Sunday, May 30, 2010

Mentors and Monsters

This week I've been reading a very interesting book of essays, lent to me by my friend, T. There are some great experiences between these covers - yesterday I read about a woman whose mentor/monster was Susan Sontag. It can be a crucial turning point in a writer's life, to have the kind of mentor who changes your writing, your way of regarding the life of writing, and how you put words down on the page. Mentorships have been gaining in popularity here over the past few years. First the Australian Society of Authors offered them, then the Victorian Writers' Centre. I read some of the early reports from the ASA scheme, and those being mentored talked of having someone experienced to simply engage with and bounce off. No manuscript editing was involved (a common perception of a mentorship - like having a personal editor).

One of my favourite essays was by Alexander Chee, whose 'mentor' was Annie Dillard. He uses the term loosely, as she was a teacher who had a great influence on him. What I found interesting was that, like many others writing for this collection, he didn't really understand her influence until later. I loved the line: "In that first class, she wore the pearls and a tab collar peeped over her sweater, but she looked as if she would punch you if you didn't behave." When told they had to hand in their drafts triple-spaced and questioned it, she replied, "I need the room to scribble notes in between your sentences."

Other contributors talk about famous writers as mentors who barely talked to them about their writing but nevertheless inspired them in some way. Joyce Carol Oates, as I imagine many writers would, talks about several different people who influenced her - The Rival, The Friend, and the early influences of particular books. Julia Glass talks of finding an editor who becomes a lifelong friend, mentor, muse and confidant, as well as editor of her novels. Elizabeth Benedict describes her relationship with Elizabeth Hardwick, as do several other writers in the book. Hardwick was a teacher at Columbia and seemed to have had an effect on many of her students, both positive and negative.

As well as finding this collection quite inspiring, it's also making me curious about the novels the various contributors have written. Alexander Chee appears to only have one novel published so far that is still in print; Mary Gordon has four or five. Without spending lots of dollars, I'd like to track down their work and read it. On the other hand, Jonathan Safran Foer's insistence on calling his early romances with girls attempts to "mate" sounded so weird that it coloured the whole essay for me! And set me thinking about another blog I'd read recently where a writer's performance at an event had put that person off his books forever.

This writing life can be so tenuous at times. And it's clear from this book that new writers can be so easily influenced by the literary and/or famous. While the ASA mentorships sounded helpful, I've heard of others where a new writer has been influenced by their mentor to change and rewrite crucial parts of their novels, damaging both plot and an original, vital voice. Is this the mentor's role? To me, this is the danger. One writing teacher here in Melbourne is notorious for creating whole classes of students who come out at the end of the year sounding just like him. How can this be a good thing?

Yes, it's easy to be influenced. What female poet (including me!) hasn't gone through a stage of sounding like Sylvia Plath? But if you read widely, and read as a writer, you move through it and past it, and your writing and your own voice grows and strengthens. What it takes is practice, weeks and months and years of reading and writing LOTS. Not just one piece, or one style, or even one genre. We have so much to draw on these days - it's like an incredible banquet. If all you do is stick with the chicken wings, you won't get far.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

When Readers Respond

Sometimes I think that writers of fiction for adults miss out a bit. They don't get to do school visits, and although the famous ones get fan mail, no doubt, I wonder if they ever get a group response. Book clubs don't count because that's people talking about your book without you being there, and you rarely get to hear what they say. And I've stood in book signing queues and heard what adults say to their favourite authors. Mostly it doesn't bear repeating!

But kids are so honest that it's scary. They speak from the heart about what they thought about your book, and what they liked and didn't like. I'll never forget a letter from a kid who said one of my books was great but "my brother said it was boring". It made me want to withdraw the book from all of the bookshops and rewrite it. Last week I received an email from a teacher-librarian at a school I'll be visiting next month (Avalon Public School). Two of the classes have been reading my verse novel,Farm Kid , and I was sent a collection of their responses. Instead of being asked to "analyse" the story, they were simply asked to write about how it made them feel.
Farm Kid Here are some of them:

This book is great with its descriptions but it is also very sad and this is probably the only book that does not have a happy ending which is why this book is different to other books. It has made me realize that it is not easy to live on a farm. Kye Year 4

I think Farm Kid is a sad book and a happy book. The contents of Farm Kid make you really think about life on the farm. Zack is a wonderful character and he must have such a hard life with all those complications. The mum and dad must be really worried about Zack and his sister growing up. Emma Year 4

Farm Kid was a very funny, exciting book at first but then it gradually got sadder and more emotional. I loved Farm Kid especially when Zack talked about his friend that was a bit of a dare devil. This was one of the saddest books I have read or been read to. Issy Year 5

