Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Advantages of Journaling

I know there will be many of you who already journal and don't need to be convinced, but at the end of a long year, it has been lovely to rediscover the power of journaling and what it can provide. My friend, Kristi, journals regularly and uses the method as a way of sorting out her thoughts and ideas. Lots of writers do. Journaling is not about writing a first draft. It can be used for many things, including planning and goal setting, as well as just sorting out what's flying around inside your head.

I often suggest to students that they keep a writer's journal, where they can collect ideas and explore them. They look at me as if I'm crazy! With all the writing and assignments they have to do for the course, why would they want to do more? But it's up to you how you choose to use a journal, and what for.
Here are some ways you can make use of it:

1. Write in your journal every morning to clear your head of "life" and get ready for the writing day ahead.

2. Explore ideas for stories and novels - explore why the idea interests you, where it could go, what it means to you. Expand it without pressure - experiment.

3. Journal about your dreams and goals, and how you are going to achieve them. Explore possibilities, let your imagination roam. Often putting this stuff down on paper helps you to make it more real, and gives you a starting point for planning and action.

4. Use your journal to get rid of negative emotions and experiences that stop you from writing. Pour it out on the page and it won't interfere with your real writing.

5. Journal about aspects of your life other than writing. If you have a problem (like a job you hate but need), journal about ways you might get out of it. The more ideas you have, the more likely you are to find one that will work. Writing it all down is also a call to action.

6. Use your journal as a place to come up with new ideas. You can be more focused with this - look for writing prompts like this one at Writing World.

7. Use your journal as a way to record stories from your life. Include photos and mementoes as prompts for yourself. The pieces you like can form the basis of something to leave your family.

You may like to buy a book to get you started. A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self-Discovery by Sheila Bender is one (I haven't read this but her book on personal essay writing is great).

Do you journal? What do you use your journaling for?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Which Blogs Do You Read?

Writer friends and I often discuss which blogs we read regularly, and why. As a teacher of creative writing (with a strong publishing industry focus), I read a lot of blogs by agents and editors. They're useful because they give an inside view on what's going on. An agent like Miss Snark (sadly no longer blogging but the archive is still there, and immensely valuable) can give new writers a very clear insight into what agents think, what they want, and what they don't want.

Some agent bloggers also provide lots of helpful information. Kristin Nelson has several 101 series of articles attached to her blog for writers. I'm sad to see that Editorial Anonymous, a children's editor, seems to have stopped blogging. Not sure why - hope she hasn't been laid off!! Publishing companies tend to have blogs that just promote their books, but other smaller ones provide great bonuses. The Monthly, which is a magazine here in Australia, has a section called SlowTV which is interviews and recordings of authors.

This year, for the first time, I've had to cut back on the blogs I read. It's been a time issue, as in "many deadlines, no time". I was quite surprised in early December when I realised how many blogs I'd stopped reading! Did this mean they were all useless and I was better off without them? Not at all. There were some that I'd signed up to (like Craig Harper and Seth Godin) whose blog posts came to me as email. A quick read and I was caught up, and often enlightened. Otherwise I would've cancelled them.

It's been nice to have time to do some catching up, and also to re-think which blogs I want to read regularly. The same with newsletters. This week I unsubscribed from three email newsletters, and might do the same with a couple of others. Basically, my needs have changed and those newsletters were no longer of interest.

What I'm interested in with you is this: how many blogs do you read regularly? Do you read everything you subscribe to? Which are the most useful ones to you? As we go into some nice down-time over the holidays, please share your favourites!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Writing Time in the Holidays

Holidays are wonderful! While other people dream of beaches and sunshine and frozen daiquiries at all hours of the day and night, I check my pile of saved-up books and can't wait for the time when I can start on them. My brain is free of work stuff, and I'm able to finally focus and tackle books that at other times of the year seem "too hard". I'm planning to read, among other things, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and Freedom by Jonathan Frantzen. I've got Matterhorn by Karl Malantes on order at the library, and Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine on order from an online bookseller (ready for when it's available in paperback).

I've also been stockpiling a few good crime novels, including some new Swedish writers, and the third Ranger's Apprentice book by John Flanagan. As I'm teaching Poetry 2 next year, I'm also reading poetry and delving into anthologies for gems to use in class. But with all this reading lined up, am I going to write as well?

