Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End of the Year

I'm still cleaning out here - up to garbage bag Number 5, and am impatiently waiting for the recycle bin to be emptied so I can put more stuff in. Does my office look any better yet? Not really, until you look closely. The huge set of shelves in the corner, which previously groaned under the weight of tons of paper and stuff, are now almost empty, and all that is going back there will be in labelled boxes. It's a case of making room in order to create order!

I'm also still considering my goals. Yesterday I read the post on J.A. Konrath's blog - he has compiled his suggested goals for the past four years, and they make very interesting reading. And he is right - we should focus on things we have control over, and keep moving forward. Kristi Holl has posted on her blog about her planned study program for 2009. She's going to be doing her own MFA at home, a great idea and something that is in reach for everyone.

We all need to create our own path to follow, and work out what will take us further along it. I'm like Kristi - I'm in the mood for more study, although I don't want to spend the time on an MA (especially the academic exegesis side of it). I have just received the second Margie Lawson lecture packet - this one is on Deep EDITS, and will take what I've learned so far and extend it into language and crafting sentences.

I see many knick-knacks on the internet that are about helping you set goals and create mission statements. A lot of them also want you to set a financial goal to aim for. Various studies show that the average writer earns about $6000 a year from their writing. It's not like a weekly pay packet you can depend on. One year you could earn three times that amount, the next you might be lucky to earn half. Maybe the goal for a writer is to increase their yearly earnings by a percentage. Aim for a 10% or 20% increase each year, and part of your strategy needs to be to work out where that money will come from. I feel tired just thinking about it!

But I will be thinking a lot about my 09 goals this week, because I'll be sharing them with my special writing/crit partner next week. Deadlines are good! I'll also be looking over my 5 year plan (I still can't get beyond Year 3 but I'm trying), which I created after doing Randy's seminars. More importantly, I'm going to be looking at what I can do right now, and over the next two months, to set it all in motion for 09. All the goals in the world are pointless until you get started on them.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Wombat Wish

This has nothing to do with books! Apart from the fact that I have written two wombat stories (unpublished) and included a wombat in the new Tracey Binns story, due out next May. I have a "thing" about wombats. Have had for years, long before Jackie French made them famous with her picture book, and there have been other picture books about them too. But in the six-and-a-half years we have owned some bushland north of Melbourne, I have never seen a wombat there, despite mountains of wombat poo, and many scratchings and holes everywhere. (I don't count the one in the distance on the hill because I didn't have my glasses on!)

Yesterday, I finally got my wish. I went for a long walk, and decided to venture up the other side of the dry creek for a change. I walked along an animal track (usually made by kangaroos or wombats or both) and followed it down to the creek bed where I scared a little swamp wallaby into madly hopping away. I stopped for a moment to pull grass seeds out of my sock, headed back and heard more thumping. Another wallaby? I froze. Waited. Looked. And there was a wombat, not twelve feet away.

It's unusual to see them out in daylight. They usually come out at dusk to graze for food. I think I caught this one unawares. It froze too, waiting. I edged around to get a better view through the bracken. It sniffed the air. Luckily, the breeze was blowing towards me. I took lots of photos, and waited, finally sat on the ground. Watching and marvelling. The wombat scratched some fleas, sniffed around, couldn't seem to decide what to do, but as I was being as quiet as I could, it stayed.

Then a small branch fell from a nearby gum tree, and it bolted down its hole, which was just three feet away. I heard its feet thumping as it escaped underground, probably hoping I'd just go away and leave it alone. Which I did. Feeling very lucky and very special. And hoping among all my photos that at least one would do the experience justice. I'm happy!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cleaning Out

Early in 2007, I signed up for a series of teleseminars run by Randy Ingermanson and Alison Bottke called Clean Up Your Act. Originally, it was Lecture #1 that interested me - how to de-clutter your office. Did I ever need that! But in the end, the office went on as usual, I kept stepping over and around things and writing on the kitchen table, and my focus shifted to the strategic planning part of the seminar series. It was very helpful and made quite a difference to how I approached and planned things.

