24 December 2008

Reading: nonfiction

As much as I like to tell the nonfic teachers that I work with that all I love to read is fiction, it's not exactly true. We have a lot of good-humoured banter about which is better: fiction or nonfic. The nonfic teachers see theirs as the professional side, and therefore more important; we see ours as the artistic side, and therefore more fulfilling. (My first instinct would've been to write "creative" there, but I know that nonfiction can be just as creative as fiction.)

I read nonfiction in a different way to how I read fiction. Usually, I will start a novel on page one and read it sequentially until I get to the end. If it's a gripping read, that might be a day or so. If it's one I'm enjoying but that hasn't gripped, then it might be a matter of months, because I'll put it aside and pick up something else. I will get back to it, and that will frustrate me because then I'll have to browse or skim it to reaquaint myself with the story.

Nonfiction is more like reading a book of poetry. (Maybe that's just the type of nonfiction I read -- on the rare occasions I'll read a biog, then it will be from page one to the end.) My weekly reading includes some newspapers, which, like most people I'll dip in and out of, and Time magazine. The newspapers I don't read every day -- we only get The Age once a week, and I'll usually read several local papers, and sometimes the MX if my husband brings it home, and I'm in the mood for something light.

Next year my daughter will be studying twentieth-century history, so I've been busy collecting some extra books that she might like to look into to get a bigger picture of what it was all about. These have included a set of two books on World Wars I and II (with pictures, lots of stats and stories), a pictorial history of the century (with lots of photos and brief stories), a book of history's worst decisions (amusing) and history's greatest scandals (amusing), and history's greatest hits (events we should know more about is how it's marketed). The latter three embrace a much larger timeframe than the last century, but they're all great for dipping in to. I can sit when I have a few moments and read a story, just as I might read a poem.

The war books are of particular interest. I feel I have a connection to both wars, even though I lived through neither of them. My great grandfather had something to do with the first war -- I think he went overseas but am not sure he was actually in any battles. He died when I was twelve, but I remember I felt connected to this war through him, and so it always held a great fascination for me. And my father was a child and teenager in Holland through the occupation of Holland in WWII and tells lots of stories of his time there and his interactions with the Nazis. His family very briefly helped shelter a couple of Jews and helped them escape the country. (My Australian grandfather escaped the war because he was a firefighter, which was deemed an essential service. He died when my mother was a child, so I never got to meet him.)

These latter books are inordinately interesting and great fodder for the imagination -- I can't help but get fired up with ideas for short stories as I'm reading. At the moment, though, I'm in novel mode, and that's where my priorities lie. But perhaps when I've finished my novel, I might pause and bang off a couple of short stories, and I know just the place to turn for inspiration. On the other hand, I might just leap straight into reworking the second book. I know that's where my heart will lie.

17 December 2008

Movies: Australia

Australia is an epic, and I'm very fond of epics, and been a great Nicole Kidman fan ever since seeing her in "Bangkok Hilton" many years ago, but I'd heard mixed reviews of this movie, so I went along with some trepidation.

In the first few minutes of the film, I was struck by the over-the-top, slightly overacted, almost cartoonish feel, but then I remembered this is a Baz film, and settled right into it. After all, look at Moulin Rouge, a great favourite of mine. Australia is over the top in much the same way, but just as much fun too. (At several points in the film, my kids and I were almost rolling around in our seats with laughter -- all of it genuine.)

Usually, when watching a movie, I will be "in the film" -- I become one of the characters, just as I do when reading a book. I am immersed, swept up, part of it. Baz's films, because I'm noticing the cinematography or direction or acting or whatever, distance me a little from this experience but give me another kind of experience. It's not a greater or lesser experience, just a different one. It's set up from the beginning so isn't an issue. And it's great to see a director with balls enough to have his own vision, to do something different, something away from what everyone else is attempting.

The parallel when I'm reading is the second-person addresses (as authorial interruption). I don't mind these if they're part of the experience. What I can't abide is when I'm in the middle of a story and suddenly the writer addresses me and rips me out of my immersion. If I'm aware from the beginning I won't be immersed in the same way, so it doesn't happen. I'm not reminded that I'm reading because I'm already aware, in a way that I'm not in a "straight" novel. Maybe it's to do with the way I read (conceptually rather than visually) -- I'm not sure.

I do have to say that past the first few minutes, I stopped noticing the style of the movie and just got swept right up in the story.

