Monday, December 28, 2009

Writing Now? Or Not?

This is a difficult time of year, especially if you have lots of family commitments. It's really hard for writers. We are used to peace and quiet, to having the house (or at least our writing room) to ourselves, to having our brain to ourselves. Suddenly, at Christmas, we have a million things to do, including cooking, shopping, cleaning up, etc - and then we have visitors. People in our house, wanting stuff. People of all ages from 2 to 92, demanding conversation, food, your attention. Where did your headspace for writing go? Arrgghhhh!

You have two options. One is to give in, to allocate however many days it will take to accomplish all that family stuff and simply go with the flow. Talk for hours to old rellies and little kids, prepare and eat and clean up tons of food, drink and eat too much and fall into bed. Read sometimes if you get a few minutes of peace. But give up totally on writing. It's hard. You were in the middle of something great. Your brain had moved into holiday mode and the writing was going well. But ... it's Christmas and you had to do the family thing or be called 'hostile' or 'inhospitable' or 'downright rude'.

The other option is to squirrel away your hours. One or two early in the morning before everyone gets up. One or two late at night after they've all gone to bed. One while they went for that family walk along the beach, and you said you'd be along soon ... One when they were all snoozing after lunch. One when they were all arguing about who made that fab Xmas cake back in 1992 and no one noticed when you crept away. By the time New Year arrives, you discover that you managed about 12 hours of writing, simply because you were determined to, and why the heck should you be on call 24 hours a day?

I'm kind of lucky (or not, if for you, Xmas is totally about full-on family for days on end, the more, the better). Most of my family live a long way away, and if I can't afford the air fares, Xmas in our house is fairly quiet. In fact, the whole Xmas period ends up being quiet. Great phone calls, but not a whole lot of socialising and having a house full of visitors. So I get to read a pile of books I've been saving, and I get to write. But I only write if I feel like it, because like many people this time of year is actually the one time when I can say STOP, close the door, turn off the computer, put my feet up and relax.

It's also a great time to re-energise. I love to do this by reading lots of books, seeing lots of movies (looking forward to "Bright Star" in particular), going for quiet walks in the bush, and sleeping. Nobody can work 52 weeks of the year, and really feel a constant supply of energy is available. So if you can't write at the moment, at least think about how you might re-energise your writing brain/imagination for the new year. And have fun!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Book Anticipation!

I love the holidays - it's my big reading time. There are books I specifically save and books I specifically go out and buy (and a whole lot more that I put on my list but I know I won't get to). Over the last two weeks, I've read the third Stieg Larsson - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - and Rain Gods by James Lee Burke. Both were complex stories with lots of characters and various plot threads. Burke is a master of description, so after finishing his book, I had to go and order the third Abercrombie title.
Last Argument of Kings (First Law)Last Argument of Kings (First Law) I commented on the descriptions and settings in the first of this series, and also the number of viewpoint characters and how well they are handled. That's the other thing about holidays - your brain doesn't have to cope with work anymore, so you can get stuck into good books and pay more attention!

As Lisa commented the other day, online book buying can create a rush of excitement and you end up buying one or two more than you expected. So I also bought Outliers: The Story of Success. I did check at Borders after I'd finished Xmas shopping, but they'd sold out. This book seems to be the "word of mouth" hot seller at the moment. I've heard a number of people mention bits of it, mostly the 10,000 hour theory - that you have to do something for 10,000 hours to be good at it. Like an apprenticeship. It applies to writing, too.

I checked the writer's website and found some interesting interviews and excerpts. Nicholas Gladwell has also written Blink and Tipping Point - if I like Outliers, I might read those, too (although it might be time for a library visit by then!). Being able to read excerpts and sample chapters is a great way to assess whether you want to buy a book or not. I'm also starting to see why writers put their short fiction on their websites - it can give you a taste of their style.

The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and ExercisesOf course, thinking about writing and perseverance and craft, I decided to buy another book that has been recommended by a few people - The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. It's an intriguing title, for a start, but again, I have been able to download an excerpt and check it out first. I have a pile of writing books and to buy a new one now means it has to be giving me something different, something useful.

