Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Few Predictions for 2013

Now that the end of the world has passed us by (no doubt somewhere out in space a planet did disappear or implode or disintegrate, but it wasn't ours this time), my mind turns to 2013. At the moment I seem to be reading a lot of blog posts about "the next big thing", whether it be in writing, publishing, marketing or gizmos. So here are some predictions from me (who is NOT Nostradamus or even his second cousin's ex-sister-in-law-twice removed).

E-books - the current trends show the move to e-books and e-readers has slowed. I suspect those who were really interested have taken them up with great enthusiasm and are buying heaps of cheap books. One study said a huge percentage of people who bought or were given e-readers have stopped using them, if they even gave them a try. I think things have slowed down with people over 50. I also think anyone who uses computers all day in their job or at school is going to prefer real books. And anyone who loves picture books (of any age) will resist the move to apps. The big prediction "out there" is a huge move to doing things on mobile phones, but I doubt book reading is going to be one of them. Screens are too small.
 My current status - I have a tablet with quite a few books on it but mostly I am reading non-fiction that way. Fiction doesn't "feel right"!

Copyright - there are going to be a lot more copyright battles in the coming year. Recent reports on things like territory issues show the ground is shifting all the time, driven by e-books on Amazon (many self-published) that are available world-wide. Once upon a time we'd barely notice if a book was published in the US and it took 3 months to get to Australia, unless it was an instant best-seller.

Now, with the internet, we read reviews and hear about interesting books, and then discover we can't buy the book or e-book instantly (as we have become accustomed to!) because of copyright territory issues. E-books have, if nothing else, highlighted this. Big changes globally are coming. If you're not convinced, check out the "rules" for having a book published with one of the new e-book imprints like Momentum.
My current status - there have been a few times this year when a special deal on an e-book was available through a newsletter, but when I went to buy, I was informed it wasn't available to me in my country.  If enough people complain, publishers will soon make every contract for "global rights".

Non-fiction for children and YA - the curriculum changes in Australia and the US mean non-fiction is very much back in the classroom as a resource. But what and how? I've been to plenty of schools where their non-fiction section has either gone or been much-reduced, because they've decided to move non-fiction (i.e. research) to the internet. Any author who uses the net for research (as I do) knows that it's limited and time-consuming. There is so much out there, and so much of it is wrong or conflicting, that I inevitably go back to books.

I use the net as a starting point, and for things like old photos, records, newspapers and sometimes maps. But a good book, especially a large one (which non-fiction often is, in order to reproduce the illustrations and photos well) with a good index, where I can flick back and forth and scan text quickly for what I want, can't be beaten by a screen. So I think a lot of publishers are going to scramble to bring their best non-fiction back into print (updated) and produce new electronic resources. What I really worry about? That in the process they will take history back to the state it was in when I was at school - incredibly boring. I learned all of my history from novels!
My current status - I'm a fiction writer, but I've moved into historical fiction and love it. I'm currently researching for a World War I novel and the books I have found have been invaluable. But I'll be using the net more and more for the newspapers of the era.

Marketing of books - the tide has definitely turned here, towards the writer doing more and more. Not just because publishers have tightened their purse strings either. So many bookstores (including Borders) have gone that relying on traditional things like buying front-of-store space has become almost irrelevant. Readers are finding out about new books in other ways. Reviews in traditional media have shrunk. Bloggers and sites such as Goodreads are all part of the mix now, but the mix is so big, how does an author find their way through it?

We are told to use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, our websites - anything we can to get our name and books out there. Yet go to any writers' festival and the biggest complaint is about writers who are only there to plug their books and provide little else of value. Value is the keyword, apparently. I think writers are being expected to do too much now, with little idea of what works and how to manage it all. I suspect publishers will soon have people in their marketing departments who are there specifically to work with writers on all of this, rather than focusing on the traditional media publicity outlets. Somebody has to help writers get a grip on it all! (This is me being logical - maybe publishers will listen?)
My current status - I'll be writing full-time next year and plan to use some of my hours to tackle this stuff in a more organised way. But when I'm working (to pay bills) and can only write part-time, marketing sucks up an awful lot of writing hours. The book has to come first. Without the best book you can write, the marketing is pointless.

There are more predictions I could make but if nothing else, I think 2013 will see further upheaval and change. What are your predictions?

Friday, December 07, 2012

Staying Creative

Over the past four months I've been working on my critical thesis for my MFA in Writing for Children and YA (through Hamline University in Minnesota). In earlier semesters I was writing essays, but also doing a lot of creative work, so it balanced out. This semester, after two months, my adviser said, "When you send the next draft of the thesis, how about sending me some creative work, too?" It wasn't until I sat down and wrote some poems for my new verse novel that I realized what was happening - I felt freed up and joyful about writing again!

Don't get me wrong - researching for the thesis, thinking deeply about what I wanted and needed to say, roughing out ideas, diving even deeper into the topic - all of this has been terrific. Challenging, yes, but it's been immensely satisfying to be able to think about what a verse novel really is, and more importantly, what it can be. Other people's ideas and opinions feed into this, but ultimately it's up to me to work it out. However, actually writing poetry is a whole different thing. Like going from overhauling a car engine to actually driving it down a sunny country road at 100 miles an hour! (And I'm not going to count how many adverbs are in this paragraph.)

