Sunday, August 30, 2009

Melbourne Writers' Festival - 3

This is HowThe session with M.J. Hyland was in the largest theatre, and was almost full. A lot of people were curious (her second novel was shortlisted for the Booker), a lot of people had obviously read at least one of her books. The joy of listening to a fiction writer speak, particularly one who examines her own work and processes, is that you gain fascinating insights into the process of creating imaginary characters and worlds. MJ was no exception. She began by talking about the book that inspired This is How- it was a collection of 12 oral histories from murderers, 'Life After Life'. And went on to pondering the problems involved in using a first person/present tense voice. 'It's like ventriloquism,' she said, and comes with serious limitations. For example, if readers don't like the character or find him sympathetic, the book fails.

She begins with a loose outline or loose idea and theme and then creates a character, but she doesn't know a lot of it until she writes. Setting is important - she sets novels in the 1960s before mobile phones and technology because it creates more difficulties for characters but allows more to happen. In a boarding house, perfect strangers are rubbing up against each other, which is a perfect place to begin. She never wants a perfect answer - we are complicated persons so a story and character should never be simple.

Being shortlisted for the Booker made her feel self-conscious, anticipating the reaction to her third book. So she played with style, feeling she had to prove she was a 'writerly writer' but none of it worked, and it took a while to shake that self-consciousness. She finds endings difficult and is often unhappy with them in her books - she tends to leave things open which she realises is a problem for readers. (A reader near me muttered about the ending to 'How The Light Gets In', and wondered why the editor lets her get away with it!) She also talked about how strong the voices of her characters are, and how it takes a while to shake the previous character when she begins a new novel.

Her early drafts are long and messy - twice as many words as the final draft - and she takes half the words away, so that there are still shadows in the final story, but not the words themselves. She talked briefly about teaching creative writing (I was really hoping she wasn't going to be one of these writers who takes the money for teaching but scorns creative writing courses! And she didn't.) She said it constantly surprises her how many younger writers write way too fast - they complete a story and rush to post it on their blog or on a website, and she is constantly telling them that good writing takes TIME. She was also quite scathing about the idea of writers posting stuff for each other and then giving a cyber "group hug".

The interviewer then asked her if she was mean to her students, and she said, 'Yes!'. What makes a good writer is the ability to be patient and revise. Finally, talking again about language, she said she aims for unadorned prose. Early drafts might have complex language and lots of descriptive words, but as she revises, she simplifies - her aim is to make herself, as the writer, invisible, and yet achieve a certain effect. MJ was great - very open and willing to talk about her processes, giving us an insight into her books. Everyone in the audience went away buzzing and talking at length about writing!

Melbourne Writers' Festival - 2

Debut With Style featured a mix of writers, some with several novels published - Lisa Unger and Japanese writer Hitomi Kanehara - and some with just one or two books - Reif Larsen and Evie Wyld. Was the audience there to find out the secret recipe for that first publication success? Towards the end, it seemed the key was to have an agent (heard that one before) although Hitomi said there are no such things as agents in Japan. One writer also shared with us that receiving the news that their first novel was going to be published was on a par with having a baby (presumably achievement- and excitement-wise, she meant).

Some of the "tips" were predictable: write every day, write all the time, no matter what else is happening in your life, and you will eventually get to the stage where you can't not write. Lisa Unger said when she writes, she is alone in her space, alone in her head, and what comes is not controlled. She doesn't plan her novels, she starts with a germ of an idea or a place or a character and goes with it. She writes to know what is going to happen, and what will keep her turning the pages - in that way she is being true to the readers. She also said to the audience, 'You have to be present and centred in every phase of the writing, and not be outside in the publishing space.' There will be people relying on her words (to provide what they want) but she can't be out there with them while she is writing.

Reif Larsen said it's easy to let outside voices influence or change you or put you off. You have to create a safe space for yourself and be free of what the book "needs to be like". Early drafts will be messy - it takes either courage or insanity to keep going and get to the end. Evie Wyld had just done a stint as the writer in the Atrium, writing while everyone watched and could see her words. It made her realise how personal her writing, and the act of writing, normally is.

