29 July 2007

Group novel

Our writing group is attempting a group novel. It's the first time I've done something like this, but as with the collaborative short story I wrote with Bren and Zara, collaborators-extraordinaire, at Clarion South this is turning out to be an invigorating experience.

The project came about because we were talking about putting together an anthology for a competition, and I said it would be good if we could attempt something different because we've done the themed antho before, and it's always good to expand your boundaries. So of course our godmother, who heads the group and runs it with the strict eye of a mafioso matron, said, "What exactly did you have in mind?" And of course I had nothing, but that meant some fast thinking on my feet.

So we had another meeting about it, and I was supposed to come in with a more concrete idea when in reality all I still had was this fuzzy notion of what it could be. Thinking on your feet among creative people is always a plus because they can't help chipping in ideas. (Watch the slip into historical present tense.) Godmother listens to it all, putting forth ideas too, and then says, "Well, it could be one of two types of book. Which do you want it to be?" And she talks about the differences. One part of me hopes for one type because that will make me most uncomfortable, but I know too it might be too big a stretch for the group (except for Godmother who is comfortable in both genres). The decision is a group one -- this has long moved away from personal realms into the group consciousness, as such projects have to do to be successful. Everyone has to embrace it or it will fall flat. The group opt for the second option, and I'm happy because this is the one we all can have a go at. Godmother has taken a very wonky idea and made it happen. Every writing group needs someone with her practical know-how -- and her big stick!

And the plot ideas start to fly. Within an hour we have an expanded idea, a rudimentary plot worked out, five characters and their relationships, some minor characters (with a little fleshing out) and the first five scenes mapped out. And everyone's off to write.

One week later, everyone turns up with writing -- er, everyone bar me who didn't realise that we were supposed to have it started. Poor showing on my part. But I email my first scene and the next that night. One of the others emails me back and says I've been reading too much of my male students' work, which I take as a great compliment because I'm writing a male character.

Anyway, I haven't seen the group so energised for a while. Nothing like a new project, something different, to really get you going. I remember when Jack Dann suggested the collaborative story at Clarion. He was facing "the ferals" as he called us. Week 5. We were emotionally and, after four weeks of relentless Qld summer without airconditioning in our rooms, physically exhausted. He said he had to do something to get to us, and those stories really helped turn that week around. I'd come into it very low, and it turned out to be the most exciting of weeks. I think, similarly, that for us, this will be the time that stands out at the end of the year as the most fun and most productive for most of us. I'm really looking forward to seeing how it all comes together.

27 July 2007

The fantasy writer's profile

One of the key differences between science fiction and fantasy writers (and readers, I might say) is the ideal length of the manuscript. Fantasy requires a big canvas, whereas science fiction seems to shine best in shorter lengths. Most SF novels are a good deal shorter than fantasy novels, and it is in the short story length that science fiction really seems to sparkle. Fantasy is not well suited to the short story form, and there are far fewer fantasy short stories published -- so few, in fact, that I consider them a rarity, even in the magazines that claim to publish science fiction and fantasy stories.

Science fiction readers and writers denigrate fantasy as being big fat doorstopper books as if this is anathema to all that is good in writing. What they fail to realise is fantasy readers see this as a plus. I know myself I'd much rather read a novel, a long novel, than a collection of short stories -- I want to go on the long journey with the same bunch of characters. Short stories are hard work that way. I just get to know the characters and, pfft, the story is over. I'm not saying one form is superior to the other -- just that they are different, and different readers like different things.

So, I always find it interesting when people talk about building a career, and suggesting that the most important thing to start with is a series of short story publication credits. If I want to be a novelist, I want to be spending time thinking about my novel, building in depth, exploring plot twists. I can't do this if I'm writing short stories. That's not to say I don't write the occasional short story -- I do, but it's just not the form I'm most at home in. I do, however, think that the short story is an excellent training ground for would-be novelists. In a short story every word has to count. But every word should count in a novel too. There should be no flab. Long novels are not long because they are padded out, but because they have BIG plots.

I keep returning to an idea that Sherryl brought back from the States from the mouth of an American writer whose name I forget. He said that science fiction is a fiction of the brain, and fantasy is a fiction of the heart. Maybe that explains the difference too. Fiction of the brain -- ideas -- short story writers need lots of them. I can't say how much I admire prolific short story writers. My brain's not like that. But a fantasy of the heart needs space to develop the depth needed to really satisfy a reader.

