28 May 2007

Why I write

Every now and then I'll be talking to another writer -- someone from a writer's group, or a student or at a conference and convention -- and they'll say something that really floors me: "Oh, yes, I write because I want to become rich and famous."

Hello? Those who've been around the tracks awhile know this scenario is possible but not very likely, especially in Aus. No matter how literate our population, the fact is that our numbers are much lower than say the reading audience in the US. Still, even in Aus, there are a few who make the kind of figures that most people salivate about -- those few success stories who sustain the dreamers among us. But the last figure I heard bandied around for how much the average "professional" writer in Australia makes was $6,000/year. Hardly enough to retire on.

I say to my students that you have to love writing. You have to be driven. You have to want to write. This is a hard journey with a lot of knocks along the way, and if you don't have the passion -- if you're not getting something out of it irrespective of whether you're getting rejection slips or acceptances in the mail, then it's going to be even harder. Some of them look at me as if my skin has suddenly turned green and smoke is belching from my nose. "But I want to make money," they'll say. I have to admit that at the moment I have made far more from my editing than I ever have from my writing. That may change one day -- or it may not. Acceptance is beyond my control. What is in my control is writing the best book that I can. Crafting. Keeping an audience in mind -- all of that.

I'm not sure I always love the writing process itself, but I love having written. That's the aphrodisiac for me -- the euphoria of having created. Having something on the page that is my vision (even if not quite the way I hoped it would turn out). I know others love the first draft, but to me the redrafting is where the juice is.

There are times when life does get in the way, and I can't make time to write. Boy, don't I know about it. I get increasingly frustrated and grumpy. Mostly, though, it's a matter of planning. Of putting my own writing high on the list of priorities -- if not first. After all, if I'm going to call myself a writer, one thing I have to do is to write!

26 May 2007

While I'm on the topic of contradictory advice...

Contradictory advice isn't exclusive to writers, of course. The Gadget Man's career has stalled, through no fault of his own, and his current contract is about to expire. The job is done, so his contract won't be renewed, and so he's about to go on the hunt for a new job again. It's such a demoralising thing, I think -- sending out your CV and not even getting to the interview stage. (Rather like sending out that beloved short story or poem and having it richochet right back.)

Anyway, he seems to find it hard to get to the interview stage. I've looked over his resume, and it looks fine to me. So the other day our students had a careers session, and a friend grabbed a spare booklet on how to write up your CV, which she passed on to me. The Gadget Man has read books on the subject, and the other day did a course on it. Only, you guessed it -- all the advice conflicts. Do set out your information in dot points. Whatever you do, don't set it out in dot points. Don't make too much of your technical expertise; employers are more interested in whether you're a team player. Make sure you expand on your technical expertise...

One friend who was going through a similar thing said he couldn't get interviews either; then he sent his CV off to a professional resume formatter, and he said the only thing she changed -- the only thing -- was to add a horizontal line at the top of the page. She didn't touch the wording. And he said within a week, he'd had three requests for interviews. He swears it was because of that line. Bizarre.

The Gadget Man's problem is that he's too humble, too honest. He lacks the bullshit-factor. I must say I'm not really good with that either. But I've seen people who are -- especially in my science career. Someone would be toured through the lab, and we'd be told they were starting on Monday, and they would seem so knowledgable and impressive, and would turn out to be absolutely useless. Why is it that dickheads are so good at selling themselves? Where does all that self-belief come from? I think employers need some kind of magic mirror that can see through the bullshit-factor. Perhaps that's why a lot of them insist on pyschological tests. Trouble is that everyone tries to second-guess the answers that an employee wants to hear. No magic mirror there then. I don't know what the answer is. I just hope The Gadget Man comes across would-be employers who can sort out the bullshit-factor from the real deal!

25 May 2007


Well, in yesterday's post I was talking about contradictory information and conflating that with the synopsis -- or at least I was going to. Don't know how far I got with it, which is the point really of today's post.

Surely nothing gives would-be novelists more headaches than the dreaded synopsis. I own two books that have whole chapters (and more) devoted to this. I have Writer's Digest articles on how to write them -- one memorable one says that each time you introduce a character you should put their whole name in all caps (but only with that first introduction), and all manner of other wonderful layout suggestions, and when I used this template a few years ago, the page looked like the layout had been done by some kid on LSD. There were things in bold and things in italics. And then the Goddess of All-Information That IS Publishing, Miss Snark (the literary agent), said on her blog that all caps in a synopsis drives her crazy!

