Sunday, November 15, 2015

Writing in the middle of high emotion

One of the things that makes poetry readers shudder is the poem written from inside ecstatic love, full of gushing and cliches. Coming a close second is the raw grief poem. We are told, "Don't write while you're in a state of high emotion because you're too close to it."

As if that somehow blights the poem, or the true story (because we are told this about personal writing of any kind). It's true that writing in these states does often make for awful writing, but it's likely that the writer simply isn't skilled enough yet to be able to use the language well enough to convey what they feel. They would probably write poor landscape poems, or sonnets, or ... We all know that feeling of This is too hard for me. I need to get better at writing before I tackle it.

Yet that doesn't mean you shouldn't write at all. Just that you probably shouldn't consider your heart poured out on the page as ready to share yet. It's a first draft, that's all, like any first draft. Hold on to it, give it time, rework it until it really does say what you want, in a way that evokes your idea for the reader. Often that's through the "less is more" guideline.

In fact, I'd say that writing how you feel, however clumsily or gushingly or with tears dripping onto the page, is a great way to deal with your emotions. For too long, "writing as therapy" has been scorned, or derided as only for hobbyists. I've been studying fairy tales now for 18 months, and part of my research is about the ways in which fairy tales help traumatised children. I'm also writing my own tales - new ones - and trusting my unconscious to take a spark of an idea and run with it, writing whatever comes out. As I have been doing so much reading of the tales (Grimms in particular, but others, too), the structure falls into place without me thinking too much about it. The fascinating part is looking at the story later and trying to figure out what came out of my unconscious and, more importantly, why. It's called practice-led research.

But in the past few weeks, my writing has taken a different path. Where I go on weekends to write - a wonderful bush property with trees, wildlife, native plants and birds - was totally burned in recent bushfires. It's been so hard to keep going there, to face each time the devastation all over again. Blackened trees, scorched earth, ash, everything gone but (miraculously) our tiny house.

At first I thought I could never write about it. I couldn't get past the shock and grief I felt every time I looked around. I kept seeing what was missing - the wrens and wagtails that used to frolic in the birdbath outside my writing room window was just one of many things that may take years to come back. Even being inside the house and almost forgetting - looking out the window was like a slap.

But then I decided I wanted to write about what it used to be like, and remember all the things I loved about the place. The day I came face to face with a wombat. The native flowers in spring. The silvery glitter of sunlight on the gum leaves. And as well I began to write about the aftermath of the fire. How I felt about it, how I feel now. I'm using language the best way I know how, trying to capture these emotions but also capture precious memories. It's doing me good. It'd probably be labelled "therapy writing" but I hardly care. This is about me, this is for me. That's what matters right now.

More than six years ago, I started a photo blog of this place. It was a hobby (I like taking photos) and it was a discovery record - every season I found new things growing. Now I am rapt that I did this, and kept at it. I'll keep updating it now, I hope as a record of recovery. It's here.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The reading thing

I'm about to start school visits in earnest (August being the month when children's and YA authors are asked to do lots of them because Children's Book Week happens now). I was thinking about the questions I get asked the most, and one is definitely, "What made you start writing?" (This is usually how it's phrased, maybe reflecting their classroom experience of being made to write!)

My answer is always, "Because I love reading, and I just got to the point where I really wanted to write, too." Mind you, wanting to write and achieving something I thought was OK were not the same thing, but I remember in those early days how just writing anything was exciting and fun and felt like a big achievement. It's that feeling I try to keep in mind with students. It's all new to many of them. For kids at school, writing can seem like the most boring, tedious thing to do. A trial. A curse. A punishment.

Even for those who want to write, the act itself can be frightening and overwhelming. Where to start? What to write? How to escape self-criticism? How to avoid family questions and criticism?

I always point people back to reading. Despite a few writers who insist they don't read, and thus convince other aspiring writers they don't need to either, I believe reading, and then reading critically and consciously, is vital to becoming a writer, let alone a better writer. I have always loved reading, even before my big sister gave me C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew and I discovered Arthur Ransome and T.H. White.

If you want to write picture books, you should be reading at least 50 picture books published in the past 10 years. Same with chapter books, children's and YA novels. Yes, read the classics, but if you don't read what is out there at the moment, you will have no idea how much these books have changed. It's an area where there have been massive shifts in illustration, styles, and marketing, at the very least. (I confess to being quite appalled at the current gender marketing in books for kids 6-12 years old. But if I wasn't reading and keeping up, how would I know? Doesn't mean I agree, though.)

