Friday, July 31, 2009

Learning From Others

In our course, we do a lot of workshopping of students' writing in class, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, poems or picture books. At the beginning, we talk about what everyone can learn from workshopping properly. By properly, we mean taking the time and effort to read carefully, work out what isn't working for the reader, and then make constructive comments and suggestions. All it really does take is time and effort, even for those who have never workshopped before and feel they have little to offer.

We are all critical readers (or should try to be if we are developing our writing) - we know if a beginning is too slow, if an ending doesn't work, if a character seems shallow or if a story just doesn't engage us strongly. The key to learning is to try to work out why, and then how to fix it. The "fixing" suggestions might take a while. You might not feel confident enough to make suggestions, thinking "what would I know?" You might begin by going too far in the other direction, wanting the author to revise the story the way you would if it were yours. Finding the middle ground comes with experience.

It also comes, as I said, with time and effort. Too often, I see students whose idea of workshopping is to correct some punctuation (usually wrongly!), say "I liked this" and leave it at that. Then when it comes around to the teacher's turn to comment, they sit with mouths gaping open. Or sit with arms folded, resisting. It's a good bet that when we get to workshopping the arm-folder's writing, they will either argue or stay silent and refuse to change a thing. I've even had students who declare if no one understands what they're writing, then that's the reader's problem, not theirs.

Workshopping (or critiquing, as it's called too) can be very confronting. People shake in their shoes at the prospect, thinking they will be ripped apart. Sometimes it can feel like that! Sometimes people are not tactful and encouraging, choosing to go on a little superiority trip instead and be rude and discouraging. We try not to let that happen. But way beyond any great feedback you may receive on your own work comes a far greater benefit. Through reading and critiquing other writers' work, you learn how to critique your own.

The hardest thing in the world is to be able to get enough distance from your writing to effectively edit it, to see what's not working, to realise what it needs in order to be fixed. This comes from experience, and the fastest way to gain that experience is in a workshop. But this is what counts - you need to approach workshopping with time, effort and thought. You get back what you put in, in all senses. If others in the workshop realise (and they will, very quickly) that you can't be bothered with their stuff, you only want comments for your own work, they'll pull back and you'll get very little in return. Think of it as an investment for your future writing, and put in 100%.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

How Many Words?

At the moment, I'm teaching a subject that is all about writing chapter books. In Australia, that is. Chapter book is a tricky term. In the USA, it can mean any book for children that has chapters. However, in Australia it generally means those books published for kids who are emerging or newly independent readers. In other words, they're what you read when you've had enough of school readers (the John and Betty ones, although they're vastly improved these days), but you're not quite ready for novels.

Novels generally start at around 15,000 words. My students are struggling still with exactly what makes a chapter book, so I've set the parameters to make it easier (even though I know there are plenty of chapter books outside this boundary). We're looking at anything from 1,000 words to 8,000 words, with illustrations. For those of you who like to write whatever you want, it might seem a tad restrictive to say a book must have 1500 words, but this is the recommended number for an Aussie Nibble. Other series, particularly those put out by educational publishers, are even more restrictive. They will set a word count, a range of topics, a target readership and the number of pages this all works out to be.

Like it or not, the word count issue applies to nearly all books. Sometimes it depends on what you're writing and who you are. If you're a new fantasy writer, you'll be told that more than 120,000 words is frowned upon, and around 100,000 is your best bet. Too bad if you've written a 300,000 word epic. (However, if you're well-published, the word count doesn't really apply any longer.) If you write for young adults, you're looking at around 40-50,000 words. Category romances have word limits. Even literary novels are unlikely to be much outside the 70,000-80,000 word count. Of course, you can write whatever you want. But these days you'd do well to have a fair idea of what the average word count is in your genre/form, and have a darned good reason for going outside it.

The pesky problem arises in your query letter. You can't lie (well, you can, but when you get caught out you're going to look unprofessional). So an editor or agent to whom you're pitching, say, a middle grade fantasy is going to feel a fair bit of dread when you say your novel is 90,000 words. (Never mind Harry Potter - I've tried that arguement and it doesn't work!) And if you're pitching a literary novel of 38,000 words, the same suspicion will arise, regardless of The Bridges of Madison County.

I'm pondering all of this word count stuff because I'm currently trying to write texts for very new readers. Texts that have a maximum of 50 words but must still tell a story. Other texts that have a word count of 350-400 words but must still tell a darned good story, with a beginning, middle and end. It's practise that helps, I find. You write one, and keep it as tight as you can, then you are 100 words short so you have to fill it out with more exciting bits. Or you are 100 words over, and you have to cut out every single fluffy extra phrase you can find.

