Sunday, January 31, 2010

Writing Your Past

In the Weekend Australian Review yesterday, there was an article about Andrea Levy who wrote, among other things, Small Island which won a number of awards in the UK. Her new book, The Long Song, is about slavery in the Caribbean and is a topic she said she thought she could avoid. Her family comes from a West Indian background, and she said that to go back in history and write about her heritage meant that she couldn't help but "bump into" the topic of slavery. It was 300 years of one of the "biggest demographic transformations" - a whole society and way of thinking.

While she goes on in the article to talk about being seen as some kind of spokesperson for issues around migration and tolerance, I got to pondering about the ways in which writers seem to always, inevitably, write about where they come from, or what has happened to them, through their fiction. Someone once said that we gather enough material in the first eight years of our lives to keep us in stories until we die. I also remember Melbourne writer, Carmel Bird, telling students in her classes that until they have written out the stuff that makes them cry and cringe (not her exact words, but close!), they can't go on and create new work.

Sometimes I ask my students if they are aware of writing about certain themes or incidents in their life, either consciously or unconsciously. They usually say no, but those who are open to the idea will go away and then come back the next week and reveal that they have found repeating resonances. For years, I wrote about abandonment, creating characters that were left alone all over the place. Finally I connected this with my mother dying when I was young.

Did it stop me writing about the theme? No, but it did make me more aware of how I dealt with it, and eventually it bored me and I could move on. I wonder if this is why so many people write "misery memoirs" - that until they do, they can't move on either. And why do others read them? Because they haven't learned how to deal with their past yet, and want some help? I can't bear to read most of them. It took a long time before I could admit I only got 30 pages into Angela's Ashes and had to put it down, because so many were raving about how wonderful it was.

There is a difference between writing out what's raw and angry and unbearable so that you are "healing" yourself, and writing something that other people will want to read, and find engaging. Sometimes it's hard to know the difference, but craft and skill is a bigger factor than we think. I recently was told about a book called The Inconvenient Child, which was written by someone other than the person whose memoir it was. The story is amazing and awful, one of abuse in the welfare system in NSW, but Sharyn Killens allowed Lindsay Lewis to write her story for her, a decision that must have taken a lot of courage. Many writers would have wanted to be centre stage and not give that licence to another person.

There is nothing wrong with writing as therapy. It's what you do with it afterwards that can create a problem. Many stories are not publishable, either because the market is saturated or the writing is simply not good enough. What else can writers do here? Publish as a blog? Self-publish? Simply write and move on? Or turn it into fiction? This last option can be a trap, too. It still comes back to writing skill and craft. Without that, it may be better off in your bottom drawer after all or, if you really want an exorcism, burnt!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Accidental Borrowing

Cases of plagiarism make big news in literature land, not least because copyright still equals money plus reputation. Where someone has blatantly lifted whole passages out of another work and inserted it into their own, claiming authorship, the line is pretty clear. I remember a case a while ago where a historical romance writer used lumps of her research material. We've had cases in Australia of university academics plagiarising for theses. But the line gets fuzzier when what is "borrowed" is not parts of a text, but the story ideas.

There are plenty of books around that cite 20 basic plots, or 37 basic plots, or 3 (if you want to be minimalist!). I tend to think these are based more on themes such as betrayal, star-crossed lovers, jealousy, family feuds, etc. These are useful to look at and ponder, as are texts that discuss different story structures such as the hero's journey. With any of these, what makes your story different is the characters you create, the voice you use, the twists you come up with. But what happens when you accidentally use someone else's central story idea?

We are told that if we want to become better writers, we should read widely and critically. I've been telling my students this for years, and doing it myself. I couldn't estimate how many books I've read in my lifetime. 20,000? Probably more. Some obviously stay with me more than others. The ones that linger longest are no doubt those that I relate to strongly in some way, and who knows why? Personal history? Heroes I identify with? Fantastic writing that I'd love to emulate? All of those and more.

But I had the unsettling experience this week of discovering that a new story I'd been working on for several weeks wasn't really mine. Right from the beginning, I'd struggled with the idea. It seemed interesting, I had done some research, there was potential. I started writing. The first niggle was that the character name I'd decided on still felt wrong. I kept writing, thinking it would all come right if I kept at it (because often it does, and then I scrub the first part altogether). I wrote and wrote, and the story just kind of lay on the page and went "bleh".