I've continued with the verse novel, but now the thesis is done, I'm working hard on revising a historical novel I've been writing for 18 months. It can take me 3 hours to rewrite about 8 pages, so this is a major revision, not tinkering around the edges, and it requires a lot of concentration and focus. On the other hand, at night, while my husband watches TV, I've been reading the last 38 issues of Poetrix, the poetry magazine that my writing group publishes. After 20 years, we are closing it down - it's a lot of work and we've decided it's time. But our last issue will be a double and will include our favorites from Issues 1-38.

What I have found is that reading through so many poems, night after night, is inspiring me to write single poems again. Not verse novel poems, where character and story and voice are also important, but poems that just arise from the ether, sparked by an image or a word or an idea. And I'm back driving down that country road again. It's reminded me that not everything has to be perfect, that to simply write for the joy of it, without expecting anything except fun (and often passion or those exciting sparks) is real freedom in writing, and to be savored and encouraged.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Interview with Kate Banks

Several years ago, I visited Menton, in France, and Kate Banks graciously agreed to meet with me and be interviewed. I had a lovely morning, talking to her and looking at all her beautiful picture books and novels, and went back to my hotel to transcribe and type everything up. Later, at home, I couldn't open the file and then my notebook disappeared! Now, thanks to a new recovery program I discovered, I've finally been able to resurrect the file. Very timely, as it turns out, because Kate's latest picture book, The Bear in the Book, has just been named in Publisher's Weekly's Best Picture Books for 2012. This is a long piece using her answers to my general questions (written into article format).

Kate Banks started her life in books when she spent three years working for Knopf as an assistant editor to Frances Foster, and had three books published by them. She then worked for National Geographic for a year in Washington, and continued writing, then got married and moved to Europe. When Foster moved to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Kate went with her and from then on all of her US books have been published by FSG. In France Kate’s publisher is Gallimard, who do a lot of her books in French (her picture books). Her first book with Gallimard was with Georg Hallenslaben – Baboon. They do most of their books with both publishers, but the French ones come out faster.

Kate writes for older children and teens, too, but feels she relates more to little kids around three to four years old – she loves the visuals of a picture book and it’s more fun to produce them and be part of the process. The challenge is to write spare text – the poetry in the text is important – she pays a lot of attention to choice of words, even in novels. She loves to read picture books aloud to kids, and always reads her own stories out loud to hear how they sound.

For children, their grasp of language comes as much from listening as from seeing words on the page – sound is important for communication. She believes that reading aloud in school is really important, and that it is not being done so much now is a big reason why kids are less literate.

When writing a story – she gets ideas as they occur – “fall from the sky” – she always stays aware of ideas, wherever they come up. Sometimes an idea might be kicked off by an event, or it could be a phrase or something a child does or says – she writes down the idea and then lets it gel for a while (she takes a notebook everywhere so she doesn’t lose those ideas). She always works on several things at once, then there is no fear that the one thing won’t work. She gives herself lots of room to think about the idea, then knows when it is ready to be written. She might do several drafts or more, but usually the first draft is to get the structure and form working, or to see if something is not working in the structure. Then she fills out the story and adds more to it. The first draft is getting it down.
Her novels take at least 4 drafts – again, she writes the bones in the first draft, then subsequent drafts are about filling it out and developing. The last draft is always copyediting and looking at every word and phrase to see if it can be made better.

For The Cat Who Walked Across France: initially she did hear of a story about a cat – not the specific story that she wrote – and since the book has been published she has heard other stories of cats who have walked a long way to get back to their original homes. The illustrator, Georg Hallensleben, was an artist she discovered in Rome. He is German and she asked him if he was interested in doing picture books. When she lived in Rome he would ride his bicycle across the city to her house to work every day, then he bought a van and outfitted it as a studio, so then he would drive to her house and set up downstairs in her garage. As he worked on illustrations, he’d bring them upstairs and they’d talk about them and then he’d go back down and revise or do more. This was how If The Moon Could Talk was created.

For the Cat book, he drove his van across France, following the path the cat takes in the story so that he could paint what the cat saw, in reality.
Kate collaborates a lot with her illustrators. Because she has worked in the industry, her editor trusts her to know the artist’s work and how to collaborate and get the best book. This also sometimes leads to her writing a story specifically for a particular illustrator.

Her themes are about connection – how people stay connected in life and death. She’s interested in writing about the human experience of the soul and the physical body, how to communicate that connection and understand humanity through stories with resolutions. Children today experience the media all the time where disaster and tragedy have no resolution; it’s just presented to them. She is opposed to irresponsible media that projects sensationalism – children don’t have the tools to deal with the constant bombardment. She feels her contribution is to write about these themes. Death is a part of life but in our society we don’t want to see this. She writes about death a lot but thinks this is because she lost both her parents as a child.

Kate speaks three languages – English, French, Italian – and says her spelling has got worse! She does think her vocabulary has changed since she has been living overseas, and she has more ease in working with words – she plays a lot more with words, but is able to do this because she has had a strong foundation in grammar and punctuation. You can’t use poetic licence unless you have that strong foundation.

With marketing, she has never done much but can see now that things have changed a lot and that publishers cannot do much for you. Being in Europe, she can’t do book tours or school visits in the US. She doesn’t like to think of books as products – her books are more literary, not mass market paperbacks, and picture books are expensive to buy. She has an agent now because contracts are getting more difficult – new clauses and things to negotiate.