Australia is part iconic old droving movies like The overlanders, part love story a la Titanic and a ripping good yarn. I can see why Oprah told Nicole and Hugh that it was the movie we need to see. I didn't notice the length at all. And in the dark moments when I think of my book and despair at how the structure isn't a classic beginning, middle and end but rather seems to embody several stories, I can take heart that it does so in much the same way that Australia does. In my novel it's a military coup -- and that could be a novel in itself -- and the parallel to that in this movie is the droving story. But that's not where the film ends -- it then takes up life on the station and the bombing of Darwin; in my novel it's the quest story. It's amazing what movies can teach us -- even if only to sit back and chill out!

So would I recommend Australia: you bet. Especially if you like cows and horses, the gorgeous Hugh and Nicole and landscape, action, adventure and romance.

06 December 2008

Writing retreat

2008 seems to have been the year of writing retreats for me. I've been on several with SuperNOVA, and this last weekend I've been on one with Elizabeth, one of my SuperNOVArian colleagues. (2008 is also the year where I've needed more writing retreats as sanity-savers!)

There's something very relaxing and very stimulating about going away with other writers, though my mother treats such trips with deep suspicion and tells me I shouldn't be jaunting off on holidays with my friends while my husband is stuck home with the kids.

"We do work," I say, while she's eyeing me cynically. "It's not a holiday."

And that's true. We do. Often I'll pour out thousands of words in a weekend. Last year, over Cup Weekend, I set-up my NaNoWriMo run in great style, with the fantastic Ellen, who always keeps me on track.

I must say that I really needed to get away this time, to catch my breath after finishing off the last (almost) of the late assignments, and of the heavy year, and to reaquaint myself with my novel. That's the hardest thing about having a break -- you do lose touch, especially with a multistranded novel, that you've done numerous drafts of. And though Elizabeth and I weren't perhaps as productive as we would've liked while I was there (Elizabeth had a few more days after I left, and wrote about 12,000 words, I think, in this time), I reimmerse myself in the world of my novel and get back into dealing-with-reader comments mode.

26 November 2008

Movies: Quantum of solace

Ah, the teaching semester is over, and that means I get to go to the movies. Not that I don't during the semester, but I get to go a lot more when I'm not teaching. I love the movies. And I've been a big Bond fan since way back.

When I was travelling overseas in the 80s (yes, showing my age, I know), A view to a kill was newly released, and I used to listen to the soundtrack on my Walkman (big clunky thing that it was!). And then when I was on my Contiki tour, possibly the most fun two months of my life, for a few short days we had Papillon, one of the Bond girls from A view to a kill, on tour with us. (She was the girlfriend of the Contiki photographer who came on board for a few days to shoot some photos of the more photogenic of us.) Of course, I wasn't one of the cool kids, so she didn't hang out with me, but she seemed nice enough. My cassette of the soundtrack was later stolen when my car was broken into when I was back home in Melbourne. 

I was always more of a Connery girl than a Moore girl, but liked both. Watched some but not all of the Brosnan films, though I thought he was a very good Bond. (I think I missed the later ones because I was busy dating The Gadget Man, who is not at all a movie goer.) But Craig -- I just love Daniel Craig's interpretation -- it's so much more human, so much more emotional than any of the others. And, strange as it is, I love that they've retained Judy Dench to play M, even though it means she's gotten older as he's gotten younger. A paradox, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.

I do have to say the name Quantum of solace is an intriguing one -- because what does it actually mean? Did I miss something -- because I saw the film, and I'm still not sure. Well, I suppose I do get it -- it's just that it's such a mouthful.

Sir Talkalot and I discussed the opening sequence -- he saw the film initially with friends who all complained that the audience was too close to the action, that it was hard to follow what was going on. He loved that. And so did I. I felt like I was right there in the middle of it. And yes, unlike Life of Pi, it does begin in media res. No doubt about that. Things are happening!

It is very much a modern way of showing a car chase though. I think of the earlier, seemingly fast-moving car chase scenes in other movies, and they seem slow in comparison. But it's that modern day snatch of images that is often blamed for the shortening attention spans of our kids (and why modern day readers tend to like shorter chapters and have vast impatience with any guff).

My one regret is that I hadn't sat down to rewatch Casino Royale, because there were a lot of references back to that film, and while I remembered most of the thrust of it, I may have forgotten some of the finer details. It's the first time I remember two Bond films being so closely linked, but that's something else I rather like too!

