25 December 2007

Black-and-white photography

When I was studying for my science degree we got to choose two electives. Some people chose course-orientated subjects like virology, but I went outside the course-type subjects and chose computers and medical photography. Each elective lasted for six months. I fell in love with photography, in much the same way as I was in love with writing. One was the straight image and one was my interpretation of an image, the image in words. I also fell in love with black-and-white photography, which until then I had seen as old-fashioned and boring. Perhaps the writing parallel is poetry -- something I never liked much at school and considered a bit old-fashioned, something I discovered later. Black-and-white photography is an interest I've never really pursued -- I intended to go the whole hog, get myself a darkroom, a yellow safety light, the whole works, but I never did.

Nowadays, of course, I've gone digital. It's largely a matter of cost, but I still wish I had my old SLR. And one day I must invest in Photoshop or some other proper digital editing program. In the meantime, I'm a sometimes devourer of photography magazines (okay, an occasional devourer -- you're much more likely to find me poring over a book on writing). And I've been thinking about black-and-white photography, particularly because my small instamatic has the capacity to take black-and-white photos. Here's one I took at the prom. And one that was a colour photo that I've stripped the colour out of. Which do you prefer? Can you tell which is which? (If you've considered hard and really want to know, you can scroll down and find the colour photo in the "calendar shots" below. Check the foreground to tell help you match it.)

24 December 2007

Why I love real life research

It's all very well to hit the books and read up on a location, but nothing beats actually being there and absorbing the sights and sounds and smells. And best of all you can happen upon things that you didn't expect to see. I've been to the Prom a number of times, and, having grown up in a beach-side suburb, I've spent a lot of time at beaches in general. But on this trip I saw something that I'd never seen before: thousands of little crabs, each no bigger than a ten-cent piece (Australian -- say about 1.5 cm diameter), leaving fabulous patterns in the sand. As we approached, they burrowed under the sand, completing this with a somersault-type action. It was hard to get a close-up photo because they seemed to sense our approach and dive under early. Here a few photos though -- and I just know that the editing pass I'm about to embark on is going to have a new detail in the coastal scene: crabs. It's these little details that make the setting more believable, more unique.

Final four

22 December 2007


Last weekend we had four days at Wilson's Prom. I love the Prom, and it makes me feel close to the characters of my novel because it is part of their world. The beach ride that my characters embark upon under cover of darkness takes part on a much longer version of Norman Beach. I did the research there -- walked a good way with eyes closed in freezing water to see whether I could navigate the beach, blind, with only the feel of water on my ankles as a guide. The tracks that lead away from Normal Beach -- both to Little Oberon Bay in one direction and to Squeaky Beach in the other provided inspiration for the forests near the beach. So I go to the Prom and feel close to my characters. So here's the first four months of my "calendar trip" to the Prom:

Catching up: Poetrix launch

Between Christmas (no, actually, I haven't done anything about Christmas yet: no tree, no presents -- yet) -- all right, between social outings, a trip away to the Prom, having kids home from school for a couple of weeks and trying to write, I am way behind with my blogging. Life gets busier, which means there's more to blog about, but less time to do it, and writing has to come first. So forgive me for my lateness in posting all of this...

On Saturday 8 December, we had the launch of our latest issue of Poetrix at Federation Square. We don't "launch" many issues -- most go out into the world without such fanfare, but every now and then we like to remind ourselves of why we're doing this (which is to get great Australian poetry by women poets out to readers), and there's no better way than to have a launch and invite our subscribers and contributors to come along. Mostly, our launches coincide with round numbers -- so expect a launch with Issue 30! And sometimes we've done other things to celebrate as well -- so for Issue 10 we ran an acrostic competition (an acrostic, for anyone who doesn't know, is a poem in which the first letter of every line, when read together, spells something out, which like the title of the poem gives the poet a chance to add another layer to the poem).

The launch for #29 went really well. The Atrium is an airy space filled with light and framed by artistic "scaffolding" -- I love this kind of architecture! I remember being blown away in Paris by the Centre Georges Pompidou many years ago. You either love this sort of thing or you don't, and I do.

A number of our local poets came to read their poems, and the editorial committee read a selection from interstate poets, which we chose ourselves. I read Jude Aquilina's "Felis Domestica", a poem I absolutely love.

We shared space with readers from Small Change Press, a new Queensland poetry press, which was an interesting mix because our readers were all female and theirs all male (though one read a poem from one of their women poet's collections). I think we complemented each other well, though I think most of the audience was ours. Poets love to read their work (well, some do -- me, I've never been that keen on performing), so many of the audience were there to either read or to hear friends/family read. So the trick with pulling in a crowd to a poetry reading, if you don't have a lot of guest readers as we did, is to have an open mic session, but then, of course, it's potluck as to the quality.

The other thing we had was a professional photographer -- Rosina Lamberti, who is the Federation Square Events photographer. Great for me, as I forgot my camera!

The best part of all was meeting some of our contributors and supporters. Some we know, like Helen Cerne who is in Western Union Writers, Trudy Campbell, a past student of mine and Sherryl's, Lorraine McGuigan, editor of Poetry Monash, and some like Lerys Byrnes, I've only ever met on the page, so it's lovely to put faces to names. And then there are the long-time supporters, people like the wonderful Helen Annand, past editor of Centoria and past contributor to Poetrix who caught public transport in from Bendigo to be with us. It was Helen's first trip out for over a year, and having her make such an effort, having her tell us what a difference she thinks we are making or have made makes the effort put into publishing truly worthwhile. Thank you, Helen. We are equally appreciative of such loyalty. As we are from all our subscribers and those who contribute regularly. I must say we get some people who regularly send and are rejected, but they don't get put off, they keep sending stuff in, and nothing makes me happier than when they send something we finally love and can accept.

Photo courtesy of Rosina Lamberti

10 December 2007

Currently reading

Ah, the non-teaching part of the year, and the best part about that is that there's time to read for pleasure! Of course, this doesn't mean I stop reading as a writer, but still it's nice to read something that I have to think about purely for me and not with any other motive.

So, the first book I've tackled was a change -- I decided I'd like to give Matthew Reilly a go. I've bought two of his books along the way, with the intent of reading them (obviously!). I think as writers, no matter what type of fiction we're writing, it's interesting to go and have a look at the writers who are selling megacopies, because obviously they are doing something right. Now, I was at a writers' group meeting awhile ago and Matthew Reilly's name came up, and those who had read him (iirc) said that they couldn't finish his books, that they were badly written. Hmm. Always interesting. He's not had one book that has sold megacopies but many. Readers don't keep coming back to writers whose books they don't finish. Not everyone, it seems, feels the same way that my friends do.

So, I sat down, prepared to be entertained. And within a few pages I could both see why my friends (writers) didn't like his writing, and why lots of people (readers) do. Matthew Reilly is doing something right. I finished the book (all 700 pages of it) in two days (and I'm very happy to see that the other book that I have has the same main character -- maybe they all do?). So, that might be my next read -- though I had said that these holidays would be my Harry Potter catch-up time.

Anyway, for the writers out there, here's my analysis of what I think (and it's only my opinion of course), MR is doing right, and what he's doing wrong. (And Matthew can laugh all the way to the bank, clearly.) I'm just going to pick three things for each argument.

What he's doing wrong:

infodumps -- oh, my goodness. Does this guy love to infodump. We tell our students not to do this -- do not stop the story to give information. Try to weave it in some other way. MR has infodumps on missiles, aeroplanes, ice -- you name it. Now, here's a little admission, I go quite gooey with any information that's vaguely aeronautical (well, especially anything pertaining to space/rockets/astronauts) so I actually didn't mind some of these infodumps, though there might be better ways to handle them. The thing is that there's so many that doing them other ways might not be possible. So the real question becomes: how much of this info is absolutely essential to the reader?

description -- MR tackles this the same way that he does infodumps -- stops the story to deliver it. Usually, it's better to show the protagonist (or other characters) interacting with the scenery, e.g. rather than "The gantry was made of steel and painted blue. It spanned the chasm between the two platforms. David ran across it", it could be something like: "David ran across the steel gantry, his feet sending slivers of blue paint plunging into the chasm between the two platforms". (These are all my words, not MR's.)

suspension of disbelief -- okay, this is a high-octane story, and everything's happening in the last second before disaster strikes, but sometimes this goes a bit far. The baddies are all bad shots. The good guys are not. (MR attempts to explain this away with an infodump about weaponry that helps, but doesn't solve the problem.) One small team against a much larger force of the world's best? Hmm. But it's also the little research things -- a doctor with no equipment diagnoses how a person died by spotting lactic acid in the dead guy's throat. Really? I don't think so. There were a few moments like this for me. But still I'm prepared to give a little here, for two reasons: one is that I was being swept along, and two is that I think it's a hard call for writers to be expected to get every little thing right. Clearly, we are not experts in every field, and while I do think it's important that we endeavor to get things right, I recognise that it's not always possible. Some writers employ researchers to do the research for them, but even so surely there must come a time when we say enough is enough? If not, we could spend all our time researching and never get around to writing. There must have been about a zillion things Reilly had to research for this book. I can't tell how many things he got right and wrong, but I suspect they're mostly right. I'm prepared to cut him some slack here, but I do notice them, and they do pull me out of the story.

