Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Advantages of Journaling

I know there will be many of you who already journal and don't need to be convinced, but at the end of a long year, it has been lovely to rediscover the power of journaling and what it can provide. My friend, Kristi, journals regularly and uses the method as a way of sorting out her thoughts and ideas. Lots of writers do. Journaling is not about writing a first draft. It can be used for many things, including planning and goal setting, as well as just sorting out what's flying around inside your head.

I often suggest to students that they keep a writer's journal, where they can collect ideas and explore them. They look at me as if I'm crazy! With all the writing and assignments they have to do for the course, why would they want to do more? But it's up to you how you choose to use a journal, and what for.
Here are some ways you can make use of it:

1. Write in your journal every morning to clear your head of "life" and get ready for the writing day ahead.

2. Explore ideas for stories and novels - explore why the idea interests you, where it could go, what it means to you. Expand it without pressure - experiment.

3. Journal about your dreams and goals, and how you are going to achieve them. Explore possibilities, let your imagination roam. Often putting this stuff down on paper helps you to make it more real, and gives you a starting point for planning and action.

4. Use your journal to get rid of negative emotions and experiences that stop you from writing. Pour it out on the page and it won't interfere with your real writing.

5. Journal about aspects of your life other than writing. If you have a problem (like a job you hate but need), journal about ways you might get out of it. The more ideas you have, the more likely you are to find one that will work. Writing it all down is also a call to action.

6. Use your journal as a place to come up with new ideas. You can be more focused with this - look for writing prompts like this one at Writing World.

7. Use your journal as a way to record stories from your life. Include photos and mementoes as prompts for yourself. The pieces you like can form the basis of something to leave your family.

You may like to buy a book to get you started. A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self-Discovery by Sheila Bender is one (I haven't read this but her book on personal essay writing is great).

Do you journal? What do you use your journaling for?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Which Blogs Do You Read?

Writer friends and I often discuss which blogs we read regularly, and why. As a teacher of creative writing (with a strong publishing industry focus), I read a lot of blogs by agents and editors. They're useful because they give an inside view on what's going on. An agent like Miss Snark (sadly no longer blogging but the archive is still there, and immensely valuable) can give new writers a very clear insight into what agents think, what they want, and what they don't want.

Some agent bloggers also provide lots of helpful information. Kristin Nelson has several 101 series of articles attached to her blog for writers. I'm sad to see that Editorial Anonymous, a children's editor, seems to have stopped blogging. Not sure why - hope she hasn't been laid off!! Publishing companies tend to have blogs that just promote their books, but other smaller ones provide great bonuses. The Monthly, which is a magazine here in Australia, has a section called SlowTV which is interviews and recordings of authors.

This year, for the first time, I've had to cut back on the blogs I read. It's been a time issue, as in "many deadlines, no time". I was quite surprised in early December when I realised how many blogs I'd stopped reading! Did this mean they were all useless and I was better off without them? Not at all. There were some that I'd signed up to (like Craig Harper and Seth Godin) whose blog posts came to me as email. A quick read and I was caught up, and often enlightened. Otherwise I would've cancelled them.

It's been nice to have time to do some catching up, and also to re-think which blogs I want to read regularly. The same with newsletters. This week I unsubscribed from three email newsletters, and might do the same with a couple of others. Basically, my needs have changed and those newsletters were no longer of interest.

What I'm interested in with you is this: how many blogs do you read regularly? Do you read everything you subscribe to? Which are the most useful ones to you? As we go into some nice down-time over the holidays, please share your favourites!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Writing Time in the Holidays

Holidays are wonderful! While other people dream of beaches and sunshine and frozen daiquiries at all hours of the day and night, I check my pile of saved-up books and can't wait for the time when I can start on them. My brain is free of work stuff, and I'm able to finally focus and tackle books that at other times of the year seem "too hard". I'm planning to read, among other things, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and Freedom by Jonathan Frantzen. I've got Matterhorn by Karl Malantes on order at the library, and Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine on order from an online bookseller (ready for when it's available in paperback).

I've also been stockpiling a few good crime novels, including some new Swedish writers, and the third Ranger's Apprentice book by John Flanagan. As I'm teaching Poetry 2 next year, I'm also reading poetry and delving into anthologies for gems to use in class. But with all this reading lined up, am I going to write as well?

The thing is that reading great books inspires me to write more than anything. I love to soak up all of those words and then go write lots of my own. I have two major editing and/or revisions to work on, so reading reminds me about sentences and language. But I also want to work on something new, and seeing books that other writers have written and rewritten (because none of them are going to be first drafts!) reminds me that putting my backside on the seat and writing is the only way I'm going to get a finished manuscript, too.

Funnily enough, even though holiday times are when we believe we have the most time to write, I can't tell you how many people admit to me that they ended up doing no writing at all! It's easily done - there are parties to go to, sleep to catch up on, family commitments, time with the kids, TV and movies to veg out in front of, video games, Facebook ... While telling yourself you really need that time off and you really need to do some family stuff etc etc, you can end up spending your whole time doing everything but writing.

Not trying to make you feel guilty, mind you. Just saying....

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What Would You Tell a Reluctant Reader?

Those of us who love books and love reading almost can't imagine a kid who doesn't like reading. "What?" we say. "What's wrong with you? How can you not love books?" Or if we don't say it, I know we're thinking it. I do, and I see kids all the time in schools who are just ho-hum about having a visiting writer, and shove the books aside while making out books are just dumb.

Because who wants to admit they feel dumb? You know how many kids actually aren't very good at reading? When everyone else is doing it just fine, how would you feel if you were the one the teacher had to hassle about books, about how little you read, about how far behind you'll get if you don't read more? As reading adults, we wonder how on earth these kids could possibly not be able to read (apart from the ones who have dyslexia or eye problems, perhaps).

We're doing that adult-arrogant thing again. Sigh. Assuming everyone else should just go with the flow. Forgetting totally what it's like to be small and not good at something. How you'll do anything to cover up, including insisting you hate reading. The teachers and librarians who said Harry Potter books were great, simply because they got kids reading who hadn't read before - they were right! Very often, once a certain level of ability and confidence is achieved, what a kid needs to get them into reading is ... a book they fall in love with.

Not a "required reading" book or one the teacher insists on. No, one they discover themselves, either by accident or because some keen adult decided to give them a certain book and it is just the right one!! So ... if you had a reluctant reader in front of you, what would you tell them? What book/s would you recommend? What would you buy them as a gift this year?

My first pick would be the Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan. I recently read the second in the series and think it's great for 10-14 year olds (yes, even girls who want a bit of action!). I've had Diary of a Wimpy Kid on my reading pile for ages now and never got around to reading it (soon, soon) but it's very popular and with the cartoons in it, might hit the spot for a 10-14 year old boy.

For girls (especially if you want to get away from the endless awful fairy books), try the Billie B Brown books by Sally Rippin. They're active and exciting and good for readers 6-9 years. I also always recommend Aussie Bites and Nibbles, because the two series have lots of different authors and a wide range of stories accessible to kids from six through to nine or ten.

Now, if you've got kids (or if you're a keen reader of kid's books), what would you recommend for that reluctant reader? And why?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Books I'd Recommend for Christmas Gifts 2

This post is about poetry, and more novels for adults. This year I discovered Chase Twichell's poetry, via the journal from the Association of Writing Programs - the article quoted lots of bits from her poems, and I liked so many of them, I bought the book. I'm savouring a few poems each day, which I think is the best way to do it.
The title is Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been (Copper Canyon Press, 2010).
I always recommend Billy Collins and I'm currently on my third re-reading of Sailing Alone Around the Room and am very excited to see a new collection, The Trouble With Poetry, is being released. The title poem is one I use in my poetry classes all the time!

Black Inc has released its end-of-year collections, The Best Australian ... Poems, Stories, Essays. (OK, I confess that I'm in the Stories collection!) These are excellent gifts for readers of each form, and always provide a wide range of voices and subjects. Also released are the American versions, and I buy the Best American Short Stories as soon as it's available here. I like it because the stories are so different, a mix of experienced (such as Alice Munro) and new. I often end up using one or two of these stories in class. This year's is edited by Richard Russo. If you want something different, try Best American Science and Nature Writing - marvellous.