23 November 2008

Living a writing life

This year, I increased my time-fraction at work from 0.4 to 0.6 (two days a week to three). Now, the number of days a week I work is a bit laughable really -- it's teaching, and that means lots of marking and in our cases workshopping at home.  Some people are able to do some of their prep/marking at work, but we have to do admin work like answering phones and student enquiries and various other things, so we almost never get this luxury.

As well, I've taught a new subject, which is always a heap more work -- lots of extra unpaid work for sure, but work that is rewarding, nonetheless, as we research our subjects, looking for great writing exercises, better understanding, in-depth explanations or whatever. So, while it's a bind, it's also very rewarding.

Also, in second semester I've taught an online subject, which means my time-fraction has effectively been 0.8. I feel like my whole life has become teaching.

On the one hand it's been great. The Gadget Man was out of work for much of last year, and we ate up all our savings and then some, so it's been nice to have a bit more income and try to catch up on debts and stuff. The worst part about it has been the effect on my writing, which has really fallen away, especially as the semester progressed. 

There is one thing writers do, and that's write. Well, there are a lot of other things too, but writing is the main one. And there is no better time than the present -- we will, none of us, ever have more time than right now. It is a truth among writers, universally acknowledged. (See, all that Austen is rubbing off!) 

And yet . . . 

And yet sometimes the things we do, the choices we make, affect more than just the amount of time we have for writing. The amount of headspace is also affected.

Teaching is not the ideal job for writers. A lot of our creative energy goes into our students, into their work. We're left scrabbling with what's left over. (Neither, as my friend E will attest, is writing (nonfic) the best job for fiction writers. Again, all that creative energy is poured out into the daily grind. Not the most conducive for going home after work and settling again in front of a computer.)

The year before I started teaching, I was writing about 30,000 words/month. My best month was about 50,000. In one of my early years in teaching, I wrote a short story in January and another in December and nothing in between. Signing a writing contract with my students has helped keep me more honest than that, but this year has been particularly hard. And has left me with a decision. Do I keep with the higher time-fraction or drop back?

There are no correct answers to this question. Commitment is something I often talk about with my students. How much you commit is all a matter of what's right for you. The best writers are often selfish with their time -- and perhaps you don't want to be. 

It's the same in any field of art -- I remember watching an interview with Bill Cosby and his talking about his selfishness in his early years of acting and how he regretted the time he lost with his family, but his acknowledgment that he wouldn't have been where he was without that.

No-one has the right to decide our priorities for us. It's something each of us must do for ourselves -- weighing up what we want out of life and how much we're prepared to pay for it, in terms of what it will cost not just in terms of dedication and hard work, but also in sacrifices.

After long discussions with my family, I've decided to cut back on my hours. The person I am when I'm not writing is an angry, frustrated person: one I don't like very much. I'd much rather be less well off financially and more whole spiritually, because that's what writing does for me.

19 November 2008

Reading: Life of Pi

I'm currently reading Yann Martel's Life of Pi, which is interesting, coming off Jane Austen and thinking about literary novels and how they differ from mainstream and genre novels, and about things like beginning in media res and using conflict etc, things this book doesn't do. 

I'm at page 60 and so far the story hasn't started. I mean I've read the blurb on the backcover -- which tells me I'm expecting my main character to be in a boat sometime soon, but so far he's not. So far we've had his ruminations on zoos and on religions and various other things such as his name (a very humorous chapter), and I'm learning a lot about the main character, but nothing is happening. Nothing. I'm not seeing his interactions with other characters. There's little dialogue -- and mostly what it is is remembered dialogue presented through his ruminations. (And my one complaint is that I would expect a zookeeper's son to know that a platypus is not the only egg-laying mammal -- let us not also forget the echidna! But of course Aussies are likely to be more in touch with our monotremes than most other people.)

I suppose that's the thing about literary novels. If the writing is good enough, a book can hold your interest even if it flouts the cardinal rules about conflict. The bottom line, or perhaps the first rule of writing fiction, is to be interesting. So is this book interesting? Yes, to a point. (And, after all, it's a Booker Prize winner.) But if something doesn't happen soon, I may be putting it down and picking up something else. Other literary novels are able to combine story with beautiful writing -- take books like fellow Booker Prize winners Possession (AS Byatt) and The bone people (Kerri Hulme) -- in both of these I've been caught up in the story well before page 60.

Some of the reviews of Pi talk about the wonderful storytelling -- great! I'm looking forward to experiencing it. If I last that far... And truth be known, I probably will. There are very few books I'll abandon. And often I'll do this in the first few pages, in a rage at purple prose, or because the beginning absolutely positively hasn't hooked me and doesn't show any promise of hooking me. So, 60 pages in is a good sign, I guess! 