Let's look at the other side of the coin: what he's doing right:

plot -- most bestsellers are strongly plotted, and MR's book is no exception. This book is as tightly plotted as they come. MR does all the things a good plotter should do -- he takes his characters, puts them under pressure and then tightens the screws. He puts his characters under intense pressure, makes it as hard for them as possible, constantly backs them into corners where they seem to have no escape, and then he makes it worse. Not a page passes without something happening. A new writer could do far worse than study Reilly to see how he handles plot. Hell, I could do far worse than study how Reilly handles plot...

pace -- make no mistake, this book zips along, even despite the infodumps, and that's no mean feat given there are so many of them. Never did I feel bogged down or impatient. No, those pages were flipping over. His writing style is clean, not overly laden with adjectives, and written simply in a manner that doesn't impede the reader's progress. Still, I think the pace has a lot to do with the plot -- there being so much action and conflict -- and lots of dialogue.

scene endings/cliffhangers -- lots of these. Nearly every chapter ends on a cliffhanger. Sometimes this is overdone and verges on the Goosebump-type endings that drive me nuts, but Reilly never really crosses that line. A cliffhanger, of course, drags you on to the next scene. You have to find out what happened, and so the book becomes unputdownable. Not a bad thing for a book to be, of course!

Final word: the other book I've bought has an interview with Reilly at the back, and he addresses the question of how he interacts with his two military advisers, and says that he sometimes eschews their advice to better serve the plot. It's not a bad point, but then if credibility suffers, if readers do find their disbelief no longer suspended, then really the plot hasn't been served at all -- something we all should think about, and maybe it's a game of risks, and speculating about how many readers are going to be affected by any one error. I had an award-winning book ruined for me once, because at the beginning the main character was talking about the Morlocks in the War of the Worlds. Trouble was the Morlocks were from Wells's "other" book, The Time Machine; the Martians were the bad guys in War of the Worlds. It's all about the way the information was delivered -- it made the character lose all credibility for me. Another reader may not have been bothered (though it was for an audience who might be expected to know this).

Final final word: the real test is will I read another book. Having discovered that the two books are based on the same characters, I have to say that I will definitely read this second book. Will I buy another? Trickier question, because I see in the back of this other book that they're not all based on the same character. So many books... I might buy another based on this character, but maybe not his other books. Then again, I might not. This isn't my usual genre, and that's really where I want to be doing most of my reading. Still, it has made for a good diversion for a couple of days.

Awards news

A nice email came into my inbox a couple of days ago -- one of my friends circulating the shortlist (finalists) for the Aurealis Awards, and there was one of my stories in the Young Adult category. Writers are funny creatures. Our self-confidence waxes and wanes faster than the moon, ebbs and flows faster than the tides. It's lovely to get such validation, to sit amongst such august company. This is the first time I've made the finalist's list -- in the past the closest I've come is having a short story commended in the fantasy short story section, and that was a pretty fantastic thing to happen.

I've noticed a couple of my friends on this list: Adam Browne and Cat Sparks, so I wish them both good luck! And mine is one of my Clarion stories, the only one I've reworked so far, so I have to give thanks to all my Clarion buddies and to Nalo Hopkinson who gave me comments on this story. And of course to Western Women Writers who read it as well!

I learn so much from others -- I do believe that each of us is shaped by the shoulders of the giants we stand on, and I've had some great giants along the way. (Hi, Sherryl!) Whether I've learnt enough from them is another matter, of course, but one of the most exciting things about writing is that no matter how much you know, there's always so much more to learn. I love learning new stuff.

Here's the link to the list of finalists in case you want to peruse the list further.

01 December 2007

NaNoWriMo: the lessons learnt

Here they are in no particular order:

i) recognise when you're too tired to write. Often I'd know because suddenly I found I was writing nonsense. The next day I'd turn on the computer, and the last sentence would be about my children, or about characters that weren't in this particular storyline. The sentence would have no bearing whatsoever on what I was writing.

ii) deadlines are the best motivators ever. There's no way I would've ever thought I could write 15,000 words in two days. My best ever total before was about 4650 in a day. Now I know I can do more -- I can ask more of myself.

iii) when on a big deadline, don't take time off in the middle -- or you might find you have to write 15,000 words in two days! (There's something about the aftermath of a writing retreat...)

iv) when trying to write lots, don't try to do it all in one session. Seems obvious, right? But it was something I'd never thought consciously about before. My 4650 (or thereabouts) was one sitting. That was how I did it. Now I'll think more about blocking out my day to include more than one session.

v) you don't have to follow your own process. I usually read over and edit the previous day's work, and this is how I started NaNo, but by the end I didn't feel I had the time to do this, booted up the computer and read over the last para or so, just to pick up where I was (and to delete that totally irrelevant sentence).

vi) you can work on more than one project at a time. At least I can. I never thought I could. A novel is such a big project that I love to immerse myself in it. Think of it and nothing else. For months on end. No short stories when I'm novelling. This month though, I did a scene of the group novel we're writing for writers' group (contemporary novel cf to fantasy NaNo) and a chapter and a half of my other novel. My NaNo novel was book 2, so I was in the same world with some of the same characters, but still a different headspace.

vii) make hay while the sun shines and all of that. I could've got ahead on NaNo in the early days when I was at the island, but instead I worked on my first novel. Still, being under pressure at the end and letting the writing consume my days meant I got more done.

viii) I really don't like writing on my laptop. The motor vibrates under my left wrist, and very quickly my wrist starts to itch and burn (not literally burn). This time I stuck teatowels between my wrist and the laptop, but could still feel it. Give me my desktop and WordPerfect any time.

I'm sure there's more so I may do a follow-up post later, depending of whether I can think of anything else.

30 November 2007

NaNo done

Well, it's official. After a couple of huge days -- I had to write 15,000 words in two days -- I'm a NaNoWriMo winner. I feel there has been a few things I've neglected in the last few weeks: emails, blogs, boards, but I've refound my focus. I'm sure I've written 50,000 words of crap, but I'll decide that in a little while when I come back to read over it. That's not for today, nor the next month, which is when I have to finish the rewrite of my novel. I've got about 50,000 words to go. And one month. Easy peasy. (Except I have to do an editing pass over it too, but that's the fun part.)

Anyway, tonight I'm determined to catch my blogs up a little, so this is necessarily quick. Tomorrow I'm hoping to blog about what I've discovered doing NaNoWriMo.

25 November 2007

What's in it for me: NaNo

I've just passed the 30 k mark. Usually when I write I get into some kind of flow, and the words flow. I'm a splurger, not an agoniser, and I reckon that's a good way to be for a novelist -- which is not to say that agonisers can't write novels, because of course they can. But I think a big, fast output of words is a handy thing...

So am I in the flow? No. Of my almost 31000 words, I reckon 2 k have been easy, and the other 29 have been some of the most stubborn, intractable, obdurate words that I've ever met. Does it matter? Not really. Because I haven't given up on them. I have till Friday now to write 19000 words. Might seem an impossible task, but I'm quietly hopeful -- if not confident. Nothing like a deadline to egg me on.

Deadlines are good, helpful things. Pressure is good. I'm not sure why I lost the plot in week two (maybe I literally lost "the plot"?), but at that point I could have said, to hell with it. I'm glad I didn't, because around about now I'd be looking at the 15 k I've done instead of the 30 k. I am going to have a good bash at it and see if I can't win this stupid thing. Already, I've gotten what I want out of it: a more effective practice. I used to have that. Before I started teaching. Now I'll have to keep it up. My December goal will be finishing my first novel -- about 45 k to go, and to do an editing pass, but we will be away four days. (Still I can take hardcopy with me and edit... Oh, happy thought!)

18 November 2007

Another island photo

This is my favourite photo from the other side of the island. I love casuarinas, and these trees feature heavily in my coastal scenes,  as as do their needles on the trails! 

NaNo on

So today I got up and wrote 1500 words before going out for lunch. Came home raring to write, to see whether I can resurrect my NaNo novel from likely failure to certain success -- only my laptop, which is where it is, has overheated and crashed, so now I'm waiting for the battery to run down (as it won't switch off). But looking forward to a night of writing! Yahoo.

16 November 2007

NaNo update

The words have stopped. Dried up. Is it the dreaded writer's block? Do I believe in such a thing? Yeah, I do, and often I think it's down to either not knowing your characters well enough or a failure of nerve. Am I suffering it at the moment? I don't think so. So why have the words stopped?

