Sunday, March 28, 2010

School Visit in the Outback

This week I spent four days in Blackall, doing writing with the kids at Blackall State School. To give you an idea of how big Australia is (which we all forget sometimes!) it took me about 7 hours and two flights to get there, and the same to get home to Melbourne. I was amazed to see how green it was. When the rain comes to the outback, it really does burst into life, with long grass, things flowering and everything fresh and sprouting.
The sign above outside the school reminded me of those church signs you used to see: The End is Coming! Hopefully the kids at Blackall didn't feel like that about me!
Blackall is, of course, the home of the Black Stump which was originally used by land surveyors to rest their surveying instruments on. It's a common saying in Australia that if you are going a long, long way outback, you're heading beyond the Black Stump. Never thought I'd actually see it (it's not the original but the spirit of it is there in this one).
I was very lucky to be taken out to a nearby cattle and sheep property to meet the owner and have a look around. Their shearing shed (above) is very old - many of the main beams and posts are made out of logs, and it was easy to imagine the pens full of sheep, the shearers bending over with their shears and the wool spread across the classing tables.
I also met a lovely colt who proceeded to nibble my arm and make me feel welcome!
And while we were there, the sun went down and I got a couple of beautiful sunset photos. On the trip out there and back, we saw lots of kangaroos, some bush turkeys and big lizards (dragons). A big thank you to Karla for looking after me so well!
The kids at the school did some great writing. After my previous rant here on this blog about Naplan testing, it was interesting to go into a school and see how it affects both teachers and students. I hope that what I said was helpful, and that my strategies were useful!

I'm about to go to an international conference on the teaching of writing, and there will be several sessions on the issues surrounding how to grade creative writing - what criteria you use, what level you're aiming at your students achieving, and how on earth anyone can analytically grade originality. I'm looking forward to hearing what other teachers think about it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Books and Kids and School Libraries

The Age newspaper had a wealth of articles in it this weekend to get me thinking (and in some cases seething). First up - also well-covered in The Australian - were the stories about the rorts going on with new building projects in schools. Sorry, but I never understood this right from the beginning. Why offer money to a school and then tell them they can only build an X, a Y or a Z? Too bad if they don't have a special needs area, or a library. If the guidelines say they have to have a gym or a cover for their playground, they will have it whether they like it or not! Consequently, in the Letters page in The Australian, one library supplier couldn't help but point out a school that had a lovely new library building, with all the kids asking, "Er, where are the new books?" Der, Kev.

Another article cited a playground cover that was being built for a cost of over $1 million. A local contractor, who'd built one of these before for a local school, said they could have built the whole thing for $250,000. What on earth is going on here? And then yet another article talked about construction unions "grouping" school projects together so they'd total more than the money limit set by someone after which a "big project" hourly rate is paid to workers. One of the union bright sparks said he thought the workers would spend their extra dollars on dinner or the movies. Yeah, mate, wahoo to you, too. Talk about pigs at the trough. (If you aren't in the mood for a soapbox stand, go read something else right now!)

And now our very own secret "No Child Left Behind" advocate, Julia Gillard (well, come on, what else would you call Naplan testing?) has decided she'll launch an enquiry into school librarians. Excuse me while I go and have a hysterical fit out the back. Hello, dear. We can save you several million dollars and simply tell you what is bleedingly obvious to any school principal, teacher, or even author who does school visits - school librarians are an endangered species, and without a dedicated school librarian, most schools don't have the time or the staff hours to stock and run their libraries to their best advantage. That's the advantage, by the way, that BENEFITS THE KIDS.

There are a huge number of kids that don't have books at home, because they can't afford them or their families don't put a priority on books (they like to spend their money on other stuff like McDonalds, maybe, or video games). I still remember talking to a large group of Grade 5s and 6s a few years ago from the northern suburbs of Melbourne who had never been into their local public library, let alone joined up to borrow. If these kids are not able to access a good library in their own school, then they are hardly likely to become public library borrowers either. And I'm not entering into the debate about kids using the internet for materials and reading these days - have you tried to use the internet lately for some decent research?

