30 August 2007

How we learn to write

In class on Tuesday, one of my writing students who has been wrestling with her memoir had a breakthrough, and it made me ponder how we learn to write. There are the obvious things that we've all heard, of course: first of all we learn through writing, writing, writing. And through reading, reading, reading. I'm a firm believer in the long years of practice.

I know I learnt a lot about writing through workshopping and seeing other people's comments and their line edits. I know some writing teachers don't do line edits because they don't feel that they have the right to cross out somebody else's words, but I think it's an important way of showing how to improve the flow of words/information/narrative. The student is, of course, free to take your advice or not, but to me not line editing is a wasted opportunity to show the students (rather than tell them) how to improve. All very well to just write "awkward" next to a line, but some don't have the craft knowledge yet to know how to deal with that.

I'm a subscriber to the theory that our learning proceeds in a slow gentle curve that eventually plateaus out, until the day when another thing clicks and you jump up a level, up a straight cliff-face, onto another gentle incline curving up. And so we proceed in a series of curves and plateaus with the odd leaps that take us to the next level. And my student jumped one of those levels in class. Most years, at some point, at least one student will make such a leap, and it's a heartening thing for a teacher to see, because it means that all that we're saying and doing has at least had some effect. For me, it's moments like those that make teaching worthwhile. I love my students -- I find it inspiring to be among like-minded people, but these moments when you see such tangible evidence of improvement, teaching becomes something more than a job I enjoy doing.

A few years ago, I had two students who were close friends in my class: one was the most eager student I'd ever seen and so keen to improve her skills. She was always asking me what she could do to improve her work. She and her friend were pretty much on the same level and, as luck would have it, it was her friend that made the leap during class that year. The first girl was glad for her friend, but became increasingly frustrated at her own lack of progress. We can't will these jumps; they happen when we've assimilated some piece of knowledge, deconstructed and reconstructed it and come up with something new -- an insight, an epiphany, a light-bulb moment. I know at times I've experienced that frustration: knowing I've needed something more in my writing, but not quite what that thing is or how to get it. I had to tell my student not to lose heart, but to be patient. Patience does bring us improvements as long as we continue that essential practice. We all learn at different rates. Sometimes these leaps come through trying something different -- a completely different approach. For my student it was trying present tense instead of past. Present tense allowed her to relive the moment and so to capture it as if it were happening right there, right then. It doesn't mean her story necessarily has to stay in present tense, but for now it is helping her unlock the door to her own creativity. She's bubbling with excitement about it, and so am I.

26 August 2007

Book launch: The whisper of leaves

Today, I've had the rare and rather satisfying experience of attending a book launch by one of my past students. Karen Simpson Nikakis was one of my Novel 2 students and launched her new fantasy series The whisper of leaves, Book 1 of The Kira Chronicles.

It's always exciting to see a "new" author arrive on the scene, but this isn't Karen's only first. She also spearheads Allen & Unwin's new imprint Arena, and is the first novelist to be accepted through publisher Louise Thurtell's innovative Friday Pitch sessions. (Authors can email a first chapter and synopsis on Fridays for consideration. More information can be found here.)

I had an interesting chat to Louise (who'd come down from Sydney for the launch, and to attend the Melbourne Writers' Festival) about Karen, fantasy writing, teaching writing, and publishing in general. She thought it was great that at least one writing teacher out there loved fantasy, and I spoke about friends who've studied writing and are forced to write only literary fiction. I really can't see the point in this -- for two reasons: (i) literary fiction doesn't sell, and (ii) writers should be writing what they're passionate about. Karen is passionate about fantasy -- she has followed her dream and now it's paying off, and that should be heartening for all writers!

Professor John McLaren (former VU academic and editor of Overland) launched the novel, and made an interesting speech about the importance and value of fantasy in our lives, which was good for me to hear because sometimes in the SF community that I inhabit there is the pervading opinion about how academics perceive speculative fiction, and it's nice to be reminded that not everyone is as polarised in their views. I mean, it always amuses me how magic realism is viewed as respectable, and yet its close kin fantasy is deemed rubbish.