It is like losing a part of yourself. A sad, sad situation for any child like Zack. Adam Year 5

I think that Farm kid is a very moving and emotional book because they make jokes about bad things and the little one line sentences can tell a whole paragraph of a story. Louis Year 5

It hit a spot. It touched my heart. I am crying in my heart. Zacharey Year 5

Farm Kid is very emotional. Every poem gets sadder and sadder. Then finally they have to move. The first poem about the farm – I like the way it repeats ‘farm is’. It is funny at first but it doesn’t have a happy ending. At first I was a little shocked that it was actually the end. Julia Year 5

I'm planning to put all of the responses on my website because they are amazing. They are all different - they see different things in the story. Yes, it's sad (although it does have a hopeful ending) but for me it was always about telling a real story, not a Hollywood or Disney version. Thank you, kids, for all of your responses. That's why I love writing for children.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Australian Kids Left Behind

Here in Australia we've just had this year's NAPLAN testing. Think "No Child Left Behind" transported (like a convict) to Australia, then add a government website that displays all the schools' results so the media can heap scorn on poorly performing schools, and that's what we've got. Many, many people are against it. Teachers were going to strike and refuse to administer the tests. John Marsden has made it clear that he thinks they are damaging and ill-informed. But somebody in our government decided it was a great idea. Maybe they'd been on a junket to the USA at the height of NCLB and thought: Gee, we could do that, too.

So I was fascinated to hear that Diane Ravitch, who was Assistant Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, and a great proponent of NCLB, come out and say I WAS WRONG. Here is a quote from her interview published in Slate:
People are being punished because of test scores. We've created a system where Mrs. Smith is going to teach nothing but what's tested. The arts aren't tested and the sciences aren't tested, and the conservative response to that is, "Well, test everything." But the problem is—and this is another thing I found myself recoiling from—then you'll do nothing but test. People tend to scoff at anything that's subjective, but it's the essays and the projects that make it fun for kids and give them an opportunity to show comprehension.

I don't know a huge number of people in the US, but many I do know are either teachers or know teachers. NCLB was wrong from the beginning, just as NAPLAN here is wrong. People will say, "What is wrong with testing if it shows which schools are under-performing?" I would say, "Under-performing according to who?" I was recently at a school where I was supposed to be doing writing workshops with the kids. That was fine. What wasn't fine was that I was supposed to teach them how to write a story that would get a good NAPLAN mark.

I teach writing all the time, to adults, who have a much vaster reading and life experience to draw on in order to write a good story. Most of the time, they don't succeed. Much of the time, despite my experience as a teacher and writer, I struggle to give their work a grade. We have transparent criteria, based on collective experience, that we use, but sometimes it's still like trying to measure air. How on earth can a government testing system possibly test story writing and create marking criteria that covers every single child in Australia?

How can you mark a story by a child who is a refugee, writing about their life, against a story by a child who has written about their summer holiday in Bali? Except of course some bright spark decided to make that easier by stipulating the thing they all have to write about. I thought we got rid of that antiquated story-writing tactic back in the 1950s. Well, never mind my gripes about creative writing. I'm on the side of the teachers who say that what inevitably happens is they have to teach to the tests. Again, I've heard many US teachers say they had to stop reading aloud in the classroom - in fact, they had to stop most things that weren't directly related to the tests.

And they wonder why kids hate school? (See Ravitch's comment again above.) She also said:
To me it's almost self-evident that No Child Left Behind is a failure, but people will say, "Well, Congress doesn't think so." It's like everybody agrees except for the teachers, who are the ones who have to do it.
And that is already our biggest problem here. Julia Gillard has signalled quite clearly that she's not backing down on NAPLAN at all, and has reluctantly agreed to make some changes to the website in order to make sure teachers did administer the tests this month. But once something becomes ingrained in a government system, they sure do hate backing down and dismantling it. Never mind the money they waste on other things.

Gillard is also supposedly running an enquiry into school librarians. As I've said here before, there are hardly any left so that won't take long. The bottom line is, if you really want to fix a state school system, you put more money into it. Not by giving kids laptops, but by giving them real, everyday, useful resources like books, more teachers and school librarians. It doesn't matter what medium kids will use in the future for work and leisure, if they can't read well, they'll fall further and further behind in this world. Nobody needs a test to tell them that!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Being Famous or Not

A few years ago, two other writers and I got together for a day in San Antonio to talk about writing and publishing, and share our experiences and ideas. One of the things we did was to look at a book I had bought called Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer by Bruce Holland Rogers. It had a lot of great topics in it, including discipline, procrastination, rituals and whether you should quit your day job. He also talks about "Matters of State" - meaning depression, affirmations, negative thinking and those around you who may encourage or block your writing.

