Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Another Inspiring Speaker- Chris Baty

This week, we had a special guest speaker for our fiction writing classes - Chris Baty, better known as the guy who invented NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. This takes place every November, and in 2008 nearly 120,000 signed up to try and write 50,000 words during the month - that's around 1667 words a day, every day.

Chris is a great promo for the whole concept of NaNo - he talked about the realities of committing to write that many words, and while he conceded that November was a bad month for students (and teachers with grading), really there is no bad or good month for writing. You will either make the time or you won't, and obviously many do.

He had lots of information about NaNo, and told us how it started - with a group of his friends in San Francisco. I love the image of a huge bunch of them (about 20) all heading into a cafe with their laptops and extension cords and power boards, taking over the tables, ordering lots of coffee, and then sitting together, writing. I'd never really thought about NaNo before as a group exercise. After all, most of us write alone, usually in silence or with our own selection of music. But now the idea of writing occasionally with a group (I mean writing a substantial amount of words, not doing a writing exercise or two) is something I'm getting quite interested in!

In a cafe would be even better. You could set a time limit for those who wanted or needed regular breaks (for me that would be to combat computer scrunch and RSI), and those who didn't want to stop or be interrupted could sit at a different table. I also like the idea of forming an email group, although inside the NaNo website, you can team up with your writing buddies and keep track of each other's word counts there. That's a great benefit when you're on opposite sides of the world.

The one big problem with Chris's talk today was that afterwards we all wanted to go out right there and then and sign up for NaNo and get started writing. Never mind anything else!!! But one of the other things he said that I liked was about not "saving" your special big novel idea for NaNo. That's something for you to work on and develop at the right pace and level when you're ready. NaNo is simply about writing. One student said to me that she was thinking about putting her memoir aside for NaNo and just having a go at a romance for the hell of it. That's the NaNo spirit!

Now we're talking about creating a student NaNo group when November approaches, and organising weekly get-togethers. The major work for the year will be nearly over, classes finish mid-November, and really, they'd have no excuse not to write!! And neither would we teachers. Now, I don't know about romance, but I think I feel a Western coming on...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Terrific Mr John Clarke

This week I had the privilege of interviewing John Clarke, one of Australia and New Zealand's top comedy writers. TV viewers here probably know John best through 20 years of appearances with Brian Dawe, doing short "skits" that comment on news topics. There are lots of these on YouTube, if you're interested. What you will also find on YouTube is a range of John's other performances, starting with Fred Dagg and including a wonderful portrayal of a used car salesman.

I spent about two weeks preparing for the interview. I knew it would be in front of a live audience of at least 120 people, and I knew I'd probably have to be on my toes with JC. I went for long walks and wrangled questions along the way, I researched him via his website and other avenues, I watched a lot of YouTube, and I listened to a 30-year-old cassette I own - Fred Dagg Live. I came up with a list of 19 questions, many of which focused on writing and script editing, as a lot of our professional writing students were going to attend.

Well, I had the best time ever! Yes, I was nervous beforehand, but John and I had a bit of a chat first, and then we went on stage. I introduced him and he immediately broke the ice with a joke. From then on, it was plain sailing. My questions were often answered with long anecdotes that had everyone in fits of laughter, but he shared many thoughts and experiences that had the audience silent and thinking. The 45 minute interview went for well over an hour, then after the break, he answered audience questions. I got the feeling everyone would have stayed all night!

Thanks, John. You're a generous, funny man. And I hope that school principal in Palmerston North is still shaking in his shoes!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Informed Opinion vs the Talkback Chatter

Today, my copy of the Children's Book Council (Vic) newsletter arrived, so I sat down before dinner to read it. Recently, the shortlist for this year's CBCA awards was announced, so I was surprised to see an article about last year's Picture Book of the Year winner. Wasn't that old news? Apparently not. Jo Goodman has written a terrific piece about what happened after Matt Ottley's book, Requiem for a Beast, won last year. It was food for thought, for several reasons.

