27 September 2007

More words

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

26 September 2007

Shifting word meanings

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 September 2007

Watching like a writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 September 2007

Writing groups: part 2: organisation/politics

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

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

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

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

20 September 2007

Writing groups: part 1: critiquing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 September 2007

Getting closer

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

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

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

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

13 September 2007

Putting in the time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 September 2007

My pet hate

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

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

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

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

09 September 2007

To grey or not to grey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08 September 2007

Being sidetracked

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

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

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

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

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

07 September 2007

The importance of research

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 September 2007

Drawing on imagination

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

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

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

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

New directions for a writing group

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

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

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

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

Writer's 40th

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

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

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

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

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