Friday, January 30, 2009

Reading by the Fire

No, not this week. This week in Melbourne we are reading IN the fire, that's if we can concentrate in this horrible, awful heat. It's easier just to lie in front of the air conditioner and spray yourself with water. For me, it's even too hot to go to the beach. Who wants to fry on the sand? So reading becomes an activity that is something you do when your brain doesn't feel like thick, hot mud!

Writing becomes even harder to manage. Computers overheat, for a start. I've lost my internet connection a couple of times because somewhere in the house, or outside it, the cable has gone pfftt and nothing works. The router gets so hot that it goes off too. I have been only turning the computer on when I need to do something. Two nights ago, when I had to email off two things due on deadlines, and my internet connection died, I was beside myself. But that was also heat-stress! I did eventually send things a few hours later.

I have even been grateful to go to work this week, or I was, until the air conditioning there conked out!! Still, amongst all the sweat and sticky chairs and iced water, I have been editing. Somehow, pages on my lap, one sentence at a time, pen in hand, I can focus enough to delete and amend. And later at night, when I can bear the heat of the laptop, I transfer edits into the manuscript. I am one chapter from finishing the edits, three chapters from transferring to the ms. And then the revision is done. For now.

I have already warned my agent, who will be the first to read this draft (my great writing friend K read a previous draft), that this is something different from me. More serious, a bit more weird. I could hear the nervousness in his voice! But this was one of those books I had to write, one that I had been wanting to try for a couple of years. The first attempt went nowhere because I tried to "nice-fy" it, which resulted in a bland yuck. Now it's done the way I want. We'll see what the response is!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Movie Week

I haven't been to the movies for quite a while, partly because the last time I went, I paid $16.50 for something that I now can't even remember what it was! At least if I've paid for a book, it's there on my shelf to remind me, although these days it has to be something I really want to keep before I'll pay out the $$. Trade paperbacks in Australia now are up around $36-38, so if I buy anything, it'll be when it's on discount. I'm regularly at the library at the moment, feeding my holiday reading habit. But also this week, I saw three movies - a record.

I chose to see The Tale of Despereaux first, because I'd loved the book. But it was also quite a while since I'd read it, so I had forgotten a lot of the story (I hate knowing what is going to happen next). I thought this was a great kid's movie, and had lots of funny lines - plus Despereaux was a very cute mouse, and a very clever protagonist.

Did I choose to see Underworld III: Rise of the Lycans? No. But it was my husband's birthday and so we went along in a group. Everyone, bar me, had seen the other two Underworld movies and were fans. I had a coffee beforehand to help me stay awake, which I didn't really need because the sound was so loud that I had to put wads of tissue paper in my ears. All I can say about this movie is it was mildly interesting to analyse the mythical story elements in it (distinct shades of Robin Hood, for example), and my husband enjoyed it.

Gran Turino? I loved it. I wasn't sure what it was going to be at the beginning, but as the story unfolded, the character of Walt grew and the layers revealed themselves. The other characters were also interesting - not stereotypes - and the story kept surprising me right to the end (no spoilers here). Clint Eastwood does this kind of movie so well, creating a character who is right in your face, but at the same time forcing you to constantly re-think your assumptions. And after you've watched the whole thing, you're still thinking days later. That's the kind of movie I like.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What Stops You Writing?

This has been a fairly regular topic of discussion among my writer friends over the past twelve months. Perhaps we've all been feeling time and work pressures more, or perhaps it was something we were all struggling with and felt we needed to talk about more. This is nothing to do with writer's block, not in the sense it's normally discussed. Usually writers talk about being blocked because they can't write - no ideas, no confidence, can't get the words or ideas flowing.

But our topic has been about wanting to write - having ideas, words, even deadlines - and not being able to. The reasons vary, but here are the ones we've discussed:

~ Emotional upheaval - the people around us have made our lives miserable, or stressed out, or full of pain and worry. These are people close to us, the ones we can't get away from, no matter how much we wish we could. (A desert island becomes a favourite fantasy.) Sometimes these people can't help it, sometimes they can. Sometimes we can move out of their sphere, but more often, we are inevitably distressed and/or super-stressed by them and/or their behaviour, and we simply can't concentrate our hearts and minds on our writing.