Firstly, she mentioned how many emails the CBCA had received, criticising their award choice. Fair enough, if you disagree, but apparently many of the emails were abusive, and many were based solely on the media coverage (mainly A Current Affair's pathetic attempt to create controversy based on rubbish). Added to that was a talkback radio show where even more uninformed people had piled onto the bandwagon of "let's all spout on about what we think is a worthy book".

She said one person even sent an email in which the F word was used several times - considering this was a major complaint about the book itself (the language), I thought that was totally ironic - and moronic. I have no reason to doubt Jo's account of all the responses. It's par for the course that the CBCA regularly receives complaints about children's books - more about that in a moment. What continually astounds me, however, is how many of these complainers either: 1) have not read the book they are complaining about, 2) do not read children's books and don't have kids, or 3) don't read the criteria for the awards and have no idea about the basis of the judges' decisions.

I haven't yet read Requiem for a Beast myself, but it's on my list (like The Arrival, it's hardcover and has been a bit out of my price range - I'm waiting for a good discount coupon, I confess!). However, I have had a good skim of it, enough to see straight away that it is not a picture book for four year-olds. Not even for nine year-olds. Hello, world, we have such a thing these days as picture books for older readers - like fourteen or eighteen year-olds, or adults. Go figure. They're usually fascinating, amazing and ground-breaking books that leave you thinking for days. The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan is one of my favourites.

To me, this is one of the dangers of today's media - not that it provides false information, but that many people rely on and totally believe media coverage that is patently less than honest in the way it is slanted and manipulated. I remember studying media news coverage at uni years ago, and comparing accounts of the same event in a range of newspaper and TV reports. That was enough to prove to me that every news report should be regarded as only part of the story.

The other point about complaints to the CBCA is that everybody has their own agenda, their own beliefs, their own view of the world. They're entitled to it. But I find it incredibly sad that so many adults seem to think it's their job to actively censor the books their kids read,while allowing them to watch anything and everything on TV and in video games. Apparently the CBCA have received a complaint about my Honour Book, Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!), because its subject of parental break-up is "unsuitable".

Yep, you got me there. That is absolutely the subject of my book, among other things like friendship, loyalty and hope. My comeback to that? The two primary school principals who read the book and said, "We know lots of kids who need this book and will love it because it speaks to them." Writers like me write about subjects like that so that kids will know it's not just them - they're not alone, and there is hope. Go ahead - complain about that!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What Inspires You?

I'm sure many of you have already seen the YouTube clip of Susan Boyle singing on Britain's Got Talent TV show. If you haven't yet, it's here. According to the Age newspaper yesterday, 14 million people had seen it in a week. It's probably up to 20 million by now! Why is this video of a woman singing in a talent quest so amazing? For me, it's two things. She so obviously loves singing and says she just wants to sing in front of a big audience for once. And when she arrives on stage, so many of the audience immediately judge her on her appearance (as do the judges) and are showing scorn before she even begins to sing. Once she starts, however, everything changes.

In his book, No Plot, No Problem, Chris Baty asks you to list all the things you enjoy in a novel (and the things you don't). For me, something I love in any story is transformation. In the Susan Boyle clip, that is exactly what I see, over and over. Not only are the audience and judges transformed by her performance, but it's almost as if she is not! She is very emotional afterwards, and happy, but she has done what she set out to do - achieved her dream. The rest is just the icing on the cake. So I also see the whole thing about reaching for your dream and making it happen.

Dreams can be powerful things. They can keep us motivated and striving for what seems like the impossible - and maybe that's what a dream should be. Not a deadline, or a manuscript that has to be written for a certain purpose or to pay the bills. Those are things clearly within our reach, as long as we work hard and produce the words. A dream is "the big thing" - the one that makes your heart race when you think about it, the one that keeps you awake at night, planning the next few small steps you'll take towards it. The one that you have to have faith in, believe it might one day be possible, and that belief keeps you going, no matter what.

