Sunday, December 18, 2011

Me and the MFA - Part 5

To continue my occasional posts about studying an MFA in Writing for Children and YA at Hamline University in Minneapolis/St Paul...

I’ve reached the end of my first semester, and am looking forward to the next residency at Hamline, despite the snow and minus temperatures! When I look back at the work I’ve done this semester, I’m amazed at what I’ve produced, especially when it seemed so daunting at the beginning. Daunting because I still had to go to my teaching job as well as do school visits and write and revise some commissioned work.

But I have survived. Four essays and 130 pages of a novel later, as well as about 35 pages of reflections and many pages of writing exercises and revisions, I feel very happy with it all. The novel was an experiment, something I wanted to write without any thought of publication, something I could write several versions of, just to see what worked and what didn’t. The lack of pressure (will an editor like this?) freed me up to do all kinds of writing of and around the novel in ways I haven’t tried for many years.

The reflections were useful as I wrote them kind of like a diary, one or two entries a week, about what I was reading, writing and puzzling over. Maybe other people don’t do theirs like this but it was interesting to read back and see what had evolved over the four months.

I didn’t expect to enjoy the essay writing, but each topic was something that I wanted to know more about, and wanted to investigate more deeply. How a particular writer creates character on the page, voice in historical fiction, dual narrator novels – all of these led me to new work and re-reading familiar novels, as well as delving into theory. I finished the semester with a personal essay, something I have little experience in, and I delved into Sheila Bender’s book on writing personal essays for some help and writing exercises, which then gave me some more ideas on other things I could write about!

To me, this is the perfect writer’s life – reading, delving, thinking, coming up with new ideas, waking in the morning and laying there thinking about what I will write that day. Then getting up and making a start on the next page of the current work. A pity that many days I had to get up and go to my job instead!

Now I have a big pile of books to read before the January residency, and notebooks, laptop and pens to get ready. I’m also looking forward to seeing everyone again, finding out how their semester went, and celebrating that I’m now a Semester Two girl! But somehow I doubt I'll be counting squirrels this time.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Writing Workshops - For or Against?

I've recently been reading two different (but similar) books about the writing workshop - whether it's an archaic structure or setup that has run its course and does more harm than good, or whether the workshop is still a beneficial thing for writers but perhaps needs to be considered differently these days. I'm going to discuss the books themselves in a week or so, when I've finished reading them, but it did seem a bit strange that both of them have been published in the last year. (They are Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? ed Dianne Donnelly and Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies by Anis Shivani.)

Where I teach, the writing workshop is a staple in our classrooms. Not because we are slavishly following some ideal that was set up in Iowa 60 years ago, but because we think that it has a lot of benefits. And some downsides. The benefits are: students gain a first audience for their work, one that wants to learn as much from commenting on other's work as they do from the feedback they receive; they start to see common weaknesses and through discussion begin to learn how to address these; they build a sense of a writing community; they realise that you can't please all of the people all of the time!

The downsides might include: the writer who becomes defensive and angry and argues with the group; the person who criticizes everyone's work relentlessly and never says anything positive; those who only say what they like or don't like but don't offer anything else; the person who accepts everyone's comments on their own writing but doesn't reciprocate. There are probably more than this! But the downsides for us tend to be limited to individual's problems with the process, and because we're in a classroom it can be easier to work these through. The other thing to be wary of, of course, is creating a situation where you "homogenise" everyone's work, or where writers go for the safe options, especially where a grade at the end is involved. I think we try to avoid that, as much as possible.

I do know of workshop groups where no one ever critiques - they just read out to each, pat each other on the back and then go home. I've also heard of others where one person has managed to destroy the whole group! Outside of a classroom, the writing group has to manage itself and be reasonably democratic. This is harder to achieve than you might think. A willingness to contribute honestly and fairly, to encourage and support as well as critique, and to bring writing for critique regularly, are basic requirements for success.

Some of the issues mentioned so far in the books I'm reading include workshops that discourage experimentation, don't critique critically enough to be useful, and those that operate only as critique groups with no reference to or study of literary texts as a basis for learning. I'm sure there's going to be a lot more! I'll get back to you when I'm done reading and thinking. In the meantime, if you have any comments on workshopping experiences, please do share!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Writers and Rescue Options

A friend today told me how much she loves a show where people move to their country dream house, and tonight I watched an old episode of Country House Rescue. It got me thinking about the analogy between those who call in an "expert" to find them a house, or fix a horrible house, and those who ask for help with their writing.

In a writers' group or a class, there is a sense that everyone is there for the same reason, and you are all focused on the same thing - improving your work. Fixing the story or poem that doesn't engage your reader, or looking at how to rewrite the novel that drags in the middle. We all know the myriad ways a piece of writing can run off the rails. In a class, I think there is a sense of camaraderie, and also an acknowledgement that once you receive some good feedback, you'll go away and work hard on rewriting (and those who clearly don't are somewhat scorned by the others!).

But while watching some of the house rescue shows, my husband and I often become frustrated. Why don't they listen to that good advice? The advice of the expert? Why ask for expert advice if you are not going to follow it? We watch people who are told "Don't sub-divide that room as buyers won't pay for a house with tiny bedrooms". And they still do it. Or more often, they are advised to spend more time and money on making something look top-notch, and they don't, and then they can't sell the house.

OK, that's no doubt got a lot to do with TV producers deliberately choosing obtuse or stubborn people who are guaranteed to provide a more "stimulating" viewing experience! But I couldn't help comparing this to writers who want to write publishable work - usually novels - and pay for critiques, classes and writing "doctors" and still will not or cannot do the work required at a professional level. It's as if they're paying for what they hope will be a person who will say "A totally marvelous novel and you are a brilliant writer". And then they don't need to fix anything.

All the money in the world will not produce a good, publishable novel without a bit of talent and a whole lot of hard work. Just like it won't produce a renovated house you can sell for a profit unless you knuckle down and learn and do a whole lot of hard work. (You can pay someone else to do it but you won't make a profit - you could pay someone else to write your novel for you, but what on earth is the point?)

On the show I watched tonight, a participant was shown the rotting wood and holes in the ceiling and asked, "What are you going to do about it?" And her answer was, "I'm resigned to it." Imagine if an editor pointed out your lack of characterization and poor dialogue and asked you to revise, and you said, "I'm resigned to it." Are you resigned to settling for a first draft? Or are you going to get out your hammer and drill and chisel and renovate your writing?

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Writing in Chaos

The other day I read an article about certainty by Sarah Wilson (Sunday Age). She'd been inspired by a book called Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields, and said: "I became aware of how often my anxiety around uncertainty prevents me from creating freely..." Which caught my interest - isn't it uncertainty and doubt that often causes writer's block? Or at least stops us from facing up to the blank page?

In her article she also talked about how she'd discovered many creative people lead "ritualised" lives - eating the same things, getting up at the same time, following the same routines - because that steadiness, that certainty in their everyday lives meant that the uncertainty that comes with creating is much easier to face. This got me thinking about how often I hear people say they haven't been able to write because they've been too busy or life has been too hectic.

What is "too busy" really? Is it that every hour of your day is so totally filled with obligations and chores and duties and work that you don't have time to write? Or is it, as Wilson and Fields suggest, that the chaos of being busy and disorganised and always rushing creates so much uncertainty (or stress or angst or whatever you want to call it) that mentally you cannot find a place where writing will happen?

There's a cliche that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person. What lies beneath this is simply that a busy person who gets a lot done is simply very organised because they have to be. It's logical. Also a busy, organised person is often more able to say No because they are aware of whether they really do have the time and energy or not. Many of us don't say No because of guilt, but also because we often don't understand where our time goes and can't come up with a way of saying No and meaning it!

