Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ready or Not?

One of the things I like to do is read blogs by editors and agents. Apart from giving them a "human" face (because we all know agents and editors are either gods on pedastals or monsters), you can gain some useful insights into the process of acquiring manuscripts or taking on new clients. What they're looking for, what they aren't. We already know they're not looking for crazy people who pursue them into the bathroom at conferences. Or who call and berate them for not accepting a manuscript. But given that there are a lot of people writing novels or picture books or memoirs, etc., what are these agents and editors looking for?

Apart from the usual (specialising in certain kinds of books), they'll happily tell you they don't really know - but they'll know it when they see it. "Hmph!" you snort. "Coulda told you that already." They'll talk about things like a story that leaps off the page, an intriguing voice, a plot with a difference, characters you really care about ... all things that sound vague to many writers. How do you get these things? Do they come by magic? Why won't anyone tell me something precise and exact that I can use?

Well, it's an inexact business. Even publishers can't predict a best-seller: the first novel that takes off and sells hundreds of thousands of copies; the break-out million-seller from well-known author that seems like all his others; the diary story that's been done before but somehow this one strikes a chord with its audience. There's a big difference between Janet Evanovich's twelfth novel and "Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier. JE's publishers were always going to get behind it and put the big money into publicity. "Cold Mountain" did it kind of on its own, from what I know. Or should I say, readers did it.

OK, so if there's no recipe for success, is there a recipe for not succeeding? Of course there is, and the one thing that I see mentioned over and over again is - the writer sent it out before it was ready. I've heard two examples recently of this. A fabulous idea, a great voice, but the writer hadn't learned how to craft it onto the page successfully. That's the key word - CRAFT. Craft takes time. Craft is not banging out a first draft and getting so excited that you immediately print out ten copies and mail it out to the ten biggest publishers.

Craft is five, ten or twenty drafts. Craft is giving it to experienced readers you trust and truly listening to their critiques, even if it hurts. Craft is going to seminars or courses to learn what you need to. Craft is reading and then trying to better the best books that you admire. In the Weekend Australian Review yesterday, M.J. Hyland talks about her new novel This is How. She says, about the first two years of working on the book: "it simply didn't work. The voice was wrong, the rhythm was wrong ... ", it was "an awful, awful two years". She adds, "I'm talking about not a dozen drafts, 25-plus rewrites, over and over ... I had to go back to the drawing board three times."

I've been guilty of it myself. You work on something for ages, and you've done three drafts, so you're convinced it's ready to go. But all the while, a little voice inside is saying, "Let it sit, and give it one more go." That's the voice to take notice of, the one that's saying you might be ready, but the manuscript isn't. Not yet.
(The photo is of Taupo Bay, in New Zealand, by the way. I always feel inspired when I'm there, which is not often enough!)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sleeping and Writing

Over the past few months, quite a number of articles have been published in various newspapers and magazines about the effects of not enough sleep. Some of these include tiredness (obviously!), stress, poor immune system, falling asleep without realising (e.g. when driving) and, strangely, inability to sleep. I guess that last one is what my mother used to call being "overtired". But the studies also show that lack of sleep can lead to obesity, mental impairment and depression, among other things. Not sure about the obesity, although it seems to be the effect on your metabolism that's the problem.

While I was away on holiday, I got an amazing amount of sleep. At home, I wake up several times each night. Sometimes it's to put the cats out (and they hardly ever go out at the same time!), often it's because of my husband tossing and turning. I have just had ten nights of sleeping on an excellent bed, and probably seven of those nights I slept through without waking. Each time it happened, I was surprised, not least because each time it reminded me of how poor my sleep at home must be.

What effect did this have on me? For a start, I had a lot more energy. Not "get up and go" energy but a deeper core of simply being able to cruise through each day without feeling slow and achey. It didn't take very long at all before I felt restored and ready to write, and my brain also felt like it had extra space in it, space I could use for creating, thinking and putting good words together. Of course, when you realise this, you can't help wondering how much poor-quality creating might be going on at other times!

Writers tend to think they don't need to be fit and healthy to write. After all, don't we just sit all day? In fact, we need to be as healthy as we can possibly be in order for our brains to function well and for us to put energy and enthusiasm into each day of wordsmithing. That means food (including snacks) that restore and feed us properly - keep the chocolate for a reward! Not too much coffee or alcohol. Exercise that helps to keep our bodies functioning, such as stretches and walking. Hours at the computer lead to some awful injuries to our arms, neck and shoulders.

But to all of that, I'd add good sleep, and put it at the top of the list. If we're rested, we're better able to cope with deadlines, blocks and that knotty bit in Chapter 4 that just won't work. If we're rested, we can cope with burnout, lack of ideas and deal with interruptions without losing our temper. We don't need coffee or anything else that might be a stimulant. We have headspace and are relaxed enough to use it well.

Some people hate routine. They think that being creative is all about burning the midnight oil, or the 3am oil, that going to bed earlier, at a regular time, and getting 8 hours is boring. If I was 20 or even 30, I'd probably think the same. But I'm not - and I love a great sleep!

