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?