My thanks to Kate for being so generous with her time, and her answers!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Making a writing space

I don't think I have ever had a real writing space. For years I wrote at the kitchen table, because it looked out on the back yard, the fence, the pond, and often birds would flit in and entertain me. That only worked as long as I had the house to myself, which is no longer the case. So I bought a new desk. But I put it in the only space there was - in the computer room. Waaaaay too close to the internet connection, and the desk slowly filled with papers and books until I couldn't work there either.

In the back yard we have what is laughingly called "the bungalow". It means an odd building that was once used as extra accommodation and now has no insulation, sagging ceilings and enough junk to stock a recycling store. Give me space and I will fill it, being a long-time hoarder. I can tell you that out there are multiple copies of every publication I've ever been involved in, at least four crates chock-full of class materials, all the books I can't throw away but there's no room in the house for them, and sundry items that need to find themselves a rubbish dump to jump into.

I've tried to write out there. It doesn't feel right. What has, surprisingly, felt very right and very workable for the past couple of years are cafes. I've been the Cafe Poet at Melissa's Cafe in Altona for 6 months, and I applied for this because, let's face it, I was writing there at least twice a week anyway! I have a couple of other cafes I like, too. Why? Somehow I can block out all the noise and just write. Well, to be honest, I am unable to block out screaming kids. But chatting coffee drinkers are a cinch.

Now I know it's time to make a real space in my house. Enough of the excuses about how long it would take me to clean out the back room (laughingly called my "office" - we do a lot of laughing about the junk I store everywhere, with gritted teeth). I have made a substantial start. The photo above? I wasn't going to include it, if only because when I started the clean-out, the room actually looked a lot worse! But I figured if I posted the photo here, it committed me to finishing the job.

It's been three days, two huge bags of rubbish, one huge bag of paper for recycling, two boxes of books to donate, and a lot of discoveries of strange, wonderful, long-forgotten items that have surfaced along the way. No, I haven't finished yet. I know I need to get more ruthless, but some of those things I've saved have a lot of meaning for me, and where else do we writers get ideas from, if not from evocative memories?

So by this time next week, I have promised myself the room will be finished. There will be a writing space that I can use, a clear desk, a new keyboard, some of my favorite things around me, and all my research stuff in neat piles, ready to use. Fingers crossed.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Small Press is Exciting!

Last Friday I went along to the SPUNC conference. Now the first thing I need to tell you is that SPUNC is no more - the organisation has renamed itself Small Press Network. Too many years of having to explain the acronym and dodge smirks, someone said. Besides, Small Press Network does say exactly what it is. For now, all is business as usual at the old website but they promise a new updated site very soon.

First of all, membership of the network is now over 100, and members range from larger presses such as Black Inc and Spinifix Press to very small publishers such as Kill Your Darlings and the History Teachers' Association of Victoria. The conference, as you would expect, had a large focus on digital publishing and how this might and does affect small presses, given the variety of platforms currently out there.

I'm not going to go through each session (you had to be there) but there were a number of key points that either informed, interested or astonished me that I'll share:

* consumers still prefer to buy from the aggregators (a new term I learned - it means the "middle man", e.g. Amazon, iBooks, bookshops, online booksellers). People still want someone or something to offer choice, and they will use an aggregator rather than buy direct from a publisher (and I guess that also means an author).

* publishers in Australia have been forced to lower book prices in the past 5 years to compete with online booksellers, but they are still profiting from imported titles due to the strength of the Australian dollar.

* if you are self-publishing or you are a small press, good meta data is absolutely essential to help people find your book/s. It can include subject lists, reviews, excerpts, links and author bios. Make it work for you!

* market analysis has shown that $9.99 is still the top favoured price people will pay for an ebook. Past $14.99 and sales drop drastically.

* discounting big-time is not a good strategy - people will pay for quality (if you are offering quality!) and discounting just takes money out of your pocket.

* when it comes to selling books or ebooks, discoverability is the top essential, and quality comes after that.

* the main reason why the government is struggling with PLR and ELR payments on ebooks is to do with all the different ways libraries are currently buying ebooks - it can be outright purchase, number of borrowing days, limited use copies, etc. Hard to track the physical holdings of ebooks when they can disappear from the library's inventory.

I also learned quite a bit about bookselling, both in the actual shop and online. I had never heard of high and low stock turn before, but the advice to talk to your bookseller before publishing (to get their coalface experience and suggestions) was a good one.And these days, if you are trying to sell on consignment to a bookseller (i.e. just a few copies at a time) you are at the bottom of the food chain!

There were also talks by Nerida Fearnley from Lightning Source (very interesting) and Gary Pengelly from Thorpe-Bowker (where you get ISBNs). Thorpe-Bowker has a new site called My Identifiers which will cover all sorts of tools for book publishers. All food for thought! With more and more books on our backlists going out of print, republishing is a real option, both with short runs on print books and ebooks. I have already republished Farm Kid as a print book and am now looking at it as an ebook. I'm sure other authors are doing the same.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Revising Deeper, Not Wider

Over on my other website,, I have a monthly writers' newsletter and this month I included an article I'd written on revision. Some writers (like me) love the first draft and struggle with meaningful revision. Others dread getting the first draft down and love rewriting over and over. I hate the feeling with revision that all I'm doing is fiddling around the edges and making no real difference to the heart of the story.

So when a book comes along that makes me actually champ at the bit to rewrite my current novel, before I've even finished the first draft (only about 3000 words off, though), that's a book worth recommending! It's Donald Maass's new title, Writing 21st Century Fiction - Maass is a longtime literary agent and you may have heard of his other books - Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction. In this new one, he says the time has come for the best elements of genre (all those things that create a page-turner) and the best of literary writing to combine into the kind of book that will become a best seller now.