So, you may be asking yourself, why are all these teachers and authors jumping up and down about school libraries and librarians? Aren't they just trying to secure their own jobs or income? No, actually we could be doing plenty of other things with our time and energy. But this is something we believe is vital to the future of Australian kids and their ability to read and communicate in this ever-changing world. A computer can be anything. Yes, it be a book for a while, and then a computer game, and then a research tool. But I believe you give reading value when you hand a child their very own book, or their very own school library where they can read and borrow hundreds of fantastic books - for no cost! There are way too many middle-class people in this world who have no idea how many kids in Australia cannot afford a book. One book! Let alone the hundreds I feel privileged to own.

And finally, the last article was Kate Holden's column in A2. She described in agonising detail the family who live next to her. A family where the child spent his whole life being screamed at and told he was a waste of space, and should never have been born. She asked if she should report them for abuse. Then she said, "No doubt my neighbours would kill anyone who hurt their child ... They probably say they love him." Yeah, but they don't mean it, Kate. They probably never did want that child, and now he's paying for it big-time. I'm not saying books and a school library would help this kid survive, but I know dozens of people who had really hard childhoods who say that reading books saved them. And I bet most of those kids got them from their school library.

Note to Kevin and Julia - didn't the insulation debacle show you anything? Why don't you slow down and take the time to really analyse your projects and their outcomes instead of relying on an overworked bunch of bureaucrats to try and keep up with information on things that are your responsibility? We actually don't want "instant fixes", we want evidence that issues are being given due consideration in an efficient way. You are both starting to look like the mad clown jugglers at the circus!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Negotiator or Doormat?

For the past three years, I've been an owner-builder. Kind of like self-publishing a house! You have to take responsibility for everything, and the nice owner-builder certificate you get at the beginning means very little in practical terms. Along the way, I've had to educate myself about how a house gets built, step by step, and what order the steps need to come in. I've also had to learn about contracts, about the value of a handshake, about reliability, trust that tradespeople and "experts" know what they're doing (a scary thing sometimes, that can also be disastrous), and that, most of the time, the buck stops with me.

I've also had to learn over and over again that being problem-oriented only leads to sleepless nights, endless worry and stress. As soon as I've moved to a solution-oriented mindset, things have become a lot easier, for me at least. I've also realised that sometimes getting justifiably angry does help - just not all the time!
What does this have to do with writing? A lot more than you think. We all understand that first you write a novel, then you send it out and hope someone likes it enough, or thinks it will earn them enough money, to publish it. But beyond that, the business of being a professional writer is like the owner-builder experience.

* you have to educate yourself about the business of writing, but also about how publishing works. Why an editor can love your book but marketing says no, or wants certain changes. Why your book is on the shelf in the shop and not on the fancy display unit. Why it takes 12 months or more to publish a book, and what a publisher's schedule looks like.

* all along the way, you have to talk to people. These are usually people who want your book to sell as much as you do, so they're unlikely to deliberately be rude or make life hard for you. They are the ones who know about grammar, page design, cover design, marketing. No, they mightn't always be right, but the odds are that they know a lot more than you.

* if they are rude, consider the possibility that they are simply having a terrible day. If they constantly treat you with disdain or override every question or suggestion from you with contempt, then you have an issue to resolve. That's when you decide on how you will negotiate, because being a doormat will make you miserable. You may need help. If you have an agent, ask them first. Remember - you are not alone. Even a book on negotiation tactics will help.

* some people are a gateway, or an important link in the chain. You have to find a way to work with them. Or get around them. Or grit your teeth and work with them as best you can, while imagining dire punishments (yes, S, I'm still imagining pushing you off a cliff). Your ultimate revenge is for your book to sell well, and for you to take your next one to a different publisher.

