Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Learning and Learners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Back to "School"

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Littlest Pirate Sails On

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

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2008

Editor/Publishing Insight

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

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Are Readers Fickle or Set in their Ways?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Word Counts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 12, 2008

I'll Deal with my Procrastination Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 09, 2008

What's Different About This Story?

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Next Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Literacy in the Workplace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Last Days in France

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

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

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