Sunday, November 30, 2008

When You Stop and You Shouldn't

Today is the last day of NaNoWriMo, and all around the world, thousands of writers have either completed their 50,000 word target or at least have written many more thousand than they thought they could. The problem is: now what? 50,000 is not a novel (unless you're writing YA or middle grade). If you're writing an adult novel, you may only be 1/2 or 2/3 of the way there. Can you keep it up?

The first thing I'd suggest is Don't Stop! You may not feel you can keep up the relentless pace of NaNo - 1666 words a day - but what you need to do now is slow down a little (let some normal life back in, perhaps) and set yourself some realistic daily targets. And stick to them. NaNo has probably already shown you (again) that you can find time to write when you have to or need to. It's just that most of the time, we LET our daily life take over and consume us. Set a target of 500 or 800 words a day. If you feel you're slowing to half-time, set 833!

I'd strongly advise you not to stop and re-read what you have written so far, even if you are feeling pretty proud of yourself. Sometimes, re-reading your NaNo draft, however rough it might be, can be enough to send you into a depression so that you stop, and then give up. You have to keep reminding yourself that it is only a draft, the raw material that will eventually be crafted into the thing you were aiming at all along. Resist the reading!

If you have used NaNo to complete a project, resist the urge to re-read it straight away and put it away for a couple of weeks. Go work on something else. See a few movies. Read some great books, and one or two not so good. Then come back to your novel and try to read it without the Big Red Editor leaning over your shoulder. You could decide that it was just all good practice, and that the novel came out so badly that it belongs in the bottom drawer. It's more likely that you'll have that manuscript ready to revise, ready to see with new eyes. Keep at it. The first draft can be the hardest, but you've done it now.

I didn't attempt NaNo this year, which was just as well. Hong Kong doesn't allow for much personal creativity in terms of keeping a novel in my head and working on it. But my own personal "Don't Stop Here" time is around 12,000 words or so. That's the point at which I'm often flagging, feeling maybe the impetus for the story is fading, wondering what it is I'm trying to do. If I stop here and re-read what I've written so far, it can be so depressing that I want to give up. I've learned not to stop, to just keep going, no matter what. Where is your Don't Stop point?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Carrie Chau Christmas Display

If you click on this, you will see a strange being with a small child in its mouth. Somehow that appealed to my children's writer self. There was another one outside.
The past couple of times I have been in Hong Kong when the Christmas displays start going up, I've seen mostly huge amounts of silver and red. I think one year there were massive three metre high poinsettias out of silver and red - maybe fibreglass? This year, at Times Square, was a display by Carrie Chau called Indigo Child. I've heard all the stuff about indigo children before, but this exhibition moved a really long way from fluffy, cute Christmas stuff!

Some figures (statues? they were very solid, possibly concrete) carried hatchets and had one sharp fang protruding from a smiling mouth. All were quite bizarre in some way, but really worth looking closely at for small touches. The prints and T shirts inside were tame by comparison, but I did like the lamp shades. And the two "beasts" with children in their mouths...

Friday, November 28, 2008

Quotes that Get You Thinking

As I'd never got around to cancelling the newspapers before I went away, I came home to a large pile of them, waiting to be read. I love the weekend papers, so of course I couldn't just throw them in the recycling pile without at least scanning them and reading the most interesting bits. The first quote that appealed to me was from Amanda Lohrey, an Australian literary novelist, talking about why she needs to write full-time.

"You need a lot of time to waste: to dither and daydream and read books you didn't know you wanted to read and go for long walks. You might only have 15 productive hours a week but you don't know which hours they are going to be." This is the pleasure of full-time immersion in the act, isn't it? Not just the actual typing, but allowing the ideas and words to gather in whatever way they will, roll around in your head, jostle with each other, and finally break out onto the page. When you think about it like that, somehow jamming them in between hours of paid work, especially work where you are required to use the creative part of your brain a lot, suddenly shows itself as a crazy way to write. But that's where many of us are, so we learn to deal with it.