He also spoke about the richness of the world that Karen invokes, richness both in detail and in language, and how love permeates it all -- and it again made me think of the divisions between science fiction writing and fantasy writing: the head versus the heart.

Karen's speech was warm and gracious -- and without being at all longwinded, she managed to thank everyone there (I think!), and gave our course a plug, which was nice. It's great to see a writer whose family is behind them -- hers seemed suitably excited. Here's a photo of Karen and her kids with her new book (I just wish my camera program filtered out the red-eye, the way it says it does!).

I hope Karen's new book (and indeed the trilogy) and Louise's new imprint both do spectacularly well!

24 August 2007

Seven things that inspire me: seven: read on!

Yes, read on because I really can't rap it up in one.

I would like to say the blank page, but truly that doesn't inspire me. Dedication and commitment are required to overcome the blank page. I like having written more than I like writing. Not that the blank page terrifies me as it seems to terrify some... What inspires me to start writing is reading over the previous day's writing, and editing it. Nothing like it for getting me in the mood.

The draft. A finished draft -- that's inspiring. After all, you can fix a crappy page; you can't "fix" a blank one -- not as an editor.

Plotting time -- I don't get it often enough. At least a whole day without interruptions, with a clear table, big sheet of paper and pens. The question: what if?. And using that to explore possibilities -- that can get me truly excited. My fingers itching for the keybaord. The headspace that only comes at the end of semester, not when I'm reading student work and trying to hold all their stories in my head.

The night sky. In my younger days this would've been number one. I loved astronomy, and read books and books on it. Didn't have a telescope, and remember a humiliating incident when I met a government astronomer in America. His friends had said I had an interest in astronomy, and he was talking to me and then asked me the latitude of Melbourne and when I couldn't say with any certainty, he dissed me, told me not to waste his time as I clearly wasn't interested in astronomy at all. And he stalked off. I felt so low. All those books I was reading... Yes, clearly no interest at all. Taught me something about mankind though.

Talking to writers, spending time with them, especially my WWW and SuperNOVA friends. Talking plotting. Talking characters. Listening to them discuss their problems and offering up tactics. Listening to them offer me tactics too. Every writer needs that kind of support.

Enthusiasm -- hearing it at cons, when you get someone who's really on topic. Russell Kirkpatrick, for example, on maps. How can you not be infected? It's a virus -- one we all want to catch.

Swords and swordsmen in action. That long piece of steel -- not going to go into any phallic symbolism here, just that there's something about swords that makes me go gooey inside. Yeah, second post I've used that word in -- it's a worry.

Feeling part of a community -- whether it's my teaching fraternity at VU who have to be the greatest bunch of teachers ever -- or the SF community when I'm at a con, or the poetry community or whatever. Hearing the goss, marvelling at the bad behaviour of some. We all need to belong to something, and it's just fantastic that there is a community out there that we're all part of. The writing community may have its inner circles -- ones I don't yet belong too and, frankly, I must say I abhor the whole idea of it -- but it is still something terrific to be part of. Daunting when you're just starting out, but as time goes on and you network and know more and more people, it gets easier, and it really is very special.

So number seven is a series of seven smaller things. Okay, it isn't maths so it doesn't matter. Next we'll talk the theory of relativity and how if two people are moving in opposite directions at the speed of light after one hour they will be only one light-hour apart and not two as you would otherwise expect. Fascinating stuff. Does that mean I should have included science in there? No, I'm not nearly a rigorous enough reader of science anymore. I'm more interested in the heart than the cerebrum when it comes to writing.

Seven things that inspire me: six: films and tv shows

Films like Lord of the rings help me to get into the mood, especially as I'm not visual. I don't make pictures in my head -- don't picture the characters I read or write about (though I know what those I write about look like). I think now this explains why I like to see movies more than once. Why I saw Star Wars (later known as A new hope over thirty times at the cinema. I'm trying to imprint the pictures in my head. I used to be able to recite the whole movie, line by line.

But movies and well-made TV shows are perfect for writers of fantasy or historical fiction, because they help set the mood. When I watch them I get a feel for setting. I see details that I might otherwise not have thought of -- and am sent scurrying back to my textbooks with new visions, new ideas. Perhaps it's because when I watch a movie I am in the movie, just as I am the protagonist of whatever book I am reading, whether that character is male or female. I don't care -- I'll go inside any head.

