Sunday, September 27, 2009

Instruments of Creation

It used to be that if you did an author talk, one of the questions you were sure to be asked was, "Do you write with a pen or on the computer?" I haven't heard this question for ages, maybe because these days we assume everyone uses the keyboard, and pens are passe. Recently, Bic released an Anniversary edition of their famous 4-colour pen - the limited-edition pen comes with purple, pink, green and aqua ink, instead of the usual black, blue, red and green. I have to say I've never used this pen in my life. It just seemed such a waste to buy a pen like that and only use the black ink!

Maybe I'd play with the new colours, but probably not. Like many writers I know, I have certain pens that I love to use, and others I reject. Reasons for rejection might be the pen is too thin to grip (I've had RSI problems for years), or the nib is no good. There are lots of roller ball pens I won't touch because I know I'll wreck the little ball in no time. Others are no good because I wear one side down and then the pen will no longer write properly. I like a pen that writes smoothly, no matter what (or how hard I press down, obviously!), and that I can grip properly.

Ah, pens... And then we move on to keyboards. My big test for a laptop is how the keys feel when I bash them. OK, I don't bash them in the shop, but I give them a bit of a workout, all the same. They do all feel different (try it sometime). I love the little laptops that are out now, but I can just see myself, elbows cocked way up in the air, neck straining, as I try to get my fingers onto the tiny keyboard properly. Not likely. I used to have an ergonomic keyboard for my RSI, but in the end it didn't make much difference. It was the height of the keyboard that was the main factor.

Pen or keyboard - both are instruments of creation for writers. And also instruments of destruction. My osteopath is forever scolding me for what he sees are the results of poor computer habits. I have a ganglion on my wrist (from the mouse) and constant neck and shoulder problems. All self-inflicted. But I am learning to take notice of the warning twinges, and get up and stretch, or have a rest for a while. I'm also trying harder to do the exercises I've been given. I wish I could say going back to the pen would solve these problems, but it won't. The damage has been done.
OK, I'm off now to do my doorway stretches!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Writing Good Action Scenes

The Blade Itself: Book One of the First Law (Gollancz S.F.)I had never heard of Joe Abercrombie before, and happened to see a pile of his books in the bookshop one day. By a pile, I mean spread across three shelves. Of course, the series that caught my eye (The Blade Itself: Book One of the First Law (Gollancz S.F.)) had no Book No. 1 on the shelf and I couldn't find it in any other bookshop either. Wouldn't you think if you were displaying and spruiking Books 2 and 3 that you would make sure Book 1 was there for the curious new reader like me? So I went online and bought it. Cheaper.

I'm not sure what attracted me to this book. I do read fantasy but not a huge amount. However, I think it was the list of characters on the blurb combined with the first page - always a good test.
Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head.

That, and the rest of the first page, raise a number of intriguing story questions, and I also admired the author's obvious ability to write action.

As we do now, I went and checked out his website, and when my book arrived, I settled down to read. And was not disappointed. Abercrombie calls his hero, Logen Ninefingers, 'the thinking man's barbarian'. But Logen also has a bit of dry sense of humour, along with his ability to cut people in half. What made the book much more interesting though is the array of other viewpoint characters. Jezal is a knight who fancies himself as a fighter and a hero, and is soon shown to be be neither. Glokta is an inquisitor who has been severely tortured, lived to return to the city and is now an Inquisitor who is excellent at torturing others.

By now, if this kind of book is not your 'thing', you're about to stop reading this. But as well as several other intriguing characters (and JA manages to control at least five viewpoints in the novel without losing the reader), there are also plenty of examples of how to write good action scenes. This is a lot harder than you think. It's easy enough to imagine a fight scene where A hits B and B slices A with a knife. But trying to get a whole fight down on paper and make it seem real, fast-moving and exciting, as well as putting in description and character, is a challenge for most writers. Try this as another example:

Logen sprang at him but his ankle twisted on a stone and he tottered like a drunkard, yelping at the pain. An arrow hummed past his face from somewhere in the trees behind and was lost in the bushes on the other side of the road. The horse snorted and kicked, eyes rolling madly, then took off down the road at a crazy gallop.