Publishing is a business. Once you have accepted an offer, you need to move into business mode, if you haven't already. A quote and a handshake from a concreter worked fine for my house. For a book, you need a contract that gives you a good deal, and you need to educate yourself or get help before signing it. I know many people who shudder at the word product when talking about a book. We all know what a wonderful, amazing experience reading a book can give someone, and we hope it happens with the books we write. All along, what's kept me going with the house was an image I had in my mind of the experiences I would have in it when it was finished. But what got me through all the problems, large and small, that came with building was to constantly remind myself that I was in a business, dealing and negotiating with other business people, and I had to make it work for me. That was what stopped me from being a doormat.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The World Beneath

The World Beneath Last week I read Cate Kennedy's novel, The World Beneath. I bought it last year but it turned out to be one of those books that I kept on my pile until it felt like I was ready to give it my full attention (does anyone else apart from me do this?). From the first page, I was engrossed, and quickly realised that this was a novel where characters were the core, rather than huge amounts of action or preoccupations with style.

I often talk to students about how creating a great character can lead to a deeply convincing story that you just love to write, and others love to read. I think it's one of the main reasons we read - to find out about other people's lives and how they live with disaster and change and deep emotions like grief and fear. The World Beneath does all of these things. I've read a lot of Cate's short fiction and wondered how she would go about creating a novel-length work - would it be as satisfying for me as her short stories? The answer was yes, so then I had to ask her some questions about the novel, which she has very kindly answered for this blog.

1. In her book about screenwriting, Linda Aronson talks about telling a story that is both "real and unusual". Your characters feel very real to me. How did you go about creating them? And do you see anything "unusual" in their stories?

Characters who are not exactly loveable really interest me. I think one of the things I find dull about most genre fiction is that authors create 'heroic' characters who are really just flattering personas for the reader to step into, like vanity suits. Then readers become aggrieved and affronted when those characters behave in a way which they don't find personally self-validating. So with these characters, I wanted to create people who seemed as real as the people next door, and just as fallible, self-deluding and occasionally irritating. I was hoping to expose them gradually so that readers had to keep reassessing their initial, dismissive judgement of them. I have a sort of theory that we don't need to admire characters to find them plausible, we just need to understand what drives them. So in the novel, I tried to press that idea to its limit - would you stay with these flawed people long enough to understand them - perhaps even to acknowledge that their weaknesses and foibles are your own? Would you find them forgiveable? Can we treat fictional characters with the compassion we need to understand real people, or will we feel aggrieved that they don't flatter our image of ourselves?

2. There were times when I wanted to give all of the characters a darned good shake! Is that important to you as a writer - showing how characters can, or are forced to, change and grow?

Yes, a good shake - I know just what you mean! It is important to me as a writer to portray characters who are behind the eight-ball in some way - stuck in repetitive or destructive patterns, switched off, bogged, stuck. I think it's because I see plot as such a key trajectory for characters like this - something happens to slap them sideways, to jolt them out of their stagnation. Maybe this is because I've 'cut my teeth' on short fiction, where a single event can operate to change everything in a character's life, a small, seemingly insignificant thing which alters their course in some subtle way. Without change or growth - sometimes you can look at it as a crucial kind of 'shift' in the story - I can't feel that the story's really finished. A resolution without a change seems unearned and invalid. I've said before that the characters in "The World Beneath" are mired in stasis, as well as being in a toxic kind of dysfunctional triangle, and I'm interested in the story in repairing that state with the thing the key players least expect, and least want. It seems worth exploring the idea that the thing we most need is often the thing we least desire, and I like the idea of trusting the author to provide the good shake a stuck character is going to need.

3. Did you know how you wanted the story to end before you wrote it? What kind of planning do you do? Or don't you?

I did have an inkling, yes, because I wanted to find a way to allow the characters their 'redemption' without having to make them die in the attempt. This involved creating a storyline which forced them to reach the bottom of the barrel in some way, especially Rich, the hapless father desperate to impress his estranged daughter. So my basic question was: how can I make things worse? (doesn't that sound callous...) At what point are these characters going to wake up to themselves? Because one thing's sure about change - nobody's going to do it voluntarily. I planned the storyline to the extent that each character was confronted with exactly what they had worked so hard to avoid.