The other quote was from Deborra-Lee Furness (Hugh Jackman's wife) who said: "... as soon as you put someone up on a pedestal, you lower yourself. So what's next? Resentment." She was quoting someone else in the interview, behavioural expert John Demartini, but it's something to think about. She was referring to celebrities and the way our society puts them on pedestals, but it can apply to anything. That famous writer, the famous motivational speaker, even your doctor. You create an image in your mind almost of perfection where the person is concerned, and when they don't live up to it, or don't do things your way, they take a big tumble (in your mind, at least). Is this really where tall poppy syndrome comes from? Or is it some form of jealousy? More to ponder as I go off to count bricks.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

This Techno World

Wi-fi is wonderful – when it works. And when you can connect properly. And when it doesn’t cost you a week’s worth of coffee for half an hour. These days we kind of expect the internet to be available whenever we want it if we are in a big city. Hong Kong is no exception. Once upon a time we’d send postcards or airmail letters – I can remember being in South Africa in the late 70s and writing my dad a seven or eight page letter every week. He probably nearly had a heart attack every time he got one. Wondering if I would ever make it home safely! Of course, by the time he read my letter, I’d moved on elsewhere and that drama was over.

Now we rely on emails to keep in touch, and I also use Skype. In France it was great to be able to connect easily and talk for free. By the way, the French pronounce it wee-fee, I was told. And when you’re feeling a bit lonely, emails from home can cheer you up and make you feel not so far away. It’s funny how the further away we are, the more simple it is to stay in touch. That’s not globalisation, that’s just technology.

So here I am in HK airport, catching up on emails before I fly home**, and everywhere there are signs saying free wi-fi. Do you think I can stay connected? And once I’m connected, every page takes about five minutes to load. The hotel I was staying at only had wi-fi in the lobby. Nothing like trying to do your emails with your laptop on your knees, slowly burning away layers of skin! And it was expensive too.

But just down the road, there were cafes where it was free to connect, or you could buy a 24 hour card for about AU$4 and get access that way. Everywhere people with laptops were doing their emails while drinking coffee or tea, or maybe catching up on work. Not so good to talk on Skype, however, with twenty other coffee drinkers listening in!

Mobile phones were also so easy – we just bought a pre-paid sim card (at a very cheap price) with a HK phone number and away we went. I read somewhere that the mobile phone business in HK is based on the premise that people buy new phones every three months (keeping up with the latest) whereas in Australia it’s every two years. So while I guess HK phone dealers are making more money out of actual phones, in Australia it seems the companies there are making their $$ out of access. And such poor access it is too. No doubt distance is a big factor, but does it have to be so hard? And do we have to be so far behind?

Technology is great, when you can use it the way you want to for a reasonable cost. When it intrudes in your life or sends you bankrupt (as with teenagers who end up with mobile phone bills of thousands of dollars), it’s not so good. Like most things these days, it’s whether you control it, or it controls you. I’m keen to see how the new arrangement with Google and book scanning/publishing works. I do hope it won’t be another situation where the author is at the bottom of the food chain and ends up losing out.

** Needless to say, my connection dropped in and out a dozen times so this blog post never went anywhere. I'm uploading back in Australia!

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Language of Food

Only two more days in Hong Kong, and I feel like I'm hardly ready to leave. Lots of hard work completed, lots of great students in sessions, and more learning about the different cultures and people of HK. I love the public transport system here - so easy and simple. You buy an Octopus card and use it on everything. Train, bus, tram, ferry. You can also use it in some shops to pay for things. How easy is that? You put more credit on it at the station or the local 7-11. Why our government in Victoria can't simply buy this system is beyond me. Four years on a system that still doesn't work? MyKi is a waste of time and money. Buy Octopus!

As always in HK, we are eating a lot of noodles. At a function on Wednesday night, it was interesting to see that nearly all of the food was Western-style. Baked potatoes, sausages, fish, salads, cheesecake, chocolate etc. Sue and I ate two huge plates of green salad. We both had a craving for fresh greens! But noodles are great too. As are dumplings, her favourite. We have fallen into the habit in restaurants and cafes of perusing the menu and talking about all the things we'd try if we were more adventurous - jellyfish, pig's knuckles, duck gizzards, beef tendons - but we know we won't. We just order either noodles or dumplings!

