Tuesday, April 29, 2008

How/Why do you Read?

My day started today with Blogger sending me a comment from a post I wrote a long time ago, about Melina Marchetta's third novel On the Jellicoe Road. The commenter castigated me for criticising what was apparently his/her favourite book. How could I? How dumb was I? It was a reminder of how differently people read, and the reasons why they read. I can't tell you how many times we have read a novel in class (Cold Mountain was a notable) and had a number of students absolutely loathe it, and a just as vocal group love it. House of Sand and Fog is a great novel for dividing a class between those who support one character and those who are barracking for the other.

Why does this happen? For the same reason some viewers love Lost and others hate it, and some viewers love House and some hate it. I often look at the highest rating TV shows, or the bestsellers list in the Saturday paper and wonder how on earth that show or that book became so popular. It's about personal taste. The biggest divide I've seen (which still seems a bit strange to me) is between the science fiction fans and the fantasy fans. Both seem to think the other group has no taste at all!

Very often it's about who you are and where you are (in your life) when you read a book. I was given a copy of The God of Small Things but it took me a year to get around to reading it because I never felt in the right frame of mind - in other words, I felt too darned tired to get my head around the language and ideas. I was glad I waited because eventually I loved it. I read a lot of crime fiction, but not indiscriminately. By that I mean that there are certain authors whose voice and characters I enjoy, and others who leave me cold or fail to engage me by page 30. One divide in crime fiction is between those who are Hercule Poirot fans and those who are Miss Marple fans (and never the twain shall meet).

Sometimes we try to read a book at the wrong time. It's a funny book when we feel depressed and not in the mood for silly stuff (even though we might need it). Or it's a literary novel when our brains just can't cope. Although this blog is called Books and Writing, I don't really post reviews. I write comments on books I read because they stir me in some way, either positively or negatively. Often I will write about a book from a writer's point of view - what I learned from it - rather than purely a reader's stance.

I always have a pile of books next to the bed (and another one in my office, plus a library pile). At the moment I'm reading Creativity for Life (writers' and artists' book), Killing the Possum by James Moloney (YA), Firebirds Rising (anthology of fantasy short fiction) and Compulsion by Jonathan Kellerman (crime). And sometimes I dip into a short story collection by T.C. Boyle, and I've got Best American Short Stories 2007 waiting. Oh yes, and the new Sarah Dessen YA novel. If I am going to comment on any of these, it'll be because I have an opinion - not a paid one, either - and I'm keen to share it and hope someone else out there wants to chip in.

At the beginning of this year, we asked students to follow Chris Baty's example (the NaNoWriMo guy) and make two lists - one of things they love in books and one of things they hate. It's an interesting exercise because it really tells you the kind of book you want to write. One student said he hated books that used haunted objects. Another loved books with slapstick humour. It's a great thing to do - you might surprise yourself if you try it.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Books about Dying

I've just read two books in a row in which a major character (or the main character) dies. And in one of them, the viewpoint is first person. Obviously in that story, the death is on the last page. I didn't mean to read these together, but that's the order they were in on my book pile. First up was Miss McAllister's Ghost by Elizabeth Fensham, who managed to win a CBCA award with her first book, Helicopter Man. First thing I have to say is the title doesn't do the book justice. Apart from anything else, I kept expecting a ghost story, which it isn't.

The three kids in the story meet a very old woman, Miss McAllister, when the youngest, Wilf, sees her at the window of an old house and thinks she is a ghost. But she is very real, if very old, and during the course of the story, turns around the lives of the three. Their parents are not only busy working, but Dad is prone to thumping them all or throwing things, and is not someone you'd go to for advice or help. I'm not going to tell you who dies, but it's another reason I don't like the title because I think it gives the ending away. It's a quiet story about people thrown together in an unlikely way, and has humour and surprises to keep you reading.

The second book was Before I Die by Jenny Downham, the story of a seventeen-year-old girl dying of leukemia, so you know the ending before you start. I was wary of this book, even though I'd heard good things about it. Being in first person meant it was going to tread that fine line of melodrama and sobbiness - however, the voice of the narrator is tough and angry, and her situation leads her into all kinds of risky behaviours as she attempts to complete her list of ten things to do before she dies.

It's a very real story, and made me cry simply because it wasn't sentimental at all. The scenes at the end are written so well that I wondered if the author had been very close to someone who died like this (it was a stark reminder for me of when my sister died). When I Googled for information, I discovered that Downham has not had this experience but is an actor and is good at working her way into a character. She kept a diary for two years as Tessa, the narrator, and the amount of time she spent working on this book shows in the depth of characterisation for all of the characters, especially Tessa's father.

