Monday, December 28, 2009

Writing Now? Or Not?

This is a difficult time of year, especially if you have lots of family commitments. It's really hard for writers. We are used to peace and quiet, to having the house (or at least our writing room) to ourselves, to having our brain to ourselves. Suddenly, at Christmas, we have a million things to do, including cooking, shopping, cleaning up, etc - and then we have visitors. People in our house, wanting stuff. People of all ages from 2 to 92, demanding conversation, food, your attention. Where did your headspace for writing go? Arrgghhhh!

You have two options. One is to give in, to allocate however many days it will take to accomplish all that family stuff and simply go with the flow. Talk for hours to old rellies and little kids, prepare and eat and clean up tons of food, drink and eat too much and fall into bed. Read sometimes if you get a few minutes of peace. But give up totally on writing. It's hard. You were in the middle of something great. Your brain had moved into holiday mode and the writing was going well. But ... it's Christmas and you had to do the family thing or be called 'hostile' or 'inhospitable' or 'downright rude'.

The other option is to squirrel away your hours. One or two early in the morning before everyone gets up. One or two late at night after they've all gone to bed. One while they went for that family walk along the beach, and you said you'd be along soon ... One when they were all snoozing after lunch. One when they were all arguing about who made that fab Xmas cake back in 1992 and no one noticed when you crept away. By the time New Year arrives, you discover that you managed about 12 hours of writing, simply because you were determined to, and why the heck should you be on call 24 hours a day?

I'm kind of lucky (or not, if for you, Xmas is totally about full-on family for days on end, the more, the better). Most of my family live a long way away, and if I can't afford the air fares, Xmas in our house is fairly quiet. In fact, the whole Xmas period ends up being quiet. Great phone calls, but not a whole lot of socialising and having a house full of visitors. So I get to read a pile of books I've been saving, and I get to write. But I only write if I feel like it, because like many people this time of year is actually the one time when I can say STOP, close the door, turn off the computer, put my feet up and relax.

It's also a great time to re-energise. I love to do this by reading lots of books, seeing lots of movies (looking forward to "Bright Star" in particular), going for quiet walks in the bush, and sleeping. Nobody can work 52 weeks of the year, and really feel a constant supply of energy is available. So if you can't write at the moment, at least think about how you might re-energise your writing brain/imagination for the new year. And have fun!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Book Anticipation!

I love the holidays - it's my big reading time. There are books I specifically save and books I specifically go out and buy (and a whole lot more that I put on my list but I know I won't get to). Over the last two weeks, I've read the third Stieg Larsson - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - and Rain Gods by James Lee Burke. Both were complex stories with lots of characters and various plot threads. Burke is a master of description, so after finishing his book, I had to go and order the third Abercrombie title.
Last Argument of Kings (First Law)Last Argument of Kings (First Law) I commented on the descriptions and settings in the first of this series, and also the number of viewpoint characters and how well they are handled. That's the other thing about holidays - your brain doesn't have to cope with work anymore, so you can get stuck into good books and pay more attention!

As Lisa commented the other day, online book buying can create a rush of excitement and you end up buying one or two more than you expected. So I also bought Outliers: The Story of Success. I did check at Borders after I'd finished Xmas shopping, but they'd sold out. This book seems to be the "word of mouth" hot seller at the moment. I've heard a number of people mention bits of it, mostly the 10,000 hour theory - that you have to do something for 10,000 hours to be good at it. Like an apprenticeship. It applies to writing, too.

I checked the writer's website and found some interesting interviews and excerpts. Nicholas Gladwell has also written Blink and Tipping Point - if I like Outliers, I might read those, too (although it might be time for a library visit by then!). Being able to read excerpts and sample chapters is a great way to assess whether you want to buy a book or not. I'm also starting to see why writers put their short fiction on their websites - it can give you a taste of their style.

The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and ExercisesOf course, thinking about writing and perseverance and craft, I decided to buy another book that has been recommended by a few people - The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. It's an intriguing title, for a start, but again, I have been able to download an excerpt and check it out first. I have a pile of writing books and to buy a new one now means it has to be giving me something different, something useful.

So having gone berserk, I closed down my Fishpond order and went back to reading Ballistics, a collection of poems by Billy Collins. It's like meditation - to read a poem or two and think about them. A poet friend told me last week that people hate Billy Collins because he makes it look so easy!! But that's only on the surface. When you take the time to look at what is under the words, the craft shines through. Ah, holidays! Reading, thinking, dreaming.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

7 Great Reasons to Buy a Book as a Christmas Gift

At this time of year we're surrounded by Christmas decorations, fake trees, the pile of cards we haven't had time to send yet, and the gift list we haven't had time to shop for. So here are some great reasons to buy books as gifts! (and some shopping hints)

1. Books last. Long after the plastic toys are broken and the CD scratched, a book will still be on your shelves to be read again and again (kids love re-reading their favourites). Even board books are made to stand the test of a grabby, munchy toddler. I still have books from my childhood that are more than ... lots of years old.

2. You can buy a book to match every area of interest. Are your in-laws renovating? Buy them a home style book. Is your grandad a cricket fanatic? There's always a new cricket bio out. Is your nephew keen on comics? Try a graphic novel. You don't have to stick to fiction, and if you're really stuck, you can buy a book voucher.

3. In a large bookshop, you can buy every gift on your list in one outing!

4. You can create a lifelong love of reading and books in a child, simply by buying them several paperbacks of different kinds. You don't have to put all your eggs in one expensive hit-and-miss basket/book and risk them not liking it. Or you can take your grandchildren or small family members on a bookshop outing, and let them choose. Little ones would love it if you laid out a dozen picture books and let them pick one or two. Pull all kinds of books off the shelves and experiment. Don't just stick to the classics that are all the bookseller can usually recommend!

5. Books are biodegradable. If someone has finished with their book and wants to throw it away, it will rot nicely in the compost. But even better, if they want to swap with someone else, they get double enjoyment! And books are easy to wrap!

6. Books are great stress relievers. If you know someone who has had a hard year and always seems to be working (and has trouble winding down over the holidays), a book will take them out of this world and into another. It will also help them get to sleep at night - or if it's exciting, it may keep them awake but in the best possible way. They'll be engrossed in something that is not their work problems.

7. While you are in the bookshop, taking your time and having coffee and cruising around the shelves, you may well find something special for yourself to read over the holidays.

I have a holiday stack (OK, I have two or three holiday stacks, as I've had a busy year) and can't wait to get stuck into it. Just finished the last Stieg Larssen - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - and am now halfway through Rain Gods by James Lee Burke. Next might be Liar by Justine Larbalestier (just found it under a pile of other stuff). And don't forget, if you spent too much on gifts and can't afford your own holiday reading stack, go to your library!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dumbing Down

I have been a huge fan of The Wire for quite some time - before it became The Wire, you could say. Many years ago, I read the book by David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. He literally spent a year with Baltimore homicide detectives and the resulting book is fascinating. A few years later, it was made into a fictionalised series called Homicide: Life on the Street. I hadn't initially taken too much notice of The Wire because, like many "difficult" TV shows, the channel it was showing on programmed it late at night at all kinds of weird times.

But when it came out on DVD, I began watching it, and was totally entranced by both the characters and setting, but even more so by the structure of the storytelling. It was demanding. You had to watch every single minute of it, and pay attention, as some strands only appeared every second or third episode. There were dozens of characters, with different relationships to each other, and although there was usually one over-arching storyline for each series, there were also multiple storylines inside, plus some that carried over to other series. When I got to Series Five, knowing it was the last, I kept putting off watching the last episodes, not wanting it to end!

So I was interested to read an article in this week's Green Guide in The Age newspaper, written by David Simon, about what their aims were in creating The Wire. He says, "As a medium for serious storytelling, television has precious little to recommend it..." Why? Because everything is written around the ad breaks. How can you create something cohesive and, yes, challenging, when every 9 minutes, the viewer has to cope with 3 minutes of advertisements? A US channel called HBO has changed that, and it's where The Wire, as well as other shows such as The Sopranos are shown. On HBO, "nothing other than the stories themselves was for sale" and the viewer decided if he/she wanted to engage.

Simon also says, "We had it in mind that we would not explain everything to viewers..." and that this restraint meant the audience was "free to think hard about the story, the different worlds that the story presented and, ultimately, the ideas that underlie the drama." So, like all those people who discovered Charles Frazier's book, Cold Mountain, and told others about it so that it became a bestseller by word of mouth, a similar thing has happened for The Wire. Cold Mountain is not an easy book either. Twice I have set it as a class text for reading and discussion in my second-year novel class, and a lot of students who were not used to reading something that challenged them said they hated it. I suspect it was more that its complexity scared them off, and they weren't prepared to do the hard yards.