Traditional genre and literary fiction still sells, of course, but the books hitting the top of the sales lists these days are the ones that catch on by word of mouth - they are brilliantly written, with story ideas and characters that totally engage the reader. Think Dennis Lehane, who was considered a crime writer for years until Mystic River and Shutter Island. Still crime but taking it to a new level of excellent writing. Then add books like The Help, The Kite Runner, Water For Elephants, The Lovely Bones, The Time Traveller's Wife - I could go on and on, but they are all books that sit between genre and literary and catch readers' imagination.

So I was interested in how Maass thinks you can write a book like this. Of course it comes down to things like standout characters and layered plots, but he tells you how to work with these elements, and gives great examples from published books. What I like best, though, is the huge list of questions at the end of each chapter that you can apply to your work in progress. I bought this as a Kindle book, but I wish now that I hadn't, as I'd really like to photocopy the questions and have them next to me to work through as I revise. I guess I'll have to work off the screen instead. Roll on, revision!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Two new YA novels

I've always loved reading YA novels (and writing them!) but over the past couple of years, I have to admit that the number I've been reading has gone down. Mainly this is due to the overwhelming domination of vampires/werewolves/angels/demons/zombies in YA fiction. When is too much going to really mean too much? Are there really readers out there for all this stuff? Even dystopian is starting to get "old". Oh dear. So I was looking forward to reading something contemporary, and Going Underground is it.

It's by Susan Vaught, whose books I had not come across before, but who seems to have a range of both contemporary and fantasy fiction out there. Del is seventeen, and struggling with his life that is full of restrictions and rules. Why? Because he did something bad when he was fourteen and is paying for it, big time. He only has one friend left, and his part-time job is digging graves in the local cemetery. His pet is a parrot called Fred who attached herself to him, despite his attempts to avoid her.

I have to say Fred is the star of the book! It's almost that she outshines Del, except luckily Del has depth as a character and we do care about what happens to him (essential!). One of the devices Vaught uses is to hold off telling us what Del did that was so bad, but she gives enough clues that you can guess and then not feel tricked when the big reveal comes. I also like that the romance element is not mushy - Livia has her own problems and comes across as real and believable.

Spoiler alert! Del's problem is that he was caught sexting - while we might think that's wrong and he was stupid (he realises this himself), what comes out of it, which is Del's conviction as a sex offender, is a very current issue for teens, and has come up here in Australia as well. Its long-reaching consequences are really well portrayed in this novel, and gave me a lot to think about.

Given what I said earlier about the vast over-supply of paranormal/fantasy type books around these days (and how I shy away from them in the bookstore), I was intrigued enough by the promotional material for Throne of Glass to ask for a review copy. It did take me about 40 pages to get into the story, but a good part of that was my "shyness", plus I think if you haven't read fantasy for a while, it takes a few chapters to fully get into the world of the story.

Sarah J. Maas is a new writer who started this book (and posted large chunks of it apparently) on before it got picked up for publication. The main character, Celaena, is an eighteen-year-old master assassin who is plucked from the salt mines prison to compete for the prince in a contest to become the King's Champion. She is a very tough young woman, and I found her abilities as a fighter very credible in this world, given her background and her deep determination and courage. Maas has done a great job of all of the characters, even the minor ones.

I liked the world, although it felt a bit "seen it before" - I think though that this is inevitable in fantasy. It must be so hard to try and write something original in every aspect. There is a romantic triangle with plenty of unresolved tension, and the fight scenes are very good. I kept reading all the way through, which is a positive sign for me! Also there are lots of symbols throughout - I happened to be grading my students' essays on symbolism in literature at the same time, and it struck me that quite a lot of Throne of Glass has echoes of Edgar Allan Poe. I'd certainly read Book 2 of this, just for the main character alone.
By the way, I like the Australian cover much more than the US one!
(Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copies.)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

How Do You Read a Collection?

Today I was reading a review of Cate Kennedy's new short story collection, Like a House on Fire. The reviewer commented that although the individual stories were good (some terrific), overall the collection seemed too much of the same - the same pace, the same preoccupations, the same way of dealing with the subject matter. I got the impression that the reviewer had sat down, as you do when you have a deadline (publication date), and read the whole book in one or two sessions of reading. Maybe this is not the way to read a collection.

We don't complain of a novel that it's all about the same thing. We expect it. But what do we expect from a collection? A theme? A connection? Some writers, like Tim Winton, have written hybrids, where the stories interconnect in ways that feel like a novel. How do we read collections? I know with poetry I like to keep a book by my bed. I might only read three or four poems at once, sometimes only one if it's one I want to think about. Short stories are the same. I feel like if I read too many at once, I'm pigging out, and I lose the effect of each one.

Somehow my brain wants to connect them like a novel, and if I can't, I connect them through the writer. Are these all her, hidden behind the words? Does he have an obsession? A certain voice? A writer's tic? And that's when I stop reading, because that's me, pushing things onto the collection that don't belong. Things that might end up ruining my pleasure in stories or poems that should stand alone. The writer has polished each one separately, like a piece of jewellery, and here I am, wanting to pile them all on together until I look like I'm covered in bling. (Yes, I'm feeling a bit metaphorical today!)