Hitomi was being translated (one person translated what everyone said, the other translated what she said!) so it was a little difficult for her, no doubt, but she talked about never being satisfied with her novels - that even when one is published she still wants to keep trying to get the level of her writing higher. Someone in the audience asked Reif if his next book was going to be illustrated (the current one has maps and drawings all over it) and he said no - it would be completely different. Each story is told how it has to be told. It seemed, in the end, that what the writers were saying was you have to write the book you have to write, without trying to please anyone except yourself. The revision is where you make it work.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Melbourne Writers' Festival - 1

What is happening in US publishing right now? Are things as dire as we hear? The first session I attended was all about this topic - Dennis Loy Johnson (Melville House), Rob Spillman (Tin House) and Heidi Julavits (The Believer/McSweeneys) were discussing it with Henry Rosenbloom from Scribe. At first it all sounded depressing - authors who lost their editors (lay-offs) and books that came out with no back-up from marketing, independent distributors who have gone down the tubes, a broken system.

But the positive side of all of this - from the point of view of these independent publishers - is that now there is a great opportunity to change things and fix what's broken. Big publishers are about making money, small publishers care more about their books. Big publishers throw $$ at books that are already selling well and ignore the rest of their list. Small publishers nurture each book because they have to to stay afloat. None of this is news to anyone who bothers to read the trade newsletters or industry blogs, by the way. I did wonder how many in the audience sat there in shock though!

One comment was about publishers who have been trying to stick to the old ways of doing things, but traditional media (newspapers and radio) virtually ignores books now, that's if they're still afloat themselves. As Dennis said, the people who buy newspapers are the people who read, so why would you cut out your books section? A book tour now no longer relies on traditional media to excite interest. A lot of it is done online, and many writers tour online - but first you have to build a big online community, otherwise it's not going to go far. I had to keep reminding myself that these guys were all from small independents, who can make their own decisions and, as they said, move a lot faster in response to shifts in things like social networking. The bigger the publisher, the more likely they are to be mired in paperwork, and doing things the old way.

Certain people dictate - the famous Cecily at B&N can force a publisher to change a book cover, for example, as can Tescos in the UK. But there was also a spirited discussion about book covers - how bland they have become, and how everyone copies each other, so we've had a run of cover images related to body parts (feet, torsos, hands, eyes). The other side of this is safe covers that offend nobody but say nothing about the book. Heidi talked about cover DNA - that everyone clones each other and very few publishers risk a contentious cover.

Heidi also talked about writers who have previously scorned the teaching jobs in universities and are now being forced to look for that kind of work because suddenly they can no longer support themselves from their book sales (but she wouldn't mention any names!). Some of the benefits of the 'new world' will be writers who can write what they want, instead of what will be safe - one example was being able to create an unlikeable protagonist. I'm afraid that might be OK if you don't mind miniscule sales, but I doubt the new world will look kindly on anyone who doesn't sell at all!!

There was also discussion about how reviewing and publicity has moved away from the traditional forms (the influential reviews in the usual places) to the online community. A NYT review has no more influence now than a respected blogger - and things like FaceBook pages are growing in terms of effects on readers. Everyone mentioned 'word of mouth' - how to get it, and make your sales grow. Again, the word community came up. Rob Spillman says he rarely buys a book now that isn't strongly recommended by someone he knows. (No one asked the question about book trailers - are they worth the money? I tried, but they ran out of time.)

Dennis mentioned one of their authors - Tao Lin - and some of his bizarre publicity and marketing strategies that have worked. My favourite was selling shares in the royalties for his next book, and actually getting 6 people to pay $2000 each for a share. Presumably if he makes more than $12,000 in royalties he gets to keep the extra! Of course, the amount of publicity he got for doing this far outweighed the benefit in royalties, except it would have meant more sales and therefore... more royalties!