I suspect that this is what causes the great divide these days between those who love Dan Brown's books (The Da Vince Code, etc) and those who hate them. Brown writes page-turners, easy reads of very short chapters that never slow down and use simple language. The biggest questions readers have about his books always seem to revolve around whether they're based on truth or not. Those who hate the books complain about the bad writing, the lack of complexity, the cliches, etc. They're readers who want more from a book than a few quick thrills. They want to dive into language and ideas, to be enthralled by complex characters and complicated relationships, to see much more in the story than just a single concept.

In children's and YA books, like any other area, trends come and go. Vampires are on the way out (yes, just think, in ten years we'll have forgotten all about Bella and Edward, thank goodness) and now it seems to be werewolves. There will always be series that seem slight and not worthy of reading, but in the same way that kids will refuse broccoli, they'll refuse any attempt to shove award-winning books down their throat. Those of us who were keen readers when we were kids will remember forever the books that changed our lives, and they may not be the ones everyone else cites. But they were the ones that took us to another world, that challenged our ideas about who we thought we were (or might become). They weren't dumbed down at all, and we discovered them on our own. Like adults who discover and love The Wire, I hope kids today who are reading all find those special books, one way or another, that give them plenty to think about and imagine.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Writing vs Family

During NaNoWriMo, I'm sure there were more than a few writers who basically screamed at their family, or husband, saying: "Get away from me! I'm 9,000 words behind and it's all your fault! Leave me alone! I have to catch up!" Now I'm wondering how many of those writers have slid, gasping, into December and have taken a few moments to reflect on what they did, and how their families responded. Were you someone who told your family to go away? To, just for once, give you time and space to write? After all, you had a target. 50,000 words. See - it's on the website. Look at my graph. Look at how far behind I am. If you don't let me write, I'll...

I know that this is a constant dilemma for many writers, and let's be honest here - mostly it's women writers who agonise about this. There are a lot of men (OK, OK, not you) who feel perfectly fine about shutting the door on family obligations in order to write. What you do is important and fulfilling, blah blah. But for women it's different. It's almost impossible to shut the door on a wailing child, or a sick child, or a poorly mother or grandma. We just can't do it. In fact, many of us can't do it even on an ordinary day. After all, the kids have to get to piano, or soccer, or drama. How else will they get there if I don't stop writing (or don't begin) and start up the car?

But if this is you, fellow female writers, did Nano teach you anything? Did you perhaps learn that when you had to get those words into the computer, a few other things were forced to take care of themselves? That not everyone's hand had to be held? That a frozen quiche or pasta or, goodness me, takeaway food doesn't kill people once in a while? That with some encouragement, or threats, your husband can actually bath the kids and prepare dinner? Have you taken a little time to sit down and think about your Nano month, how you fitted in those words, what changes you made to make it happen? Did the world collapse?

Putting other people first is a habit. For some of us, it's ingrained in us since childhood. And more often than not, putting your kids and husband first is tattooed somewhere on your brain. I'm not saying throw your family out the door so you can write. We all have lives to live with people we love. But there are 24 hours in a day, and after you take out sleeping, and working, does every single one that's left have to be given over to family - instead of writing? What about you? And your writing? How important is it to you?

What can happen is you have a meltdown. You run away from them for a whole weekend or, if you're lucky, a week. You go to a conference or a retreat and write yourself into a frenzy. Do you come home feeling satisfied? I know that everyone writes differently, but time and time again, I've discovered (and heard from others) that it's writing regularly that gets the book written, and written well. Now that Nano is finished - and even if you didn't attempt Nano - think about it. Can you make/demand five hours a week in which to write? Not beg for, or throw a tantrum over. Claim. Not every minute of your life belongs to everyone else. Surely you can claim five hours a week for your writing?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

This Is The Way It Is (at the moment)

While I was in Hong Kong, I talked to a wide range of writers about getting published. This is always a great topic to delve into, but most particularly in HK, where there are hardly any publishers interested in fiction by HK writers. Having spoken to a few (publishers, that is) there seems to be a perception that most writers in HK are not worth publishing. It's simpler and easier to buy in fiction from other countries, often "mother" countries such as the US and UK. That makes it really hard for those living in HK - given that the number of publishers are small, and they don't seem too interested, writers there are forced to continually send their work overseas. This brings with it all those questions about markets and where to send and how to send it.

By the way, there are lots of bookshops and publishers in HK but mostly they deal in books in Chinese - the perception is that the ex-pat, English-speaking community there is too small to sustain local publishing. So many of the conversations I had were a bit depressing in one way, but not so much in others. After all, HK is a fascinating place, with a community of relationships and lifestyles that almost begs for stories to be told about it. Several people whose manuscripts I looked at were doing exactly that. Is this of interest to the wider world? Why not? Lots of readers love stories about people in other places, and most particularly about how they get on, or don't get on, with each other. (I must say, HK also has the most fascinating murder stories!)

But of course part of the conversation must be about what effect the GEC (global economic crisis, if you didn't already guess that one) is having on publishing. From the numerous newsletters I receive, and the various discussion lists I'm on, it would seem that the UK publishing scene is in dire straits, the US publishing scene has suffered huge layoffs and cuts, and the Australian publishing scene is ostensibly trundling along as usual, except ... less books are being accepted, some contracts and overseas deals are being cancelled, and more and more books are being let go out of print.

How do I know? Evidence turns up in my letter box. Very nice but apologetic letters about "out of print" and "cancellation" and "much lower sales than expected". If you are a new writer with great hopes for your manuscripts, it's easy at this point to feel quite despondent. To consider giving up. Or just stopping for a while. How long will this go on? Who knows? Children's and YA books are faring better than others. The feeling is that if you are writing adult novels, you had better keep your day job! Nonfiction needs a platform and a heap of promotion. Authors are told/nudged/bulldozed into social networking (not so subtle marketing that can easily alienate people if you approach it in the wrong way).

This is the way it is right now. It's out of our control, really. All we can do is go on as we are with our marketing and our websites and our whatevers, keeping ourselves out there and busy and at least feeling like we are a part of it all and not the baby being sucked down the plughole! But really - what matters to you? If you are a writer who relies totally on publication and book sales and a bit (or a lot) of fame to make you feel like a writer, then you probably will give up. There's not much of any of that around at the moment.

But if you're a writer who loves your craft, who is still working hard on your 10,000 hour apprenticeship (that's another blog post), who is still brimming with ideas, who is excited nearly every day to sit down and write, no matter what ... then think of this time as an opportunity to grow in your writing, to continue your apprenticeship, to keep doing that market research to see who's likely to be open to new ideas and manuscripts once the industry recovers a bit.

You know, there are more than a few publishers who are coasting right now, re-publishing bestsellers in new formats, resurrecting old favourites, trying to trade in on the nostalgia and familiarity/safety factor. That won't last. When they start looking for new, original work, do you want to be ready with a manuscript to knock their socks off? Make the most of this downtime to ramp up your writing, attend some classes, get some high-level feedback on your work, and get ready to submit when the tide turns.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Is This Worth Working On?

All over the world, writers taking part in Nano are either already celebrating, still beavering away to reach their 50,000 or have given up and are sitting back, wondering what they got out of it. I know I have managed a huge number of words at a really busy time of year, and am happy with my total. After 14 hour days, most of which has been spent talking, to sit down and write has been beyond me. Instead, since I've been inexplicably been waking up at 5.30am (unheard of for me), I've been squeezing in some words in the mornings.

But the burning question, once November is over, is: is this worth working on? In fact, it's the question we ALWAYS ask. Whether the novel is half-finished and we're flagging, or whether we have a first draft completed, it's always about its "value". What you put in vs. what you get out. Because the question is really - if I rework this (and spend maybe another year or at least dozens or hundreds of hours on it), will it be publishable? We can't help ourselves. Publication is like a validation or reward for the time and energy and commitment.

We forget that it's an unanswerable question. Is anything worth working on? If publication is your only way of valuing what you write, what effect does that have on your ability to commit and write and grow, because that's what writing is about? Every single thing that we write, if we tackle it seriously, should help our writing to grow, our craft to improve, our ability to revise it improve. It's the work itself that's important - what you can learn from putting your heart and brain into it, how it can expand the way you see the world and how you understand it.