Something else movies and TV shows are good for are helping find that actor who can play your main character. I've had lots of close matches with Arinka. A young Keanu Reeves -- he was perhaps the closest for a long time. Then there was Viggo, ah, beautiful Viggo, but apart from being way too old, his eyes are the wrong colour. Nice, but not Arinka's. And his face isn't thin enough. Then there was Ioan Gruffudd (especially as Hornblower), but he was just a tad too good looking. I toyed with Spider-man's James Franco, and then even more when I saw him as Tristan, but again he was just that little bit too good looking, almost pretty, which Arinka is not. None of them were the perfect fit. Finally, I've found him -- an actor I've been acquainted with on the small screen for several years, but I've only just seen the match. As Hoddel would say (er, forgive the Fiddler on the Roof reference), he's a perfect match, fits like a glove.

Wanna see Arinka? He's the one on the left. Excuse me while I go a bit gooey. Here's another. You just have to imagine him with longer hair, tied back, often plaited.

Tom Ward is the first actor who fulfils all the criteria -- right body, right colour hair, right colour eyes, straight nose, thin face, and as Dr Harry Cunningham, he even moves the right way. (Interestingly, the actor fences and rides horses. Honestly, he's perfect, though admittedly ten years too old.) And, even more exciting, for the first time I have the timbre of Arinka's voice in my head. It's always been there, elusive as a gnat flitting around just out of reach, but now I have it, and it's gorgeous and deep and sexy -- and excuse me while I go a bit gooey again! Yes, my friends, this is Arinka. When are the later episodes of "Silent Witness" coming out on DVD? Hurry them up, please! Perhaps in the meantime I need to get another hold of the BBC version of "Pride and Prejudice", which won't be any great labour to sit through!

23 August 2007

Seven things that inspire me: five: books

What writer could not include these? Whether they're textbooks on how to write, textbooks on how to fight with swords (my newest acquisition, and how exciting is that?), or whether their literary novels with language that sings, a poetry journal with images that startle, how could I not love them. Of course my favourite of all is the sprawling fat fantasy novel, preferably in a set of at least three, that will transport me to another world.

Books could be my number one inspiration -- but sometimes I'll read something that is so wondrous that I'll wonder why I am doing this. It's not so much a point about whether I am capable of writing such a thing as much as it is a point about feeling the need to write, when I have clearly found a book someone else has written that fills that same need in me. Strange, isn't it?

We say to our students that they must read widely -- both inside the genre they're writing in and outside. It astounds me how little some of these kids read. I sometimes feel, because I studied science instead of arts, that I'm very underread. And in my years at high school we never once studied the bard, though I did read Romeo and Juliet of my own accord. Would love to read MacBeth and King Lear. These kids, some of them, haven't even heard of Dostoevski, another writer I read for pleasure. So even though I feel underread compared to some of my teaching peers, I find I talk books with them and realise I have actually read a lot. But no matter how much you do read, there's always so much more that you can't. Oh, how I'd like to be a faster reader, because compared to some of my friends I am quite slow. And I do read *every* word -- after all, as a writer I craft every word, so I'm not expecting people to be skipping over them. And I suppose I'm always dipping into technical manuals and magazines and reading Poetrix submissions, and student manuscripts, but I'd like more time to read for pleasure. Because pleasure it is. I often now feel guilty when I curl up with a book because I put everything: the kids, emails, my writing, my pets, the whole world, on hold. But I try to tell myself I'm not indulging myself -- I am working, learning how to hone my own writing, drawing on the techniques that other writers use, but that knowledge doesn't stop the experience from feeling self-indulgent, purely because it is so pleasurable.

22 August 2007

Seven things that inspire me: four: horses

I'm a girl. I love horses. Isn't that all that's necessary? I remember someone saying girls have three stages in life: dolls, horses and boys. Some of us -- most fantasy writers I suspect -- got somehow stuck on number two.