It's actually really good for your writing to do this. I remember one year I only had one suitable story for the Age Short Story competition, but it was 480 words over the 3000 word limit. It took me two days, but I finally got it down to 2998 words. I learned a lot during that exercise, and I've never gone back and added the words back in again (after I didn't win). When I read the story a few weeks later, I realised that the cutting had improved the story immensely. An even better lesson.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Crime Writing Festival

This is a relatively new festival on Melbourne's calendar, and for many of us, a very welcome one. I'd booked my tickets and was looking forward to it when the program for the main Melbourne Writers' Festival was released. The theme for the MWF is 'Where Stories Meet' but for me, the program is sadly lacking in a focus on fiction writing. Maybe there were only so many sessions they could run on the difficulties of the short story (it was starting to sound like the same old stuff, apart from Cate Kennedy's insightful comments), but one of my favourites was always the Writer in Conversation. This year, MWF is running with the 'deep and meaningful ideas' again. Great for avid nonfiction readers who want to hear people talk about politics and social issues, not so great for me.

So the crime writing festival was going to be my thing! I booked three sessions, had a keen crime-reading friend to go with, and away we went. The Convent is a great place for the festival, all stone and slate and big windows - and extremely cold in July. But the rooms were warm. Pity the poor writers whose book signing table was outside the bookshop in the freezing wind! First up was Stuart MacBride, here from Scotland - and he was very easy to understand (sometimes I thought Scottish crime on TV needed subtitles). He was determined to have a good time, despite a series of disjointed questions from the interviewer, and had lots of funny stories to tell. When I asked him how he'd feel about his characters by Book No. 12, he almost blanched! But he is planning a couple of stand-alones for variety. Some of his books can be quite gory (Flesh Market in particular) but Stuart himself was very cheery and had lots of funny stories. (Stuart even managed to smile and be cheery while freezing to death at the signing table - above.)

The second session was Barry Maitland and Garry Disher, and the interviewer was Mary Dalmau from Reader's Feast. Mary was so obviously a fan and had a great depth of knowledge about crime fiction. She got both writers talking at length about their ideas, why they wrote what they did. Maitland was an architect, which explained to me where his book Silvermeadow came from - it's a fascinating insight into those huge enclosed shopping malls. Garry began writing about the Mornington Peninsula when he moved there and began to realise how much more you notice surroundings/weather/seasons change outside the city. Both of them agreed that writing several books in a series can get to be a strain. Maitland has just released a stand-alone - he said the Brock/Kolla series was never intended to be more than one book. Disher has been working on a new Wyatt novel, his first in seven years, but his stand-alone book has stalled at the moment.

The final session I attended was on forensic psychiatry. It was packed out (gee, I wonder why?) and fascinating. The panel consisted of two women and a man, all of whom have written books about real crime - gangs, murderous doctors and murderers in general. I've heard Rochelle Jackson speak before, and she is very straightforward and clear. Her stories of interviewing people like Ivan Milat's brother were amazing - she's pretty brave! There was a bit of a digression into where teenagers today might be heading which unsettled a few people. Are our boys and young men really headed down a road of violence? Or is it just that the media reports it all and makes it sound worse than it is? That question wasn't answered - I'm not sure it could be, and certainly not in a session like that. Mostly the discussion was about serial killers!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

What I Don't Want to Read

In his book, "No Plot, No Problem", Chris Baty (Mr NaNoWriMo) starts by asking you to think about what you like to read, and what you don't like to read. Or should I say, read about. Not genres, but topics or subjects or plots or ideas. This is an interesting exercise, and I like to do it with a whole class. There are so many different opinions! I spent some time at the Crime writing festival in the bookshop, cruising along the shelves, and I've done the same in my public library. Reading blurbs, scanning the first page. We all do it. What turns you off a book? This is some of my list.

* Crime fiction that tries to be funny. Apart from Janet Evanovich (who is being very un-original these days), I simply don't like funny crime. Black humour or witty dry lines from characters is a whole different ball game. But quite a bit of the humorous crime or mystery books I've looked at are laboured and tacky.

* Anything that involves plane hijacking, terrorists, or spy stuff. Too much like reading the news at the moment, no matter how well researched it is.

* Any novel about serial murder that goes way overboard with the blood and guts and gore stuff, just for effect. I'm actually not that interested in the gore - I want to know how the person gets caught, and why.

* Most novels that change point of view and give the villain or serial murderer a voice in the book. Most times it doesn't add anything for me. If I cared at all, I'd want the detective to find it out for me, not be "told". I see this as a sneaky way of telling.

