Saturday, November 28, 2009

Is This Worth Working On?

All over the world, writers taking part in Nano are either already celebrating, still beavering away to reach their 50,000 or have given up and are sitting back, wondering what they got out of it. I know I have managed a huge number of words at a really busy time of year, and am happy with my total. After 14 hour days, most of which has been spent talking, to sit down and write has been beyond me. Instead, since I've been inexplicably been waking up at 5.30am (unheard of for me), I've been squeezing in some words in the mornings.

But the burning question, once November is over, is: is this worth working on? In fact, it's the question we ALWAYS ask. Whether the novel is half-finished and we're flagging, or whether we have a first draft completed, it's always about its "value". What you put in vs. what you get out. Because the question is really - if I rework this (and spend maybe another year or at least dozens or hundreds of hours on it), will it be publishable? We can't help ourselves. Publication is like a validation or reward for the time and energy and commitment.

We forget that it's an unanswerable question. Is anything worth working on? If publication is your only way of valuing what you write, what effect does that have on your ability to commit and write and grow, because that's what writing is about? Every single thing that we write, if we tackle it seriously, should help our writing to grow, our craft to improve, our ability to revise it improve. It's the work itself that's important - what you can learn from putting your heart and brain into it, how it can expand the way you see the world and how you understand it.

Of course publication is wonderful! But the question - is this worth working on - can't be about publication. It has to be about you. Do you have a story you need or want to tell? Are you driven to tell it in the best way you can? Will you write it and revise it, no matter what? Does the subject engage or intrigue or stir you so much you can't help but write it? Then yes, it's worth working on.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What Lies Beneath

Over the past few days in Hong Kong, I've been talking a bit about stories - how to write them, specifically in terms of structure. It's a subject I teach in Australia, and there are some simple (and more complex) structures that are used over and over. The reason they don't become boring is because they are simply that - a frame on which to hang all the elements of your story. Characters, plot, setting, theme. People often confuse plot and structure, but a framework such as the hero's journey can give rise to a thousand different stories. Using the framework helps you get a handle on how to order events to create the most tension. And of course, with more experience, you can then twist and recreate it for your own devices.
Hong Kong is a place that makes you think a lot about what lies beneath. What is holding up all these immensely tall buildings? Much of the foreshore is built on landfill. Surely the weight of the skyscrapers might somehow force the land down? I'm not a geologist, but my imagination can create all kinds of disasters, if I let it run free! Yet everywhere I look, there are amazing edifices of concrete and steel reaching skyward, perched on crags and mountainsides, looking as they grew out of the rock.

This morning I went for a walk that involved a large number of steps upwards. You can start at the "bottom" and wend your way up the side of the mountain by following whichever stairway presents itself to you next. I went as far as I could without collapsing, and then began to follow a winding street back down again. The photo above is of the underneath of an apartment building I passed (not the very tall slim building in the top photo). Underpinning and strong foundations are important here - very important. Hillsides are not pinned with wire netting and layers of rocks like they are in Australia. I saw concrete blocks, tight rolls of wire fixed into more concrete, and more concrete again covering slopes and set with drain holes. And then there are trees like these whose roots are able to exist above the earth, or bricks, and cling like jasmine creepers or ivy. Hints of what lies beneath, tenacious threads that together form a strong network. Everything holds everything else tightly. Like all the parts of a great story, working hard underneath while above rises the "construction" that reaches for the sky.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Writing in Hong Kong

I wish I could say that Hong Kong has inspired me so much that I am madly writing and am way ahead of my word target for Nanowrimo. Sadly, not. Hong Kong is definitely inspiring - in fact I would like to move my location of my crime novel here, just so I can include all the amazing and interesting things I see every day. But it's me. I'm not adjusting to the time difference very well (keep waking up at 5am - not my best time of day, even for writing) and after a whole day of talking and teaching writing, the urge to sit and write my own words fades fairly quickly.

I did write 1000 words while at Discovery College the other day, but when I got home, the file had disappeared off my USB drive. Grrrrr. What is really sad about that is that I have very little idea of what I lost - no memory of writing anything spectacular that I'd mourn. I'm not even reading that much at the moment, as the eyes drop their shutters within minutes of me climbing into bed.

