Sunday, May 31, 2009

Creativity and Depression

The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path Through Depression
What a great way to celebrate 500 blog posts - write about depression!! But I've been wanting to write about this book - The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path Through Depression- for a week or more, even though I haven't finished reading it yet. So now's the time. I've also been thinking about the topic over the past two days while I've been attending the Reading Matters conference.

Why? Because several of the writers talked about problems with writing - getting stuck on a book that's not working (Bernard Beckett) or having to set a daily word target because of frittering away hours (James Roy) or realising that even when she was in a quiet room at Varuna, she still wrote at the same slow pace (Alison Goodman). We all struggle with our writing. In fact, James Roy quoted someone who said if you find writing easy, then you're not a writer! For me, attending the conference and listening to so many terrific writers talk about their craft is one of the ways I overcome creative slumps.

It would be easy, however, to sit and listen to them talk, see all their books on the bookshop tables, and think - Why am I bothering? Why don't I give up now? In "The Van Gogh Blues", Maisel talks a lot about this feeling, and why creative artists (writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, etc) experience it. Sometimes it can lead to a terrible depression, rather than fleeting feelings of despair, and he also talks about the necessity of getting to grips with reality - that you do have to pay the bills, you do often have to have a job which squeezes out time for creating. I know several people, excellent creators, who have indeed given up and gone off to do something completely different.

There is so much in this book that to try and summarise it in a couple of paragraphs is misleading. So I will pick out some of the things that, so far, have struck a chord with me. One is that you can opt to matter, that instead of buying into the whole notion that life itself is meaningless and we're just here until we die, you can choose to make your own life meaningful through creating. Think about how many people you know who either just exist, or who are waiting for whatever they think the afterlife might offer (and they say it's got to be better than here). Maisel says that for a creative person, neither of these attitudes will work. It is only by choosing to make your own life matter through your creations that you will find what you need.

He also discusses those artists for whom meaning is based in the marketplace. Becoming famous, making lots of money, receiving great reviews - none of these will feed into creating what matters for you. It has to reside inside you to endure, and you have to keep "opting to matter" rather than let it slide. It's also about being connected with the world - about caring for others as well as yourself, not letting your ego move you into ruthless behaviour or lording it over others.

Your decision to matter, to fuel your own creativity, comes from self-understanding. Maisel says, "Until you come to grips with your personality and your human nature and can say 'This is who I am and this is who I am choosing to become', not only will meaning elude you but so will a genuine enthusiasm for life." He goes on to talk about your personal power supply, how many people are "slowed down by the facts of existence" and lose their own energy and creative power.

As I said, I'm still only halfway through this book. There is so much in it - and I'm not suffering from depression, yet I do have periods of feeling totally uncreative and wondering how on earth I can get out of it. Maybe when I've finished it, I'll write more about the subject.
In the meantime, to celebrate Blog Post Number 500, I'm offering a prize!! Anyone who posts a comment about this whole thing of creativity and/or depression will go in the draw to win a copy of my latest book, Tracey Binns is Lost. If you post as Anon, please do put a name of some kind at the bottom!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Post 499 - Creativity

Good gracious, I just realised that this is Post No. 499. I had better make sure No. 500 is a darned good one! Thank goodness it's 499 today, as my brain is struggling. We are in workshopping mode in class; consequently I have workshopped 17 picture book texts in the past week, marked 15 assignments on myths and am getting ready for the final onslaught. Another 50+ assignments to mark in about 9 days. No wonder I won't be writing for a while.

I've been pondering over the brain power question. And reading a great book on creativity, which I'll save for Post 500 perhaps. Is our creativity limited? Or is it actually boundless, living somewhere inside our head, and the problem is that we don't know how to manage it or release it properly? I make it sound like a caged creature, don't I?

But sometimes it feels like that. It feels like a tiger behind bars inside my head, growling and snarling because in front of the bars is a pile of "other work" so high that all I can hear is a faint whine. Or all I let myself hear is the whine, because to acknowledge the tiger is pacing the cage and getting extremely angry is a bit risky to my mental calm. So I toss a leg of lamb over the pile of work and hope that keeps the tiger quiet until I can let her out.