I like the idea of creativity coming from uncertainty - I feel it every time I sit down to write, and it's a relief to know it's normal. But I also like the idea that ordering the rest of my life with lists and prioritising and a visual diary is what allows me to create more, and create with less anxiety. I know that since I began my MFA studies this year, I have never worked harder or more consistently! But in a weird way, I've been less stressed because I've stuck with my priority job lists, and it's kept me off emails and time-wasting stuff. The one thing that has been stressful was maybe something I should have said No to, but I've learnt from that as well.
So, where do certainty and uncertainty sit in your creative life?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Computer vs Your Body

I've just spent more than two weeks where I was at the computer or the laptop every day for several hours or more. It takes a toll. I like to think it's just because I'm getting older, and it is, but as we become more and more reliant on computers and technology, and spend more hours in front of any screen, we're going to have to be more pro-active about the ongoing and accumulating effects of this.

Years ago, I worked for a printer as a typesetter. It was an old-style machine with font disks that had to be changed if you wanted to use a different font. One of the main components of the machine was a set of extra keys off to the right-hand side. Now we have a number keyboard there that most of us hardly use. Back then, I used those keys constantly for formatting, so it should have been no surprise to me when I got RSI. In other words, a huge amount of pain and inflammation up my right arm.

Eventually I had to give that job up. Later I also discovered that the rickety chair I sat on, which couldn't be raised or lowered, had undoubtedly made things worse. Aha, you think, it's all different now. We know about ergonomics and RSI and stuff like that. Yep, sure do. But how many writers do anything about it? I no longer have that particular RSI symptom - now I have a ganglion on my right hand from the mouse, and constant neck and shoulder problems. And I'm not the only one, according to writer friends.

So what are the things I am still doing wrong, despite knowing better? I still hunch in my chair instead of sitting up straight. I still struggle to find the best position for using my laptop, even though I now have a separate keyboard for it. I still get engrossed in what I'm working on and forget to get up and stretch. But at least I have a decent chair and it's at the right height.

We get our professional writing students to analyse their work areas to see what needs to be fixed or changed. I sometimes wonder how many of them actually do anything about it. But in the long term, if you don't, you are asking for ongoing, painful physical problems. Today, after several weeks of sustained computer work to meet some deadlines, I went off to have a massage as a reward. But I knew, all the same, that it wasn't just a reward. It was a necessity so that my back and shoulders would stop feeling like pretzels and I could walk straight and upright!

Don't take your time at the computer for granted. Stay aware of what your body is telling you, and do something about it. This is an ongoing problem - it will gradually get worse with time, and the longer you leave it, the harder it is to fix. Just ask my neck!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book Awards - Precarious and Providential

The news this week came from the US National Book Awards - in the young adult section, the judges chose five books for the shortlist but somehow six were announced. At first it seemed that yes, an error had been made in the announcement but they would stick with it. Now they have taken one book off the list - Shine by Lauren Myracle - or should I say, Myracle apparently "withdrew the book from consideration". Who knows what went on behind the scenes, but Myracle has behaved most professionally in what must be a horrible situation, and no doubt it has earned her many new fans.

There's a saying that all publicity is good publicity, but with the internet these days, that's not always true. An author a few months ago who tried to defend herself against a bad review received a huge backlash. True, she defended with insults! But in this world where hundreds of new books are published every week, where self publishers are using the net and Amazon to get their books out there, for many readers awards remain one of the standard guides for what is a "good book".

This week also there was much outrage about the shortlist for the Man Booker prize. This is an award for a book that is considered to be the best of the best in literary fiction, and the critics are complaining that the books are too "popular". So apparently the criteria for this award includes "too literary to be readable and/or enjoyable", which is a pity. Regardless of that, the uproar will help sales because all those people who thought the Man Booker shortlist was too literary might now go and buy at least one of them and actually read them!

The quandary with awards is this - they attempt to choose the best in a given year. The shortlist they come up with is a mix of opinion and compromise (the more on the judging committee, the more compromise - this is fact borne out by experience!). But for most awards, this shortlist influences book sales to an immense degree. Here in Australia, if you are shortlisted for one of the Children's Book Council awards, your book is guaranteed an immediate reprint and at least 3000 extra sales (a lot here in Oz).

What are the repercussions of this? For a start, if you get shortlisted, you are very, very happy! If your book doesn't get shortlisted, however (and if you aren't Andy Griffiths or writing a current hot series), your book will very likely die within 12 months and probably not earn out its advance. So the argument that book awards unfairly promote some books at the expense of a lot of others is a valid one.

For children's books, the other option is the various children's choice awards. I'm going to put my foot in my mouth here and say I actually think these are worthless to the author and their book. I mean worthless in terms of sales. For a book to win a children's choice award, it needs to have been already bought/borrowed and read by lots and lots of kids, so if you win one, it means you and your book (because often it's the author who is winning on reputation for great books) are already out there in huge numbers. But they are great validations for you personally, because it does show kids read and love your books. How good is that?!

It's interesting to see some state awards here now include a People's Choice award that is voted for by readers. (I do wonder though about the publishers who email you and urge you to vote - oh well, it all counts.) So awards are providential. You never know when you might get shortlisted, and if you win, good gracious! How wonderful, especially if the prize money is nice. But you can't count on them either. You just have to write, and believe in what you write, and keep on writing.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Expanding Writing Horizons

Every now and then it's good to try something new. A while ago, I volunteered to be part of an art "experience". I wasn't quite sure what it would be but I'd done other stuff - writers sports, poem writing at exhibitions, performance writing. This was a bit different. Power to the People is part of the Melbourne Arts Festival and "presents works from over 15 Australian and international artists who have revisited, revised and revitalized these art-making strategies. Works shown by artists including Dora Garcia, Fiona Macdonald, Jonathan Monk and Mario Garcia Torres, demonstrate a move away from the art ‘object’, into more performative, documentative, research and participatory modes of art making."
This is another work in the exhibition. People can try on the animal costumes if they want. Most didn't. But one big group of Asian students had a wonderful time. Nothing quite like a penguin wearing a gorilla's head!
Basically I, and about 20-30 others (we work in shifts), am part of the Dora Garcia artwork (installation?). While people visit the exhibition, we sit at the table with the laptop and write about what we observe - and we are observing the people. The idea is that whatever we write appears above us on the projected image, and that they should at some point realise that we are writing about them.
That's when it gets interesting ... or confronting. For both sides. As the writer, I am not allowed to use my point of view or say I or me. I can only be the "objective witness". As the words appearing on the wall above me are the only things that move in the room, most people notice and then realise what is going on. Then they watch you watching them and writing about them.

It takes the role of the lonely writer in the garret and blows it out of the water, although my understanding of the instructions we are given is that it's the audience who are important. The writer is just part of the installation. I did find it hard to keep a straight face some of the time. I am only doing two shifts - all I have time for - but next time I'm going to have a closer look at some of the other works so I can "interpret" some of the body language I'm seeing in response to what is around me!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"The Taste of River Water" by Cate Kennedy

In my poetry class, we often come back to the question of what we think a poem should or could do. There are lots of answers, but one of my favourites is that a poem can show you something that you thought you knew about in a different and/or surprising way. To me, this is what Cate's poems do. While some might say they are too "prosey" or dwell too much on the ordinary, this is what gives her images such power. She sets the scene and then stuns the reader with imagery that you can see and feel and, at times, smell and touch.

Many of her poems, in fact, feel like narratives. When did we last read good narrative poetry? Some of Les Murray's do this, but many other Australian poets focus more on lyrical imagery and small moments in a landscape. Behind Cate's poems sit whole histories and what we see are not just glimpses but the bones of the stories within. She allows the reader to fill in the gaps, which is also what I think good poems do.