But I plan to improve. This is Nano, after all, and I can't start lagging way behind now. Tonight, for a change, there is nothing on. No talks, no meetings. And there is nothing on TV in my hotel room (unless I can understand Chinese, which I can't) so I have no excuses. Besides, last night at the Women in Publishing meeting, Susanna and I talked for half an hour (taking turns) about writer's block and how to get over it, or move past it. One of my recommendations was doing Nano!

It looks a bit suss if you talk about lots of methods to get yourself writing, and then you can't do it yourself! Besides, I haven't got writer's block. I've got speaker's blah, so that's no excuse either. I spent today at the Australian International School with a bunch of lovely people and great kids. It still amazes me to go to a school where it's all in one 7 or 8 storey building. We in Australia don't know how lucky we are with schools that have vast playing fields and room to run far and wide. So, before I start getting ready for tomorrow's school ... there will be words!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Opening Lines

As I pack for Hong Kong, I'm preparing lots of class materials and updating ones I've used before. It's interesting to see what I've used that worked, and think about how to present information in a better way. One new class I am teaching this time will be based on students answering a series of questions - I hope they're ready for lots of talking. In the classroom during the year, discussion is a strange bird that sometimes takes flight and sometimes stays huddled down, wings stubbornly folded. It can be a challenge to find a way of drawing students out - the confident ones will always have a go.

Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to PublicationSo finding a new book that tackles a familiar subject in a way that is useful to me is a great discovery. Today I was reading Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication by Ann Whitford Paul, and in particular the chapter on opening lines. You would think a picture book was so short that the opening line wasn't that important, but she gives excellent examples of how an opening line can change the whole tone of the story.

She uses The Three Little Pigs as an example - whose point of view is the story being told from? The wolf's? (My day got better as soon as I saw those three plump little pigs being thrown out of their house by mean old Mum.) Do you start with pathos (Mum Pig crying over her boys leaving) or anger (the little pigs thinking Mum is being horrible to them)? She gives a wide range of possibilities for how to start this very familiar tale, and each one changes the story into something new.

Every story is the same. I see people start with dialogue that has no identification for several lines, thinking they are being mysterious. Or they start with character description, so you'll know up front who this person is. The art of a stunning first line is a challenge to every writer, no matter what you write. David Sedaris starts one of his essays with: "Well, that little experiment is over," my mother said. Stuart MacBride starts Blind Eye with: Waiting was the worst bit: hunkered back against the wall, eyes squinting in the setting sun, waiting for the nod.

What do great first lines have? A sense of place and character, even if not spelled out. A sense of tone, a smidgin of description. But very often they have a story question - a real one, not one that is trying to trick the reader. Joe Abercrombie starts Before They Are Hanged with: Damn mist. It gets in your eyes so you can't see no more than a few strides ahead. (OK, so it's a fragment and a sentence.) It's setting and tone and character altogether - what kind of character says 'no more' and 'strides' rather than 'any further' and 'feet' or 'metres'?

I always feel like that first paragraph is a promise. It's no wonder people stand in bookshops and read first paragraphs and first pages. But they start with the first line that draws them in, and the next lines keep them reading. What's the best first line you've read recently?

Monday, November 09, 2009

What Kind of Writer Are You?

All over the world, writers are taking part in National (really international) Novel Writing Month. 50,000 words in November. I've done Nano before, but this time, with a whole pile of students taking part (yay to all of you), I suddenly have lots of buddies. And am seeing some amazing word counts. From one person who struggles to write a six line poem, we've got 19,000 words already! Another writer tells me she is Number 21 in the whole of Melbourne for word count (she hasn't divulged how many words yet, or buddied anyone - this is her solo journey). Of course, since classes have finished and assignments no longer loom, it seems Nano is the perfect outlet for those who might have felt constrained all year by having to write 'what the teacher wants'. (Trust me, you never want to do that with me!)

I was thinking about what Nano does to people - how it has the ability to change the way they see themselves as writers. I think we do tend to classify ourselves, and then maybe get locked into thinking, "Oh that's the way I write, so there's no point trying to change." Yet embarking on something like Nano shows over and over again that you can be different kinds of writer at different times, and locking yourself into one 'category' doesn't do you any favours. You might recognise yourself just a little in one of these:

* The Perfectionist. Nothing is ever ready to send out, because it needs another draft. These writers are likely to suffer writer's block, simply because they never live up to their own ultra-high idea of what a writer is and does. Sometimes the Perfectionist is keeping their novel in draft mode out of fear - what if I get rejected? Sometimes it's simply a weird idea of what writing should be.