The thing is, any collection is going to have stories or poems that shine for you, for personal reasons or because you just enjoy that style or tone or perspective. For me, Kennedy's story of the woman whose husband is disabled by a tractor accident resonated deeply, but the one about the woman forced back to work with her little boy in childcare didn't because I didn't relate to her much. But that's me, you see. That's what I bring to each story, as I do for poems. A bit like a CSI crime scene theory - we take something away with us, and we leave something behind. It'll be the same for you.

But the resonance, the bell ringing deep in our minds and reactions ... well, it becomes duller and duller when you sit and read the whole lot in one go. I like the idea that ebooks are allowing us to buy and read just one good short story. It means that story gets its full quota of attention. Maybe the next thing will be ebooks of a dozen poems. That'd be nice. I'd like it to be like music - let me put together my own "best of" collection to savour when I'm in the mood. Anyone out there in publisher land listening?

Thursday, October 04, 2012

What kind of critique works for you?

Over on my other blog at, I did a series of posts a while ago about how to critique different kinds of writing - picture books, fiction, poetry etc. It seems that the picture book critique post is really popular! It got me wondering though - when writers ask for a critique, what do they hope for?

I'm pretty tough with my critiques. Tough but fair, I hope. But more importantly, I try to give the work some distance and thinking time, and come up with some suggestions or examples of where the work might go. Not "Write it this way" or "This is what you should do" but "Have you thought about setting it somewhere different? Or trying a different POV? Or cutting the first three pages?"

I've been in one writing group for more than 20 years. Sometimes we acknowledge that we are good friends, and that we are sometimes too used to each other's work. It's a challenge to get beyond that. Any critique group is going to have a range of opinions and different levels of experience. But paid critiques are a whole different thing.

I've been teaching writing for a very long time, and workshopping and commenting on student writing all along. If I have learned one thing, it is this - not everyone can or wants to hear feedback. Not wanting to is normal. We all feel like that. Writers who have books accepted for publication often express shock at their editor's letter. The finely detailed feedback can sink you into depression for days! But it's all designed to make your book better, so it pays to listen.

But what about "can"? We assume that if a writer puts their work out there for comment (in a group, a class or even a paid critique) that they will take it all on board and use it. Not so. Sometimes it all seems too hard. Easier to move onto another book or story, especially if you've done five drafts already. Sometimes a writer puts their work out way too early. Honestly, raw first draft writing shouldn't be critiqued. Especially if you haven't finished the whole thing. Some critical feedback on your first chapter can be enough to derail the entire novel. And your confidence.

My feeling is that being able to hear feedback and make good use of it requires a few things:

* Being able to put aside your ego
* Being willing to do major revision if it's needed
* Knowing enough about the craft to put the comments to good use
* Knowing enough about the craft to understand the comments!
* Being willing to let go of what isn't working
* Being open to radical shifts if it will energise the story and give it a big lift
* Being willing to shut and and just listen instead of defending or arguing

What works for you in a good critique?

Monday, October 01, 2012

Unlikeable Main Characters

OK, I'm warning you up front that this post contains spoilers for the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn!

I had heard a lot of good things about this book - thrilling, suspenseful, intriguing. Yes, I thought it was a crime novel, since the author had won awards for her other books, and the summaries for them on her website sound like crime. Gone Girl has had excellent reviews. I reserved a copy at my library (being very cautious about book buying these days) and waited. Well, it is a crime novel, I think. I'm not 100% sure because I'm only halfway through it. And struggling. A lot.

I was going to write this post around Page 40, and then I thought - Don't be silly. Give it a decent go first. But now I am up to Page (let me check) 174, and I keep thinking I should just put it down and give up. It's making me grumpy (goodness knows, I don't need encouragement that way at the moment!). Why? I hate both main characters. The story is told through two points of view: Amy (the wife who goes missing) and Nick (the husband left behind who starts to look suspicious). Amy is whiny and immature, Nick is self-obsessed and immature. They are both the kinds of people in their 30s that you (OK, I) just want to slap and say - Grow up!

Yes, I can see that the author is setting me up to think that Nick really has had something to do with Amy's disappearance. And that Amy may well have orchestrated her disappearance to pay Nick back for being a useless, irritating husband, and therein the mystery lies. Except I don't care about either of them. At all. I find myself wishing she was in Greenland or Kathmandu, just so she leaves the story. As for Nick, when he announces on Page 135, "Now is the part where I have to tell you I have a mistress and you stop liking me" - well, gee, Nick, I never did like you, so now I just loathe you!

I know that unlikeable narrators/main characters (Amy and Nick both narrate their own chapters - hers is a diary just so we don't assume she is still alive) are OK if you do them well, but I can't help being a reader who finds these characters distasteful and annoying. I have read books where the character is unlikeable, through their life choices and their attitude (think Andrew Vacchs's character, Burke, or Garry Disher's character, Wyatt). But those characters have something in them that the reader responds to. Burke is on a mission that we can empathise with. Wyatt is so intriguing that we want to know more.

Unfortunately, I just don't like characters who are dishonest. Plenty of readers disagree with me. A reviewer on Amazon said "It's one of those books you will feel the need to discuss immediately after finishing because the ending doesn't just come; it punches you in the gut." I don't think I'll make it that far. Or I'll skip to the end just to see the outcome, with nothing invested. Flynn herself says her characters are "narcissistic, selfish, and cruel." How true. And so I care almost nothing about what happens. It's the risk an author takes when they have unlikeable main characters.