When it comes to adult fiction, you have to read even more widely, because the changes I see are so intriguing. Self publishing is just the pointy end of platforms like Wattpad and Figment (see here for what is out there). These are writing communities where people post their works in progress and get votes and comments. There have been significant instances of writers being picked up by publishers through these platforms - especially when writers have more than a million readers!

What I am most interested in is why people read on these platforms. Is it simply because it's free and they can read to their heart's content without paying a cent? I'd love some comments on this.
Because to me reading feeds my writing, and the better the books I read, the more I get for myself. Ideas, language, examples of style and experimentation, great examples of characters.

Mostly, reading takes me away from myself and from my life. Not many TV shows do this (although I do admit that I have just finished watching series 1 of Mad Men, and the themes and subtext are brilliant - yes, I'm way behind but think how much enjoyment lies ahead for me!).
If you write, isn't that what you want your novel to do? Take the reader away so they are in your fictional world?

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Let's go retro!

I was giving some advice today on submissions and current publisher guidelines for Australia and it suddenly struck me how much really has changed in the past ten years. Everyone talks about e-books and digital downloads, but that's the end product. What about getting your work to a publisher - into that dreaded slush pile?

I remember ten or so years ago, teaching fiction writing and children's book writing subjects, that when we set an assignment which entailed an examination of a publisher, the hoops students had to go through to find their information. For example:
*  They had to write to the publisher and include a stamped addressed envelope, and hope somebody there had time to send them back a photocopied sheet of submission guidelines
* If they wanted to know what a publisher published (vital knowledge so you didn't send a manuscript to the wrong place), they had to find a way to get a publisher's catalogue. Sometimes these could be requested by mail, sometimes they had to beg bookshop owners!
* Often publishers just would not respond and the student was stumped. So we did a lot of sharing of information in the classes.
* We also did a lot of work with students on how to submit professionally - cover letter, clean manuscript (printed in hard copy of course), and stick to the guidelines - if they only want 3 chapters, only send 3.

Then came a period where most publishers closed their doors. Children's publishing wasn't quite so bad, but most publishers of adult fiction stopped taking unsolicited manuscripts. The job of filtering manuscripts fell more and more onto the few agents operating in Australia, and there were very few who represented children's writers. (It was similar in the USA, but the number of agents there was growing week by week, and they already had a system whereby your key goal was to write a great query letter - well, not much has changed there!)

However, the internet had arrived and it grew and grew, and publishers realised that if they put their submission guidelines on their website (even if those guidelines said NO, we are not accepting), then that might stem the tide. They also put their catalogues of books on their websites, so our students found it easier to work out who was publishing what (and the guidelines helped, too). This sounds idyllic, by the way, but it's not. Many, many new writers don't know any of this information and continue, even now, to submit with a scattergun approach.

So where are we up to now? Again, big changes.

* Once self-publishing began to take off and lots of disgruntled writers started publishing their books as e-books (cheap and no boxes of books in your garden shed), and some of those SP books started becoming best sellers and making big money, well ... publishers decided to open their doors again, unwilling to miss out. And technology made this simpler because instead of spending a pile of money paying someone to open parcels of manuscripts and then post them back again ... it all went electronic. Now many publishers open their doors to full electronic manuscripts, when it suits them. So we have the Monday and the Wednesday and the Friday pitch thing going on - but you can easily find out when to send just by Googling (and you're truly an idiot if you don't do this simple research).

* But in children's publishing, picture books still cost a lot of money to produce, so things are tight there and it's hard to break in. In the chapter book area, the obsession is with series. Even novel-length works are infected with the series/trilogy thing, which is daunting and makes it harder to get published (because stand-alone novels fade in the shade).

* We still don't have a lot of agents operating in Australia, and the ones we do have are full to the brim already. That doesn't mean you give up. It just means it's still hard. On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing to stop you trying to get an American agent - IF you have a manuscript that has global appeal. Despite everyone repeating ad nauseum "Australia is the flavour of the month", that month is long past. But first you have to master that query letter.

* When it comes to the market, not much has changed. Publishing is a business. A debut novel that might only sell 500 or 1000 copies is unlikely to get a first go in print, but you could get a deal to publish first as an e-book (going to print after a certain number of sales). The trend, though, is no advance. Is that really fair? I've seen complaints recently about Australian publishers offering pretty bad deals on e-book royalties compared with overseas publishers. Are we in a global market or not? As long as copyright territories continue to exist, the real answer I think is NO.