~ Work commitments - we are paid to work a certain number of hours per week. For most of us, that's what pays the bills. But work takes over. We are expected to do overtime, take on extra duties or projects, end up working at home for no pay because we feel we should. And we can't, for whatever reason, say no. Hopefully, this state of affairs will be short-term. Sometimes, the only way to stop it is to simply find a way to say NO.

~ Lack of sleep, or ill health - There have been many articles recently on the effect of lack of sleep. For a writer, the biggest impact is probably on concentration and energy. The same goes for illness. A long-term illness or injury can affect you differently on a day-to-day basis. Do you take pain-killers so you can write more? Or will they affect you too? For too long, the writer's stereotype has been hard-drinking, drug-taking, stay-up-all-night - most of us realise that any one of those things makes us write less, and write worse.

~ Lack of space - I've always loved the idea of Roald Dahl setting off down his garden path to his shed with the armchair and the lap board, on his way to a few hours or a day of writing. Some of us have a shed, or a room. But many writers have a corner of the kitchen table, or a desk in the corner of the loungeroom. One writer I know has a piece of timberboard spanning the washing machine and the drier in his laundry. More important is the headspace. Silence, if that's what you need. Nobody interrupting, wanting something. No phone. No one needing to be fed.

~ Obligations - they come in all shapes and sizes. They can be relatives, family, church, volunteer work, children, work, husbands, wives, paperwork like taxes - this covers such a wide range of things, and it'll be different for everyone. But what obligations do are suck up time and energy. They often require more than you are able to give right when you have to, so in a bad week, they'll cause you to slide three or four steps backwards. In a good week, you might whiz through them without a thought. But obligations usually mean leaving your house, expending energy and time, and they also often magically expand, so that you end up with more and more of them. You can't avoid some of them, but for many, the only solution is good old NO.

What stops you from writing?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Nit Picking Revision

Last year, in October, I worked my way through Margie Lawson's lecture packet on Empowering Character Emotions. While I'm sure it will all filter eventually into my first drafts, I spent a lot of time revising a manuscript using her techniques. It made a huge difference to some things I'd been struggling with for a while. I think we all have weak spots in our writing, and we spend a lot of time kidding ourselves that no one else will notice. And maybe if the voice or the story concept or the dialogue is fantastic, the weak bits do get overlooked.

But when you get to the point where you can't ignore your own weak areas in your writing, you have to do something about it, or the love of writing dissipates into continual dissatisfaction. So my weak area was deeper characterisation. Not all the time, mind you. But when I had novels I had written that didn't work, even after eight drafts, I had to find out what the problem was. Good readers will soon tell you. "Great read but ... felt a bit shallow." Yep. I needed to find a way to go deeper into my own characters and deepen also my writing.

So having worked hard on ECE, I decided to take the next step (revision was my goal again in 09 - I still have plenty to work on). I bought Margie's Deep Editing packet. It's like a book, except I can't read it on screen - I have printed these lectures out too. That way I get to use my highlighters and make my own comments. The result of this extra study? I am now working on the same novel, aiming to make a minimum of 25 improvements per chapter, and sometimes that can even be 5-10 per page, depending on my level of concentration.

I've learned to give each chapter a "going over" at least three times, and that if I can't find something to improve on the third pass, I'm not trying hard enough. Yes, it's time consuming, and yes, it's hard sometimes to apply that deep concentration and focus. I've developed strategies to help. One is to take a chapter to work with me, and do the editing in my coffee and lunch breaks. The change of venue helps. Another is to edit the chapters at random, not in sequence. It stops me getting caught up in the story, and has already helped me pick up an accidental duplication of some information.