* Whiny YA novels where the main character seems to think her life sucks, and wants to tell me about it. Nup.

* Chick lit novels that are similarly whiny but for an older age group. Everyone raved about "I Don't Know How She Does It". I tried to read it and wondered why she bothered.

* Novels where the main character has a mental illness. They never seem credible to me. If the narrator really was mentally ill, how could they write something so cohesive? It somehow offends my sense of logic, and I lose empathy. No doubt others will say I am insensitive...

* Anything with vampires in it. This is entirely a personal response, created by having a series of students a few years ago who wrote the worst vampire novels in existence, and then I had to read them and give constructive feedback. It has scarred me for life.

* Literary novels about middle-class men whose lives have suddenly gone awry, often because they have been laid off or their wives have left them. So what? Suck it up. Don't write about it.

* Misery memoirs. Sorry, I know lots of people love them, and love the "winning through despite terrible ordeals" bit, but I can't bear them. They make me incredibly depressed. I couldn't even read "Angela's Ashes".

I'm sure there are lots more, but honestly, I usually give most things a go. Up to Page 50 or so. Before I chuck them back at the library. What do you hate?

Friday, July 17, 2009

When You've Had Enough

On Saturday I'm off to the Crime and Justice Festival, a good excuse to go and indulge in my passion for crime fiction. Among others, I'll be listening to Stuart MacBride and Barry Maitland talk about their books and characters, and drinking coffee and trying not to buy too many books. My friend G and I swap books sometimes, and swap recommendations constantly. It's great to find a new author whose work you love, and then read their backlist as well. But now and then I wonder about those writers who have been going a long time, whose main character is being trotted out for the 15th time, and whether they feel tired.

I've blogged before about the pressure of a series, especially one where you are expected to produce several books in a short period of time. I read a comment in the review pages the other day about Michael Connelly - the writer said Connelly's publisher must love him because he writes a new book every nine months without fail. That said, the new one is not about Harry Bosch (who's had many outings) but Jack McEvoy, who first appeared in The Poet. This was the first of Connelly's books I read, and it captured me immediately. I went on to read Trunk Music and Concrete Blonde in quick succession.

The ScarecrowBut nowadays, is a Harry Bosch novel capturing me in the same way? Is Connelly putting the same passion and hard work into his writing? Would it show on the page if he wasn't? Could I tell? I think readers can tell - take Patricia Cornwell. I don't know what happened to her writing, but I know that for me, as soon as she started writing in present tense, she lost me. I have to confess I have now stopped buying Janet Evanovich (although I might borrow from the library). For me, it's too much of the same old, same old.

But how do the writers feel? Do they groan when the publisher says, "I want another one of those, and we need it by 1 May"? Or are they still keen on their characters and have a secret pile of story ideas they can't wait to get to? Maybe that's a question I can ask at the festival... But one thing I have to say about Connelly's new book The Scarecrow - the background of print journalism and the way in which the internet is superseding hardcopy newspapers was fascinating, and what is even better is that Series 5 of The Wire uses the same context as one of its main plot threads.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Reading Poetry

The week began with 63 poems - the ones in my new verse novel (out in March 2010). Having received notes from the editor, it was time to sit down and read the whole manuscript a few times before responding. It's been a while - publishers have schedules and there are often months between signing a contract and working on revision and editing (not always though). It was like reading it with a fresh eye, almost as if I hadn't written it. That's an excellent way to be more critical of your own work.

Then I went through the editor's notes, and scribbled responses for myself, plus I also had another look at a few things that had leapt out at me as not working very well. Revision now will be refining and tweaking. Sometimes it might take a week to find the solution for a line that doesn't quite work. After that, I read poems as I looked for suitable examples for my symbols class on Monday. This is not a class that has studied poetry as a separate subject, but I'm not about to "baby" them either! I paused to re-read two Billy Collins' poems that feature the moon, and filed them for study in class.

Today, I did a poetry reading at Bacchus Marsh. It's the first reading like this I've done in quite a while. As I told the audience, I'm more used to school visits these days, and the challenge of engaging 40 8-year-olds. Or perhaps those 15 or so tiny pirates at the bookshop the other day. You tend to forget what it's like to have a room full of listeners who are there because they want to be, because they enjoy poetry and they are keen to engage. From me, they heard the whole range, from the verse novel for kids to a recent poem about Hong Kong. It was funny that I realised, as I neared the end of the second reading session, how much (to me) I sounded like I do when reading to a school group. I think reading pirate stories out loud, with voices and actions, has given my poetry reading more energy!