I wanted to like this book. It's probably just me. Have you read it?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Writing How-To Books

The other day, a student told me how much she was enjoying Ray Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing, and I had to admit I'd never read it! It's a bit of a classic, and I know a few writers who love it but I just hadn't got around to it. I plan to rectify that soon. But there are a lot of writing books out there. I often take some of mine into class. When I teach Story Structure, I use Vogler's The Writer's Journey, as well as Jordan Rosenfeld's Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time

And I often talk about Write Away by Elizabeth George. She does a great job of showing you how to use setting and description, but mostly what I got from her book was my own method - finally - of how to plot and outline. She talks about thinking through her story until she comes up with at least 15 major dramatic scenes. Somehow, that caused one of those weird connections for me, and I came up with a plotting grid that works. But it might only work for me. I show it to the students and some nod, but most look mystified. I can see them thinking: how could you plot with that? I just do. It works for me.

It's the same with writing books. There are some I would happily give away because they don't "speak" to me at all, and I disagree with their methodology. Writing books are not cheap. You can often pick them up secondhand, but if it's not the book for you, you've wasted your money. If you look at all the books on plotting, you'll see there are plenty. Same with characters, dialogue, structure, and just general writing stuff. So many to choose from that you hardly know where to start. Our library at VU where I teach has a good range of titles, and even more as ebooks. I tell students - use the library. Read a few. See which ones work for you.

It's a funny thing - you can go to several classes about fiction writing, or poetry, or writing picture books, and they will all tell you similar things. But one day you will go to a class and somehow the teacher will say those things in a way that zaps you, that makes you understand the theory in a whole new way. It's the same with writing books. When you find one you love, buy it and add it to your shelf. You'll find you come back to it every now and then, just for that "shot in the arm" that gets you writing again.

Now, where can I get a copy of Bradbury's book?

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Learning the Craft of Writing

How do people learn to write fiction and poetry? The obvious answer is - by writing. But it's not that easy. Gifted storytellers are few and far between. Most of us take years to learn the craft. I believe I will keep on learning as long as I keep writing. That's why I'm doing an MFA in writing for children and YA at Hamline University. So if you're someone who doesn't think writing can be taught, I guess you can stop reading!

But most people I have met over the years have benefitted greatly from the classes, workshops and courses they have attended, including me. I'm talking about everything from a seminar to a short course to a full Diploma or even a degree. The course I teach in at Victoria University TAFE has been around for about 20 years or more. I've had many students go on to be published, to get jobs as journalists, copywriters, nonfiction freelancers, picture book writers, editors ... we once brainstormed all the jobs our students could get and came up with more than 30. That was before all the web writing jobs came along.

The days of writing alone in a garret are gone. Yes, you can still write alone, but the support networks now are tremendous - writing groups, mentors, writing coaches - even just to get together regularly with a bunch of fellow writers is a great boost. And if you are in a network where your writing can get critiqued so you can improve and grow as a writer, even better. These valuable networks often start in writing courses.

So the news filtering in over the past few weeks has been incredibly depressing. Our esteemed Diploma (and Certificate IV) in Professional Writing & Editing here in Victoria is in real danger of disappearing. For those of you who don't know, TAFE is funded by the state government (higher ed is funded federally). Massive changes in TAFE funding started a few years ago. First was the move to full fees for anyone who had a prior qualification. This meant that many of our keen mature age students were forced out of our course because they couldn't afford $6000 for a Diploma. Then the criteria changed again, and now for the Cert IV and Diploma it will cost you around $10,000-12,000 if you have a Cert IV or higher qual in anything. And I mean anything, including horticulture, sports training, cookery - anything.

For those still able to access a "government funded" place, the fees have been steadily creeping up. Now the Victorian state government has brought in a new categorisation of courses. Professional Writing sits in the middle to lower bands, so for TAFEs to continue to offer these courses, fees will rise. In the Diploma, they will come very close to full fees. A few TAFEs are throwing in the towel. They already anticipate that no one will be able to afford those big fees, or will want to pay them. After all, why pay $12,000 for a two year diploma when you can do an Arts degree for a similar amount? (And don't forget that degrees are federally funded and there are no more caps on HE places so unis can take as many as they want.)

The fact that our Diploma is industry-based and teaches a huge range of job-related writing skills seems to be beside the point these days. It's all about the state government saving money.
Well, you might say, isn't that the reality? Money is tight. Sure. But only because we now have a gazillion private training providers in Victoria who are so lightly regulated that it's laughable. If you want some evidence of this, look at the two damning reports on the ABC's 7.30 Report (most recent broadcast 5th Sept 2012).

As a TAFE teacher I am sinking under the amount of paperwork required now by the government to "prove" I'm teaching what I say I am. Like many other TAFE teachers, I am at a loss to see how this helps me or my students. I'm teaching better now than I ever have. I pay for my own professional development a lot of the time, I read, I write, I am published and I take my PD seriously. And then I pass on what I know to my students.

To see our course strangled by what is happening with government funding and pathetic policies is so sad and depressing, well, I don't know what to do anymore. Except keep on fighting to keep our course going. I know how good it is, and I hear it from present and past students all the time (thanks to all of you who posted on FB). And to answer what I asked at the beginning - people learn to write better in courses like ours, and what they learn contributes to our literary culture more and more every day. But what would a bean-counting politician know about that?

Monday, August 27, 2012

What do you love about bookshops?