I know Ian Irvine said, at the recent con, he would be astounded to find out that fantasy novelists needed a string of successful short story publications to be picked up. Most fantasy writers don't write them. Full stop. And I think that it's all very nice to build your profile this way, but will it really equate to more sales? None of the fantasy readers I know read short story collections, probably for the reasons I've outlined above. Still, it is nice to publish the occasional story -- just reminds you you are on the right track.

23 July 2007

Workshopping woes

Today, I'm wearing my writing-teacher's hat, though my topic can affect writers in writing groups as well. Earlier today I was doing my class prep for tomorrow's classes, and leafing through some paper, looking for something. What I did find was an email for a past student (last year's? Or the year before's?). She thanked me for the class and the effort I was putting in to their workshopping, but wanted to complain about students who were not putting in as much effort to their comments as she would. She had calculated the number of hours she would spend each week commenting on other people's work but was finding that only two of the small group she was in was putting in equal time and wondered if I could organise the small groups so that all the dedicated people were together and put all those non-dedicated people into another group together.

As it was, it was a non-issue because my preferred method of workshopping is whole class, but there still is the problem of people not putting in equal time. It frustrates the dedicated students. I know this because I get complaints on mid-year and end-of-year evaluations. I saw people getting frustrated at Clarion too.

Most students/writers can see the value of having their writing workshopped. Sometimes it may be more painful than having a dentist spray cold air over a hole in a tooth, but in the end it's a valuable process, and one we all learn from. What students often don't realise is that they will learn as much or more from the comments they write on other people's work as what they will from comments written on their own.

It's a strange thing how we don't see the errors in our own work, but shining a light on the errors in other people's work help us to spot them in our own. That's the learning process in steps:
1. spot errors in someone else's work and point them out
2. spot errors in own work and learn to correct them
3. stop making errors in own work.

Diligent workshoppers will get far more out of the workshopping process than the slackers who can't be bothered, whether or not they get good comments back on their own work. They will learn more quickly than they otherwise would have. Those who aren't diligent aren't serious about their craft, and they will not progress as quickly as if they put in the effort. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as those who work hard will always get on quicker than those who don't because other things come into play like latent talent and how quickly both learn, but ultimately it comes down to the more effort we put in, the better we quicker we will improve. You can lay money on it.

18 July 2007

The perennial problem of time

Yesterday, I had my first classes back after the long midsemester break, and I asked my students to start with a discussion on how their novels are going. In that discussion, I said each person had to tell me one thing they were finding problematic and one they were finding exciting about writing their novels. As we went around the class, several listed their problem as finding time to write. Now, the midsemester break, with no classes and almost no homework, might seem the perfect time to build a decent tally on their weekly word counts, but it had quite the opposite effect. All sorts of things had got in their way: work (doing a lot more hours), illness, other commitments.

In the end, we all have to make choices about our writing. We have to prioritise. For some people, writing is always their top priority. These people will sacrifice everything for their art. (This isn't unique to writing, of course. I remember reading an interview with Bill Cosby where he talked about what he had sacrificed for his acting, including his family life, and how he regretted having been so selfish. It was a brutally honest, poignant interview.) At the other extreme are the people who say they want to write but never have any time at all, and talk about one day... One day, of course, will never come. Most of us lie somewhere on the continuum between these two poles.

There is no right way to live a life. Nobody can tell you that you must make writing a priority, and which priority that must be. Does it come before family? Does it come before work commitments? Does it come before a friend in real need? Or a friend who wants you along for a good time? Does it come before TV and computer games? Only you can decide. But what if you are serious about your work, committed to finishing a novel, but never able to find time? Then you need to examine where you're going wrong.

Here's my thoughts on how to better manage time. First of all, decide where your priorities do lie. Think about how you spend your time nowand where you want to be when you climb into bed. Will you be happy to have written another 1,000 words or frustrated that again you had no time to write? Here are some practical solutions on how to deal with time-wasting activities. A weekly schedule can be invaluable in helping you squirrel time away.

1. Television. How much easier it is to sit and veg in front of the TV than boot up the computer and work on your novel. Write down a list of everything you watch during the week. Be honest. If you were going out each night, which ones would you ask someone to tape and which ones would you miss? Any that you wouldn't bother taping are ones that you can cut from your schedule. Chalk in that time as writing time.

2. Friends who want you to go out when you want to write. How much time do you spend socialising a week? Learn to say no. You don't have to be so blunt. A "sorry, I can't" will work just as well. You could perhaps set part of a particular day away each week and let your friends know that's when you'll be available. It's all a matter of balance -- but one you'll have to think about if you're not taking time to write.

