Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Try a mini verse novel!

Recently, I was asked to teach a poetry workshop on longer works, specifically sequences and verse novels. It gave me a chance to pull out all the terrific books, collections and verse novels I’d read over the past few years, in order to share them with the group. Everything from Dorothy Hewett’s “Upside Down Sonnets” to picture books such as Janet Wong’s Night Garden and my own Now I Am Bigger to verse novels by Helen Frost, Karen Hesse, Sharon Creech and Allan Wolf.

I like to think of a poetry sequence as a mini verse novel, although not all sequences work this way. But where a sequence tells a story, I think it can. It means you can write ten or twelve poems (or more) that have a narrative behind them, and start to consider the other elements that a verse novel has.

These include voice and character, for a start, but also a sense of progression. Where are you taking the reader? Are you simply showing them different aspects of the same thing? A short example of this is Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, where each small poem is numbered. I would call this a “poem in parts” – you could stretch it to a sequence. I’ve seen poets who write, for example, a series of poems about their father or mother, or about a childhood or life event. Again, those poems fit together because they are about one thing, but they still would not be a mini verse novel to me.

A mini verse novel may well be the short story equivalent to the novel (of the novel?). It means you don’t have to write a book-length work, but you can still explore a narrative through poetry. Think of it as a short story in poems.
So these are the elements I think are important in a mini verse novel:

  • ·        A balance – too much poetry or not enough narrative and it doesn’t work – you end up with chopped-up prose, or poems with no connections.
  • ·        Poetic elements of figurative language and keen attention to line breaks and stanzas
  • ·       It needs to be a story that will tell better in poetry, and it does need to have the elements of a story in terms of beginning, middle and end
  • ·       A story that needs a lot of explanation or setting or dialogue etc generally won’t work
  • ·       Rhyming the whole thing may kill you if you are not proficient at rhyme and form (look at Helen Frost’s work if you want to see it done really well)
  • ·         Read, read, read what other verse novelists are doing – and learn to read critically – don’t accept that everything that says it is a verse novel actually is
  • ·         Outlining will help but if you need to work by instinct, do – just be prepared to throw some poems out later
  • ·         And be ruthless in revision
  • ·         Recognise that much of the story will lie in the white space and you will need to learn how to use the white space as well as the language.

·         When it feels like you have enough poems, stop. Give it some time, then go back and ask yourself what is the story you want to tell, and which two poems will start and end it. Those are your lighthouses.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Australian writers - the rock and the hard place

Despite gloomy forecasts and sliding graphs recently, e-book sales are not nosediving. But here in Australia, I think the global effects of e-books are only just starting to sink in, especially with writers. This is not a whine or a rant, by the way, this post is a business discussion. What is the rock? Australian publishers who, when you sign a contract with them, demand ALL rights, which means world rights and e-rights. You need to have a lot of clout to get this amended or changed.

What is the hard place? Very few Australian books are sold to overseas publishers. We hear a lot about books like The Rosie Project, Burial Rites and Diary of a Wombat (not to mention The Book Thief and Jellicoe Road) and how many overseas territories they have sold to, especially the USA. But they are the exception, not the rule.

For most Australian writers, especially children’s writers, it’s  unlikely the overseas rights on their books will be sold, especially if the book is deemed “too Australian”. That means the market is Australia (and sometimes NZ). It’s a small market, and getting smaller.  If someone from the USA wants to buy an Australian book via an online bookseller here, they will very likely pay $25-30 for a small paperback, because of the horrendous postage charge.

Aha, you say, but now we have e-books. We sure do. But even if your publisher releases your book as an e-book, it’s very likely they will limit availability to Australia. If they do decide to sell it “world wide”, how will anyone know about it unless YOU tell them? (To put this another way, how do readers in other countries hear about Australian books without a marketing campaign of some kind in their country?)

If you’re Tim Winton or someone who has an international reputation already, it’s not an issue. But Winton’s books already sell overseas as print books, so a globally available e-book is obviously going to sell.

Aha, you say, what if you sell your book to a US publisher first? You get an agent over there, they sell your book, and Bob’s your auntie. You have two options: you can hold back Australian/NZ rights and sell them separately, or you can let the US publisher keep them and either sell your book to an Australian publisher or import it here. Here’s the other rock and hard place – if you’ve already sold US rights (and e-rights), it’s highly unlikely an Australian publisher is going to want your book, unless it becomes a best seller over there. The prospective rights that might earn them good money are already gone.

