Monday, February 23, 2009

Poets Poeting

I'm about to fly off to Perth to take part in the Apropos Poetry Festival, which is a lead-in event to the Perth Writers' Festival. I'm really looking forward to it, not least because it seems like an awfully long time since I've been able to focus on some poeting, i.e. writing, reading, talking, thinking and dreaming poetry. The program looks interesting, and tackles some of the current "issues" such as whether you can or should make a living out of poetry, poetry in schools, and simply studying how to write better poems.

I'm teaching two workshops - one on writing poetry for kids, and the other on "what poetry can do for you". This latter class sounds a bit vague perhaps, but I see a lot of writing for kids that goes for the basics, getting the story moving fast, the plot pacy and the characters snappy. I'm going to try to encourage participants to look at how to write fiction more poetically, how to take a first draft and apply some great language skills as part of revision. Writers of all genres and forms might find it useful. If you live in or near Perth, come along and join in!

I will no doubt have to admit to those who live in WA that I haven't been to Perth since 1976. And even then, it was a stopover on my way to South Africa. My friend and I stayed in a hotel for one night, and it happened to be the night the hotel caught on fire (somebody's air conditioning unit blew up). I have never been known for my elegant clothing, least of all where nightwear is concerned, and for some reason I'd bought what I considered to be a "sensible" nightie. As I filed down the stairs and out of the hotel, a kindly fireman told me "Gee, you'll be able to write about this at school tomorrow." Hmph!

On Thursday afternoon, I'll be taking part in a panel discussion on Poetry in Education - what are we doing about poetry in schools? Anything? I've been doing some research this week and the answer seems to be Not Much. But I've heard about some great projects happening in WA so hopefully I'll report back on this next week. I can't wait to fill my head with new ideas and inspirations, and fill some pages with writing.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Structure in Stories

Teaching has started where I work, and I'm spending a lot of time reviewing all my materials on mythology for one of my subjects. But I'm doing the same for Story Structure, bringing in some new information and ideas. I team-teach this with a scriptwriter, and we learn from each other as we go along. This week we wanted to look at shorter stories and films, such as Tropfest, but we're also going to analyse some TV drama.

I've got plenty of books on my shelves about scriptwriting - very often the structural stuff they talk about relates just as well to fiction writing. But I had little on TV writing, so today I bought a new book, Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin. I have no intention of writing TV drama myself (however, if they were still making NYPD Blue, I might have a go at a script for that!). But it was fascinating to read what these guys had to say about how a one hour drama works.

They start by saying "Every TV drama series is the same." And go on to explain the four acts, how each one works, and what each act needs in terms of building tension. What is even more interesting is the next chapter where they talk about why audiences watch. Not for the plot (which usually has the same elements, depending on the genre and setup), but for the characters and their lives. If we care about them, we will want to tune in every week to see how they're going.

They also talk about the key scene in any episode, and how the whole story of that episode is about leading up to that key moment. Inevitably, I started thinking about how this relates to fiction writing. What is our key moment? The climax. How often do I talk to students about the narrative drive, the main character's intense need or desire that propels them through the story, the fact that you need to continually increase the tension to keep the reader turning the pages?

And how often do I see people start writing a novel and come to a grinding halt after three chapters or 10,000 words? Because they don't really understand where they're going. They haven't worked out what the key scene or climax needs to be about, what needs to happen in it, and how everything you write in the novel should be leading up to that. And all of that still comes back to character, 98 times out of 100. The other two times are, I'd say, in movies or novels that are thrillers (think James Bond) where the climax is about saving the world.

Even if you resist writing any kind of outline, even if you are a "seat of the pants" writer, don't you still know somewhere in your writing gut what that thing is that your main character wants? And if you don't, how much writing do you have to do before you work it out? 50,000 words? 100,000 words? One chapter? What works for you?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

One Week Later

Last night, we were watching TV and our front door was open. Suddenly I noticed this large bright red rectangle on the wall inside the house. It was the setting sun, casting a bright red glow over everything. This is the best my camera could do to capture it before it went down.
Meteorologists say that when there is so much smoke in the air, light naturally filters through and as red is the "strongest" in the spectrum, this is what we see. An eerie reminder of one week ago.