So having gone berserk, I closed down my Fishpond order and went back to reading Ballistics, a collection of poems by Billy Collins. It's like meditation - to read a poem or two and think about them. A poet friend told me last week that people hate Billy Collins because he makes it look so easy!! But that's only on the surface. When you take the time to look at what is under the words, the craft shines through. Ah, holidays! Reading, thinking, dreaming.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

7 Great Reasons to Buy a Book as a Christmas Gift

At this time of year we're surrounded by Christmas decorations, fake trees, the pile of cards we haven't had time to send yet, and the gift list we haven't had time to shop for. So here are some great reasons to buy books as gifts! (and some shopping hints)

1. Books last. Long after the plastic toys are broken and the CD scratched, a book will still be on your shelves to be read again and again (kids love re-reading their favourites). Even board books are made to stand the test of a grabby, munchy toddler. I still have books from my childhood that are more than ... lots of years old.

2. You can buy a book to match every area of interest. Are your in-laws renovating? Buy them a home style book. Is your grandad a cricket fanatic? There's always a new cricket bio out. Is your nephew keen on comics? Try a graphic novel. You don't have to stick to fiction, and if you're really stuck, you can buy a book voucher.

3. In a large bookshop, you can buy every gift on your list in one outing!

4. You can create a lifelong love of reading and books in a child, simply by buying them several paperbacks of different kinds. You don't have to put all your eggs in one expensive hit-and-miss basket/book and risk them not liking it. Or you can take your grandchildren or small family members on a bookshop outing, and let them choose. Little ones would love it if you laid out a dozen picture books and let them pick one or two. Pull all kinds of books off the shelves and experiment. Don't just stick to the classics that are all the bookseller can usually recommend!

5. Books are biodegradable. If someone has finished with their book and wants to throw it away, it will rot nicely in the compost. But even better, if they want to swap with someone else, they get double enjoyment! And books are easy to wrap!

6. Books are great stress relievers. If you know someone who has had a hard year and always seems to be working (and has trouble winding down over the holidays), a book will take them out of this world and into another. It will also help them get to sleep at night - or if it's exciting, it may keep them awake but in the best possible way. They'll be engrossed in something that is not their work problems.

7. While you are in the bookshop, taking your time and having coffee and cruising around the shelves, you may well find something special for yourself to read over the holidays.

I have a holiday stack (OK, I have two or three holiday stacks, as I've had a busy year) and can't wait to get stuck into it. Just finished the last Stieg Larssen - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - and am now halfway through Rain Gods by James Lee Burke. Next might be Liar by Justine Larbalestier (just found it under a pile of other stuff). And don't forget, if you spent too much on gifts and can't afford your own holiday reading stack, go to your library!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dumbing Down

I have been a huge fan of The Wire for quite some time - before it became The Wire, you could say. Many years ago, I read the book by David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. He literally spent a year with Baltimore homicide detectives and the resulting book is fascinating. A few years later, it was made into a fictionalised series called Homicide: Life on the Street. I hadn't initially taken too much notice of The Wire because, like many "difficult" TV shows, the channel it was showing on programmed it late at night at all kinds of weird times.

But when it came out on DVD, I began watching it, and was totally entranced by both the characters and setting, but even more so by the structure of the storytelling. It was demanding. You had to watch every single minute of it, and pay attention, as some strands only appeared every second or third episode. There were dozens of characters, with different relationships to each other, and although there was usually one over-arching storyline for each series, there were also multiple storylines inside, plus some that carried over to other series. When I got to Series Five, knowing it was the last, I kept putting off watching the last episodes, not wanting it to end!

So I was interested to read an article in this week's Green Guide in The Age newspaper, written by David Simon, about what their aims were in creating The Wire. He says, "As a medium for serious storytelling, television has precious little to recommend it..." Why? Because everything is written around the ad breaks. How can you create something cohesive and, yes, challenging, when every 9 minutes, the viewer has to cope with 3 minutes of advertisements? A US channel called HBO has changed that, and it's where The Wire, as well as other shows such as The Sopranos are shown. On HBO, "nothing other than the stories themselves was for sale" and the viewer decided if he/she wanted to engage.