3. Computer games. These are so easy to slip into, but before you know it you've lost an hour, several hours, a whole day. A few years ago, I fell in love with The Sims, and made the fatal mistake of turning my characters into Sims. How much fun that was, playing with these people I already loved. Whether it's Solitaire or something more sophisticated, you're just going to have to be really strict with yourself. If you like to play each day, limit yourself for a set number of games if they're quick or a set amount of time and adhere to this. Again, think about the end of the day and what you want to have achieved.

4. Emails and blogs. It's easy to kid yourself that these are essentially not time wasters -- after all, you're on a list that keeps you up to date with new publishing opportunities. But how much time do you spend reading and/or writing congratulatory notes because Betty has just placed a short story in an ezine? Learn to skim the entries and don't read every email. Write your blog after you've written your 1000 words.

5. Telephone. Don't ring in your writing time, and unless you've got ill people in the family/small children at school, let the answering machine take the call. You can always call back later.

6. Family not respecting boundaries. Talk to them about how serious this is. If you're home when they're not, do your writing then. Leave housework, shopping, food preparation etc for when they're home. Leave your blog and emails till when they're home. Exploit your quiet time for writing.

7. Research. Essential, yes, but there's a time to research and a time to write. You can use the McKenna method of writing where you add a parenthesis and write "insert details here", and come back to it later. Research is great, and it informs your writing, and often all the sidetracks you pursue can be as rewarding as the informating you're hunting down, but if all you ever do is research, you're not going to get that novel written. Decide when enough is enough, and realise you can get the other stuff later. Never interrupt the flow of writing to look something up.

8. Lack of discipline masquerading as being too busy. Bum on seat. Sign a writing contract with yourself: a set number of words per day, or a set amount of time. Do not leave your seat until those words/that time is done. Find someone you can be accountable to, and send them regular reports on how you're going.

9. Disorganisation: letting time just slip away. Use your writing contract. Use a timetable. Try blocking out what you do for one day, and just finding out where that time really is going.

10. Fear. This is a difficult one and warrants a post all of its own. Writers are afraid of lots of things. You have to sit through the fear. No-one said writing is easy. It's not. But you want to be a writer, right? Bum on seat. Allow yourself the freedom of writing crap. Remember, the bottom line is that crappy pages can be edited into something better; blank pages cannot.

15 July 2007

Writer or not?

The last few days I've been doing some work at home (inbetween editing my novel), listening to some podcasts we're producing to get an online unit up and running. Yesterday, I was finishing off one I'd started earlier, which was a recording of an editor from an independent publishing house, talking about the publishing process. Among the many things she talked about was a decision she says that every writer must make: whether they want to be a writer and make that the focus of everything, or whether they want to do other things and write books around (or about) these.

It's an interesting topic when you consider the great divide between those who write full-time, and those who support their writing with working full- or part-time. This second group are often not people who want to do other things and write, but writers who want to write full-time but cannot support their basic existence by writing alone. There's a big YET that comes after that sentence. Maybe this is a situation peculiar to those of us living in countries with smaller populations, but I suspect not. After all, every country will have their emerging writers; it's just that here in Australia, most of our established writers cannot live by writing alone. That's the difference.

There are also those who write for the sheer joy of writing and have no intention of getting published. I consider them -- if they are still serious about honing their craft, and many of them are -- every bit as much real writers. (And I know the editor wasn't suggesting that one group was more or less important than the other, just that they have different focuses -- or foci, if you'd rather.) I had an argument with one of my Sydney friends last time I was up there about this. She suggested that every writer wants to be published. I don't support this view at all. And when I was at Buninyong the other day, I was interested to hear Peter Bishop talk about this: how some writers, well on the path to publication, suddenly decide, for whatever reason, that it's a path they don't want to continue on.

In opposition are those who write to be rich or famous. They're usually new to writing. Even as a beginner, I don't think my glasses were ever this rosy. I always wonder how long disillusionment will take to set in, and whether it will stop them from writing. If they're real writers, it won't. And as a counterpoint are those published writers who talk about never having had a rejection, but they are few and far between. Most of us suffer rejection at some time in our writing careers, especially at the beginning.

But the whole idea of a writer being someone whose full-time focus is on writing is disconcerting. I do want to be a writer; I do want to write full-time. But does this mean I have to give up teaching? My students often inspire me. I feel privileged to read their work and take part in their journey.