Yes, I probably need to leave this metaphor well alone, and get back to the "other work". The sooner it's conquered, the better. Then it's me and the tiger, off to the mountains, or the beach, or the wild blue yonder...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Diving Into Poetry

This week, I've dived head-first into poetry. I'm not sure why this happens, but it kind of creeps up on me. First I read some poems (these were ones I wanted to use in my mythology class), then I wrote a couple, then I wrote more for my new verse novel, then my book order arrived, which included four books of poetry. Somehow, when my fingers did the ordering online, they clicked on books of poems and verse novels. Now I'm fully indulging! And remembering all the things I love about poetry, what each poem creates as I read it, and how often something in a poem will spark an idea and off I go to write.

Of course, the book I grabbed first was Ballistics. This is Billy Collins' new collection, and as the very first poem is about Paris, I had to stop and re-read it. Having heard recordings of him reading quite a few times, now whenever I read one of his poems, it's as if I can hear his voice. Weird, but good.

The Cuckoo's Haiku: And Other Birding PoemsNext book in my pile was one I read about in a review magazine and actually misunderstood what it was. The book is The Cuckoo's Haiku: And Other Birding Poemsby Michael Rosen. I thought it was a book about writing haiku (despite the subtitle) but it's a great collection of haiku about birds. And not only that, the watercolour illustrations of birds by Stan Fellows are beautiful. If you're a haiku fan, I can recommend it.

Shakespeare Bats CleanupI've also ordered three verse novels, again from reading about them in other people's reviews or blogs. I've read novels by Ron Koertge before, and was surprised to see a verse novel by him (hidden poet inside us all?) - Shakespeare Bats Cleanupis about a 14-year-old boy who gets mono (a disease) and is quarantined at home for a few weeks. He can't go to school, and he can't play baseball, his favourite sport. He's reduced to writing poems to entertain himself! What I like about this story is the way form poems sneak in - the narrator is under no illusion that his poems are world-class, but he still manages to use the forms and say what he wants. There are shades of "Love That Dog" in here - the idea of a kid who isn't keen on poetry and ends up writing it and drawing more from the experience than he thought possible.

After many years, Sharon Creech has written a follow-up to "Love That Dog". It's called, of course, Hate That Cat. I haven't read this one yet, but am looking forward to it. More poetry, please, more!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

What Do Reviews Do?

When you have a new book out, you hold your breath. Will the reviews be good? Or awful? Will your book be reviewed at all? Do reviews make any difference? There have been studies done on the reasons why people buy a book. Reviews come way down on the list. Top reason is word of mouth. I think it's why so many authors have leapt into blogging and Facebooking and Twittering - trying to create their own word of mouth. The jury is still out on how well it works, but in the meantime, we try it anyway because the reviews were minimal, or they were in magazines with a low circulation, or we received one bad one and we're trying to bury it somehow.

With the growth of the internet, reviewing has become an unpaid hobby for many people. There are readers who have posted hundreds of reviews on Amazon, readers who have reviewing blogs, readers who submit reviews on spec to respected magazines, like Good Reading. How much notice do we take of any of them? And what is their agenda? With a review in a magazine or journal or newspaper, the assumption is that this person is reviewing because they are respected for their informed, professional opinion. None of us want to imagine this kind of reviewer throwing our book across the room, yet there are reviews published where this seems to be what happened.

On the other hand, there are one or two famous reviewers who are famous simply for their ability to be totally vitriolic about nearly every book. That just makes me wonder what they eat for breakfast. But at least their agenda is fairly obvious - they're being paid to do a job. Other kinds of reviews can be problematic. One example is the person who writes a critical review, simply in order to promote themselves as an "expert" who could have written that book better. If only they'd been asked. Another example is the person who is trying to make a name for themselves as an amateur reviewer and tries to be deliberately contentious.

Yet another problem arises when the reviewer seems to mis-read the book, and bases their comments on misconceptions. Often I wonder if the reviewer ran out of time and just skimmed the book. Sometimes reviewers have a personal agenda unknown to anyone else but the writer of the book and his/her close friends. I've had the "pleasure" of my book being reviewed by someone who disliked me personally, and wrote a dismissive review. It's so hard not to sling some harsh words back when that happens, but it's usually not worth the trouble. You just make things worse. Far better is to take the best phrase or sentence out of its context and use it in your publicity!

Mostly, I think reviewers try to do a good job. I know of some who refuse to review a book they don't like, which is a positive thing to do. If you receive a bad review, you just have to suck it up and move on. There are many strategies for overcoming any bad publicity that might come out of it - the afore-mentioned social networking, getting your friends on-board to help promote the good reviews, or simply getting out and about and talking to people about your book (school visits, if you write children's books, are a wonderful antidote - thirty excited Grade One kids who want you to sign their book, for example).

