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.