Of course publication is wonderful! But the question - is this worth working on - can't be about publication. It has to be about you. Do you have a story you need or want to tell? Are you driven to tell it in the best way you can? Will you write it and revise it, no matter what? Does the subject engage or intrigue or stir you so much you can't help but write it? Then yes, it's worth working on.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What Lies Beneath

Over the past few days in Hong Kong, I've been talking a bit about stories - how to write them, specifically in terms of structure. It's a subject I teach in Australia, and there are some simple (and more complex) structures that are used over and over. The reason they don't become boring is because they are simply that - a frame on which to hang all the elements of your story. Characters, plot, setting, theme. People often confuse plot and structure, but a framework such as the hero's journey can give rise to a thousand different stories. Using the framework helps you get a handle on how to order events to create the most tension. And of course, with more experience, you can then twist and recreate it for your own devices.
Hong Kong is a place that makes you think a lot about what lies beneath. What is holding up all these immensely tall buildings? Much of the foreshore is built on landfill. Surely the weight of the skyscrapers might somehow force the land down? I'm not a geologist, but my imagination can create all kinds of disasters, if I let it run free! Yet everywhere I look, there are amazing edifices of concrete and steel reaching skyward, perched on crags and mountainsides, looking as they grew out of the rock.

This morning I went for a walk that involved a large number of steps upwards. You can start at the "bottom" and wend your way up the side of the mountain by following whichever stairway presents itself to you next. I went as far as I could without collapsing, and then began to follow a winding street back down again. The photo above is of the underneath of an apartment building I passed (not the very tall slim building in the top photo). Underpinning and strong foundations are important here - very important. Hillsides are not pinned with wire netting and layers of rocks like they are in Australia. I saw concrete blocks, tight rolls of wire fixed into more concrete, and more concrete again covering slopes and set with drain holes. And then there are trees like these whose roots are able to exist above the earth, or bricks, and cling like jasmine creepers or ivy. Hints of what lies beneath, tenacious threads that together form a strong network. Everything holds everything else tightly. Like all the parts of a great story, working hard underneath while above rises the "construction" that reaches for the sky.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Writing in Hong Kong

I wish I could say that Hong Kong has inspired me so much that I am madly writing and am way ahead of my word target for Nanowrimo. Sadly, not. Hong Kong is definitely inspiring - in fact I would like to move my location of my crime novel here, just so I can include all the amazing and interesting things I see every day. But it's me. I'm not adjusting to the time difference very well (keep waking up at 5am - not my best time of day, even for writing) and after a whole day of talking and teaching writing, the urge to sit and write my own words fades fairly quickly.

I did write 1000 words while at Discovery College the other day, but when I got home, the file had disappeared off my USB drive. Grrrrr. What is really sad about that is that I have very little idea of what I lost - no memory of writing anything spectacular that I'd mourn. I'm not even reading that much at the moment, as the eyes drop their shutters within minutes of me climbing into bed.

But I plan to improve. This is Nano, after all, and I can't start lagging way behind now. Tonight, for a change, there is nothing on. No talks, no meetings. And there is nothing on TV in my hotel room (unless I can understand Chinese, which I can't) so I have no excuses. Besides, last night at the Women in Publishing meeting, Susanna and I talked for half an hour (taking turns) about writer's block and how to get over it, or move past it. One of my recommendations was doing Nano!

It looks a bit suss if you talk about lots of methods to get yourself writing, and then you can't do it yourself! Besides, I haven't got writer's block. I've got speaker's blah, so that's no excuse either. I spent today at the Australian International School with a bunch of lovely people and great kids. It still amazes me to go to a school where it's all in one 7 or 8 storey building. We in Australia don't know how lucky we are with schools that have vast playing fields and room to run far and wide. So, before I start getting ready for tomorrow's school ... there will be words!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Opening Lines

As I pack for Hong Kong, I'm preparing lots of class materials and updating ones I've used before. It's interesting to see what I've used that worked, and think about how to present information in a better way. One new class I am teaching this time will be based on students answering a series of questions - I hope they're ready for lots of talking. In the classroom during the year, discussion is a strange bird that sometimes takes flight and sometimes stays huddled down, wings stubbornly folded. It can be a challenge to find a way of drawing students out - the confident ones will always have a go.

Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to PublicationSo finding a new book that tackles a familiar subject in a way that is useful to me is a great discovery. Today I was reading Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication by Ann Whitford Paul, and in particular the chapter on opening lines. You would think a picture book was so short that the opening line wasn't that important, but she gives excellent examples of how an opening line can change the whole tone of the story.

She uses The Three Little Pigs as an example - whose point of view is the story being told from? The wolf's? (My day got better as soon as I saw those three plump little pigs being thrown out of their house by mean old Mum.) Do you start with pathos (Mum Pig crying over her boys leaving) or anger (the little pigs thinking Mum is being horrible to them)? She gives a wide range of possibilities for how to start this very familiar tale, and each one changes the story into something new.

Every story is the same. I see people start with dialogue that has no identification for several lines, thinking they are being mysterious. Or they start with character description, so you'll know up front who this person is. The art of a stunning first line is a challenge to every writer, no matter what you write. David Sedaris starts one of his essays with: "Well, that little experiment is over," my mother said. Stuart MacBride starts Blind Eye with: Waiting was the worst bit: hunkered back against the wall, eyes squinting in the setting sun, waiting for the nod.

What do great first lines have? A sense of place and character, even if not spelled out. A sense of tone, a smidgin of description. But very often they have a story question - a real one, not one that is trying to trick the reader. Joe Abercrombie starts Before They Are Hanged with: Damn mist. It gets in your eyes so you can't see no more than a few strides ahead. (OK, so it's a fragment and a sentence.) It's setting and tone and character altogether - what kind of character says 'no more' and 'strides' rather than 'any further' and 'feet' or 'metres'?

I always feel like that first paragraph is a promise. It's no wonder people stand in bookshops and read first paragraphs and first pages. But they start with the first line that draws them in, and the next lines keep them reading. What's the best first line you've read recently?

Monday, November 09, 2009

What Kind of Writer Are You?

All over the world, writers are taking part in National (really international) Novel Writing Month. 50,000 words in November. I've done Nano before, but this time, with a whole pile of students taking part (yay to all of you), I suddenly have lots of buddies. And am seeing some amazing word counts. From one person who struggles to write a six line poem, we've got 19,000 words already! Another writer tells me she is Number 21 in the whole of Melbourne for word count (she hasn't divulged how many words yet, or buddied anyone - this is her solo journey). Of course, since classes have finished and assignments no longer loom, it seems Nano is the perfect outlet for those who might have felt constrained all year by having to write 'what the teacher wants'. (Trust me, you never want to do that with me!)

I was thinking about what Nano does to people - how it has the ability to change the way they see themselves as writers. I think we do tend to classify ourselves, and then maybe get locked into thinking, "Oh that's the way I write, so there's no point trying to change." Yet embarking on something like Nano shows over and over again that you can be different kinds of writer at different times, and locking yourself into one 'category' doesn't do you any favours. You might recognise yourself just a little in one of these:

* The Perfectionist. Nothing is ever ready to send out, because it needs another draft. These writers are likely to suffer writer's block, simply because they never live up to their own ultra-high idea of what a writer is and does. Sometimes the Perfectionist is keeping their novel in draft mode out of fear - what if I get rejected? Sometimes it's simply a weird idea of what writing should be.

* The First Drafter. This writer is so excited about finishing their novel (Draft 1) that they send it out to every publisher and agent. Without revising. Without contemplating the idea that a first draft is usually pretty awful. Most writers who do Nano realise that they are pouring out raw material and it's in the revision that you find the novel and how to make it work.

* The Cynic. This writer just 'knows' that no matter what they write, the publishing industry is such a crock that they'll never get published. It's a perfect strategic position from which to send work out and then be able to categorise the rejections as coming from 'the bean counters'.

* The Striver. This writer never gives up. Understands the industry, understands where they are in their 'apprenticeship', and keeps working at their manuscript. Sets goals, wants to always be improving.

* The Leap Frogger. This writer is a striver, but somehow takes leaps forward. Partly because of natural talent that they try to nurture and grow, but also because of an innate optimism that becomes a valuable asset. They can also fall in a big hole of disappointment over a series of rejections and give up. They try not to be too mercurial.

I'm sure there are many more. Anyone care to contribute?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Writing Life

I caught the end of an interview on TV last night with horse trainer, David Hayes (this being Melbourne Cup week). He was talking about horse racing, I imagine, but his last sentence struck me as applying to anything, even writing. To paraphrase (I don't think I wrote it down exactly):
If you treat it as a job, you won’t do very well. If you treat it as your life, you’ve got a good chance of succeeding.
He's right, I think, but he's also talking about fear. As long as something is a job, it conveys a number of things - validation, expectation of (regular) income, that showing up every day is enough, that meeting deadlines and working hard is enough.

But when you make something your life, that means a whole different situation. You put everything on the line. Regular income, security, respect from others (you're trying to make it as a writer?), probably sleep, sometimes family, self-worth, self-confidence. After all, what if you fail? What if you write for five or ten years and never get your novel published? Then what will happen? If you're the guy who wrote A Confederacy of Dunces, you kill yourself. And then his mother got his novel published and it became a best-seller. So making writing your life might also, to you, mean you put your life on the line. Drinking yourself to death from disappointment still counts as dying.