Like writing, everyone revises in different ways. Some people do it as they write, others wait until a first draft is complete. How do you revise? Any tips to share?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Novel That Announces Itself

Over the past couple of weeks, our daily newspaper has been publishing short excerpts from a range of novels and nonfiction books. I'm not entirely sure that this has done some of the novelists a service. Yes, it's good to be noticed, but if you compare the experience for readers to something like picking up a book in a shop and reading the first couple of pages, I haven't seen one novel yet that I'd even borrow from the library, let alone buy.

But the exercise did highlight something for me about what I don't like to read. The novel that announces itself, importantly and somewhat pompously (to me) in the first couple of paragraphs. Like this:
Michael is sitting with Madeleine in the lounge room of her flat. There is a guitar on the floor. Everywhere, Michael imagines, in all the houses, on all the floors, there are guitars. The guitar and the decade go together. Once, it was the Age of the Piano. Pianos, he imagines, marked the leisurely passing of time in a more leisurely age than this.*
Zzzzz. I know there are some of you out there who will have no problem with this as an opening. You'll be intrigued to know who Michael is, why he is imagining these things. Not me. But I think my big complaint about this is the "announcing" tone of voice, that says, "Look at me, I'm thoughtful and deep and literary. And besides, I'm in first person."

How about this one?
This story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. A small mouse. The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive.
"Where are my babies?" said the exhausted mother when the ordeal was through. "Show to me my babies."
The father mouse held the one small mouse up high. "There is only this one," he said. "The others are dead."**
This is a story that definitely and deliberately announces itself. The storytelling tone is part of the voice and style, and I've read articles where the author says the tone was how she chose to tell the story. Mind you, there was some criticism of it, with comments that said it sounded too old-fashioned.

Tone is something that is not much discussed in fiction writing. We tend to talk about voice, which can be confusing. Whose voice? The voice of the main character? The voice of the author? The voice of the story or narrator? What voice do you get when you use third person omniscient? Will it always be a narrator's voice? Take a look at Hemingway sometime. How would you describe the voice in "Hills Like White Elephants"? I'm not sure there is one. But I could certainly describe the tone, how it sounds to me. Passionately dispassionate! So much emotion, kept rigidly at arms length. But I'm afraid, to me, my first excerpt above sounds like "Look at me, look at me!" writing. Feel free to disagree!
* The Time We Have Taken by Steven Carroll (and yes, I know it won the Miles Franklin)
** The Tale of Despereaux by Kate Dicamillo

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Moving the Story Forward

One of the hardest things to get right in a novel is the pacing. Going all the way through at break-neck speed doesn't work - you don't give the reader any breathing space and after a while, the constant high drama is like a plateau to skim across. You don't want a reader to skim. But taking it slowly and developing everything in depth all the time doesn't work either. The reader keeps nodding off. The obvious answer is that the dramatic scenes take longer and the reflection scenes are shorter. But it doesn't neatly work like that either.

Every story has its own pace. The pace will vary, it will soar and dive, it will increase to top speed and slow for thinking space. So how do you work out speed and slowness for yourself? I've been doing some research on this and a few important points have emerged. One is your main character, and who they are. A slower, more thoughtful character will create a story that reflects who they are (think Alistair McCall-Smith's series with Mma Ramotswe, set in Botswana). A forceful character who leaps in before thinking will make for a higher-paced, more breathtaking story.

The trap with characters, I have found, is this: mostly we create people who are going to grow and change in the course of the story. That's natural and desirable. But it is very easy to end up with a story where things happen to the character all the time, so that the plot is pushing the character and directing her, instead of the other way around. It was something I hadn't considered in depth before, until I was trying to rewrite a novel and felt like I was stuck in mud. Except it wasn't me, it was my character.

Lots of exciting, suspenseful things were happening in the story, but they were happening TO her, not being caused or pushed along by her. It's a fundamental error, and I think it is very easy to fall into if you are not aware of it. The trap, I think, lies within the "grow and change" principle - we write about all these things that occur and how the character reacts and what they learn, but really they are learning by example, not learning by getting out there and taking risks and ACTING, rather than reacting.