Today we drove north of Melbourne (not near the fire areas, unlike some people who apparently are treating it like a tourist attraction!) and encountered quite a bit of smoke haze. It disappeared later when the wind changed yet again. I wonder how many of us are numbed now by the relentless media coverage. It has been amazing, overwhelming and confronting - and has certainly led to a huge outpouring of welcome donations. But are we nearing saturation point? According to some newspaper reporters, the survivors certainly are. Many are now refusing to be news fodder, and want to be left alone.

I remember seeing a show last August (by accident) - Ellen de Generes, who has done a huge amount of fundraising for New Orleans and its rebuilding. The show I saw was about reminding everyone that it is still a disaster area, that people are still fighting every day to rebuild, and that long after the media has been and gone, the city is still nowhere near getting back to finding out what normal is. Will this be what it's like for our bushfire survivors in a year's time? Fighting to get the funds that were raised for them? Fighting to regain some semblance of a normal life again? Media spotlights come and go. It's what we do to help after they pass that counts.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Among the Remainders

Before Christmas, an empty shop at my nearby shopping centre turned into a remainders book store, and I picked up several reference books on mythology, plus a fabulous Beisty book on castles (one for me, one as a gift for a friend). But we now have a chain of stores that regularly have remainder sales - Dirt Cheap Books. Much of what DCB has is of no interest to me - biographies of people I've never heard of, self help books that are last year's fad, mass market kid's books and those pretty gift books of sayings or quotes that sit on your coffee table and only get read when someone is totally bored.

But they do have novels. This is where I picked up my copy of Prep. Where I discovered authors like Peter James and Caro Ramsay. The novels of theirs are ones that didn't sell here, probably because they are not well-known crime writers in Australia. I guess publishers or book distributors bring in books in big numbers sometimes and they just don't leave the shelves. There are often piles of books by people who are well-known. Did someone vastly over-order? One day, I'd love to know the story behind how some of the books end up with DCB.

The thing is, even though I venture there when books are all $4.99, I've learnt that a cheap, enticing book is not necessarily a book I will read. Some of my earlier impulse buys sit and sit and sit, and then go to the charity bin. So now I'm firmer with myself. I read blurbs, and then I read first and second pages. Often I put books back. Sometimes I put them back after the first paragraph.

Of course, this is what editors do. The fact that all of these books were published meant that an editor somewhere kept reading and paid money to the author. The fact that I read a page and put a book back just means I didn't like it. What is it that makes us keep reading? The voice? Often, this is an important factor for me. The way the words sound, the way the writer has put them together. The way the character feels, acts, speaks. What happens on the first two pages. If nothing happens, or something happens that doesn't interest me much, I put it down. You could say it's indefinable - it's the "feel" of the writing and the story being told.

But it's also that whatever you read on pages 1 and 2, you'll get another 300 pages of it. Do you want another 300 pages? Do you want to spend the time and money on it? Now that books are around $35-38 here, it's an even bigger question. What makes you keep reading?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Scribblers Unite

I've just returned from the Scribble Children's Writing Festival in Canberra, and by the time I arrived back in Melbourne late Saturday evening, the cool change had arrived and it was down to 29 degrees. Not that I really noticed. Canberra had been 40 both days, and I felt so parched and sweaty (yes, at the same time) that I thought I'd never be cool again. Today I went for a walk in a mild 24 degrees and saw how many gardens and trees in the neighbourhood were scorched by the sheer air heat yesterday - 46.4 degrees, Melbourne's hottest ever.

Although it's mild today, all over our state bushfires continue to burn. There is a huge one that has destroyed over 57,000 hectares so far, and is still going. If you have never seen what a bushfire can do, or how fast it can move (much faster than you can run or even drive when it has gale force wind behind it), then Google Victorian bushfires and find some footage. It is truly terrifying, and the CFA volunteer firefighters are amazing. Already we have 14 people who have died, which is almost unbelievable, and many firefighters injured.