This might not seem out of the ordinary, but JA does it continually, interspersed with other scenes that are slow and detailed in comparison. His books don't get all good reviews - one reviewer said "Instead of making this an exciting tale of adventure and discovery and colourful world building -- let's make it nauseatingly violent, overwhelmingly bleak, relentlessly depressing, while coming this close to being utterly pointless." Well, yes. But sometimes that's what some of us like to read!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What's In a Name?

People (especially kids) often ask me where I get the names for my characters. Names are important. They can indicate age, background, nationality, gender ... they can also work for or against character. It used to be that if you wanted to give a wussy male character a wussy name, you might call him Cyril or Cecil. On the other hand, you can create humour by calling a big, tough bruiser Cecil. With kids' names in stories, especially historical ones, I use the internet sites that tell you what were the most popular names in a given year or decade. Very handy!

But what about your villains? You want to make them as horrible and nasty as possible, and that can mean using a name that helps your depiction. In my Tracey Binns novels, the villain is Justin Zit-face - basically I chose Justin because that was the name of a kid who used to bully my daughter years ago! The Zit-face is part of his physical description. Another option is to give them a nasty nickname, such as Bullet or Hammerhead. However, a problem arises when you have given your villain a normal kind of name (like Justin) and you do an author visit to a school, and a kid comes up to you and says his name is Justin. And then stands there, waiting for you to tell him why your villain has the same name as him!

That's the point at which I tell the truth about why I chose the name, and then say, "Of course, you're nothing like that. What would you call a villain in your story?" And often they give you some really good suggestions. I advise writing students to include a baby name book in their resource library. These kinds of books provide the meaning of the name too, which can be quite handy to help you match a name to a particular kind of character. For surnames, I head for the phone book and try to pick one that is fairly common.

Another option is one that famous writers sometimes use - they "auction" a character name, or give it as a prize at one of their book events. By this, I mean that whoever wins the prize gets to have a character named after them in the author's next book. A writer friend of mine won this "privilege" at an event with crime writer Val McDermid a few years ago. Bronwen Scott now appears in Val's novels as a tough, sharp, nasty lawyer who turns up every now and then to defend murderers and rapists! That's the thing - when you win, you don't get to say what your character will be like. (Hi, B.)

It definitely doesn't pay to name your characters after friends or relatives. It's a sure way to cause great conflict and rellies are bound to take umbrage unless the character is gorgeous or handsome. So the next time you need to name a character, think long and hard about who you might offend. And then go ahead and pick the best name to suit your villainous character anyway!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Brisbane Writers' Festival Photos

The first online session - talking to six schools at once from all over Queensland.
My Thursday session in the red marquee - the woman on the right is the Auslan interpreter, and now I know how to say tutu in Auslan!

Same session at question time - it was amazing. 300+ kids and nearly all of them had a question. Sorry to those that we didn't get to, but it was wonderful to see such enthusiasm. As I said before, the primary school kids added a real energy to the schools days.
What every author loves to see - piles of your books on a special stand in the shop! This is Mary Ryan's Bookshop at Bulimba - many thanks to all the bookshops that hosted me on Saturday.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Brisbane Writers' Festival

One of the things I have realised in the past couple of days is the difference younger kids make to the "vibe" of a festival. I was thinking about the Melbourne Writers' Festival school days and how quiet they seemed - there were lots of high school students but they queued nicely and jostled around and didn't seem to make a lot of ruckus. The BWF school days have opened up to Grades 4-6, and the kids have been amazing. So enthusiastic and keen to ask questions (no worries about whether it's cool or nerdy - everyone wants to ask a question!). The signing queues are immense, and kids are everywhere, clutching books and bookmarks and chattering and having a great time.

I have done two online sessions using a webcam and talking to schools all over Queensland, in places I've never heard of. They had plenty of questions too, and the technology worked well. My session yesterday outside in the big marquee was amazing - over 300 kids, and I think about 80% of them wanted to ask a question! It's a different kind of experience - in a school visit you are close enough to show them things. On a stage, the ones at the back are never going to see your photos and laminated posters and pages.