Any Australian publisher sure hopes to sell OS in rights deals, but truthfully I think it is rare. The books that do sell OS are actually global in nature. Think Hannah Kent's 'Burial Rites'. Set in Iceland. Ten years ago a new novel that did OK here would sell 2000 copies (they hoped). Now you're lucky to sell 1000. That's how the market itself has changed. The big sellers keep selling more. The little sellers are selling less, and that's really, really sad (and does bad things to our literature generally at all levels).

There are always exceptions. There are writers doing great on Amazon. We hear about the successes. But I started looking at what our students (and other prospective authors) have at their fingertips for researching publishers, and that is really where the huge change has come. Google can find you any information you want or need about a publisher - their books, their guidelines for submission, how global are they, who their best selling writers are ... it's all there via your keyboard instead of the envelope and stamp process. So no more scattergun approaches needed, right?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wisdom vs irrelevance in writing for young people

The other day I received an email from someone at my superannuation company, who pointed out that I would soon be reaching “the lovely age of 60”. Thanks for that. As if I hadn’t realised, or had somehow been trying to pretend I was still 40-something for the past few years.

Like a lot of people my age (and older) that I know, we never feel our age. Maybe people like us gravitate together. Maybe I just know a lot of people and hang out with a lot of people who take no notice of getting older. We travel, we go out and do stuff, we try new things, we still have plenty of dreams and goals and getting older seems irrelevant.

I started a PhD last year, something I never thought I would be capable of. Indeed, I feel like a toddler academic, staggering along, blundering into metaphorical chairs and couches, and struggling to understand language and how to communicate the way the grown-ups expect! I refuse to accept that my older brain won’t cope (and it’s doing fine). I have many years of reading and thinking to my credit already, so now’s my chance to put it to a more purposeful use.

But with the 50s comes other experiences: it’s harder getting out of the chair if I’ve sat there too long, and I have to wear glasses now, and take a pill or two for conditions I knew nothing about in my 20s. There are even people my age dying, enough to make me check my health and eat better and get more exercise and think about what I put in my mouth.

But I don’t think “old” the way some other people I know do. As in, eking out the days and weeks and months and wondering what the hell it’s all been for, and how much longer do they have to put up with this, and do they really have to get out of bed in the morning, and for what? Those people are already some kind of old where they can’t see anything ahead of them but an end. 

However, I know there are going to be issues with turning 60. Issues that arise from a view that I will be too old for many things. Not my view, theirs. For instance, that I can’t write anything new for children or teens because I am now “too far from those years” to be able to evoke them well enough, especially with the way technology has changed the world. For me, though, I have written and read so many stories for young readers that I think the struggle is about what “new” really means. I have seen series come and go, come and go. I’m much more interested in writing books that will last for years, hopefully decades, books that hold such deep resonance and meaning for my readers that they keep them for their own kids.
At my age, with my experience, I figure I know how to do that, and I’m damned determined to keep doing it, even if deeper stand-alone novels are not the flavour of the day. 
I used to worry about school visits, and looking way too old for kids to be interested in listening to me. Then I realised that everyone over 30 looks old to them, and over 40 looks ancient, so 60 is irrelevant. (And when a kid asks me how old I am, I give my mother’s answer – I’m as old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.) Besides, they don’t much care about me, they care about whether I’ve written a story that will entertain and move them, and why, and what it means to them. That’s my job, right there.

The other thing with “new” is that you really do come to understand there is no new idea. It’s how you write it, how you create your characters, what the story means to you. I love reading and I love stories that reach deep inside me and tell me something about life and living and people that I didn’t know before. Kids and teens know so little about these things but they are longing to learn, and books give them some of that knowledge in a safe way. Safe because they can close the covers and put it away if they want to or need to. Or they can keep the covers open and go back to the beginning and read the story again, because it speaks to them about something important and vital to them
So that’s my job, too, to write those stories. And I’m not saying a 25 year-old or a 35 year-old can’t write them, but I have all those extra years of everything it takes to write a story that has guts and is not afraid to speak out and says the things kids need and want to hear. So, 60 is both relevant and irrelevant. It’s what I write that counts.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Getting a grip on what copyright means to me

This is a long post - just warning you!

There are times when copyright feels to me like a slippery eel. One I can see but I can’t quite get my hands on what it really means. I’m a writer. I’ve negotiated a lot of my own contracts. Yet in today’s world it seems to me that more and more people are making copyright more and more like that eel. So I thought I would talk about copyright simply in terms of what it means to me, the implications and ramifications, and what I see as the worst case outlook.

