Friday, October 29, 2010

The Littlest Pirate on YouTube

Finally managed to get the Littlest Pirate book trailer finished!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Do You Lend Your Books?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Creating Original Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Resistance to Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Set Yourself a Writing Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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