What I love about horses: their nobility, whiskery lips, muscles beneath their skins, sad but intelligent eyes, the way they lip you, smell of hay breath, nickers, how they rub their heads on you after a ride to scratch their heads, smell of leather tack, thick manes, personalities, kindness -- oh, the list could go on and on.

I've fallen in love with a horse, but never owned one. In Year 10, we had to keep a diary and I kept a diary of a horse. Years later I saw my Year 10 English teacher, and she remembered me from that diary. My main character now owns that horse -- a sixteen hand skewbald called Big Patch (or Patch in the novel). But horses are definitely one of the appeals of fantasy for me -- both as a reader and writer. You won't see my characters on the quests on feet or on any kind of otherworldly beasts. Has to be a horse.

18 August 2007

Seven things that inspire me: three: gum trees/the bush

Gum trees -- how can you not love these? The smell of Australian summer. I remember being in the Greek islands on a forty degree day, and the breeze bringing the scent of eucalypt, and a wave of homesickness washing over me. What I love about them is that they're all individuals. No two trees look alike, unlike those pine clones (not cones!). Or elms or oaks. I love evergreens. Who cares about autumn colours? Give me green, green, green. Verdant canopies. The taste of eucalypt -- my dad throwing a few bark strips on the barbie and all the hamburgers coming out smoked. Yum.

Yes, the Australian bush is another important part of my psyche, so perhaps it's no surprise it features heavily in my fiction. Not for me the European forests, but the gums, the tea-trees, the bottlebrushes, the black boys, something about Australian plants. So how does this all fit into a medieval, feudal type society? Terraformers, of course. My world has been seeded by terraformers, which gives me freedoms that other fantasy writers don't have. So you could well see a wallaby or two. But I wonder if that's not part of the appeal of fantasy -- the quest journey and all that time to have my characters out in the open air. I know I love reading about the journey in other people's work. I loved the ents in Lord of the rings for example -- even if it meant leaving my beloved Aragorn behind. Yes, I was having a relationship with him well before Viggo put flesh on his bones (and that was some flesh!).

Being city grounded (I was going to say "bound" -- in terms of being bonded, but it seemed like it meant "on the way to"), I don't get to sit in the country often to just contemplate the bush, but I love the sense of peace and stillness, and at the same time, the sense of activity in all the wildlife -- the insects, the birds, the animals, just the movement of wind through grasses. Occasionally, when our writers' group has had a retreat up in Mansfield, it's almost as if my characters are at my shoulders the whole time. Just being in the kind of atmosphere I'm writing about makes me want to bring out the computer and get typing. Or is it just that time, alone with writers, spending a few days talking writing? I don't know, but whatever it is, it works!

16 August 2007

Seven things that inspire me: two: the sea

I grew up by the ocean. I've always joked that I learnt how to swim before I could walk but, although I was a late walker, the statement is not true, of course. But sometimes it feels like it's almost true. I did learn to swim young, and my father, one year, took me swimming in the beach every day of the year. The hardest thing about swimming in winter isn't getting into the water but getting out. That wind chill factor ... brrrr. And, yes, although it's true that ocean temperatures don't vary much between winter and summer, that's not quite true of the shallow waters in the bay. It's cold. Not the kind of water you ease into, but the kind you plunge into and feel the shock of a vise closing around your head.

Perhaps it's no surprise then that the sea has such a profound effect on me. I grew up in a seaside suburb, and I live in a neighbouring seaside suburb. I love taking my dogs swimming, though our newest pup has yet to learn the joys of the water. When I was troubled as a teenager I would take myself off to the beach and sit and stare broodily at the water. Often, I found clarity this way.

Sometimes, now, when I'm stuck, I'll walk the water's edge, or just take the dogs there for a frolick and, again, the calm of the water's movement, the whispering rush of water on sand, will help clear my mind. This week I've been rewriting a scene where my characters are on the beach and enjoy a "submersal". It's a writing exercise I did as a student and one I get my students to do -- to get their characters really wet. It amazes me that some of them choose to do this with rain. Not me. For me it had to be the ocean. I never considered otherwise.