17 November 2008

Online teaching

This year, I've taught my first online course, which has been quite a different experience to teaching a face-to-face class. I've been prepared for this by first studying as an online student and doing courses on e-learning and course design etc. I think it's important to begin as a student, so you have a good feel of the types of problems (not just technical) your own students might encounter.

A few years ago, my friend Sherryl and I signed up to do a Diploma of VET (Vocational and Education and Training) online with a number of colleagues from our university. We were the only two who managed to complete all the units. Many never made it online. This astonished me. These were fellow teachers, committed to upgrading their quals. There's a very important lesson about motivation in that for any would-be online facilitator.

Sherryl and I worked on the course design of this course together, and we structured it to reflect as well as we could those things that work well for us in the classroom. This meant there are plenty of writing exercises, analysis, discussions.

I had also been involved in the development of another subject, but my input had been mainly "teching" -- taking the writing and getting it ready for the web. That subject was more self-directed where students could plug away at their own pace -- complete the whole course in a week (a very intensive week) if they wanted. Ours was much more interactive, requiring students to log on each week (at their own time), and interact both with the teacher and with each others. I suppose each way of doing it would have its own fans and detractors, but I must say I think the second method is far more rewarding -- both for the teacher and the students.

The plus-side of online teaching is that there's very little prep (though I did have to read or reread all the set stories for discussion), that I don't have to travel in to the university to teach my class, that I can do it in my own time. I do have to log in most days of the week, so students feel I'm around and available. And it's fun! And you have students from all over the place -- so this year I had one in outback Queensland and one in Hong Kong as well as the local students. Also, you get to know the students in a different way -- as with all things online, people will often reveal more about themselves than they will in the real world, which can be a rewarding and interesting thing.

The minus-side is that I have to log in most days of the week, and that the workshopping seems so much more onerous to do online. I'd much rather be able to scribble on a typed manuscript than use Track Changes (Word's editing feature) and Insert Comments. There's also the inadvertent misunderstandings that happen when one person writes a comment, perhaps in fun, and someone else misinterprets the tone of the message. That's when the facilitator sometimes has to facilitate, and not let things fester. This didn't happen very often, fortunately. For me, the other downside is that I felt much less like attending to my other online "duties", such as emails and blogs.

I'm not sure I'd like to do all my teaching online -- I value my real-life interactions too much -- but it's a great way of adding some variety to your teaching. It's a different experience but a rewarding one. And, although I still thing the face-to-face classroom is better (with its instant feedback), this is a close approximation and offers some things the face-to-face classroom can't -- for example, feedback on in-class writing exercises is written rather than verbal and hence more permanent.

14 November 2008

Teaching and learning

A few years ago, I taught for one semester in another course, in an area that was new to me, so it was always a scramble to stay ahead of the class. I took the gig to fill in for someone who was going on long service leave, and she very helpfully sat me down ahead of time and went through how she taught the class. I tried to mimic what she did, and it was a struggle. I was hating the class, and they were hating me. About a third of the way through the semester, I realised this really wasn't working for any of us and sat down to think about why. 

I love teaching in Professional Writing and Editing, so I wondered at first whether it was the fact that I wasn't as familiar with nor as passionate about the subject matter. No, I decided, it wasn't that. I was definitely interested in the subject matter, and was working alongside another teacher, who was driving the course, and she was most helpful and prepared stuff for me, which I then went away and researched so I knew what we were talking about. 

Okay, if it wasn't the subject matter, perhaps it was the students. They were definitely different from the PWE students, being much rowdier, more multicultural, less literate and -- hmm, dare I say "serious"? But they were a vibrant lot -- I didn't really think that was it either. (And, in fact, later I learnt it definitely wasn't that.)

Then it hit me. I was trying to be this other teacher who was on long service leave. I was teaching the course her way, not approaching it the way I approached "my" classes. Sounds silly but that was a momentous discovery to make and a real turning point. That week I threw out my class plans and started again from scratch, and the next week, the students didn't know what had hit them. The first thing I abandoned was the thing they (and I) hated most, so they were very receptive to the change.

Within weeks I was loving the course and loving them, and they were obviously enjoying it a lot more. I found they were a lot more serious about their studies than I had thought -- once they started getting more out of it, they settled in and knuckled down. Or perhaps it was just that I had won their respect. I don't know. I do know the course evaluations were very positive -- something I don't think they would have been if I'd continued on the way I had been going.