The strange thing is that we sat there and did an exercise from the book called Pig Will and Pig Won't. Strange, because I've just gone through that book twice and I can't find it! Pig Will and Pig Won't are from a picture book by Richard Scarry. How the mind does like to trick us. Nevertheless, the exercise is about imagining what might happen if you are incredibly successful with your writing - what might be the great things about this, and what might be the negative impact. The results, when we shared them, surprised me. We all had entirely different ideas about both answers. (And if I could find my notes, I'd share them, but this must be my week for losing stuff, so I'll add them to the textbook, bill, magazine and brochure that are somewhere in my office).

I remember that some of my negatives were to do with not being able to walk down the street without being recognised, and much higher expectations on your next book. The positives are always to do with being able to give up your day job! Except then you have to entertain yourself at home seven days a week, and procrastination becomes a major issue instead of a small worry. All this, of course, was brought back to mind by the documentary I watched on Saturday night. It was "J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life", made in 2007 while she was working on the final Harry Potter book (first broadcast Dec 2007).

I missed the first half, but in the second half the interviewer seemed to decide to get tough with the questions. Hence we had something along the lines of "The media says you have 574 million pounds - do you have that much money?". To which she eventually answered that she didn't have that much but she did have many millions of pounds. And the result of this is that she gets asked all the time for money. She has an assistant to help her respond to requests and decide to whom she will donate. And she does give away a lot of money, mainly because "unlike most politicians" she knows what it is like to be very poor and what it does to your quality of life.

99.9% of us will never earn as much as JK from our books. Most of us are doing well if we come anywhere near earning a living. Hence the term: don't give up your day job! But, going back to Pig Will and Pig Won't - what does being a famous writer actually mean? What restraints and extra expectations might it put on you? Can anyone understand what it means until it happens to them? When you're writing your first book, there are no deadlines, no one waiting for it, no one to tell you how it should be. With the second book (and those thereafter) comes a new set of expectations, issues and challenges. Something to think about.
And now I'm going back to find that darned Pig exercise!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Old, Old Books

One of the things I've been researching this week (among many others!) is books that were published in the 1890s, and specifically ones that could have been in a person's own library (this person was a school teacher). I found some great sites that sell antiquarian books online, and was even tempted to buy a few. Although there are some excellent booksellers in Melbourne so I think I could find some gems here if I wanted to.

Some of the books published back then are ones we still read today - Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde. Some sound so pedantic and boring that I can't imagine anyone reading them, even in 1900, e.g. The History of the Town and County of Poole; compiled from Hutchin's History of the County of which is added a Supplement, containing Several Curious and Interesting Particulars; with Many Additions and Corrections by the Editor.

There also wasn't much around for children. In Australia there was Coles Funny Picture Book (which had a few pictures but was mostly poems, some of which are 'badder' than Andy Griffith's current efforts). How about Songs for the Little Ones in Twilight Hours by Mrs Arthur Goodeve? Or The Black Cats and the Tinker's Wife by Margaret Baker, with illustrations in silhouette? And this is probably not for children, but I like the sound of A Prisoner of the Reds: The Story of a British Officer Captured in Siberia by Francis McCullagh.

All of these books were published in cloth-covered hardback, usually with embossed covers and spines, some with gold edging on the pages. I imagine that when new, they'd make a fine shelf of black, green, red and blue, with touches of gilt. In the picture above, they're showing their age now. But it took back to me the bookcase we used to have in the hallway in our old house. Most of the books had belonged to my grandfather, and I think he'd brought them with him from Scotland. I do remember the collection included The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, and some farming books.

What I also remember is a two-volume encyclopedia, published in 1898, which I used for school work. How was this possible? (Because I'm not 108.) Well, it was only really useful for things invented and in use before 1898. If we studied anything on steam engines or the Crimean War, it was perfect! But if I needed something on Mahatma Ghandi or aeroplanes, well... I had to look elsewhere. It had no photographs, only line drawings, and both volumes were huge and heavy. Yes, I'd love to still have it, and I have no idea what happened to it. I can't even remember the title or publisher. But I still remember trying to heave it off the shelf without dropping it on my foot.