4. How aware of structure and pacing are you as you write? Or is that something that you tackle in the revisions?

Because the story was literally a journey, taking place over a prescribed number of days, I structured it carefully along a timeline and chronology. I was also interested in setting up the pace so that the story began in a leisurely way, a lulling way, to suggest the inner dithering and lack of momentum of the characters, then gradually picking up the pace as the stakes were raised. It was a nice serendipity to find other tweaks occurred to me in revisions but basically my working model was a car starting up, moving through first gear, then second, then third, then fourth, then finding a fifth...

5. What kind of research did you do? Did you walk across the Cradle Mountain area like Rich and Sophie?

I did part of that walk many years ago, but when the time came to write the book, I had a very small child and wasn't able to do it again as research, much to my chagrin. I tried instead to immerse myself in images and accounts, charting the topography and environment of each day's walking, and just imagining myself into the landscape. Nothing takes the place of real sensory detail, but because I didn't have any choice I had to fall back on these other techniques. A couple of things changed my initial plotline and made me bend events in a different direction. For example, I had the idea at first to have Sophie, the daughter, sending cryptic text messages home to her mother, who would misinterpret their meaning. Then I discovered there is actually no mobile reception on the Cradle Mountain walk (one of the few pockets of the country, probably, where we're actually out of constant range) so I altered this idea to confront Sandy, the mother, with zero communication from Sophie. I was very lucky to be able to talk to many interesting people about historical aspects of the novel - organisers and participants of the Franklin Blockade, for example, and a volunteer track worker on the walk itself. Tasmanians are great - when I needed details about, say, rescue procedures, I just rang up the Tassie Search and Rescue service and they walked me through what would happen in the event of real walkers becoming lost. And I read a mountain of blogs about doing the walk, which were often quite revealing.

6. Did you approach the writing of this novel differently to how you approach short stories?

Often a short story will begin as an image or a moment I'll notice somewhere, or a fragment of conversation. That can start everything off. But in a short story you're placing everything to push towards resolution, and it's this brevity and compression which makes a good short story so satisfying. It feels like a different discipline in writing a novel - everyone seems to get dealt a lot more cards, for starters, and there's far more room for filling in dimension. I like the way in a novel that you have room to create expansive action and reaction; a character will be painted into a corner, and will blurt something, and another character will take that on and behave differently as a result, and this will alter the whole course of their interaction... that's a big luxury after short stories, where essentially you need to nail just the one thing occurring which alters everything, it seems to me. Especially in the Australian tradition, where most stories are under 5,000 words and usually more like 3,000. I think one of the side-effects of the form not being so respected over the last decade or so is that people think they're easier to write because they're shorter. Whereas of course they're harder for that very reason. Magazine edtors, for instance, sometimes seem to think they're as easy to cut down as a non-fiction piece if space is at a premium. They'll ask you to write something, then ask if you can chop it down to 1500 words, or preferably 1,000.... I can't think of anything more difficult or nerve-wracking. So that discipline is relaxed a little in a novel, and you have a freer hand. A longer leash, I guess. Occasionally I had the odd sensation that I was playing a different kind of instrument, with a slightly different tuning to what I was used to, and I had to stop to think about where the narrative might go next, and what might come out of these characters' mouths. But the fundamental things still held my attention: the wonderful potential of limited point of view, the capacity for self-sabotage, the fascinating and unexpected ways we end up being each other's salvations.

7. At writers' festivals you are nearly always put on the short story panel - is that changing now? i.e. is the perception of "what kind of writer" you are changing?

I guess so. I'm pleased to say that the unspoken feeling that you're a bit of a dabbler in different forms suddenly morphs into the adjective 'versatile' once you've written a novel. Just for the record, I'll always be up for a short story panel - as long as we're not charged with discussing how it's 'dead'. It's a long way from dead, and I would credit it with being my best teacher in every other kind of writing I attempt. I like writing everything, but it's all infused with my limitless admiration and pleasure in the short story form. Any panels keen to share this rather OCD-ish enthusiasm are fine by me!