The one thing you can't do is brood about it. I know people who have stacks of good reviews, but can quote word-for-word their one bad review. What is the point? Do you really want to constantly remind yourself of it? Why? Instead, think of how many reviews you've read over the years, and ask yourself how many have influenced you NOT to buy a book. I can't think of one, and I do read lots.

Yes, a good review might tempt me to try a new author, but if I analysed my reasons for purchase, they usually come down to "read a book by that person before and liked it" or "my friend recommended it". Or, best of all, I was browsing in a bookshop and found it and read the first few pages and that made me buy it. So instead of reading your reviews, go back and read the first chapter of your current work-in-progress and ask yourself if it would influence your intended readership to buy it.

I do post short commentaries on this blog occasionally, but I don't consider them to be reviews. I always look at books here from the point of view of a writer - what worked, what didn't work (for me) and why. And I also talk about what I might have learned as a writer from this book, e.g. setting from James Lee Burke. If I influence anyone to buy a book, I'm usually not aware of it. It's interesting when readers agree or disagree with me. But it's still just one person's opinion.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Writer's Rights and Plagiarism Pt 2

When people think of plagiarism, they usually think of essays and papers at uni or school. After all, there is a website called where you can pay for ready-made essays on all kinds of topics. Yes, if you're there to learn stuff, you really want to buy an assignment, forgetting that the purpose of assignments and essays is to show you understood what you were taught. Not. We do a big talk to our professional writing students about plagiarism, and it's not just about the penalties if you get caught. It's also about being a real writer, about being able to create your own stories and novels and poems. It's about building a reputation as a great writer, not as a word thief.

As I said in the last post, Google may make it easier for you to pinch stuff, but it also makes a heck of a lot easier to be found out. Why do people do it? Lots of reasons. A desperate need to be published and receive accolades and validation. Pressure from others to be published. Money and prestige. The pressure of deadlines that you can't meet. We have very few cases in our course, thank goodness, but we have picked up occasional attempts. One was an essay of bits pinched from all over and cobbled together into one piece. Apart from anything else, it read oddly - the change of tone and language was quite obvious. The teacher tracked down every stolen paragraph using Google.

Some writers argue that copyright is outdated and irrelevant now. I had an exchange of emails a couple of years ago with a journalist who couldn't see the point of protecting copyright. He said he wrote lots of stuff and was happy for it to be used anywhere, once he'd been paid for the first publication. He didn't seem to get my point about: a) without copyright, he couldn't have claimed that first payment - how could he prove it was his? b) as a journalist, he wrote several things a week at least - as a novel writer who might spend two years on a novel, why would I want to give that away for free?

If I don't own copyright on my own work in perpetuity, and am free to sell it and re-sell it, how can I ever make a living as a writer? My copyright is my life work, my salary, my bill payer! I certainly don't want to be reliant on the government for grants, nor do I want to have to write things I'm not interested in, simply to get a one-off payment. And if it is a one-off, and then anyone can do with the work what they like, logically the work would then be de-valued and taken less seriously, surely. Strangely enough, in the middle of all the current furore about copyright, artists (as in paintings, drawings, etc) are negotiating payment for resale of their work. Imagine that. You sell a painting for $2000, and ten years later, it re-sells for $40,000 and you get a share of the new, much higher, price.

Writers' rights are also coming up in relation to the digital age. We have Google Book Search, and the decision of whether to opt in for payments or not. We have publishers pushing contracts with digital rights that include every kind of format/version/application not even conceived of yet, for minimal payment. We don't know where digital formats will go, but hey, let's make sure authors, yet again, receive the absolute minimum. When are we going to see publishers' bean counters (because that's who pushes this stuff, not editors) realise that looking after your authors and paying them what they're worth in the marketplace is going to be a bonus? So many authors are way ahead of publishers and publicity departments in terms of reaching their audiences via the internet, blogs, podcasts, e-books, etc. Give us a bit more support and who knows what we can create together?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Writer's Rights and Plagiarism - Part 1

It's been one of those weeks for losing things - some of which I found in the place my husband moved them to! But what has worried me the most was losing a USB drive (some call it a thumb drive or memory stick) that was the back-up to all my files on my laptop. I have bought a new one, and created a new back-up, but what really bothers me is where the USB might have gone. Did I leave it at that Sydney conference after finishing my Powerpoint? Have I left it at work somewhere? Have I dropped it somewhere? Do I still have it (somewhere safe but un-findable) or does someone else now have it?