I think in part it's that I need to do a bit of thinking. A bit of refamiliarising myself with the alien society I've set up and their mores. I'll get to a point and think, how do they show respect? Or what are the other members of society likely to be doing now? Or what hair colour does that Myrad have? (They control their own hair and eye colour so have all kinds of fantastic colours.) Or who is he allied with? Or what did I say stickleberries were like earlier? So I have to go through my world building questions and hunt things out. I should just use the Claire-method and asterisk things to come back to.

On another note, though, is that everytime I try to write my eyes just grow heavier and heavier. I know I have been living on the thin edge of sleep deprivation -- and caught up beautifully at Phillip Island. There's something to be said about earlier nights and a bed to yourself -- ie no-one waking you early, or being restless. My husband might agree as I whacked him in the face the other night, quite by accident! Then again I hit him in the head with a shovel yesterday. Also an accident. (Oh, it was only the handle -- he was squatting down picking something up, and I wasn't paying attention. Truly!) But, back to my appalling sleeping habits: since I've been back from our long weekend away, I've pulled several nights after 2.30. Two am really is some kind of limit for me. If I go much later than this, I'm stuffed the next day. If I make a habit of it... Well, it's not conducive to writing, that's for sure.

I did have my eyes checked recently. I'm the only member of my family who wasn't wearing glasses by age 30. My father is legally blind, from glaucoma, which was the main reason for the eye check-up. Everything is fine, but the opthalmologist did suggest using hobby glasses to help with close work. And I know I used to be able to thread a needle, but now I struggle. Maybe this computer eye-strain is for real. I suppose the first remedy is more sleep and see how I go...

15 November 2007

Editing anthologies

The last few days I've been preparing an anthology for a competition. Now, while I don't want to go into too many details -- because it is meant to be anonymous -- suffice to say we were over the word limit and so I had to do some cutting. Now, perhaps the easiest part was that I had more pieces and longer pieces than anyone else, so it was easy to be ruthless. I didn't want to touch other people's pieces too much, except to fix punctuation, and iron out any inconsistencies. It's strange the small inconsistencies that creep in.

And it's always interesting trying to make substantial cuts -- in this case akin to removing a subplot. One small change snowballs throughout the manuscript. Interesting, too, trying to edit for balance. I cut one scene completely to get within the word limit, but couldn't take the one that would have made the least impact, because that was also the writer represented least. The trouble was that my scenes impacted other scenes, which therefore also needed parts stripped out of them, just so that they still made sense.

Cutting like this is a great way to learn editing skills. I think I learnt many of mine while trying to cut more than 10% out of short stories to get them within competition guidelines. I get my class to do this every year, and every year there will be someone who is unable to complete the exercise, and I'll get them to hand it to me. They're always amazed at exactly what they can lose, and how much more smoothly the text reads.

11 November 2007


Every year I've looked at this NaNoWriMo thing and thought, why does it have to be in November? Why not NaJaWriMo or NaFeWriMo -- months when I'm not marking. Last year I spent most of November wrestling with writes and rewrites (students') of Liberal Arts essays. I felt like my head was going to explode. This year I wasn't teaching over there -- our semester ends earlier and mine earlier still because of the Cup Day holiday, and so I really had no excuse.

I was 50 k from the end of my novel (in the rewrite) and it's a 50 k commitment, so I thought, why not? Except when I read the rules it's not supposed to be stuff you're rewriting. Originally, I thought that it didn't matter. After all, if it's my NaNoWriMo, it could be whatever I wanted, right? Right. Except that when I read the reasoning why it shouldn't be a rewrite, I thought they made a good point. So I decided to head into book 2. Now, technically, this is also a rewrite because I'm already 140 k into book 2; however, I haven't worked on it for a very long time and don't remember the ins and outs. Plus I wrote a lot of it so long ago that it needs to be partly rewritten, so I decided to tackle this and do it from scratch.

Now, this was the perfect project for my long weekend away, and boy did I make a great start at it. But I still wanted to be working on my novel too, so it became a juggling act. Normally, I can't work on more than one thing at a time, but these are both the same world and characters -- same headspace -- though there is this curious experience of writing 50 k to the end, and 50 starting at the end. Bizarre. And in book 1, I'm working on two storylines simultaneously: human and Myrad (alien), whereas for NaNoWriMo, I've restricted myself to just writing the one (Myrad).

But now I'm stuck. I was referring back to the original book 2 far more than I wanted to -- but, in any case, I've introduced a major new storyline that affects this storyline dramatically so things were about to diverge radically from what I had. I think for me that really what is needed is an hour of plotting. Sometimes, I like to write without plotting, just see where it goes, but sometimes I need more structure. I suspect this might be one of those times. Today, I'm going to spend half an hour plotting and then some time writing. I'll report back in later to say how I've done!

10 November 2007

Island photos

For days, I've been trying to load some images to my post on setting but to no avail. Blogger, it seemed, didn't want to visit Ithikal (the land of my novel). Finally, today, I loaded one into the original post, but it seemed silly scrolling down to put there there, so I've started a new post for that purpose. But I've left that one there -- if you want to scroll down and have a look.

Here are some that are in keeping with my characters beach ride, including the path at the end of the beach. I think bigger cliffs, less red volcanic rock (more sandstone), but with this Australian type of forest: casuarinas (oh, so coastal!), eucalypts, callistemons -- and, yes, they are flowering at the moment, beautiful red bottlebrushes everywhere, and acacias. In my novel, it's a little earlier in the year -- the acacias are out but not much else. Wilson's Prom was very much the setting I had in mind, but I haven't been back there with a digital camera in tow... Or since it was so badly burnt nearly two (?) years ago.


A few of the members in one of my writer's groups are into spiritual stuff in a big way. Anyway, so one of the members came in the other day with a book she'd picked up at a secondhand bookshop, and it was all quotes about writing. Would've been a great book if the writers (or compilers) had just acknowledged who said them, but they didn't. Anyway, the other spiritual member picked up the book and said, "It's telling me to open it here." And she proceeded to open the book and decided that whatever was on the page was obviously something she was meant to take seriously. Really, she couldn't go wrong because the whole book was full of useful aphorisms.

So, I picked up the book and wondered what it would "tell" me. And, really, it was quite fitting -- something fitting for all of us writers, so I'm going to pay it forward and send it on to all of you:


07 November 2007

Visiting setting

I have much to blog about but I'm not feeling like tackling it chronologically at the moment. My long weekend is too much in my mind. There's something about the fellowship of writing together -- two people tapping at keyboards, one groaning or laughing and the other pausing and waiting for clarification; something about knowing each other's stories and talking about plot and characters and knowing we're both glowing when we're talking about our own characters, and yet really interested to hear of new developments in the other's; something about getting out in the setting of our novels and experiencing it (well, all right, we're both writing fantasy so we can't actually visit these worlds, but, strangely enough, we were both writing coastal scenes and happened to have the island's east and west coast handy...); something about long walks discussing structure and possibilities for restructure, and the importance of setting being atmospheric versus the impact of too much setting on pacing; the long conversations about technique and about books and about films...

Bum end indeed

Apologies to anyone following this blog for the long stretch of darkness. I've been silent running. (I love that film!) Marking, marking and more marking. Compound this with server problems -- and even problems today and last night in getting onto this site! And I've been away for four days: writing, writing and writing. 13,500 words all up. Or around about. However you want to look at it.

But I have to dash off to writing group -- today's a writing day! And am I ever in the mood.

Will update shortly.

20 October 2007

The bum end of the semester

Well, we're coming up on the bum end of the semester -- a rotten time for students who have lots of assignments due, and a rotten time for teachers who have lots of marking to do. My marking looms over me like a spectre. When I want to write, I think about my marking. Marking hangs over everything. Really, I should just sit down to do it, but this week I don't have much. I have a few late assignments, and even a couple of early ones, which is a surprise. Next week, though, I will be eating, breathing, and sleeping marking. I've had years, when I've had big classes, where I finished at 3 am the night before I had to hand it back, and then got up again at 5 just to make sure it was all done. But I try not to manage my week like that. Partly I've managed to reduce my end-of-semester load by pulling some of the word limits down by making some of this work due earlier. It's all a matter of time management.

As a 0.4 teacher, I get paid 3.15 hours of marking and preparation time a week. In all likelihood, next week I'll spend more than 20 to 30 hours marking. So it really is a matter of doing it bit by bit. But to compensate I'll have the long stretch over summer with no marking. If I'm smart, I'll use this prep time to make a big leap into next year's preparation, especially as I look likely to be teaching a new subject: Poetry. (Well, new for me.) Some of my friends teach the same subjects every year. Some teach new subjects every year. I must say I fall more into the first category. I am one of two Editing teachers, and coordinate the subject. And Novel makes a great counterpoint. I've taught a few other subjects along the way (though none put me out of my comfort zone like the one over in Liberal Arts did last year -- but that was a great experience in its own way). I think Poetry will complement the other two nicely and am quite excited about teaching it.