* The First Drafter. This writer is so excited about finishing their novel (Draft 1) that they send it out to every publisher and agent. Without revising. Without contemplating the idea that a first draft is usually pretty awful. Most writers who do Nano realise that they are pouring out raw material and it's in the revision that you find the novel and how to make it work.

* The Cynic. This writer just 'knows' that no matter what they write, the publishing industry is such a crock that they'll never get published. It's a perfect strategic position from which to send work out and then be able to categorise the rejections as coming from 'the bean counters'.

* The Striver. This writer never gives up. Understands the industry, understands where they are in their 'apprenticeship', and keeps working at their manuscript. Sets goals, wants to always be improving.

* The Leap Frogger. This writer is a striver, but somehow takes leaps forward. Partly because of natural talent that they try to nurture and grow, but also because of an innate optimism that becomes a valuable asset. They can also fall in a big hole of disappointment over a series of rejections and give up. They try not to be too mercurial.

I'm sure there are many more. Anyone care to contribute?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Writing Life

I caught the end of an interview on TV last night with horse trainer, David Hayes (this being Melbourne Cup week). He was talking about horse racing, I imagine, but his last sentence struck me as applying to anything, even writing. To paraphrase (I don't think I wrote it down exactly):
If you treat it as a job, you won’t do very well. If you treat it as your life, you’ve got a good chance of succeeding.
He's right, I think, but he's also talking about fear. As long as something is a job, it conveys a number of things - validation, expectation of (regular) income, that showing up every day is enough, that meeting deadlines and working hard is enough.

But when you make something your life, that means a whole different situation. You put everything on the line. Regular income, security, respect from others (you're trying to make it as a writer?), probably sleep, sometimes family, self-worth, self-confidence. After all, what if you fail? What if you write for five or ten years and never get your novel published? Then what will happen? If you're the guy who wrote A Confederacy of Dunces, you kill yourself. And then his mother got his novel published and it became a best-seller. So making writing your life might also, to you, mean you put your life on the line. Drinking yourself to death from disappointment still counts as dying.

Let's say you don't go that far or get that depressed. And let's say you'll put the fear aside for now. What benefits are there to making writing your life? Firstly, it gives you a sense of purpose and meaning you may never have had before. It gives you permission (said permission given by yourself, to yourself, the most important kind) to pour your heart and your mind and your energy into writing. It gives you permission to write about what you feel passionate about. Job writing is doing commissioned stuff for other people's needs. You can do that, too - it helps to pay the bills. But if doing that sucks all the creativity out of your life and your real writing, maybe you should consider a job at Pizza Hut.

Making writing your life can mean other unchallenging, boring things can fall off your plate, and you let them without any sense of obligation. Your life is now a challenge instead of a trudge from day to day. It's scary to get up in the morning, but that's a good thing. You might finally have the chance and the reason to go back to study, and study writing. And as you study, you only want to get better and better. Good marks help your confidence, but what you really want are those comments from your teacher. You skip past the grade and want to know what your teacher thought of your dialogue, because you know it needs work.

You buy writing books that 'speak' to you, and you learn from them, too. And then you buy writing books that are more complex because you've grown. You stop reading romances or movie tie-ins as escapism and dive head first into books that last year looked 'too hard'. You persevere with them, and grow to love the use of language and different ideas. You learn to read as a writer, and keep growing. You write every day, and celebrate at the end of the day, even if you only managed 50 words you were happy with.

You are on a journey that will never end as long as writing is your life. You will stumble, even fall. You will find others on the same journey at different times who will help you up. You will carry on with scabbed knees because the scars will also help make you a better writer. You will learn to grow a thicker skin for the rejections. You will learn how to talk to an editor at a conference as if you are a professional, intelligent being. You will keep adding things to your Ideas file, because you have learned that the more you write and read, the more ideas you have. It's a hard life, and it's an excellent life.

Some people make the decision that writing is their life in an instant. Some take several years to work up to it. Fear is a hard thing to overcome, especially when it can be many fears rolled into one and you have to deal with all of them. You can start slowly. No one will know but you. And somewhere along the way, you may discover that writing will never be your life. You just don't have that kind of feeling about it anymore. I have known writers with books published who have given up and found an easier life to live. That's fine, too. It's your life, after all.