On that USB are at least two unpublished novels, in various drafts, plus a number of unpublished and published poems and short stories. I still remember, years ago before laptops and USB drives were so common, a poet friend of mine who lost a whole folder full of poems and drafts of poems. 'What if someone finds them?' she said, 'and sends them out to magazines and journals under their own name? How can I prove they're mine?' In fact, she couldn't, whereas at least now they're dated on my computer to show the earliest version belongs to me.

The question is: who would take a bunch of 'found' manuscripts and try to publish them as their own? How could they think they might get away with it? This is where the internet is both a hindrance and a help. Yes, the scurrilous wanna-be could take my manuscripts and submit them under his/her own name, and they may even get them published. Possibly they'd be published on some site I'd never know about, unless I decided to do a Google search using some of the key phrases. It may well pop up! If they submitted a manuscript to a reputable publisher, however, and managed to get the book published (this is all assuming that manuscript was one I wasn't currently working on and submitting myself), it's quite likely I'd find out, sooner or later. What then?

The first thing I would do is approach the publisher and explain the situation. There's no doubt that the publisher, presented with clear evidence, would have to withdraw the book from sale and tell the wanna-be never to darken their doors again. Word would get around. Wanna-be's name would be mud. I'd probably use the internet to alert everyone to the situation, and warn them. The fact that there is usually a clause in a book contract where you have to specify the work is your own is guaranteed to get you into major legal trouble if you lie about this!

There are situations where an idea just seems to 'out there' in the ether - recently we accepted a poem for Poetrix magazine, and I realised that someone in our group had just workshopped a poem on the same topic. But she had written the poem while away on holiday, long before we'd had our editorial readings and discussion. It was a coincidence. On the other hand, a writer might see a new book recently published, read it and say, 'I can do better than that', and write their own version of the plot or subject. No harm in that either, especially if you do bring something new and completely different to the topic. (The problem is if you don't, you'll be accused of 'jumping on the bandwagon'!)

There's plenty more to talk about here - my mind is buzzing - but I'll add more shortly.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Tracey Binns Rides Again!

Tracey Binns is lost in the bush and the last people she wants to be stuck with are Justin Zit-face and her annoying teacher, Mr Gunning.

Tracey's school has started a new healthy-eating and exercise program and the kids are not happy. They're even less happy when Mr Gunning, their dreaded PE teacher, announces that he is taking the Grade Six students on a bush survival and fitness camp.Facing the pitch dark and the strange calls of the wild is not Tracey's idea of fun. But all this looks like a walk in the park when they become lost on a long day's march ...Tracey Binns is in trouble again!

This week I'm celebrating the release of my new Tracey Binns novel (for 9-13 year olds). Tracey is one of those characters who won't go away. She leapt into life one day - I'm still not sure where she came from, but she was noisy and determined, and she got my attention fast! She's the kind of character you can't help asking that vital question about - why? Why does Tracey behave the way she does? What motivates her? I have a lot of fun getting behind Tracey's facade and ferreting out what's really going on with her.

And sometimes not only do the other characters surprise her, she surprises herself. I've also had fun "helping her" to create her own website. This is not the week for camping - way too cold - but when I went up to Benalla to research locations for Tracey's school camp, it was pretty cold then, too. Every bit helps, when it comes to imagining Tracey in her world.
Link to
Tracey Binns is Lost

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

But He Said Write Like This...

One of the things I like about teaching is the opportunity to read lots of writing books and distill what each one is saying, and choose what is useful to use in class. Sometimes I'll have one book that I use as a base text, or that we need to use as a base text - like a starting point. In first year fiction writing, we use Garry Disher's book Writing Fiction. It's a great starting point. This year I'm teaching Myths & Symbols and although I have four or five huge texts on world mythology, I choose one as my base text for "lectures" (because I don't lecture like professors do, I talk a lot about stuff that interests and excites me). It's a good text - out of all the ones I own, it covers the subject with the best information in the clearest form.