Let's say you don't go that far or get that depressed. And let's say you'll put the fear aside for now. What benefits are there to making writing your life? Firstly, it gives you a sense of purpose and meaning you may never have had before. It gives you permission (said permission given by yourself, to yourself, the most important kind) to pour your heart and your mind and your energy into writing. It gives you permission to write about what you feel passionate about. Job writing is doing commissioned stuff for other people's needs. You can do that, too - it helps to pay the bills. But if doing that sucks all the creativity out of your life and your real writing, maybe you should consider a job at Pizza Hut.

Making writing your life can mean other unchallenging, boring things can fall off your plate, and you let them without any sense of obligation. Your life is now a challenge instead of a trudge from day to day. It's scary to get up in the morning, but that's a good thing. You might finally have the chance and the reason to go back to study, and study writing. And as you study, you only want to get better and better. Good marks help your confidence, but what you really want are those comments from your teacher. You skip past the grade and want to know what your teacher thought of your dialogue, because you know it needs work.

You buy writing books that 'speak' to you, and you learn from them, too. And then you buy writing books that are more complex because you've grown. You stop reading romances or movie tie-ins as escapism and dive head first into books that last year looked 'too hard'. You persevere with them, and grow to love the use of language and different ideas. You learn to read as a writer, and keep growing. You write every day, and celebrate at the end of the day, even if you only managed 50 words you were happy with.

You are on a journey that will never end as long as writing is your life. You will stumble, even fall. You will find others on the same journey at different times who will help you up. You will carry on with scabbed knees because the scars will also help make you a better writer. You will learn to grow a thicker skin for the rejections. You will learn how to talk to an editor at a conference as if you are a professional, intelligent being. You will keep adding things to your Ideas file, because you have learned that the more you write and read, the more ideas you have. It's a hard life, and it's an excellent life.

Some people make the decision that writing is their life in an instant. Some take several years to work up to it. Fear is a hard thing to overcome, especially when it can be many fears rolled into one and you have to deal with all of them. You can start slowly. No one will know but you. And somewhere along the way, you may discover that writing will never be your life. You just don't have that kind of feeling about it anymore. I have known writers with books published who have given up and found an easier life to live. That's fine, too. It's your life, after all.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Book Sales - Up or Down?

In a Publisher's Weekly newsletter this week was a link to a very interesting article about sales of children's and YA books, but more particularly about a survey on teen book buying habits. The article (found here) starts with this in the first paragraph:
While adult trade sales are expected to fall 4% this year, juvenile and young adult sales are expected to increase 5.1%, according to the PW/IPR Book Sales Index.
This tallies with what I've read in other media and newsletters - that the children's/YA market is booming and book sales continue to rise.

The whole article is fascinating, because it also looks at how and why teens buy books. The back cover copy is a huge influence, as is the cover. Teens like to go to author websites and check out new titles and information about the author - but they also like to meet the author at bookstore events or school visits (that's good to hear - but not sure if it's the same here). When asked how many books they bought, the result was:
Over the period surveyed (two months), 31% bought three to five new books, 21% bought one to two and 21% bought six to 10; 13% bought more than 10 while 13% didn't buy any new books.
Quite a few said they were going to the library more, which meant buying less, but others said they were buying more books now than before. Yaayy!

So what's happening in the actual publishing industry? Plenty of staff have been laid off in the US and UK - I haven't heard of any layoffs here in Australia. I don't have exact stats on Australian book sales for the last few months, but the general feeling for a while was one of "battening down the hatches". Books on backlists were allowed to go out of print, and the bestseller lists were dominated by Stephanie Meyer and now Dan Brown. I got the impression quite a few new writers who had been hoping to break in felt that the door had closed to them. Does anyone know what's really happening? Well, my impression is business as usual here, but publishers are being more picky, and looking for projects that they are sure, or as sure as they can be, will sell well. So yes, maybe new writers are going to find it harder.

But isn't that always the case? To break in, you need something well-written, with a great voice and concept, and ability to carry it all the way. "Nice" and "competent" haven't been good enough for a long time. So has anything really changed? I think belts are being pulled a lot tighter, and they'll stay that way. I spoke recently to a woman running an events and promotions company - she said she had had a really rough six months late last year, and had learned to economise, cut costs and tighten up. Now that business was going well again, she wasn't about to go back to her old ways. The economising would continue to create a better bottom line.

How this will affect publishing long-term is a different matter. We have ebooks to contend with (the Kindle has just arrived in Australia but the response seems to be a bit of a yawn) and in the US there is a strange deep-discounting war going on with the Walmart kind of store - so if you live there, buy from your indie store! It will be interesting to see where we are in twelve months time. My feeling is that we might see more of a marketing push towards the hot new books (more vampires and conspiracies), but I'm hoping keen readers and book buyers will continue to use the good old word of mouth for their book-buying. You're less likely to end up with a dud that way!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Managing a Large Project 2

AFter considering large projects the other day, I started thinking about the different methods I've used over the years for myself. I've tried a few - some worked better than others. I suspect that everyone has to find a method that works for them. But here are some you might find useful:

* File cards - write each scene on a card and pin it to a board. You could summarise the main action of the scene (as a reminder, if nothing else) but also the purpose of the scene. You'll soon see if another scene is doing it better, or whether a scene has no real purpose at all. I've tried this with sticky notes on a large sheet of paper on the wall and ended up with a pile of paper on the floor on a hot day (as Sheryl G. mentioned). This method is handy if you are playing with chronology and want to run scenes out of sequence, or have a subplot interwoven.

* Loose-leaf binder - separate your bits into categories. Characters, settings, subplots, etc. This becomes like a bible and is handy to stop your character having red hair on page 27 and blonde hair on page 143. This method is handy if you are good at keeping the whole storyline in your head but have trouble with the smaller details.

* Notebook - I've started keeping a new notebook for each novel project. This might not be enough for a large project with many subplots and viewpoint characters and time shifts, but for an average novel it can be very handy to keep everything in one place. For another project which has several components, I'm keeping a separate notebook for each one (e.g. research notes).

* Computer software - I don't use this method but I know a few people who do. There are several different software programs that keep track of characters, plotlines, subplots, settings etc. There are also some programs that are designed to help you out of plotting dead ends, or provide you with new ideas and possibilities. I also know one person who uses spreadsheets as a way of keeping track of this stuff.

* Colour-coded folders - a different way of organising material and notes. Blue for characters, red for research, etc. This can be good if you're the kind of person who collects things such as photocopies, research notes, pictures of your characters, etc, or you like to make random notes on bits of paper and sort them later.

* The whole wall - if you have a few spare walls, you can cover them in large sheets of paper and write everything up where you can see it. This can be good for creating a visual storyline (along the top of the paper, perhaps) and adding everything underneath that relates to each part of the story. Rather than sticky notes, glue your bits of paper on so they don't get lost. If you change your mind, just glue something else over the top. I like diagramming so this would work for me - if I had any spare walls!

Have you got any methods that work for you? Are you organised like this? Or do you wish you were? Or would you rather just write and see what comes out, and fix it all later.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Managing a Large Project

In the past two weeks, I've experienced two major works. By "experienced", I mean I read one (a book) and went to see another (a play). Both of these left me wondering about the amount of time and mental energy it takes to create a major project. But even more than this, a project that stretches the boundaries in some way. Obviously it takes time. It's hard to imagine writing a 150,000 word book in your spare time between work and family, let alone a huge book that involves time shifts, multiple characters, research and the invention of elements such as fabricated diaries and histories.

The Hour I First BelievedThe book I'm referring to is The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb. I bought this because I had loved his first two books - "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much is True". I bought the current title some time ago, and put it aside. It was huge - nearly three inches thick, and 734 pages. I didn't want to try and read it at a time when my brain wasn't up to it.

And I'd also read a couple of negative reviews that said Lamb had let the subject matter get away on him. Lost the plot, so to speak. But one day I picked the book off my reading pile and began. I agree - there are some parts that I skipped. They did seem off the track of the story, and I wondered why he'd included them in such detail (I'm referring to the fabricated diary mostly). But overall the book held me for the duration. I really wanted to keep reading, I wanted to find out what happened, and 734 pages went fairly quickly (unlike some 3 hour movies I won't name).

At the end, I started wondering. How does a writer "manage" such a huge book? This is not just a story about a couple who crash apart after the wife is almost murdered at Columbine High School. This is about history, family, obligation, and the links we make or refuse between generations. It requires an intelligent, believable narrator who involves us in his story, and a writer who can create rich threads and then gradually draw them together into a tapestry. And right at the end, we discover how and when the "hour of believing" happens.