This quote is from Cynthia Lord's blog - she is also revising right now, and asking some important questions as she goes along. This is the first on her list:

Can I change this plot development so it's the main character's idea? Or a result of her actions? to keep the main character driving the story. Not having the story happen to her--have it happening because of her.

It's a handy reminder that I want to keep on a piece of paper in front of me as I work through yet another draft. What's your favourite (current) revision question?

Monday, January 05, 2009

All Goaled Out

Goodness, it's only the 5th today and already I am feeling quite overwhelmed by the huge amount of goal setting stuff that's being put up on the net via blogs and newsletters. And I freely admit to adding to it recently! I like Kristi Holl's idea of deciding what I WON'T do this year, simply because sometimes the hardest part of achieving your goals is saying No to the things that eat up your time. But I guess when I think about it, I can't imagine not having goals written down for the year. It's become a habit, and one that does work for me if I take it step by step.

So, having done all the right things - written down my goals, reviewed my year, organised myself around some upcoming deadlines - what is there left to do? Read, read, read, read, read! I've been to the library, the bookshop, the second-hand bookshop, borrowed from friends, and started tackling my lovely big pile of books midway through December. I was swallowed up by Ken Follett's World Without End for more than a week (it was over 700 pages), and after that, other books struggled to keep up the same level of depth and interest. But I persevered.

My recent reading list includes:
Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins (middle grade, Newbery book) - interesting to read something that has several viewpoint characters and no real driving central plot. It did hold my interest, mainly because the characters were engaging, and I was interested in their journeys.

The Killing Hour by Lisa Gardner (crime, adult) - Gardner has got to be one of my current favourites, simply because of her characters and complexity of plots. Very little that is predictable here. I wish I hadn't read everything else by her already. Sigh.

Dirty Little Lies by Stuart Macken (crime, adult) - someone I'd never read before (the joy of second-hand - trying out new authors for a cheaper price). Good plotting, a different take on investigation with gene crimes twisted and turned, and even though I guessed the villain, the final scenes were still exciting. Good research that doesn't get boring.**

Mistik Lake by Martha Brooks (YA) - years ago I heard this author speak, and read her novel Bone Dance. This new novel is excellent - lots of layers in the plot and great character development.

White Hot by Sandra Brown (crime, adult) - OK, I guess. It has that core romance element (I hate you, I hate you, OK, I can't keep my hands off you, guess what, I love you) that I find pretty boring, but it was an average kind of read. A library book.

Memories Are Made of This by Swan Adamson - I read this because a couple of writers I know are writing for Little Black Dress (the publisher). So this was intended to be an information excursion - what kind of book do they publish? what should writers be trying to achieve? I expected a boring sort of chicklit/feisty romance thing, but it was good! Again, the background stuff was intriguing. Life in the world of magazine publishing. And a heroine who didn't just fall in love and out again and then get her guy. Nice.

Blood Dreams by Kay Hooper - can I comment on this if I couldn't finish it? Of course. I gave up around page 60. The premise (psychics working secretly for the FBI) was a tad far-fetched, but I could've run with it if it had been backed up with great characters and lots of solid detail. Nup. I would say 70% of the novel is dialogue, which really boils down to a lot of the story being told through characters talking to each other, and telling each other stuff. Boring. No engagement here because I really got very little sense of who the characters really were. But if nothing else, this is worth analysing with students. They might think differently!

This is about three weeks worth. I read fast. I do read literary fiction too, although crime is my first love - I have started Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones, and have Annie Proulx and Charles Frazier on my pile. Will there be enough reading hours in January to finish them all? And watch Series 2 of Rome and The Wire? Of course!

** A recent review criticised Patricia Cornwell's new novel Scarpetta for having too much technical autopsy stuff in it. Um... isn't that why she's got so many fans? The depth of detail makes the novels real. That's what setting and detail are all about!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

1st January - New Day

Today is a new day, the first in a new year. According to the calendar I'm using. What's the door knocker about? I guess it's symbolic, and seeing as how I'm teaching a subject called Myths & Symbols this year, as well as writing some fiction materials on symbols, it's on my mind a little at the moment. Symbolic of what? To me, it's about finding closed doors and knocking on them. Or at least imagining what's behind the door and, if it's something you want, find your own way of getting it.