The thing is that reading great books inspires me to write more than anything. I love to soak up all of those words and then go write lots of my own. I have two major editing and/or revisions to work on, so reading reminds me about sentences and language. But I also want to work on something new, and seeing books that other writers have written and rewritten (because none of them are going to be first drafts!) reminds me that putting my backside on the seat and writing is the only way I'm going to get a finished manuscript, too.

Funnily enough, even though holiday times are when we believe we have the most time to write, I can't tell you how many people admit to me that they ended up doing no writing at all! It's easily done - there are parties to go to, sleep to catch up on, family commitments, time with the kids, TV and movies to veg out in front of, video games, Facebook ... While telling yourself you really need that time off and you really need to do some family stuff etc etc, you can end up spending your whole time doing everything but writing.

Not trying to make you feel guilty, mind you. Just saying....

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What Would You Tell a Reluctant Reader?

Those of us who love books and love reading almost can't imagine a kid who doesn't like reading. "What?" we say. "What's wrong with you? How can you not love books?" Or if we don't say it, I know we're thinking it. I do, and I see kids all the time in schools who are just ho-hum about having a visiting writer, and shove the books aside while making out books are just dumb.

Because who wants to admit they feel dumb? You know how many kids actually aren't very good at reading? When everyone else is doing it just fine, how would you feel if you were the one the teacher had to hassle about books, about how little you read, about how far behind you'll get if you don't read more? As reading adults, we wonder how on earth these kids could possibly not be able to read (apart from the ones who have dyslexia or eye problems, perhaps).

We're doing that adult-arrogant thing again. Sigh. Assuming everyone else should just go with the flow. Forgetting totally what it's like to be small and not good at something. How you'll do anything to cover up, including insisting you hate reading. The teachers and librarians who said Harry Potter books were great, simply because they got kids reading who hadn't read before - they were right! Very often, once a certain level of ability and confidence is achieved, what a kid needs to get them into reading is ... a book they fall in love with.

Not a "required reading" book or one the teacher insists on. No, one they discover themselves, either by accident or because some keen adult decided to give them a certain book and it is just the right one!! So ... if you had a reluctant reader in front of you, what would you tell them? What book/s would you recommend? What would you buy them as a gift this year?

My first pick would be the Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan. I recently read the second in the series and think it's great for 10-14 year olds (yes, even girls who want a bit of action!). I've had Diary of a Wimpy Kid on my reading pile for ages now and never got around to reading it (soon, soon) but it's very popular and with the cartoons in it, might hit the spot for a 10-14 year old boy.

For girls (especially if you want to get away from the endless awful fairy books), try the Billie B Brown books by Sally Rippin. They're active and exciting and good for readers 6-9 years. I also always recommend Aussie Bites and Nibbles, because the two series have lots of different authors and a wide range of stories accessible to kids from six through to nine or ten.

Now, if you've got kids (or if you're a keen reader of kid's books), what would you recommend for that reluctant reader? And why?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Books I'd Recommend for Christmas Gifts 2

This post is about poetry, and more novels for adults. This year I discovered Chase Twichell's poetry, via the journal from the Association of Writing Programs - the article quoted lots of bits from her poems, and I liked so many of them, I bought the book. I'm savouring a few poems each day, which I think is the best way to do it.
The title is Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been (Copper Canyon Press, 2010).
I always recommend Billy Collins and I'm currently on my third re-reading of Sailing Alone Around the Room and am very excited to see a new collection, The Trouble With Poetry, is being released. The title poem is one I use in my poetry classes all the time!

Black Inc has released its end-of-year collections, The Best Australian ... Poems, Stories, Essays. (OK, I confess that I'm in the Stories collection!) These are excellent gifts for readers of each form, and always provide a wide range of voices and subjects. Also released are the American versions, and I buy the Best American Short Stories as soon as it's available here. I like it because the stories are so different, a mix of experienced (such as Alice Munro) and new. I often end up using one or two of these stories in class. This year's is edited by Richard Russo. If you want something different, try Best American Science and Nature Writing - marvellous.