But ... the office. Eighteen months later, it's worse. And to make things even worser (Craig said I could use that word), I have a room out in my backyard that is also full of all sorts of stuff. Some furniture, some of my daughter's things, but mostly mine. Boxes of magazines, boxes of papers, old files, research materials, books, old clothes, old computer bits - you get the picture. Where on earth was I to start? In fact, that's really what's stopped me from making any headway with it. Every time I looked at how much there was, I felt like crying, and had no idea where to start.

Well, I finally worked out that starting point. It's a shelf. Any shelf. One shelf at a time. Doesn't matter which one - they're all bad news! And the floor. I had to clear at least half of the floor before I could start on a shelf, because otherwise there was nowhere to put the stuff on the shelf I wanted to keep, or the garbage bag. On the other hand, it doesn't pay to clear too much of the floor because that's a big incentive to keep more of what I should be throwing out.

So, in true Craig Harper style, I'm making myself accountable. To everyone who reads this. I'm posting a photo of my office, and I'm admitting that it got worse after I took this photo, so you really understand how desperate I was beginning to feel! But this time, with a Christmas and New Year break coming up, I have no excuse. I'll have time to spend at least an hour every day on this until I have conquered it. We've cut right down on gifts this year, so I won't be adding a whole pile of new stuff either. This is not a resolution thing, it's simply a commitment to making my life easier, and better for writing.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Standing Back From the Words

My friend K and I have just swapped manuscripts this week, and are currently reading and critiquing. We'll talk in a day or two about our feedback - so much better than trying to do it all on the page - but both of us are asking for a critique that focuses on the big picture. Fiddling around the edges, copyediting, strengthening verbs, smoothing out sentences - these are all things we can usually do ourselves, although it does help when someone points out the clunky bits.

It's one of the hardest things to learn as a writer, I think. The ability to be your own critic, to see what is not working, to pinpoint plot holes, inconsistent character stuff, stilted dialogue ... and then to know how to fix those things. We get too close to the words we write, we fall in love with them when we re-read, or else we are so self-critical that everything sounds like rubbish and we want to throw the manuscript in the bin. Some of the other things that can happen are being too nice to our characters, because we love them and we don't want bad things to happen to them. The result is no conflict and no tension. Or we confuse real life with fictional life, and include a whole heap of detail and action that has no purpose other than filling up the page.

I've been working on this particular novel for several months, and have just completed an intensive rewrite. While I was rewriting, I was right up close to the characters, and trying to get closer. At times, this meant the plot changed, and I know I didn't always keep track of those changes. And I also left some threads hanging, plot elements that were unresolved. I couldn't think about those things while I was focusing so much on character.

But once the manuscript went zapping off into cyberspace, via email to my critiquer, it gradually retreated from me. I had no desire to go back and read it again. Instead, I have been mentally reviewing the story - from a distance. I've been thinking about those plot holes, about those hanging threads, and about the minor character whose role was one I couldn't work out. I knew I didn't want to lose her, but neither did I want to build her up into a bigger role. Why was she in the story?

I'm keeping a notebook by my side, and every time a new question about the story, or anything else that I think is a problem, pops into my head, I write it down. And sometimes (it might take two minutes, it might come two hours later) I can see a solution and how to fit it into the narrative. I'm also thinking about character arcs, about how the main character changes or grows, and whether I've shown that strongly enough. I'm thinking now about theme - what am I really trying to say with this story? Have I shown it, or is it still vague and unsatisfying?

Distance is the key for me. Finding a way to stand right back and just consider the story with a critical eye. The overall story, not the actual words. If you're facing a busy Christmas period where you're not going to get much writing done, maybe you could keep a notebook handy and do some daydreaming/thinking about your novel while you're stirring food or washing dishes or slumped in an armchair, recovering from over-eating. Don't watch the same old horrible Christmas shows on TV - give your brain some writing work to do!