For one part of my novel, my characters have to negotiate a beach in absolute darkness. To research this, I blindfolded myself and walked the beach near Tidal River at Wilson's Prom to see if it could be done -- navigating by the depth of water on my ankles -- and was happy to find that it could.

I've been surprised to find it's not just the sea but water in general that's a creative inspiration. This was brought home to me when I was flicking through the photos on my creative blog, Playing with words. There were pictures of reflections in the sea, reflections in a canal, frozen water, water droplets, swamp water -- water was the most common theme, which surprised me till I really thought about it. But the sea is a great love, and it's been and continues to be such a big part of my life that it's inevitable that it will find its way into my writing.

There's the turquoise waters of the Meditteranean, the black-sanded beaches of Santorini, the grey, wintry waters of Port Phillip Bay, the swell of Bass Strait -- but most spectacular, the beach at the bottom of the Gibson Steps, where the twelve apostles break their way to the sky, and the sandstone arches and sentinels to the sea all along the shipwreck coast. Manna for writers everywhere!

Of course too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. When we first moved into this house, I envisioned sitting out the back and gazing at the tidal swamp with its assortment of birds, but I found their was too much gazing and not enough writing, so I soon scotched that idea. The best view for me is ... but that is perhaps the topic of another post.

Seven things that inspire me: one: music

Some of my writer friends recently have blogged about seven things that inspire them, and I wanted to follow this up with an analysis of what my inspirations are for my writing, but I wanted to do so when I had some distance between reading their posts and composing my own, just because I knew there was some commonality, and I wanted time to be sure that what I was putting up was really coming from me.

My first inspiration is music. I know I've blogged about this before, so forgive me the indulgence, but I really can't look at my writing inspirations without starting here. Music is so important to me. Other friends listen to the radio while they drive, or to audio books (I should do this, I know), but for me it has to be music. My series working title "The oracle of the mountain king" is directly drawn from music -- from Grieg's "In the hall of the mountain king" from his Peer Gynt Suite. I wanted to capture the frantic frenetic build up of energy and pace in a fantasy setting. For a reader to feel the tension, to be flipping pages so fast that they would get paper-burn on their fingertips.

If I'm really stuck and facing down writer's block, music will often unblock me -- especially a good soundtrack like Gladiator and its sequel, or any of the Lord of the rings films. (I recently found a little handmade autograph book that Kaz, one of my Clarion buddies, gave me at the end of Clarion, and I had everyone sign it. My friend Cat wrote that she never wanted to hear Return of the king again -- because I played it everyday. I had meant to take up two soundtracks (I was travelling light), but when I opened the other, the case was empty. Repetition for me is a good thing, though it drives my husband bananas, particularly because he thinks there's no such thing as a good soundtrack.)

I've seen the powerful effect music has on writers through getting students to do writing exercises to music. Music helps establish a mood to write in, and helps bring out the mood in a piece. What I've done for these exercises is pick out several songs from different albums with the same feel to them. Interestingly, I had one student complain that each song felt so different they couldn't possibly get a consistent feel to their writing -- so perhaps one person's "feel" is quite different from another's.

Recently, I've found another musical source of inspiration: the Victorian State Singers. Yes, my daughter's one of them so maybe I'm biased, but choral music is new to me, and I can't tell you how much I love listening to them. The voice of youth is so pure. At their most recent performance, where they were the guest performers with a lot of local school groups, someone not attached to these singers gave them a standing ovation, so I'm not alone in my admiration. I listen to some of their songs and feel my throat close up and my eyes well. I have four short films taken on my el-cheapo digital camera, and the sound is just exquisite, even if the picture quality is pretty crappy. Blogger won't let me upload AVIs, so instead I'll post a still of them rehearsing for the schools' concert. They're not all there, not all in their black yet, nor wearing their coloured scarves. If only they would cut a CD, I'd be able to write to that -- if I could keep just the tears from my eyes.

12 August 2007

Feeding the muse

Went off yesterday to see Snow Cake with my mum and her friends and my son. It was superbly acted -- though I must say I have a soft spot for Sigourney Weaver, and I just love Alan Rickman's voice. Very interesting movie. Without giving away too much -- I had read in the reviews that Sigourney Weaver's character's child was killed, and for some reason thought it was her son. Did I read that? I don't know. But it wasn't, and so when what happened happened, I got quite a shock.