Finally, I thought I'd go and look at some other books about a similar topic and see what that author had done with her character names. I searched the bookcases, found one of the books in that series, opened it and thought Oh dear. The character names weren't the problem at all. The problem was that somehow I'd accidentally written something that was so like this other book that there was no way I could continue with it. So I chucked out the 4000 words immediately.

Was I upset? Sad? Panicking? No way. Suddenly I knew why the story was dead on the page for me. I'd already read it before. I'm one of those people who, once I know the ending, more than 50% of the story's enjoyment is gone for me. Somehow, even though I didn't realise what I'd done, a little bunch of my brain cells did, and they were politely trying to tell me (I imagine them standing around with a few beers in their little hands, muttering to each other, "When is this silly woman going to wake up, for goodness' sake?").

I'm now working on a new story, one I'm pretty sure hasn't been borrowed. But how do you know? I think there have been genuine cases of writers who've thought they were coming up with something original, only to discover (sometimes after publication, unfortunately) that it's a story from their long-distant reading past. We have so many variables to play with - characters, plot, settings, voice - that you can create something new. (Although having watched the first episode of Make It or Break It the other day, those writers didn't try hard enough to get past the cliches!). But I often listen to new songs on the radio and think the same thing - there are really only so many notes on the music scale. Aren't we really just borrowing all the time? What do you think? Have you accidentally found yourself writing something you've read before?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Author Photo

Quite a few years ago, some of my students were being photographed by the guy from our local newspaper. He was a professional photographer, or photojournalist, I guess, since he was being paid for what he did. As with any group of women not used to automatically tarting up for the camera, there was a bit of hesitation and giggling and embarrassment. I always remember the guy saying, "The only people who hate being photographed are those who don't like the way they look." Hmm, that sure brought us all down to earth. No more giggling around this guy!

These days, it's almost a feat not to be photographed somewhere, somehow, and then find yourself tagged on Facebook. Ugh. Let's face it, some of us photograph well, many of us don't. The camera has ways of making you look terrible! When you least expect it. And of course, we change. We'd love to keep that glam photo from 15 years ago, but we don't look like that anymore. When my purse was stolen last year and I had to get a replacement driver's licence, my relief was immense when they still had my old (flattering, believe it or not) photo on file and could issue a new licence with me looking ... normal.

If you publish books, the author photo is unavoidable. When you are able to choose, like with the photo of me that goes with this blog, I go for something that looks happy. In fact, this photo was taken in San Antonio during a wonderful day with two fellow children's writers (Hi, Kristi and Brian!) and it shows. On the other hand, tell me I have to do an author photo, and immediately I freeze up, and that shows too. Maybe I need to indulge in some pre-photo meditation.

In the interests of research, I Googled author photos and did a quick survey of the first fifty I found. Here are my results (not to be taken as set in concrete, just a casual once-over):

* 30 were smiling, 8 were half-smiling, 12 were not smiling
* 12 were in a garden setting, 3 sat with their hands by their face (a favourite thoughtful writer pose in the past, now clearly out of fashion), 4 posed with books or writing implements (another favourite gone), 2 stood at podiums, 2 posed with animals/pets, and 28 posed with generic backgrounds that could have been anywhere (is this the safest option, I wonder? no way anyone can draw a wrong conclusion?)
* 7 authors looked at ease, 4 authors looked frightened, 32 writers looked neutral but a little wary.

So, having been advised it was time for a new author photo (the result of a haircut that does change the way I look, although I wouldn't have thought so beforehand), I pondered how it might be done. My last one was taken up in the bush. Perfect setting in which I am bound to feel relaxed. Once upon a time, I'd have said let's do it in front of piles of books. But is this passe now? It would seem so. My favourite photo of myself is with a twelve-foot python, but ... it was before my haircut.

OK, my preferred option is in the bush with a wombat. As the wombat in our bush has only been photographed successfully once in six years, this might cause a problem. I could Photoshop myself into that one, but it will probably look a little odd. I could sit in the ferns and wait for the butterflies to settle on me. I could sit on a tree stump and wait for the birds to ... never mind. And for those of you who have already suggested it, I think the Johnny Depp option, tempting though it sounds, might be wishful thinking.