Of course if you want to know how to write a good synopsis, and haven't heard of Miss Snark, who very sadly has retired from her blog a few days ago, I can do no better than direct you there (see the link under 'Blogs I love') and tell you to hunt out her Crapometers. Just be warned, there are many many hours of reading to be spent trawling this site.

What the Crapometer taught me is that the most important thing about a synopsis is to be interesting. After all, this is a tool of engagement -- or it needs to be. You need to engage the editor or agent you're sending your work to. I rewrote my synopsis at that point, culling back on the number of plot events I covered and focusing a bit more on the main characters and who they were.

But with the different advice I've heard along the way -- well, it's no wonder novelists are intimidated and confused. Do you reveal the ending, for example? Of course. The editor is looking to see that you know how to construct a story, and how can they tell if you don't include the ending? The synopsis isn't meant to be a tease. It isn't the time to be coy. However, when I was at a big workshop a few years ago, one of the well-published novelists (who also taught Creative Writing in higher ed) said that you never, never, never reveal the ending in a synopsis. Huh? When I was talking to some of my fellow compatriots at the time, and said that that advice was contrary to every other thing I'd ever read or heard about writing synopses, they said that now I'd been put straight. Hmmm.

Earlier, I'd done a course with another novelist who showed us her synopses -- just a list of characters and a few lines about what happens. I queried her about whether it wasn't one thing for published novelists and perhaps something different for aspiring novelists, and she said that the first synopsis she had ever sent out had been pretty much the same. So there you go. I guess the bottom line is that it's the writing in your manuscript that counts, but this is another opportunity to grab the editor's (or agent's) attention, and one you don't want to stuff up, because if it's really bad then they won't even get to the manuscript, and that's the last thing any of us wants.

24 May 2007

POV markers

I was leafing through one of my tried and trusted writing books the other day -- one called Scene and structure by Jack Bickham -- one of the many excellent productions put out by Writers Digest. Honestly, I can't extol the virtues of these books enough. I loved them before I ever started teaching writing, and once I started teaching I found them a godsend.

Anyway, Scene and structure was the one book that really nailed home the importance of causality in a story. Cause and effect -- even on a sentence letter. (Eg why "After I ate dinner, I went out" is a better sentence than "I ate dinner after I went out". Whereas if that had read "before" the second would be better -- it's all about information being presented in causal order.) He has lots on cause and effect, and stimulus and response, and this was vital to my own understanding of writing better fiction and to the way I taught this aspect of fiction.

So, it was with some bemusement that I came across a section where he talked about POV markers -- words a writer uses to tell a reader whose POV they're in. Words like "he felt", "she saw" etc. Words that I think tell the reader about what the character is experiencing when really the writer should be showing them. I think that if the writer has written something from firmly within the character's POV, the reader understands that they are feeling, seeing, smelling, hearing these things, so putting these markers in is the exact opposite to what I'm telling my students, which is: take them out.

Anything in moderation is okay. If you're writing in first person and have an "I felt" every ten pages or so, that's fine, but if you've got several on every page, I'm going to be thinking that you're not deeply enough inside your POV character's head. It's something I seem to say a lot in class: "You need a closer POV". I want my students to write from the inside out, to be the character (or at least think like him or her) while they're writing. Readers today are so much more used to intimacy with a character -- whether it's in first person or third-person multiple viewpoints. I think that lack of intimacy is why third-person omniscient (where the writer can dip in and out of any character's head, and even give their own thoughts on the matter at hand) feels dated today (though you do still see it in spec fic writing quite a bit).

So, I'm interested in what other writers think. Do you consciously put POV markers into your text, or are you like me and try to avoid them?

In any case, the Bickham book is still worth a read for all his great stuff on causality, and on other structural elements too. But perhaps it's a reminder that opinions differ -- I shudder when I think of all the different information I've heard about synopses, and how contradictory it all is. But that's something for a future post.

20 May 2007


Spoiler alert!

Today, the kids and I have been off to see Spiderman 3. Now, I'll fess up straightaway and say I'm a big fan of this incarnation of Spidey. I love the fact that Tobey Maguire has portrayed him as such a vulnerable superhero, that the character is so well rounded and shaded.