It's always more work teaching a new subject, but offers me a boost in other ways. The extra prep keeps me up-to-date with something I might otherwise have let slip. And makes me get back into the practice of it. For example, I haven't looked at any poetry theory for a few years. Now I'll be digging out my texts, and even better will have an excuse to go out and buy some more books! Yay.

17 October 2007

Line lengths and endings in poems

In workshopping our poems, Western Women Writers have had several discussions about line lengths and what dictates them. We've had visiting poets talk to us about how long lines should be. Some are of the Peter-Bakowski-keep-em-short school, and some are not. Line lengths do dictate flow as does enjambment.

None of us are of the a-poem-is-just-a-bit-of-prose-with-really-short-lines school, and sometimes our criticism of why a poem is not working is that it is too prosaic. Poems are their own form, and need to be working on their own terms.

In our professional development day the other day for work, a PWE (Prof Writing and Editing) teacher from another institute was talking about telling her students never to break a line after the word "the", and then the next week teaching a poem that, you guessed it, ended a line with the word "the". Of course students are invariably pleased when they see something like this, and will take great pains to point it out. "But last week you said..."

Yeah, we know, but that doesn't mean it's still not a good "rule" (and I use that word loosely) to observe. And it doesn't mean we didn't think that line might have been better served had the line been broken elsewhere. Or perhaps that this is a particularly effective breaking of the rule. Or that the teacher had an oh-shit moment when considering the poem, but decided to use it anyway because, though that line detracts, there's other elements that make it an excellent poem to study. Or that the teacher wants the students to remember that people break rules all the time.

The thing about breaking rules is that some do it well; some not so well, and the general rule of thumb is that the more experienced you are, and the more aware of the rules, the better you'll be able to break them. That's why I take great pains to teach my Editing students the grammar and punctuation rules -- not so they'll always write grammatically perfect sentences. Gotta love that sentence fragment! But so they'll learn how to break rules, how to tell if what they're doing is working and how to tell if it's not.

But, I'm digressing. Line lengths. What I find really interesting is whether we think poems with long lines are quicker or slower to read. Some say slower, because the lines are longer, and some same quicker because the lines aren't broken up as much. It is interesting because I think the reality is that they are quicker, but that there is a psychological thing that goes on when we seem them on the page that makes them feel slower. Does that make sense? Maybe it's dependent on whether we sound them out in our heads or not? I usually do when reading poetry.

The other aspect of line lengths is from the typesetting point of view. Can you tell what I've been doing this week? Yes, I'm typesetting Poetrix, and I had one poem with two lines that didn't fit on the page. In the old days I'd just carry the line over to the next, but I hate the look of it. I think it does disturb how the poem reads on the page. After all, poets put a lot of thought into where they should break their lines. Then I discovered WordPerfect's typesetter functions and learnt how to adjust letter and word spacing. This can often be done with no perceptible change on the page, so that things are squeezed up and I can get that last letter in and so the taken-over word moves back. But this time I had one line with three taken-over words, and I squeezed the text, but it was too much. The changes affected how the poem looked on the page, how readable the text was. It didn't work, so just as in the old days, I have one poem with a broken line.

As a poet myself, I wouldn't be happy about this, but it makes me think more about what magazines I'm targeting when I am sending poems out. For example, I have one poem that sits inside a diary entry of twenty years ago (before the fall of the Berlin wall) -- that poem needs a journal that's at least A4 size, and I wouldn't send it anywhere else. Poetrix is A5. As a poet I wouldn't have sent it to us. I'm not suggesting don't send us poems with long lines -- far from it. What we want to see is everyone's best work. But I'm saying, as a writer, not editor, that we should all be thinking about our line lengths, what best serves the poem, when we're sending out to markets, and most importantly when we're writing.

14 October 2007

More on how much to reveal

This is really a postscript to my last post on how much to reveal. I think I mentioned that one of my published stories had been criticised because I hadn't explained one of the key points of the story, but in my mind I had left room for the reader to do the work. Of course, I'm always left wondering after such criticism whether it's the reviewer or the story or both, and usually it's likely to be both.

I used that story for an editing assignment, taking just the first two pages and introducing a range of spelling, grammatical errors and some wordiness that I wanted students to cut out. One student came up to me afterwards saying she was very keen to find out what had happened. "Clearly," she said, "the main character is one of those other beings..." Yes, yes, yes! She'd only had two pages and had drawn the conclusions I wanted her to draw (though, really, making the connection wasn't necessary to understand the story, just opened out another layer). So at least I'm left knowing that it's not completely the story at fault...

13 October 2007


Yesterday, we had a get-together with a lot of other Prof Writing teachers from around the state. Such days are tremendous -- a chance to talk about what we teach and how we teach it, to throw around ideas and glean insights to what goes on in other campuses (and how well off we are or are not sitting in all sorts of areas). We had a couple of guest speakers, one from Lonely Planet, to talk about working there as an editor and one to talk about managing students who are having problems. But perhaps the most useful part of the day was when we got into subject groups to talk about our subjects.

I was astounded in the novel writing group to hear one teacher say she was yet to be convinced that doing workshopping in class was at all useful. At all useful? I think it's vital! Mind you, there are a different number of ways workshopping can be done, and not all of them are as useful as others. Here are some ways I've been part of a workshop:

(i) the writer reads out their work and, after listening, people give comments back. Really, as a means of getting constructive feedback, this is useless. Great if all you want is a pat on the back, but I always find it's difficult to maintain concentration, and to some extent my engagement with the story is determined by the writer's reading-out-loud voice. A bad writer can mangle a great story. I've seen it poems too: a performance poet who makes a dull-on-the-page poem sparkle, and a monotonous reader who makes a thoughtful poem come out flat and boring.

(ii) the writers read each other's work on the day and make comments on the page. Often the writers work in small groups (and in a classroom situation, this usually means that the teacher hasn't read the work). Sorry, but I don't think this works well either. It might work if you have great workshoppers who know what they're doing, but for new students who need guidance... Nope, you're not going to sell me on that one as a method. And as a teacher I like to hear what everyone has to say, which I can't do if I'm moving from group to group. Plus, I like to take part in the workshopping -- it's a great chance to discuss what's working and what isn't and to use this as a further, real-life teaching tool. And I think you get far better comments when people have time to take home a story and let it digest. Doing it on the spot puts some people under too much pressure.

(iii) writer's take copies home (or email it to each other). They write notes on each other's hard copy and then come and discuss it -- either in a whole class (my preferred method because the more voices you have, the more things will get picked up), in small groups (necessary sometimes in big classes) or in small groups in front of the whole class, which can work. I loved the whole-class workshop best as a student, and I love it best as a teacher. Again, I have the control and can monitor how much effort everyone is putting in. And I get to hear everyone's comments, which can be informative for me too!

My classes always use method three. I have variations -- special directions that they can follow for intense workshopping, and use the Clarion variations: the "ditto" and "anti-ditto" rules to stop unnecessary repetition, and also in forbidding the workshopee from speaking until everyone has finished discussing their story. Really, I think this works well.

06 October 2007

Changes late in the draft

I love the shower as a thinking place, but of course these days with drought and water restrictions, standing under the warm water to think is a luxury I can't really afford. However, this morning, I had a little extra time because I'd been scrubbing out the mould that had begun sprouting in the grouting (dreaded internal rhyme!) and was washing off the bleach, and thinking about my novel. Most times when I'm doing menial tasks, or just sitting about daydreaming, this is where my mind wanders. I call it working on my novel. If I daydreaming, my family call it slacking. We have to agree to disagree on that one.

Today, I had an idea for a character change for one of my major characters. Trouble is I'm late in a draft, so do I go with it? In truth, it probably doesn't make much difference to how her character acts because it's something that she keeps secret, but it does make a difference to her internal landscape, most particularly in matters like self-esteem. A major pro is that it's an issue I haven't seen dealt with in a fantasy book before, but the con is that it's an issue usually dealt with in YA, not adult books. Should that matter? Probably not. Will I implement the change? I'm not sure.

When I have an idea for a radical change, I usually like to sit on it a few days, mull over it, turn it over more in my head. Change is what keeps a redraft refreshing, keeps me interested as a writer. Change usually sees a deepening of the characterisation, and that's always a good thing.

01 October 2007

Walking out the novel

Today, I was out walking my dogs on the dog beach. My son had come along and had found a piece of pipe and was busy constructing a sandwall with the pipe embedded to stop flooding of the imaginary city he was going to build. He was in fantasy land and so was I. While he did that, I walked along the beach for a while, turning over my characters in my mind. I became one character, and had an imaginary conversation with another, which resulted in me going home and belting out a scene, though it wasn't for the novel I'm currently writing and probably won't make it into the final cut because it's too inconsequential. I'm rather loving the idea of one day having my website with links to the chapters that have been culled, rather like the deleted scenes on a DVD. I love the deleted scenes.