Teaching writing means my working week is still spent thinking about writing -- looking through writing books for new ways of approaching things, for different answers to the same or different problems, for new ways of inspiring students (and myself in the process). Teaching writing is a paradox -- on the one hand it informs my writing, but on the other it saps my creative strength, as I put a lot into my students. At Clarion, I asked every tutor who had taught writing how they wrote and taught, and they all said that you can't do both. But can't you? Other writing teachers do it. But do they do it as much as they should or could? One of our teachers has just resigned after ten years teaching so she can spend more time writing. It is a conundrum. If I had the kind of advance that meant I could consider leaving teaching, would I do it? Truth is I don't know. In the meantime, I'll just do what most writers do: work and squeeze every moment I can out of my day for my great passion: writing or, more specifically, my current novel.

10 July 2007

Second person

I'm just musing today about a comment a friend made on an email about second-person, and how hard it is to write. I've written one story in second person that's been published. (I'm trying to think if I've done any more -- I have a vague feeling that I have, but I can't remember. That's a worry! lol) I didn't find that story at all hard to write. Admittedly, it is more experimental than most of my work. Usually, I write stuff that (I think) is strongly plotted, but every now and then I like to have a play around with something that isn't, or that is different in some way.

I think readers either love or hate second person. Not many are ambivalent about it. I love it. When I'm reading in second person, I am the "you" in the story. It doesn't matter if it's a male character who's an alcoholic, has bunions, six girlfriends and onion breath. I am that person. Because I am the main character, I find this the closest point of view of all, but I've heard many say it's distant. My theory is that those who hate it or who find it distant (and I suspect they're the same people) aren't able to make that transition.

Conversely, what I hate is the occasional use of second person -- when someone is writing in first or third person, and every now and then they pop in an occasional "you". For example: "I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when I saw a large crane -- you know the type..." I'm left thinking, who? Me? I think it's meant to be a generic kind of thing, but because I start considering who the writer is talking to, I am ripped right out of the story. I really, really, really can't tell you how much I hate this. I hate being reminded that I am reading. I want to be in the story, to experience it, live and breathe and smell and feel it. I can't do that if the writer is constantly reminding me that I'm reading a story. Writers do this with authorial intrusions, and with that occasional use of "you". If it's set up from the beginning -- in the first para or two, then I'll swallow it, but still as something distasteful that I'd rather not sample. Maybe it's just me. I'm interested in what others think. Does it bother you? (Yes, as in you the reader!) Or don't you even notice it?

08 July 2007


One thing I wrestle with in handling a big project through many rewrites is consistency. I know I touched on this when I talked about things that Isobelle Carmody said at the recent SF con, but it hit home today because I was lying in bed drowsing, thinking about my novel -- as I usually am in the free moments that I'm not required to be thinking about something else -- when I had this horrible thought. I had rewritten a scene in the first third of the novel -- one that has been recently haunting my main character, when I realised that I thought I had actually cut out the thing my character was dwelling on. The trouble is that I'm so familiar with the overarching story that when I make changes like this, I forget the changes and remember the story how it has been through most of the drafts.

So, today, when I should have been writing, I was instead hunting for this scene. I couldn't remember exactly where it was, so I was skimming through with a closer eye than I might otherwise have, and then I couldn't help myself and started editing. An extra adjective there, a line of dialogue that could be cut -- my novel is like a very long short story: I'm trying not to have any extraneous material (which doesn't mean extraneous to the plot, because I do want to suggest a bigger world, but extraneous to the novel). In the time that it took me to find the scene I found another discrepancy: a male character named Isgard who I'd changed to a female named Visgard the first time he/she appeared, but then, after this point, had left it as it was. I remember now my rationale for making the change -- and I am happy that she be a girl, but when I had gone on with the rewrite I had forgotten this. If you had asked me this morning that character's name and sex, I would have said: Isgard, male because I'm really familiar with that character (who is incidental to the plot and only ever talked about, never seen) through many other drafts. This is the quandry of the rewrite.

I suppose, though, it is something I'd pick up in a subsequent editing pass -- at least I hope I would. Because I edit other people's stuff, I'm used to that way that editors read, putting more and more details into my mind and holding them there. Nothing better than thinking, oh, I'm sure that I saw this about thirty pages ago, and last time it was like that ... and finding that you are indeed correct. Though, of course, this can take an infuriatingly long time to chase down, which is why style sheets are a brilliant idea. When I found the scene I was looking for, I saw that it did, in fact, contain the details I had worried I had lost, so was able to rest easily.