Not all of the poems are like narratives. Any collection benefits from variety, but I think what also underpins this one is a real sense of place. Some of you would be familiar with her poem, "8x10 colour enlargements $16.50" which tells of a farmer's wife, a talented amateur photographer, who enters a competition. The reader is invited into the poem: "Let me lay it out for you". We are in the local town hall with the poet, observing, commenting on the winning photo: "a massive sunset shot, the colours juiced with Photoshop" and the farmer's wife who said so little about the injustice that the poet felt compelled to show us what happened.

The collection is book-ended by two poems about writing poetry, an interesting touch given that I've heard Cate talk about her short stories and how often she tries to begin and end a story with images that mirror or connect in some way. As I said, I think this is where the strength of the poems lies, in the way an image will reach out from the page and hit you, make you pay closer attention to what is being created for you. For example, in "Windburn" after a day at the beach:
this rim of salt on my forearm
like unnoticed, evaporated tears,
as if I've spent today silent, unconsolable,
weeping into the crook of my elbow

My favourite poem in the collection is "Temporality". We don't need to know exactly what building this is, just that it's one with a secret history that the average museum visitor might well miss unless they looked more closely and used their imagination. This history is of ordinary working men, and the details tell us much more than you expect:
This four-inch nail banged in beside them to hold invoices
that they always meant to replace with a decent hook or clip;
see how it's holding fast
long after they have gone,
see how they were wrong
about what was temporary.

I could go on about this book of poetry all day, but I won't. However, I will recommend it very highly as one you should add to your bookshelf.
By the way, The Taste of River Water recently won the Victorian Premier's Award for Poetry.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why Do We Need Libraries?

I love libraries. (This is my lovely new local library.) I have been using them more and more over the past few years, mainly for research but also so I can read a wider range of books (without having to buy them). This might seem penny-pinching. Yep, it is to start with. But if I do find an author's books that I really like, I will often go and buy one or two. However, there are often books that I give up on after 40-50 pages (sorry, Quentin Jardine) and know that I will never read further. Or buy any. The voice or the style or the kind of story it is just doesn't resonate with me. And public libraries allow me to seek out what does resonate. Every reader wants something different.

However, I'm one of the lucky ones. Not only do I have access to the internet, so I can research online, but I also have access to some university library databases. Now I can find a huge range of articles, ebooks, scanned books (I hope legally), reviews and summaries that might assist me in my quest for the perfect essay. :)

But a blog post by Seanen McGuire a few days ago here has kept me thinking about this topic. She says that 20% - 1 in 5 Americans - don't have any access to the internet. I'm going to quote from her blog post (I hope she doesn't mind!):
It is sometimes difficult for me to truly articulate my reaction to people saying that print is dead. I don't want to be labeled a luddite, or anti-ebook; I love my computer, I love my smartphone, and I love the fact that I have the internet in my pocket. The existence of ebooks means that people who can't store physical books can have more to read. It means that hard-to-find and out of print material is becoming accessible again. I means that people who have arthritis, or weak wrists, or other physical disabilities that make reading physical books difficult, can read again, without worrying about physical pain. I love that ebooks exist.

This doesn't change the part where, every time a discussion of ebooks turns, seemingly inevitably, to "Print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, all smart authors should be bailing to the brave new electronic frontier," what I hear, however unintentionally, is "Poor people don't deserve to read."
In the media, I see a lot of stuff about the gap that is growing between the richest and the poorest, not just in the US but in Australia and other countries. Our (un)esteemed current premier politician in Victoria, Ted Ballieu, tried very early on in his election campaign, to present himself as someone who understood the "battler" - which in itself is a term that has been so commandeered by politicians here as to become a joke. What did Ted try to do not so long ago here? Cut funding to public libraries. Thankfully the huge protests (unreported by the media, I might add) made him back down.

Those of us who are able to buy books (in any format) tend to forget how many other people not only don't or can't buy books, but don't and probably won't have access to the reading technology of the future because of cost. All of those ereaders that we debate over - and I am one of the debaters! - are meaningless to a huge proportion of our population who don't even have a computer at home. If you can't afford a $10 book, why on earth would you even consider a $150 Kindle or a $600+ iPad?

When I was a kid, I was 10 before I owned my first book (a gift). I relied on my school library and then later, the public library in town. Now I will spend money on books before I spend it on movies or DVDs or dinners out. That's my choice. There are a lot of families who need to spend money on rent and food before books even get considered. Kids need both public libraries and school libraries. They need books they can take home. Not computers in the library or classroom that tell them a few things while they have their turn.

Before we start debating the various experiences of a paper book versus an ebook, let's stop a moment and think about how a paper book gives simple and cheap (free via libraries) access to learning and reading experiences for millions of kids who aren't going to get it electronically. And let's support our school and public libraries. We can lobby our politicians at ALL levels (a lot of public library funding here comes via local councils), not just for public library support but for school library support.

There have been a lot of new school libraries built in Australia over the past 3 years, thanks to building funding, but too often there have been not nearly enough books to put in them. Call me a luddite, but I don't believe that replacing books with computers is a sensible move. But more than that, our schools need librarians to encourage and help kids to borrow books that excite and interest them, that give them the mind-expanding experiences that TV and computer games will never come close to. ALL of our kids should have access to books and libraries, not just the ones who can afford it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Me and the MFA - Part 4

I have a confession - I love writing essays. Who knew? Not me. Up until four months ago, I hadn't written an essay for 18 years, and then I had to write two for my application to Hamline. I had no idea whether what I wrote was OK - I just focused on what they asked for and had a go. I figured the essays couldn't have been too awful because they let me in!

While I was at the July residency, we had a session on essay writing. What is this MLA thing, I wondered? When I did my BA at Deakin, I studied a whole range of subjects, mostly literature and writing where I could find it, but also Philosophy and Australian History 1 (and although at the time I only found the history of Melbourne vaguely interesting, it came in handy when I started researching for the Our Australian Girl books). I still remember in Philosophy being told, "We don't care what you think. Do not use "I" in your essays." So to hear that your opinion was valued in an essay, as long as you based it on what you had discovered in your reading, was both exciting and scary.

MLA also requires a different kind of referencing. The last time I wrote an essay, we used Harvard and it was all books and articles. Now, of course, we have the internet and data bases of stuff, so it can get tricky. I tend to do bibliographies with a magnifying glass to get the punctuation and numbers right!

But mostly what I am enjoying is the reading. Literary theory seems so much more accessible when you read it with your own novel writing in mind. Suddenly it's no longer abstract - it has a meaning and a context. I like being able to write essays about topics that will teach me something, and that will make my own writing better (I hope!). At the moment I'm reading about voice and point of view in historical fiction, and also reading some novels to see how other writers do it.

It's like taking the whole "reading as a writer" to a different level. It's focused, and I write down gold nuggets of ideas, theory, practical application and inspiration every time I find one. What is also exciting for me is that the information and theory is actually giving me more ideas for my novel. At times, almost too many! I guess judging their worth and keeping or tossing these new ideas is going to be a big part of my writing for the next few months.

As for the "residency glow", no, it hasn't faded. I was worried that it would. That after a month or two, I'd forget all the inspiration and advice, the feeling of growth and purpose that I had while at Hamline in July, and perhaps lose interest. Instead, every time I sit down to study or write, it comes back and keeps me working and thinking. I especially enjoy finding things I can share with my classes. Last week I read half a page about voice from Janet Burroway's Imaginative Writing to my poetry class - it fitted perfectly with what we were discussing that week. Now if the other Burroway book would just arrive in the mail, I'd be set for my mid-semester reading!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Time Management, Goals and Writing

The other day, I spent a couple of hours with one of my classes talking about time management and goal setting. It's a class where they are learning about being a freelancer (either as a writer or editor or any other myriad ways of earning money when you have good skills). So we've covered small business, ABNs, tax, record keeping, networking ... a whole range of things they may well need once they get out into the real world. Mostly what I say to the writers is "Don't give up your day job".