I later went to another session on small presses, not realising that the same two guys would be talking. Some of the stuff was the same, but Zoe Dattner from Sleepers Publishing was the chair and the discussion was more about the practicalities of running a small press. They talked about using POD to keep their backlists in print, and hopefully the same quality of POD technology is about to arrive in Australia. Zoe said Lightning Source are about to set up shop here. My favourite quote was from Dennis who said that in small publishing you are only one screw-up away from going under!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Writers' Festival - Melbourne

I was in at the festival briefly on Wednesday morning, but didn't have time to go to any of the sessions (it was schools' days). However, I was there when the kids all came out and began lining up with great excitement to get their books signed. The longest queue was in front of John Boyne, and quite a few of the kids had books other than The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, so obviously whatever John had talked about had inspired them to buy other titles. Readings is running the bookshop again this year, and it's fatal to venture inside!

I'm going to sessions on Friday and Sunday, so am anticipating being inspired and fascinated and intrigued. I hope. I've booked everything from U.S. Publishing and Small Press/Magazines to Women in History and M.J. Hyland in Conversation. Plus a book launch and catching up with writer friends. I do wish the Atrium at Federation Square was more inviting. Although the food and coffee areas at the Malthouse (the previous venue) were squished, they were also busy and vibrant, and you always ended up seeing old friends wandering around.

The new venue is huge, cold and soulless. I felt very sorry for the writer and interviewer yesterday who had been stuck at a table in the corner of the vast space and expected to not only be heard over the echoing noise, but also be engaging. Was never going to be possible. There are only two cafes in the space, the staff are pretty slow (the Malthouse staff had their coffee making down to a fast fine art, not to mention their wine pouring) and the sheer hugeness defies any kind of atmosphere, let alone one that would invite you to linger and talk.

Oh well, let's hope the sessions and the writers will provide plenty of interest and food for conversation, when we find a spot to settle and chat. Preferably near a heater. I will report back!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Art of Graeme Base

The Art of Graeme BaseOne of the joys of a public library is being able to borrow large, beautiful books that I could never usually afford myself. Photographic travel books, house building and architecture books, and books like The Art of Graeme Base by Julie Watts. Julie was the Children's Publisher at Penguin Books (she is now retired) but you would never know it from the book - she never mentions herself! And yet she must have worked extensively with Graeme over the years.

The most wonderful thing about a book like this is the art. Many full-page spreads from Graeme Base's books are reproduced, along with early sketches and drafts. My favourite of his books is still The Waterhole, but The Discovery of Dragons comes a close second. It wasn't until I read this story of Graeme's life and art that I realised how much detail he puts into ALL of his art pieces. Suddenly I was seeing animals and creatures and plants that I had never noticed before! It's made me want to go and look again at all of his picture books, just to see what I have missed.
The Waterhole The other thing that this book revealed to me was a person who was and is totally engaged in creating, always observing, thinking, recording and imagining. Julie Watts has done a great job of showing us the life of an artist, and how each book developed. There are examples of art Graeme did in school that make me goggle. Seeing early work by Shaun Tan had the same effect. Their talent was so obvious at an early age - as well as their patience, crafting and attention to detail.

I have never been able to draw very well. I would never attempt to illustrate my own books (thank goodness, say the publishers!). But I also know it's because I don't have the passion or the patience. A couple of times I have tried to draft rough illustrations for dummy picture books I've made, and after four or five pictures, I've lost interest. I know with writing that that's not the case - I can write and then revise words many times, although there is a stage where you get sick to death of them. It's a funny mix - passion and patience - but I think you do need both, and Graeme Base has immense amounts of both.

The RRP for The Art of Graeme Base is about $75.00 (cheaper online, of course) and probably not something you'd buy for yourself, perhaps, but Christmas will be here eventually, and you could drop some hints...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Writing at the Business End

This semester I have a small class of students who are all serious fiction writers, and we are combining a high-level critiquing regime with an intensive program of what you need to know if you want to be professional and published. Among other topics, we've looked at contracts, the publishing process, how manuscripts are acquired, and talked about resources and organisations. This week, we started to focus on marketing, which meant a very interesting excursion to Carlton, where Borders and Readings bookshops are right opposite each other.