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Writer's State of Mind

How many times have you heard it said that a writer needs to read lots, and read widely? I've talked before about reading as a writer - today on someone's blog I was reading about how if you do a lot of analysis of plot and story structure, you can predict what is going to happen in most movies. (I try not to. Predict, that is.) But the edict is, in fact, true. The more you read, the more you read as a writer, the more your writing benefits.

Trouble is, my brain often isn't in the mood for certain books. When I'm very tired, when I've read a lot of student work, when I'm totally engrossed in a current project - I often can't read literary fiction. My concentration isn't up to the task. I have books that I keep on a reading pile for months, knowing that I'll manage them one day - just not right now. I indulge in what I love - crime fiction - instead.

So this is a good time of the year for me in terms of reading. I've been working up to it. A couple of months ago, I read The Spare Room by Helen Garner. I don't care if people are arguing over whether it's fiction or not. I just wanted to enjoy her evocative, cutting prose. I also read An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, and some literary short fiction. Now I'm reading Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. Every time I pick it up, I fall into a different world, and while I'm not reading it, I wonder what it is about literary fiction that makes it such a different experience.

A lot of readers talk about style, about voice, about language. Yes, it's all of that, but I've read (or tried to read) many literary novels that are nothing else but style and language, and it's been like watching paint dry. Endlessly pointless and mind-numbing. With a literary novel that draws you into the world of the story, there's more than language. Yes, it's a big part of it, but there is such a sense of rich detail, of depth of character, of the skill of being able to make small things and events so fascinating. I've never been to a prep school in the US, but while I read this novel I understand two things - what it's like in that kind of school, and what it's like for this viewpoint character, who is unlike any other character I've ever read about. And above all, I still empathise and understand and want to know what will happen to her.

Is there a plot? I would say it's a chronological, coming-of-age kind of story. No major crisis (so far) but there is growth and change. It gives the reader the satisfying experience of seeing a character evolve before she is aware of it herself. Yet she is aware, and is not that far behind. Will this end up being one of my favourites? Maybe not. But it will be memorable, and when someone asks me what I've read this year that I enjoyed, Prep will definitely be on my You Should Read This list, especially for writers.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Goal Setting Strategies

Everyone has a different method for goal setting - mine pertains to writers and writing projects. Rather than try to cover all the possibilities, I thought I would tell you what works for me, along with some added ideas. The first thing is to look at time frames - do you want to set goals for the year? Is this too much like New Year's resolutions? If so, shorten your time frame to three months, starting on a certain date (the sooner, the better).

Next, write down a list of everything you are working on at the moment, or want to work on in the near future. For some people, this will be one thing, probably a novel. For others like me, this may be five or six things. I probably won't work on them all, but this is my starting point. Then I look at my list and prioritise. What has a deadline? What am I most passionate about? For a three-month period, I then list my top four. For twelve months, I list the top four, and then if there are others, I number them in order of current importance to me.

Then I add other things that will be important for me to achieve in the time frame. This might be editing or proofreading that will be due on a new book. It might be a conference or two, a trip overseas, or perhaps I will decide I want to focus more on poetry writing and I decide to aim to write a poem a week. For everyone, this list will be different. If you begin by writing everything down, even more personal goals, you will at least then be able to make decisions about how you will spend your time. There's nothing worse than constantly feeling there are so many things that you want to achieve, that you have no idea how to organise yourself or where to start.

As I have said in my last post, there is also something about making this list that helps your goals to become more concrete and real, rather than hopes or dreams. (I often have a dream goal, by the way, something that is probably out of my reach in the near future but it's nice to hold out as special.) When you have decided on your top four, or perhaps decided that there is one major project you want to focus on, you can move to the next step.

For each goal, what do you need to do in the next four weeks to start working towards it? A long time ago, I attended a session where the person running it said: "If you are not prepared to spend five minutes per day on something to do with working towards that goal, then take the goal off your list". That sounds harsh, but it is valuable advice. If you are writing a novel, then maybe you can't write every day, but how about spending five or ten minutes on non-writing days either editing a page, or doing some research, or reading a writing book about an aspect you are struggling with?

