. Of your work in progress. Novel, short story, middle grade or YA - any genre.

I think the idea is that I put up a series of posts with information, pointers, advice and examples, and you respond with your own ideas and thoughts. And I'm thinking also that people could put up their own 200 words (max) and get some feedback. I don't moderate comments here, so I'm expecting and hoping that everyone will play fair, and remember what they learned in Workshop 101 - that's all the stuff about how it's not YOUR story, and you should be constructive, not destructive. Or rude.

As well as my own how-to stuff, I'll be pointing you to other resources, including this one from J.A. Konrath's blog.
Anybody interested?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Perseverance Means Dennis

This is a photo of a happy author, celebrating the launch of his book along with a big bunch of mates and supporters. Dennis McIntosh. The book? Beaten By a Blow: the story of a shearer. It's a great moment for any author, to have your first book out there, on the shelves, receiving lots of attention and good reviews. And this is one guy who totally deserves all the good things that come with being published at last. Not that Dennis's path to publication is all about the book, or even all about the writing. It's about guts and determination and - that key factor - perseverance.

Beaten By a Blow is a title that rings of the shearing sheds, but couldn't be further from describing Dennis. I first met him back in 1996. He was in my poetry class, and it was obvious from the first night that he had a voice and a story to tell. At that time, he was struggling with grammar and punctuation, and poetry gave him a playing field of language that allowed him to express what he wanted to without being obsessed by the comma (that came later!). He produced two collections of his own poems, and had a poem read out in parliament.

Dennis tells me that, at the time, I said to him, 'You should go to university.' Well, he did. He started with my poetry class, and went on to do a Bachelor of Arts at Victoria University, an Honours year, and then a Masters at the University of Melbourne. He jokes about the fact that his thesis, written in academic language (after another long struggle), was about how he couldn't use academic language the way they wanted him to! He was determined to master grammar and punctuation, understanding that without those skills, he was always going to lag behind in writing for publication of any kind. So he studied editing with us at Vic Uni TAFE, TWICE!

Along the way, Dennis has fought a huge bunch of non-believers, people who decided they knew what was publishable writing and what wasn't, and told him several times to give up. Said he'd never make it. That's what I mean by perseverance. Not just writing and writing and then rewriting, but studying grammar, studying literature in order to understand what it was he was trying to do, and then not listening to the non-believers. I don't believe anyone has the right to tell a person they should give up on their dream.

Now Dennis's first book is out there. It was originally conceived as a novel, but his editor at Penguin convinced him to rewrite it as a memoir, which was a good move. Dennis said at his launch that the support from the editors at Penguin was fantastic, and he rose to their expectations, wanting to make it the best book it could possibly be. I wish you every success, Dennis. You are an inspiration.

And here's the blurb:

Dennis McIntosh was always determined not to get stuck in a factory like his father, but it's only once he takes a job as a roustabout that he discovers what he really wants to be: a shearer. Travelling from station to station, he revels in the smell and feel of the sheds, and the freedom of being answerable to no man except his mates.

And it's a thrilling tme to be in this legendary occupation. There's a fight on: the union is defending its workers against scab labourers' use of the wide comb. But while shearing's a fine life for a nineteen-year-old, it's a hard one for a man. As the added weight og adulthood settles on Dennis's shoulders, the sheds take their unforgiving toll.

Beaten by a Blow shows us the reality behind the romance of the shearer. Most of all, it tells the story of a boy dull of hope crashing headlong into life - into work, into drink, into responsibilities he isn't ready for, which come closer to breaking his back than shearing ever did.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Newsletter news

My writer friend and colleague, Susanna, has been in Kuala Lumpur recently, scouting out opportunities for our overseas writing/teaching business - textConnection. We travel to Hong Kong each year to teach writing classes and run professional development seminars. The photo above is me before I begin a session with the Hong Kong Women in Publishing members. The venue - the Helena May - is pretty amazing. I'm about to start work, not sit down for dinner!

We also produce a newsletter of fiction and nonfiction writing tips. The May issue includes a piece on how to tackle planning and clear writing, and another on finding time to write.
If you would like to be on our mailing list, email me at courses at textconnection dot net.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Resting or Feeling Guilty?

Last Thursday I finished Draft 3 of my crime novel (my secret vice when I'm not writing children's books!) - it was a complete rewrite, putting aside Draft 2 and starting again from scratch. After feedback, the intention was to deepen the characterisation, add more detail and create more depth in the story. So that wasn't going to be fixed by fiddling around the edges. I'd been working on it sporadically for about 3 months, then my friend G and I set each other a deadline to finish our respective novels. That gave me 4 weeks to write about 30,000 words.