The other reader was my long-time friend, Kristin Henry, and over lunch we got onto the subject of bad poetry and obscure poetry (by obscure, we meant poems that are written to be deliberately almost impossible to understand, usually in order to look clever). I've had poetry students who wrote like this and declared that if anyone couldn't understand their poems, it was their problem! There is a difference between being difficult or challenging, and obscure. I still read poems in the Age newspaper Saturday books pages and think, What on earth is that meant to be? So they get the four-time test. If I read the poem four times, slowly and with concentration, and it is still meaningless to me, I give up. I want a poem to communicate with me, show me something new, give me something to think about. Not give me a needless headache! What do you think?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Goals vs Dreams

I've been goal setting for years. My very first taste of this tantalising exercise was way back in the days when my daughter was at primary school. Goodness knows why I went along to a parents' session that involved goal setting - all I remember was the part of the course on developing your own photos in a lab! But many years later, I found the notes I'd made at the time and was astounded to find that a few of the things I'd put down back then (such as "attend a writing conference in the US") had been achieved. If you'd asked me what I'd written down, I would have had no idea.

Later, I worked in a community arts centre and there I ventured into my second round of goal setting. The session was new to me, but familiar to nearly everyone now. 1. What would you like to achieve one day. 2. What do you want to achieve in 3 years. 3. What would you put at the top of the list if you had six months to live! I kept the handouts from that session, but not the goals I set. However, the two experiences stayed with me, and I have done a range of goal setting exercises ever since. Usually around February or March each year, after the initial New Year's resolutions have worn off and I can be practical about it.

Except, a few years down the track now, I have been finding the whole goal setting thing a total yawn. A list of jobs. An obvious list of stuff I already know I have to do (including deadlines) so why bother going through the motions? I've been giving this a bit of thought over the past few months, in the face of what looked like just another list of THINGS TO DO, and have come to some conclusions.

1. Deadlines and things contracted (with future due dates) don't belong on a Goals list.
2. Jobs such as cleaning out your office don't belong on a Goals list either - if only because this will be an ongoing job that will keep me busy until Infinity.
3. Jobs and commitments that involve other people don't belong on a Goals list.
4. What might help to re-inspire you about Goals is to change the word to Dreams, and then have a good think about the difference.
5. Dreams involve inspiration, excitement, anticipation and happy planning. They involve little steps, each one of which makes you feel good. Trips to France are included in Dreams. Completing a revision by 30 June, or fixing up your tax records, are absolutely not!
6. Dreams should include a couple of things that are wonderful to contemplate, but probably unreachable in practical terms. The exciting bit is when you start to see them become reachable.

So I've thrown away any of my Goals that sound like Jobs. I've put plenty of Dreams back on the list, things that I want to do just for me and no one else. Things that make me happy just to think about them. Things that don't rely on or respond to anyone else except me. I've been to France (and that was a dream come true!) - maybe now I'll start thinking about South America ... or Alaska ... or Canada ... or ...

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Writers' Celebrations!

Spineless: Dealing with Pests and Pals in Your Home and Backyard
It's been a great four weeks, celebrating new books with writer friends. And the topics are so wide-ranging that I marvel at their passions and knowledge! In early June, Bronwen Scott (who is working on a crime novel with lots of scientific stuff in it) celebrated the release of her first title, a non-fiction book called Spineless: Dealing with Pests and Pals in Your Home and Backyard. This fascinated me - I have as many pests as the next person, from spiders to wasps, and never mind the ants and millipedes. This is the book you need when you're not sure whether to attack with a broom, or be kind and trap and release. I listened in to an interview she did on Radio National, where listeners phoned in with questions about their own pests and what to do with them. A bit like the gardening show on steroids!

Letters to Leonardo Last weekend, I launched Dee White's first YA novel, Letters to Leonardo. As I said at the launch, Dee has done a great job of creating a believable YA voice. This is a novel of mystery - Matt turns 15 and receives a birthday card from his mother. Usually no big deal, except Matt was told his mother was dead. Dee had over 100 people at her launch, and we all got to chat and eat cake and celebrate the book with her.

The Littlest Pirate and the Treasure Map (Aussie Nibbles S.) I had my own bit of fun today. Although The Littlest Pirate and the Treasure Map (Aussie Nibbles S.) wasn't launched as such, this morning I went along to Dymocks at Camberwell and discovered a whole bunch of lively 3- and 4-year-olds, all dressed up as pirates. One even had a little parrot on his shoulder. I read the picture book, we coloured in, shared some cake and I showed them my pirate flag and special pirate glasses. I wasn't brave enough to sing the pirate song I'd made up.