It's so much easier, though, teaching something you love. And so it is for me with my writing and editing subjects, and though I sometimes get burned out from workshopping, and find I'll do almost anything to avoid doing it outside work, I love the fact that teaching enriches my own writing, through my research, through my interactions with students and hearing them discuss other people's work. Sometimes I think that to teach writing is to be truly blessed. (But, of course, that's not how I feel right in the middle of those big assessment weeks when my eyes are bugging out,  and I'd do anything to get to my own writing . . .)

08 November 2008

What we call ourselves

Terminology is a funny thing, isn't it? I often wonder how many jobs I have really had compared to how many names the jobs I've had have had. That sounds confusing, right? Wait: it gets worse.

When I first finished my science degree I was working as a medical technologist. That was what I'd put on my tax forms. A few years later, I was still doing the same job but was then classified a hospital scientist, and a few years further on I was a medical laboratory scientist, which is how I still think of the profession, and the title I prefer. A technologist is different to a technician, by the way, because a technologist does diagnoses and is more highly qualified. But many people (including those in ancillary fields) didn't recognise this difference, and I suspect that's why the qualification first changed its name. It's all about snobbery! I do, however, think "medical laboratory scientist" is a good descriptor: we were working in the medical field (usually attached to a hospital, but I did work in one private practice that wasn't) in a lab as a scientist. Perfect.

I'm no longer working in the field, so it could be that I'd have a completely different name now. (And, you know, when we graduated the whole class graduated as having a Bachelor of Applied Science in Medical Technology except for one student who'd already hopped onto the Medical Scientist label. That was rather odd.) 

In that time I worked as a microbiologist and a haematologist, but as a scientist, rather than a doctor. For the uninitiated, it's all very confusing. So the haematologist you have a consultation with in a big public hospital is going to be a doctor, not a scientist. The scientist-haematologist is the one who'll do your blood work up, who'll look at your blood film and tell the doctor what's wrong. Both are called haematologists.

Now I'm a teacher, I don't find the terminology is any better: I can be labelled a teacher, a tutor, a lecturer (though I tend to think of this as more a Higher Ed than TAFE thing) and, now we're teaching online units, a facilitator. I probably like the term "facilitator" the least, as to me it seems to have little to do with "teaching" per se. I think it pays more homage to collaborative learning, though, which is a technique we do use a lot in the classroom through workshopping, and I have to say I'm a great believer in collaborative learning. But we still do "teach" -- it's what the students want, what they recognise us as. We facilitate as well, but we do more than this.

Even in writing there is the difference between a "writer" and an "author". (Or authoress, as my mother seems determined to say. I point out that this term is now considered sexist, and she tells me that I'm out of my mind. I could talk about the linguistic distinctions, and how the suffix is dependent on the male word to determine its meaning, but her eyes would glaze over. Such things excite me, though. It's the editor in me!) 

We had great discussions about the difference between a "writer" and an "author" in my online course. I see the two as completely interchangeable. But for others an author was more serious, or was published, or had a book or number of books published. To me, the distinction is once again a snobbish thing. A writer writes. Does an author auth? If you've written an unpublished and unpublishable short story, aren't you still the author? 

Me: I'll go for "writer". I think I'll always prefer the plainer, more simple descriptor. 

30 October 2008

To NaNo or Noto

This time last year I was about to embark on NaNoWriMo, but this year has been a different prospect for me. Last year, I was teaching two classes, both on a Tuesday, and as the first Tuesday in November (our final class) was a public holiday, I'd finished teaching by the beginning of November (though I still had late assignments to mark). This year, I'm teaching the same two, and have a Monday class and an online class, which has meant I'm still teaching into the first week of November, and have lots of marking to do.

That was my first strike against doing NaNo this year, because really it is about commitment, a big commitment. Last year I got myself off to a great start by going on a writing retreat with my friend Ellen and was flying, but once I came home that soon tailed off, and by the end of November I found myself with about 5000 words/day to write for three or four days. But I did it. Nothing like a deadline, right?

I still might have embarked on NaNo if I were in writing mode, but I'm currently in the middle of an edit. Or rather the tidy up after the edit -- going through reader comments. I want to get this done and off to my agent, rather than putting it aside and churning out another 50,000 words (as rewarding as that is!). I haven't even read over last year's yet -- that's a job for when this edit's finished. Nor have I worked out how to put my NaNo winner sticker on my blog.