I'm curious though: how do other writers maintain consistency? Is it something you struggle with or something that comes easily to you?

07 July 2007

Hiving off the family

A friend has been talking to me about the whole blogging process, and as a result of our conversations, I've decided to restrict myself to blogging about writing at this address -- and so keep true to the title. Obviously, I like blogging about my family life -- so I'm going to continue to do so, but at another address. My family/life blog is called Chaotic Life. Click on the name to visit it if you like. You're welcome to follow that blog if that's what interests you, read only this one or read both.

06 July 2007

Eight facts

Snail tagged me with the eight-facts-about-you meme. I'm supposed to post the rules first so here they are:

1. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
2. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
3. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
4. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Not that I want to be a spoilsport, but I have this thing about chain letters. My husband's rule of the house is never buy things over the phone. Mine is never pass on chain letters. So, I'm breaking the rules. However, if any of you gentle or not-so-gentle readers feel like taking up the meme and running with it, please feel free.

So here are eight facts about me:

1. I was copyeditor of the Australian edition of Cranium, and had to work on a very short deadline. On the last day I had to work almost twenty-four hours straight, and our fridge broke down, and I contracted food-poisoning from some frozen fish, which was good because it meant I didn't have to stop work to eat. Cranium was really interesting to work on -- a lot of fun.

2. My father is Dutch, but I never felt Dutch until I went to Holland in my twenties. I used to hate my Dutch surname, because it seemed so foreign, but now I really like it and wish sometimes I still had it.

3. When I was a teenager, I saw Star wars more than thirty times at the movies and was able to recite the whole film.

4. I had two big disasters in my lab career: I nearly burnt down the lab while doing a Ziehl-Neelsen stain for tuberculosis. After that, my boss never let me do a Z-N again, which was really rough because I had learnt to really, really, really respect fire. My hands ended up blistered, and I melted the new linoleum on the lab floor, but everything else was okay. The second disaster was when I was several months pregnant and accidentally exploded (metaphorically speaking) a three-day collection of faeces over the balcony. My bosses made me clean up the mess, which involved scrubbing out the grouting of the tiles, and I was dry-reaching the whole time. My coworkers formed a semi-circle around me and laughed.

5. I can't sew. At high school I got a D for needlework in Year 7 and the teacher wrote that I was a lovely girl but couldn't cope with the subject.

6. I didn't go on an aeroplane till I was in Year 9 and our school went to Tassie. I really love travelling but can't afford to do any at the moment. In my twenties I backpacked for 18 months, mostly through Europe, north Africa and America. My favourite place was Jerusalem, because I loved the history and mix of cultures.

7. My grandfather played as a ruckman for Richmond, so I'm a Tiger supporter. My second cousin's second cousin is Colleen Hewitt, and I'm as distantly related to Herbie on "Number 96", but can't remember exactly how. He was married to my great-grandmother's someone or other. Something like that.

8. When I was eight, I started a horse novel about a buckskin called Diablo, which I was illustrating myself. In my teens, I wrote 101 single-spaced foolscap pages of an SF novel that drew far too heavily on Star wars. The two main characters had the unlikely names of Chad Durlaine and Lloyd Lancer, and there was a series of planets called Philan, Phileen, Philo -- I can't remember them all, but there were five in all. Looking back over it now, aside from the cliches, I'm surprised that the structure is solid. Starts in media res. Has lots of conflict, rising tension, all of that. But, yes, far too many space opera cliches.

I'll stop there (I had nine but I've deleted one), because I've got off the editing train of my novel this afternoon, and rewritten a short scene. Not quite the 1000 words that I like to write in a day, so I'm off to tackle the next scene before I get too tired.

How much to explain

How much do you leave for the reader and how much do you explain? Does this depend on genre? It seems to me that "good" writing leaves room for the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps. But sometimes I've read reviews, usually of genre books, that complain that the writer didn't make everything clear. Are these lazy readers who want everything spelled out, or has the writer missed putting in some crucial piece of information that the story hangs on? I think it is often the first. Genre readers are more used to being told everything -- perhaps because of a larger reliance by writers on omniscient POV. Their readers are not as used to working for it. Literary readers have to use their imaginations a lot. Crime writers, I suspect, are good at it too, since they all seem to read looking for clues.