As I was watching, I was thinking about plot, because this movie, more than the others seems a tangled web of subplots, rather than one main plot with several subplots. I had been going to say tangled mess, but I guess with this movie web is better! Let's see -- there's:
(i) Peter and MJ
(ii) Peter and Harry
(iii) Peter and his inner demons
(iv) Spiderman and the Sandman
(v) Peter and his uncle's killer
(vi) Spiderman and the black alien thing, which turns him into the black-suited Spidey
(vii) Peter and another photographer

Some of these are related: (iv) and (v); (vi) and (vii); (iii) and (vi) -- oh, and (i) and (ii) tie into a number of them in all sorts of ways. I'd be hard-pressed to say which is the main plot, but it didn't really matter -- it worked for me. Just like Silence of the lambs, which is a really interesting study in plot because the subplot (Lector and Starling) is more gripping than and takes over from the main plot (Starling trying to catch the kidnapper/murderer before he murders again).

I must say I always watch James Franco with interest, because he's one of a number of actors I could imagine playing the main character in my novel. And Tobey Maguire was superb playing different versions of his character. And I'm not talking about the action scenes.

There are funny mistakes in every film. I think of the stormtrooper banging his head in Star wars. In this film, it's more of a continuity error. I'll just say watch the frypan that Harry and MJ are cooking in. Not that I can talk -- one of my major characters once changed from hazel-eyed to blue, and I hadn't noticed because I'm not visual but conceptual in the way I imagine things. I picked it up when reading through it, thankfully, but I always wonder if I could do that, then what else might I have missed.

Anyway, I'd recommend this movie. The action is mind-boggling, though at times so fast I couldn't actually track it with my eyes, but aside from the action, it's a superb character study. Can't wait till it comes out on DVD.

19 May 2007

Night at the theatre

One of the best things about having kids is discovering new interests (or new things to do). My kids are both into amateur theatre, so we've found that we go and see a lot more theatre than we otherwise would have.

Last night, we went to see Little shop of horrors, produced by the Williamstown Musical Theatre company. The Gadget Man didn't want to come because he said he hated the movie. I didn't see it, so went along with an open mind. Of course, having recalcitrant kids, I find getting anywhere on time a challenge. Last night, Princess Sleepyhead wouldn't get ready, so I was worried we would be late -- and we were but fortunately the show hadn't started.

Ever since my kids did their first performance in a proper production a few years ago, I've been amazed at the quality that comes out of amateur theatre. (Though since Sir Talkalot was in a more serious performance earlier this year, and just seeing how long the actors had to spend in rehearsals, I'm now convinced that I shouldn't be amazed at the quality, just that any actors can be bothered. It's a big time commitment, done purely for the love of it.)

Anyway, last night's performance was great. I didn't know any of the songs, but still enjoyed the entire show, and it's always a harder sell for me when I don't know the music.

My favourite show has to be Fiddler on the roof. I love that show. Love the music. Find the story very moving. I have the film -- and a picture book (about something completely different) where the artist has obviously just copied a few frames from the movie. It's bizarre when you're familiar with the film. Teyve is there, the rabbi -- it's the same setting, the same people, everything. I wonder about copyright, and whether anyone sought permission. Hopefully so.

Others I love are Evita (and I have to say I was surprised at how right Madonna was in the film) and Starlight express. One I haven't seen, but love the movie of is Phantom of the opera. My brother and my mum are big fans of Les miserables, but this one doesn't speak to my heart in the same way. Is it the music? I don't know. The story is certainly moving enough. Cats is another one that didn't do it for me -- not a strong enough narrative. Well, really, it has no narrative. Mind you, I saw it in my pre-poetry days, and had no idea what to expect. I wonder today, now I have learnt to appreciate poetry, whether I might enjoy it a whole lot more because I think it words more like a suite of poems. (Though, interestingly and perhaps tellingly, my kids were in a show called Kids a few years ago, which was structured in the same way, and yet I absolutely loved it (I was singing the songs for weeks, and sometimes I still find myself singing them). All the same, I couldn't help thinking, this would just be so much better if it had more of a narrative. But maybe that says more about my love of story than anything else.