Not that long ago, it was pretty clear. I signed a standard contract for my book, in which I retained copyright of the work (technically) but licenced it to the publisher. The clause in the contract that was my “out” was the termination clause. If the book went out of print, rights returned to me. From there, I might try to get a new publisher, I might publish it myself, I might not do anything. But because the copyright was mine, it meant I was still entitled to things like Public Lending Right money and Copyright Agency money.

Then came digital publishing, and suddenly the termination clause became a bit of an issue, because if a book could be kept “in print” forever via a digital file, when would I ever get my rights back? For some contracts I was able to negotiate a termination clause that still stipulated OOP (out of print) referred to print copies and so digital went with that. That is no longer the case. Now, if you licence a work to a publisher, they can keep the book in print via digital means forever.

I suspect this is where the rot has set in. Many publishers (and others – oh, the others) have worked on the principle that once you “sell” your work, the digital environment means it is no longer yours. It belongs to the publisher, forever and a day. It’s a work of words, easily copied, easily transmitted in a variety of ebook formats, and easily passed on to anyone who wants it for nothing.

I think the only reasons this hasn’t yet happened in the same way music and movies and TV shows have been pirated are twofold: one is that for many young people (the biggest percentage of illegal downloaders) books aren’t of much interest to them; the other possibly is that the perception of the starving writer is still pervasive enough that a small guilt factor comes into play. I also think the public and school library system means when people can get books for free by borrowing, they don’t bother as much with pirating. I know for myself, the easy availability of ebooks from my various libraries means my Kindle purchases have nosedived!

I’ve been reading this week about copyright issues, and how in the music industry, singers and bands with a profile can simply go back on the road and make their money from concerts. The “live” aspect can’t be duplicated, not really. But as one artist said, what about all the others in the industry – the sound engineers, the marketing guys, the producers – where do they earn their wages? Other areas of the arts have a similar advantage. Ballet, dance, theatre, visual arts – even good reproductions are nowhere near the same as the live event. Looking at paintings on my computer doesn’t compare to being at MOMA and seeing them for myself.

But films and TV shows and music and – I hate to say it – books? Easily reproducible with little loss of experience. So what the heck is a writer to do? Here comes that slippery eel again.
There are certain situations in which the words I write are already paid for and I lose copyright. I know these conditions in advance and decide whether or not to agree to them. Journalists and many magazine staff writers know that the work they produce as part of their job belongs to their employer. As a teacher at a university/TAFE, I know that class materials I write for my paid employment technically belong to my employer (which is why I write my own original materials first, which belong to me, and then write extracts and adaptive material for classes – because I know the conditions of employment). But for works I write myself, for my own purposes, the water is getting murkier.

When it comes to my contracted books that are out there in the bookshops and on sale online, if something is pirated, what recourse do I have? One. I can email the site owner/administrator and demand it be taken down. I’ve done this several times (as has my publisher) to no avail. Most of the sites I have found are operating out of South America or China.

As primarily a children’s writer, I do have the “live” option of school visits and library talks that I get paid for, but this is a small part of my income. (Some writers do many school visits and make a good living, by the way.) But mostly I have the works I produce, and I am in a marketplace that affects me in many different ways.

The first way is copyright territories. There has been much said about protecting Australian writers and their copyright. To a certain extent, I agree with this. Except the more we develop a digital environment where the consumer expects to be able to buy any book they want from anywhere in the world, I’m becoming more unsure as to how protecting Australian copyright benefits me. (But I will stay tuned and try to stay informed, all the same. Another eel swimming around me.)

To be completely honest, what I have found (now and in the past) is that Australian publishers demand world rights to my books, and very often cannot sell them. Meaning they publish my book in Australia and NZ, and try to sell it into the US, the UK and various other territories, and more often than not, don’t. It works the other way, too. I sold a novel to a US publisher, kept Aust/NZ rights but then nobody here wanted them because “world rights were no longer available”. The persistent (and probably true) perception that Australian rights provide a poor return on their own does and will continue to hamstring any Australian writer from developing their career beyond our shores. The other perception that e-rights will help to sell more copies of an Australian book is really only proving true for the best-sellers. I look at my royalty statements and e-books payments are minimal.

Too often, arguments about copyright territories are based on writers such as Tim Winton and Graeme Simsion and the like. Those very few who sell into multiple territories and win awards. They are such a small percentage of Australian writers that it makes me want to scream. While we parrot about copyright and what it “provides” for Australian writers, nobody seems to take a good hard look at what problems it raises TODAY. Not last year or last decade. NOW. The publishing industry, copyright issues and rights management is in turmoil, and everyone has their own perspective, and everyone wants to make money, but what happened to the music industry is acting like this tolling death bell and nobody is really talking about the ordinary writer.