I think writing about death is, in some ways, like writing about sex. The more simple and clear and direct you are about what your characters feel and think and do and say, the more you evoke the "real-ness" of it. It all comes back, yet again, to your use of language, your choice of words, your ability to be in your narrator's or character's head. In a world where we see people die, either for real or in fiction, dozens of times in a day (more if you watch an Arnie movie!), the fact that we have writers who can make one death in a story meaningful is a wonderful thing.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Books vs What?

Tonight I happened to be watching a bit of a TV show on archaeology, during which they looked at a 16C drawing of a tattooed woman. Someone said, "Why is this the only thing we have? How can we know what other people of this era looked like?" The obvious answer was, "Because they didn't have cameras back then, with people taking a million digital photos of everything that moved or looked mildly interesting." But it is an interesting question, one that historians grapple with, if they're any good. Who records history? Why? Is the history of war, for instance, recorded mostly by the victors? Is our social history recorded by the rich and literate? In that case, where are the stories of the poor and illiterate?

This question has given rise to the oral history, where someone interviews a wide range of people in order to get their experiences of being alive during a certain time. In Australia, Wendy Lowenstein has done this with Weevils in the Flour, and in the US, Studs Terkel is famous for his oral histories. They tell us the realities of poverty, starvation, and women killing themselves with Lysol because they couldn't afford a more expensive poison.

But this led me on to thinking about other issues with recording who we are, as well as what we are creating that reflects our lives. Think about this - any photos that you take right now are almost certainly digital. If you save them on your computer, or on a CD, or on a USB drive, you have absolutely no guarantee that they will survive. Your computer will die (any writer will have had the experience or know of someone who has lost everything through a hard drive failure). CDs, once thought to be the ultimate indestructible storage, are now being shown to fail within five to ten years. I've had a USB drive fail on me recently, and another that is showing signs of dying.

If you print out your photos from your digital source, as I do, they are often printed on cheap paper with cheap inks. How long will they last? Not as long as those old prints your grandparents owned, that's for sure. If you print them on your home printer, probably even less. As for text, again anything on your computer can be gone in an instant. (Computer failure has overtaken "the dog ate my homework" as the prime excuse for late assignments - no, we still don't believe most of them.) When I got married, we asked the celebrant for a copy of the ceremony text, which she printed out on her thermal printer - I don't dare go and look because I know from experience that it will have faded and now be unreadable.

Scrapbooking? How many people are using acid-free products? If not, within time your paper and glue will both cause staining and irreparable damage. A friend of mine spent many years on a family history and has spent the time and money to have it printed on acid-free paper and bound in leather. Gee, just like they did in the old days. Her work will still be around in 500+ years. Not much else that's being produced right now will do the same.

What if we have some kind of nuclear winter (caused by goodness knows what)? What will survive? For a start, anything digitally stored will probably be useless. Remember all those old 8mm home movies? Who still has the old projector setup so they can be watched? And if you transfer them onto digital video, in twenty years time you'll be in the same boat. I may well sound like a total Luddite, but for me, digital technology and storage is incredibly fast and convenient, but I never assume it will last. Books will. And so will language. We are still reading texts produced hundreds of years ago (with a little translation help) because they were recorded on paper and stone and parchment - things that, despite weather and other disasters, have lasted and endured.

I suspect that the paperless office will continue to be a myth, simply because at some level, most people believe digital records are not permanent. As for the ongoing razzamatazz about ebooks and digital books and all that other stuff - yes, our next generation may well discard books as a way to educate themselves and entertain themselves. But if it all disappears, they'll be back begging for a library card in five seconds flat!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Outlines Stage 2

This week I started reading a book on writing called The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Although Truby usually focuses on screenwriting, this book, he says, covers novels as well, in terms of looking at how to develop a novel-length work. In the beginning, he tells you to put aside your traditional methods of structuring a story (hero's journey or three acts) and approach it from a new perspective. Initially, this means putting character and premise together and looking at how and why your main character changes during the course of the story.

So off I went. I've been working on a new novel, but having trouble with the first few chapters. I had already worked out the plot - what would happen, the climax, etc - but I couldn't work out how to get my characters to that point (one problem was a jump of two weeks with nothing happening). I decided to use Truby's initial planning steps to try to work out what was missing in my story. I answered all the questions, I had the premise and story design, I figured out his seven key steps for story structure (weakness and need, desire, opponent, plan, battle, self-revelation and new equilibrium). It seemed to be kind of working for me.