I also love walking along and being with my characters, being inside their heads, being them. Doesn't mean I pick up a sword and slash away -- rather I'm thinking about their personal lives, the stuff of subplots, the romance elements (yes, I do have a romantic thread, though it isn't so apparent in the first book). All of this helps me enrich the characters -- helps me believe in them as people, living in my created world.

So, it was interesting to read my friend's blog (Forge and Brew) and find she was blogging about the exact same thing, though in a different way. And then to read a comment that Snail had posted about what she's thinking about during staff meetings. And also that when our past student came to talk to my students about her novel, she talked about holding conversations with people when you're really thinking about your characters. Quite funny really, if you then consider a conversation between two writers. Who knows what they're thinking? (Unless they're talking writing, of course -- in which case they're fully focused.)

27 September 2007

More words

Here's another one that riles me: the use of "try and" for "try to". We're going to try and go to the shops. That doesn't mean we're going to try to go to the shops; it's means we're going to try, and we're going to do it as well, but very few people make this distinction.

26 September 2007

Shifting word meanings

I love words. The editor in me loves the part where I go through the dictionary checking a word is spelled correctly, is being used correctly. The writer loves to wallow in the sounds of words, the rhythms. Both parts combine to form the me who likes to preserve the little differences between words, who loathes the fact that words shift in meaning, often because people don't use them correctly.

Here are some that come up for me regularly. My number one bugbear is the difference between "disinterested" and "uninterested". For the purists (like me) "disinterested" is "unbiased", so you want a disinterested umpire in charge of your cricket match. But many writers use it when they mean "uninterested" (not interested), and, yes, it's been used so much so that the meaning is shifting and "not interested" is now being listed in the latest edition of the Macquarie as one of the meanings of "disinterested". I hate that. Truly. It bugs me that professional writers don't use this correctly. One of my favourite writers does it all the time, and it makes me want to throw her books across the room. Over the top, perhaps, but it really inspires rage in me. My funniest example though, and one I show my editing class, is an article bemoaning the incorrect use of words that then uses "disinterested" incorrectly. If you are going to write an article about it, and have it published in a writing magazine, you'd better get your language right. (And, yes, I realise I confused "marquee" and "marquis" the other day, but I was tired and hadn't proofread the posting because this is only a blog, and while I do like it to be all correct, I'm not as fussed as I would be about a published article. Does that just seem like me making excuses? Too bad.)

One that amuses me more than upsets me is the difference between "fortuitous" and "fortunate". "Fortuitous" means "accidental", but people use it all the time (especially in speech) when they mean "fortunate". Again, this is going to shift in meaning, if it hasn't done so already. It's a bit like mixing up "tortuous" and "torturous", though sometimes, for the car sick, a journey can be torturous because the road is tortuous.

"Alright" for "all right" drives me batty as an editor. As a teenager, I had a strong preference for the single word, but my Webster's lists it as "inferior usage", and I now can't stomach the single word, and while the Cambridge style guide recommends using it, the Penguin Working Word doesn't acknowledge it at all. I'll always go with the what-doesn't-upset-anyone approach if I can, so as a writer, editor and teacher, I still correct this to two words, though I note that many of my students resist this change. (But then a surprising number of them insist on spelling "lose" as "loose" too.)

"Decimate" -- I still prefer the original meaning of culling one in ten, and so this is the way I use it in my novel. "The Great Decimation" is exactly that, in the Roman sense of the word. Of course these days it is more often used in the sense of "devastated" or "destroyed".

Others that frequently get misused are "personable", and "nauseous" being used for "nauseated" -- again this is changing, but some of my writing friends feel strongly about this particular misuse as well. (Though can we classify it as a misuse once that change has happened, for whatever reason?)

23 September 2007

Watching like a writer

Yesterday, Sir Talkalot and I went to the movies to see Stardust. I hadn't heard anything about this movie, and by chance followed a link off the cinema website to find out what it was about. Neil Gaiman -- that told me enough. So, then I had a look at the preview -- fantasy -- and knew this was a must-see for me.

How did this little sleeper get past me? It was a wonderful film, full of other worlds, fallen stars personified, sky pirates -- though Sir T and I both decided it would be immeasurably improved by cutting the last line, but that's another story.

What I found interesting was how quickly I picked up clues, which later turned out to be right. Was this the writer in me watching, or was it as simple as just being an adult watching? Sir T didn't get any of the clues I got, which doesn't help me sort it out. At the first mention of things, puzzle pieces were slotting into place, leaving me wondering whether I was supposed to be making these leaps or not. Quite possibly I was.

It's that eternal quandary when writing about how much you tell the reader. I know we had a discussion about it the other day in Western Women while workshopping a story.

When is a twist not a twist but a well-earned turn in the plot, rather than an abrupt about-face because the reader has held back information or gone off in a new direction? Does it differ in different genres? This movie was obviously meant for children (as well as adults), so obviously more information has to be given out. Children can't work as hard as readers because they just don't have that experience.

Anyway, back to the movie -- it had a lovely, innocent warmth to it, a charm, and a great undercurrent of humour that ran through it. Highly recommended for everyone, but especially for fantasy lovers!

21 September 2007

Writing groups: part 2: organisation/politics

Something else to think about in finding the perfect writing group is the organisational side of things. How often do they meet? Is it going to be too often or not enough for you? Most of the groups I'm in or have been in meet once a month, but Western Women is weekly, and SuperNOVA is talking about having a second, different kind of meeting every month, largely thanks to Ellen who came up with the brilliant idea of having a novel-writers' get together to talk about writing. For those of us not keen on workshopping, this is a Godsend. There's nothing I like more than getting together with writers and talking about writing. (Oh, except for writing, of course!)

Something else that affects organisation is the size of the group -- and this can dictate where they meet. Western Women used to meet in the Footscray Community Arts Centre, which was great when they had us upstairs in a gallery, but gradually we were "downscaled", first to a room in the dungeon (which I quite liked), then to a room where the potters met to make things, so the benchtops were often slathered with wet or flaking, dry clay. This didn't work nearly as well. Western Union used to meet at people's houses, but then the group got too large and found a space at a neighbourhood house, but many didn't find the atmosphere as convivial, so the group eventually went back to meeting at houses. Similarly, SuperNOVA (in its old Nova days) used to meet at a pub in Williamstown, but as it got too large it too moved to having meetings at people's homes, which works better for them. Melbourne Writers met at the Bailleau Library at Melbourne Uni -- this group, with about 80 members, was far too large to meet at people's homes, which is not to say 80 ever turned up for a meeting while I was there. Meetings seemed to average 15 to 25 people, but this brought in another set of considerations, because you had to book your workshop place months in advance, and the month before you would duly bring in 30 or so copies, hand them out, only to find the following month that only about three people at the meeting had attended the previous meeting and so had received your story, and the other twelve had never read it and had nothing to contribute.

SuperNOVA is another big, sprawly group, but one that eschews the regimented organisation of Melbourne Writers Group and tends towards a more anarchic approach. No booking schedules for crits. No hard and fast rules about when meetings are -- well, there are supposed to be hard and fast rules, but there's often someone who will say they can't make a particular meeting and ask if it be moved. The answer to this question should be no. Especially in a big group. But it often isn't. Then there is an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing about when and where the meeting's going to be. Sometimes so much so that no meeting eventuates. I know it drives some of the more organised members balmy.

Another consideration is the politics of the group. Does everyone write the same kind of thing, for example, in SuperNOVA it's speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror)? If you're writing something outside of this genre either often or occasionally, are you going to be able to workshop it? Mostly, people are workshopping SF in SN, but occasionally someone will apologetically ask if they can workshop something outside the genre. I don't think they should be apologetic. We should all use our writing groups as best we can -- and while people may not have the writing or even reading experience outside their genre, we are all experienced readers, and can comment on things like characterisation, setting, words on the page etc. Nothing annoys me more than people who say, "I don't read this kind of story, so I've got nothing to say." That's a cop out. Melbourne Writers had a preference towards more literary fiction and poetry. In Western Women, I'm the only spec fict writer, though Sherryl does occasionally dabble. She's the only crime writer. When I first joined, they all seemed to be writing poetry, and I told them I didn't write poetry. I had no intention of starting either, and now I've had more poetry published than anything -- so a good writing group can expand your boundaries, as long as you leave yourself open to the possibilities.

20 September 2007

Writing groups: part 1: critiquing

One of my students asked for information about what to look for in a writing group. I feel like something of a connoisseur of writing groups, having been in four: Western Women Writers, Western Union Writers, Melbourne Writers Group and SuperNOVA (formerly NOVA). Each of these groups has been different in structure and in what they offered me. Some have been a better fit for me than others, but what is important is finding the group that offers you the best fit.