He points to the key issue with copyright, which is more than just pirating and territories. It’s that if I create something – a book say – then it belongs to me. Forever. Unless I willingly and with full knowledge of the consequences (and you’d be surprised how many people don’t understand the consequences) sign the copyright over to someone else. Hopefully for a decent or large sum of money.

And the big, big, big point I want to make with this is – if I don’t create it, who will? Intrinsic to my copyright is my originality. My idea, my language, my choice of words, my voice, my hours and hours and hours of hard work to bring it to fruition. If it was that easy to produce a novel, why aren’t computers doing it? Why do best sellers happen? Any publisher will tell you they often have no idea. It is something about what the writer did that strikes an amazing chord with readers. It can’t be duplicated by others, and often it can’t be predicted. But that doesn’t and shouldn’t take away from all the other writers who are busting their guts to produce the absolute best original work they can. We are all very aware of the marketplace and that you only make money from what sells. That is not the issue.

From this comes my other big question. If writers don’t create original works (often for little or no reward), and their copyright and originality and use of words is not rewarded financially at least (because this is a capitalist society we live in), where will books in the future come from? Where will originality come from? Where will brilliant, life-changing books come from? Where will books that stir passions and cause uprisings and show us our own world in all its glory and horror come from?
Copyright is a slippery word these days, like I said. It’s being used to push a lot of different barrows by a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons. But I’d like to pull you right back to the basic question. If I, and writers like me, are not being financially recompensed (through our copyright – the one thing we own) for the work we do, why should we continue to produce books for everyone else’s benefit but our own?

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Are you a first-drafter or a revisioner?

People often talk about “what kind of writer you are” – whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, for example, meaning do you write whatever comes into your head or do you create a detailed outline first. Or they might ask if you are a fowl or an owl. Do you write best early in the morning or late at night? I’ve always fallen in the middle for both. I write best after lunch, I think, and I’ve learned how to do outlines that are rough diagrams but that work for me.

I have a writer friend who is a revisioner, she says. She almost hates the first draft, the feeling of having to create something out of nothing, and lives for multiple revisions. I, on the other hand, had been cultivating a hatred of revision, until I learned what it could do for me if I approached it properly. Properly as in the same way I learned how to outline with diagrams and notes – the method that suits me best.

The first thing I realised is that just like every novel is different and has different issues to wrestle with, so every revision is different. What happens in the revision usually stems from what I can recognise I did wrong in the first draft. I didn’t plot strongly enough? I have multiple plot holes to fill, as well as character motivations and choices to think through more deeply. I didn’t delve into my characters deeply enough? I have to do that now before I start revising or I’ll be wasting my time. Spent too much time (or not enough) on setting and description? Got sidetracked too many times into minor characters? All things to fix in the revision.

I’ve discovered the key to revision is understanding what I did in the first draft. Did I spend the whole of the first draft trying to decide if my character is 12 or 16? Hmmm. That kind of doubt shows up in voice and is hard to fix, but not impossible. It means the revision has to focus on language and character, line by line, thought by thought. The strange thing is – understanding all of this about my processes hasn’t made either the first draft or the revisions more difficult. By working much harder over the past few years on revision, I’ve opened a “release valve”.

Now my first drafts are much more fun. I can recognise much earlier if I’m going wrong, I can stop and rework what I need to in order to be able to write the rest of the first draft more freely. I understand now why some writers have to perfect each scene or chapter before they can move onto the next. It’s like making sure your stepping stones aren’t wobbling under you before you move to the next one. (It’s not how I write, but I can use a bit of that to ensure my first draft is more solid.) I also have a bunch of writing exercises I can use to deepen the first draft – exercises for “writing around the novel” that mostly came from my Hamline advisor, Marsha Qualey.

I’m still not going to be like my friend and love the revisions. It’s more that I understand how to make the most of them, how to be a craftswoman instead of just a tinkerer. It means I am also more clearheaded about cutting, tightening, restructuring sentences and sentence order, and especially about reaching into the heart of the story to see if it’s really beating. Or just lying on the couch watching reality TV, eating chips and pretending.

I don’t think it matters whether you’re a first-drafter or a revisioner. What really matters is to know which you are, and to strengthen your skills at doing the other so you have a balance. Otherwise you’ll either always have first drafts of novels that never reach publishing standard, or you’ll be stuck on revising one novel for the next 20 years!