John Marsden doesn't describe his characters from the outside. Readers wear their skin, see the world from their POV. I never miss not having these details -- perhaps because I'm not visual. Nothing is more boring to me than a flat description of what a character looks like/is wearing. Some writers can get away with telling these type of details because they do it with such fresh, arresting details that the reader is engaged. But some... Tell me she had eyes like sapphires, and thick, wiry black hair, and I'll be stifling a yawn. A few years ago I picked up a favourite horse book from my childhood years and was astonished to find the opening sentence was something like "So and so wore fawn jodphurs, a tweed riding jacket and knee-length black leather riding boots, and her horse wore a dressage saddle and an eggbutt snaffle bit". Oh, please.

It's hard deciding how much to explain to a reader: I'm writing fantasy so do I go with a more maximalist effect or make them work. In the end, I usually try to make them work because I do believe it's better writing. More satisfying for the reader who does do the work and puts together the clues.

05 July 2007


I'm having a few days off the rewrite to edit some of the chapters I've been rewriting. I love editing. Trouble is that I just want to flesh and flesh and flesh when, really, word counts dictate I must pare and pare and pare. And it's not like there are that many adjectives and adverbs to pare. When I was at Clarion, Jack Dann told me my style was much closer to Hemingway's than Faulkner's. So the dilemma is what to cut. Sometimes it's a bit of setting, or a bit of action that is incidental to the plot. I have to be careful that I'm not cutting characterisation, because more than anything I want a sense of fully rounded characters -- I want readers to care for my characters and empathise with their struggles.

So, I was very happy today when I found a paragraph that repeated something I'd said in an earlier chapter, and I was able to nuke the whole para. I liked the writing, but repetition is deadly for a reader. They're left thinking, I got this already -- why are you telling me again? Kristin Nelson, the agent, recently blogged about repeating dialogue in the narrative (or vice versa), and I must admit it's one of my pet hates. Some of my students do it too. It drives me nuts. They only do it once or twice, and then it becomes obvious to them. I can't remember ever repeating anything so blantant, but perhaps I did in my earlier days. When I'm being repetitious, it's usually because I'm worried that the reader isn't going to remember something, but it's better to trust the reader. Don't speak (or write) down to them. Anyway, time to get back to the editing. I love the way I can blog as a break from writing!

In a spin

It's funny how things can come along and suddenly throw you into a spin. It's happened this week with the realisation that we don't have very long left with my daughter's singing teacher. Her singing teacher is a wonderful woman and great teacher with tons of experience but not enough money behind her that the immigration department is at all interested in letting her stay.

Princess Sleepyhead is a talented singer. How talented? I don't know. I like music, but I can't sing for nuts. Well, I could try but people would throw them at me to make me shut up. I'm not exaggerating. But she sings opera as if it's the easiest thing. Mind you, she prefers pop, and sings along to her iPod. That does not sound so wonderful, and the Gadget Man and I scratch our heads and wonder if it's the same voice. I can't explain it.

She's also learning piano, but getting that coordination together has been and continues to be a much harder journey. This year she is sitting Grade 2 Leisure Exams through AMEB (Australian Music Examinations Board), having done Grade 1 Classical, Grade 1 Leisure, Prep Classical and Prep Leisure. There's half a grade difference (approx.) between Leisure (easier) and Classical. She's also doing her Grade 1 Theory Exam, and is struggling a bit with this. Her piano teacher believes in doing all the steps, and this approach gets her great results.

Her singing teacher started her at Grade 2 with the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music), which she sat about a week ago. AMEB is Australian; ABRSM, English. AMEB is the standard in all the unis here, but ABRSM is recognised world wide. The singing teacher usually jumps students from Grade 2 to Grade 5 to Grade 8. Trouble is she's leaving later this year, and she says that PS is already singing at Grade 8 level, so she wants PS to go straight to Grade 8. Here's where we go into a spin: to sit an ABRSM Grade 8 exam, students must already have passed Grade 5 theory.

Last night PS had a piano lesson, and I asked the piano teacher her advice. She stood with her mouth open at the suggestion that PS could complete five grades of theory in a few months. PS struggles with the concepts, and hasn't really applied herself. Will she pull her finger out? Who knows. The singing teacher reckons she can get her to Grade 5 theory in a couple of months, by preparing a special book. (Both AMEB and ABRSM have books.) I guess I think the piano teacher's right. And if the singing teacher had another year, we wouldn't be having this conversation. I'm suggesting we do Grade 5 performance and leave it at that. Grade 8 would be wonderful -- and perhaps she can sing at this level, but I just can't see her getting past the theory hurdle. I suppose we've got a few weeks before we have to commit to the exam (don't know how long exactly). Maybe she can give it a go and see where she ends up.