Simon also says, "We had it in mind that we would not explain everything to viewers..." and that this restraint meant the audience was "free to think hard about the story, the different worlds that the story presented and, ultimately, the ideas that underlie the drama." So, like all those people who discovered Charles Frazier's book, Cold Mountain, and told others about it so that it became a bestseller by word of mouth, a similar thing has happened for The Wire. Cold Mountain is not an easy book either. Twice I have set it as a class text for reading and discussion in my second-year novel class, and a lot of students who were not used to reading something that challenged them said they hated it. I suspect it was more that its complexity scared them off, and they weren't prepared to do the hard yards.

I suspect that this is what causes the great divide these days between those who love Dan Brown's books (The Da Vince Code, etc) and those who hate them. Brown writes page-turners, easy reads of very short chapters that never slow down and use simple language. The biggest questions readers have about his books always seem to revolve around whether they're based on truth or not. Those who hate the books complain about the bad writing, the lack of complexity, the cliches, etc. They're readers who want more from a book than a few quick thrills. They want to dive into language and ideas, to be enthralled by complex characters and complicated relationships, to see much more in the story than just a single concept.

In children's and YA books, like any other area, trends come and go. Vampires are on the way out (yes, just think, in ten years we'll have forgotten all about Bella and Edward, thank goodness) and now it seems to be werewolves. There will always be series that seem slight and not worthy of reading, but in the same way that kids will refuse broccoli, they'll refuse any attempt to shove award-winning books down their throat. Those of us who were keen readers when we were kids will remember forever the books that changed our lives, and they may not be the ones everyone else cites. But they were the ones that took us to another world, that challenged our ideas about who we thought we were (or might become). They weren't dumbed down at all, and we discovered them on our own. Like adults who discover and love The Wire, I hope kids today who are reading all find those special books, one way or another, that give them plenty to think about and imagine.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Writing vs Family

During NaNoWriMo, I'm sure there were more than a few writers who basically screamed at their family, or husband, saying: "Get away from me! I'm 9,000 words behind and it's all your fault! Leave me alone! I have to catch up!" Now I'm wondering how many of those writers have slid, gasping, into December and have taken a few moments to reflect on what they did, and how their families responded. Were you someone who told your family to go away? To, just for once, give you time and space to write? After all, you had a target. 50,000 words. See - it's on the website. Look at my graph. Look at how far behind I am. If you don't let me write, I'll...

I know that this is a constant dilemma for many writers, and let's be honest here - mostly it's women writers who agonise about this. There are a lot of men (OK, OK, not you) who feel perfectly fine about shutting the door on family obligations in order to write. What you do is important and fulfilling, blah blah. But for women it's different. It's almost impossible to shut the door on a wailing child, or a sick child, or a poorly mother or grandma. We just can't do it. In fact, many of us can't do it even on an ordinary day. After all, the kids have to get to piano, or soccer, or drama. How else will they get there if I don't stop writing (or don't begin) and start up the car?

But if this is you, fellow female writers, did Nano teach you anything? Did you perhaps learn that when you had to get those words into the computer, a few other things were forced to take care of themselves? That not everyone's hand had to be held? That a frozen quiche or pasta or, goodness me, takeaway food doesn't kill people once in a while? That with some encouragement, or threats, your husband can actually bath the kids and prepare dinner? Have you taken a little time to sit down and think about your Nano month, how you fitted in those words, what changes you made to make it happen? Did the world collapse?

Putting other people first is a habit. For some of us, it's ingrained in us since childhood. And more often than not, putting your kids and husband first is tattooed somewhere on your brain. I'm not saying throw your family out the door so you can write. We all have lives to live with people we love. But there are 24 hours in a day, and after you take out sleeping, and working, does every single one that's left have to be given over to family - instead of writing? What about you? And your writing? How important is it to you?