I have found a couple of places that serve my favourite drink - hot ginger tea. But there are many other flavours, and jasmine tea if you want something refreshing. There are literally hundreds of cafes and restaurants in Wanchai, where we are staying, and people eat out all the time. When a filling meal is AU$4-5, why wouldn't you? And here, sharing food is part of the pleasure. I've even shared tables with complete strangers at busy times. And looked suspiciously at what they're eating!

After a month in France, where I seemed to eat cheese, especially goat's cheese, nearly every day, it's the complete other end of the spectrum to focus on noodles instead. But if you are staying in a new place, why would you stick to steak and potatoes? Or go to McDonalds? Exploring the food of a country is part of the experience, and seeing how other people eat is part of learning more about them. It's the same in stories too - what your characters eat can be an important part of who they are. Now that's food for thought!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hong Kong Days

I'm back in Hong Kong, teaching writing classes and running professional sessions again for Women in Publishing. This is a city like no other, and it always seems to take me a couple of days to get used to the different atmosphere and pace. Out on the streets, it's always busy - more people around at 11pm than in the middle of the day in Melbourne. I keep forgetting most shops and businesses don't open until 10am so while it's busy here, it doesn't pay to get an early start. You'll be the only one!

I've been reading Craig Harper's posts while I'm away, and one this week about changing your view of "normal" has struck home. I am down the Causeway Bay end of the island, and catch trams everywhere. They are tall and skinny, and there is always one just around the corner, but I tend to know where to get off by the landmarks - buildings, shops, signs. Today I boarded a very full tram and decided to go up to the top so it would be less crowded. The trouble was, everything looked completely different from up there! It took me ages to work out where I was - for a few minutes I thought I was going the wrong way.

So in one tram ride, I was forced to look at the world from a different point of view (literally) and it was interesting, to say the least. It made me think about how that can be applied to so many things. We look at them in a certain way, as a habit, because it's either what we're used to, or it simply doesn't occur to us to try it from a new vantage point. That's happening with the revision I am doing on my novel right now - forcing myself to use a completely different method is helping me to look at my writing in a much more critical way, and leading to the kinds of changes and improvements that somehow I'd never been able to achieve before.

I could apply this to exercise as well. I don't jog. Never have. It probably goes back to school, when I was overweight and under-confident. Now I am giving it a go, and finding I don't look ridiculous (the treadmill has a mirror in front of it that I can't avoid). And instead of watching the screen that tells me how far I have jogged, which was depressing me, now I look at the clock and measure progress by time.

What can you change about the way you write or revise? If you're doing NaNo for the first time, you might already have seen what a new approach can do for you. But we should never assume that the way we write is the only way that works, and the same goes for the way we revise and rewrite. It's like taking your notebook or laptop to a cafe instead of staying home all the time. Maybe ask your writer friends how they approach creating characters, or revision, or plotting, and try their method for a change. As Craig says, step away from "normal" and see what happens.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Writers Everywhere

I'm about to make a serious attempt at packing for Hong Kong. I have all my class materials ready (I'm teaching a range of classes and PD sessions) and am at the point of making a list so I can stop panicking that I'll forget something. I'm the person who, on the way to the airport, is trying desperately not to imagine I have forgotten something crucial. After all, if you have tickets and passport, most other things can be "managed". Still, I've been working on the list for the past 45 minutes and adding something new and vital on a regular basis.

Regardless of my packing paranoia, I know I will have a great time. Susanna and I meet dozens of wonderfully keen writers every time we visit Hong Kong, either at our YWCA classes or with Women in Publishing. We feel a bit like butterflies, touching down and then flying off again, but this time we will be making serious efforts to network more, and find ongoing connections. Last year, we were there during the Australian elections and were quite astonished at the level of enthusiasm. The Kevin 07 brigade were noisy and cheered loudly!

I'm taking my novel, my lecture notes from Margie Lawson, and my highlighters. I'm expecting some focused rewriting time, if only because I can't bear to watch more than two minutes of Fox News or CNN, usually the only TV channels we can get on our hotel TVs. That's a good thing for a writer! I won't have time on this trip for tourist things, but I will have blocks of hours where I have the opportunity to focus on my own work without interruptions. I just have to be firm with myself and stay off the internet.