You may have missed Nam Le's The Boat, but it would have been hard to do as it won so many awards. It's great to see short fiction writing coming back into favour at last. Check out the short fiction section at your independent bookshop! I'd also recommend Cate Kennedy's Dark Roots - it's been out for a while but is a wonderful collection of stories.

My other fiction recommendation to finish with for now is Caroline Overington's I Came to Say Goodbye. I was sent this ages ago as a galley copy to read for review, but never got around to commenting on it as it took ages to actually be released! But I loved it. If you'd told me it was a book narrated mostly in flashback by a 60+ year old man, and dealt with child abuse and poverty and a host of other social issues, I would've maybe said 'no thanks'. But Overington's narrator is so engaging and convincing, and his story is so real, that I couldn't put it down. I wasn't surprised to read later that the author was a journalist who reported on these issues extensively - it shows in her commitment to creating a story that strikes at your heart without preaching. An excellent accomplishment!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Books I'd Recommend for Christmas Gifts

Every year, the literary pages in our newspapers here publish big double page spreads where well-known Australian writers give their recommendations of what to read (or give) for the holiday season. And every year I look at their lists and wonder if they are serious. They nearly always list the most literary or obscure books possible, which makes me wonder if they're being honest or just trying to sound intelligent! Occasionally, someone (often a crime writer) will list books that actually sound both readable and enjoyable.

My big thing this year is to try and encourage as many people as possible to give books as gifts, instead of lawn mowers or scented candles or plastic toys. So I thought I'd better give my recommendations, which I have simply picked off my pile of books I've read this year and enjoyed. And if you aren't sure what a person might like, try giving them a book voucher/card instead. If you want to buy online, fine, but maybe also try to buy at least one book from an independent bookseller.

Crime/mystery - A Beautiful Place to Die - Malla Nunn - set in South Africa in the 1950s, it is a great portrayal of life there at that time as well as being a good mystery
61 Hours - Lee Child
Blood Moon - Garry Disher (set on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne)
The Broken Shore - Peter Temple (I know Truth won all the awards but I liked The Broken Shore better)
Blood Sunset - Jarad Henry (also set in Melbourne but with bushfires as a backdrop)
Bleed For Me - Michael Robotham
Much as I would like to, I can't recommend the latest Val McDermid, Trick of the Dark. Waaay too slow.

Fantasy - I discovered Joe Abercrombie's books a while ago - I guess they're fantasy but they feel historical - great warrior action scenes and fascinating characters.

Historical - if you love details and descriptions totally based in great research, Conn Iggulden's books about Genghis Khan are terrific. The first in the series is Wolf of the Plains.
I'm also halfway through Bernard Cornwell's Azincourt but the detail and descriptions overpower the characterisation a bit too much for me. Others will disagree.

This year I have also fallen in love with Kate Atkinson's novels. I read Case Histories because it was labelled 'crime' at the library, but it's so much more than that. The recurring character, Jackson Brodie, appears in all four books, but shares the stage with a wonderful range of other characters. The plots weave in and out, and I'm never disappointed. Now I'm heading for her other novels.

YA fiction - If you want something really unsettling and creepy, Mice by Gordon Reece just blew me away. One book I could not put down.
With the ongoing, neverending hype about Meyer's vampires, I was very hesitant about Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, but it completely won me over and even made me cry. Leaves Liar by Justine Larbalestier for dead.

That's enough for now. I'll consult my book pile and add more another day!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Writing in Hong Kong and Shanghai

Where you go in Shanghai if you want a novel!
Wen Chang, the Chinese god of Literature (this is from the Temple of the City God in Shanghai).
The ultimate window display - a pair of shoes that should come with the warning - Do Not Drink and Attempt to Walk.

Yes, I've been away. Mostly in Hong Kong, but also in China, where I discovered that I couldn't log in to either FB or Blogger. So I had to spend my time going out and visiting some amazing places instead (I'm trying to be apologetic...).
But while I was away, I did manage to finally get to the 50 big ones in NaNoWriMo. It did mean not watching TV the whole time I was in Hong Kong, but as 99% of the channels were in Chinese, I guess it wasn't so hard!
All right, I lie. It nearly did me in, but it's the first time I've finished as a winner and even thought I know I have to throw this novel away and start it again, I've learned a huge amount about what not to put in the story!