If the US publisher is allowed to import your books here after 90 days (if they decide it’s worth it) because nobody here wants to publish it, you’re going to be responsible for most of the marketing. That means a heck of a lot more than some FB and Twitter posts! Same goes for if the US publisher releases your book as an e-book. The big word in publishing and marketing now is “discoverability”. Who else is going to get your book noticed except you? A US or UK publisher is already dealing with that in their own markets. 

And there are a number of awards here that require the book to be published in Australia, not published elsewhere and imported.

Why am I writing about this? Because it’s an issue that’s come up for me several times over the past few years, and e-books have actually made it more complicated, not less. I’ve experienced these difficulties in various ways and permutations, and so far, there is no easy answer. I completely understand publishers’ need to stay solvent and do good business, but …

There are lots of aspects to this issue. Print books are not going away, but e-books don’t look like they are going to be the income earner that a lot of writers were hoping for. It’s not even a territorial copyright issue, really. I’d be interested to hear from other Australian writers with similar experiences of the rock and the hard place.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Painstaking vs Prolific - how fast do you write?

Every time I do a school visit, I inevitably get asked, "How long does it take you to write a book?" It's a fair question, but the answer is, "How long is a piece of string?" It's different for every book, and it can also depend on whether someone is waiting for it (i.e. a commissioned work). People often say, "Gee, you're so prolific", which can feel like a criticism, but I loved to hear about Monet and how he would paint all day and complete 8 or 9 works in that time.

It's all practice. Some practice takes longer. Some things take longer to learn. Some books take longer to "get right". Plus, I write chapter books as well as novels, so a chapter book might only be 2000 words. Ray Bradbury used to write a short story a week - some of his writing advice includes 'Don’t start out writing novels. They take too long. Begin your writing life instead by cranking out “a hell of a lot of short stories,” as many as one per week. Take a year to do it; it simply isn’t possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.'

It's the same with picture books and chapter books. Write a picture book or a chapter book every week for a year and you're sure to come up with a few gems! In order to do that, you'll need a list of ideas. Bradbury is also famous for writing a huge list of words and then writing a story about each one. (Read Zen in the Art of Writing where he describes this.)

What about novels? John Creasey, who wrote 564 books, said, 'How many words a day do I write? Between six and seven thousand. And how many hours does that take? Three on a good day, as high as thirteen on a bad one.' Wow. Georges Simenon wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories about his detective character, Maigret. Simenon also wrote around 300 other novels and novellas, plus pulp fiction (under more than two dozen pseudonyms) and nonfiction. He was apparently able to write a novel in just a few days, but The Guardian has a quote from him that made me wonder what drove him: "Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness." Hmmm.

Right now, I'm back writing my two pages (or 30 minutes) minimum per day. It works. On bad days, I make sure I do the minimum; on good days I write more. Earlier this year, because I was writing a novel for my fourth semester at Hamline's MFAC program, this routine led to me finishing a 66,000 word YA novel. I didn't plot this one out beforehand so it was like writing in the dark - nervewracking. There were many days when I sat with no idea what would come next. But the 30 minutes minimum kept me at it.

Revision is different. I can spend two hours on the same pages it took me 30 minutes to write! But I also think other aspects tie into whether you are prolific or painstaking. (Painstaking to me is four years on one book.) One is simply typing speed. In high school I took typing as a subject instead of biology. I still have no desire to cut up frogs, but I type fast. Another is to do with plotting. I think if you know where you are going you will write faster and write more (feel free to disagree).

Another is to do with style and language. I suspect that literary writers take a lot longer to write - they are painstaking about language and sentences. Or maybe they need more thinking time? I love to be swept along by my characters and the story, but then my second and third and further drafts have to slow down and focus more on filling in the details.

And in answer to the school visit question? The Littlest Pirate in a Pickle (1600 words) took me a week, mainly because I woke up with the whole story in my head. That was a gift. Whereas Pirate X took me ten years. It started out as a 120,000 word first draft, by Draft 5 it was down to 85,000 words, and when it was finally published, it was 62,000 words. It was only my passion for the story that kept me at it - around the fourth year, a vicious critique almost killed it for me.

So whether you're prolific or painstaking, the only thing that will get you to The End is perseverance. The pleasure in being prolific is that you get there faster!