You need to decide what you want out of a group. Do you want a group that critiques your work -- that tears it apart and analyses it and says what's working and what isn't? A good critiquing group is worth its weight in published manuscripts. However, a critiquing group is not for everyone. Some people are not robust enough to take honest criticism, whether they are new writers or experienced. I've seen published writers come and sit through a critiquing session at Western Women Writers and quaver at the level of criticism. If you think hearing negative comments about your story may destroy your confidence, then you're not yet ready for this kind of group. Find another type of group, one that's more encouraging, until you're ready.

There is more than one kind of problem that arises in a group with a member who is not ready for workshopping. Firstly, it can destroy that writer's confidence -- especially if they're a new writer. (This can arise from both constructive and destructive criticism -- more on destructive criticism later.) The second problem that can arise out of someone not ready for workshopping is when they feel compelled to argue against every suggestion made. Nothing annoys workshopping members more than someone who is not receptive to comments. The workshoppers wonder why they have wasted their time when they could have been writing! Another form of this is the writer who seems to accept criticism but never learns from it, and continues to make the same mistakes, or even worse who re-presents the same piece over and over with virtually no changes, and all the workshopping suggestions ignored. (Actually, there is something that annoys workshoppers more: when the critiques are all delivered and the new member sits back with a smug grin and says, "Well, actually, you're all wrong, because that story's already been published." Don't do it. It's a sure-fire recipe for ending what could have been a beautiful beginning.)

Some groups are more supportive than critical. Western Union Writers is like this. If ever there was a group suited to the nervous beginner, it's this group -- and it offers plenty for more-experienced writers too. Writers take their work along and read it out loud and the the rest of the group offer gentle criticism and lots of encouragement. It's a great way to practise your reading-aloud skills, to network with other writers so you don't feel so alone -- the writer-in-the-garret syndrome -- and they do run workshops and have a writers' retreat once a year. Great stuff if that's what you're after and many writers are. And that's fine, but if you're really serious about getting published, at some time you're probably going to need a good critique group.

A professional-level critique group will give you far more criticism than pats on the back -- professionals hardly ever pat each other on the back. What they're after is ways to make this story the best story it can be, not an ego-stroking. If you want to be a writer you should shelve that ego right now! (Shelving it is good both to stop you getting a bighead when things are going well, but also to keep you from despair when they're not.)

A word about destructive criticism, because I said I'd come back to it. Destructive criticism helps no-one and shouldn't be tolerated. Ever. If you do want a critiquing group, make sure the criticism is constructive -- ie that it helps you by suggesting ways you could fix things. Years ago, after a masterclass at the Melbourne Writers Centre, I had one writer who reacted badly to a critique I gave on his story (which I thought worked very well overall) by sledging a piece of my work. He started out with, "I wish I could say something good about this story, but there was nothing." Luckily for me, the workshop convenor, Jack Dann had plenty of good things to say about it.

Clarion is an intensive workshop experience, and there's stories of writers who go and never write again. I know afterwards my own output dried up for a while, but I was suffering burnout as much as anything. I went into Clarion at the end of teaching,and in my six weeks living in a student dorm with no airconditioning in Brisbane's hottest summer on record (at the time), I wrote six stories (including a trunk story I wrote just before going up) and one collaborative story, 50,000 words of a journal, worked a little on my novel, critiqued over 500,000 words and then went straight from Clarion into a teaching round that had already started. Too much. But I can see why some writers never write again: it's a hothouse of emotions as creative energy is sapped by the relentless pressure, and the crits are hard (but fair). It's like the most intense writers' group you could ever imagine, but, yeah, you have to be ready for the criticism!

15 September 2007

Getting closer

Today, I've been doing some workshopping of student stories, and I noticed one who has been struggling to write from inside her character's head has finally brought the action that little bit closer by using thoughts. In the group novel we're doing, I'd been given instructions that I was to deliver some of the back story, which largely had to be done by thoughts. I did feel, anyway, that my character didn't spend nearly as much time ruminating as some of the others. I think I'm always a bit wary of overdoing it, because I've read that direct thoughts can annoy readers, and I know I am rather fond of writing direct thoughts; therefore, I hold back.

Trying something new can be quite liberating. It's not that I've never tried to deliver backstory before, but rather that working on a new project can make you appreciate things in a different light. For me there was a minor lightbulb moment (or perhaps the turning on of a low wattage light!) that I don't deliver that much backstory throughout my novel. It's something I could bear to do a little more of.

I am currently approaching the end of my thirteenth draft. At least I'm calling it my thirteenth, but there are some that are labelled something like "draft 12.5", which means it started as the thirteenth incarnation, but was abandoned for various reasons halfway through, so never became a complete draft. On the other hand, some drafts are really just editing passes. I have long ago determined that this will be my last draft (unless an editor takes it of course and wants me to redraft, which I am perfectly happy to do). This is the first draft I have been happy with, and that is an important milestone for me. I can't control whether it's ever published or not -- not beyond making it as good as it can be. The rest, then, is up to my agent, and even then I know it involves a modicum of luck.

I have determined though that I will do an editorial pass at the end of this draft. It was just to be a quick read over, but since my new discovery about my own writing will play in nicely with what the last editor who read it has said, I will pay attention to this as I go through. (For comparison, a quick read would take me a couple of days; an editing pass a couple of weeks; a full rewrite, considerably longer.) Of course my one problem is that I will again be adding words when I need to cut, cut, cut. Oh, for a publisher who loves a truly fat fantasty book!

13 September 2007

Putting in the time

Tonight, I had several things I could be doing: writing, marking late Novel 2 assignments, marking Editing assignments, correcting student writing from Editing, workshopping Novel 2 chapters, reading and making selections from a Poetrix folder, rewriting my last section from the group novel, doing submissions (which I'm atrociously bad at making time to do, but seeing as I had a poem accepted today, I might feel inspired for a couple of days -- so must grab this time while I can), writing material for my online unit, writing material for my website, and catching up with blogs and emails. Instead, I found myself doing homework -- and while I have been at a training course for three days with work, this was homework for my piano teacher.

I've always wanted to play piano. When I was small, friends of ours had a piano, and I always thought it the most lovely of instruments. Our friend, Neville (really Mum and Dad's friend), still lived at home, and the piano was his mother's, and she would let me play with it. As a teenager, I learnt how to play a simple tune that involved rolling my knuckles back and forward along the black keys, and if people asked if I could play I would jokingly say yes and then perform this. It usually left them flabbergasted, though at the time I don't think I realised this wasn't necessarily a good thing.

Throughout my childhood, teen years and early adulthood, the piano remained this exotic, almost mystical instrument -- one we couldn't afford to own. I dreamed of playing, but knew it was futile to ask for lessons. When my friend Julie had guitar lessons, I secretly envied her parents' investing in her musical education. But we had no piano to practise on in any case.

My husband had an electronic keyboard -- and while his father is a great proponent of the electronic keyboard over the piano, I loathe it for its inferior sound. When we had kids, we sent our oldest off to have lessons. My husband raced off and bought a piano for her to practise on, unaware that halfway through her first lesson Princess Sleepyhead's teacher would halt her and tell her that was it, and to have a good life. Fortunately, two years later we found her another teacher, one who was wonderfully patient. In the meantime, I started to teach myself to play, and although I was enthusiastic, I was trying to write so spare time went into writing, not practising.

Years later, frustrated at children who were obviously musical, but unwilling to practise, I took up lessons too, which first of all meant unlearning all the bad habits I'd taught myself (but, on the other hand, left me with a strong propensity for sight reading). Soon, I was playing far more difficult songs than the children were -- but I might add with far less fluency than they were capable of -- something two years later I still struggle with, because I'm so busy thinking about where my fingers should be going next.

At first, wanting to inspire the children, and perhaps frustrated by my burn-out after Clarion, I practised often. Maybe playing offered me the creative outlet that writing had refused me; maybe it salved the creative frustration I was feeling. Others might call it the perfect procrastination tool. I don't know. I never saw it as this. But I know as my writing drive has grown strong again, I'm practising less and less. It's not that I don't want to practise, or that I'm lazy (and I quite like the challenge of scales, which I see more as pattern recognition), just that I don't have time.

To be a concert pianist (not that I'm aspiring towards this) we all know you have to spend hours and hours practising. I'd settle for something far less ambitious: just to play songs I like, fluently and without mistakes. Most writers, though, are aiming for concert pianist level with their writing -- that is that they want to be published, want people to pay to read their work, want the acknowledgment of their peers. Yet many writers aren't prepared to do those long hours of practise. I can see this is what I've been doing in the rewrites of my book: spending the time, learning and honing the craft. I don't mind this -- I've enjoyed putting in the long hours. I'm serious about my writing in a way that I'm not serious about my piano. I have done and continue to do the long hours -- and I derive a lot of enjoyment from these hours. I cannot see why other writers do not -- but I see this in my students all the time. Perhaps it is laziness, perhaps fear, perhaps it's just not the obsession for them that it is for me. To achieve exalted level status, you have to be prepared to work. Bum on seat. All of that. All those hoary old chestnuts: it's 10% inspiration and...