P.s The winner of Tracey Binns is Lost was The Well-Read Rabbit! Please email me your postal address to kidsbooks at optusnet dot com dot au. Thanks, everyone, who posted a comment.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Writing Away

For many of us who have to work in "normal" jobs to pay the bills, time away to write is a treasured thing. No phone, minimal email contact, peace and quiet. Some writers go to residential retreats where everyone there is writing and the atmosphere is one of intensity and production and inspiration. Or possibly days and days of staring at a blank screen! Others take the opportunity to find a place far from the madding crowd - a motel or bed & breakfast or wood hut - and write alone.

But when you try to combine writing with other "away" things, like family and outings and social events, trouble can strike. Other people wonder why you're hiding from them, or being unsociable. Or else you go along with everything and everyone and writing doesn't happen. After a busy semester of teaching and hours of infuriating paperwork, I couldn't wait to get away from it all and find some sanity and headspace again. Yet here I am, five days in, and I haven't written a thing.

However, I have caught up with family news, spent wonderful hours with them all, and been for many inspiring walks. I'm sleeping better than I have for weeks, and hardly thinking about work at all. And I have been thinking about my novel (in its second major revision) and mulling over various changes and gaining character insights. I've read over most of the revised chapters and feel I am on the right track at last. Tomorrow will be a writing day, between walking, coffee and conversation. It's all good!

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Endurance Factor

“Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck—but most of all, endurance.”—James Baldwin

I found this quote today while doing some reading on all sorts of different topics, and also in between grading a huge pile of student work. Grading creative writing is something that could be termed an oxymoron perhaps - how can you give originality and pizzazz a grade? Funnily enough, it's not so hard because before you get originality, you have to have strong ideas, structure, characterisation, dialogue that works well, a facility with language, and a good grasp of grammar and punctuation. I guess that's why we teach all that stuff - because from there comes great writing and then ... originality.

I digress. Sort of. Because when we talk about creative writing students, there's a perception that of course they're all talented - why would they be studying writing otherwise? It's true that our students have talent, that germ of something which means when they write, at least a little something happens on the page. But it's what they do with it that makes the difference. Endurance plays a huge part in it. I've seen quite a few very good writers in my classes whom I thought would one day, sooner maybe than later, see their work published. But although their talent might shine, without endurance it fades. I see them a few years on, and they've given up because it got too hard - either to fit it into a busy life, or the rejections were too much to take.

Writing is hard. Good writing is harder. Great writing can take years to develop, to grow, to learn how to do. The myth persists that a great writer is born with the talent, and no doubt for a very occasional person, that's true. But again, it's what happens after that. The road to publication can be long and rocky. Just ask the guy who wrote A Confederacy of Dunces. I saw that mentioned today as an "instant American classic". Yep, it was just a pity that he submitted it over and over and over for years, and finally killed himself. It was his mother who eventually found a publisher, and it became an instant classic. Hmmm.

What makes great writing? I think it is that ability to somehow put words on the page in a way that readers engage with. Just as well we have a wide range of readers, people who love Dan Brown, people who love Annie Proulx. Because words on the page have different effects on different readers. Nevertheless, along with the ability has to come a number of other things. As Baldwin says, discipline is a must. If you can't regularly commit to putting plenty of words on the page and then reworking those words until they sing, you won't get far. A book-length work is a huge, scary undertaking. There'll be plenty to tell you you're mad. Only self-discipline keeps your backside in that chair.

Luck? Yes, even though we hate to admit it. The story idea that somehow magically taps into the zietgist of the time. The editor who absolutely loves Shakespeare and receives an unsolicited manuscript that draws on Hamlet in a new way. The agent you meet just when she's heard of a publisher looking for a book just like yours. But it's not all luck. You make your own luck by being aware of the industry and researching your markets properly.

Love? I guess he means a love of writing. If you love writing for its own 'self', for what it gives you, for the thrill of having written, for how it gives you the licence to do almost anything in words that you dream of - then love helps a lot too. It especially helps when you're getting lots of rejections. But it's endurance that will get you there. Like building a house, you must believe that as along as you keep going, keep adding wood and nails and cement and pipes and a roof, then one day you may well have what you dream of - publication.

And then you must learn to endure all that comes with it - the pressure of each book after that, the reviews, the critics, the long hours at the desk (because you learn that each new book brings its own problems and you will never know it all)... Goodness, I'm starting to depress myself here! But it is endurance, and it is hard - never assume it will be easy because that way lies the road that holds those signs that say things like You're not good enough and I knew you'd fail and How come others can do it and not you?

You have to ignore them because, after all, as a writer you have chosen something that you may do for your whole life. Something that will have moments of ecstasy, moments of deep despair, and a whole lot of days of staring at a blank screen. Endurance doesn't have to be like carrying a heavy sack up a muddy hill in boots that are two sizes too large for you. But it does have to be something you cultivate inside yourself, like a solid warm extra organ that gives you the fortitude you need to keep going.
(And for those of you who know me, can you guess what the house is going to be called when it's finally finished? No, not Emoh Ruo. ENDURANCE.)