Then I stopped. I remembered how I had done a similar thing once before for a novel, and in the end it was no help at all. It made the novel into something I had never intended, and something I had a really hard time writing - and getting right. After eight drafts and some major changes, I think this novel is still not working. I tried too hard to "make it right" before I wrote it. That's not the best way for me to work. I got too cerebral about including all those key elements that a story should have, and lost my grip on character and voice.

Character and voice, for me, is what counts most in making a story work. I can always come back later and fix plot holes or add tension or rewrite beginnings and endings. But if I get off the track with the character, if I analyse or diagnose or try to put that character into a straitjacket of shoulds before I tell my story, I kill everything. I start doubting what I'm doing. I lose the voice. And strangely enough, I have a much harder time keeping the plot together.

I think that's one of the things we have to learn as writers - what our happy medium is when it comes to outlining. I mentioned in another post that mostly my outlines are diagrams and lots of scribbled notes. It took me a long time to realise that, messy though it seems, that is what works for me. That, and sometimes a grid of major scenes to back it up. No outline at all makes me extremely nervous, because I need to know where I'm going. Too much planning and setting down what must go into the story freezes me up.

So no more Mr Truby. I'll read him again when I'm much further into this novel, and the character and the momentum are leading me where I need to go. Your happy medium might be starting with one sentence and then writing into the wild blue yonder. Or it might be a 50 page detailed outline of each scene. How-to writing books are great, and often very useful, but you also need to know when to put them down and just write.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Playing with Words

Earlier this week, I created the following as a bit of fun (OK, so I was procrastinating instead of working on my novel!)


Write placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be
in a room of your own.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all publishers.
Write your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive writers,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser writers than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your deadlines.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of publishing.
Exercise caution in your business affairs,
especially your book contracts;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what marketing potential there is;
many persons strive for websites and platforms;
and everywhere life is full of shelf hangers.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection for your editor.
Neither be cynical about your rewrites;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
they are as perennial as the grass
and if you don’t improve your novel
you’ll have to rewrite it again.

Take kindly the counsel of your writing group,
gracefully surrendering the things that suck.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you against reviews.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of low sales and deep discounting.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
so many words per day,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a writer of the universe,
no less than the poets and the screenwriters;
you have a right to put words on the page
but not to expect people to appreciate them.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is reading as it should.

Therefore be at peace with your agent,
whatever you conceive him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life
keep peace also with your writer’s soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
the world of books
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.
Keep writing.

(yes, inspired by the Desiderata).

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Outlines vs Vague Thoughts

One of my big jobs this week was to write outlines for two books (my biggest job was to mark around 40 student assignments, but we won't go there). These two are supposedly going to be Books 2 and 3, featuring the same character. When I wrote the first one, I had no intention of writing any more. It seemed a complete story to me, with a fairly resounding ending. None of this Hollywood doubling back and tricking the reader at the last minute with a new monster being birthed. Then the publisher said the character was so good, how about another story featuring her?

Of course. (Lesson 1 in writing and publishing - never say No way, Jose when a publisher asks you to write a book, unless it's something horrible that would destroy your rep forever. You can always negotiate what the book might be, and get it closer to what you want.) In this case, it had been a while since I'd written the first one, and I also really liked the character. Not sure where she came from, but we get on well together.

Then it became 'We'd like to see outlines for two more books, please'. Hmmm. I don't have any problems with outlines, especially the ones done my way. My way starts with scribbles and circles and arrows all over the page, then it progresses to more diagrams and grids and notes. When I'm happy, I start writing. But that's not what a publisher wants to see. Because they'd never understand my scribbles and diagrams in a million years.

A publisher wants to see it all written out, like a summary or a short version of what the whole thing will be about, who will be in it, what will happen, and what the outcome will be. It's also good to indicate what the outcome will mean to the characters, the result of their journey. For me, this is not a synopsis. A synopsis is when you have written the whole thing and rewritten it, and then you write down everything that happens so an editor or agent reading the first three chapters can see whether you've got a solid grip on the rest of the story.

These outlines are saying what I'm going to write about. What I have planned will happen. There in lies the rub. What if I change my mind? What if a better idea or ending presents itself halfway through the writing? What if I get to Chapter 4 of my planned novel (according to the outline) and I hate it and it's not working how I thought it would, and I want to burn it? That's why outlines freak me out a bit. What if I get it wrong?