We know how it goes. We know how easily it can go wrong. We know sometimes it can go right. What we need to decide is how much we're willing to put in to make the dream happen. I don't know if I'll ever achieve even the level of proficiency I want in piano -- because I'm not driven enough. That's okay. That's my choice. But I do know with writing, I'm going to continue to give it all I've got.

10 September 2007

My pet hate

Today, among other things, I've been reading subs for Poetrix, and I was all set to blog about the wonders of discovering the perfect image embedded in a poem, and more on our editorial process, when I came across one of my pet hates. And maybe this is a pet hate because I do the typesetting, and more than once we have been caught out with people who have submitted to multiple publishers, but my pet hate is people who write in their cover letter "...and if I have not heard from you in three months I will feel free to send my work elsewhere". Excuse me while my blood chocolates on the way to boiling. (Old microbiology term -- at around fifty-six degrees C, blood denatures and turns a lovely chocolate colour.)

This particular offender was dated 31 May, so quite possibly the poems I was reading are now doing the rounds somewhere else. I am a writer too, so I know it's a frustrating game of waiting. I get it -- I really do. And I get that some places do hold onto stuff forever -- and perhaps we seem guilty of that too, but the fact remains that every issue has in the prelims our closing dates: 28 February and 31 August. Now, these dates have not changed in the over-ten-years that we have been producing the magazine. We have been very open about how we operate. We do not read submissions as they come in, but pool them and begin reading after the closing date. It's really up to you to find out what those dates are if you want to time limit how long we have to read. It's a fair guess that if you send your work on 31 May, you're not going to make the 28 Feb deadline. And if you're only going to let us hold them three months, then that expires on ... wait for it ... yes, 31 August, which gives us exactly zero days to formulate a response.

We have a committee that reads all poems, which means they have to circulate between at least five of us. Want to keep us to three months? Then try sending just before the closing date. I realise that not everyone can buy a copy of every magazine, but if you're not prepared to do the groundwork, then don't limit time this way. As I said, I get it. But writers need to get that this work we do in bringing out a magazine is a labour of love. We don't get paid for it. We try to break even so the magazine at least pays for itself, but we spend many hours reading and considering submissions, making selections, having editorial meetings, collating work, typesetting, proofreading, sending out acceptances and rejections and then putting it all together and mailing it out to submitters or subscribers. (And my pet love is all our subscribers -- you guys keep us alive, and we really do appreciate that!) We need to streamline our work too. Writers who do time-limit their work may feel they're taking a professional approach, but I see it as someone who either doesn't understand or doesn't care to understand the process. It means that we now have to do extra work contacting the author to find whether or not their work is still available. Honestly, editors are looking for reasons to reject your work. Don't ever give them a reason to say no.

Sorry about the rant, but my blood is ever so slowly turning brown.

09 September 2007

To grey or not to grey

Being a writer means being a people watcher, or even more importantly a people thinker -- writers need to think about how real people behave, why they do the things they do. Real life motivations, carried through to characters, make character actions believable. The writer has to be a connoisseur of human behaviour, and sometimes this involves becoming more philosophical.

This week's TIME magazine has an article about whether people (or more specifically women) should dye their hair. Now, I've never coloured my hair. I've had it permed, but I've always liked the colour (if not the fineness, straightness and sparsity) so have never been tempted to dabble. Plus, I'm greying later in life than some of my friends, but I know the time of making a decision about this is fast approaching. I am now greying at the temples, but the rest of my hair is predominantly brown, with only occasional grey hairs.

The article talked about the two camps -- those who do and those who don't -- and how much emotion is tied up with this decision, that is emotion in terms of being judgemental of the other camp. According to the writer, feelings run as strongly as they do over whether mothers should work or not. Why do we feel like only the camp we belong to can be in the right? Why can't we respect the decision of others and know that it reflects a choice without necessarily saying anything further about them than they want to look this way or that? It doesn't necessarily mean they're heaping scorn on those who have chosen to do the opposite. (Maybe this is just the naive ramblings of someone who is too young to be a baby boomer, and too old to belong to Generation X.)

I have a friend in her seventies, with salt-and-pepper hair, and she was telling me proudly one day that she'd never dyed. But that decision is far easier for those of us who do grey later as she had. I wondered if her hair were white, whether we would be having the same conversation, whether she would feel the same measure of self-righteousness, and -- dare I say it? -- superiority. Perhaps we would. I wondered if I had greyed in my twenties, whether I would have even given the decision a second thought. I don't know. I do know my mother eventually let herself go grey, and I thought, good for her, but then my husband was surprised to find out some of her contemporaries who do dye were her age. "But they look so much younger," he said.

Why do we need to look younger? Why can't we look our age? The answer to that is seen in a society that does not value its old folk the way other societies do. Why is this? They have paid their dues and are veritable fonts of wisdom (at least compared to what they were earlier in life), and yet younger generations look past them, see them as nuisances if they seem them at all. That same friend has talked about how the older woman's legacy is becoming invisible. It's tragic, really. What a wasteful society we are!

Part of the article's drive was the perceptions that people had of grey-haired versus "normal"-coloured hair people, and whether it's easier or harder to take people with grey hair seriously. Of course they polled a group of people and gave them pictures of several people with coloured and photoshopped-grey hair. These photos included Hiliary Clinton, Arnold Schwarznegger, Barack Obama, a TV news anchor and others. Questions included whether they looked more intelligent, more attractive, more trustworthy and more distinguished. The men fared marginally better than the women, but often respondents didn't have a preference. Rather interestingly, and she was as surprised with this as I was, the reporter put a photo of herself with coloured hair on an online dating service and a few months later another one of herself with grey hair, and got three times as many hits with the grey hair. She speculated that maybe men saw her as more honest, and honesty was what most of us want in a relationship.

One fascinating point was that some people dye so they can match their image with their self-image of who they really are -- in other words, as the article points out, that to look more real, we become more fake. It's a delicious irony, really, and perhaps tells us something important about all kinds of people, not just those of us greying.

We do, as a society, value beauty, and God help those of us not imbued with it. On the Books and Writing blog, Sherryl talks about the qualities of the perfect writer, and one is that they must be photogenic. She's right of course, and while we may rue it, it's a simple fact of life in a celebrity-worshipping world where even actresses have their bellies photoshopped flat. Something else the perfect writer needs is a big personality, and for many of us that means having the self-confidence to feel good in our skin and our hair; in other words, it's feeling good about how we look. (Another irony is that it doesn't really matter how others perceive us as much as it does how we think others perceive us. It's all about us. Perhaps it always is.)

Will I colour or won't I? I can't say with any honesty at this stage. Perhaps like my older friend the decision will be determined by just how grey I go, but whichever way I go I'm determined to respect the wishes of others to colour their hair or not, entirely as they see fit.

08 September 2007

Being sidetracked

Last night, I sat down to write a post about the school plays I'd just been to see. One of them was all about a newly published novelist, and made me think about the importance of research.

In this play, which was otherwise very good, hordes of fans were waiting excitedly for the store to open so they could purchase the book on its release. Now, why would they be fans if the guy has never been published before? If it had been a sequel, I could understand it. Just before that the publisher came around to visit the author and kept saying how fast-moving the book publishing industry is. Huh? And said that they'd just finished publishing his book, and would he now like to look at some cover designs? Huh? But my favourite gaffe of all was that the publisher brought around a very substantial royalty cheque on the day of the book's release. Wouldn't we all love that? But of course the book was doing very well -- it had sold more than all all the Harry Potter books put together.

I don't mean to slag off at it, because it was very enjoyable otherwise, but it reminded me of how important that kind of research is. It wouldn't have taken too much to get it right, or at least more right. In any case, most of the audience wouldn't have know -- or perhaps the errors were meant to be part of the joke (like how many copies the book had sold obviously was). And I think that one of the students had written it showed that the school does have some serious writing talent that they're fostering; another student play had won a major scriptwriting competition and is going to be produced professionally. The author is fifteen. Pretty darn good.

But today's post -- or rather thinking about how I set out to post about the research in the play and yet never mentioned it. Sometimes I get sidetracked when I'm writing too. I know the scene I was working on in the group novel last week, I just got carried away and the setting and circumstances got bigger and bigger, and in fact probably too big, as others pointed out when I read it to them. In my fantasy novel two characters whom I had no intention of getting together fell in love.

Sidetracks, subplots, unforeseen directions can offer energy to a novel. They keep the writing fresh for a writer -- and I think especially for those who meticulously plan. Surely it's the great undiscovered, unplanned for things that keep the writer interested in keeping going. Otherwise, why do it? Well, for me at least, there is that thrill of new discovery. I embark on a novel like a journeyman with only a scrap of a map: I have a good sense of where I want to get, but not necessarily of how I'm going to get there. And even in the redrafting process, it's the new ideas that pop up, the new nuances in character and motivation that make the journey fresh. That's why I love to write -- it gives me the same sense of discovery that I get when reading a new book.