Thanks, Cate!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

How Does Age Influence Creativity?

In this weekend's Age magazine, columnist Maggie Alderton wrote about the suicide of Alexander McQueen (fashion designer) and "the loss of his talent". He was 40, young by today's standards in our Western pampered world. She then went on to comment on Michael Jackson and Elvis and how by the time they'd died, their talents were "in decline". She's not getting any real arguments from me! But it did set me thinking about this whole thing of youth and creativity and innovation.

Recently Scribe Publishing here in Melbourne ran a manuscript contest for writers over 35. Possibly this was to contrast with the well-known Vogel Award for the Under-35s, but I was interested to see the following on the Scribe blog:
The CAL Scribe Fiction Prize for writers over 35 attracted 534 entrants, with the eldest born in 1919 (90 years old), while 22 entrants were born in the 1920s and 64 in the 1930s.

To translate that less tactfully into ages, 22 were older than 70 and 86 were older than 60. The winner, Maris Morton, was born in 1938, which makes her 72 if my subtractions are correct. It shouldn't be at all surprising. Once the kids are out of the house or you've retired, it's the big opportunity to write whatever you want, whenever you want.

Of course, there are other reasons for not writing early in your life. Many older people didn't finish school and feel their language skills aren't "good enough". Some, like a friend of mine who had her first novel published in her 60s, were put off when they were young by someone who heaped scorn on their efforts. We love having older writers in our course because they're always so keen and committed and interested. But no doubt older writers also look at the "young and beautiful" on the festival circuit and feel they've got no chance. Thank goodness for Scribe!

Another great friend, Doris Leadbetter, wrote copiously during her lifetime, but rarely sent her work out. When she finally met an editor who asked to read her manuscript, we all cheered, and the book went on to be published. Unfortunately, too late for Doris who saw the cover but never got to hold her first novel, Forgotten Dreams, when in print. The lesson is, of course, don't wait. But I also like to quote my brother-in-law who says "Don't peak too early".

What does this mean? For writers, immediate success with a first novel can be daunting. The second-novel-syndrome is still talked of in whispers! I can name several writers whose first novel came out in the 1990s and I've never seen another one from them since. Then we come back to the stars mentioned earlier - MJ and EP. How do you sustain success without it affecting your life and how you want to live? JK Rowling is being sued yet again by someone who seems (from the materials I've read) to have no real grounds whatsoever. Some would say that's the price of fame, but I wonder why it has to be? Why does being successful so often come with attached mad people who want to make you pay in some way?

And how do you sustain success? The pressure to produce doesn't become any easier when you have ten bestsellers behind you. The operative word is behind, because in a few years those books may well be out of print, and with no new "products" to sell, what does an author do then? We seem to be swamped with comeback tours in Australia at the moment. Everyone from George Michael and Supertramp to Deep Purple and Daddy Cool. Maybe performers are lucky in that even if they're playing to two men and a dog, they're still out there doing what they love. Does it feel the same for an author to be writing if they're not being published?

Which brings me to another author I knew in the 1990s who stopped writing. He wrote literary fiction and short stories, and then penned a thriller that sold quite well. Not long after, he told me he was giving up writing. It was too hard. He couldn't make a living from it, and he didn't want to teach, nor did he want to keep living hand-to-mouth with a family on the way. So he stopped and went off to find a workable 9-5 job. I wonder how many authors secretly wish they could do that, or at least forget about the selling side of their books and just write for pure enjoyment again.

Finally, (yes, I have meandered a little here) I thought about my bank manager in 1993 who gave me a loan to buy my house. At that point I had had one collection of poetry published and won some short fiction prizes - there were no children's books in sight then! When he looked at what I was doing to earn money, and therefore pay back my loan, and saw the word author - which is what the Tax Office uses - he said, "Oh, you'll be working and earning money until you die then! Yes, you can have the loan." What faith the man had in me! Unlike many other bank managers who would probably have pushed me out the door with a resounding "NO!". Seventeen years later, and I don't think I'm in decline, nor have I peaked, I hope. What about you?