The plus side of this, however, is that while I had a good idea for Book 2, Book 3 wasn't even a twinkle in my eye. I had to start from scratch and explore a whole new idea. I came up with something I liked, then I came up with something big and exciting that really made it all come together. And in turn, that showed me where the weakness lay in Book 2. That's what I'm working on right now - how to find that big, exciting extra element that I think Book 2 still needs to pump it up to a top-notch story. It's mostly there, but I want to add one thing more...

Monday, April 07, 2008

April is Poetry Month

Actually, it's only Poetry Month in the US. Australia doesn't have a Poetry Month, or even a Poetry Week. I think we have one Poetry Day on 1 September, but my guess is that more Australians know that 17 September is World Talk Like a Pirate Day than know about Poetry Day. Arrrrr!

There are currently lots of websites and blogs promoting poetry for kids, in the classroom and generally. The CCBC Discussion Board is talking about poetry anthologies, and the ongoing issue of why more teachers don't teach or use poetry in the classroom. Mostly it seems to be because they don't know how to teach it. A few people have commented that if a teacher doesn't enjoy poetry and doesn't read it, there's little likelihood they'll include it in their classroom activities.

Some of the other issues are about "killing" a poem by dissecting it to death, using poems in classroom comprehension tests (another way of strangling a poem) and the teacher who reads out loud in a way that condemns a poem to the Boring Bin in a second. People also complain that they don't understand poems, that they're "too hard", and I can sympathise with that. But who said you have to understand every single thing? That is the joy of a poem - when it speaks to you on some other level that you can't pin down, but it makes you feel that you have just experienced something amazing and true. And there are hundreds of great poems that are easily understandable and still offer much to the reader. Accessibility in poetry is not about dumbing down!

When Billy Collins was Poet Laureate, he created a website of 180 poems for teachers (or everyone) to use - poems that weren't obscure or meaningless, poems that would provoke discussion, poems that showed the world in a different way. Even if all you did was read one poem per day out loud (without analysing it), you could create sparks of inspiration and maybe the desire to write a poem or two.

I like the idea of reading lots of poems and simply talking about what one of the poems says to you, then writing something in response. I don't think you can give kids a whole bunch of poem exercises to complete without first surrounding them with word music, imagery, rhythm and language possibilities. I think if a teacher enjoys poetry, they can't help but pass that on to their students (of any age). I like nothing better when I teach poetry writing than sharing my favourites. Here's one by Billy Collins - Introduction to Poetry. And another by Margaret Atwood - You Fit Into Me. Anyone got favourites of their own?

Friday, April 04, 2008

CBCA Shortlist

Around this time of year, some major awards here in Australia announce their shortlist. So we have the Miles Franklin, the NSW Premier's Literary Awards and the Australian Children's Book Council Awards. If you have a book in the running, it can be a nerve-wracking time. In 2005, my book Farm Kid was shortlisted for the NSW award, which was a huge surprise for me. When it won, I made the most of it and celebrated and went to the awards dinner in Sydney. It was like a huge, excellent, late Christmas gift, something to totally enjoy.

This year Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!) has been shortlisted for the CBCA Younger Reader awards. I can't tell you how many fingers and toes I had crossed! I could hardly walk. Although the Newbery Medal in the US doesn't have a shortlist beforehand, the effect on book sales and everything else that goes along with being a children's author is the same. It's mind-boggling, actually (I've talked to others who have been shortlisted and won or had Honour books), and exciting. And sitting around on Tuesday morning waiting for the shortlists to go up on the CBCA site was unbearable. So I went to the movies.

When I was a teenager, one of my favourite movies was Anne of a Thousand Days, so I really wanted to see The Other Boleyn Girl. It was great - lots of strong minor characters to fill out the story with subplots, two very different actors in the main roles, and a different perspective also on Anne. Yes, I did manage to forget about the shortlist announcements until the movie was over. Then I arrived home to a lovely message from my publisher on my answering machine, and the sight of my book on the website. It took a while to sink in, but the champagne helped!

There is now a long gap until the winners are announced - 15 August - which allows for lots of discussion and time for kids to read the books and decide for themselves. This year there will be another Junior Judges happening, where schools can get involved and be part of it. In early May, the CBCA conference takes place here in Melbourne, and I'm going to be leading a session on Sunday on poetry for children (which was organised months ago).

Yes, I am trying very hard here to sound serious and "worthy" - my friends would all laugh and give me a good poke in the ribs, because they know that inside there are a dozen elephants still doing a mad, happy dance! So now I will go off and do some writing, because I have a deadline, and later on I'll let the elephants out and we'll watch the footy and drink nice wine and celebrate some more!