Before they got to the bookshops, each student had to choose three novels similar to what they were writing, then focus on one that had been recently published - what publicity had there been for the book, what reviews, by whom, did the author have a website and/or blog, how else has the book been publicised? When we got to the actual shops, I sent them off to find their chosen books. Where were they shelved? Face out or spine out? Anything extra? (Nobody reported their book on the special front-of-store displays!)

You can guess the results. Some of the books were not on the shelves at all. Some only had one copy available. Many were spine out. The reports on publicity and marketing were spotty (not the students, the results!). Several authors had no blog, a couple didn't have a website of their own. One well-known author had a website and a book trailer and lots of reviews. One dead author had a million things about him and his books, but hardly anything was generated by him (obviously - but also he was 75 when he died last year, so he probably thought it was all a waste of his time).

Then we compared bookshops. Borders was the obvious winner in terms of the range available, and the number of copies. But I also asked them - which bookshop would you prefer to shop in? Which bookshop would you feel did a good job of selling your book if you were published? Readings came out on top, unanimously. This was not just about prospective published authors analysing which shop would promote them better - it was also about where they would prefer to shop. I think it's a great validation of why independent bookstores are thriving in Australia - real customer appreciation and creating a sense of the "traditional bookstore" where you can browse and find gems and new writers to enjoy.

I wondered how many writers ever do this - look seriously at several different bookshops in their area and investigate how they operate, how they sell books, how they keep customers happy. It's all a business. As a writer, it's valuable to know in order to understand what happens when your book becomes a consumer item. What do you think of your local bookstores? Where do you prefer to shop?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Inspired By Others

The Spare RoomYesterday, I spent well over an hour listening to Helen Garner read from her work and talk about writing. It was a great afternoon that began with a series of tiny writing workshops - tasters - run by us teachers from the VU professional writing course. Then we all gathered in the bigger space to listen to Helen. It was such a pleasure, not least because she is a very good reader, with lots of variety and intonation in her voice. No matter how good the writing, listening to a droner destroys the experience. I loved her piece about her two sisters and her with their ukeleles, playing songs while watching the Sydney Olympics.

She is a writer who focuses on the real. She has written a lot of nonfiction, and said her weekly column for the Age newspaper was one of her favourite writing "jobs". Her word limit was 770, and every week she made sure the piece was exactly 770 words, no more, no less. It was a great exercise in paring down and making every word work. She talked about writing every day, and also said (before she read from The Spare Room) that in hindsight she wished she hadn't called the main character Helen, because she got sick and tired of constantly defending the book as a novel and not a memoir.

With the Melbourne and Brisbane Writers' Festivals coming up soon, this session was a good reminder of how simply listening to a published writer talk about their work, their ideas and how and why they write can be so inspiring. Writing means spending a lot of time alone with your computer and your own tortured (sometimes) mind as you wrestle with what needs to come out onto the page. You can forget that it's not just you - that most other writers feel the same way, have the same experiences, and find ways through it all to the end.

I wish there were more sessions at both festivals on fiction writing/fiction writers. I've whinged about this before, I know! But there are many writers who find those sessions, especially the Conversation or Spotlight ones, act like a real spur for your own writing. You attend a good session, you listen, you think, you talk about it with your writer friends, and you go back to your own work with renewed excitement and determination. I often come away from a session with an idea for a poem or a short story.

On the other hand, I'm going to be on the other side of the microphone this year. I'm doing an Artplay session on Sunday 30th August in Melbourne (it's where kids get to have their own writer's and illustrator's session and make their own books too). My partner-in-books that day will be Shaun Tan. And in Brisbane, I'll be doing some sessions on the Schools Days, two of which will be online with remote schools. Yes, I've already started preparing, and trying not to feel nervous, but the kids are usually fantastic and we all have a great time. (And of course, both Festivals have their own Facebook fan pages!)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Am I Actually Writing?

