25 December 2007

Black-and-white photography

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

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

24 December 2007

Why I love real life research

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

Final four

22 December 2007


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

Catching up: Poetrix launch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Rosina Lamberti

10 December 2007

Currently reading

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

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

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

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

What he's doing wrong:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awards news

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

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

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

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

01 December 2007

NaNoWriMo: the lessons learnt

Here they are in no particular order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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