Well, I did it. And so did she. We met up on the designated day and handed over our manuscripts to each other for critiquing, and spent a long time discussing what we thought might be the main issues, and what we specifically wanted the other person to look out for and comment on. Along with all the normal kinds of comments. My novel ended up at around 93,000 words, 13,000 more than the previous draft, so either I've been successful at the deepening process, or I've done a lot of pathetic padding!

So then I thought: back to the other story I was working on. I was halfway through and put it aside to do some research and thinking, then got into the crime rewrite, so going back to this one wasn't that hard. I had it plotted out, it was just the writing to be done. But have I been able to start? No. I have done a hundred other things, and procrastinated. I finally made myself sit down two days ago and read what I'd already written, thinking maybe I was afraid the earlier stuff was awful.

No, it was fine, and I'd written more than I thought I had. But I still haven't written any more. It's not writer's block, I think it's "resting time" perhaps. My head was inside that crime novel in a very intense way, and now the creative part of my brain is saying: Give me a break, kid. Then this morning, I was checking out a blog I hadn't read for a while, Through the Tollbooth, and there are several terrific posts on creativity and giving the muse (or whatever you want to call it) room to move. Letting it feel creative again rather than pushing, pushing, pushing to get more words out.

So rather than feel guilty for not writing this week, maybe I just need to chill out a bit, relax, go back to the writing books I was reading, watch another movie, dig more garden up, go for another walk, read some poetry, and let the muse put its feet up a for a little while longer.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Potential Role of Fiction

Two items of interest this week - one an article, one an anecdote - have kept me thinking about the role of the imagination. The first was an article in Atlantic Monthly called Is Google Making Us Stupid? in which the author talks about how he has stopped being able to read in depth. Meaning things like long articles or books, pages and pages of ideas and theories and information, that all used to lead him to deeper thought and analysis. He talks about how having the internet at our fingertips, with dozens of instant results for any information search, leads to us constantly skimming and skipping. Thus he, and many people he has talked to, is losing the capacity for sustained thought and analysis. Or sustained anything where a big bunch of reading is required.

I was talking to my friend G about this, and we agreed. A few years ago, we read a lot of literary fiction. Now it seems like an effort, one I prepare for by eyeing the novel for a few days or weeks before working myself up to it. (A bit like mountain climbing.) I love literary fiction, but less and less am I reading it. Then she told me the anecdote that I will summarise: experts are saying that the toys and games children have now are too finite - everything has a purpose or an "ending" that is limiting kids' imagination. No longer does a cardboard box that could be a dozen different things, from space rocket to boat to house, satisfy parents (or kids sucked in by advertising). Nobody lets their kids play outdoors much anymore, so all those pretend games that go on and on and on, until you get sick of them and invent new ones, don't happen in the same way.

Instead you have a "make over" doll that you put make up on and that's it. Or play a video game with pre-set moves and endings (even multi-choice endings are still endings not created by you, and video worlds are never your imaginary worlds). I've seen little kids with those "action stations" - plastic boards with bells and rattles and moving bits on them that are supposed to mean hours of enjoyment - where the kid gives it a go for about 20 seconds and gets bored. What else can you do with it? Nothing much.

When I did my degree, I studied a unit on artificial intelligence, which was about how close computers were getting to thinking like humans, and what the differences were. That was a while ago, and I'm sure the differences now are minimal. In many things, computers have overtaken us. One day computers will fall in love, perhaps! But the article about Google made me think about the other side of it - are we being encouraged to become more like computers? After all, computerised humans would theoretically be more efficient, less emotional, and more able to quickly process information and get the job done for the boss.

I'm starting to think that what might save us is books, and specifically fiction. With the advances in digital animation, movies no longer have to rely on suggestion or story. They can blitz us with virtual reality on the screen. No imagination needed. But people complain loudly about movies that are all special effects and no story or characters. Where can we go to re-discover our imagination? Stories and books. For those of us who love fiction, the idea that there are kids who hate to read is astounding. When you have had that experience of diving into a book, entering a world in your imagination that sweeps you away, you just can't imagine how anyone would not want to do that!

There are, of course, lots of readers who don't like fiction. But I agree with Nicholas Carr, who wrote the Google article. Having millions of items of information at our fingertips doesn't improve our minds, it just improves our efficiency. If our brains are not going to become just processors of quick, short bursts of stuff, we need the worlds of fiction. And most importantly, so do our kids. So don't go out and buy more stupid plastic toys or video games - buy your kids some books. Read those books with your kids and stir up your own imagination. (And read the article about Google - it's not too long, and it might get you thinking!)