16 May 2007

The pressure of writing

We were at writing group today, and one of the writers said that she had been thinking of writing something but had been unable to pick up the pen, that she thought she might be afraid of the pen. It's funny how things come together by happenstance, but one of my students had just blogged on our student blog about how much harder it was to write when he knew he was writing something for school.

Why do we do this to ourselves? I will always come back to the value of free writing, where one of the rules is that you are free to write the worst crap in the world. I know about free writing, but it doesn't mean that I haven't been subject to this particular kind of fear. It might be a particularly nasty crit, or sometimes even something that wasn't meant to be nasty. I can remember being put off for a whole year because a well-known writer told me one of my stories was nicely written but that it obviously wasn't a story. Wasn't a story? That was news to me. And it shook my confidence in my own writing because I decided that I didn't know what a story was. I should have asked why it wasn't, but I was too stunned by the comment at the time.

I've seen it in writers who have had early work published to great acclaim. In published novelists, it's often called second-book syndrome. It's that pressure to write something even better, when you're not sure you can write something that's even as good.

I'd like to think we all develop thicker skins with experience, but I'm not sure it's true. I've heard one famous, best-selling and best-loved YA writers say he wasn't sure he had another book in him.

In the end, I think the best way around this is to just to write what you love. Write it for yourself. Write it because you love doing it. Allow yourself to write it badly because, after all, you can fix a badly written page, but you cannot fix a blank one.

14 May 2007

Much loved books

What I'm reading: House of sand and fog by Andre Dubus III (again!)

It's funny how some books just get under your skin. As writers I think we're shaped by everything we read, everything that happens to us, everything we see and hear and feel and do, and so those books that we read that we come back to again and again must do more than their fair share of shaping. I hope so. I would love to be able to write like the authors of the books I love.

This week I'm returning to an old favourite because I'm teaching it, and have done so for the last three years. There's a lot to be said about teaching a new book every year, but there are some reading experiences that you just want to share with your students, and that you know that most of them wouldn't find on their own. House of sand and fog is one such book. This is an amazing book, amazing for the difference in the two first person narrator's voices both done so convincingly, and amazing for the way your loyalties are pulled back and forward between the two protagonists. And so it is with great pleasure that I opened it again to the beginning and immersed myself in the reading. This is not a book to skim, but one to savour the richness of the language, to marvel particularly at the construction and authenticity of Behrani's voice (a Persian colonel who starts the novel working on a road crew in the US, picking up garbage). I love the way Dubus has done this.

I love the arguments that students get into over this book. The two protagonists are both fighting over a house that both feel is theirs (both with good reason), and that both are desperate to own. Some students identify with one character all the way through, but most are like me and switch allengiences -- more than once.

I first heard about this book from Sherryl (of the Books and Writing blog), and she spoke of it with such passion that I decided I had to read it too. One student last year, after class was over, came to me and thanked me for the class and then thanked me for setting the book because he just loved it, and it was a book he'd read again and again. But that's just the other thing about such great reads: we spread the word, the infatuation -- no, it's more than that -- the love for a certain book. We spread it again and again because great books deserve to be read!

12 May 2007

Living in the land of eternal sunshine

Took Princess Sleepyhead off to the doctor today, and while I was there thought I should have this spot looked at on the side of my face. Earlier this year I had a basal cell carcinoma cut off my face. Having been a medical laboratory scientist, I knew that if you have to have a skin cancer then this is the one you want. It's classified as a malignancy because it is invasive, but it doesn't metastasise to other parts of the body the way other malignancies do, so doesn't usually kill anyone. I had thought it a pimple that wouldn't go away so was somewhat dismayed to find it was something more.

But that's the thing about living in this country, being so near the ozone hole and in a sunny climate where people traditionally worshipped the sun (I mean that metaphorically). When I was small, my mother would tell us to go out and get some sun, because it was good for us. Whenever we came home sunburnt, she would say we looked healthy. That nice healthy glow... That was the attitude of the times, though personally I never liked the sun much and always eschewed sunbaking. I'm a shade kind of girl. On the other hand, I did have about a year of Xray treatments on my skin to help me deal with acne. And my skin specialist used to tell me to go out and get as much sun as I could too. Sounds barbaric now, but the links between sun and skin cancer weren't nearly as clearly drawn as they are now.