It might be a good reminder to think about all the people doing NaNo, for a start. But also I will be taking some time to meet up with writers and talk about writing. I've been fortunate to be able to travel quite a bit in the past few years, and the biggest bonus is the writing friends I've made around the world (Hi, Kristi!). The writing community is special - SCBWI members meet up all around the globe, writers of all kinds are happy to chat over a glass of wine or a coffee and just talk about what they're doing. It is a community, one to value and nurture.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

What's In a Title?

These days - a lot! It's part of the marketing, and if you can't come up with a snazzy, jazzy title that will just zing your book off the shelf (note the ZZZs) then the publicity department will do it for you. I first got clued in to the whole title thing when I was writing poetry. If you know anything about poems, you know all the things that a title can be: it can act like the first line of the poem; it can act like a label to signal what the poem is about; it can be like a line of the poem that adds more meaning; it can clue the reader into other layers of meaning. In short, a title for a poem is important, and if you call your poem Untitled you are either missing out through ignorance, or you're lazy, or you're trying to be obscure or clever (duh). At least, that's what other poets will think, because we all spend a lot of time on titles. It's important. It's worth the time.

What made me think about this topic? A visit to Borders. I love my independents but when you want to wallow in a huge range of choices and spend ages just looking, Borders is it. And the coffee helps too. But I found myself in front of the New Releases shelves, and in particular, the new Nonfiction section. Which in this part of the store, was 90% memoirs. I don't read a lot of memoirs (although I am reading Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett right now and loving it) but even so, a scan of the books made me shudder. Because of their titles.

I should have gone back with a piece of paper and written them down, but this is kind of what I saw. Six shelves of display copies, many with pastel covers and foggy photos. And the titles went like this: Shattered, Lost, Beyond Hate, It Wasn't Me, Left Behind, Scarred, Child No More, Not My Child, No Mother For Me, etc etc. I had never seen them all lined up like that before, and it was awful. I am sure that every single person who has written a memoir like that has important, heart-wrenching stories to tell. But I'm not going to be reading them.

A couple of years ago, a critic called them "misery memoirs". Can't you tell by the titles? So I went onto Amazon and did a search on "memoir" and what a much cheerier list I found! Are You There Vodka: It's Me, Chelsea, Half-Assed: A Weight Loss Memoir, When A Crocodile Eats the Sun, Running With Scissors, and Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. How jolly are they?

Sometimes my titles just come out of the blue before I even start the story. The Too-Tight Tutu was one, Tracey Binns Was Trouble was another. As for Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!) - I couldn't have developed that afterwards - it was another one that popped into my head and wouldn't go away. But i do think that years of writing poems and being aware of what a title can do has made a big difference. My current novel has been without a title for several months. Then someone asked, "Doesn't it have a title yet?" And after a few minutes of serious thought, now it does.

A title is important. A genius title can help to sell a book. It's part of that instant attention/ gratification thing we have going these days. If you're not sure about your book title, there are a few things you can do. Brainstorm ideas, look on Amazon or B&N for books similar to yours and try to come up with something different, look at anthologies of poems and see what poets have achieved, make yourself write down 20 possible titles and test them out, use your thesaurus and your friends and anything you can find to come up with word associations. Imagine seeing your book in a catalogue or in publicity material. How do you want it to sound? Look at other book titles and say them out loud. What appeals to you? Does it convey the tone of your book? Try whatever you can to find a great title - it's worth the effort.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Renovate Your Writing Life

Right now, thousands and thousands of people are having a go at NaNo - writing their hearts out to try and get down 50,000 words in a month. I'm totally into revision mode and my head couldn't come up with a novel-length idea if my life depended on it, so I'm passing this year. But I have plenty to think about as I pull my first draft to pieces, dissect it with pens and coloured markers, and then attempt to rewrite based on notes, new ideas and what I see are gaps or soft spots. This is a slow process. Apart from anything else, it's adding around 20% extra words (I'll be in big trouble if I end up with 50,000 extra words!).