You may have missed Nam Le's The Boat, but it would have been hard to do as it won so many awards. It's great to see short fiction writing coming back into favour at last. Check out the short fiction section at your independent bookshop! I'd also recommend Cate Kennedy's Dark Roots - it's been out for a while but is a wonderful collection of stories.

My other fiction recommendation to finish with for now is Caroline Overington's I Came to Say Goodbye. I was sent this ages ago as a galley copy to read for review, but never got around to commenting on it as it took ages to actually be released! But I loved it. If you'd told me it was a book narrated mostly in flashback by a 60+ year old man, and dealt with child abuse and poverty and a host of other social issues, I would've maybe said 'no thanks'. But Overington's narrator is so engaging and convincing, and his story is so real, that I couldn't put it down. I wasn't surprised to read later that the author was a journalist who reported on these issues extensively - it shows in her commitment to creating a story that strikes at your heart without preaching. An excellent accomplishment!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Books I'd Recommend for Christmas Gifts

Every year, the literary pages in our newspapers here publish big double page spreads where well-known Australian writers give their recommendations of what to read (or give) for the holiday season. And every year I look at their lists and wonder if they are serious. They nearly always list the most literary or obscure books possible, which makes me wonder if they're being honest or just trying to sound intelligent! Occasionally, someone (often a crime writer) will list books that actually sound both readable and enjoyable.

My big thing this year is to try and encourage as many people as possible to give books as gifts, instead of lawn mowers or scented candles or plastic toys. So I thought I'd better give my recommendations, which I have simply picked off my pile of books I've read this year and enjoyed. And if you aren't sure what a person might like, try giving them a book voucher/card instead. If you want to buy online, fine, but maybe also try to buy at least one book from an independent bookseller.

Crime/mystery - A Beautiful Place to Die - Malla Nunn - set in South Africa in the 1950s, it is a great portrayal of life there at that time as well as being a good mystery
61 Hours - Lee Child
Blood Moon - Garry Disher (set on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne)
The Broken Shore - Peter Temple (I know Truth won all the awards but I liked The Broken Shore better)
Blood Sunset - Jarad Henry (also set in Melbourne but with bushfires as a backdrop)
Bleed For Me - Michael Robotham
Much as I would like to, I can't recommend the latest Val McDermid, Trick of the Dark. Waaay too slow.

Fantasy - I discovered Joe Abercrombie's books a while ago - I guess they're fantasy but they feel historical - great warrior action scenes and fascinating characters.

Historical - if you love details and descriptions totally based in great research, Conn Iggulden's books about Genghis Khan are terrific. The first in the series is Wolf of the Plains.
I'm also halfway through Bernard Cornwell's Azincourt but the detail and descriptions overpower the characterisation a bit too much for me. Others will disagree.

This year I have also fallen in love with Kate Atkinson's novels. I read Case Histories because it was labelled 'crime' at the library, but it's so much more than that. The recurring character, Jackson Brodie, appears in all four books, but shares the stage with a wonderful range of other characters. The plots weave in and out, and I'm never disappointed. Now I'm heading for her other novels.

YA fiction - If you want something really unsettling and creepy, Mice by Gordon Reece just blew me away. One book I could not put down.
With the ongoing, neverending hype about Meyer's vampires, I was very hesitant about Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, but it completely won me over and even made me cry. Leaves Liar by Justine Larbalestier for dead.

That's enough for now. I'll consult my book pile and add more another day!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Writing in Hong Kong and Shanghai

Where you go in Shanghai if you want a novel!
Wen Chang, the Chinese god of Literature (this is from the Temple of the City God in Shanghai).
The ultimate window display - a pair of shoes that should come with the warning - Do Not Drink and Attempt to Walk.

Yes, I've been away. Mostly in Hong Kong, but also in China, where I discovered that I couldn't log in to either FB or Blogger. So I had to spend my time going out and visiting some amazing places instead (I'm trying to be apologetic...).
But while I was away, I did manage to finally get to the 50 big ones in NaNoWriMo. It did mean not watching TV the whole time I was in Hong Kong, but as 99% of the channels were in Chinese, I guess it wasn't so hard!
All right, I lie. It nearly did me in, but it's the first time I've finished as a winner and even thought I know I have to throw this novel away and start it again, I've learned a huge amount about what not to put in the story!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hong Kong 1

This is Day 8 in Hong Kong and I feel like I have been here for several weeks! It's been incredibly busy but excellent in so many ways, starting with all the great schools I have been to. Very often I do author talks, which are a lot of fun as you never know what the kids are going to ask you. One day I'll make a list of the most unusual questions.

But this time I am doing mostly writing workshops, many of which are poetry. It's been so good to see them all (even the ones who have never, ever written a poem) tackle the exercises I've been giving them, and coming out with some great poems. I've also been doing story writing with a wide range of students from Grade 5 up to Year 12. The photo above is a class of Grade 5s at the Canadian International School, all busy on their story beginnings.

Schools here in Hong Kong are multi-storey - I don't think I have been to one that is all on one level, like most Australian schools. Neither are there expansive playing fields, gardens, huge gyms, etc. There isn't room. (Above is the view from the classroom door at a school I visited last week.) One school I've been to here spanned about 15 floors down the side of the hill (lots of hills and mountains in Hong Kong), and most are at least 6-8 floors, with basketball courts on top of car parks or school buildings. But the kids adapt - one day I kept interrupting a very serious game of 'What's the time, Mr Wolf' and got frowned at!

All of my classes have wowed me with their willingness to write whatever I set them, whether it was an ususual poetry exercise or the beginning of a story. And lots of them were brave enough to read their work out, too! I hope they all keep writing and having fun with it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

NaNo - Writing in the Cracks

I've surprised myself. I'm up to 21,000 words and still going with NaNoWriMo. I'm not even sure how! Maybe because this is a book that has been in my head for 2 years, and I'd already had one disastrous attempt at it in another form. I can sense that, as I write, I am padding enormously. Putting in heaps of description and character stuff - thoughts, dialogue, emotional reactions - that might well come out later or be trimmed. But isn't that the whole point of NaNo?

It is for me. It's the chance to break new ground, to get stuck into a whole new project or even (although I know it's kind of cheating) to finish that book-of-the-heart that you've never been able to before. About three years ago I used NaNo to rewrite a novel I've been working on for about 9 years. I didn't look at the old draft at all. I sat down and started it as if it was completely new. Lots of stuff came out that ultimately was really useful. That book is now on its way to being published. No, it's not a NaNo book as such, but NaNo helped me get a whole new perspective on what it could be.

I'm about to head off to Hong Kong. I have (by my calculations) about five days in which to write as many words as I can. After that, teaching and consultations take over and I am so brain-dead that writing is almost impossible. But I will keep trying. If I can get past 35,000 by Monday night next week, I might have a hope of snatching time and head space to finish the big 50.

Often that is what NaNo becomes - a frantic search for the cracks in your life. The 15 minutes or half an hour in which you can madly type (like I did in my lunch hour the other day), or that hour before bed when you firmly turn off the TV and write. If nothing else, I think NaNo teaches you that you can write anywhere, any time, if you really want to!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The NaNoWriMo Race

I spent most of October trying to decide if I was going to do NaNo again this year (all right, not most, just a few moments every now and then!). That's the thing with NaNo - it's easy to build it up into this huge thing when the whole idea of it is to simply write. And write. And write. For the past five years, November for me has meant Hong Kong. I go there for two weeks or so, teach lots of writing classes, run training seminars and do school visits. It's pretty full-on, and although I try to write, by the end of the first week, I'm kind of short on headspace for writing.

So the question for me is: how many words could I write in two weeks? Can I get such a good head start on NaNo that I could coast the last two weeks? If you've ever done NaNo, you know the answer to that is nearly always NO. So I know from the outset that I'm unlikely to reach the 50,000 words. That would be enough to put off a lot of writers I know (the ones who stay up all night on the 29th to get to their 50 big ones).

But I see NaNo as an opportunity to launch into a whole new project. To obsess about it for at least 15 days, to get a huge amount of words written that I otherwise wouldn't manage. It's the focus of NaNo that works for me. When you have to write every single day, and write as much as you possibly can (no measured 1667 words a day for me), the story fills your head. You go to sleep thinking about it. You wake up thinking about it. This morning I woke up and thought about my story and realised I'd left out a crucial element in my first chapter. So today my first job is to go back and weave it in (that'll give me another 300 words or so!).