As a writer, I watch films differently to the way I used to. I'm forever trying to make plot connections, to predict what is going to happen, whereas before I was content to wait and "go with the flow". And the longer I've been a writer, the more likely I am to get them right -- or, if I don't, the more skilled I think the screenwriter. But while I did make the right connections in this movies (always satisfying), it is the finely nuanced characters -- the characterisation was superb.

This is a moving film. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, thought-provoking. Highly recommended.

Poetry link

Just for Sherryl, who sent me the link. Check out the "Books and Writing" link to see hers and to write your own. In the meantime, here's mine:

sorrel starlight westering

indigo skies over chasm again
wanderer arrives, forages about
looking dusty and wooden
the only dank part--that starlight
westering near silence
where bullock awaits

now sorrel starlights fade
into indigo beginnings
then bullock once more

10 August 2007

Writers camp

Well, today was supposed to be the beginning of my big three days writing, and what happens? I get the cleaning bug. A procrastination tool? I hear you say. No, not really. I would rather be writing. I very rarely get the cleaning bug -- my mother would attest to this. She is forever telling me that I should be cleaning rather than writing. Can you tell that she just doesn't get this writing thing? Mothers!

Anyway, I've done enough and am just waiting for a writer friend who is coming over to print something; then I'm ready to go. In the meantime, I thought I'd better check my work emails, and there's one from a student who's just had a piece accepted for a mag, for which I have to write an accompanying piece on class dynamics. And of course I remembered I'm supposed to be chasing up a past-student who's interstate. So I rang a friend who I know has his mobile no, only to be told she's away on writers camp.


I used to belong to the writers' group she's in, and remember those camps with great fondness. A weekend away in Torquay, with lots workshops from guest writers (and sometimes group members). My friend is leading one of the workshops this time. This is not a go-for-the-jugular type writing group, but one where everyone reads out their work and gets some encouraging comments. Trouble was that once I started teaching and spent my time reading so much student work, it killed my enjoyment of spending my free time listening to people read work that needed work to make it flow well. Perhaps that's the teacher's plight. I'm the same with my workshopping writers' groups -- I do it all week so doing it on the weekend is just like doing unpaid work.

But the camps were fun. Trouble was that the last few times I went, I was teaching, and taking up marking to do, and found I sat more and more out of the group readings, which made me feel rude. These days, an ideal camp for me is one where we go away and write. It's great to get away from the family and just do it.

Anyway, my friend has been now while I was in the middle of this, so I'm off to the other computer to pump out some words.

09 August 2007

Cool things with words

Writers do all sorts of cool things with words. Who could forget Ondaatje's "penis sleeping like a sea-horse" in The English Patient (page 1, iirc)? Who could forget Thomas's famous villanelle (I would quote the final line "Rage, rage...", but to do so may well breach copyright)? Writers turn words into spectacular images, into characters that live on in our imaginations long after the book is closed. We craft words so that they run smoothly in sentences, so they rouse emotions in the reader. We work at rhythm and use tools like assonance and consonance and onomatopoiea. (The first time I said something about that at home, my husband told me I'd made that word up. I assured him I had not.) We use connotation as well as denotation and loll around, enjoying similes and metaphors.

Writers sometimes do other things with words. Or at least letters. Unexpected things. One of them -- my friend, Andy -- has just had his artwork (typewriter art) listed on Boing Boing. How cool is that! Here's the link or, even better, go directly to his blog (one of his many -- Andy is the king of bloggers) and scroll through more. You'll find his blog here . Quite amazing stuff really. Enjoy!

03 August 2007


I've been thinking more and more about my previous post about "writer or not?", mainly because one of our contract staff (there were only four of us) resigned a few weeks ago, to write, and earlier this week we four met to talk writing, teaching and what she's going to do. She's doing a Masters as well as working on various projects. I think resigning from paid employment is a terribly courageous move. Sometimes new and enthusiastic writers do it, envisioning fame and fortune just around the corner. That's more of a naive move, and they're usually back at work in six months time. But for those of us who've been around awhile, there are no such delusions (though of course we wouldn't complain if they happened our way). So it is an act of courage, an act of faith -- a decision that isn't made lightly but after careful weighing up of finances and realistic expectations.