So, anyway, this new spot wasn't like the old because it was pigmented, which meant my mind was running more towards melanoma. Happily, this wasn't the case. He said I had a couple of things going on: a solar keratosis, which has a three per cent chance of developing into a squamous cell carcinoma (somewhere between a BCC and melanoma in seriousness) and something else, which might be a wart or something else. So I had it all burnt off. The doctor said I would probably have a blister by tomorrow and might not want to pursue this today, but I said, "Nah, I'm here now. Just do it." Sounds like a Nike ad! Oops. Anyway, it's the first time I've had something taken off with liquid nitrogen. He cut the BCC out under a local. The N2 burned -- not too sharp, but not entirely comfortable either. The side of my eye is all puffy now, but not as sore as where I had my flu shot from work on Thursday. Each year mine swells into a red lump, but this year it seems less noticeable than other years -- except that Sir Talkalot keeps forgetting and grabbing me on the arm there. Isn't it funny how people always seem to touch you when you've had a shot? I wonder whether they really do touch you more or whether we just notice it more because it's tender. Dunno.

11 May 2007

Finding time

It's been a frustrating few weeks in terms of writing: student assignments to mark, tests to write. But that all finished on Tuesday night when I finished my twelve-hour stint at work. Wednesday mornings are always a wasteland, and this week was worse than usual because I've come down with a dreaded lurgy. A head cold. Bleuck. I don't mind chest colds when I bark and bark, but a head cold with sinus pain... Bleuck.

Anyway, we had no writer's group meeting, and I was all set to do a final proof on Poetrix, and write up the contents page, and then sit down to write when the phone went. Princess Sleepyhead was sick and could I please come to school to pick her up. Now, admittedly, she had been sick since Monday night, but as they were doing AIMS tests at school (statewide Maths and Literacy tests that students do in Years 3, 5, 7 & 9) she had to go to school. The way AIMS tests work are you either do them on the day, or you don't. There's no-come-back-later-when-you're-feeling-better-and-do-it-then contingency. It's do or die. And she had to do. Much to her disgust.

So, by this time I was feeling worse: she went to bed, and so did I. So she was home all day Thursday. I sat down to write several times, but things cropped up. She needed something. The phone rang. And rang again. And again. I gritted my teeth. Because I hadn't written for several days, I had come out of the story, and all I needed was some time to reimmerse myself, to sink back into its depths. In the end I made a start and wrote about 500 words, which I consider a very poor day's work, when I'm writing. I tried to console myself that today was the day. She had a special day on at school, where they were going rock-climbing, and I would have the house to myself. Wrong.

Today, the Gadget Man, also struck down with it, stayed home. Princess Sleepyhead's school rang at 1 pm to come get her, and then Sir Talkalot rang to say he wasn't feeling well and wouldn't be able to make the bus home so could I please come and get him? Double growl. So instead of being home alone with all day to write, I was up and down to schools, with three sickies home (and me not much better). But, and this is a big BUT, I did manage to squeeze out over 2,500 words, so am feeling a bit less frustrated. But the weekend will be a write-off, what with Mother's Day and all. (Means driving all over the place.) And I have to work Monday, which I don't usually have to do. But I will squeeze in some more words -- here and there in the spaces between events, between shopping and taxiing and doing all the things I have to do. Because that's how it is for most of us who don't write full-time. There's no great slab of hours, just small moments. But filling these with words will pick away at that total. Writers write. We do it when we can, as best we can, because that's what we do.

06 May 2007

Montsalvat choral festival

Today, we took a long drive out to Eltham to see the Victorian State Singers sing in the Montsalvat Choral Festival. There is something pure and beautiful about young voices singing in harmony. Truly beautiful. I don't say that lightly. Every time I hear them sing, at least one song will have my eyes brimming with tears. (Today it was "Hallelujah" from Shrek -- well, all right, originally sung by Leonard Cohen, but it's the Shrek version most people are familar with.) And Montsalvat is just one of those magical places that everyone should visit at least once.

VSS were the opening act in the barn, and so we hung around and watched them rehearse -- just as well really because they had to cut their program short because of time constraints, so there was one song that they rehearsed but didn't sing. The barn had a grand piano (not a baby grand) and superb acoustics. And Doug Heywood, their conductor, is always fun to watch. You can see his passion for music and see it spilling into the choristers. And their accompanying pianist, Alexandra Cameron, is just divine to listen to.