And here's my cat

Yes, you've all seen pictures of my dogs. And yet where are those of my cat? Here she is for reference -- just to prove she really does exist. Her name's Beth, which causes some confusion in the house because that's also the name of our piano teacher. Our last cat, Minou, was tabby and white, but Beth is black and tabby -- I had never heard of such a colour, or seen one till we got her. She belonged to a guy who lived at the back of my mum's old place, but he was moving out and couldn't take her, so we inherited her. She's big and boofy like a tom cat, but a friendly cat all around. Just doesn't like all those layabout dogs hanging around the place: not the big, dipsy blonde one who loves her to bits, or the little red terror who barks when she sees her.

04 July 2007

New puppy

On Sunday, we brought home our new puppy, and were all very keen to see how our existing dog coped with this new bundle of fluff. From the beginning, our dog has just adored her. The new one is quite bossy, and whinges a bit, and sometimes makes this dreadful noise -- we're all wondering if it's the famous Toller cry, and whether our neighbours hate us yet! The two dogs spend a lot of the day playing rough and tumble on the floor, till the puppy gets tired and starts whingeing. Then she needs rescuing. But she's the one doing all the damage -- she ripped a piece of skin off our dog's leg, but the dog didn't seem to mind. I think she thinks she's mum.

The cat, of course, was less overjoyed. She thinks one dog is bad enough -- especially because the dog thinks that cat is that strange little black dog that miaows. The cat whacks the dog across the head and growls and spits, and the dog thinks that this is the way you play, and now practises this tactic on every dog she meets, including the puppy. The cat was at first intrigued when we bought the pup home -- after all she looks more like a teddy bear than a puppy. Because Goldens begin life with short hair and resemble Labs at that age, they look much more like dogs than baby Tollers do. And with the striped face, white chest and paws, maybe she resembles a cat enough to fool ours. Not sure, but when the Toller finally saw the cat, she let out the most awful din. She yapped and barked and cried. The Gadget Man thought the dog was killing her, but the dog -- who has never once barked at the cat -- was standing aside with her ears pricked, watching the action as the cat ran.

It's interesting watching them, watching the dynamics change. But I think I feel sorry for the dog. It's funny because until I got the dog a year ago, I hadn't given my characters dogs. I won't now because it's not intrinsically part of their characters -- and my main character has a fear of a dog-related animal that attacked him when he was small. But I can't help wondering whether my characters would have had dogs if I'd started the novel since I'd got my first. Well, my first as an adult -- I grew up with dogs, and now I can't believe I lived so long without one. Funny how your views on things change, really.

03 July 2007

Buninyong Writers' Festival

On Saturday (yes, I'm getting rather behind) I dragged along Lorraine, Margaret and Lynette, three of my fellow Western Women Writers to the Buninyong Writers' Festival, south of Ballarat. I wanted to go because one of my friends, and past student, Dennis McIntosh was speaking as an emerging writer. So we left Melbourne at 8.30 am, and got there just on 10.30 for the beginning of the festival, and I must say it was lovely to see some people I knew in the audience: two of my past students, Demet and Dee (who were there independently), Anne, who was in Western Union Writers with me for a while, and Janey, a fellow PWE teacher. Much of the festival seemed centred around Varuna and the masterclasses and fellowships that they offer there.

The first session was emerging writers: Dennis, Asher Leslie and Sylvia Owers. All of the writers spoke about how they got into writing.

Asher spoke about how he found his calculator to be the most useful writing tool -- in terms of how long it would take him to write a novel at a set number of words per day. He said that writing was like having a conversation with no interruptions. Clearly, he hasn't got children! Many of us dream about thinking about writing in this way. Well, not really, but we would if we thought about it. He also talked about how important goals are when you're writing.

Sylvia talked about writing and rewriting to get more into her character's heads. Her first rewrite took her from 80,000 to 150,000 words. This is my problem too. I always want to flesh out characters more, but I can't afford to expand. I have to cut, cut, cut because I started this draft at 191,000 words, and now three-quarters of the way through I'm still at 188.

Dennis talked about having the courage to tell a story in a voice that is not usually seen in literature. He writes about his time as a shearer, and the voice is authentic, strong. In response to a question about what to do when you hit a wall and can't write, he spoke about sitting in the tension and just getting on with it. He was obviously inspirational because other writers were quoting him all day long. One of the things he was quoted on was advice of how to fictionalise real events: keep true to the emotion and then lie as much as you can.