Yes, I am a bit depressing, I guess. If you want to look at it that way. I like to think about it in terms of "the more you know and understand, the more likely you are to make wise decisions and create a foundation for adventure". And when it comes to goal setting, I'm an advocate, whole-heartedly. Why? Because I've been doing this for about 20 years. I started it back when I didn't even really understand what it was. When the workshop leader told us to write down things that we really wanted or dreamed about, that's what I did. I've done it each time the exercise came up in different opportunities.

I'm a hoarder. So over the years, every now and then I have discovered old goal setting notebooks and files that I've tucked away. And each time, I have been astonished at how many things I wrote down years ago, thinking they were impossible dreams, that have come to pass. I'm not talking magic here. I think the key has been that rather than write down one thing and decide it was impossible, I wrote down many things - most of which were connected. I can't remember when I first started writing down "Study MFA". At least ten years ago. Now I'm doing it. Who would've thought? Not me, back then.

But many of the other things I wrote down were like steps. Attend conferences, learn how to plot, write X and Y, send out manuscripts, get an agent, gather information... one way or another, they were all to do with writing and becoming more professional, and to do with learning. So as I stood in front of my class and took them through the goal setting exercise, I could see some skeptical faces. That's fine. I've done goal setting with other groups, so I'm used to it. Because I know that the only people it works for are the ones who commit.

Committing is an individual decision. I can't make anyone do that. I can only provide some tools. It's the same with time management. I've spent years trying to work this one out! I've read some great books, such as Eat That Frog by Brian Tracey. And done the Simpleology course. I've wrestled with procrastination and time wasting until I wanted to take a big stick and simply hit myself on the head with it. In the end, after all this, only two things work for me. A To Do list on which everything is prioritised (that I make myself stick to) and working in half hour focused bursts. Give me a whole day and I can waste it just like that! But those two tools are what work for me.

Maybe it's like giving up smoking or dieting - we all have to find what resonates, what works for us. There are dozens and dozens of books, courses, articles and gurus out there who will show you how to achieve your goals and manage your time. Sometimes you have to give some of them a try (hopefully without paying too much!) if only to realise what works for you. I sent my students off at the end of the class with one wish - that they will persevere and find what creates results for them.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Dying To Tell Me

Some books have longer or stranger journeys than others. When I do school visits, sometimes the kids ask me what happens to the books that don't get published, and usually I say, "They are the ones that need more work, so I put them away until I'm ready to rewrite."
But sometimes you have a manuscript that you just know in your gut is the one you wanted to write, and after a lot of revision, it feels right. And then what?

Dying to Tell Me is one of those books for me. I could have changed a lot of it to please people who didn't like some of the plot elements, but it felt "right" to me as it was. I just had to keep faith with it. And now it has found a wonderful home with Kane/Miller Publishers in the US. It came out on 1 September as a beautiful hardcover novel that I am totally happy with.

Here's the blurb: Sasha doesn't really mind moving. It's not like there was any reason to stay in her old life, after all the trouble. But Manna Creek is strange. And when after a pretty nasty fall, she starts hearing and seeing things that haven't happened yet, or happened a very long time ago, it gets even stranger. Maybe King, their new retired police dog, can help solve the mysteries. He thinks he can. He told Sasha he could. And she heard him ...

"A stronger-than-she-realizes heroine uses her disconcerting telepathic gifts to help others and heal herself in this satisfying adventure." - Kirkus Reviews

Thursday, September 01, 2011

How Do You Feel About Plot?

After a terrific session at the Writers' Festival on plotting in the crime novel (see previous post), I was a bit astonished to see a report of another session in which Kate Grenville apparently said plot is the last resort of the mediocre writer (and cited Stephen King's On Writing to back up this statement). How intriguing, I thought. My first thought was: surely Stephen King didn't actually say this. So I went looking along my shelves and found that what he did say was this -
Plot is, I think, the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.

He actually talks about stories in that chapter, and says he believes that they are like fossils that you dig carefully out of the ground with a variety of tools. He likened plot to a jackhammer. For someone who was criticised for many years as being a hack genre writer, he obviously doesn't equate genre with plotting. And yet this is the literary writer's first attack weapon - genre writers rely too much on plot.

It all seems to me like another writing furphy. Tack it up there along with "writing courses are a waste of time" and "the only decent poetry is rhyming poetry" and "literary novels don't have plots". Really, it's just opinion, isn't it? Everyone writes differently. Some writers, like Jeffrey Deaver, are known for creating 150 page outlines for their novels. Other writers, both genre and literary, start with an idea or situation and fly by the seat of their pants.

I guess I would just like people like Kate Grenville to acknowledge that their way is only one way. Theirs is an opinion, that's all. So having said that, what do you think about plot?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Plotting the Perfect Crime (Novel)

The Melbourne Writers' Festival is on right now, and I always try to go to at least a couple of sessions, mainly because it sends me home feeling re-inspired. Of course, it depends on who the speakers are, but I headed for the crime fiction session yesterday morning, with Michael Robotham and Tess Gerritsen. I've heard Michael talk before, and he's always good value, but I wondered what Tess would be like.

It was a great session, full of information, insights and laughs (yes, laughs, about things like dead people waking up in the morgue and fake Egyptian mummies - that's crime fiction readers and writers for you!). As the topic was plot, Michael talked about how much he hated plotting - he likes backstory and dialogue, but mostly he likes writing about his characters. Strong characters make strong plots, and he focuses on their motivations and who they are inside. He also said the most interesting crimes are the imperfect ones - there is more to write about.

Tess Gerritsen told the audience that she believes women read crime fiction because they identify with the victims in the stories - readers want to experience danger and feel vulnerable. I'm not sure I agree with that. I think I identify with the detective and want to see justice! She also talked about loving her characters and said she keeps writing about Rizzoli and Isles because she wants to find out what else is happening in their lives.

She doesn't outline, she just writes. The idea that will start a novel is one that feels like a "punch in the guts" - when she finds that idea, and often it's something in real life, she knows from that feeling that it will start a great novel. In every scene, she asks herself, "What is the worst that could happen now?" and then makes it happen. She does get what she calls "plot block" and then she goes for long drives until the solution comes to her. She said she is a plunger, not a planner, but everyone has to find the process that works for them.

They both said that they do plenty of research but only enough to get the details right. It can be a danger when the research takes over the project. Someone in the audience asked Tess about whether the publisher's deadlines affect her creativity, and she said that the creativity is always there for her, but it's the discipline that's lacking! Deadlines help the discipline.

I did also go to the session with Jane Smiley in conversation, but a lot of it was focused on her latest book rather than her writing processes. As I haven't read the book, my mind kept drifting off - to my own novel! I often wonder why the interviewer does this - don't they realise that if you haven't read the latest book, you're kind of left out of the conversation?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Season of School Visits

Around this time of year in Australia, school visits go berserk. It's because of Children's Book Week, which starts on Sunday. It's great that schools want to make a whole week of book activities and have authors in, but it does mean things get very hectic! I'm going to be travelling far and wide, from Kallista in the east (just on the other side of the Dandenong Ranges) to Simpson in the west, which is about 2-1/2 hours drive from Melbourne. But I do love small country schools and meeting kids who are (I guess) a lot like I was at that age, i.e. brought up on a farm.

It's easy for authors to assume that schools are used to author visits, but this is often not so. Some city schools have authors in on a regular basis, and know how to explain what they want - either a talk about writing and books, or a writing workshop. Many children's authors can offer a range of topics to talk about but the burning question is always - what does the school (and the teachers) think is valuable for their students?