Over the past few weeks, I've bought a lot of books online. (I will duck now as a few people think that's akin to drinking wine with a devil.) But many of the books I've bought are either not available in bookshops here, or are so old that I've had to source them secondhand. I've needed them for my thesis, so it's not like I can wait 6 weeks or more for a shop here to find them. But it did get me thinking about what I do love about bookshops, and as someone said, it's the serendipity.

Many years ago, I discovered Barbara Kingsolver because The Bean Trees was sitting face-up on a row of recommended books at the Grubb Street Bookstore. I went on to buy and read nearly all of her books. Recently I found a book by a guy called John Hart on a display and am now hooked on his books. Similar thing with John Dunning who wrote the Bookman novels (sadly there were only five). For me, that's the first thing a bookshop offers - the exciting possibility of finding a book I wasn't aware of and diving into a terrific story. It's not that I want a page-turner - I want a book that I can sink into and want to keep reading long past lights-out, just like when I was a kid.

Online buying can't match this. I can't pick up the book, read the blurb and then the first two or three pages. All right, sometimes I can, but it's just not the same as holding it in your hand and flicking through and recognising from the "feel" of it that you're going to enjoy it. Sometimes I'm wrong. There have been a couple of hefty Swedish crime novels that ended up being relegated to the donation box. But books here in Australia are expensive - even YA paperbacks are $20+, others are $30. I try to make a solid judgement before buying, and a bookshop lets me do this.

What else do I love? Often being able to have a coffee while I peruse a small pile and make final choices. Seeing what is new, what is popular, what everyone else is buying, just because I'm curious. I don't like sales people asking me every two minutes if I need help. But I like having someone to ask if I get stuck or can't find something. One thing I do hate about very small bookshops - I know they need my money but if I really can't find anything that appeals, I feel terribly guilty slinking out without buying anything!

I used to love Borders (and still like B&N when I am in the US) just because they are so big and I could spend the whole day in there, and a week's wages. But even small shops can have me slapping my own hand to stop way too many impulse purchases. I guess I buy books like some people buy shoes. But all of that love for bookshops still won't stop me buying online as well. It's not so much the cheaper prices (sometimes), it's being able to get books that a couple of years ago I wouldn't have bothered even ordering, because I can, and because someone out there is selling them when I need them.
And my favourite bookshop? The Sun Bookshop in Yarraville. Especially now they have a children's one across the road!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

What Objects Inspire Your Writing?

August is the month where children's writers spend an awful lot of days in schools, because during this time is Children's Book Week. If you are lucky enough to have a book shortlisted for the CBCA awards, you are likely to be even more in demand. Nevertheless, schools go all out to celebrate books. I've been to a few dress-up parades with kids in every kind of costume from Dorothy (Wizard of Oz) and Harry Potter to Angelina Ballerina and a teacher dressed as a cow, udder and all. This is primary school, of course. I can't imagine any high school kid being so uncool as to dress up as a book character!

Some authors take to school visits like a duck to water (cliche warning) but most have to "feel" their way into it. A few years ago, the Centre for Youth Literature ran some training sessions to help authors work out how to do a successful school visit, which were very useful. We learned about "show and tell" items, being genuine, telling stories, and being enthusiastic. I remember once hearing Andy Griffith, the king of school visits (and of kid's books here), talking about doing a course in stand-up comedy in order to learn how to create a "script" and present to kids effectively.

There are dangers here, of course. Your script can become too familiar, so that you are sick to death of hearing yourself spout it! You can certainly do too many school visits and lose that important enthusiasm. I still enjoy them, I think because I mostly go to primary schools where the kids love reading and are not afraid to ask questions (including "how old are you?"). I quail at a class of Year 9s who lean back in their chairs and pretend they couldn't care less about books, even if they're dying to ask you something.

With the "show and tell" element, I often take with me objects that have inspired stories, or helped to create the story for me. On my desk is a very small toy wombat. Five years ago, I bought him on my way to the USA, and wrote a story about him while sitting in San Antonio airport, waiting for my flight. I'd just spent four days with my writer friend, Kristi Holl, talking about writing, so maybe it's hardly surprising that a story popped out, but it was the toy attached to my bag that started it.

Of course, I have a lot of pirate "objects" - everything from a flag and some replica doubloons to photos and eye patches. I show them to the kids, but I think the things that helped me the most with writing Pirate X were the images - old pictures of Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard, and photos I took myself of settings. I also have an amazing cross-section of a Spanish galleon by the artist, Stephen Beisty. It helped me imagine myself on an old sailing ship with a bunch of pirates.

When I look at other things I've written, often I've found the objects after working on the story idea, but every so often there's either an object or an image that has inspired some writing, usually a poem. My latest poem is about Little Saigon, a market in Footscray. I volunteered to write a poem for a project about Footscray, and I couldn't write it without going back to the market again and looking, smelling, tasting and listening. 
What objects have led to you writing something recently?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

MFAC - July residency at Hamline

Hot on the heels of the SCBWI conference in Sydney (end of June), I flew out to the US for the next residency in the Master of Fine Arts (Writing for Children and YA) I'm studying at Hamline University. Every six months I go to Hamline in St Paul (Minnesota) for a 12 day intensive residency, and the rest of the semester I work at home with an advisor online. I can now say I am officially past the halfway mark!