Peter Bishop, who hosted this session, talked about how easy it is for life to move in and take the space carved for reading and writing. How true that is. I still remember what happened to my word counts when I first started teaching. To keep my students writing, I brought writing contracts into my Novel 2 class, and made sure I signed one along with the rest of them, and this still really helps keep me on track. He also said that those with the passion will make the space.

The second session was the industry professionals: Peter Bishop, the creative director at Varuna; Linda Funnell, Publisher at HarperCollins, and Vanessa Radnidge, Publisher at Hachette Livre.

Vanessa began and went through a typical day for her at work, which might involve, among other things, assessing manuscripts and writing reader's reports; structural editing; copyediting; proofreading; applying for permissions; writing blurbs; preparing information sheets for the publicity team; liaising with photographers, agents and authors; putting contracts together; and working with an author to make them feel included as part of the publishing world. As well as the publishing process, she talked about how the editor has to sell the book to the rest of the publishing house at the acquisitions meeting, and how she doesn't take knockbacks personally. I think that it's easy for us writers to forget that an editor loving our books may not be enough. Or rather, that if we get a no, it doesn't necessarily mean that the editor didn't love it. It needs the editor to love it and to be able to convince everyone else in the acquisitions meeting that they should love it too! She reminded us that publishers are competing for a slice of people's entertainment money: why they should buy this book instead of a DVD or CD or going to see a movie. She said, therefore, that writers need to find stories that readers will want to give up time for, stories that will transport people.

Peter talked about what Varuna does for writers. Really, it's best that you check into this yourself because they have many excellent programs. The website is at www.varuna.com.au -- he also said that memoir sells more than fiction because people want to know about writers, but what they don't realise is that a novel will tell just as much about a writer as a memoir will.

Linda talked about HarperCollins's three imprints: Fourth estate (literary), HarperCollins (general) and the one closest to my own heart: Voyager (SF). She said HarperCollins want writers who are going to write more than one book, but when they take on someone new they have to look at what their existing authors are doing and what spaces are available. She said writers need to have a story they're ready to share with a wider audience, and need to be clear about what their motivations for seeking publishing are. HarperCollins don't accept unsolicited manuscripts -- when they did they received over 500 per week. Yes, that's correct. Per week. They only look at manuscripts from agents, through Varuna, or from already published authors. However, you can send them a query letter with a two-paragraph description of your book, and they might then solicit the manuscript if it sounds interesting. Linda says what gets noticed is if you can write really well. She said not to send gimmicky things, but rather to put all your effort into what's on the page: correct all spelling errors, proofread etc. And for editors, she said that every author is different and has something to teach you. How true that is. Every project I've worked on as an editor has taught me something new. And I reckon 75% of them have involved copyright law in some way. Bizarre.

Session three was the published writers: Adib Khan, Robbi Neal and Julie Gittus.

Robbi talked about how life before being published was pretty much the same as life afterwards. (Though one wonders if she was organising great writing festivals beforehand!) She also talked about wrestling with second-book syndrome.

Adib said that his writing was at first accidental and incidental but how creativity can be inspired by desperation. That was reassuring -- I think! He said that we shouldn't "graft ourselves to the imaginative trunk" and that it must be "life over art" -- in other words to take care of ourselves financially and not rely on having written a bestseller. Sage advice, indeed. He spoke about fencing off his writing time and not allowing anyone to breach that fence. Yes, indeed! He also said that when the editing is done a book is finished, and that you must cut the umblical cord as soon as you can and get on with the next book. Here's something else he said that may reassure struggling, published writers: every few years he asks himself whether he has another novel inside him, but he only finds the answer out when he's finished the first draft. He says he starts his novels both in first and third person before he decides which is working best. I've never heard of anyone else doing this all the time. Interesting. He says that when writing your first novel, passion carries you through, but that for subsequent novels you have to rely on discipline.

Julie talked about her road into writing through the freefall writing workshops, recommended by her friend Gina Perry. She quoted Churchill who said, "The good thing about war is that you don't have to write that day".

Peter was hosting this session as well and said that an editor is the closest reader you'll ever have, and that they're looking at whether your writing is fully articulate, and that if they reword something it's one suggestion for how you might fix something.

Finally, there was an excellent performance of Dorothy Porter's The Monkey's Mask. Dorothy answered questions after the performance and said a couple of really interesting things: she thinks poetry is too cramped on the page, and that poets should be aware of other possibilities; and that she has both a poet and a novelist read her verse novels to make sure they are working on both levels.

This festival had a great atmosphere, and I really enjoyed the day. Left me with plenty to think about too.