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....

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How Do You Sign Your Books?

This seems to be a question that plagues many authors. How do you sign copies of your books? No doubt someone like Bryce Courtenay or Michael Connelly simply signs with a signature - when two or three hundred people are in the line, you don't have time to chat and do personal notes. Although I have seen Shaun Tan sign (he's a great illustrator) and he draws people little pictures. I've been at signings where the publicist runs along the queue and gives everyone little Post-it notes for you to write your name on so the author doesn't have to check your spelling.

But when you aren't signing for hundreds, the question does arise. A lot of the time, with my kid's books, I sign To... and then write Happy reading. Because I do hope reading my book will make them happy - for a while, at least. Sometimes I put something different, just for a change. But I always sign (unless asked just for my name) with a Best wishes. When it comes to signing for friends, what then? Do they want your signature - your writer's one? (Full name.) Or do they just want your first name that they call you by, because they're your mate? It gets tricky. You have to ask, and often they aren't sure!

My family sometimes scold me for not signing the books I give them, but it feels weird. Don't ask why, it just does! When it comes to friends who want more than a signature, I try to write something personal or funny, but it doesn't always work. On an early children's book of mine, I wrote something about gumboots. I'd talked to my friend about where the story idea came from, but a while later, she didn't remember what I'd said and asked me, "What does this thing about gumboots mean? Why did you write that?"

Today I was tidying up one of my bookshelves, the one that has my collection of signed books on it. It was funny to read some of the things authors had written. Markus Zusak, on his first ever YA novel, had written something about "dirty boys inside" - which refers to the story. At the time, I hadn't read the book and wondered why on earth he had written that! Martha Brooks, on "Bone Dance", has written "Dance to the beat of your own wolf song!" Melvin Burgess has written "Hi Sherryl - well met!"

Have you got any books that have been signed with something different or special?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

What's a Write Out?

If you live in or near Melbourne, you'll be able to participate in what I think is Australia's first Write Out next Saturday afternoon. Where I teach at Victoria Uni TAFE (in Professional Writing & Editing), we're always keen to try new things, especially when they benefit our community of writers (that's everyone who's interested!). We've been running very successful Writers in Conversation events for a couple of years, and now have a range of short courses as well as our diploma course and online subjects.

So - what is a Write Out? It's an afternoon of writing, in the cafeteria at our Werribee campus. Imagine a large room (with food and hot drinks, of course, for energy!) full of writers, all ... writing! For those who need some sparkers, there'll be writing prompts, exercises and games. For those who just want to come and write, and feel inspired to get stuck into their current - or a new - project by being surrounded by hardworking writers, there'll be a corner for you, too. That's the corner I'll be in, by the way, surrounded by pirate gear to inspire me.

Bring notebooks and pens, or your laptops (charge them up first because power points may be scarce), and if you think the noise might distract you, bring earplugs, too. Or your mp3 player to listen to. Everyone is welcome to come along and it is FREE.
Where: Cafeteria, Building 1A Werribee campus of Victoria Uni, Hoppers Lane, Werribee.
When: Saturday 17th July, 1pm-3.30pm.
More info: email Isabelle.Lebouder@vu.edu.au or phone 9919 2681.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Style and Language or Plot?

What makes you love someone's books? Yes, it's the genre or the subject or the characters. But a novelist who writes different kinds of novels can still command a following, simply because they write so well that you feel like you'd read anything of theirs! I've felt this way about a few writers over time - Elizabeth Berg, Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, T.C. Boyle (even though at times TCB is so confronting!), to name a few.

Recently I read a Berg novel that left me floundering. Dream When You're Feeling Blue was a great read - I was particularly interested in how she dealt with historical details - until I reached the last 20 pages. At that point, the plot took a bizarre turn that, as a reader, I totally rejected. Perhaps if she had extended the novel by another 20 pages or more, she could have convinced me that what the characters did at the end was believable. Instead I felt short-changed, and somewhat tricked. Nevertheless, I do love her writing, her way with words, her ability to create a 'real' world and engaging, complex characters.

Sometimes we continue to read an author because they deliver the same quality goods, time after time. And then you grow out of it. I have loved Janet Evanovich's novels for years, and judged them by the number of times I laughed out loud or at least smiled. However, by Number 13, the whole scenario felt tired, very tired. There are only so many times a character can bounce between two hunky guys while solving crimes with a multitude of disasters along the way. When dollars for book buying are scarce, this is the kind of book I've stopped buying.