When I first fell pregnant, people would say to me, "What are you going to do in all your spare time?" These were people without children. And with a glimmer of the excitement I felt, I would tell them I was going to write. I was writing anyway. I fitted it into the late nights after my husband went to bed. In my mind, the baby would sleep all day, and, oh joy, I would be free to write! Little did I picture a baby who never slept in the daytime and countless hours trying to pacify her.

Time like that didn't come until my two children were at school. I had one year of it, where I wrote large screes -- but my husband became unemployed, and I was forced back to work. Don't get me wrong: I love teaching. It was a stretch at first, but I really love it. I enjoy the whole university push to get us out and being entrepeneurs a whole lot less, but that's another story. I love seeing the creative fire in my student's eyes and knowing that I'm helping build their skills towards realising their own dreams, and I find that my writing is often consigned again to those late night shifts. But I will take it where I can get it. Sometimes, I think, the pressure of a deadline is more motivating than unlimited time to make me put my bum on seat. Unlimitless time requires discipline -- but then this always has been the writer's most important commodity. Not time, not skill or talent or anything else, but discipline.

01 August 2007


One of my students blogged on our student blog about how she's writing two different novels: one for my novel class and one for her Writing for Young Adults class -- one she's writing sequentially and one she's not. She's having a lot more trouble with the one that she's writing in bits and pieces. In my response to her post, I said she had to find the method that works best for her. We all write differently, all have a different process.

I am writing my novel sequentially. I pick up from where I left off the day before, read back over my work and edit it, and this is usually enough to get me straight back into the story. It seems natural to me to write from start to finish -- in plotted order. I make this distinction because of course a plot follows a straight timeline, but plot isn't always presented in such a traditional, ordered manner. Writers can apply all sorts of structures to organise the plot/s in their novels.

The first book I ever started writing was a book about a buckskin stallion called Diablo. I wrote this sequentially. I was about eight, and doing the illustrations myself. I wrote about eight chapters. The second was a Star Wars ripoff. Somewat longer than my first attempt, and written sequentially. My third was a big sprawling King Arthur novel, which I wrote in bits and pieces. As a scene came to me, I wrote it down. I was travelling at the time, and spent several weeks in my aunt's house in Holland, where I was the only one who spoke any English. My characters kept me company, banished the loneliness. I remember reading The Quest for the Holy Grail, and basing several chapters on this -- but all from Arthur's POV, which involved scenes with grail knights coming back and relating their tales. I think I started by making it clear that it was reported dialogue but then segued into their scenes. Did it work? Don't know, because I decided it was too static and threw the whole lot out. (Note to self: remember, never, never discard your work this way!) I was always worried about how I was going to stitch it all together. These days, I'm not sure whether I'd be so worried.

My next novel is the one I've been writing/reworking. Back to sequential order. I have, on very rare occasions, written scenes ahead (usually in the second book) and then caught my way up to them. I'm not so worried about assembling bits anymore -- ever since I added a second major plotline to a finished draft, which required careful weaving in and, because it was an entirely independent group of characters from those already in the novel (with one very minor exception), building links between the two plotlines. A fascinating process that taught me a lot.

I also write in scenes. It seems natural to me to write this way. Novels are usually constructed of scenes -- so that's almost always been my reading experience of a novel. So it seems strange to find people who don't write in scenes, but in one long, flowing plot that they then break up into chapters. My best friend does this. That to me is more strange than writing out of sequence. To use an analogy, people who write scenes in sequential order have pieces of a puzzle they put together in a logical sequence. Those who write their scenes as they come insert the pieces in random order. But the others -- they don't even have a puzzle. What do they have?

Really, though, it doesn't matter. If whatever you're doing works for you, then you're doing it right. It's that simple. And if what you're doing doesn't work -- then try something else. Read books by writers on their process and see the many different ways they achieve what they do, and perhaps in that great collection of varied processes, you might find one that suits you.