I have one talk about how a book is published, with lots of rough drafts, typeset pages and galley proofs. Another talk is about research, using all my photos and collectibles that help me write. Another is about my writing life - a general talk that covers lots of stuff. Writing workshops can be a bit of a minefield. A school that wants an author to teach writing in order to assist with NAPLAN testing is a worry. I'd say most authors don't write anything like Naplan requires kids to write, which is why I think it's stupid, and a poor indication of writing ability.

I've recently discovered (thanks to a fellow Hamline student) some books by Katie Wood Ray, who has a wealth of experience in working with children and encouraging them to write. She has given me, in turn, a whole new way to approach writing in the classroom that is close to how I write myself. I know it works, so I feel confident in talking about these methods and passing them on to young writers.

But any room full of young people who've been told "You're going to do some writing" can be scary! Some will be keen, some will be so-so, some will think At least it's better than maths and some will believe that writing is the most boring thing in the whole world. When you come into a classroom "cold", knowing that this is who you will be working with, a good toolbox of writing ideas and strategies are worth their weight in gold! All the authors out there in the next few weeks - travel well and enjoy it!

Friday, August 05, 2011

Picture Books That Make Me Laugh

Years ago, when my daughter was little, I loved the Babette Cole picture books. The Trouble With Mum was a favourite. I also liked The Paperbag Princess, which was reprinted not so long ago. I guess my daughter liked them, too, but I think there's definitely a category of picture books that appeal more to parents than children. I'm not thinking nostalgia here, just stories that have elements that adults appreciate more.

But when I opened The Tiger-Skin Rug by Gerald Rose, I wasn't expecting anything out of the ordinary, and I'm still not sure if this wasn't just me. (Humour is so subjective.) But as I sat at the kitchen table reading this story, I literally laughed so much I had tears running down my face! The pictures help, too. It's designed to look a little old-fashioned, with the illustrations in yellow-framed boxes, and it has the feel of an old folk tale.

The story is basically about an old, skinny tiger that's fallen on hard times in the jungle. He watches the Rajah's palace and sees them all warm and eating lots of good food. Then one day a servant is outside beating rugs, including a tiger skin rug, and the tiger decides to hop on the line and pretend he's a rug in order to get inside. He does succeed, and the trials and tribulations of pretending to be a rug on the floor, especially when he gets fatter from eating leftovers, is hilarious. I have no idea why this picture book appeals to me so much! But it's on my Top Ten list now.

The opposite end of the picture book spectrum from a story is the concept. It can be tricky, depending on what your aim is, to stay away from preachiness. Malachy Doyle's book, The Happy Book, is very simple - less than 100 words. Each double-page spread has two alternatives, e.g. Snivel less. Snuggle more. Or Grab less. Give more! This one does edge into feeling a bit preachy, but it's for the very small, maybe two or three year olds, so no doubt would be a good book for talking about with them.

I was interested to see that Babette Cole has been writing and publishing short novels for children - the ones I have are from the Fetlocks Hall series. She's combined horses and magic - surefire ingredients for 7-10 year old girls. But I do miss her comical illustrations here!
(Books provided for review by Bloomsbury. Links are via Amazon associates.)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Why I'm Resisting the iPad et al

Every time I go away somewhere and have to lug along ten books, I think about buying a fancy e-reader. Every time I see a new one advertised, with all the features and extra toys, I think about buying one. Every time I go online to check out a book and see that it's cheaper as an ebook and I can have it straight away, I want an e-reader.

But I still haven't bought one. For a number of reasons.

1. They cost a lot. I was given a small cheap e-reader for Christmas last year and while it's kind of OK for epub books, it does mash them up a bit and I read really fast, so I got tired of pressing the page button. If I'm going to get one, it has to have a big screen (10 inch) and it has to show books in proper pages. So I am having a lot of trouble justifying $500-600 just to read books that I can hold in my hand for no extra cost.

2. They have batteries (don't laugh). So they have to be plugged in a lot to recharge. I have enough trouble remembering to recharge my phone. I read enough stuff to know I'd have to recharge an e-reader at least every second day, and I'm not sure I could be bothered right now. And if I was reading something really good and the reader died? It might end up across the room, looking worse for wear.

3. I don't mind reading ebooks but I prefer print. I spend a lot of time on my computer and reading books on screen doesn't tempt me enough. For writers like me, I think there's also a psychological aspect to do with revision. I don't like revising on screen - I have to print things out and scribble all over them and cross stuff out. So reading on screen somehow feels like it might make revision harder for me. Weird, maybe, but we all have our own processes.

4. Obsolescence annoys me, and I suspect where e-readers are concerned, we're going to see more big changes in the technology. I want to wait for an e-reader that really suits me, that I know I'll be able to use for the next 5 or 10 years. But see, right now, I don't know what will suit me. Do I want a camera? I would have said no, but now I Skype a lot. Could I type on something like an iPad? Do I want to? Will anyone ever produce the perfect e-reader for me? Probably not. Actually, I think I'm suffering from product overload - too many choices so I don't want anything (look it up - it's a common consumer problem these days!).

OK, the bottom line is if I could rent or borrow one for a month or three, I'd know. I think. But there's something about being able to shove that paperback in my bag and read it anytime I want without having to turn it on that I love. And there's still that $500 price tag...
(If you want to compare every single e-reader - and get totally confused - take a look at this Wikipedia page.) And the one top left is a Nook Colour, which we can't get in Australia anyway.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Me and the MFA - Part 3

For this post, I was going to put up good quotes but how could I not include photos?
This is the wonderful Jane Resh Thomas lecturing about psychic distance in POV. I was lucky to have Jane as one of my workshop leaders, and this topic came up several times.
Jane had a great analogy about going to a play and only seeing what happens on stage by the stage manager reporting via a hole in the curtain. It really brought the whole "too distant from the narrator" problem home to me.

How could you not love your fellow students when they attempt to play Chopsticks with boomwhackers? (Said instruments look like pool toys but play sounds when you whack someone or yourself with them.)
This is some of my class at the Kerlan collection at the University of Minnesota. We were able to look at original picture book art as well as early versions and editors notes (and revisions) on a range of manuscripts, all kept in the archives.

Some favourite quotes from the residency:
* Where can you put your finger on a line and say this is the heart of your story?
* What will your character win by losing? Or lose by winning?
* Beware of letting your characters cry all the time - it loses impact. Crying carries a lot of weight.
* The past and present of a character must be equal adversaries.
* Where is the hot spot in the story for your character? Where will their emotions be at the front and centre of everything?
I had to include this. Our Australian Girl is focused entirely on telling great historical stories, whereas the American Girl franchise began with the dolls and is the core of the thing. I visited the AG store at Mall of America, and found a salon for dolls. You could book your AG doll in for a "tidy up" which includes hair styling, in little doll-sized salon chairs.
This guy very kindly said I could take a photo. It took me a little while to regain my cool, calm and collected exterior... It was a bit sad, though, that out of the whole two-level store, the books were just all in one small corner.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Problems with the Hole Borders Leaves

While I was in the US, a lot of keen book readers were sad that Borders seemed to be finally going right under (although there was news of a last minute buy-out of some stores by Books-a-Million today). In Australia they have completely gone. I've seen several posts by indie bookstore owners responding to Borders' demise, and it's been interesting, to say the least. While we would expect indies to be rejoicing, this hasn't been the case. Responses have been mixed, which set me to thinking.

The first feedback I had on this was from someone who works in my local indie bookshop. Our nearest Borders was at Highpoint Shopping Centre and, while there are a couple of Dymocks around, Borders had quickly become a place where you could get just about any book. For a while. I would pop in for a look and come away with more than one book. Then their stock seemed to change, focusing on recent releases and popular fiction (dozens of vampire novels, for a start), and other sections started to shrink. The gimmicky stationery and gift section expanded instead. I thought it was just me, but others said the same thing. I stopped going there, or I'd visit and come home with nothing!!