I need help. What are your favourite author photos? What makes you look at one and think There goes an author? Do you favour a background? Smiling or non-smiling? Books or not? All and any ideas considered!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

In the Series Thrall

Once upon a time, it was only fantasy writers who thought about series, or more usually, trilogies. It was thought harder to sell a stand-alone than a set of three. If you were a children's writer, you stood in awe of R.L. Stine and series like the Babysitters' Club and Saddle Club. How would it be to write 50 or 100 books in a series? Then in Australia, we got Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda - the perfect series that was really a serial. The kids had to buy all of them to find out what happened. I actually had a bookseller point to them one day and say, "Look at that - $14.95 each. You should be writing something like that."

I wish! My first book ever - The Too-Tight Tutu - was one of the first six in an innovative series published by Penguin Books. They called them Aussie Bites, and each book had a bite out of the corner of the book. The series had a reputation for great chapter book stories right from the start, and there are now more than 80 of them. They've been followed by Nibbles and Chomps, and they're all different from what was usual then because there are many different writers and different kinds of stories.

The joy for writers is that you're not locked in to one concept, and the series are also often open to unsolicited submissions (but you should definitely read 10 or 20 of them first). The other side of all this series stuff that I see now, however, is that everyone who wants to write for kids thinks their way in is via a series. I'm sure publishers do want to discover the next hot thing, and sell a squillion, but it seems like many writers aren't doing their homework on this.

Have you, for instance, gone and sat for a couple of hours in a large children's bookshop and analysed 12-15 different series in the age group you're aiming at? Have you bought at least half a dozen of the ones you like best and taken them home for a critical read? Have you looked at genres, and at what's hot now? Because if it's hot now, by the time you get yours up and running, that trend will be on the way out. Have you actually thought beyond the first book?

Years ago, I attended a great conference that focused on writing sitcoms, and I still remember many of the key principles for a series that they covered - which are the same for any kind of series. Can you come up with 20 ideas for plots? Is your first story one that successfully introduces a great cast of characters? Does your concept fit the lost dog story? Does your series concept fit into the target age/audience you're aiming at? Is it new and different? And if it's a success, can you write 100 of them?

The problem with stand-alone novels at the moment is that they are being swamped by the series - I've heard at least two publishers admit this. Marketing doesn't want to commit to one book that may well disappear as soon as it comes out. But on the other hand, marketing doesn't want to commit to several books in a series either - what if the first one flops? Oh dear. Are you starting to feel like the ham in the sandwich? I'm not sure what the answer is. Maybe it still comes back to just writing the best book you can, and keeping a tiny window open for at least one or two more. What do you think?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Who Said This Was Good?

In this weekend's Age newspaper, there was a short article about blurbs on books - in one of those twists of language, a blurb in the US is where someone (hopefully famous) is quoted on the cover of your book saying how wonderful it is. In Australia, the blurb is more commonly the stuff on the back of the cover about the story that is supposed to entice you to buy it, or at least open it and read the first page or two. US publishers call this flap or back cover copy, although I did a quick check on Google and all terms seem interchangeable, and you can add "pull quote" to the mix, too!

The question is: who believes these little quotes anyway? The article by William Leith is about being an author who is asked to find his own famous authors to "blurb" his book. His first reaction is to ask who reads these things anyway and, more importantly, who believes them? Doesn't it just mean the author has a famous friend or two? Other questions arise. Did the quoter actually read the book? Were they paid to say what they did? Did they really mean it?

It reminded me of a class on low-cost marketing I taught in Hong Kong last year for Women in Publishing. I had a wide range of people attending, many of whom had nothing to do with writing or selling books! But it led to some fascinating discussions about marketing, one of which was about the value of testimonials, either on your website or on your general advertising (or book). Initially, my comment was that I rarely believed them myself, so they weren't something I would use in my marketing, but the majority of participants disagreed with me.

Many said they did take notice of testimonials, and did believe they were genuine. The cynical side of me kept thinking of those before-and-after photos and smiling women saying "Your weight loss cream really did help me!". But as our discussion went on, it became clear to me that there are several major factors in using testimonials or quotes. One is about who says or writes the recommendation. Obviously, someone famous is a great start, or someone known as an expert in that area.