Are you doing NaNo this year? How are you going? Did you get off to a roaring start? Share your thoughts!

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Littlest Pirate on YouTube

Finally managed to get the Littlest Pirate book trailer finished!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Do You Lend Your Books?

Once upon a time, my books were my books. Even ones I wasn't particularly fond of were still mine - that meant I would never lend them to anyone. Ever. Why not? I think I just had a thing about owning books (no, I didn't have lots of my own books as a child). Perhaps because I'd been a librarian, lending out thousands of books every week to everyone, and seeing the state they came back in - if they came back at all - maybe that made me paranoid!

But gradually I met up with lots of writers who felt the same as me, and cautiously I entered into an agreement whereby we would very occasionally lend to each other and return the books as soon as we could. Anal, I know. But not unusual, from what I've heard. When I started buying writing how-to books, which were often very expensive, I "teamed up" with my friend T, a writer and teacher like me, and we decided we'd try not to duplicate books and build a joint library, and lend to each other. This has worked really well, and if we borrow one that we end up loving, we can then buy our own copy.

But I was still loathe to lend my other books, the ones I'd enjoyed and planned to read again one day. Because lots of people forget to return books, and unless you keep a list (anal again) how can you remember who has what? Then the prices of books starting rising, and rising, and rising. Currently, a new trade paperback is around $36 (yes, if you live in the USA you can start hyperventilating now). A mass market paperback is around $22-25. Don't even ask what a hardback sells for - all right, it's between $45-50.

I have cut down the number of books I buy simply because of cost. I am going to the library a lot more. But at the end of the tax year this year, when I added up my receipts, I had spent around the same amount as in previous years - but I knew I'd bought fewer books. One of the results of all of this, strangely enough, is that I've started lending! Somehow, I've come to the conclusion that if a book is going to cost me that amount of money, I want to make better use of it. So rather than stick it on my shelf and let it collect dust, I'm lending.

When it comes to ebooks, I think this might be the crucial make-or-break factor - whether you can lend your ebooks to friends. I see that Amazon are already looking at a scheme where you can lend your Kindle book to a friend for two weeks (and then I think they rip it back off you - which I think is a very weird strategy and will backfire on them).

So what about you? Do you lend? Who to? Do you keep lists? Do you borrow? Are you a chronic non-returner?! Or are you a hoarder/non-lender?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Creating Original Characters

This morning I was reading the Sunday newspaper and various magazines that come with it, and found an article on sweet food. Everything from the cake shops Melbourne is famous for to city walks that take in gourmet food shops. Maybe it was because I'd just had breakfast but somehow the cupcakes and chocolate fountains looked very unappetising. Why would you eat a cupcake just for the super-thick icing? Why would you walk around the city just to eat yourself silly on chocolate or cream cakes? Before you throw something at me, I realise that most people wouldn't have a problem with either of those things!

Then I got to thinking about characters - one who couldn't stop eating cupcakes and chocolate, and one like me who couldn't be bothered. The big question is Why. If I was a fictional character, I could tell you (if it was part of the story) that I grew up on a farm, hence my aversion to cream. And that a long time ago, to earn extra money, I spent three weeks making hand-crafted chocolates and it took me five years before I could face chocolate again. Just the smell made me feel ill. And even now, chocolate and sweet stuff are not my things.

Why can't that other character stop eating chocolate and cupcakes? Is she compensating for something she's missing? Is she lonely? Is she addicted to sugar? (I know a couple of people like this.) If she was my character, I'd need to know all of that, and more. I'd want to know how she feels about the people who stare at her, how her mother treats her, if she's married. Was she a fat kid? (Been there.) As for my anti-sweets character - is she anorexic? Is she diabetic? Was she a fat kid? Was she Weight Watcher of the Year a while ago?

I confess I think about this stuff a lot, especially while watching TV. Nothing annoys me more than characters in TV shows who have no depth, who are just walking through the story like a cardboard cut-out. (OK, one thing annoys me more - my husband walking in halfway through a show and saying a character is stupid because he hasn't seen the set-up!!) British shows seem to do a great job of complex characters, ones with flaws and inner conflict. That's how we get more than just the plot - we get character arcs, and characters we empathise with.

At the moment, there is a new show on the ABC called Luther. He's been in trouble before the show starts, and things don't improve for him at all, but he is good at his job - police detective. He's the kind of guy who observes others very closely and can work them out, but can't work himself out. He's an uncomfortable character to watch, but you persevere in the hope he'll change and grow, just like you do with characters in a novel.

I also watched the last episode of The Bill (I haven't been a regular watcher, but it was the last). And marvelled at the way each character, in quite a large cast, was an individual. I had no idea of their names - it wasn't that important, really. It was more about how each one reacted to a horrific crime, and what they did next. It reminded me of another key element about characters - their need or lack. I often talk to students about "what your character really needs or wants" and forget about the other half of the equation - what is the lack inside your character? I'll return to my current work-in-progress with that question to answer.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Resistance to Reading

Last week I requested a book from my local library - a historical novel - that was set in an era close to one that I'm researching. I was curious as to how the author had gone about weaving the historical detail into the story. It's something all historical novelists wonder about, I think - how others do it! But I'm struggling with this novel. I've read about 50 pages so far, and I feel like nothing has happened. There has been plenty of detail (that I examined with my writer's eye!) but the main character and the story are just not grabbing me.

When I get to this point with a book, I ask "Is it me?" Am I just not in the mood for it right now? Usually I know. I put aside The God of Small Things for nearly a year because I knew I wasn't in the mood for it - it was going to be a book that would require concentration that I just didn't have. When I did finally read it, I loved it. So it's a question worth asking. I've been reading a wide range of stuff lately, so I know it's not that I'm wanting more crime fiction (I can get on a roll with that and read ten in a row).

I think the problem with this particular novel is that it isn't offering me anything substantial. I have a writing book on my shelf that talks about how "a story is a promise". While we hear things like hooks and story questions talked about - in terms of that first chapter - what we really want in a novel is the promise of a great story and interesting characters, and I think this one (so far) is letting me down on both counts.

The main character is passive and her secret passion feels boring and derivative, and the story promised in the blurb is still a long way away from me, even after 50 pages. Maybe I'm too impatient, but I'm about to give up on it. I'm resisting any more pages because I don't want more of the same. But ... this got me thinking about how kids read. How does a child feel when they are expected to read a book, expected to enjoy reading, and yet find it a total chore?

Imagine everyone around you kind of watching you read. Teachers, parents, maybe siblings or friends. You're probably not too good at reading, but you know you're expected to do it, and do it well. But when you try, nothing interests or excites you. The grownups keep telling you that you just have to find a book you like. You think, How hard is that? But every book you take off the shelf is boring or stupid or has a lot of big words that you don't understand.

So you pretend to read and hope one day it'll happen for you. And maybe it will, or maybe it won't. There are lots of kids in your classroom and the teacher leaves you alone if you're pretending to read really well. As an adult, I have the option of throwing a book across the room if it bores me. As a kid, you have to read whether you like it or not. At this point, I think is it any wonder Andy Griffith's books sell so well? If you're resistant to reading, and suddenly there's a book that's rude and funny and makes you laugh out loud, and makes reading something you can do and something you WANT to do, wouldn't you want more of them?
(And no, I'm not going to say which book is going straight back to the library because it probably is me!)

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Set Yourself a Writing Challenge

Every year for the past five years, a teaching colleague and I have set off for Hong Kong, where we teach writing classes, run PD sessions, do lots of writing consults/critiques and I do school visits. Our aim is simply to get people writing - any kind of writing. Last year we did a session on writer's block - this year we're taking HK writers on a writing walkabout. It's all about challenging people to think differently about their writing, to break out of "rules" and "shoulds" and enjoy the process and the ideas generation experience.

Last year, we set up a writing challenge - write one page a day for 28 days, and report in weekly by email. We had eight writers take it up, and when we arrived in HK, we got together and compared notes. It was a lot of fun, and many of the participants said they'd written a lot of pieces that otherwise might never have seen the light of day! I've tried similar things on my own. Once I bought a small school notebook and wrote a poem every day for 28 days. Yes, some of them were awful, a few were OK and a few were worth working on.