07 September 2007

The importance of research

Research is a tricky thing. How much is not enough? How much is too much? Is it the world's best writing procrastination tool? After all, if you're doing research you are working on your novel, right? Yeah, but you're not actually writing it. My students often ask me if they can submit the number of words they've written down during research as part of their novel writing word counts, and I'll inevitably say no.

Do we expect writers to know everything? Is it even possible? And do we expect editors to pick up every little mistake that's slipped through. Think about the reader though -- is it average Joe or someone with specialist knowledge?

A few years ago I was listening to a well-known editor from a well-known publishing house, talking about a well-known author's well-known book in which the sun magically set in the east. Three editors had perused the copy and not one of them picked it up. Readers did though. And complained.

I also remember reading another well-known author's prize-winning book, in which the main character talked about the Morlocks in the War of the Worlds. Trouble was the bad guys in War of the Worlds were Martians; the Morlocks were in The Time Machine. Right author, wrong book. Trouble was the effect this had on me as a reader was to totally distrust the narrator -- after all, he had presented this as FACT, and I found I could no longer trust anything he told me. He wasn't supposed to be an unreliable narrator, so this totally wrecked my reading experience. That wasn't me being smart or mean, that was me losing trust in the author, whom I actually think is a wonderful author, otherwise, but there you go.

So do you crosscheck every fact? It's really not possible. You'd never get any writing done. I subscribe to the look-up-the-facts-that-you're-going-to-build-your-story-on-now theory, coupled with the if-you-come-across-something-you-need-to-look-up-in-the-middle-of-writing-plough-on stream. Bookmarking is a wonderful thing. With something like that, I'll usually type in three asterisks on either side, and then later search for three asterisks. Doesn't matter what it is, provided you've got something you can easily look up.

Sometimes, with historical fiction, there is the quandary of contradictory resources. It's not always possible to go back to primary sources, but really there's no reason these mightn't sometimes be contradictory as well. Facts are always open to interpretation. Ah, the joys of research.

03 September 2007

Drawing on imagination

What I love about rewriting is that it's so easy to slip back into the world: the scene is set, the details are down, the real world melts away and I become someone else. Funny how it's usually a twenty-five-year-old male soldier who is tidy. Wouldn't my mum love that! Maybe I should channel him when I'm in my "real" life. And it is like having two lives.

Ever since I've been a kid, I've had an active other life happening. Often it's been based around a movie I've developed an obsession for, a book I've loved and read; more often it's based around my novel. I sometimes think people would think me (and probably all my sibling writers) very odd if they could see what was going on inside my head. Perhaps they would find it scary. I can slip away while I'm driving -- oh, don't worry: I do keep the driving details with me -- into a sort of auditory other world, where I'll talk to characters. I'm sure the other drivers think me mad. Maybe they think I'm listening to music. When I go to bed at night, that's where my mind will slip off to. Maybe it's best my husband doesn't know just how many people share our bed.

In my medical scientist days, I drew blood from elderly folk in end-stage renal failure, and talked to them through their hallucinations. I wonder what my hallucinations would be -- would I slip into the world of my novel. Would I talk of setts and coarsebark trees and eaglons and venipers? Or would I focus on becoming one of the characters? Goodness knows what I might say -- rather a daunting thought really (and perhaps I should be glad I don't write crime!).

Society is funny in its view of creativity -- we value it as long as we can separate it from reality. But perhaps that's a good thing -- and a survival tactic. Strange, though, how it makes me feel the world is a poorer place -- especially for all those poor sods who never "waste" time going to an imaginary world. How much richer their lives would be if they only had imaginations that drove them to write. (Yeah, yeah, I know: the world has too many writers and not enough readers. Still, the thought intrigues...)

New directions for a writing group

SuperNOVA the spec fic writing group I'm part of is going through a period of change. It does this periodically, such as when it exploded from being Nova (and, really, there was a problem with the name, given that Melbourne already had a longer-established and well-recognised group of writers, known as the Nova Mob) because of the sudden influx of Lita and the Clarionnites. At the party the other night, we were talking about the changes the group goes through, and how new members bring an influx of new stories to workshop and then the quantity drops off. This doesn't bother me so much because I do so much workshopping for work that, frankly, I have better ways to spend my weekends.

The reason for the current drop-off is that many of us seem to have switched to writing novels, though I must say that this has always been how I spend most of my writing time. And while certain members of the group sometimes make noises about pushing me back to short story writing, I confess that it isn't really my genre. I've never really felt comfortable in the short form, and a criticism my stories often draw is that they feel part of something longer. In any case, I can't really see the point. Short story writing is great -- if it's what you want to do. It requires a precision of language, a mastery of form, and I do think it's a great way to learn how to write novels because it teaches you stuff about structure, about finishing things, and about making every word count that all novelists should know. Yes, it is different, and yes there is more room in a novel to move around, but that doesn't mean there's any excuse for flabby writing. Short story writing teaches you how to hone the craft.

Workshopping novels, however, is a very different prospect to workshopping short stories. There is the one-chapter-a-meeting method, or the one-writer-subbing-big-chunks method, but neither of this are ideal, and some writers (hi, Mr Browne!) don't want others seeing a work in progress.

Ellen came up with the inspired idea of having a new kind of novelist's meeting, where novel writers get together and talk about the process, any difficulties they're having, what inspires them etc. This could also be a chance to do some plot brainstorming. Really, it's like taking the discussions of our dinners out and bringing them to the meeting. What a great idea! We have often talked about having a breakaway group: either a novelist's group or a fantasy writer's group, kind of a sub-group, but never got past the talking stage. But that was still going to be a workshopping group; this is something different. Something both more and less; something that excites me. I can't wait to see it happening.

Writer's 40th

Yesterday (or two days ago, as I see it is now past midnight) I went to a writer friend's 40th birthday party. Sarah is one of my Clarion buddies, though I knew her well before we braved the Queensland heat and humidity for six weeks (hmm, I started to write months there -- what does that say about the whole experience?) of SF writers bootcamp. Still, I got to know her a whole lot better like there, and we all came away from the experience as family. Strange what sweating together will do together.

Birthdays are always a great chance to catch up with people, of course, and I hopped along with Ellen and Lita. A few people had flown down from Sydney, which I must say impresses the hell out of me. I've never gone this far for a party -- a wedding (my brother's) yes, but not a birthday, and in fact when my brother turned 40, I didn't even score an invite! Not that I would have gone up for it -- there's something about living in a family that procludes spending that kind of money on your own social life. Perhaps it's me being unselfish (all money to the family), or perhaps it's me being selfish (I wouldn't spend this money for a friend's birthday) -- I don't know. But for me it was great to catch up with the Sydneysiders, and to acknowledge how great it was for them to come down.

Of course, stick a whole lot of writers and editors in a room and what do they talk about? Their writing. Is there anything else? Well, as it happens, there is, and Lita, Ellen, Kirstyn, Alex and I got talking about the mechanics of sword-fighting, with Alex offering to give Ellen and I a sword-fighting lesson in his back yard. I got the distinct feeling he was going to belt the crap out of us, but nevermind. Of course, I still remember the swordfighting lesson I had in the ever-gentle hands of another Clarion bud, Chris, who took his sword out and scanned the boys' faces, wanting to know who wanted to volunteer to be his sparring partner. And I was sitting on my hands, thinking, pick me, pick me, oooh, pick me, pick me, and then was most surprised when none of the boys leapt up. And so I did. And I know that if Ellen had been there, she would've done the same. (And she used to fence -- something I didn't know. One of the teachers at my school was an Olympic fencer, and one of my students this year was fencing in the World Championships.) Of course, none of the boys were writing the type of fantasy that Ellen and I are writing. And research is everything. (And how many sentences can you start with "and" anyway. A lot it seems! Especially, when no-one but me gets to edit my blog. Oh, and, and, and, and -- I do love that word.) I still remember my nighttime walk in the dark in the waters at Wilson's Prom to check whether my character could navigate the beach by the depth of water on his ankles, and was very happy to find out that yes it could be done. This is my favourite type of research -- when I get to go out and actually experience something. It's why I tried the aphrodisiac spice at the last con. Why I'm not sorry I've eaten bulls' testicles in Morocco (though admittedly I didn't know what they were till after I had eaten them -- and don't they have a particularly strange texture!).

What a rambly post. But isn't that just the beauty of blogs! This one has been very stream of consciousness -- very much free writing, and while I could edit it for coherence, perhaps it better reflects my thought processes left this way.

But, back to the original topic: it's great too to sit down and have a quiet one-on-one with people and catch up with where they're at, listen to their recent epiphanies on writing and life in general, catch up with goss on other people whom I've missed. Attending things like this (and like the Melbourne Writers Festival, which I confess I've missed completely this year) are important to make me feel like part of a writing community.