Sunday, January 30, 2011

When the Bestseller Eclipses Your Other Books

Today I finished reading Lionel Shriver's novel, So Much for That. I had wanted to read it for a while, simply because I loved We Need to Talk About Kevin (which is about a fictional school massacre, told by the killer's mother in letters). The thing was, I'd read several reviews of So Much For That, and all of them had been quite lukewarm. It's the kind of thing that puts you off buying a book, sadly, and so I got my copy from the library.

So Much for That Of course, it's not the same story. Kevin is an amazing novel that had me engaged and stunned (in equal parts) from the beginning, not just for the subject matter but also for the insights, the style, the depth and its ability to really, confrontingly, make you think about what it means to be a parent. It was a book that stayed with me long after. But So Much For That has the same depth, the same lingering after-effects. It deals with, among other things, what it's like for a family with a member dying horribly of cancer, and the cost of the US health system and the farce of their health insurance system.

The characters are very real, with many flaws, but never unlikeable. No, this book didn't have the same impact on me that Kevin did, but I still thought it was terrific, and didn't deserve the lukewarm reviews. Is this the legacy of a bestseller?

I thought about different bestsellers that I'd read - Cold Mountain, The Shipping News, Snow Falling on Cedars, The God of Small Things - and what having a major bestseller means to the author's other books. Even if they've sold well before, or there had been other good ones since, somehow they all pale against The Big One. I've read lots of author interviews and what comes through a lot of the time is a weary impatience that this should be so.

It must feel like having several children you love equally but all anyone ever asks you about is the one who won an Olympic gold medal! And if that major bestseller is your first novel, how pressured an author must feel to 'do it again', knowing that it's probably not possible. Still, if nothing else, the bestseller usually sets you up for a great many years of writing without having to worry about how you'll pay the next power bill!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Writer's Nightmare - Hard Drive Failure

It's been an eventful week here in the computer room. It started on Wednesday with what we thought was a virus. Several long, extensive scans later, nothing major showed up. And then my computer stopped working. It wouldn't start up and kept looping but wouldn't go any further than the motherboard information screen. Without going into boring details, we tried everything but to no avail, so a computer expert was called in. I found a company on the net called Geeks2U who promised to send someone the next day.

The verdict was a corrupted hard drive. Which meant a lot of stuff was lost. Including all of my emails. The tech guy got a fair amount back (and we extracted a lot more later with a different program) but basically I was faced with the nightmare that all writers dread - loss of files. I had been using a back-up program but it was set to automatic and if the computer wasn't on at that scheduled time, it didn't happen.

I'm lucky - I had seen several friends lose their computers and everything on them over the past couple of years, so I'd become a bit anal about losing my own stuff - that led to the back-up program and a new external hard drive. I really only lost a few things I'd been working on this week and was able to get new copies without too much trouble (from the editors). But what I may still have lost is all of my emails. I've seen people discussing the email issue online before. For some reason, most email programs are notoriously hard to back up because of where the actual In and Out Boxes and folders are kept (nowhere logical to me).

A couple of people have said I should be using Gmail, where everything is kept on the server for you. But I don't like the Gmail interface (and I hate Outlook too). I'm confessing to being a dinosaur in this area because I still use Eudora! It's simple, it shows me everything I need in the places where I put them, and I'm used to it. Now I need to decide if I'll keep using it. Sigh... With two books with editors waiting for my revisions and a dozen other pressing jobs to do, spending hours sorting out my computer now (or a new one) seems way too hard.

But it's my workhorse, my connection to the cyberworld, a cheap, convenient and fast way to do all the things I need to be able to do as a writer, including blogs and websites. And when all is said and done, at least I've been able to retrieve most of my files, unlike many people in the floods who will have lost the lot.
So have you had a similar disaster? What do you do about backing up? And is anyone else going to admit they still use Eudora? :)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Back-to-work Blues for Writers - Solutions

Yesterday in "The Age" newspaper there was an article on all those people suffering back-to-work blues after being off over Christmas and New Year. It was interesting as the writer compared the "syndrome" with post-natal depression! And said that for some people, the normal feeling of being depressed about going back to work can slide into real depression and be dangerous. But the key thing, of course, is that the people who suffer the most are the ones that hate their jobs.

You would think this was a given - if you hate your job, then it's natural to feel depressed about going back to work after two or three weeks off. But most of the year, we understand that we need an income, we have to work, and we squash down all those feelings about our job because what's the point of moaning? The break, however, gives you time and headspace to realise how bad the job really is, and the thought of returning to it is even worse.

We're lucky in Australia that we have low unemployment at the moment, so if you really hate your job that much, it's a great time to look for a new (better) one. But for writers, there's more at stake - psychologically and logistically. (You knew this was going to be about writing sooner or later, didn't you?) These days, if you have a spouse who is willing to work and support you, and you're making some kind of income from your books, you get to stay home and write. And read. And think a lot. All of these are things that make you a writer, and help you be a better writer.

For those who have to work to pay the bills, I think one of the key problems is not whether you hate your job or not but how much it takes away from your writing. Obviously, it takes time away. 40 hours out of your week, more or less. Throw in sleeping (50-60 hours), eating and all that living stuff (12-20 hours), exercise (0-5 hours), there's not much time left for actual writing. Although there would be a heck of a lot more if you stopped watching TV!

So your holiday break could well have been days and days of slobbing around in your trackies and T-shirt, writing, reading, dreaming, thinking - feeling like a real writer for once! Suddenly, you have to be up early, dress nicely and be at work by a certain time. But more than that, for those 40 hours, your brain is going to be chock-full of work stuff. Paperwork, work emails, phone calls, people complaining, people wanting you to fix their problems, more paperwork ... No wonder some writers prefer to work on a building site or in a factory, where their brain isn't so overloaded with other people's words.