Today is my free day and I am off to the Impressionists exhibition. After all the talking and socialising, it's going to be lovely to wander and look and - I hope - write some poems. I'll post photos when I get home. Thanks to the Queensland State Library, I can use the internet for free, but uploading is not so easy.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Talking About Romance Writing

Never let it be said that I am not open to new experiences and ideas, especially if it's about writing and books (and it's free). One of our local councils, Brimbank, is running a literary festival at the moment, and quite a few of the sessions are free. The one on offer last Saturday was with romance writer, Stephanie Laurens. I have to admit that I have never read a book by Stephanie, and am probably never likely to. However, I know she is prolific, and according to the festival guide, her last 24 novels were on the NYT bestseller lists, so I thought it was worth going along to hear her speak.

She began with a short talk about why we read, and what value reading has for us. Could have done without that, but I guess she felt it suited the venue - a library. Then she opened up for questions, and the small but keen audience had lots of things they wanted to know. I listened with great interest. Here are some of the things she shared with us:

* she writes Regency romance, mostly, because this was the first period in history when the upper class had the option of marrying for love instead of for dynastic or business reasons (so lots of potential for romance and conflict)

* she loves this period, mainly because she started reading Georgette Heyer at 13 (who didn't ?!!) and got hooked

* she wrote her first novel because she ran out of Regency romances to read - she worked as a scientist and at the end of the day, wanted an escape. So when the books ran out, she decided to write one to entertain herself and give her an outlet. She sent it off, and it was accepted for publication. (Don't you hate stories like that? But it is a prime example of writing what you love most, and it paying off.)

* her writing routine is this: she is at her desk by 8am, she writes until 1pm, has an hour's break, then writes from 2-6pm. I presume that is Monday-Friday, but maybe it's 7 days a week? That got a few gasps from the audience (and me) but the next bit explained it.

* her year runs like this: a book takes about 3-4 months to write. 4-6 weeks of planning and notes and a point-by-point outline, then 4 weeks for the first draft, then 3-4 weeks of polishing. She said she didn't used to outline, but after the first ten books, she decided she had to find a way to make it easier. I worked out that she writes 3-4 books per year, each one around 80,000 words, which is a lot of words to come up with. Someone asked her if she ever suffered writer's block and she laughed and said, "When you have publishers waiting for you to get a manuscript to them by a certain date, you can't afford writer's block."

* she has no trouble coming up with ideas - a lot of her books are connected, where she creates a cast of characters and then each one has their own story.

I came away with plenty to think about. That is an amazing writing schedule, and a huge commitment. She said that publishers want writers who are intent on a career, and able to produce a number of books, not just one. I'm not sure I would have that work ethic - 8-9 hours every day! I like to do other things, like teaching. And reading. On the other hand, her house has been featured on TV and in the house magazines - I can tell you that her writing room is nearly as big as my whole house! It has a view out to the bush through large windows, and lots of bookcases and a beautiful wood desk. Plus she has a separate room for her business stuff. If she writes 250,000+ words a year that keep her on the bestseller lists, she absolutely deserves it!

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Melbourne Writers' Festival - 4

The last session I attended on Sunday was "Females Exposed: on writing women back into history". I'm not sure what I expected this to be about, but probably I was hoping for how to write both history and historical fiction, and make it interesting. And also about writing unwritten stories, which is where oral history comes in. There are many wonderful accounts of everyday life, especially from certain periods such as the Depression, that make amazing reading.

This session could have been so much better. It was sponsored by the Professional Historians Association, and we got to hear four women speak about the projects they are working on. Great. Some of it was interesting, some of it was not (and people who go over their time limit should be taken out the back and beaten with a microphone stand!). But with all the talking about projects, there was hardly any time for discussion or questions, and considering this was a 1-1/2 hour session, you can guess how much of it was taken up with the speech stuff.

There was a lot of muttering around me, both during the talks and as we filed out. It seemed like it wasn't just me who was disappointed. I felt there was a great deal of interest in the topic - the theatre was full - and yet after a great session, people go out buzzing and still talking. Didn't happen here. Looking back, I think there could have been a great discussion, at least, about how women are depicted in history and perhaps how they are depicted in historical fiction - and where the differences come from. Oh well...

SwimmingAfterwards, I went to a great launch of Enza Gandalfo's book Swimming. Helen Garner launched it, there were some nice speeches, some wine and food, and lots of old friends meeting up. I see in the Age today that Enza's book was No. 6 on the festival best-seller list - above Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant. Go, Enza!