They are a youth choir, and this was how they were introduced, which led to a moment of hilarity because they sang a few songs a cappella (and that's always a measure of a great group -- that they still sound *really* good without music) with Doug joining in and Alex conducting. So the woman who had introduced the group called them a youth choir, and Doug made a big deal about the group being a youth choir, and the woman (a chorister with another group) said that she meant young "on average". It was quite funny, though perhaps you had to be there. But Doug's like that -- always quick with a joke -- and you can see why his choristers adore him, and adore being there.

After the performance, we wandered around a bit. Had some lunch. Saw another choir. Then we went to see the Gay and Lesbian Chorus (not sure of their official name), and they were great -- having lots of members gives a choir great strength. They had lots of fun songs and were quite animated, especially during one terrific song called "Coffee" that they really acted out. A few choirs were in the audience, including a number of members of VSS.

After that we spent an hour exploring. I love Montsalvat. I feel like I'm in the world of my novel, and could just sit there and let the atmosphere seep through my pores. That's the beauty of writing a novel -- it's always with you. I'm there, enjoying myself, and working at the same time. Taking in details that I might use. Camera in hand, I ran around taking this and that -- one angle and another. Climbed lots of narrow stairs on a rickety ankle. But the views were always worth it.

We finished off the day with another choir and a few last photos. I'll post some online -- if I ever find that missing camera cord. Better hurry, because with the rate I was taking photos today, the memory card will be full in no time.

05 May 2007

Williamstown literary festival

What I'm reading: student assignments.

Today, I've spent part of my day at the Williamstown literary festival. I began by meeting Sherryl to help her set up the display for our course, but by the time I got there she'd already done it. There was still half an hour before the opening and the library, next door, was having a book sale so we meandered over. Writers should never meander over to book sales. Oh, the temptation. I did come away with three books: one on managing kids with ADD, which I'll give to The Gadget-Man, one on the Bible (Princess Sleepyhead has to study RE till Year 12, and we're not particularly religious, so it might come in handy), and James Frey's biography that turned out to be not so biographaphical at all. When I opened it, I noticed that none of the paras were indented, nor did any of the dialogue have quote marks. Hmm. Still, the writing looked lively, so I'll have to see how I go with that one.

We wandered back to the festival and took our seats. After the speeches, they had a fifteen-year-old guest speaker whose first novel is coming out with HarperCollins next month. This amazed me less than her poise, her confidence in standing up before all those people. At her age, I would've been a quivering mess. But she looked like she'd been doing it for years. Perhaps she had. She did mention she was in the debating club. She spoke with passion and enthusiasm and made the journey from no-one to published writer sound so easy. Pleasing to hear her talk about how she wants to grow as a writer, though. That to me is one of the great joys of writing: knowing that you can improve. She came across as being down-to-earth, very nice, enthusiastic.

Then I went home. Mr Gadget-Man was at work. His job finishes in about seven weeks (everyone's job there does), and yet they were offering them all overtime this weekend -- bizarre! So I had to get Princess Sleepyhead off to rehearsals, which is no mean feat. Rehearsals happened to be at the same venue as the lit fest, which was rather convenient. So I headed back in and saw half a session on the craft of writing. Seems I'd missed the editor speak, which was a shame. One of my students was there and said it was quite pertinent to what we'd been talking about in class. The writer was speaking about sentence structures, which is always going to interest me. One thing he said that I found intriguing was that he spoke about leaning against your strengths as a writer. About making your strengths your weaknesses. That would be one way of assuring growth, I would imagine. We all need to push boundaries.

My next session was about writing the city. Or more specifically about writing Melbourne. So really it was about place. I love thinking about place -- in real life place is one of my touchstones in life. When I left Clarion, I kept thinking, I'll see these people again, but I'm never going to see this room again, never going to enjoy this view. All I'll have are my photos. I don't think anyone else gave a shit -- they couldn't wait to get out of that sweatbox, but for me, well, I lost part of myself when I left there. That is perhaps hard to understand, but place inhabits my blood, it seeps in through the cracks in and pores of my skin. I am grounded by place. But I'm digressing, as I am so apt to do. This session was lively and interesting. Both authors read from their novels, and I remember being particularly impressed by the dialogue in one. And having a laugh when that author was questioned about one of characters and gave a colourful response.