A lot of comments I've seen in the past few weeks have said Borders lost their way. I'd agree with that. Book buyers love finding new authors, trying out new books, discovering new writers to be passionate about. You don't get that in BigW or any store that just provides bestsellers. And when Borders reduced their range to books you can get anywhere, they reduced their appeal.

So when my local Borders closed, I thought the indie would receive a huge increase in sales. They haven't, at least not noticeably. What has happened is that people now want them to stock the mass market/move tie-in books that previously they haven't bothered with. They know their regular customers and what they want, and the mass market stuff isn't it. They have a small, cosy store with limited shelf space, and they don't want to fill it with the same books you can buy at Target or BigW. But they don't want to lose potential new customers either. It's a dilemma.

The other problem in my area (and one I perceived in St Paul where I have just been) is that when you have a big store like Borders open, two things happen. One is that competing stores, both chain and indie, have a hard time surviving. A lot of them disappear, leaving just Borders as the "king". The second is that people who might not buy a lot of books, but who like this big shop that stocks such a variety (and offers discount coupons etc) find themselves visiting and buying. It's convenient and fun.

When Borders closes, this has a double impact. Borders has killed off other bookshops in the area, so they leave an unfillable vacuum. Who, in this economic climate, is going to open a new bookshop? Following on from that, all those people who got used to buying books because it was handy and inviting now have nowhere to go. They are unlikely to travel to another suburb just for books. They will go online, if they go anywhere at all. They might not bother. They might go to KMart instead and buy a video.

By the way, on my way back to Australia this week, I did a quick scan of my fellow plane passengers as I wandered down the aisle. My estimate was one adult in four was reading a book on either an iPad or a Kindle (or similar device). One in six was reading a paper book. The rest were sleeping or watching the movie. And for the record, I managed to fit 17 books into my luggage that I'd bought while away, but to have them all on an ereader would have been nice (although I have built up some handy muscle strength instead!).

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hamline MFAC Count

9 rabbits, 7 squirrels.
74 writers.
74,692 words (I'm guessing).
20 workshops.
1 bookshop visit (so far).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Me and the MFA - Part 2

I’m here. At Hamline. An MFA student, carrying my bag of books and my (very busy) schedule around with me. Scurrying off to the library, taking a million notes in every lecture, meeting and talking with someone new every day. I’ve been here 3 days and it feels like two weeks already. They call this an “immersion” program and they’re right. I’m so fully immersed that I can hardly imagine the world back home!

Mind you, I nearly didn’t get here, no thanks to Virgin Australia airlines. Their staff’s behaviour at Melbourne airport was so unbelievable that even now I can hardly credit their “so sad, too bad” attitude.

Imagine setting off on one of the most important things in your life, knowing how vital it is to be there on time and not miss the first day, where so many crucial things occur. And then to be told you’ve been taken off your connecting flight (with no consultation) and you should just “go home and come back tomorrow”. No attempt to help you get on another flight or advise you what else you can do. Thank goodness for my terrific travel agent who rebooked me so I arrived only 6 hours late.

Virgin, I hope you feel my wrath through the airspace. Won’t forget, doubt I will forgive.

But I digress. Once here, I was able to finally relax. The first day was the all-important orientation, first introductory session, library session, Q&A – all that stuff that totally sets you up with everything for the course. Without it, I’d be floundering and way behind on everything.

I’m excited about the resources that Hamline offers online. The library class showed me all the books, but since I’ll be 12,000km away, it also showed me how to use the databases and online resources. On Day 2, when we had a session on how to write a critical essay, I could see how vital that online library will be for me.

I’m excited about the workshopping! Over the years, the workshops I’ve been in, both as a teacher and a writer, have often focused more on nitpicking the piece of writing, paragraph by paragraph. Here, the emphasis is on discussing the core elements of character and plot and voice, examining structure and creating an in-depth conversation about what questions the piece answers and what questions it raises. It’s a different approach and one I am already enjoying. No need to copy-edit (and how I hate having to do that and point out errors, simply because it sucks up so much time).

Of course, I’m nervous about my turn (in two days time) but I’m also looking forward to it.

This residency, the focus is on plot, so we’ve had two lectures on this already. The one yesterday brought in elements of structure, but in a more defined way, and plenty of new ideas that I will think about later (there will be many things for me to ponder later as all this new knowledge sinks in). Today’s lecture was on plot in picture books and for the first time, I understood how plot can work beyond the problem-based story. Sure, those other kinds of plots are harder to write, but when you get them right, they still work.

I’m excited to be among such a great bunch of writers. This is the thing about courses like this – for a period of time, you are among those who understand what it is that you are trying to do. We’re all here, on the same track, working hard to increase our skills and write something amazing. Everyone here shares. Everyone (even, or especially, the faculty) knows how hard this is, but also how worthwhile it is, and how much it means.

As one of the faculty said on the first day: “We are all in the same place when we start a new story, not knowing if it will work, or how to make this one work.”

As always, I’m on squirrel watch. (I take photos of squirrels everywhere I go!) So far, the count is 3 squirrels and 4 rabbits. I haven’t been fast enough to get a squirrel photo yet, but I will!

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Do You Think Before You Comment?

One of the things I love as a writer about the internet is the instant accessibility to information - of all sorts. Once upon a time Wikipedia was scorned by all and now it's seen more and more as a first port of call when you want to know something (although still banned as a source for academic research because it can be unreliable). I can look up the meaning of a word, reviews of a new book, comments by the author about their new book, subscribe to free newsletters of interest, get industry information, find out if a publisher is accepting submissions right now ... the list goes on. And it's great.

The internet is seen as the last bastion of freedom of speech. You can say (almost) anything and have your opinions read far and wide. I say almost because thankfully there are laws against some things still. But for writers, those of us adept at the written word, the internet is a treasure chest. Writers' forums abound, writers' groups on Google and Yahoo flourish, and any time someone says something interesting, writers tweet it around the world so we can all have an opinion. We can all comment.

Which is turning out to be not such a good thing. In fact, it's turning into a new form of censorship. Writers who formerly wrote great blog posts about issues and experiences are finding how simple it has become for others out there to harass and pillory them, simply for expressing a view (but obviously a view that some others vehemently disagree with). These writers are starting to wonder if they even want to keep blogging. After all, why put yourself up for hate comments, simply for saying what you think? YA writer, Natalie Whipple, has blogged about something that is becoming a growing problem. Censorship by harassment.

Recently, a writer for the NY Times wrote a piece about darkness in YA fiction. This is not a new topic. People have been writing opinion pieces about this forever. John Marsden can testify to that! But suddenly everyone wanted to have a say about this article. Fine. No problem. Except some people got pretty vicious. And it's happening now on a regular basis, in many different areas. The end effect? Writers are starting to wonder if it's worth putting your words out there, if what you get back, instead of discussion, is hate.

If you think I'm over-reacting, try looking in the comments section of any online newspaper. Recently a book about Muslim women was published in our area. I know two of the women involved (two great writers) and the book looks terrific. The article in the Herald Sun newspaper chose to focus on Pauline Hanson instead of the book itself and what it was about - not surprising, given the HS take on things. But I think what astonished me, and many people I spoke to, was the Comments section. I'm singling this out because I'm interested, but when I've looked at other Comments following newspaper articles, I've seen the same thing.

A great big bunch of people who think commenting means saying some really ugly things. Usually anonymously. Or putting up that they're "Bob from Melbourne". Yeah, right. Newspapers argue that they need to allow commenters to post anonymously or with fake names to stimulate or encourage debate. Someone needs to remind them what debate actually means.