For me, it's seeing someone like Susan Boyle that encourages me to believe in my own dreams. I read about people who achieve wonderful things, but seeing it like that, in full colour, right before my eyes, is stirring and emotional and inspiring to me. So what inspires you, as a writer? Is it real stories like these? I don't mean so much what inspires you to write (which can be movies, other writers, an exciting idea, etc) but what truly moves you and inspires you to also reach for your dream?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sitting on Middle Ground

Today, as I went walking (to iron out my computer scrunch, an ongoing challenge), I was listening to Bruce Springsteen on my mp3 player, and thinking about how he's brought out two albums recently after a long time of very little. By very little, I mean that my impression was he stopped touring and producing commercial music with big record companies. There was talk he'd retired permanently. Now he's back, and creating the music he wants to. Same with Tina Arena. During her concerts last month, she talked about walking away from the commercial rat race and finally reaching a place where she could create the kind of album she really wanted to, answering to no one but herself.

What she in fact recorded were two albums of covers of songs from the 60s and 70s, the kind of thing that many people apparently responded to with "why on earth would you do something so uncommercial and old hat?". Both albums have sold incredibly well, as have Springsteen's. But at what point (and how) do you come to a place where you can literally do as you want? Is it having a good amount of money behind you, so it doesn't really matter if the "product" doesn't sell? Or is it reaching a mountain-top of cynicism where you don't care about the risk anymore, as long as you don't have to do it "their way"?

And how does this relate to writers? Well, writing is also a creative endeavour that has, as its end, a "product" which is then sold. I remember a few years ago when Sue Grafton (who writes the alphabet crime novels) came out with a pretty mediocre H and I in the series, and was honest enough to acknowledge that they weren't very good. And then declared that henceforth her publisher would get a new manuscript when it was truly ready and the best it could be, instead of on a yearly schedule no matter what. By Novel No. 10, she was able to put her foot down. No doubt, many best-selling authors are under similar pressure to keep producing for the market, but once you are a best-seller, it must surely be easier to say, "Not yet, it's not good enough."

The other end of this spectrum is the unpublished writer. The writer with nothing to lose. The writer with plenty of time to rework and rework, because if they don't, they're not getting their book up to the highest standard and therefore something that might be accepted for publication. The writer who needs to come up with something new and original and special, in order to get that foot in the door. The writer who needs to take risks in order to get noticed. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

In the middle is the problem area. It can be a bit like a minefield. Writer A has a successful series out there, one that hasn't hit the bestseller lists but has sold quite well. Her publisher wants another series like the first one, or more books in that series. Writer A is sick to death of that series and wants to obliterate it from her brain. Writer B has two novels, similar in tone and style, well reviewed, one has won an award. He could write another one just like the first two, and maybe win another award, but ultimately his books only sell middlingly well, and he'd love to be able to give up his day job. Writer C has 25 books behind her, mostly for readers around 7-10 years, mostly humorous and light, and the last book published has real potential for a series of more of the same. She wants to write something dark and meaningful, something more literary and challenging.

The publishers of Writers A, B and C are making nice money out of their books. Why change a successful formula? Yes, something different and risky from any one of these authors could/might/has the slim potential to turn into a huge bestseller, but who can predict these things? The more risky the subject matter, the more you stray from what you're known for, the more risk of disaster and low sales. Who wants to take that risk, especially the way things are right now? So the middle ground author has two choices. They can keep writing what they're known for and hope their readership doesn't decide to move on to the next hot trendy writer, or they can write what they really want to, and hope their publisher will take a risk. Or that someone else will.

Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place! I'd love to hear some comments about this, from all corners of the writing maze. Are you a beginner who doesn't know what the middle-listers are whining about? Or are you a middle-lister who is asking yourself these questions? Or are you Bruce Springsteen? (I wish.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Newsletters You Pay For

Most countries have their own networks of newsletters and bulletin boards, simply because that's what is most relevant. I often have writers from the US, UK or other countries ask me if they should (or could) send their manuscripts to Australian publishers. My answer is: you can, but I'm not sure it's worth it. If you're not a 'native Australasian', you will have the same problem we do when we send manuscripts to the US. Yes, we all speak English, but the subtleties and differences can be enormous. That's not to say a great story and great writing won't overcome the barrier, but ... with the exchange rates and lower sales, why would you want to sell a picture book or novel to an Australian publisher if you could get it accepted in the US or UK?