It continues to be just about the best thing I have ever done, for my writing and for myself. As I hoped, the faculty at Hamline are amazing and each semester the advisor I have had has pushed me to explore further and deeper into writing than I imagined I could go. This past semester I focused on picture books, and as well as four essays, I wrote and revised eight picture books. Some were notes and rough drafts from my notebooks, but some were completely new and sprang from the reading and thinking and writing I was doing.

The July residency focused on setting - this is something I have struggled with for a long time. A strange thing to admit, you might say, given that I've been writing a good amount of historical fiction in the past few years. Yet it's in historical fiction that skills in writing setting are most sorely tested! How to make setting relevant and meaningful, rather than just a factual background, and how to relate it to both plot and character without overdoing it. I learned plenty about all of these aspects.

We also had an immensely useful workshop with Swati Avasthi (Split ) on managing time in fiction, two great lectures from Anita Silvey about classic and contemporary fiction in middle grade and YA (what books do you think will be classics in 20 years time?) and I heard Gary Schmidt lecture for the first time - he talked about the importance of strong minor characters. As always, our workshop groups were dedicated and thoughtful, providing wide-ranging and useful feedback on everyone's work.

One of the highlights for me was a double workshop/lecture by Marilyn Nelson on poetry - she has actually convinced me to give writing poetry in rhyme a serious try (don't faint, those of you who know my abhorrence of rhyme!). Then Ron Koertge taught everyone how to write a pantoum, which led to me writing one sitting in a cafe in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a few days later. And what could be better than having Chris Crutcher as special guest on the last day (and at the graduation)? This semester I will be working on my critical thesis - that means 40-50 pages of critical writing on a topic of my choice. I'm going to be investigating verse novels, so it's a great reason to sit down and read a few dozen of them, including re-reading some of my favorites. Can't wait! (Below are some of our faculty)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Procrastination is like a virus

If I've learned one thing about writing over the years, it's this - the more you avoid it, the harder it is to get going. We avoid it for lots of reasons. The blank page is scary, not because it's blank, but because we place so many expectations upon what it should hold when we have written. We want our writing to shine right from the first draft. Heck, we want the first draft to be so darned good that we hardly have to touch it!

But understanding that first drafts can and usually do range from a bit rough right down to absolutely atrocious is the key. If you haven't written something, you have nothing to rewrite. If you haven't at least had a go at getting down that great idea, even if it looks like it curled up and died right in front of you, you'll never know if it's workable.

Today I went to my favorite cafe to write. It's a habit for me now, due to a retired husband in the house. First draft writing - I have to be alone, in my own headspace. The cafe is where I tackle first drafts. Some days the words come easily, especially if I'm working on my novel and can take up where I left off. What happens next has been bubbling away in the back of my head somewhere and it doesn't take much to get it out onto the page.

Today it was like trying to get a hundred splinters out of my brain. Painful, slow, tedious. I wanted to give up. I was working on a new chapter book, I had my character and a brief plot outline. It refused to come to life. It felt stodgy, forced, and incredibly boring. I kept thinking: what kid will ever want to read this rubbish?

But I kept going. I wrote two chapters. I came home feeling depressed. Why was I bothering? (Does this sound familiar?) But then I gave myself a mental slap. I have the beginning of a first draft, I have about 800 words I didn't have this morning, and I have hurdled that first barrier of "how to start". Nothing to complain about. Just 800 words ready for revision. The cure for the procrastination virus? Determination and perseverance. Oh, and good coffee!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

New books

Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments  Recently two friends of mine have had their books published, and I doubt they could be more different! But both are great reads. Gina Perry has been working on her book about Stanley Milgram and the shock machine experiments for quite a few years. It first appeared as a radio documentary, as she had found several people in the US who had taken part in the experiments and agreed to now be interviewed by her. Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments is a very confronting book, but a fascinating one.

Many people have heard of The Wave, which was the classroom experiment where blue-eyed and brown-eyed people were segregated and basically set against each other. There have been other similar social psychology experiments - most of which took place in the 50s and 60s - and it's only now that questions are being seriously asked about the long-term effects on the subjects. I've listened to Gina's documentary, which uses excerpts of the taped interviews, but somehow reading the book has a much greater effect. Perhaps it's the power of the imagination, but I've had a couple of nightmares about it! She also tracks her own journey through the research. As a former psychologist, she constantly questions the ethics of the experiments, the effects on the people she interviews, and whether Milgram told the whole truth about what he was doing. Certainly his journals indicate he had other motives, and he also kept information to himself that might have distorted or changed his findings. A very interesting book, even if you don't read much nonfiction. The Fine Colour of Rust The other book by a writer friend is a novel - The Fine Colour of Rust. I spent a lot of time laughing as I read Paddy (P.A.) O'Reilly's story. I loved the main character and her attitude to the world. How could you not love a mother who constantly imagines hilarious ways of getting rid of her kids, and yet clearly loves them and tries her best? Gunapin is an Australian country town where everything and everyone seems hopeless, and yet they're not. Loretta is a fighter and a realist - one of her many battles is to save the primary school, and it was a joy to see the local politician smothered in local "let's impress him" events which result in him being literally coated with meat and blood from the abattoir. You keep wanting Loretta to high-tail it out of the place and make a new life back in the city, and yet even she knows she is trapped there by lack of money. In the end, it's the people of Gunapin who make it a tolerable place to live, as it is with anywhere. The dry, almost black humour of this story is, you could say, very Australian, but I hope we're well past condemning "Australian novels" to the dusty back corner of the bookshop. This one deserves front and centre.