What surprised me the most was that, several years later, I found this notebook and realised that more than half of the poems I'd written had re-emerged later as new poems - or should I say, I'd thought they were new poems, but in fact I'd written a very early draft of them during the 28 days. Nothing is ever lost! It's simply filed away in your brain somewhere.

Now, of course, the ultimate writing challenge is gearing up. The conversation among writer friends is about "Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year?" Nano is the National November Write a novel in a Month frenzy. Last year, a friend who usually only writes short poems spewed out 160,000 words in the month! Others are inspired to write whole drafts of novels they've been thinking about for ages. Sometimes a writer will sit down and something completely new and unexpected will come out.

One day, that'll be me (the unexpected one). For now, I'm actually working on a different Challenge altogether. It's Angela Booth's 100 Day Challenge, working on nonfiction. I only have to do 20 minutes per day (I won't bore you with my list of tasks and goals) for 100 days. Let's see, that's ... 2000 minutes of writing, which is 33.33 hours, to be completed by 1st January 2011. Not 50,000 words in one month, but I figure I'll get just as much out of it, and along the way I'm cultivating the writing habit.

So if you feel as though your writing has been stagnating, or you're blocked in some way, the best strategy for moving yourself up and out of there is a challenge. Buy a notebook, commit to writing a page a day (or a poem a day) for 28 days, and stick to it! You will be surprised at what happens. Give it a go.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How Historical Does Fiction Need to Be?

The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction: Researching and Writing Historical Fiction This seems to be my year for writing a lot of historical fiction, mainly the Our Australian Girl series, but also a big revision of my pirate novel, Pirate X. I have one book about writing historical fiction on my shelves but it's old and pretty useless, so I was interested to see a new one out - The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction: Researching and Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom.

I've only just started reading it, but already he's saying some interesting things about what historical fiction is, and what history is. A few years ago, there was a bit of a stoush about Kate Grenville's book, The Secret River, with historians complaining that she'd taken liberties with "the facts". Thom makes some good points about this, such as:
To be blunt about it, much of the history of many countries and states is based on delusion, propaganda, misinformation, and omission.

Certainly, I think people now realise that, for example, in war that the history is written usually by the victors. And that the history of women and the poor is almost non-existent because scholars and historians of the time believed it wasn't relevant or important. Thom also says:
A good historical novelist has the same obligations as a good historian: to convey a truthful history, not perpetuate pretty myths.

He seems to be the kind of historical novelist who prides himself on deep research and accuracy, and perhaps that's a choice you make when you write historical fiction - whether you are going to stick to the facts you discover, or make history fit your story/plot.

I'm sure you've heard the saying, "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story". With some historical fiction, it can be more a case of truth hampering a well-constructed plot. There's nothing worse than a plot that ambles along in a series of small episodes that don't ultimately go anywhere, and sometimes history is like that. Life does just trot along. Perhaps the key is in choosing a period in history where there is some cataclysmic event that you can lead up to, that will be your natural climax. From there, you have to make sure your characters also have the same rising arc in their personal journey through the story.

In revising Pirate X, I used, as extra research, two new books that hadn't been published when I wrote earlier drafts. I decided to take the new (different) material into account and change my story, but ultimately what I really focused on was the characters and how events affected and changed them. I think there is a spectrum in this genre - at the one end you have HISTORICAL fiction, where the author sticks absolutely to the facts and can cite a bibliography.

At the other end is historical FICTION, where history is a background but the author adapts if necessary. Pirate X is much nearer the first than the second, but I have quite a few imaginary characters in among the "real" ones. The key for me is to try to imagine what it was like back then, to imagine myself into my characters, and see through their eyes. That's the real challenge for a novelist.




Friday, September 24, 2010

Novels for Research

The other day, someone asked me if I ever read novels as part of my research, and my answer was, "Yes." I know some writers would throw up their hands in horror, because there's always the spectre of accidental plagiarism, or the suspicion that you'd possibly end up writing more like the novelist than yourself. But I read lots of books all the time, of all kinds - it's when you stick to one author that problems like that can arise.

So why would I research by reading fiction? The same reason I watch movies. The atmosphere. The setting. A good writer takes me into their imaginary world (even if it's based on fact - which most historical fiction is) and helps me to imagine my characters in a similar world. For me, it's another version of actually going to that place. I was lucky to be able to go to South and North Carolina this year to do more research for my novel, Pirate X (due out in 2011).The trouble was that much of the coastline is now filled with houses and tourist developments, but it still helped when I found an isolated area to imagine it all looked like that once.

However, I wasn't able to go to Nassau, and I'm sure it looks nothing like it did in 1717 when it was a pirate hangout, filled with tatty tents, garbage and empty bottles! However, I did get hold of an old copy of James A. Michener's Caribbean, and skimmed parts of that for a sense of place. I did the same with sailing ships by reading some of C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian, and watching the Hornblower series and Master and Commander. I also crawled all over the Endeavour replica ship in Darling Harbour, Sydney.

Some time ago, as part of my research for a completely different story, I tracked down a copy of The Scourge of God by William Dietrich, which is about the Romans and Attilla the Hun. The level of detail and description in this book is astounding, and when I later visited Toulouse, it gave a whole new resonance to what I saw in the museums there. Historical fiction for me began (as it did for many readers my age) with Georgette Heyer, Mary Renault and Anya Seton, among others, but books like Dietrich's go far beyond these in terms of historical detail. I often read something that leads me into new research, and books with good bibliographies are even better.

Authors like Dietrich and O'Brian also remind me that surface research never works - that there's always more to discover, if you persevere. Occasionally Wikipedia has led me to something useful (usually if the entry has a good bibliography), but more and more I'm going back to books as my best source of the kind of in-depth information I need. What I'm finding the internet useful for now is images! I use old photos and images and maps a lot, and these can be both easier to find (thanks to library collections) and more valuable for things such as finding an image of a character.

Currently I'm working on the Australian Girl series, and I now have a collection of old photos I've printed out of children around 1900. In those, I have at least three characters - when you know your character really well, you can look at photos and think, Yes, that's Abigail. She doesn't usually look that tidy, but I think her mother made her dress up for this! It's a lot of fun to do it this way.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

SCBWI conference - Sydney

It certainly was a great conference, with lots and lots of authors talking (dinner each night was incredibly noisy!), meeting each other for the first time after being FB friends for ages, meeting publishers and editors who turned out to be completely human and nice (!), and plenty of information to send you home with your brain reeling. In Australia we tend to cross paths with each other in all sorts of places - above are two fellow authors that I've met in Canberra, in Sydney and online - Mo Johnson (L) and Tracey Hawkins.

This is Nette Hilton, whose latest book, The Innocents, was launched at the conference. Everyone who's read it says it's creepy (in an excellent way!).

And this is the line-up of publishers who shared with us all sorts of information about the process from submission to bookshop. I think the part that had most authors feeling a bit stunned (the "pre-published" ones anyway) was the list of things, in their own words below, that you must not do:
* do not ring/call me
* do not tell me everyone loves the manuscript
* do not tell me it will win awards
* do not send it to me if I don't publish that kind of book
* do not send me gifts of any kind!
* do not put stuff in your envelopes, like glitter, fairy stars or sand!
DO:
* read the submission guidelines and follow them
* your research so you know what I publish (one publisher said 95% of what she is sent is not what she publishes - that is astounding)
* send your best writing
* only send when the manuscript is REALLY ready - many people submit too soon (often sending what is really a first draft)

And the quote of the conference? From the lovely Susanne Gervay who had everyone in stitches: Plaigiarism is good because it guarantees good writing. (She really was joking!)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Barbara Trapido and non-plotting

Having listened to a number of authors talk about their writing over the past few weeks, I thought I'd heard every variation of "to plot or not" - until I listened to Barbara Trapido talk about her process. Her descriptions of how she writes a novel started with "a habit of talking to made-up people" and then writing down their conversations. No plot. No idea of a plot. Just lots of pieces of characters and conversations that gradually fall into patterns, and then into a story. She says they are puzzles that fit together rather than plotting.

For her, the characters are the plot. The story is there "under the water somewhere" and if the characters are well-realised enough, it will come together. She also said "your brain is grinding away and making this intricate spider's web in which everything connects". But she admitted that she finds chronology the biggest headache - where characters go and when, the plans of houses, moving people around. I think this involves a huge amount of trust in your subconscious, believing (or perhaps knowing after doing it for a long time) that it will all work out. She did originally throw out bags full of pages before things started to work with her first novels.