Yes, the internet is fantastic. But like anything, it has a dark side. I believe that if you want to enter the debate, if you really want people to listen, you say who you are. And you don't use the comment section to vent hatred in a personal way. What do you think?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

What Do You Think is Funny?

In our course we have a subject on writing comedy. Although many of our students never study this, saying that they are not funny enough, others give it a go, just to see what they learn. One of the writing how-to guides that I recommend is The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus, because I have used it myself with some of my children's story ideas. There are most definitely tools that we can use to develop a story idea into something funny. But ultimately, I always come back to thinking about that question - what is funny, and why do we differ so much in our answers?

Years ago, I attended a screenwriting conference on sitcoms, and the first question in the very first session was "What is your favourite sitcom?" Of course, everyone had a different answer. Mine was "Cheers". But other people loved "Fawlty Towers". Some loved "Friends". Now I'm sure some would answer "Two and a Half Men" or "The Office". Comedy also shows up great divides, in that those who love one show will loudly scoff at others who love another!

A writer friend of mine attended all three Robert McKee seminars last weekend (I'll post soon on the one I went to), including the comedy day. She told me McKee had said that a comedy writer is someone who hates the world, and writes from that perspective. While you might disagree, I thought about some of the comedy writers I have known, but more than that, a lot of the comedy that I have seen and heard. And I think I agree, for the most part. Not necessarily that a comedy writer hates the world, but that perhaps he or she has a more cynical or pessimistic view than the rest of us, and uses that as a basis.

Because, let's face it, a lot of comedy these days is pretty cruel. In our newspaper, The Age, there was a piece last week about an Australian comedian who is currently popular in the US, but most of his comedy routine is based on being sarcastic/nasty/horribly funny (you choose) about a company in Adelaide that he used to work for. Obviously, his time at this place was not good for him, and he's now paying them back big-time for it. And everyone is falling about laughing at his routine. Although the comments section on the article suggest about 50% of people are not.

And I thought - huh? It's meant this company has suffered quite a lot of backlash, the owner has received hate mail, and so far has been unable to defend himself. Maybe he deserved it - I'm not going to get into that argument! But I'm still wondering what really is funny about this? And when is the comedian going to move on? Or maybe he can't move on? So what is that saying about him?

I think there is a lot of very funny comedy around - I've seen and heard stuff that I thought was hilarious, while understanding that not everyone would agree with me. That's the nature of comedy, as I said earlier. But I'm starting to wonder about "funny" stuff that is basically an excuse for an attack on someone as a way of getting back at them. And then I wonder about comedians whose routines are all about attacks on themselves. Before I get too darned serious altogether, I think I'll go and watch a re-run of "Cheers"!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Me and the MFA

Have you ever had something you dreamed about for years, something that you secretly pined for every time you saw an article about it, or perhaps an advertisement? Usually these are things that are more than just another purchase like a big TV – they’re something that calls to you, that you know will expand your imagination, your world and your ability to create.

For me, it’s been an MFA. A Master of Fine Arts degree.

With this has always come huge obstacles. I live in Australia and MFAs are only offered at universities in the USA. They cost a lot of money, more than a Masters degree in Australia, plus I’d have to pay air fares on top of that.

When I first starting thinking seriously about studying again, I looked at the alternatives. Back then, you had to live in the US for two years while you studied, and I couldn’t see how that would be possible. But no university in Australia seemed to be offering a Masters the way I wanted to study it – as a writer, not as an academic who is also writing a novel. And by the time I started getting really serious about this dream, two more things became part of the decision-making.

One was that my writing career had moved very decidedly into writing for children and young adults, and there was very definitely nowhere in Australia where I could pursue this speciality. The other was that many universities in the US had begun to offer low-residency MFAs. Rather than have to live there for two years, I could go for 12 day residencies and do the rest of my study online. More air fares but a lot less in living expenses!

Over the past three years, I’ve felt myself creeping slowly towards the real possibility that I could do an MFA. The final stage was attending the Association of Writing Programs conference in Denver in April 2010. There I was able to talk to faculty at three of the five universities offering a low-residency MFA in writing for children and young adults, and make a decision.

So – in two weeks I am off to Hamline University in Minneapolis-Saint Paul to begin my studies! One of the attractions of Hamline is that I can begin with a one-semester block and if, for some reason (like finances), I can’t continue, that’s OK with them. Another was the friendliness of their faculty member I spoke to, and the great answers she gave me to all my questions.

Some of you who know me will probably be asking – why on earth do I want to study writing when I have been teaching writing for twenty years and have 45 books published? Because I firmly believe that there is always more to learn about writing, and that I still have plenty of room to improve! I’ve felt as though I’ve been on a bit of a writing plateau for the past few years, and I want to get off it.

I’ve found in the past that intensive study always lifts me into new ideas and new ways of writing. The summer school I attended at CSU Fresno in 2002, for example, led me into writing verse novels.

So along the way, as part of this experience, I want to write about and reflect on what I’m learning, and I’m going to post some of those reflections here. I hope you’ll come along for the voyage with me.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

How Has Your Bookbuying Changed?

The discussions lately in Australia have not been so much about ebooks, but about how online bookbuying is killing bricks-and-mortar bookstores. Readings has launched into offering their own ebook option for buying. Amazon has been offering Kindle ebooks here for a while (depending on what territory rights have been sold). But the big panic now seems to be about how many people are buying physical books online. Borders and A&R have now gone into full receivership and it looks like all Borders stores and many A&Rs will close. Is online buying the problem?

I had a think about what I buy these days. I am buying less in the bookstore, for sure. Why? Because I have less money! Like many people in the past couple of years, what they call "discretionary spending" (stuff that is not rent or food) has shrunk for me and my husband. Not just because of the GEC but for other reasons, too. Such as my royalties shrinking (I guess that's GEC-related...) and the fact we have less income for other reasons. So I'm using my public library a lot more. Thank goodness for libraries! But I do love my local indie, the Sun Bookshop, and try to support other indies as well.

But when I looked at my online bookbuying pre-2010, not much has changed. What I buy online are mostly the kinds of books I can't get in bookstores here. Here is a list of what I tend to buy, and why:

* Writing books (like Plot vs Character that I bought recently after hearing about it from a friend) - for a while, Borders stocked a lot of these and then stopped.
* Poetry books (most bookstores here, even Borders at its best, had virtually no poetry I was interested in; Collected Works usually would have to order in, but they are the best).
* Old children's classics that I need for study.
* New children's and YA books that I know either won't be published here or will arrive here in about a year's time.
* New Zealand titles - Australian booksellers are terrible at stocking NZ books!

If I want a crime novel - my favourite recreational reading - I'll buy the ones I want to keep from bookstores and borrow the others from the library. The library is also great for trying out new authors. Who knew JD Robb's crime novels were set in 2060? Not me until I picked one off the library shelf. That's how I also discovered PJ Tracy.

But most of my online bookbuying is of books I can't easily buy in a bookstore here (if at all). They're overseas titles, or out of print. These purchases aren't taking anything away from my local booksellers. Yes, I do use a lot of the time, for the same reason. Australian online booksellers often don't have what I want, either. I go where I can get what I want, quickly, at a reasonable price.

Actually, my current gripe with Australian online booksellers is their freight costs for overseas customers. I've given up recommending any of them (Fishpond, Boomerang, Nile) to friends and interested readers in the USA and UK for Australian books, because they all charge between $20 and $30 postage! Our books are already more expensive than overseas. So a copy of Meet Rose (one of my titles from Our Australian Girl - Penguin) would cost my US friend $48! Can you blame me for buying a copy down the street and posting it to her for $3?