You might be thinking So what? You do that kind of rewriting all the time. Do you? Everyone seems to rewrite in a different way. I'm beginning to think that just fixing what your critique group picks up is maybe not the best way to go. It's the easy, fast way, for sure. There have been times when I have sat down and started a whole novel all over again, from scratch, barely referring to the first draft. While this has got me closer to making the novel work the way it needs to, it hasn't been a "cure all" process. Sometimes all it's done is introduce new problems!
So this process I am learning is exciting, different, intensive and needs a lot of perseverance.

Which brings me to the Renovate Your Life workshop I attended last Sunday. A few people I know read Craig Harper's website articles and email posts regularly, so they have an idea of what his thoughts are on things like goals and motivation. That was one of the interesting aspects for me - the discussion about staying motivated. Basically, he says the feeling of being motivated and enthusiastic never lasts (true), that you might attend a workshop or read something great and feel motivated by it, but that will fade and then what do you do? The people who achieve stuff, who get where they want to go, don't rely on motivation.

I have days when I think my writing is going so well, that it will last for weeks and weeks, and I'll finish my wonderful novel and it will be brilliant. Ha! Within a day or two, doubt sets in. The novel concept is stupid, I can't write, no one will want to read it. Why am I bothering? At times like that, it's very hard to feel motivated. And telling yourself that your goal is publication and won't that be wonderful doesn't help at all. The brain, in its infinite pessimism, just mutters, "Yeah, what about the bad reviews." So Craig is right. When motivation disappears, what is left?

For a start, what Bryce Courtenay calls BIC. Bum in chair. Setting small goals, such as 500 words a day. Bribing yourself. Re-inspiring yourself with writing books. Everyone has their own "tricks". Work out what gets you moving, and use it. Some of the things Craig talked about included:
* we get in our own way - over-think and under-do.
* we shut doors on ourselves, and say things like "that's not me - I couldn't do that".
* we sabotage ourselves, and talk ourselves down, or out of possibilities.
* we don't plan our lives, we just let them happen (he suggested would you just get in a car and let a trip from Perth to Sydney happen? without planning for money, petrol, maps etc?).
* we look at our history and let it stop us from trying new things or changing.
* we play the blame game.
* we look for shortcuts and quick fixes.

There was a lot more than that, of course. Plenty of positive ideas for change and achieving what you want. I think he's planning to release a DVD of the session at some point. But while all of those things are about life in all its aspects, I couldn't help applying them to writing in particular. And a point about hours hit home with quite a few people there - we often use the NO TIME excuse (I know I do). Count up how many hours a week - honestly - that you spend watching TV. Then take four of those hours and write instead. That's a starting point to think about.

Whether you're doing NaNo or not, maybe take some time to consider the whole motivation and perseverance idea. NaNo is excellent motivation for getting that novel down that's been inside you for months or years. But what will keep you going afterwards? If you're not doing NaNo, like me, what is keeping you writing right now? And next week? And next month? On a good writing day, when it's all humming along, is there anything you can capture and nurture, to use on the bad days? What motivates you for the long distance?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Still Learning...

It's been quite a week. I have worked every day on the course, and subsequently my current novel (applying the various bits to the work in progress), and am quite astounded at what I am seeing. There are times when I truly think "Why was I writing like that? It is awful! Why couldn't I see what was missing?"
Ah, grasshopper (as Mr C would say), that's because it is far easier to see what is wrong in front of you than work out what is not there. Obvious mistakes are easy to fix. Gaps, holes, missing links, shallow characters - they're not so easy because in your head, they are there. It's just that you have to learn to see they're not yet on the page.

After 20 years of writing, you'd think I'd know that. And I do. But I had got out of the habit of being able to pick it up. Not sure why. Something more to think about. But I am now on Chapter 3 of my current novel - the coloured markers have been getting a thorough workout, and I can see every day how the words on the page are getting stronger. After the mark-up, I then have to rewrite.

As for Mr C - better known as Craig Harper - today was the day for the Renovate Your Life workshop. It's going to take me a few days to digest it all. I will come back when I've got it all sorted through in the mental intake and filing system. Suffice to say, when I came home, I ate, and then I got stuck into the study and marking up of my novel. The painting of my door frames didn't happen. Priorities, grasshopper, priorities.