I also went along to a library event this week with crime writers, Michael Robotham and Malla Nunn. Often crime writers are the ones who will talk about plans and plots and clues and red herrings, but both of these writers said they have no idea what will happen next - they just keep writing. Michael said often he'll be about 10,000 words from the end of the novel before he starts to see what the ending might be. He also said he's written 30,000 words of something and had to throw it out.

The seminar I went to with RJ Ellory and Peter James was like an extended conversation rather than a class. Ellory keeps a notebook of what he has written so far - events, characters, etc - but he also doesn't plan ahead. Several authors mentioned Jeffrey Deaver who apparently writes 150 page outlines for his novels! I have to say that I need to know where I'm going in order to write. I might change my mind, because all kinds of things can happen as you write, including characters who take unexpected turns and detours or reveal new information. But I diagram what I think will happen, and keep it as a safety net.
What do you do?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Louise Welsh - crime fiction writer

Melbourne Writers' Festival - Session 4

Before this session, I'd read one of Welsh's books about a guy who performs as a magician-come-illusionist. It was one of those unsettling books, in which the main character is not very likeable and you end up feeling sorry for him more than anything. So I wondered what the author would have to say. Firstly she talked about the issue of being sensationalist as a crime writer - how far do you go with the blood and gore? And what ethics should we have as writers? She didn't really answer it for herself, but crime does has a broad range of subgenres, so it's up to the reader.

She said that she thinks all crime novels are quests, both internal and external, for the main character, and she likes the idea of a character going off into the wilds (probably mentally as well as physically). All of her main characters so far have been male, but her comment on that was that putting yourself inside another 'person' is a huge leap, so changing gender is not that much further. She was asked whether there was a continual challenge to be innovative, and she said most writers don't think about that - but I had to disagree with her!

She likes to use historical objects, and touch them, as a way of reaching back into the past. In the same way, her characters are reaching for the truth but it's not always possible. A book takes her three years to write, but the level of intensity changes. The last 6 months are intensive, but the first year involves a lot of thinking. She's become more of a planner, and spends a lot of time laying the foundations of the novel, using mind maps and taking lots of photos.

She did a Masters of Creative Writing and then joined several writers' groups early on. She had two short stories published quite quickly, then nothing for ages, and finally her first novel. The degree gave her the confidence to keep writing and sending out, and helped her to take her writing more seriously. This was a fairly interesting session, and her new book, Naming the Bones, sounds interesting, so I might give it a go!

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Bryce Courtenay in conversation

Melbourne Writers' Festival - Session 3

I had a gap between two sessions and decided to go and listen to Bryce Courtenay. I haven't read one of his books for years, but I admire his hard work and tenacity, and he usually has something entertaining or thought-provoking to say. This session was certainly both, and included Bryce lying and crouching on the floor, and acting out some of his stories. He is a great storyteller, and believes that without stories we have nothing - stories of the past are what we're all about.

But he also feels we have become self-indulgent - that too many authors turn inward and write about themselves instead of going out and writing about the world around them. He believes there are many stories still to be told about Australia and who we are. When asked about the children of today, he said "everything I was taught at school has proven to be wrong". Yes, there is too much information around - for adults. Kids are the new generation and are able to take it all in. This generation is the brightest there's ever been. A further question on reading, and he said he thought kids shouldn't be given reading lists, but needed to be guided to lost treasures and special books they might otherwise miss.

He takes research for his books very seriously, and spends $100,000 a year on it (last I heard, he had four researchers working for him). He believes in writing stories that stick to the facts, and never changes history to suit his story. There is always someone who knows, and will tell you if you have even the smallest fact wrong. He loves language, and had read all of Dickens by the age of eleven, and loved the words he used.

He feels descriptive narrative is dead because of the visual world we live in. You don't need to spend pages on description because readers now imagine so much. You should only describe the things in your setting or story that are unique. The writer writes two thirds of the book, the other third is written by the reader when they pick it up and read it. He has never written for money (after being in advertising, he didn't need to) - he writes because he wants to know for himself. He likes to write chapters of about 28-30 pages, just long enough for someone to read one in half an hour before they go to sleep!

Two pieces of advice he had to offer:
1. Never leave the spoon in the sink when you're going to turn on the tap (in other words, think ahead).
2. Listen with your eyes.
I didn't leave this session wanting to read any more of Bryce's books, but I did take away a strong sense of a man who is passionate still about his writing, and cares very much about stories and language and readers.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Nicholas Shakespeare

Melbourne Writers' Festival - Session 2

Usually I choose sessions at the festival with writers whose books I have read. This year, I went for a few writers I didn't know, and tried to read at least one of their books beforehand. With Nicholas Shakespeare, I read Secrets of the Sea and around 60 pages of In Tasmania. At first I thought Tasmania was all he wrote about! But he began by talking about his latest book, Inheritance, and how the story was given to him by Murray Bail who read about it in a lawyer's office. In a nutshell, a young man accidentally attends the wrong funeral and, by signing the condolence book, ends up inheriting a large amount of money from the dead man.

Inheritance I can imagine any writer leaping on an idea like that - it appealed to me, too. (Yes, I bought the book!) He said that he thought that this gift of a story meant it would be fast and easy to write, but it took him three years. Whatever the idea is, you have to find your own story in it, and that is what takes the time and effort.

He said he thought this book was about a man trying to learn how to be authentic, and that just to learn how to be yourself is a big enough job for any life. Celebrity can create a crack in a person so that the devil or other people can get in and contaminate you. An interesting viewpoint. He also said any novel is an exercise in failure - you know it's not going to be as good as you want it to be, but you put your best into it and acknowledge its flaws, just like you do for your children.

His father was a diplomat so they lived in some pretty dangerous places when he was growing up, including Cambodia and various countries in South America. Inheritance is his first novel set in England, where he was born. He moved to Tasmania to get away from Bruce Chatwin, as he'd spent 7 years writing his life story and wanted to go somewhere Chatwin had never been. And then found a village of Chatwins in Northern Tasmania. He said another reason he moved there was so he'd have time and headspace to read all the books he'd always wanted to. He tries hard not to let his writing time be eroded by technology and all its distractions.

Secrets of the Sea has many beautiful and arresting images in it, but the one that stuck with me (whether I wanted it to or not) was of the child, Zac, "who had been discovered by Tildy at the age of eighteen months with a large spider sticking out of his mouth." The spider was a huntsman. In question time, I just had to ask if that had actually happened, and he said yes! At his local childcare centre, a boy had eaten a huntsman. A later metaphorical reference to legs dangling from the child's mouth only served to make the image stay even more firmly in my head. Such is the power of words.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Michael Robotham: Ghostwriting

Melbourne Writers' Festival - Session 1
The first session I attended was on ghostwriting, and one of the speakers (Tom Noble, who wrote Mick Gatto's life story) was unable to be there, so Michael Robotham went it alone. As always, he was a very entertaining speaker with plenty of stories to tell! He worked as a ghostwriter for many years, after being a journalist, and has written the life stories of Geri Halliwell, Rolf Harris, Tony Bullimore, Lulu and a couple of SAS soldiers, among others. He actually got his first job after the original writer had a falling-out with the subject, and went on to write 15 in all. He now writes great crime fiction.

It was fascinating to hear what goes into ghostwriting someone's life. I've done a couple of oral history collections, and many of the skills are similar - interviewing, drawing the person out, getting them to remember things they thought they'd forgotten, and then endless hours of transcribing the tapes. Michael said he can do up to 60 hours of tapes and transcribe more than a million words before he gets to the point of choosing what to include and how to put it all together so it flows.

As with oral history, it's also vital to find the right "voice". You can't use a child's voice at the beginning and then change it later - it has to recreate the person's way of speaking so that, for the reader, it's as if they can hear the story being told. You get very close to the person, and as well as drawing out those forgotten memories, you're also drawing out old pains and regrets. He said you can end up being like the person's therapist, and sometimes they don't want to let you go! Whereas others forget you after a week and convince themselves they wrote the book.

The ghostwriter should bring two things to the project - ignorance (a blank canvas, ready to take it all in with no preconceived ideas or bias) and a knowledge of what readers will find interesting. Often subjects will think their childhood is irrelevant or boring, for example, but for many readers, this is the most interesting period. We love to see how people are formed or influenced in their early years, and how that affected them later. It's also about showing the growing wisdom and experience of the person, and how they came to it.