Occasionally I drop in and read a blog by a guy called Scott Young. Can't remember how I found him, but he often says things that strike a chord, even if they're nothing to do with writing. Recently, he posted on feel-good tasks - the ones you do that make you feel like you're achieving something, when you're not - you're just finding a happier way to procrastinate. As he says, if you want to get fit, don't buy new running shoes, get out there and do some running! He also gives examples like people who want to lose weight that spend ages comparing calories and fat content and additives for brands of cream cheese instead of just buying salad.

You might think this sounds obvious and boring, and what's wrong with some fun in our daily choices? But when we continually go for the "light" option, we end up doing very little writing. Some of the light options might be:

* doing more research to get those few extra facts
* arranging to meet a writer friend for coffee to re-inspire each other
* reading another how-to writing book
* going for a walk to stretch your body from the computer
* going on the internet to find out some vital information for your story that could actually wait
* writing a blog because you think it gets you in the mood for writing

What all of these things (and I'm sure you can add your own) do is take you away from what you should be doing - writing. That means turning off the TV, sitting down and typing or writing for a good length of time. A good enough length that you end up with 1000 or 2000 words or more. When was the last time you thought about your writing goals for this year? February? Or last week? If you reviewed your goals, would you find that you had produced the amount of words you aimed for? Or have you achieved a lot of little feel-good things that haven't advanced your novel more than a chapter or two - in eight months!

Young says: "The problem with feel-good tasks is that they often appear productive. It’s only when you really examine them that you realize they aren’t either necessary or directly helpful to your goal." Too often, we have big lists of things to do (I'm guilty of this!) that are nothing to do with writing. We think they have to be done, and probably they do, but when they encroach onto or take over your writing time, then maybe you need to honestly evaluate how vital and necessary they really are. I've started making two lists. One is totally about writing, and it comes first. Then when I have time (like those dead gaps in the late afternoon before dinner, perhaps) I get stuck into the other list - the one full of small stuff that isn't really so important.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Distractions From Writing

Today, a blog, a newsletter and my own life all collided in one place - and it made me think yet again about why, when we call ourselves writers, have projects on the go, deadlines looming, still we faff about and don't write. First was the blog - Kristi Holl has written two insightful posts about what fuels your writing, what motivates you to sit down and put words on the page. Deadlines are great, but if you've been writing for a while and had some stuff published, then that particular carrot (seeing your work in print) is not so important anymore.

So what do you replace it with? Then I read Randy Ingermanson's newsletter that turns up in my InBox every month. He talks about advanced fiction writing techniques, and something he said today struck a chord: "I've heard from a lot of writers on this, and the strong impression I've gotten is that most writers, most days, don't feel like writing. That's as true of professional novelists as it is of the newest novices." (You can sign up for his free newsletter here.)

That made me feel better. In fact, it almost gave me a really good excuse for not writing. I had a dozen distractions today, things I considered important to accomplish. One was part of my third job these days (building a house - I've long given up considering it a small extra!). Light fittings. I drove all over my area looking yet again at light fittings. Nobody has what I want for a reasonable price, and when they do, it's not in stock. By 1pm today, I was grinding my teeth and trying really hard not to thump a salesman. All the while, that last chapter in my novel revision hovered somewhere over my right shoulder, mumbling at me.

There were other distractions. That's part of the problem Kristi and Randy talk about - unless you are going through a period of hot, intense motivation, sitting down to write can be the hardest thing in the world to do. It's not even that you give in to distractions - you go looking for them! Anything except writing. But this last chapter ... it was waiting. It had been patient for a few days, but it knew I was avoiding it, and it was starting to scowl.

After I read the rest of Randy's article, I knew he was right. The only way to write is to sit on that chair and begin. No matter how long it takes the computer to boot up (there are so many things you can squeeze in while you're waiting, and then they stretch out to an hour or more...), when it's ready, you have to sit down and start. No more distractions, no more excuses. Are you a writer? So get on with it and write!