A $3000 advance here would only be worth around US$2200 or 1200 pounds, approximately. Average print runs here are 4000. If your book sold through to a US publisher, you'd get a whole lot less than if it was published in the US right off. But I'm digressing. One of the main reasons writers sign up for newsletters and writers' magazines is for the market information, so if that info is not relevant to you, you won't want to pay for it. So here is a short list of newsletters I have come across - some I have paid for, some I received as samples.

Pass It On - an Australian weekly newsletter for children's writers. Some market info, but it's more about networking and sharing experiences. Currently it's AU$28 a year and more information is on Jackie Hosking's website - Jackie is the compiler.

BuzzWords - originally started by Di Bates, this fortnightly newsletter is AU$44 per year. It has lots of market and publishing info, as well as book reviews, news items and articles. More info on the website.

Childrens' Book Insider - a monthly magazine produced by Write4Kids people. It has articles and plenty of market info, and being a subscriber now entitles you to enter the CBI Clubhouse and gain extra resources.
You can pay $4.25 a month instead if you want to, or US$42.95 a year. I subscribed to this for a year, and eventually decided the cost was a little high as a lot of the info was too US-based for me. But if you live in the US, it might suit you perfectly.

Children's Writer - a monthly newsletter produced by the Institute of Children's Literature (who run a lot of writing courses too). If you go to their site, you can receive a free sample copy. Special first-time rate is US$19 for a year. As far as I can tell, this newsletter is still only available as hard copy, not via email. My sample looked good, and had plenty of useful info in it. Again, I didn't subscribe but this time it was because by the time it arrived by snail mail, I felt the market info was a bit out of date (blame Australia Post!). US writers would like this one.

SCBWI members receive their newsletters now by email if they want to. If you're a member, you have full access to all the resources on their website, including market guides and bulletin board.
As mentioned before, most writers' organisations have their own newsletter which comes as part of your membership fee. Sisters in Crime is a good example of a more specialised writers' organisation that does this.

Writing 4 Success - for a long time Marg Mcalister offered a lot of great articles via a newsletter and website. Now she's gone off on a different (but increasingly familiar) tangent and has created an online writers' "club". To have full access to the club site, including articles, forums and resources, it'll cost you AU$87 a year (there are specials on sometimes). Alternately you can sign up for a free monthly tip sheet. If you go to the site, you'll see all the options and what it's all about. Marg's articles are good value - she has given me permission to use some of them with my students. They are about all kinds of writing, not just for children.

These are just a few that are available. If you see anything on the net that looks useful, try to get hold of a sample copy or back issue first before you pay your money. Or ask friends for recommendations.
And, by the way, I forgot to mention the TextConnection free newsletter that my colleague, Susanna Bryceson, and I produce. Only once a quarter, but it is free! We cover fiction and nonfiction writing with short articles and news updates. Some back issues available here.
If you have a great newsletter you'd like to recommend, let us know!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Snippets of Writing Time

Today has been a day from my nightmares - the kind of day where you spend most of it on the internet or the phone, trying to get quotes and contact people, waiting for them to call back, sweating over time running out and builder's deadlines ... don't ever try to build your own house! Did I get any writing done? I was determined to squeeze in a poem, one from the daily prompt at Poetic Asides (Writer's Digest). OK, it wasn't the greatest poem but at least I have something to show for the day that isn't a scaffold or a piece of wood or a drill bit.

And I shouldn't get too upset because, since we're on mid-semester break, I did, earlier in the week, get a final polish done on a manuscript and finished the Teacher's Notes for my Hong Kong textbook on writing short stories.

Over Easter, I would normally be enjoying time to read and write, but - you guessed it - I will be house building. Not much writing gets done up a ladder with a drill, not even much thinking about writing, unless I want a hole through my hand. But there will be times when I won't be doing any of that, and I want to fill those spare snippets of time with writing, if I can.