What can happen is you have a meltdown. You run away from them for a whole weekend or, if you're lucky, a week. You go to a conference or a retreat and write yourself into a frenzy. Do you come home feeling satisfied? I know that everyone writes differently, but time and time again, I've discovered (and heard from others) that it's writing regularly that gets the book written, and written well. Now that Nano is finished - and even if you didn't attempt Nano - think about it. Can you make/demand five hours a week in which to write? Not beg for, or throw a tantrum over. Claim. Not every minute of your life belongs to everyone else. Surely you can claim five hours a week for your writing?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

This Is The Way It Is (at the moment)

While I was in Hong Kong, I talked to a wide range of writers about getting published. This is always a great topic to delve into, but most particularly in HK, where there are hardly any publishers interested in fiction by HK writers. Having spoken to a few (publishers, that is) there seems to be a perception that most writers in HK are not worth publishing. It's simpler and easier to buy in fiction from other countries, often "mother" countries such as the US and UK. That makes it really hard for those living in HK - given that the number of publishers are small, and they don't seem too interested, writers there are forced to continually send their work overseas. This brings with it all those questions about markets and where to send and how to send it.

By the way, there are lots of bookshops and publishers in HK but mostly they deal in books in Chinese - the perception is that the ex-pat, English-speaking community there is too small to sustain local publishing. So many of the conversations I had were a bit depressing in one way, but not so much in others. After all, HK is a fascinating place, with a community of relationships and lifestyles that almost begs for stories to be told about it. Several people whose manuscripts I looked at were doing exactly that. Is this of interest to the wider world? Why not? Lots of readers love stories about people in other places, and most particularly about how they get on, or don't get on, with each other. (I must say, HK also has the most fascinating murder stories!)

But of course part of the conversation must be about what effect the GEC (global economic crisis, if you didn't already guess that one) is having on publishing. From the numerous newsletters I receive, and the various discussion lists I'm on, it would seem that the UK publishing scene is in dire straits, the US publishing scene has suffered huge layoffs and cuts, and the Australian publishing scene is ostensibly trundling along as usual, except ... less books are being accepted, some contracts and overseas deals are being cancelled, and more and more books are being let go out of print.

How do I know? Evidence turns up in my letter box. Very nice but apologetic letters about "out of print" and "cancellation" and "much lower sales than expected". If you are a new writer with great hopes for your manuscripts, it's easy at this point to feel quite despondent. To consider giving up. Or just stopping for a while. How long will this go on? Who knows? Children's and YA books are faring better than others. The feeling is that if you are writing adult novels, you had better keep your day job! Nonfiction needs a platform and a heap of promotion. Authors are told/nudged/bulldozed into social networking (not so subtle marketing that can easily alienate people if you approach it in the wrong way).

This is the way it is right now. It's out of our control, really. All we can do is go on as we are with our marketing and our websites and our whatevers, keeping ourselves out there and busy and at least feeling like we are a part of it all and not the baby being sucked down the plughole! But really - what matters to you? If you are a writer who relies totally on publication and book sales and a bit (or a lot) of fame to make you feel like a writer, then you probably will give up. There's not much of any of that around at the moment.

But if you're a writer who loves your craft, who is still working hard on your 10,000 hour apprenticeship (that's another blog post), who is still brimming with ideas, who is excited nearly every day to sit down and write, no matter what ... then think of this time as an opportunity to grow in your writing, to continue your apprenticeship, to keep doing that market research to see who's likely to be open to new ideas and manuscripts once the industry recovers a bit.

You know, there are more than a few publishers who are coasting right now, re-publishing bestsellers in new formats, resurrecting old favourites, trying to trade in on the nostalgia and familiarity/safety factor. That won't last. When they start looking for new, original work, do you want to be ready with a manuscript to knock their socks off? Make the most of this downtime to ramp up your writing, attend some classes, get some high-level feedback on your work, and get ready to submit when the tide turns.