One of the traps you can fall into, as a teacher, is sticking to one text too closely, as if it's a bible of some kind. Of course there are authors out there, like John Truby and Robert McKee, who teach absolutely from their text - usually the writing course comes before the text anyway. There are so many ways to teach writing! There are books that focus on character, on setting, on dialogue, on plot and conflict. There are books about picture book writing, and about writing for young adults. How does the beginner writer ever know which one is "correct"?

Well, they all are. And they all aren't. Some books will speak to you, will tell you exactly what you need to know at the moment you need to know it. I read Elizabeth Lyon's book, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, a couple of years ago, just when I needed a new perspective on self-editing. I read Eric Maisel's book, A Writer's Paris, because I was going to Paris and wanted a writer's perspective on where to go for the best inspiration (Eric obviously had never had hot chocolate at the Place de Bastille though). That's the benefit of building a library of these books.

However, they're not cheap. A friend and I share our library and try to make sure we don't duplicate purchases. That way we can borrow and lend, and know we've got a huge range of knowledge available at a lesser cost. I advise students to read some of the books first before buying. You'll soon know if the book "speaks" to you, if it's going to provide what you need. Some you will come back to, time and again, some you will read maybe once and then move on. A book can be a great teacher - and not just a writing book. A great novel can also be an excellent teacher, if you take the time to read it like a writer.

Getting back to the "He said..." of the title, I have seen examples of teachers who I think are problematic. These are the teachers who are only interested in teaching what they know and do themselves. That's it. Nobody else's theories and practices are relevant to them. It's a case of DO AS I DO. I think that's dangerous. All you turn out is clones. Publishers don't want clones. They want writers with fresh new voices who will take risks. How do you take risks? You learn the rules first, you read widely and critically (of novels and how-to writing books), you take what is useful for you, you bend it into what you need, you think laterally, you experiment and explore, and you write the story that's in your heart.
And then, hopefully, when you're published, you can thank your teacher. Because there's nothing a teacher loves more than celebrating their students' successes. Trust me, a jealous teacher won't teach you much at all. They can't afford to...

Friday, May 01, 2009

Who's On Your Team?

A while ago, I completed a series of teleseminars with Randy Ingermanson and Alison Bottke. I've mentioned these before, because the first one was about getting rid of all the mess and clutter in your office. It's an ongoing project. I'm not finished yet. That's all I'll say about that (but I do have bags of stuff for the charity shop, and more for the rubbish truck every week). But one of the things I had to do in a later seminar was think about who is on my team. My writing team.

First of all, I thought - that's obvious. Me. No one else can write for me. If I wanted to stretch it a bit, I could say my laptop or computer was on my team, too. But that wasn't what they meant. So when I got right down to it, the people on my team were:
* my agent (that became obvious, too)
* my writers' group
* my two fellow writers with whom I swap critiques
* my accountant
Then I stuck on the next one - my publishers/editors. Were they really on my team? Wasn't it more likely that I was on their team? (Insert picture here of me and the people from UQP or Penguin all wearing matching hats and scarves.) But the definition of team is anyone who is working or helping me to reach my writing goals. So yes, I added them.

And then I added my husband, who I have assiduously trained to be on my team, and my family. I knew my family were definitely on my team when they flew all the way from New Zealand to be with me for last year's CBCA awards.
So who is on your team? Think about it for a few moments, or longer if you want to, and make a list. Then answer this question: Who is NOT on your team?

If team means helpers and supporters, then the NOT team means those who hold you back or de-stabilise you in some way. This doesn't mean those publishers and editors who reject your manuscripts. That's just part of the industry you're in. To me, the NOT team consists of:
* family members who actively or sneakily undermine your confidence and belief in yourself and your writing - the evidence is in statements as blatant as "When are you going to get a real job?" or as cunning as "You're going to write? Wouldn't you rather watch TV with me and the kids? We haven't seen you all day..."
* writers' group members who don't want to work, just socialise, or who show their jealousy at your successes, or who make it their job to harshly criticise every piece of your writing (to help you develop a thicker skin, of course)
* scam agents and vanity publishers who just want your money
* you!

Surprised by that last one? Well, think about the things you do that undermine your writing. Procrastination via housework or socialising or simply putting other things ahead of the blank page. Giving into fear. Getting angry over rejections instead of trying to understand what they mean. Not bothering to read in your genre, or to learn about the industry so that you don't look unprofessional. Not looking after your health, so you are either too hung-over, too ill or too tired to write well.

So, tell me - who's on your team? And who's NOT?