It'd be easy to say I'm too busy, that I deserve to just chill out when I'm not lugging timber around. But to me that would feel like such a waste of four days! I have a novel that I really need to start reworking, and a verse novel that needs a heap more thinking and planning before I can add more poems. If I don't do it this weekend, when will I do it? Robin Hobb, the fantasy writer, was at a Con in Melbourne a few years ago, and she said, "You will never have more time to write than now." It's about making the most of the quiet times, choosing to write instead of a million other things.
Now where did I put that hammer? I mean, that pen?

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Free Email Newsletters

This is my promised list, based on newsletters I receive and find useful. All of these are free, but you need to be aware that what that sometimes means is there is a bigger, more informative version that you have to pay for. The best way to assess these is to ask for a sample first. Most newsletter people are happy to provide you with one. These are the ones I know of - if any of you have others that you would recommend, please do provide details in the comments.

Publisher's Weekly has a number of free newsletters. I subscribe to the Children's Bookshelf which is the newsletter aimed at children's writers (or anyone interested in children's books). If you go to this link here, you will see a whole pile of their newsletters and you pick which ones you're interested in. Choose wisely. Somehow I ended up on their cookbooks list and no matter how many times I've tried to unsub, it ignores me!

Randy Ingermanson is known as the Snowflake Guy, because he wrote this article about how to plot your novel using a snowflake kind of plan. If you go to his website, you'll see plenty of things of interest to fiction writers. Randy's fiction writers' newsletter is free, and often includes handy marketing advice. He also has free articles on his site, as well as stuff you have to pay for. I use his article on scene structure in my classes. Look around and see what you can use.

Margie Lawson and Mary Buckham produce a monthly newsletter - if you've done one of Margie's courses, you'll find the character analysis materials useful. There are other snippets and interviews of interest - this one may only suit some people. You can sign up on Margie's site - scroll down to the bottom of the homepage.

Anastasia Suen has a few blogs, but one which has morphed into a group that sends email updates is her Chidlren's Book Biz News. Google her for the range of blogs and news updates she offers.

Publisher's Marketplace has an extensive newsletter as well as a site where you can check out publishers, agents, new book deals, etc. But for those of us on a budget, you can subscribe to Publisher's Lunch - the light version. Their Friday Deal Lunch is a real lesson in how to sum up your book concept in one or two sentences and make it sound like a zinger!

Write4kids is an extensive website with dozens of resources such as articles and a writer's clubhouse. They have a newsletter that you have to pay for, but the "light" version usually has one good article in it, as well as lots of links and special offers. I'll talk about the newsletter when I get to the Newsletters You Pay For post.

Moving on from writing to life in general, I get Craig Harper's blog posts via email 3-4 times a week. If you want a real good kick up the rear end about all kinds of things, you can subscribe to this one. Be warned - Craig is not about making you feel warm and fuzzy. Subscribe here or go to his site and scroll down to the bottom of the last post in the middle. Note to Craig - you need to tidy up the site, mate.

Now, the business newsletter I subscribe to comes from Nightingale-Conant. I found them through their online tool that helps you define your mission statement. If you've never thought about doing that as an author, you might find it interesting. The NC newsletters are very often aimed at business people, sometimes the focus is goal-setting or motivation, but I still find stuff in there that's useful to me. A recent article was about why you should look at ways to reinvest in your core business (which for me is writing) rather than pull your belt in and cut off the circulation. This one is up to you - you might find it useful, or might think it's totally irrelevant! I get the AdvantEdge newsletter and the daily quote (sometimes they are real humdingers!).

If you belong to an organisation, such as the SCBWI or the Australian Society of Authors or any of those kinds of things, you will receive a newsletter as part of the deal. This doesn't mean they're free, but you don't have to pay extra. Sometimes, the quality of the newsletter might be the 'make or break' element that helps you decide whether to keep on as a member.

These are the ones I subscribe to currently. They change. Sometimes I realise that I'm not reading a certain newsletter and it's just clogging up my email so I unsubscribe. If you have a great free newsletter for writers that you'd recommend, please let us know.