If nothing else, in this age of ebooks and POD and my own groaning bookshelves, it was a reminder of times when books were not a common thing to buy or have in the home, and certainly not for poor people. Paperback publishing tranformed the availability of books to anyone and everyone, as did the Little Golden Books for kids. As I try to keep up with the latest on ebooks and iPads and Nooks, I keep feeling this hankering to go and buy something with a bit of gilt edging!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Always Learning

Recently, when I went to the Association of Writing Programs conference in Denver, one of the things I wanted to investigate (and then think more about) was the possibility of an MFA. Specifically, a low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults. There are only about five colleges in the US that offer this - no university in Australia offers any kind of Masters that comes anywhere near what I am looking for. Low-residency means I could go for two-week summer/winter schools and complete the rest online with a tutor.

That wouldn't worry me at all. I did nearly all of my BA via distance delivery, and it suited me well at the time. It's probably the main reason I enjoy teaching online myself now. I wish online had been available back then! And the piece of paper is a by-product for me. What I want is the in-depth study, the opportunity, time and headspace to explore the ways in which I can make my writing better. I always want to make it better. When I stop wanting that, I think I'll stop writing. I'll go back to reading even more books than I do now, and thinking about how nice it would be to have a great garden.

But there are often opportunities closer to home. Last year I blogged about going to a talk at a local library given by Stephanie Laurens. I have no intention at all of writing historical romance, but I do write historical fiction, so I thought it was worth the effort (not much, honestly) of getting in my car and driving to the library. So simple to do, yet so many people who want to write don't even do that. She had a few things to say that made me think, most specifically about her level of discipline and the number of hours she spends every day on writing. A bit mind-boggling!

Today I went to another local library (I am blessed - a brand new library branch has opened within walking distance) to listen to a crime writer talk about writing crime novels. I had a feeling that for some of those there he was a little disappointing, but that may just be me trying to mindread, based on how they introduced themselves. 60-70% of those attending were only just starting out on writing, and more than half of those weren't really wanting to write crime. The writer, Jarad Henry, talked a lot about getting your facts right - who investigates crimes, how the police work, what actually happens at a crime scene.
Blood Sunset
I thought it was great. I picked up a few things I'd got wrong, a few more that I'd got right, thanks to interviewing a homicide detective a couple of years ago. In case you're wondering, yes, I write children's and YA fiction. I've also written a crime/mystery novel for older kids that hasn't sold yet, and one for adults that is for pure pleasure (but it'd be nice if it got published - I'm not holding my breath!) Mostly, I just enjoy listening to professional writers talk about their processes, their path to publication, what they've learned along the way.

I came home feeling inspired and enthusiastic all over again. Going into a bookshop and staring at the thousands of books on the shelves is not inspiring at all. All it tells me is how many books are out there! Listening to another writer talk about their writing life makes me realise, yet again, that it's not just me. I enjoy learning from others and I hope that never ends.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Learning From Other Forms

Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting and Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish (Write Great Fiction) One of the classes I am teaching this semester is on story structure. Yes, we spend 15 weeks on nothing but that! I guess that's a reflection of how important I think it is, but also a reflection on how often I see it as an underlying fault in much of the writing I have to assess. One of the books I use a lot is Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting and Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish (Write Great Fiction) by James Scott Bell. It's clear and well laid out, and has plenty of useful advice.

There are other books on plotting that I use bits of - The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler is one that deals well with using the hero's journey as a structure for films. Story by Robert McKee is another screenwriting book that is just as good for novels. And this is the thing - a lot of script books are valuable for novel writers because they tackle the issues to do with structure so clearly and so well.

We often talk to students about not confining your learning of writing skills to the one genre or form you want to write. Novelists can learn a lot about structure from screenwriting, but they can also learn a lot about dialogue. Studying poetry and having a go at writing it can teach novelists a huge amount about imagery and making the most of detail and description. I learned quite a bit about researching my fiction through books on nonfiction writing.

This week, my fellow teacher in story structure pointed out something I'd never thought about before (thanks, Michael!). He said that when you write a film script, you usually write a treatment first, or as well, and that of course a treatment is presented in a certain format (present tense, for a start). But he also made a great point about how to use it. If your script needs work, go back to the treatment and work on that first rather than messing around with the script itself. That way, you can easily see in those 12-15 pages where to change things, and experiment a bit, without making a bigger mess of the script itself.

I had been talking about outlining for novels, and of course the same thing would apply. Rather than struggle with the 300 pages of your novel, first go back to your outline (or synopsis) and rework that. If you've written it properly, it makes the revision so much easier. As I outline via diagrams, this would be really useful for me. This is what I love about teaching and writing - there is always something new to learn, a new idea or method that someone suggests that just might be the key to a problem you're wrestling with. Nothing is ever wasted!