Last year was the first time I had broken my yearly goals down into four-week blocks. It was useful for several reasons. One was it made larger goals (like writing a novel) not so huge and unattainable. Instead of write my novel, the small goal became write two chapters. It allowed me to take into account smaller jobs, such as submitting a picture book text, and make sure they got done. It also allowed me to vary my writing work during the four weeks - as well as two chapters, I might also have writing some poems on the list, or developing an idea I'd had for a short story.

One of my current goals for the next four weeks is a huge clean-out of my office (it's supposed to be a writing space but it looks like a monster has been in there and thrown every single thing up in the air). By giving myself four weeks, I've also given myself a deadline. A very necessary thing because I've been planning to do this clean-out all year! By including it in my four-week goal list, I also know that I will now devote regular small blocks of time to this goal, which makes it less like something that will give me nightmares. I can intersperse it with writing (a good way to stretch and get off the computer - lift and carry boxes and books!), as well as other small things on my To Do list. And every time I achieve another square metre of tidiness, I'll feel good.

My method may not work for you. Some writers need to set weekly goals of so many thousand words, or so many hours of writing. If you only have one project you want to focus on, another method may work better. I tend to have several things on the go, so my problem is focus and time management. If you have a method that works great for you, why not share it with us?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Setting Goals in Writing

Today, my writers' group is meeting for the last time this year, having lunch and relaxing (and giving back last-minute critiques!). Usually on this final day, I take along everyone's goals that they wrote down way back in March, and we read them out and admit how many of them we didn't reach. This year, we won't be doing this. Back in March, when we would normally talk about goals and then make our lists, it seemed everyone was prevaricating, saying how they didn't really want to, because they never looked at them again, or didn't do anything towards making their goals attainable.

Right now, you're probably thinking: If that's how they feel, then goal setting for them is a waste of time. You may well be right. But for me, not having a range of things to aim for, dream about, take small steps towards, would feel like having my left hand missing. I may not achieve all of my goals every year, but I know that at the very least, writing them down is an important step. Sometimes I may not refer to them again for months, sometimes I get to December and look at that list and think, Hey, I actually managed to achieve that!

This year I discovered that at the top of my list I had written "Work on finding a new method of revision for my novels". Back in February, I'd already been thinking about this aspect of my writing, and knew it was an area that needed some dedicated focus and effort. I remember reading several books on revision, and making notes that I then passed on to my students. Writing took over by July, and I wrote two children's novels in the following months. First drafts, that is. Then I embarked on Margie Lawson's lecture notes on Empowering Character Emotions, and that's where I found what I needed for my revision methods.

So when I read my list of goals, I said, "Aha, I achieved that without realising it was one of my main aims for the year". Was that coincidence? No. And that's where I feel people who dismiss goal-setting don't get it. The brain is an amazing thing. I have learned that if I put something inside it, add more material and ideas, add a firm mental commitment that this is something important and I need to keep working on it - my brain will quietly work away in the background (sometimes a very murky background!) and then come up with the goods when I'm ready.

It's not hocus-pocus, it's having faith that the instrument inside your head can actually work for you, even when you're not conscious of it. It works for solving plot problems, for finding that crucial last line of a poem, for developing your characters, so why shouldn't it work for more "practical" things? But you have to give it the opportunity and the "feeders" as well. And a list of goals, written down and reviewed every now and then, is a great starting point.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Books as Gifts

Over the past few days, there have been numerous articles in newspapers and magazines about the forthcoming (here already?) Christmas buying rush. Or the fact that everyone is expecting there will be no buying rush this year and many shops and businesses will go under, or at the very least, make huge losses. Here in Australia, the government has given people on pensions and benefits (but not the dole - obviously you are still being labelled bludgers and deserve nothing!) a big bonus of $1000+ to inspire you to spend up big as Present Day approaches.

Well, boring old me would be taking that $1000 (which I won't be eligible for) and putting it towards my house, rather than running out to KMart or Myer and having a little shopping spree, but it seems most of "those who are supposed to know these things" think everyone is going to go berserk and buy, buy, buy. When you add in the lower price of petrol and reduced mortgage rates, of course we all now suddenly have hundreds of extra dollars to splurge. (Never mind those whose Xmas present from their employer was a goodbye letter - even where I work, there are plenty of those letters going out tomorrow.)