My other experience was a play that went for more than two hours with no interval. This was Andrew Bovell's "When the Rain Stopped Falling". It began with rain falling on the stage and then a fish landing in front of us. I know it was real because we got splashed! What followed was a complex series of moves between eras from 2039 to 1959 and back again, and along the way we saw revealed the layers of catastrophe in a family, like the ripples from a rock tossed into the water. It wasn't until about 3/4 of the way through that we began to see the links, the layers and the meanings. Afterwards everyone in the audience was eager to talk about what they'd seen, what the links meant, how it all came together.

And I was back thinking again about the "major project" - the challenges for a writer who chooses to tell a multi-layered, multi-timeframe story. How do they plan such a story? How do they keep track of all the threads? How do they decide what is essential, what is superfluous? How, when the first draft is there in front of them in a huge lump, do they rework it without losing sight of the original intent? It's all very well to be picky after reading or watching something of this scale, but I've decided I can forgive the occasional sidetrack or perhaps unnecessary extra. I'd rather think about the book or play as a whole, and learn from what worked.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Presenting and Panicking

Over the past two weeks, I've been a student in a workshop/class on how to do better presentations. The one thing that drives me crazy is going to a seminar or talk where the person speaking puts everything up on a Powerpoint and then basically reads from it. As a teacher and writer, I do a range of presentations: I teach classes where I need to show a range of materials and provide information for note-taking; I do school visits and talk to kids from five to eighteen; I speak at conferences. While I have strongly resisted the Powerpoint disease and shied away from bullet points, it's weird how you can find yourself falling into that when inspiration fails you!

So when a professional development opportunity arose at work, I suggested that creating better presentations be our focus. The first task was to find someone who could show us new alternatives - that turned out to be Tania Makin from The Presentation Group. She came along and spent 8 hours with us during which, instead of telling us what to do, she provided a wealth of good and bad examples, and we analysed and discussed what worked and what didn't. In Week 1, we had to present for two minutes on a topic. In Week 2, it became a five minute task. Both times, we "graded" each other; the second time, we were filmed.

When I'm at a conference or a festival, I like to listen to and watch other writers and think about what they do and how they do it. Some are great, some are not. I discovered that great presenters to kids, like James Roy, tell stories. Funnily enough, the most interesting speakers at the big writers' festivals do similar things. Rather than lecture, they tell a series of small stories. Those that are boring are the ones that think they need to lecture, reading from prepared papers or the dreaded Powerpoints. The best presentation I have seen was an editor and illustrator talking about how a picture book was created, and the whole PP was simply images from various stages of the book.

So what did Tania Makin tell us? Or, what did I learn that was useful? Firstly, that my perception that telling stories was the most engaging approach for the audience was correct. We talked about the ways in which stories can be utilised to get across the information we want - she calls it the documentary approach. Rather than a series of facts or dot points, you can frame your talk as a narrative. The use of great images is really important - what's also important is how you present them on the screen. I added my own corollary to this - you can never depend on the technology to work, especially in schools. Your talk needs to stand alone without the PP behind you on the screen.

Some of the other points that have stuck with me (without going back to the handouts and infringing on Tania's copyright!) include doing a lengthy analysis of your audience - who are they, what will they expect, where will you present, what is your purpose. This is important to me. One day it can be 50 five-year-olds, the next it can be a room full of school librarians. There are also times where you need to provide good handouts to give accurate data and information, but you also need to remember that this is where it belongs, not on the screen.

I came away with my brain buzzing, and feeling a lot more confident about how to use images and titles, and also feeling that my usual approach is actually OK - I just need to develop it and expand it more (and not talk so fast). I also need to spend more time thinking about how to match images with what I am saying, something I've always known about picture book writing but never applied to my presentations - the image is there to enhance and/or take the place of the words, not just be a nice decoration behind me! But while the image stuff is useful, there will still be plenty of times where I can't use it, so ... it's back to making the words work better!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nurturing Ideas

This week, Dr Elizabeth Blackburn shared in winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine, and in The Age she is quoted as saying: Chance favours the prepared mind. This has stuck with me for days, and I've been thinking about how it applies - to writing, and to life in general. Students often complain that there are no new story ideas, so how can you write anything original? Or I tell them to make things worse and worse for their character until there is total disaster and no way out. But then, they say, how can you come up with a story solution?

By preparing the way and letting the supposed 90% of your brain that you don't use much help you out. Writers often rush. They push an idea too hard and beat it to death, or give up too easily before finding what it needs to become more original. Kids are notorious for writing stories that end "and then I woke up and discovered it was all a dream". It's because they can't work out a good ending so that one will do. As writers, we can't give in that easily.

So what is the prepared mind? For a start, one that is used to writing. If you only write once a month, then forcing your story into action will be a big struggle. It takes you so long to find your feet in it again that there's no mental room for spreading your wings (sorry about the cliches - couldn't resist!). I find if I haven't written any poems for a while, I need to write three or four bad ones before I rediscover the rhythm and imagery I need to create something I'm happy with. If you work on your novel or your writing project regularly, it will be happily bubbling way in the back of your mind and provide you with new ideas and inspirations.

I suggest to students that when they are working on a story in the early stages, they spread out their notes or diagrams or plans on a table, or stick them to a wall, and regularly come back for another read and a ponder. Each time you think of something new, add it in. You will be amazed how physically keeping the project in front of you will create sparks and leaps, and enable you to take the ideas to new horizons or higher levels.

It's also helpful to keep a notebook specifically for each project. Carry it with you and read bits when you have spare moments, then add new material when it pops up in your mind. This can work for anything, not just writing. You may have a building project on the go, or a work assignment - keeping it physically with you enables you to jot down ideas on the spot. If you have created an impossible situation for your character and don't know how to get them out of it, put it aside and go for a walk, or leave pen and paper beside your bed and go to sleep thinking about it. Often the solution will seemingly "just come to you" - but it doesn't really. You've prepared your mind, given it the materials it needs and the questions you want answered, and now it works away in the background and eventually will give you an outcome. Or several outcomes. The more the better!

I've been talking about focused idea nurturing, but it works in a general way, too. If you're a writer, you may worry that you will run out of ideas, but really all you have to do is be open to them, prepare the way by telling yourself you're ready and waiting, and then grab each idea as it passes and write it down. There are thousands of them out there. And if you feel stuck, give yourself an assignment. Buy a 48 page notebook and commit to writing a poem or a paragraph every day for 48 days, no matter what, no matter how silly the topic might seem. For writers who love deadlines, that's a winner!

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Royalties Big Dipper

In Australia, for many writers, 30 September is royalties time. We only get them every six months usually (unlike the US where I believe a lot of publishers pay quarterly), so when the time gets close, you tend to hold your breath. There are a number of ways you can find yourself on the big slide down. One is that just when you were expecting to start earning out your advance on a book and receiving more money, there were a lot of returns back to the warehouse. (For those of you who might not know, bookshops are just about the only retail outlet - that I know of, anyway - where if they don't sell what they order, they're allowed to return the books and get a credit.) So you end up back in the red.

Another slide down occurs when something happens at the publisher (such as they go out of business, or are running at a loss) and they decide to remainder your book. Either a big lump of copies, or the whole lot. Suddenly, instead of them paying you money, you have to pay them in order to get hold of what you can before your book goes to the great pulping machine. Or there aren't many copies of your book left so the publisher decides it's not worth reprinting and they deem the book out of print, and again you're offered what's left. If you're lucky.

What can also happen is that your book has been out for quite a while, and is no longer selling more than the odd copy. So you receive royalty statements, like I did this week, for minimal amounts. One of mine was for $2.13, the other for 48 cents. If I put them both together, I can buy myself an icecream!

This is all in the nature of publishing, of course. It's a business. Just as I wouldn't go down the street and buy a pair of jeans that was manufactured in 1994 and been sitting on the shelf ever since, neither do I expect people to keep buying my old books when all those bright, shiny new ones are out there now. I'm not going to buy Agatha Christie in preference to the new Stieg Larssen (and I am so happy my copy of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest arrived today - yaayyyy!).

There is a constant debate, somewhat quieter at the moment with the economic worries, about the size of advances. Should you push for a big advance? The logic is that if you get lots up front, it pushes the publisher into doing more marketing of your book. But it can backfire. You could be offered $8000 and manage to get $20,000 instead, but if you don't sell enough copies and earn out that advance, the publisher eyes you a bit negatively. Marketing budgets are tight, authors now are expected to do plenty of publicity on their own. Everyone is responsible! That can make you feel as depressed as a $2.00 royalty payment.