So how has your bookbuying changed? Are you into ebooks yet? Are you buying from overseas sellers, or sticking close to home?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Geoff Goodfellow - Waltzing with Jack Dancer

If you've ever heard Geoff Goodfellow read his poetry, or indeed if you've read any of his books, you know his style - straight, uncompromising, accessible, real. Waltzing With Jack Dancer takes Geoff's work a step further forward, I think. I sat down with it the other day, intending to read a few poems and come back to it later, and ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting.

For many people, cancer is a confronting experience, whether you have it yourself or someone close to you does. It's like the elephant in the room - do you talk about it, or do you pretend it's not happening and put on a cheery face? I could say this is a confronting book, simply because it's about Geoff's cancer (throat) and his road through operations, chemo and radiation therapy, but there's something about it - probably Geoff's gritty, straight take on things - that makes it engaging and enlightening. And not at all sentimental.

As well as the terrific poems (it's a verse novel), there is a strong, moving piece by his daughter, Grace, in the last section. This is Geoff's cancer and treatment from the point of view of close family, and it's equally honest. Randy Larcombe's photos add an often startling visual aspect to the story. Geoff was kind enough to answer some questions for me via email.

Did you start writing the poems for this book when you were diagnosed? Or are they more about remembering and reflecting?

I didn’t start writing the poems when I was first diagnosed, I was too shell-shocked. When I appeared in an operating theatre for a biopsy several weeks later, my surgeon told me he was aware that I was a poet. He recommended that I should be writing about my experience, particularly in respect to the mis-diagnosis and poor treatment that I had encountered to that point. That set me thinking, but it was some weeks later, lying in bed at home recovering from the major neck dissection, that I began to write.

How hard was it to write without being melodramatic or distancing yourself? (I know this is not your style anyway, but this could have been different!)

I like to give a lot of thought to the topic I’m intending to write about before I put a sheet of paper in front of me. I don’t want to be melodramatic – rather, I want to be honest, create some imagery and tell a good story.

The book feels like a verse novel - it tells a story. Were you conscious of that?

Initially I thought I was going to write a novel about my experiences. I lay in bed for some weeks thinking about how I was going to record my story and I was convinced that I should write it as a prose memoir. However, on 3rd May 2008 when I felt ready to write, the words came out as poetry and I knew that I had to follow that path. My first poem was ‘The Seventh Doctor’ and that set the pattern for another book of poetry. I was conscious of the fact that I wanted to structure the book as a verse novel and tell my story in a chronological form. The poems weren’t written in the order of the book but were written randomly and were arranged by my editor.

I love 'The Seventh Doctor' - it feels like an expose of the public health system! Although it's clear how you felt when it was happening, the poem doesn't feel raw and spitting - it's a very crafted piece. Can you describe the writing of this one?

The first draft of ‘The Seventh Doctor’ was written over a five hour block; from 6pm through to 1am, as I lay in bed. I’d given my daughter strict instructions that I wasn’t going to be taking any phone calls or accepting visitors that night. I’d been structuring the poem in my head all day and had the rhythm of the poem ready to go onto the page. The poem then went through a couple of typed drafts before I met with my editor, Graham Rowlands. (We have worked together for my twenty-five year career and I trust his judgement.) We sat around on his back lawn in the winter sun one afternoon and discussed the poem and I went away and re-worked some parts of the poem. They were small but significant changes. I kept playing with the poem too, for another year, making subtle changes, and after six drafts I knew I’d exhausted possibilities for myself.

Who is the book for? (apart from yourself and Grace) What do you think readers will get from it? Have you had any reactions from those who read the manuscript?

I conceived the book as an aid for anyone wanting to understand what it might be like to receive a diagnosis of cancer. But it’s also for their family members and their friends. People are terrified of cancer, and rightly so. Most cancer patients are socially isolated because people avoid them because they don’t know what to say to them - or they are worried that they will be too confronted by what they see. A lot of people are unfortunately going to get cancer and this book can provide them with a preview of what might be expected. And knowledge is power.

What do you think the photos add?

The photos provide a great visual insight into the treatment and portray me in a vulnerable state in a way in which words might not quite have succeeded. They are revealing photos to accompany revealing poems and prose.

Whose idea was it to include Grace's story? What do you think it adds to the book?

Grace’s story ‘The C Word’ was given to me on Christmas morning 2010 as my present. After opening the story I sat at the kitchen table and wept as I read her account. I had to read her story in bits and pieces throughout the day…and by the time I‘d finished reading it I felt convinced it should accompany my poems and be part of the collection. Once Michael Bollen had read the story, he too believed it should book-end the poetry. Grace’s story adds a great cross-generational emphasis and as my books often appear in classrooms as class sets for senior students, it provides a model for young and aspiring writers to trade off their own experiences and to lay words on the page using innovative formats.

How is your voice now? Performance is such a big part of your poetry - have you changed the way you read?

I’ve had a prosthesis installed, a synthetic voice box, which has been tuned to suit my original voice tone. If I speak in a ‘normal conversational tone’ most people wouldn’t notice my voice to be appreciably different. However, if I try to raise my voice from say a ‘Three’ to an ‘Eight’ my voice will be quite crackly and full of static! My new work is quieter…I’ve structured it that way. But the poems are perhaps even more powerful than the voice of the Geoff Goodfellow from the mid-80s…it’s just that the power is like the new Geoff… it’s more controlled.

Back to me: Waltzing with Jack Dancer is available, of course, at all good bookshops. But there are 200 limited edition hardback copies available through the Wakefield Press site - the site also has an extract of the book and footage from the book launch.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Writing Competitions - Yay or Nay?

At the moment there are several short story competitions being promoted, with large prize money on offer. One of these is run by Australian Book Review - the Elizabeth Jolley Prize which is worth $5000. When you look at the shortlist from last year, you may well wonder if it was worth entering. After all you'd be up against the likes of Cate Kennedy! But the site gives you the opportunity to read last year's stories on the shortlist and there was a Readers' vote award, too. But the thing that will make many newer writers pause is the entry fee - $16. If you're up against such stiff competition, is it worth the money to enter?

It's a good question. In fact, it's a good question to ask about any competition that requires an entry fee. How big is the competition? Is the fee too much? $16 is a lot to many writers, especially students or those on low incomes. The long-running Alan Marshall Short Story Award (closed two weeks ago) had an entry fee of $15. However, many of the smaller competitions have smaller entry fees. Try this site to have a look at what is open at the moment. For example, the Katherine Susanna Pritchard which is for speculative fiction (short stories) has an entry fee of $7 and a first prize of $600. Is it starting to sound a bit like a lottery?

What are the advantages of entering a competition, whether it's fiction or poetry?
* It gives you a deadline to get something written, revised and sent off.
* If the competition has a specific theme, it can provide a good challenge.
* Hey, you might win or get a placing!
* Sometimes a number of the best entries are published in a book (but not often).
* Judges are subjective, even if they deny it. Your story may strike a chord with the judge (but it still needs to be well-written). To me, this is the lottery part of it. You just never know.

What are the downsides?
* It usually costs money to enter (The Age Short Story Award is one of the few that doesn't charge a fee - maybe that's why they get about 1400 entries!).
* The bigger competitions are the ones that the more experienced writers enter so you're up against them.
* Unlike magazines that send you a rejection or acceptance note, you rarely hear from competition organisers unless you have won. It can feel like sending your work off into the never-never.

How do you decide what to do?
If you are a newer writer, start with the smaller competitions. Check the entry conditions very carefully. Not obeying the rules, even if they seem silly or pedantic, can lead to your entry being discarded. Choose a competition that sounds good to you - one where the entry fee is smaller but the prizes are still worthwhile. (Avoid a competition with a $10 fee, for example, and a $200 first prize.) Write something for your entry, give yourself plenty of time to revise and polish it up, and send it off. Keep doing this. And when you don't win (which is likely - it is a lottery!) then polish it again and send it off to a magazine instead.
Or save it for the Age competition!