Anyway, in all of these reports about what the predicters predict we'll all be spending our money on, every list I have seen so far has included books. BOOKS!!! Good gracious, they'll be telling us everyone is going to be reading them next. All jokes aside, I am pretty happy that books are finally being recognised, as one pundit put it, as a value gift. One that lasts. One that can be "used" over and over by different family members. One that gives hours of enjoyment, not just a couple of minutes before it breaks into twenty pieces. Yaaaayyyyy!!!

I have joined the "books as gifts" tribe (OK, I was a founding member from way back) and been buying them for little family members, as well as recommending my own - as you do - to others who might be interested. I'm also planning to donate some copies of my own books to the Wishing Tree. And to all of you who love children's books and already know you will be buying them as gifts this year, can I make a plea? Please don't wander into a bookshop and ask the assistant for a recommendation. It's 90% certain you will be handed something that is considered a "classic" or something by a celebrity. They don't need your purchasing power! Please either ask writer friends for recommendations on new books and authors, or take the time to sit in the children's section and do some reading.

My recommendations for picture books are: anything by Emily Gravett, especially Wolves or Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears; It's Not a Box by Antoinette Portis; anything by Mo Willems (my current favourites are Knuffle Bunny 1 & 2); anything by Bob Graham; Dougall the Garbage Dump Bear by Matt Dray; Dust by Colin Thompson and 13 others. And if you want a wider selection to amble through, look at the CBCA Notables List.
There really are so many wonderful picture books out there that never get a guernsey, never get even a small mention - all you have to do is spend a very enjoyable hour or two reading to find some new favourites of your own!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Blanket Marketing

We've just had local council elections here in Victoria, and it's been interesting to watch the various campaigns from those wanting us to vote for them. In my area, I've found it astounding to watch one candidate in particular, and his tactics. Every street in our area has a large poster of him on someone's fence**, there are even larger posters along the main road, I've had three letters from him personally addressed to me (one was hand delivered the day before the election and then the guy put another one in my letter box, not addressed to me or my street number!), more brochures in my letterbox, and then another one on my car windscreen at the local shopping centre.

I wondered several things about this guy - why was he so desperate to be elected, for a start? He wasn't promising anything much that was different. And where did all the money come from for his "waterfall" campaign? Every time I turned around, there was more stuff pouring out from him. I began to feel like he was the last person I'd vote for! But local council elections are weird. Lots of people stand as candidates, and because there's not much going on around here, they all sound the same. It's compulsory to vote, so how do you decide? Well, unfortunately it seems like a lot of people around here voted for the person whose name they recognised! Because they'd seen it on bits of paper every time they stepped outside their door.

Will he make a good councillor? Who knows? Probably very few of those who voted for him can predict this. Time will tell. But he sure ran the kind of advertising blitz/campaign that you couldn't avoid. It's like book publishing. We ask - why does Dan Brown need more publicity and advertising for his books? Why does James Patterson? Or J.K Rowling? Why can't the publishers stop spending marketing money on these famous writers and use it for less well-known writers? Many mid-list and newly-published writers fret about how they have to market their own books. Why is it so?

My guess is that a big publicity campaign for James Patterson is, first of all, already paid for by his earlier mega-sales. Nothing like investing in a sure thing. And a publicity campaign for his new book probably means a million extra sales. A big campaign for a mid-list author (especially if reviews and word-of-mouth don't add five stars) might mean an extra 10,000 copies. The more you see of James Patterson and his books, the more you hear about how great they are, the more likely you are to be tempted into buying one.

That's probably little comfort - OK, none at all - to the mid-list and new author. I read something today that said, in Australia, most mid-list children's authors are only selling around 1500 copies of their books. And that publishers rely on the best-sellers to stay afloat. It seems like a chicken-and-egg situation, doesn't it? What do you think?
** Needless to say, all the local kids had drawn Hitler moustaches on every picture of him!