With new technologies coming in - ebooks are only the tip of the iceberg - royalties will become even more of an issue. How much should an author get? The standard on a book is 10% here, but that takes into account how much a book costs to physically produce. When you start talking internet downloads onto Kindles and such, why shouldn't authors reap some of the benefits of cheaper production costs? Ah yes, the future will be very interesting indeed. I'm not making bets on anything. Can't afford to. I've only got $2.61 to gamble with!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Research on the Internet 2009

After four hours on the internet yesterday, researching a range of topics I needed information on, I began to wonder what had happened to the world wide web. If I knew exactly what I wanted (e.g. the Qantas website or a particular university course), I came up with the right website in a minute or less. However, if I was looking for information, rather than a site, what I discovered was a huge range of sites that were useless. That didn't respond to my search terms. That redirected me to other sites that were irrelevant. What has happened? Is it Google? Should I start using another search engine?

I remember around seven years ago when I was doing historical research on pirates in the Caribbean (pre the movies). There were plenty of sites, many with a lot of information on them, and my main task was to work out which ones were accurate. There are a lot of people with pirate sites! Usually any sites based at a university or historical research facility or government history facility were good, and gave me not only a wealth of information but lists of further references to pursue.

What do we get now? For a start, Wikipedia. I have nothing against it, but it's really only a starting point (not always accurate) for further, deeper research. What I am finding is that the truly useful sites are now buried under a hundred other sites that try to offer me merchandise or other rubbish, or that have used my keywords in some kind of cunning way to get me to their site, no matter what my real search is about.

I've also found that even refining search terms to be as accurate as possible doesn't work. One search I did was to try to find a cheap or reasonable-cost hotel in a particular area of a large city. I estimated that 70% of the sites that came up on the first two pages of Google were for hotels that were either way outside the area I specified or were way too expensive. This happened with a couple of other searches I did for different things.

The other thing I have found is a paucity of material. Yes, I know that website analysts are pounding into our heads that sites need to have short bursts of information that are readable on screen. That might work for a recipe or tourist site, but if I am researching, for example, the first cars in Australia and what they were and what they looked like and who owned them and who made them, one paragraph was hopeless - and that was on the museum website.

Has the internet finally got to a point where, if you want quality and quantity of information, it is useless to us? Have the merchandisers (i.e. anyone who wants to sell us something via the net) finally made the internet so cluttered that it's no use at all if you are doing real research? What do you think? (What I think is thank goodness for books and libraries! That's where I'm heading tomorrow.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Instruments of Creation

It used to be that if you did an author talk, one of the questions you were sure to be asked was, "Do you write with a pen or on the computer?" I haven't heard this question for ages, maybe because these days we assume everyone uses the keyboard, and pens are passe. Recently, Bic released an Anniversary edition of their famous 4-colour pen - the limited-edition pen comes with purple, pink, green and aqua ink, instead of the usual black, blue, red and green. I have to say I've never used this pen in my life. It just seemed such a waste to buy a pen like that and only use the black ink!

Maybe I'd play with the new colours, but probably not. Like many writers I know, I have certain pens that I love to use, and others I reject. Reasons for rejection might be the pen is too thin to grip (I've had RSI problems for years), or the nib is no good. There are lots of roller ball pens I won't touch because I know I'll wreck the little ball in no time. Others are no good because I wear one side down and then the pen will no longer write properly. I like a pen that writes smoothly, no matter what (or how hard I press down, obviously!), and that I can grip properly.

Ah, pens... And then we move on to keyboards. My big test for a laptop is how the keys feel when I bash them. OK, I don't bash them in the shop, but I give them a bit of a workout, all the same. They do all feel different (try it sometime). I love the little laptops that are out now, but I can just see myself, elbows cocked way up in the air, neck straining, as I try to get my fingers onto the tiny keyboard properly. Not likely. I used to have an ergonomic keyboard for my RSI, but in the end it didn't make much difference. It was the height of the keyboard that was the main factor.

Pen or keyboard - both are instruments of creation for writers. And also instruments of destruction. My osteopath is forever scolding me for what he sees are the results of poor computer habits. I have a ganglion on my wrist (from the mouse) and constant neck and shoulder problems. All self-inflicted. But I am learning to take notice of the warning twinges, and get up and stretch, or have a rest for a while. I'm also trying harder to do the exercises I've been given. I wish I could say going back to the pen would solve these problems, but it won't. The damage has been done.
OK, I'm off now to do my doorway stretches!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Writing Good Action Scenes

The Blade Itself: Book One of the First Law (Gollancz S.F.)I had never heard of Joe Abercrombie before, and happened to see a pile of his books in the bookshop one day. By a pile, I mean spread across three shelves. Of course, the series that caught my eye (The Blade Itself: Book One of the First Law (Gollancz S.F.)) had no Book No. 1 on the shelf and I couldn't find it in any other bookshop either. Wouldn't you think if you were displaying and spruiking Books 2 and 3 that you would make sure Book 1 was there for the curious new reader like me? So I went online and bought it. Cheaper.

I'm not sure what attracted me to this book. I do read fantasy but not a huge amount. However, I think it was the list of characters on the blurb combined with the first page - always a good test.
Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head.

That, and the rest of the first page, raise a number of intriguing story questions, and I also admired the author's obvious ability to write action.

As we do now, I went and checked out his website, and when my book arrived, I settled down to read. And was not disappointed. Abercrombie calls his hero, Logen Ninefingers, 'the thinking man's barbarian'. But Logen also has a bit of dry sense of humour, along with his ability to cut people in half. What made the book much more interesting though is the array of other viewpoint characters. Jezal is a knight who fancies himself as a fighter and a hero, and is soon shown to be be neither. Glokta is an inquisitor who has been severely tortured, lived to return to the city and is now an Inquisitor who is excellent at torturing others.

By now, if this kind of book is not your 'thing', you're about to stop reading this. But as well as several other intriguing characters (and JA manages to control at least five viewpoints in the novel without losing the reader), there are also plenty of examples of how to write good action scenes. This is a lot harder than you think. It's easy enough to imagine a fight scene where A hits B and B slices A with a knife. But trying to get a whole fight down on paper and make it seem real, fast-moving and exciting, as well as putting in description and character, is a challenge for most writers. Try this as another example:

Logen sprang at him but his ankle twisted on a stone and he tottered like a drunkard, yelping at the pain. An arrow hummed past his face from somewhere in the trees behind and was lost in the bushes on the other side of the road. The horse snorted and kicked, eyes rolling madly, then took off down the road at a crazy gallop.

This might not seem out of the ordinary, but JA does it continually, interspersed with other scenes that are slow and detailed in comparison. His books don't get all good reviews - one reviewer said "Instead of making this an exciting tale of adventure and discovery and colourful world building -- let's make it nauseatingly violent, overwhelmingly bleak, relentlessly depressing, while coming this close to being utterly pointless." Well, yes. But sometimes that's what some of us like to read!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What's In a Name?

People (especially kids) often ask me where I get the names for my characters. Names are important. They can indicate age, background, nationality, gender ... they can also work for or against character. It used to be that if you wanted to give a wussy male character a wussy name, you might call him Cyril or Cecil. On the other hand, you can create humour by calling a big, tough bruiser Cecil. With kids' names in stories, especially historical ones, I use the internet sites that tell you what were the most popular names in a given year or decade. Very handy!

But what about your villains? You want to make them as horrible and nasty as possible, and that can mean using a name that helps your depiction. In my Tracey Binns novels, the villain is Justin Zit-face - basically I chose Justin because that was the name of a kid who used to bully my daughter years ago! The Zit-face is part of his physical description. Another option is to give them a nasty nickname, such as Bullet or Hammerhead. However, a problem arises when you have given your villain a normal kind of name (like Justin) and you do an author visit to a school, and a kid comes up to you and says his name is Justin. And then stands there, waiting for you to tell him why your villain has the same name as him!

That's the point at which I tell the truth about why I chose the name, and then say, "Of course, you're nothing like that. What would you call a villain in your story?" And often they give you some really good suggestions. I advise writing students to include a baby name book in their resource library. These kinds of books provide the meaning of the name too, which can be quite handy to help you match a name to a particular kind of character. For surnames, I head for the phone book and try to pick one that is fairly common.

Another option is one that famous writers sometimes use - they "auction" a character name, or give it as a prize at one of their book events. By this, I mean that whoever wins the prize gets to have a character named after them in the author's next book. A writer friend of mine won this "privilege" at an event with crime writer Val McDermid a few years ago. Bronwen Scott now appears in Val's novels as a tough, sharp, nasty lawyer who turns up every now and then to defend murderers and rapists! That's the thing - when you win, you don't get to say what your character will be like. (Hi, B.)

It definitely doesn't pay to name your characters after friends or relatives. It's a sure way to cause great conflict and rellies are bound to take umbrage unless the character is gorgeous or handsome. So the next time you need to name a character, think long and hard about who you might offend. And then go ahead and pick the best name to suit your villainous character anyway!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Brisbane Writers' Festival Photos

The first online session - talking to six schools at once from all over Queensland.
My Thursday session in the red marquee - the woman on the right is the Auslan interpreter, and now I know how to say tutu in Auslan!