What to do about this? The first thing is probably to get a grip - the sooner you come to terms with the reality of this, the better off you'll be. Because then you will be able to look for ways to solve the problem. Here are some ideas:

* Get up half an hour earlier, don't talk to anyone, or turn on your computer. Read or write. You will be starting the day as a writer, and from there, it will all look much better.

* Take a proper lunch break (I need to work on this one). Get right away from your workplace. Find a quiet cafe or a park. Either write or read. Or edit something in your current project. Breathe. Daydream. Don't talk to anyone. Why would you want to? This is writing time, your time.

* Carve out one hour at night. If you have a family, tell them how much you need it and then make sure you get it. Start your hour with a few minutes of relaxation and breathing - don't just launch madly into trying to write. You've had a day full of eight hours of other people's stuff. Give yourself some time to let it all go. If you're having trouble, journal it away. Then write.

I think one of the things that can hurt us is putting too much pressure on ourselves. By maintaining the reading and thinking and dreaming, as well as the actual writing, you can hopefully keep your job where it belongs - in the job part of your brain, not the imagination and creating part. I'm sure you have other ideas on how to maintain your writer's life after you have to go back to work. Share them with us!

Friday, January 07, 2011

When a Story Just Won’t Gel

I’m sure it’s happened to everyone at some point – you have a great idea for a story or a novel, and you start work on it. The initial idea is great, you can see how it might pan out, you make notes, develop characters … then for whatever reason, it starts to die on you.

Sometimes it’s because you leave it for too long and the passion fades, or you forget what made you think it was so good, so original, so full of potential. Sometimes it’s because it stops working on the page. You write and write, and it all feels like rubbish, or a waste of time. Or the vision you had for the story has turned into cottonwool or mud.

You leave it for a while, and a while longer, and it becomes harder and harder to get back to. You procrastinate, tell yourself you’re giving it room to breathe, and if you just leave it a bit more, it’ll bloom without you realising. You’ll come back to the beautiful plant you always knew it could be. You hope.

Sometimes you avoid it, revisit it, try to prop it up or inject it with a new idea, and nothing works. What do you do then? Abandon it? Yes, that always has to be an option. Sad but true. Maybe you just left it for too long, or maybe you beat it to death with too many meaningless words and boring characters.

But sometimes, when you least expect it, the original magic returns. You pick up the notes and the draft (what you have of it) one day and sit down with a coffee and suddenly, there it is again! This is what has happened to me over the past two weeks or so. A novel I have been working at for eighteen months, one that I thought had died on me, despite various attempts to re-energise it … I’ve found it again. Whatever “it” is. The characters are talking again, the plot has launched itself into more enticing waters, and I feel excited about it all over again.

Thank goodness! I really didn’t want to let this one go, but I couldn’t see what it needed. I’m still not sure why it came to life again, but I strongly suspect it’s because I’m not teaching and I finally have some truly creative headspace back. Now to make the most of it.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

"Matterhorn" by Karl Marlantes

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War Towards the end of the year, when holidays loom and I'm looking for some good books to read, I look through various recommendations on websites and blogs (after discounting all those pontificators who try to tell us they're going to read Evelyn Waugh or Eudora Welty on the beach). This year, it seemed like half the blog world was recommending Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War.

I have a friend who has been writing for some years about the effects of the Vietnam War on the families of vets, so this caught my interest. What would it be like? Gory? Over-inflated? Movie-like? I started reading "Matterhorn" on 27th December. I got 40 pages into it and stopped. Did I really want to read this? Could I bear to? The reasons for my hesitation? Already by Page 40 I could tell this was not going to be an easy read. It would be heavy, long, gruesome and probably really depressing. I wasn't sure if I was ready (sometime you have to be "ready" for certain books). I decided to keep going, mainly because already I had such a strong sense of setting and character, and also a sense that I was about to be taken on an unforgettable journey.

I finished it today around 2pm. I had brushed away tears more than twice, but more than that, I had been angry, astounded, gutted, marveling, head-shaking and shaken. It's only 2nd January and already I think this is going to be my top book of 2011 (anything else will have to be absolutely amazing to go past this book). No, I didn't enjoy this much. It's not light and fluffy. It's eye-opening. It made me wonder how any vet who fought on the front line in Vietnam came back even moderately sane. And it left me feeling despair about the overwhelming futility of war.

What's it about? Basically it follows the story of Bravo Company, most specifically a Lieutenant Mellas (although other viewpoints weave in and out of the story) and a disastrous couple of months in the monsoon season, trying to fight the NVC along a range of mountains near the DMZ. The author, Karl Malantes, apparently was a highly-decorated Marine and fought in the war, and it shows in the level of detail but also in the way he depicts each and every Marine as human and real. Nothing is simple, least of all a war fought behind a sham wall of politics at all levels. Malantes focuses on the Marines in the jungle, the insane missions they are expected to carry out, and the officers safe in their little command posts who have no idea of either the terrain or the conditions.

Like the Marines in the story, I wanted to grab those officers and strangle them, and it made me wonder if troops feel the same way in every war (like Afghanistan and Iraq). It apparently took Malantes 30 years to write this book. It shows, in that you feel all the way through that this is the work of his whole heart and soul, let alone those 30 years of writing and revision.
Yes, not an easy read at all. Every night I kept having dreams about it! But if you're up to it, you'll probably be like me and want to recommend it to everyone you meet.