When asked about the movie out at the moment - The Ghostwriter - Michael laughed as in this story the writer is expected to write the book in three weeks. To do a really good job takes 12 months, and you could maybe manage it in 3 at the least. Before a ghostwriter gets the job, they need to meet the subject. It sounded like an audition process! You need to get on together to make it work. And is an autobiography, ghostwritten or not, all true? He says what comes out is "their truth", and no two people see or experience the same event the same way anyway. All in all, a really interesting session!

Friday, August 27, 2010

It's All Hard Work!

On Wednesday I attended a seminar on ebook publishing - it was a full house, about 30 people who all, for various reasons, wanted to know more about ebooks and their potential. Note I say 'potential' - this wasn't a doom-and-gloom session about how ebooks will be the death knell of authors. Instead the speaker, Madisen Harper, spent six hours telling us everything we needed to know about how to research, write, publish and sell an ebook.

Of course, the marketing part took up a large amount of the afternoon. There's no point producing a great book of any kind unless you can sell it to lots of people. It's the same problem that traditional publishers face. But the internet, being another electronic resource, is on our side! Madisen is a very energetic speaker and I doubt anyone there could possibly have nodded off, even if they'd wanted to. I came home with a head full of ideas. But more importantly, a huge amount of information that I kind of knew or had read about suddenly had all been organised and presented in a way that I "got".

I think some people went home overwhelmed. Epublishing isn't going to make most things any easier. The book still has to be a good or great book. The cover still counts. But you don't have to pay for printing (with boxes of books in the garage). However, the marketing side of things tends to take centre stage. Nearly half of all books sold on Amazon now are ebooks, so you are competing with a fast-growing market. Yes, a lot of the dross will fall away, just like it does in self-publishing. There are opportunities and cost savings that will tempt many writers to try it out. But overnight fame is the exception, not the rule.

I loved this quote from a Guardian article about David Almond. "I used to look at my output before Skellig and sigh," he says. "People say to me, you're so prolific, and I think, now I am! It's the payoff for all the time I spent getting sentences to work properly. Like anything, you develop a skill through hard work."
Same with self-publishing fiction. You shouldn't do it until your writing can stand up against what's selling in the marketplace!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What Do ebooks Mean to Me?

Tomorrow I'm off to a one-day seminar (put on by the Australian Society of Authors) about ebooks and epublishing. While I've been reading a lot of blogs and commentaries and opinions about ebooks, and listened to publishers talk about where they're at and what's coming, and read news items about things like agents setting themselves up as epublishers for their clients ... what does it mean for me?

I'm not an author who's been around since the 60s and has contracts that don't even mention epublishing, or electronic anything. If I have anything still in print, the eclause in my contract usually specifies something vague like "all electronic mediums not yet thought of". That kind of covers everything, doesn't it?

My interest in epublishing comes from two things - one of which is books of mine that are out of print and may benefit from being available in an electronic format. For instance, I have the rights back for my verse novel, Farm Kid, and several teachers have already asked me for an electronic version that includes classroom materials. Note that additional request - not just the book, but lots of added extras that will give them a range of stuff to use with their students. My other interest is a novel or two that I personally have faith in but that publishers have said No to.

I suspect that the move to ebooks in children's publishing might lag behind adult novels and nonfiction, simply because of the way kids view computers and anything that looks like "work". I know a few who have laptops for school. These laptops are not for fun (you get that on the internet by hogging the family computer) - they're for school work. Thus reading on screen equals school work. Would that make you want to launch into ereaders?

I also suspect that if there is a move into picture books on the iPad, it will come from parents. Guess what - little kids like parents to read to them, from books they can touch and grab and flick pages over and then sit on, or take to bed. While parents are madly grabbing their iPad back and wiping off the grubby fingerprints! Parents will be the ones who gasp over the little app that shows the illustrator colouring in the dog or talking about ideas. Little kids will want the story - again and again, and then they'll want to take it to bed, while Dad wants the iPad so he can read the newspaper...

But I'm going along tomorrow, hoping the person running the seminar will be able to ask all those thorny questions about formats and marketing and covers and Kindle and different ISBNs. If I epublish one of my novels that no one in traditional publishing wants, can I get it out there? How? I'll report back!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What Other People Think Writers Do

With the online class I teach in writing for children, the topic came up this week about family expectations. Several students commented on how, since they'd started the course, their families seemed to expect that any minute they'd be churning out a best seller. As our focus this semester is chapter books, that's not very likely! But then again, I doubt any writer's family (apart from the kids, perhaps) would even know what a chapter book was, and how it was different from a picture book or a novel!

The Too-Tight Tutu (Aussie Bites) My very first published children's book was The Too-Tight Tutu (Aussie Bites). It's a chapter book in the Puffin series and came out in 1997. Thirteen years later, it's still in print, and has been published in the US and the UK, and about to be published in China. In Australia it's sold around 46,000 copies, which sounds like a best seller! But when you spread that over 13 years ... hmmm, not so much. And the illustrator gets a good part of the royalties, too.

My own family often hints at the idea of a best seller, possibly imagining us all swanning off to a tropical island somewhere where I'll continue writing while they lie around in the sun, drinking tropical-type drinks. Or maybe that's my version of it! After many years of writing and publishing, and a great deal of reading, plus a lot of market research and industry knowledge, I doubt anyone knows in advance what might become a best seller. Certainly Stephanie Meyer's publisher didn't, nor did JK Rowling's. It's an educated guess, at best, and a lot of hope.

That's what keeps a lot of us writers going. Hope. Hope we'll get that story published, the one we've reworked ten times. Hope we'll get good reviews. Hope that it sells well enough that it earns out its advance and the publisher won't frown at us. And faint hopes/dreams that the book might even win an award. Families and spouses don't understand the importance of hope. They want to see a book in print, and a cheque in your hand. That's what writing means to them.

And until you come up with both, your writing has no substance or meaning to them. They usually don't "get" why you persevere, why you keep secreting yourself away, turning down social events, hiding a stash of chocolate for the depressing days. They think publishing happens overnight, and are astonished when you tell them a book might take up to two years to arrive in the bookshop. They also wonder why you have a website and a blog and do all that marketing stuff - "isn't the publisher supposed to do all that?"

The Rowlings and Meyers of the world don't help! In the end, we all have to find a way to deflect the family expectations, either with some doses of "the cold, hard truth of publishing" or by simply keeping it all to yourself and being adamant about why your writing time cannot be subsumed by whatever frippery they're into right now. It's not easy. But sometimes building those walls around yourself, the ones that keep out the expectations, the tantrums, the sulks and the stupid, uninformed questions and criticisms, is what is going to get your writing done.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Two Good Books

A Writer's Space: Make Room to Dream, to Work, to Write Over the past three weeks, I've been reading A Writer's Space: Make Room to Dream, to Work, to Write by Eric Maisel. I've mentioned another book of his on this blog - The Van Gogh Blues - but this one had been sitting on my shelf for months, and I'd kind of forgotten I owned it.

Until the time arrived when suddenly I no longer had the house to myself every day for writing (retired husband syndrome), and found I was really struggling. One day, I walked past my bookshelf, put out my hand and grabbed this book and thought - How come I've never got around to reading this? Well, because I wasn't in a place where I needed it. Now I am. And I've been reading and thinking and reading some more, and answering some of the questions Maisel poses at the end of each chapter. It's been incredibly useful, and given me plenty to consider, along with some hope!

A Writer's Space is not just physical. It's not just about having someone in the house every day. It's also about needing to be silent, alone, and to have constant headspace in which to stay in the world of the story you are writing. Having another person constantly talking, or being around, when you aren't used to it, is very hard to come to terms with. Maisel talks about other kinds of space too - reflective, emotional, imaginative and existential! I particularly liked his chapters on mindfulness, something that relates to more than just your writing life.

Bad Boy These days I am, shall I say, judicious about where I spend my book dollars. Quite a few writers who I would once have gaily bought without a second thought are now on my library borrowing list. When trade paperbacks are $32-38 full price, you think twice about what you buy! But some writers still remain on my "Yes, buy" list and Peter Robinson is one of them. Bad Boy starts without the usual hero, Alan Banks, front and centre, leaving the first half of the story to Annie Cabot, his sergeant.