It's also about noticing and enjoying the small things. While in France, I took many photos of castles and cathedrals and landscapes. But I also love photos of small things that catch my eye, like this door knocker. I have another photo of one shaped like a hand. I love taking photos for my bush blog of very small things like flowers and bugs.
I like to put things on my goals list that are both big and small. Big dreams, and small things that I know I can achieve and feel positive about. Setting huge goals that are unachievable is a good recipe for failure and depression.

I'm not sharing my goals with you (one reason is because I've realised half of them are just deadlines for things I have already committed to this year!). But also I like to keep my dream goals just for me, because they act like a guiding star. They might be way up in the sky but you never know, one day I might get that rocket built!
So instead of goals, here are some things that I think might make your year a better one:

1. You have hands, so use them. Don't sit back and wait for things to happen, or the chips to fall your way. Don't bother reading the kinds of books that say, If you want, you will get. Pfftt. As if. You want to achieve something, work out how to go about it and make a start. Then keep at it. You want to get a book published? Write it. Rewrite it many times. When you think it's good enough (truly) then research your markets and keep sending it out. And keep writing, and rewriting.

2. Forward is good. If you keep getting the feeling you're standing still, or even sliding backwards, work out why. And then make something happen to fix it. Take a class. Engage in some serious study. Do whatever you need to do to keep moving forward. Improving.

3. Rest and reward is good, too. Very often we just try to do way too much, and then beat ourselves up over it. Take time to stop, and you'll also find that's a good time to reflect and maybe make changes. Reward yourself for achievements. Set smaller goals so you can have some rewards along the way. Give up using Wonder Woman as your idol.

4. Enjoy the small things. Take time to stop and look for them. The door knockers. The flowers. The way the breeze is wafting the scent of the neighbour's gardenias your way. The huge helicopter flying over your house like a giant orange insect. The last piece of Christmas cake. The first seedling that pops its head above the soil. The chicken fluffing its feathers in the dust. Your small pleasures are yours alone. Enjoy.

5. Friends are wonderful. How many times have you thought, I must get in touch with X. Haven't seen them for years. And then you don't get around to it. Do it now. Even if you take just five minutes to say "Hello, I was thinking of you." People give our lives great meaning and joy, and you can't say "I was thinking of you" to someone who's gone.

6. Practise saying Please and Thank You. I read a column in the newspaper the other day where the writer had decided not to say please and thank you for his coffee in the coffee shop anymore because the person was just doing their job. Oh, for goodness sake! The pleases and thank-yous, the smiles, are what makes that job bearable. How hard is it to acknowledge a service, paid for or not? How hard is it to be generous with your thanks?

7. Try some shoe imagining now and then. Some people already know how to do this, lots don't. Instead of judging straight off, imagine what it's like to be that other person. Walk in their shoes for a couple of minutes. Instead of using media labels like dole bludger or rich celebrity, take some time to imagine their lives, imagine them as real people with feelings rather than stereotypes. See yourself on a leaky boat with no family left, or in a village with no food and water. Imagine having photographers stalking you every day. Or living in a country where to speak out is to become a target. I'm not asking you to donate money, just open yourself up to what other lives are like.

8. Try harder to be happy with what you have. The big buzzword is frugality, but that's only part of it, and it is fast becoming just a meaningless media term. Yep, it'll be a hard year for lots of people this year. That's why they all spent millions of dollars in the after-Xmas sales. Getting ready for having less. Good one. I have a house, a car, a fridge full of food. I'm doing OK. If in doubt, see (7).

Am I being boring and didactic here? Oh, quite possibly. But after a week of enjoying peace and quiet in my house and, at the same time, reading the newspaper every day, this is what I've written on 1 January 2009.