And finally I am allowed to announce that my friend, Gina Perry, has won a Silver World Medal in the 2009 New York Festivals Radio Programming Awards for her radio documentary, Beyond the Shock Machine. If you heard this broadcast earlier this year on Radio Eye on the ABC, you will know what an amazing story it is. Stanley Millgram ran a series of controversial experiments more than 40 years ago, designed to test how far people would go when instructed to give electric shocks to others in a test situation. While someone in another room answered questions, a wrong answer required the "tester" to give a shock via a machine in front of them. Compliance? Obedience? Lack of moral judgement? Who would go all the way on the voltage meter? And why did it take Millgram so long to reveal to the testers that the person in the other room was faking it? It is a fascinating story. Congratulations, Gina, and also to the ABC producer and team that worked with you.
Time for champagne!

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Turning Points in a Scene

The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great I have a fairly extensive library of writing how-to books, and some of them are ones I recommend, some are not (one or two I actively de-recommend!). I always say to students that they should have a good look at a writing book before they buy it. Each book speaks differently to us. One that is perfect for me may leave you cold. Sometimes it's the style, but often it happens that I come across a book that tells me what I want to know at just the right time.

Last semester I co-taught a great subject we call Story Structure. I teach it with a scriptwriter who has a huge amount of experience in both scriptwriting and script editing (and as a dramaturg). We'll each talk about something to do with structure, such as scenes, and I approach it from a fiction writer's perspective, and she does the same from a scriptwriter's perspective. No matter how many times we tell students to listen to everything, that the principles apply to both, there are still those that declare themselves confused. "What does that script stuff have to do with my novel?"

So it was with a cry of "Aha!" that I read a chapter last night in The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great by Donald Maass. This is the guy who wrote Writing the Breakout Novel and the workbook that goes with it. In the bit I was reading, he talks about turning points in scenes, something that we covered in class. We'd talked about the two turning points in Syd Field's classic movie structure, and then later we'd moved on to the beats and turning points in a scene.

Still, there were those in the class who couldn't make the connection. A scene is just a scene, isn't it? Stuff happens? Er no, not unless that stuff is interesting and involving and moves the story forward. Maass is talking about scenes in the middle of the novel - the sagging point - and how the turning points should be both external and internal for the viewpoint character. I wish I'd had his book in class - but there's plenty more in there for me to read and think about.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Daily Writing Goals

This week I have finally had time off to write. When I say "time off", I mean whole days for writing and nothing else. At least, nothing else that required me to show up from 9-5. The days stretched out ahead of me. Eight hours for writing. Think of all those words I could write. Except ... I knew from experience how easy it was for each day, and all those hours, to dribble away on stuff. Household chores, house building things, attacking the endless mess in my office (and going to the stationery shop), reading, etc. How to organise my precious days so they were spent on writing?

It's partly about discipline. Nobody was making me do the other stuff. They were merely procrastination tools, ones I tend to do while thinking "I'll write better in the afternoon", and then finding it was after 5pm and I hadn't written a thing. I thought about what would get my backside in the chair and keep it there. Should I set a number of words to write? Not relevant at the moment because my writing task this week is a major revision, which means some new writing and some rewriting. How about hours sitting at the computer, no matter what? In the end, I decided on pages of revised novel. I aimed for 15 per day. Ha! I thought. That's nailed it.

Not. Monday and Tuesday saw me finally sitting down at the computer around 2pm. Should have been plenty of time to work on 15 pages, but somehow it wasn't. Tuesday I accomplished THREE! Wednesday morning I had a fantastic Skype call with my friend K, who completed the Margie Lawson course on Self-Defeating Behaviours earlier this year. K told me that what works best for her is putting writing first, sitting down after breakfast and writing for 2-3 hours, no matter what. Then the rest of the day is free for all that other stuff, and you feel great because you have written.

Obvious, isn't it? Well, it is if you are a morning person. Which I am not. But related to this are other elements, such as getting a good night's sleep so you can be up and functioning by 8am. Eating breakfast and doing some exercise helps too. Mostly, it's about making a decision that writing needs to come before everything else, and sticking to it. I used to read about full-time authors who go to their desk at 9am and write until 5pm. That's a great day's writing, I thought. But I don't write like that. I'm not sure anyone does. Eight hours at the keyboard? At the speed I type, I'd be producing 8-10,000 words a day.

But it would be 10,000 words of babble. I need thinking and planning and pondering time. When I'm not writing, that's when I see plot holes, and develop exciting new ideas. But I still need at least 2 hours of typing to get it all into the story. When I have a normal writing week, there are two days where I cannot write at all. Not even if I got up at 5am (and Melbourne is so cold right now, there's no way I'm doing that!). But this week has shown me that I can structure those other days better, and get more done, simply by writing first.