Same session at question time - it was amazing. 300+ kids and nearly all of them had a question. Sorry to those that we didn't get to, but it was wonderful to see such enthusiasm. As I said before, the primary school kids added a real energy to the schools days.
What every author loves to see - piles of your books on a special stand in the shop! This is Mary Ryan's Bookshop at Bulimba - many thanks to all the bookshops that hosted me on Saturday.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Brisbane Writers' Festival

One of the things I have realised in the past couple of days is the difference younger kids make to the "vibe" of a festival. I was thinking about the Melbourne Writers' Festival school days and how quiet they seemed - there were lots of high school students but they queued nicely and jostled around and didn't seem to make a lot of ruckus. The BWF school days have opened up to Grades 4-6, and the kids have been amazing. So enthusiastic and keen to ask questions (no worries about whether it's cool or nerdy - everyone wants to ask a question!). The signing queues are immense, and kids are everywhere, clutching books and bookmarks and chattering and having a great time.

I have done two online sessions using a webcam and talking to schools all over Queensland, in places I've never heard of. They had plenty of questions too, and the technology worked well. My session yesterday outside in the big marquee was amazing - over 300 kids, and I think about 80% of them wanted to ask a question! It's a different kind of experience - in a school visit you are close enough to show them things. On a stage, the ones at the back are never going to see your photos and laminated posters and pages.

Today is my free day and I am off to the Impressionists exhibition. After all the talking and socialising, it's going to be lovely to wander and look and - I hope - write some poems. I'll post photos when I get home. Thanks to the Queensland State Library, I can use the internet for free, but uploading is not so easy.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Talking About Romance Writing

Never let it be said that I am not open to new experiences and ideas, especially if it's about writing and books (and it's free). One of our local councils, Brimbank, is running a literary festival at the moment, and quite a few of the sessions are free. The one on offer last Saturday was with romance writer, Stephanie Laurens. I have to admit that I have never read a book by Stephanie, and am probably never likely to. However, I know she is prolific, and according to the festival guide, her last 24 novels were on the NYT bestseller lists, so I thought it was worth going along to hear her speak.

She began with a short talk about why we read, and what value reading has for us. Could have done without that, but I guess she felt it suited the venue - a library. Then she opened up for questions, and the small but keen audience had lots of things they wanted to know. I listened with great interest. Here are some of the things she shared with us:

* she writes Regency romance, mostly, because this was the first period in history when the upper class had the option of marrying for love instead of for dynastic or business reasons (so lots of potential for romance and conflict)

* she loves this period, mainly because she started reading Georgette Heyer at 13 (who didn't ?!!) and got hooked

* she wrote her first novel because she ran out of Regency romances to read - she worked as a scientist and at the end of the day, wanted an escape. So when the books ran out, she decided to write one to entertain herself and give her an outlet. She sent it off, and it was accepted for publication. (Don't you hate stories like that? But it is a prime example of writing what you love most, and it paying off.)

* her writing routine is this: she is at her desk by 8am, she writes until 1pm, has an hour's break, then writes from 2-6pm. I presume that is Monday-Friday, but maybe it's 7 days a week? That got a few gasps from the audience (and me) but the next bit explained it.

* her year runs like this: a book takes about 3-4 months to write. 4-6 weeks of planning and notes and a point-by-point outline, then 4 weeks for the first draft, then 3-4 weeks of polishing. She said she didn't used to outline, but after the first ten books, she decided she had to find a way to make it easier. I worked out that she writes 3-4 books per year, each one around 80,000 words, which is a lot of words to come up with. Someone asked her if she ever suffered writer's block and she laughed and said, "When you have publishers waiting for you to get a manuscript to them by a certain date, you can't afford writer's block."

* she has no trouble coming up with ideas - a lot of her books are connected, where she creates a cast of characters and then each one has their own story.

I came away with plenty to think about. That is an amazing writing schedule, and a huge commitment. She said that publishers want writers who are intent on a career, and able to produce a number of books, not just one. I'm not sure I would have that work ethic - 8-9 hours every day! I like to do other things, like teaching. And reading. On the other hand, her house has been featured on TV and in the house magazines - I can tell you that her writing room is nearly as big as my whole house! It has a view out to the bush through large windows, and lots of bookcases and a beautiful wood desk. Plus she has a separate room for her business stuff. If she writes 250,000+ words a year that keep her on the bestseller lists, she absolutely deserves it!

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Melbourne Writers' Festival - 4

The last session I attended on Sunday was "Females Exposed: on writing women back into history". I'm not sure what I expected this to be about, but probably I was hoping for how to write both history and historical fiction, and make it interesting. And also about writing unwritten stories, which is where oral history comes in. There are many wonderful accounts of everyday life, especially from certain periods such as the Depression, that make amazing reading.

This session could have been so much better. It was sponsored by the Professional Historians Association, and we got to hear four women speak about the projects they are working on. Great. Some of it was interesting, some of it was not (and people who go over their time limit should be taken out the back and beaten with a microphone stand!). But with all the talking about projects, there was hardly any time for discussion or questions, and considering this was a 1-1/2 hour session, you can guess how much of it was taken up with the speech stuff.

There was a lot of muttering around me, both during the talks and as we filed out. It seemed like it wasn't just me who was disappointed. I felt there was a great deal of interest in the topic - the theatre was full - and yet after a great session, people go out buzzing and still talking. Didn't happen here. Looking back, I think there could have been a great discussion, at least, about how women are depicted in history and perhaps how they are depicted in historical fiction - and where the differences come from. Oh well...

SwimmingAfterwards, I went to a great launch of Enza Gandalfo's book Swimming. Helen Garner launched it, there were some nice speeches, some wine and food, and lots of old friends meeting up. I see in the Age today that Enza's book was No. 6 on the festival best-seller list - above Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant. Go, Enza!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Melbourne Writers' Festival - 3

This is HowThe session with M.J. Hyland was in the largest theatre, and was almost full. A lot of people were curious (her second novel was shortlisted for the Booker), a lot of people had obviously read at least one of her books. The joy of listening to a fiction writer speak, particularly one who examines her own work and processes, is that you gain fascinating insights into the process of creating imaginary characters and worlds. MJ was no exception. She began by talking about the book that inspired This is How- it was a collection of 12 oral histories from murderers, 'Life After Life'. And went on to pondering the problems involved in using a first person/present tense voice. 'It's like ventriloquism,' she said, and comes with serious limitations. For example, if readers don't like the character or find him sympathetic, the book fails.

She begins with a loose outline or loose idea and theme and then creates a character, but she doesn't know a lot of it until she writes. Setting is important - she sets novels in the 1960s before mobile phones and technology because it creates more difficulties for characters but allows more to happen. In a boarding house, perfect strangers are rubbing up against each other, which is a perfect place to begin. She never wants a perfect answer - we are complicated persons so a story and character should never be simple.

Being shortlisted for the Booker made her feel self-conscious, anticipating the reaction to her third book. So she played with style, feeling she had to prove she was a 'writerly writer' but none of it worked, and it took a while to shake that self-consciousness. She finds endings difficult and is often unhappy with them in her books - she tends to leave things open which she realises is a problem for readers. (A reader near me muttered about the ending to 'How The Light Gets In', and wondered why the editor lets her get away with it!) She also talked about how strong the voices of her characters are, and how it takes a while to shake the previous character when she begins a new novel.

Her early drafts are long and messy - twice as many words as the final draft - and she takes half the words away, so that there are still shadows in the final story, but not the words themselves. She talked briefly about teaching creative writing (I was really hoping she wasn't going to be one of these writers who takes the money for teaching but scorns creative writing courses! And she didn't.) She said it constantly surprises her how many younger writers write way too fast - they complete a story and rush to post it on their blog or on a website, and she is constantly telling them that good writing takes TIME. She was also quite scathing about the idea of writers posting stuff for each other and then giving a cyber "group hug".

The interviewer then asked her if she was mean to her students, and she said, 'Yes!'. What makes a good writer is the ability to be patient and revise. Finally, talking again about language, she said she aims for unadorned prose. Early drafts might have complex language and lots of descriptive words, but as she revises, she simplifies - her aim is to make herself, as the writer, invisible, and yet achieve a certain effect. MJ was great - very open and willing to talk about her processes, giving us an insight into her books. Everyone in the audience went away buzzing and talking at length about writing!