This new story is satisfyingly multi-layered, and it was interesting to see Banks return to the fray without being an instant hero. He has more problems to solve than just his daughter being in trouble. One of the layers in the story deals with what our children do when they believe we aren't looking or don't care - the mistakes they make, and the long-reaching consequences. Like many well-written crime novels, I enjoy the setting of Robinson's books: the East Dales in northern England that, unlike Stuart MacBride's dismal Aberdeen, actually makes me want to visit there one day!

Friday, August 13, 2010

10 Things I Learned About Writing from Tenpin Bowling

Years ago, I used to be a tenpin bowler. Hard to believe, I know. Harder still if you'd seen my pathetic sporting efforts at high school. I hated hockey, loathed netball, despised running, and although I could play tennis, I found it boring after a while. Basically, I disliked sports because I was no good at any of them. And I was no good at sport because I didn't like it. Didn't even like watching it.

But when I gave tenpin bowling a go (because I was living in a remote town where there was nothing to do except play a variety of sports, and women's touch rugby and soccer weren't going to see me turn up for training!), I finally discovered a sport that I liked, and that I was good at. Don't ask me why - I suspect liking and being good were connected. Sound familiar?

I don't bowl anymore. For a variety of reasons, but partly because it got too expensive, and I had to choose where I was going to put my time and energy - so I chose writing. But over the years, I've thought about the solitariness of being a writer, and how similar it is to those sports where, in the end, you're really playing against yourself. Bowling, golf, marathon running ... So here are my thoughts on how they connect.

1. It takes practice. Lots of it, if you want to improve and win. I used to have coaching once a week, play four times a week and try to add at least one more practice session on my own. That's a total of about 7 hours - do I spend that much time on my writing? The theory is that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of something. I never got close with bowling, but I am pretty sure I've passed that with writing.

2. Most of it is inside your head. You can be technically brilliant, have perfect technique and style, and know all the 'rules', but that's still only 5% of being good at it. The other 95% is about what's going on inside your head - a strange combination of being totally in control which then allows you to enter the zone and do amazing things, on a regular basis. Not once a year.

3. It takes focus. It means you don't take any notice of what anyone else is doing, whether they're winning or doing badly. If you take time to feel envious or gloat, you're taking time and energy away from your own practice and work. You ignore their tantrums (boy, I saw plenty of those on the bowling lanes, especially the guys!) and you ignore their amazing scores. Your own are all that matter.

4. In the end, your score doesn't matter. It can't. Everything that comes before your score - practice, training, focus, commitment, engagement, determination, technique - will make your score better (or get your books published), but you have to work at all those things first. A great score doesn't happen like magic, even if other people make it look that way.

5. Some people (a very, very few) are naturally brilliant. You can't do anything about that. Jealousy is a waste of time. Being mad at them for achieving something easily that you have to work really hard at is a waste of energy.

6. Perseverance, despite everything, is what counts. Even those naturally brilliant bowlers/writers might not last (being great at something can turn out to be boring). When you work hard, for a long time, improving your skills and growing in your practice, you will appreciate the success more, value it more. And feel really proud that you achieved it.

7. There's always more to learn. More training. More skills. New tricks. New ideas. New equipment, even! A new coach can give you a lift into a whole new level of achievement and technique. You can't ever stay in one place. It's not good for you, and in fact you will slide backwards. The challenge of constantly learning and improving is exciting, the prospect of getting better is exciting. And one day you might score the perfect 300 (the million-seller), but the next day you'll want to do it again, and this time, do it better.

8. What it comes down to is you. You alone. Alone inside your head. Shutting everyone else out so you can focus and do your absolute best every time you set foot on the lane/sit at the computer. Of course Tiger Woods (I'm onto golf for a moment) has a bad day now and then on the golf course. But if he went home and thought about how everyone must have been laughing at him, or criticising him, he'd never get out of bed the next morning. I bet he goes home and thinks about how he can improve his swing, or what little adjustment he can make to his putting, or, more likely, how he can stay inside his own head and focus totally on his craft.

9. It's great at the end of the season when you take home a trophy, or win an award, or get a lovely big royalty cheque. Or simply get that phone call that says 'We're going to publish your book.' But after the celebration, are you back on the lanes, bowling ball in hand, ready to train again? Are you back at your desk, writing?

10. When someone says, 'You play tenpin bowling? Isn't that kind of ... (insert insult of choice)?', what do you say? When someone says, 'You write novels? Yeah, I'm going to write a novel one day', what do you say? I've learned to be more polite these days, and have some handy answers ready. But for some people, unless you're JK Rowling, whatever you say will never be enough. So you have to know inside yourself that what you do, you do because you love it and you can't imagine doing anything else. You only have to answer to yourself.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Our Australian Girl (TM)


Over the past few months, a few people have asked me what I've been working on - and probably regretted the question! Because my answer was to launch into a description of the series I have been writing - four books in Penguin Australia's Our Australian Girl (TM).* It's quite a job taking on a series - there are lots of things that you might not think about in the beginning, or if you do, might assume it would be a breeze. Like keeping a book under a certain word limit. If you're a big blabbermouth writer like me, that can be a problem!

I didn't used to be. I used to think a word limit was an excuse to stretch a bit. Not any more. But writing this series has been more than just word limits. It's been an incredible amount of research. When the series was first proposed, and I was given the opportunity to throw my hat in the ring, I thought about the various periods in Australian history that I knew something about. What I didn't know anything about was Federation - and wouldn't you know, that's what I was given! Good grief, I thought. So the states all got together and became one country. So?

But along the way, I've discovered many fascinating things - that's the nature of research. The deeper you delve, the more you see and the more stories you read and the more snippets and anecdotes you discover. For instance, before Federation every state in Australia "did its own thing". Which meant if you wanted to travel by train from one city to another, odds were you'd have to change
trains at the state border because most states had built rail lines of different gauges (widths). And there were referendums to see if everyone thought Federation was a good idea, and NSW didn't because they thought Victoria would demand that the capital city be Melbourne (the insults flying around at the time are hilarious).

In the end, of course, the compromise was that an entirely new capital city would be built, which became Canberra. Despite finding out all of these interesting facts, I was writing a series that was historical fiction, so my job went a lot further than research. I created a character, Rose, who features in the four books, along with her family and friends. Rose turns eleven as the first book opens, and her birthday on 9th May 1901, closes the fourth book as this is the date of the first sitting of Federal parliament. There were amazing celebrations in Melbourne, with huge ornate arches in the city streets and light shows (for a city that had just started moving from gas to electricity, the lights were fabulous to the people there).

My main question as I planned out the books was: how on earth could I make Federation an interesting background? The answer came from more research. This was also the time of the suffragette movement in Australia, with Vida Goldstein leading the charge in Melbourne. How perfect! Rose has a 'spinster' aunt, Alice, who is a suffragette and goes to protest meetings and debates, and sh
ows Rose what having a say in her country's future is all about. What would I do without a feisty aunt who causes trouble in the family?

But really the story is about Rose, who has her own battles against a corset (yes, at her age!), a horrible governess, and her overbearing, social-climbing mother. It all feeds her keen desire to learn and go to school and, eventually one day, to university. I'm still working away on these four books - they are all in different stages. It's exciting to see what the Penguin team are doing with covers, extra materials, page illustrations and the iconic charm bracelets. I'm devastated that I cannot find the silver charm bracelet I had as a child, but on the other hand, now I get to create a new one with the charms that are most meaningful to Rose.

There are several things that are significant in Rose's story - cricket, for a start. At that time, women's cricket was laughed at by most men, which is not surprising considering most games were played in long skirts and hats! Bicycles were ridden mostly by men, and women who did ride them often wore pantaloons (scandalous!). Rose gets to ride on her first cable tram and watch the grip man operate it, and she also has a hankering to ride in an automobile. A visit to St Kilda beach means a paddle with skirts held up - no full-length swimsuit just yet. And Rose also visits Coles Arcade in the city, with books, monkeys, parrots and toy machines.

I have a fascination with the food of the time. There was plenty of game on the table (Rose's family is well-off) but like most kids, Rose has food hates, especially sardines and tongue. You can probably see why I'm having trouble with the word limits - there's so much I want to include! But I spend a lot of time with the hatchet out, trimming and hacking as needed. If I can get young readers to enjoy the era as much as I do, I'll be happy.
* That's a trademark sign, because it's the way series go these days. You might be interested to look at the American Girl books and website as a comparison.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How Do You Create Tension?