Wanting a change of pace, I went and listened to the singers. I love listening to them sing -- the purity and clarity of their voices. Just lovely. Tomorrow they're singing in a choral festival at Montsalvat, and that will be a real treat because Montsalvat is incredibly beautiful. Last time I was there was for a poetry festival, years ago, and I remember being very nervous because I had to read. That was my pre-teaching days when standing up before an audience was an ordeal with a capital O, and every letter done in bold. Now, it's not nearly as bad.

When the singers finished it was time for the Ada Cambridge Award. Being shortlisting judges, most of Western Women Writers went, and the organisers thanked us and presented us with a free copy of the awards book, which was a really nice touch. I wasn't expecting that.

It's always interesting when you're shortlisting to see whether the story you thought was a standout was chosen or not. Our group was torn between two stories, so were the judges, though only one of these two was in our top two. Our second story was Highly Commended. (They didn't have second or third.) Anyway, from the comments made the judges found the final decision as difficult as we'd found it.

What I love about attending these events is catching up with old friends, aquaintances and old students. I love finding out how people are going -- that curiosity -- must be the writer in me.

03 May 2007


Yesterday, we had our Western Women's Writing meeting, and I was supposed to have Poetrix ready to proof. I had done all the typesetting of the poems but hadn't actually got around to laying them out properly, and had set aside the morning to do that. All very well, but then my parents showed up unexpectedly -- and I felt rude telling them that sorry, I couldn't entertain them because I had work to do. That's the perennial problem in working from home: people expect you are available for whatever it is they want. Anyway, I did feel rude, but did it anyway. That's part of professionalism really, isn't it? That work hours have to be work hours. Discipline. Bum on seat. All of that. Trouble was that the dog was so excited to see them that she then proceeded to vomit all over the carpet in the study. Nice. Reminder to self: don't leave things till the last minute because stuff happens.

So, I got onto the layout. Poetrix is a smallish magazine -- we have thirty-two pages of poems, including one poem from a group member. Occasionally, we'll go to thirty-six pages if we're really pushed for space (ie if I cannot possibly make it fit), but we prefer not to do this. And it's an extra four pages because we're A5 size, so one sheet of A4 gets folded in half which gives four extra pages (back and front).

So first I look at how many pages I have, and I had nearly forty, so had to start thinking about doubling up poems. I use WordPerfect to do the layout. I won't start ranting about how much I love this program here, or I'll never talk about layout. So my next step is to use a two-page view, and just get an overall feel for how long the poems are. Depending on how many pages I have, the organisation of the poems can be a simple process of just jamming a short one or two at the end of one or two long ones, or it can be a complex mathematical procedure where I have to count lines to jostle things to fit.

My next step is to choose the opening and closing poems. The opening poem should be really strong. It may not necessarily be the strongest or best, but should be one of the best. One limiting factor is that it can't run for more than a page. In the last two issues I've chosen poems that have a strong visual image -- this was particularly important last time because I had to rotate the text ninety degrees to fit it on the page. I did this by doing it as a text box and making the box invisible. The lines were far too long to fit on the page and couldn't be broken because it was a shape poem. Anyway, it wouldn't have looked good facing text going the other way, and page 1 is the only one that has a blank verso (left hand page). And it was a terrific poem anyway -- very strong.

The end poem also needs to be one of the best because it leaves the reader with their final impression of the collection. So I'm looking for something that ends well, and leaves the reader thinking.

Then the fun begins. Poems that spill over a page have to be on facing pages; if they run to three then they should start on a recto (right hand page), so that they end on facing pages. It's interesting when we have themes come through -- and they seem to in each issue -- for example, this issue has three poems on Japan, all by different poets. Why Japan? I don't know. Sometimes it's good to sit themed things together, but sometimes it isn't. If there's a run of six or so poems on death, for example, the reader might get bogged down in bleakness. A really strong poem might overshadow another poem with a similar subject. Some poems complement each other. It's an interesting process -- one sometimes dictated by the space considerations and poem lengths.

It's an interesting process -- sometimes time-consuming, sometimes frustrating (that poem that's just one line too long, and then I have to start thinking about how much to carry over), but it's something I always enjoy.