The festival, although hot in temperature, was full of keen writers who came to listen to a variety of speakers talk about a variety of topics. Mark McLeod, formerly a publisher at Random House and Hodder, did manuscript consultations all day Friday and spoke on Saturday. Jackie French was there, as was Randa Abdel-Fattah (her talk was fantastic), Anthony Hill, Jack Heath and Mark Carthew. We discussed picture books, educational publishing, our own books, and our writing and publishing experiences. In the last session of the day, I taught a workshop on how to get started on your children's novel.

The participants must have felt they were in an endurance race! Two jam-packed hours of information (I even made them write something) under a madly spinning ceiling fan and with copious amounts of cold water. But it was two days of good value for all, I think, and everyone seemed to go away feeling like braving the heat had been worth it.
Here in Melbourne, lots of things were cancelled, especially outside sporting events. Most people stayed inside where it was cool - that would've been me, too! But it was great to get out and meet so many interested writers and just plain talk about writing.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Time Out

When you've been working on a project for a long time, it can feel very weird when you click on Save for the last time and close the file and think, There, it's done. (Well, it never is, is it? But it's done until the next revision, or maybe when you work on it with the editor.) What next? A new book? A short story? A few poems perhaps? One part of your brain is urging you to keep the momentum going, get into something new, keep those words coming.

But this is the time you need to back away and go somewhere else, physically and mentally. Physically because if you're near your computer or your writing space, you'll start to feel guilty. Hey, I have a couple of hours spare today. I should go write something. I'm a writer, aren't I? And mentally because that book is still clinging to the inside bits of your brain like a big cobweb and it won't really let you focus properly on anything else.

My favourite place to go after a draft is finished is the movies. I love to let someone else's story and hard work sweep me away into another world. Watching a DVD at home is not the same. I'm still close enough to the laptop to start feeling like I should be writing, not wasting time on a movie. But at the movie theatre, I'm in front of the big screen, surrounded by sound, and I can just give it all up and dive into the story. I can't get up and wander away (I just paid to be here!) so I can freely indulge.

One place I've discovered is not a good excursion option is a large bookshop. By the time I've wandered around for a while, the sheer number of books on the shelves (they all got published, so there'll be no room left for mine) becomes mind-numbing and sometimes depressing. Even a nice strong coffee doesn't dispel the gloom. No, it's the movies for me. And this week I'm leaning towards Pride and Glory or The Changeling. It'll depend on my mood...

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Writing Alone

I'd heard a strange noise out in the backyard several times, and thought it was machinery, or a squeaky door. Then I realised it was these two, sitting in my apricot tree, pigging out on what was left of the apricots. And having a good chatter together while they were at it. Probably thinking they'd better eat up before dusk and the arrival of the fruit bat (who can't be photographed because he's fast and dark).

I've been thinking a lot this week about writing alone - or why writers need to be alone when they write. Kristi Holl commented on headspace and thinking space. What happens when you're on a deadline and have to give up precious thinking and planning time, simply to get the words on the page and off to the editor. Or whoever is waiting for it. To me, this really is the difference between full-time and part-time writers. Not the writing time, which is often typing time, but the hours you get to spend just thinking about your story and all its possibilities.

I used to kid myself that I could write when my husband was in the room. He wasn't talking to me, so I should be able to block him out and write. No. I might have been typing words into the laptop, but I wasn't writing, not really. Mothers talk about waiting till their kids go down for a nap and then racing to the computer. People talk about waiting until everyone in the house is in bed before they can truly write, or getting up at 4am. It's about silence and solitude.

Not the physical silence (who has that these days?), but the silence inside your head. The quiet space that opens up when you no longer have to answer questions, fetch or find, or just be present for someone. The solitude you feel allows new people to enter the space - your characters. They might hover during the day, they might nudge you with a new idea, but they won't truly appear until you are alone, and belong totally to them.

It's taken me a long time to realise the difference between writing - because I have an hour or two and I know what comes next in the story - and writing alone, just me and the story. It's like being out in the middle of a huge field, flinging your arms out wide, breathing in the air and sunshine, then folding it all inside yourself, creating a space that becomes a world that becomes filled with your story and your people. Your people. Then the writing truly happens. The story is allowed to inhabit you, you can hear what the characters think and say, how they feel, who they are.
Unfortunately the experience only makes me want to throw in my day job, run off to a desert island (with power, of course) and write 7 days a week. I guess that's why I keep buying Lotto tickets!