It's also about what they say. Does the testimonial sound genuine? Does it say specific things that relate to the product and show the person did use it, or read it? Or is the quote so generic that it's meaningless - "This was great!". Even quotes from published book reviews can be manipulated. The whole review might be quite critical, picking out a number of faults with the book, with one complimentary sentence. That sentence is easily extracted and used for promotional purposes.

The most recent examples of cover quotes that I've seen were on the second book in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. On the front cover was "The Hunger Games is amazing - Stephenie Meyer". Personally, that would put me off the books! But the millions of readers who love the Twilight series would be fine with it. On the back cover was a quote from Stephen King - "Constant suspense - I couldn't stop reading" and from a review in The Times - "Bare-knuckle adventure of the best kind".

I'm interested to know how others perceive this quoting/blurbing industry. Do you take any notice at all of quotes on covers? Do you believe them? Do you believe the person quoted has actually read the book? With testimonials for other kinds of products, what is your opinion of them? Are they credible? If so, why? If not, why not?
And if I can get Johnny Depp to provide a cover quote for my next Littlest Pirate picture book, would it make you more likely to buy it?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

When the Lapse Happens

I posted recently about whether writers I know set goals or not, and how I manage mine. One of the things I decided was simply to focus on writing 5000 words a week, regardless of whatever project I was working on. At this time of the year, I am back at work but flexible with hours, and no teaching which means lots of headspace. So for two weeks in a row I have passed 9000 words, seemingly with ease. Gee, a few hundred more and I could be doing my own little NaNo here! But...

To coin an old cliche, I'm making hay while the sun shines. In fact, I feel like I'm baling huge rolls and mounds of it, storing it in my writing hayshed (hey, if you're going to go with a metaphor, you may as well thrash it (thresh it?) to death). One thing I'm doing is getting way ahead of a few important deadlines coming up from April onwards. I can't stand the thought of having a manuscript due in a week and still be sweating on 5000 words of a first draft. My revisions need lots of time and extra thinking to iron out plot holes and shallow characters.

But I'm also writing something else that is just for fun. I don't work on it every day because the other projects are already contracted and they are top of the list. But the fun novel came out of nowhere, I took it for a run over a few thousand words and decided to keep it going. It's not what I thought it was going to be, but that's OK. Everyone needs an outlet for their "crazy writing". Feeling like all you're doing is writing to be published (or at least to submit) can kind of kill your creative spirit sometimes.

So what will happen when work and teaching start in earnest? That time is not too far away. I am going to have to stay determined on those 5000 but, it's a positive thing, not a negative. If you make this resolution to diet, your whole outlook is about holding back or denying yourself. With the 5000, I feel like I'm continually taking steps forward. What are some of the things I have been reminded of?

1. The more you write, the more you write. You get in a zone where writing every day seems natural, and if you haven't started by 3pm, you get irritable and start heading for the laptop.

2. While you're writing every day, the story is constantly with you. So tonight, while I was waiting for the pizza to cook, I sat and planned out the next major part of my plot.

3. When you put writing as your first priority in the day, you start to realise how many other things in your day are time-wasting - and that makes you think about how to get rid of those other things permanently.

4. You also start to realise that those guys who write full-time really mean it when they talk about discipline and some kind of routine. Whatever gets your rear end into that seat and your fingers moving on the keyboard.

5. And finally you realise that your bad ergonomic habits at the computer have to stop, otherwise you will never turn your head from side to side ever again, or lift your arm up without screaming.

6. The more you can write like this, the less likely the lapse is to happen. Fight it. Keep your word count in sight. Aim to increase it every day, even if it's only by 100 words. Every day you write will lead to more and better writing days, and no lapses.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatar Without the Special Glasses*

The hot movie at the moment is Avatar - in 3D, of course. We'd been waiting for the crowds to die down a little before going to see it, and went to an early session. I wondered if it would really be as good as everyone said. I posted a comment on Facebook, and was interested in what people put up - quite a few said things like 'There are plot holes but just go with it' or 'Just enjoy the experience' or 'The 3D is amazing'. A couple of friends said the same kinds of things. So off I went, curious about what they meant.