Melbourne Writers' Festival - 2

Debut With Style featured a mix of writers, some with several novels published - Lisa Unger and Japanese writer Hitomi Kanehara - and some with just one or two books - Reif Larsen and Evie Wyld. Was the audience there to find out the secret recipe for that first publication success? Towards the end, it seemed the key was to have an agent (heard that one before) although Hitomi said there are no such things as agents in Japan. One writer also shared with us that receiving the news that their first novel was going to be published was on a par with having a baby (presumably achievement- and excitement-wise, she meant).

Some of the "tips" were predictable: write every day, write all the time, no matter what else is happening in your life, and you will eventually get to the stage where you can't not write. Lisa Unger said when she writes, she is alone in her space, alone in her head, and what comes is not controlled. She doesn't plan her novels, she starts with a germ of an idea or a place or a character and goes with it. She writes to know what is going to happen, and what will keep her turning the pages - in that way she is being true to the readers. She also said to the audience, 'You have to be present and centred in every phase of the writing, and not be outside in the publishing space.' There will be people relying on her words (to provide what they want) but she can't be out there with them while she is writing.

Reif Larsen said it's easy to let outside voices influence or change you or put you off. You have to create a safe space for yourself and be free of what the book "needs to be like". Early drafts will be messy - it takes either courage or insanity to keep going and get to the end. Evie Wyld had just done a stint as the writer in the Atrium, writing while everyone watched and could see her words. It made her realise how personal her writing, and the act of writing, normally is.

Hitomi was being translated (one person translated what everyone said, the other translated what she said!) so it was a little difficult for her, no doubt, but she talked about never being satisfied with her novels - that even when one is published she still wants to keep trying to get the level of her writing higher. Someone in the audience asked Reif if his next book was going to be illustrated (the current one has maps and drawings all over it) and he said no - it would be completely different. Each story is told how it has to be told. It seemed, in the end, that what the writers were saying was you have to write the book you have to write, without trying to please anyone except yourself. The revision is where you make it work.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Melbourne Writers' Festival - 1

What is happening in US publishing right now? Are things as dire as we hear? The first session I attended was all about this topic - Dennis Loy Johnson (Melville House), Rob Spillman (Tin House) and Heidi Julavits (The Believer/McSweeneys) were discussing it with Henry Rosenbloom from Scribe. At first it all sounded depressing - authors who lost their editors (lay-offs) and books that came out with no back-up from marketing, independent distributors who have gone down the tubes, a broken system.

But the positive side of all of this - from the point of view of these independent publishers - is that now there is a great opportunity to change things and fix what's broken. Big publishers are about making money, small publishers care more about their books. Big publishers throw $$ at books that are already selling well and ignore the rest of their list. Small publishers nurture each book because they have to to stay afloat. None of this is news to anyone who bothers to read the trade newsletters or industry blogs, by the way. I did wonder how many in the audience sat there in shock though!

One comment was about publishers who have been trying to stick to the old ways of doing things, but traditional media (newspapers and radio) virtually ignores books now, that's if they're still afloat themselves. As Dennis said, the people who buy newspapers are the people who read, so why would you cut out your books section? A book tour now no longer relies on traditional media to excite interest. A lot of it is done online, and many writers tour online - but first you have to build a big online community, otherwise it's not going to go far. I had to keep reminding myself that these guys were all from small independents, who can make their own decisions and, as they said, move a lot faster in response to shifts in things like social networking. The bigger the publisher, the more likely they are to be mired in paperwork, and doing things the old way.

Certain people dictate - the famous Cecily at B&N can force a publisher to change a book cover, for example, as can Tescos in the UK. But there was also a spirited discussion about book covers - how bland they have become, and how everyone copies each other, so we've had a run of cover images related to body parts (feet, torsos, hands, eyes). The other side of this is safe covers that offend nobody but say nothing about the book. Heidi talked about cover DNA - that everyone clones each other and very few publishers risk a contentious cover.

Heidi also talked about writers who have previously scorned the teaching jobs in universities and are now being forced to look for that kind of work because suddenly they can no longer support themselves from their book sales (but she wouldn't mention any names!). Some of the benefits of the 'new world' will be writers who can write what they want, instead of what will be safe - one example was being able to create an unlikeable protagonist. I'm afraid that might be OK if you don't mind miniscule sales, but I doubt the new world will look kindly on anyone who doesn't sell at all!!

There was also discussion about how reviewing and publicity has moved away from the traditional forms (the influential reviews in the usual places) to the online community. A NYT review has no more influence now than a respected blogger - and things like FaceBook pages are growing in terms of effects on readers. Everyone mentioned 'word of mouth' - how to get it, and make your sales grow. Again, the word community came up. Rob Spillman says he rarely buys a book now that isn't strongly recommended by someone he knows. (No one asked the question about book trailers - are they worth the money? I tried, but they ran out of time.)

Dennis mentioned one of their authors - Tao Lin - and some of his bizarre publicity and marketing strategies that have worked. My favourite was selling shares in the royalties for his next book, and actually getting 6 people to pay $2000 each for a share. Presumably if he makes more than $12,000 in royalties he gets to keep the extra! Of course, the amount of publicity he got for doing this far outweighed the benefit in royalties, except it would have meant more sales and therefore... more royalties!

I later went to another session on small presses, not realising that the same two guys would be talking. Some of the stuff was the same, but Zoe Dattner from Sleepers Publishing was the chair and the discussion was more about the practicalities of running a small press. They talked about using POD to keep their backlists in print, and hopefully the same quality of POD technology is about to arrive in Australia. Zoe said Lightning Source are about to set up shop here. My favourite quote was from Dennis who said that in small publishing you are only one screw-up away from going under!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Writers' Festival - Melbourne

I was in at the festival briefly on Wednesday morning, but didn't have time to go to any of the sessions (it was schools' days). However, I was there when the kids all came out and began lining up with great excitement to get their books signed. The longest queue was in front of John Boyne, and quite a few of the kids had books other than The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, so obviously whatever John had talked about had inspired them to buy other titles. Readings is running the bookshop again this year, and it's fatal to venture inside!

I'm going to sessions on Friday and Sunday, so am anticipating being inspired and fascinated and intrigued. I hope. I've booked everything from U.S. Publishing and Small Press/Magazines to Women in History and M.J. Hyland in Conversation. Plus a book launch and catching up with writer friends. I do wish the Atrium at Federation Square was more inviting. Although the food and coffee areas at the Malthouse (the previous venue) were squished, they were also busy and vibrant, and you always ended up seeing old friends wandering around.

The new venue is huge, cold and soulless. I felt very sorry for the writer and interviewer yesterday who had been stuck at a table in the corner of the vast space and expected to not only be heard over the echoing noise, but also be engaging. Was never going to be possible. There are only two cafes in the space, the staff are pretty slow (the Malthouse staff had their coffee making down to a fast fine art, not to mention their wine pouring) and the sheer hugeness defies any kind of atmosphere, let alone one that would invite you to linger and talk.

Oh well, let's hope the sessions and the writers will provide plenty of interest and food for conversation, when we find a spot to settle and chat. Preferably near a heater. I will report back!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Art of Graeme Base

The Art of Graeme BaseOne of the joys of a public library is being able to borrow large, beautiful books that I could never usually afford myself. Photographic travel books, house building and architecture books, and books like The Art of Graeme Base by Julie Watts. Julie was the Children's Publisher at Penguin Books (she is now retired) but you would never know it from the book - she never mentions herself! And yet she must have worked extensively with Graeme over the years.

The most wonderful thing about a book like this is the art. Many full-page spreads from Graeme Base's books are reproduced, along with early sketches and drafts. My favourite of his books is still The Waterhole, but The Discovery of Dragons comes a close second. It wasn't until I read this story of Graeme's life and art that I realised how much detail he puts into ALL of his art pieces. Suddenly I was seeing animals and creatures and plants that I had never noticed before! It's made me want to go and look again at all of his picture books, just to see what I have missed.
The Waterhole The other thing that this book revealed to me was a person who was and is totally engaged in creating, always observing, thinking, recording and imagining. Julie Watts has done a great job of showing us the life of an artist, and how each book developed. There are examples of art Graeme did in school that make me goggle. Seeing early work by Shaun Tan had the same effect. Their talent was so obvious at an early age - as well as their patience, crafting and attention to detail.

I have never been able to draw very well. I would never attempt to illustrate my own books (thank goodness, say the publishers!). But I also know it's because I don't have the passion or the patience. A couple of times I have tried to draft rough illustrations for dummy picture books I've made, and after four or five pictures, I've lost interest. I know with writing that that's not the case - I can write and then revise words many times, although there is a stage where you get sick to death of them. It's a funny mix - passion and patience - but I think you do need both, and Graeme Base has immense amounts of both.

The RRP for The Art of Graeme Base is about $75.00 (cheaper online, of course) and probably not something you'd buy for yourself, perhaps, but Christmas will be here eventually, and you could drop some hints...