Last night, I watched two TV shows. One was brand new in Australia (Hot in Cleveland) and the other was just into its second series (Rescue Special Ops). I have to admit that I don't watch much TV these days. I suspect that five fantastic series of The Wire has kind of killed commercial TV for me! Although The Street (written by Jimmy McGovern and currently on ABC2) is so wonderful that it restores my faith in what is possible in television land. But after I watched the afore-mentioned shows last night, I got to wondering, as you do when you're a writer, why they didn't work.

And for me, it came down to tension. I think a lot about tension. I teach it in Story Structure, but I'm not sure the students really grasp how important it is yet - they're grappling with climaxes and outlines, but I think it does take a while to put all the elements together. Kristi Holl, who has written a lot of middle grade mysteries, has an ebook on Tension Techniques, and I've picked up lots of ideas from it. But really - what is tension? How do you create it?

Firstly, in Rescue Special Ops, I felt little tension at all. Very early on, there was a conflict between two of the rescue cops, and straight away I thought: One of them will save the other one's life to resolve this. Yes, I was right. And not happy to be right. It was way too predictable. Two episodes into Series 2, it feels like all the situational tension (rescues, death, survival) has been sidelined and the show has moved into competing with Packed to the Rafters (for readers outside Australia, this is like a slightly more grown-up version of the Brady Bunch or Full House!). Which is fine if you're writing a show about relationships.

I thought Rescue Special Ops was a police drama show, not a thing about romance and having kids and thwarted love, with a few explosions as a sideline. I am astounded that the writers and producers of this show have gone down this road! Do they think the only viewers in Australia are those who want soppy stuff? Hey guys, take a look at NYPD Blue sometime. And how they managed twelve series in which crime (hello?) was the key, and characters provided depth and colour.

So where do the writers of RSO seem to think tension will now come from? Yep, a cast of hot young actors who apparently all want to jump into bed with each other (just add sexy firies and more cops). The biggest moment of surprise came at the end of the episode where one of the rescue guys steps onto the street and gets run down by a speeding driver. Bang. No set up. No sense of anticipation. Just a dummy (we presume) smacked into the air and an actor lying on the ground. To me, this is fundamental stuff. Something like that in a story only achieves maximum impact when you set it up properly. The rest of that episode was not a decent, well-crafted set up.

As for Hot in Cleveland, the writers don't seem to understand that even in sitcom, we still want tension. We still want to be surprised. No surprises here, apart from how awful the writing was. I think I heard every tired old joke recycled. Tension can come from several things - firstly, from the reader/audience either knowing more or less than the character/s. It's especially effective when you think you know more and you're waiting to see if the main character works it out. Kind of like kids in a stage show shouting, "He's behind you!"

But it can also work the other way - you know less, and the narrator is keeping stuff from you. A good unreliable narrator, for instance, can create tension. If the situation is that you know what the main character knows, tension then must come from anticipation and surprise. You have to build up the tension, be aware of how it's working and have a good idea of what the reader's experience is going to be. Too often, a writer forgets the reader in this situation. The writer might forget to provide information, or not make things clear, or try to deliberately confuse. Or go for the quick pay-off, which is death these days in sitcoms. After shows like Frasier, some of us hope for more (but sadly, rarely get it).

I suspect this is why reality TV appeals, because even when a show is "scripted", you can't totally rely on the participants to "behave". I like a UK show called Relocation, Relocation, because even though people start out saying what kind of house they want, often they're wrong, or misguided, or have to face reality about finances, so you can criticise or be engaged, or imagine what you'd do if it was you. There's no plot, sure, but there is anticipation and the ongoing possibility of surprise. Like the Masterchef contestant whose dessert crashes and burns (hey, most of us have been there!).

Over the past few years, there has been a fair amount of comment about Australian scriptwriters, about the 'dumbing down' of TV drama, about the way in which only the ABC and the cable channels are prepared to take a risk on new writers and new ideas, while the commercial channels churn out the same old boring rubbish. But Packed to the Rafters rates, so what does that say about our TV viewing? That we get rubbish because we're happy to watch rubbish? Not me! I'm off to watch the next episode of The Street. You can catch two episodes on ABC iView if you like. Yeah!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What Do You Expect from a Writer's Event?

Last night I went to my first writer's event at the Wheeler Centre (for those who live outside Melbourne, it's a new writers' centre/venue where they have lots of talks, readings and meet the writer things). I went along with a friend to hear Kate Jennings. She is an author of several novels, including Snake and Moral Hazard, as well as collections of essays. She also has been a speechwriter on Wall Street, and has lived in New York for about 30 years. I've always liked her novels, and also her earlier essays, but hadn't read any recent ones. Nevertheless, I went along expecting to hear her talk about her writing.

It's always an interesting question - what is the role of the interviewer? I spent about eight years doing radio interviews with a wide range of both local and international writers, and I occasionally now do interviews as part of our Writers in Conversation events at Vic Uni. So I think it's the interviewer's job to ask questions that inform the audience about the writer's books but, more importantly, about their writing life. And their writing. Not that awful question: Where do you get your ideas from? But more about the writer's passions and what drives each novel, what their themes are, how they write, how their books affect readers, what their experiences of publication have been.

To focus on the plot of a novel, or too much on the most recent book which many people may not have read, is not a good tactic - it leaves the audience floundering. There is no context for this kind of discussion. But we came away from the Kate Jennings session with a pervading sense of dissatisfaction, and I couldn't help but think the reason for that was the interviewer. Hilary McPhee certainly has the credentials as far as publishing and book experience goes, but it seemed that she went for the "let's chat by the fireside" kind of interview, which meant a lot of skimming, a lot of meandering across politics and history and very few questions that actually led Kate Jennings into deeper discussion about her writing.

Maybe it was just me (and my friend). We're both writers - we go to those things to hear writers, whose work we love to read, talk about the creation of those works, and how the writer engages in that creation. Every writer is different, every writer works differently, they form ideas differently, they have a voice and a unique perspective on the world that informs what they do. I love to hear about those aspects, not a whole heap of stuff about the world in general. I can hear that any day on the radio or even on the train!

I remember at last year's Writers' Festival I went to a session where M.J. Hyland was being interviewed, and it was an excellent session indeed. The interviewer asked great questions that allowed Hyland to relax and simply respond and talk openly - about her writing and her novels. What do you expect from a writer's event? Are you happy with a little chat? Or do you want to come away feeling inspired and intrigued?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Big Book and Writing Day

Organising a book launch is both exciting and stressful, especially if you are trying something new or different. A couple of weeks ago, I had this brilliant idea that I would ask my friend, Kristi Holl, to launch my novel, One Perfect Pirouette. Kristi is a great writer with lots of experience, and we've been Skyping and critiquing each other's work for quite a few years now.

However, Kristi lives in the USA and the launch was in Melbourne, Australia, so my idea was to do the launch via Skype! Even two years ago, this would have been too much of a challenge, but now, with Skype and mobile broadband on my laptop, I was able to take everything to the launch at the Sun Bookshop, in Yarraville, set it up, and away we went.

Of course, anything to do with computers and connections can go wrong at any moment, so we had planned it and experimented and tried out everything we could, but we still knew it could all go pear-shaped! In the end, it went smoothly, everyone could hear Kristi clearly (even if she couldn't see us properly a lot of the time) and my first international book launch happened. We ate lots of cake (including the ones above - the blue one is chocolate, which was the favourite, of course) and everyone took lots of photos.

Then it was on to the next event of the day - the Write Out! We weren't sure how many people would come, but I think there were about 80 people, all together in the cafeteria at Werribee campus of Vic Uni, writing all kinds of things. Down my end, we all worked on our own projects, and with music playing in my ears, I managed around 1500 words in the two hours. I actually didn't ask anyone around me what they were writing! We all just revved up our laptops and got stuck into it.

The rest of the writers got to write all kinds of things - every 20 minutes someone gave a writing exercise and they all wrote madly. There were competitions, lots of laughter (most of which I didn't hear with my headphones in) and I think some people didn't want to go home! I'll be surprised if there aren't more Write Outs organised in the near future, so stay tuned.

Some of the 80+ writers, busily working, thinking, typing, dreaming, pondering, writing....