Now, if you absolutely loved Avatar and won't hear a word said against it, stop reading now! Because although I liked it, it came nowhere near reaching my Top 10 Movie list. Yes, the 3D is amazing, and adds a huge amount to a movie about a world where the environment is in perfect synch with the animals and natives. I loved the various plants and animals they created, the colours and the details. But as a writer, I couldn't get past two big glitches: the story structure was poor, and the villainous characters were so one-dimensional and OTT that they were unbelievable.

Halfway through, I got that feeling you're never supposed to get in a great movie - I started looking at my watch and wondering when something was actually going to happen. There is a huge sag in the middle which is basically drumming it into the viewer that this is a perfect world and Tully is falling in love with it and the people (and of course the girl). It's all about showing off the special effects, and it goes on and on. And while we get all these special effects, the character complexities fall away into almost nothing. I felt like I was being given a big dose of telling, instead of believing what was happening through the characters.

The two villains - the boss money man and the boss marine man - were terrible. Who on earth wrote their dialogue? It could have come from a 1950s B grade script. It was as if we were handed two stock baddies, whose motivations were money and killing, and expected to go with it because that's how the baddies in our world today are behaving. Because of course the themes were all about invasion and environment, and they're the hot topics for people who care, so a movie that blatantly portrays bad characters as 'evil destroyers' is going to be a hit, right?

Yes, I sound really critical, and I'm trying hard not to be. The themes of Avatar are very worthy, and it's really difficult to create something worthy that doesn't ram stuff down people's throats (or make them feel that way). But the way you do that is through good writing, i.e. a great script with complex characters that you engage with on every level. An amazing world in 3D is not going to make me feel any less or more committed to the environment. But, like any story, characters who show me the world through their eyes works every time.
What did you think of the movie? As a writer? Or a viewer?
(* those are the rose-coloured ones, not the 3D ones)

Monday, January 04, 2010

The No-Goal Year

Around about this time, every second blogger is writing about goals. How to set them, how to achieve them, how not to fail, how to keep going/set habits/achieve what you want. And yet I keep reading about how 98% of us set goals and "fail" by 1 February. So what's the answer? Obviously, one answer is to set goals that you can achieve by 1 February so your year is already successful! Another answer (one I hear a lot, I have to say) is that goal setting is a waste of time, so don't bother.

This year, I've reviewed my 5 year plan, changed a few things, moved a few things, deleted a couple of things, added some things. Yep, a "thingy" kind of plan. But when I get right down to it, what's influencing my thinking about 2010 right now is a book I've just read called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I mentioned it before - now I've read it. The thing everyone is talking about is 10,000 hours. That's how long it takes you to get really good at something. It's like an apprenticeship.

Years ago, I read an article about writing classes and workshops, and the guy who wrote it said if he'd been in a really good writing group, it would have saved him ten years of slogging away on his own. But now I think the ten years he is talking about is really just the ability to critique and edit your own work - for sure, a good critique group can help you enormously. But that's only one part of being a writer. The biggest part by far is the writing. Imagine 10,000 hours of it. That's ten hours a week for 1,000 weeks (yes, 20+ years!).

Have you been writing for 20 years? Take a moment and work it out. How many hours do you honestly think you have been writing for so far? I think I started back in 1982. Early on, I probably did around 2 hours a week. When I studied my BA (majoring in literary studies including writing) it was more like 5 hours a week. I'm trying hard to be honest here, by the way. Since then, I've done a lot of teaching, so I include the study of the writing craft and my teaching of it to be part of my 10,000, because it's contributing to my learning.

I've been in a critique group for 22 years. We meet weekly, for two hours, but there are a lot of times when we don't critique (yeah, be honest, girls!). So really that's around 50 hours a year max. I think I got my 10,000 hours in around 1998, or maybe 2000. But you know what? I still feel like an apprentice. And I like that feeling. I like the idea that there is always more to learn, always more ways to improve. And that there are lots more stories I want to tell with better writing.

So my "goal" for this year is not 10,000 hours. It's not the list of commitments I have to fulfill and books to complete on contract. It's not even the various steps to take along the way on my 5 year plan. Those are all things I can write down and feel good about when I tick them off (if I get them done - ha!). No, my aim this year is simple. 5000 words a week. Of anything. Novels, poems, stories, journalling, picture books, articles. Maybe what I'm really aiming for is 20,000 hours. Maybe what I'm aiming for is simply ... writing.