And sometimes, thanks to the public library nearby, we try someone new, or someone we haven't read for a while, and see how it goes. Some years ago, I did read a Nelson DeMille book - Plum Island. It was OK. And I watched the movie, The General's Daughter. So while browsing my public library shelves (something that's a lot harder to do online!), I thought I'd give The Gate House a try. Now, I have to admit that the story didn't totally grab me because the main character seemed a bit lame. Writers - beware lame characters! But at some point, around a third of the way through, I became aware that something strange was going on with the writing.

There was one chapter where the two characters kept smiling. He smiled, then she smiled. Then he smiled, and again, and she smiled. He smiled a lot more than her, maybe because he was lame and couldn't come up with anything more to offer her. But... hang on a moment ... isn't that the writer's job? To give us more from the characters than just a whole heap of smiling? If Mr DeMille was trying to convey that the main character was lame and all he had in his armoury of responses was a smile, then I think he needed to do a bit more work on his writing. From this reader's point of view, it wasn't technique, it was lazy writing, and maybe his editor needs to take this into consideration, too. (I know everyone always blames the editor, but I've worked with some great editors who do pay attention to this stuff and don't let you get away with it.)

Oh well, maybe I'm starting to sound like all those people who complained about JK Rowling's over-use of adverbs and dialogue tags. But writing is a craft, and a major part of that is both your use of language and your ability to rewrite and give the reader something that feels fresh and alive. That's what we have to work with - words. So let's make the most of them!
Have you got a great example of lazy language to tell us about? Or maybe you think that plot is more important and you can cheerfully ignore ordinary writing?

Friday, July 02, 2010

Hatchet Job

That's hatchet (small axe) - not Hachette, by the way. But it's what I'm faced with right now. My big historical pirate novel, Pirate X, is to be published by UQP next year. I've been working on this for around ten years (on and off) and I guess it's a lesson in perseverance. Originally it was 120,000 words, whittled down to 115,000. That was before I learned how to make huge cuts to plot, rather than just a few words here and there. Then I went to an SCBWI conference in LA, where the person who read my 40 pages for a manuscript consultation basically shredded it with no encouragement whatsoever. (Warning: Beware compulsive shredders. This person was not an editor or agent or publisher.)

That was enough to make me put the book away in my bottom drawer for a couple of years and try to move on. But it wouldn't let me go. I wrote other pirate stories in the meantime, which sold very well, and kept talking about this story during school visits. Because kids wanted to know how come I was so obsessed with pirates! So finally I was able to go back to the manuscript and start again, keeping in mind that despite a lot of positive responses from publishers originally, they all said it was too long!

Draft Number 7 was where the hatchet first came out. I ended up with 80,000 words, and something that was starting to get a lot more interest from publishers, but ... After eight years, and many many thousands of words in different drafts, I had a hard time standing back from it and seeing what else needed to happen with it. Funnily enough, that was when I started teaching a new subject called Story Structure. No longer could I just think about how structure worked, I had to teach it in a way that showed students what it was and how to apply it to their own novels and scripts.

Cut to June 2010. I had a contract for Pirate X. The manuscript had a deadline. And when I pulled out all my research and then looked for what new references were now available, I received a bit of a shock. One new reference in particular basically blew the first half of my novel out of the water! I checked - yes, this new information was solidly backed up. What should I do? Continue on my original path? Or take in the new research? When I pulled out the manuscript (draft 8) and read it, the way was clear. That version had a big, saggy, boring middle. If I was a bit bored reading it, what about everyone else?

Decisions were made. New material was noted, with timelines and dates and names. A new beginning was necessary. After nearly two weeks, I'm still only about 25% of the way through the hatchet job on this novel, and I'm not worrying at this point about either characterisation, setting or the quality of writing. It's all about plot and structure. About hacking and cutting and moving great chunks around (or deleting them). I hope that in about a week's time, I'll have a "rough cut" of the novel that I'll print out in order to see what I have. It'll be rough, it'll be jagged around the edges, it'll probably still be bleeding! But hopefully it'll be story with pacing and excitement and plot twists and tension, and then I'll fix the rest.
(By the way, Queen Anne's Revenge is the name of Blackbeard's ship which does feature in my novel. Unfortunately the cafe wasn't open the day we were in Beaufort, NC.)