Constancy is the trick to NaNo -- staying on top of the word count, rather than having days off and ending up with a big chase at the end. Constancy is the trick to novel writing full stop! It's much easier when you are immersed in the story: you are thinking, dreaming, breathing it. The cogs are oiled and spinning; the words flow. It's such a magical feeling. Those are the days when it's hard to understand how anyone could not want to write. The counterpoint is the time when the words are mired in mud, when the rejection letters are forming a pyramid in the letterbox, when everything you write seems to be crap. (In hindsight, it doesn't mean they were crap -- it's just a function of the self-confidence rollercoaster that many writers seem to ride.)

So this year I'll have to live NaNo vicariously through Luke, one of my students: the type of student who has sheer the determination and enthusiasm to get him through. I hope he finds it as rewarding as I did -- and maybe next year we can compare word counts as we go. In the meantime, go, Luke!

20 October 2008

Persuade me

Each summer, as the semester winds down (or after it finishes really), I go into reading mode. That's not to say I don't read all year round -- I do. During the year, though, I don't read as much for the pure pleasure of reading. I do read the novels we're studying in class, submissions for Poetrix, student work, the papers and Time magazine, the back of the cereal box, texts on writing, blogs, poetry, the occasional novel or short story -- all sorts of things. But I don't get to devour novels the same way I do on holidays.

The last two summers have been themed. Two years ago it was Dan Brown. I had been determined not to read The Da Vinci Code because of all the hype. Rarely does the book (or movie or whatever) live up to the hype. But then a student subbed the first chapter (prologue really) with an analysis as part of an assignment, and I was hooked. I went out and bought the book (the lovely illustrated version) and read it in about 24 hours. My eyes were bugging out of my head. Then I went on a Brown hunt.

Last year, it was Matthew Reilly. (Hmm, I can see a plot-related theme running here -- both writers are masters of tight plotting with lots of twists and turns.) I had similarly avoided Reilly and thought it was time I gave him a try. I started with Ice station and had to follow this up with the other Scarecrow books. I'm not sure I'd start on his other books -- there are just so many writers out there that I likewise should dip into -- but if he writes any more Scarecrow ones, I'm there. And I'm sure his others are a great read. Don't study him for characterisation (there's not a lot), but do study him for plot because he's brilliant at it.

This year it's Austen. So, I've moved away from plot into character, into literary. And the thing that persuaded me to do this was the 2007 BBC version of Persuasion. Do I love that show, or what? The funny thing is that I was watching it on the ABC, and it was only when I got to the scenes on the Cobb in Lyme that I thought, I've seen this before. I remembered having loved it, but hadn't remembered what it was called. Obviously, what I'd seen before was the 1995 one.

Earlier this year, I had a Pride and prejudice obsession, having fallen in love with the Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen film. So, everyone else, you can keep your Colin Firths. I liked him as Mr Darcy until I saw Macfadyen and the vulnerability he brought to the role. Now, the old BBC series seems a bit overblown (though not the all-too-brief appearance of Tom Ward, of course!).

And now it's Rupert Penry-Jones (Adam in Spooks) as Captain Wentworth, and Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot, who is not a modern hero in any sense of the word: not feisty but calm, reserved, angst-ridden, not proactive in getting what she wants. But perhaps she's more like me than Knightley's Elizabeth Bennet is, and so I can relate. I don't know. I do know that I've finally read Pride and prejudice and am now firmly ensconced in Persuasion. Already, I can see the writers have taken some liberties, but I have no problems with that (and in one sense they've made it a more modern telling by making things harder on Anne -- she misunderstands the situation surrounding Louisa's wedding far longer in the show than in the book, for example). 

A film adaptation is an adaptation and works best when people don't try to hold too religiously to the book. They're different media, so writers and fans shouldn't become overly precious or we might miss out on masterpieces like Lord of the rings, or the most modern adaptations of both Pride and prejudice and Persuasion.

And as far as my reading goes, I've got Emma lined up as well, and am thinking I must get Northanger Abbey and Sense and sensibility.

14 October 2008

Idyllic retreat

We're coming up to crunch time -- the end-of-semester marking spree, and never have I had more subjects to mark, so I can't say I'm looking forward to it. For a few weeks, it means I have to live, eat, breathe and sleep marking. I have had years where I've stayed up till 4 am and then got up again at 6 for another burst. Can't say it's very conducive to good health, but the mountain has to be scaled.

It also means my own work is pushed to the side. For a few weeks of the year, I barely even think about it, and I can feel myself get toey about it. So, with all this in mind, it was fantastic to get away with a few members of the SuperNOVA novel writing branch for a writers' weekend.

My mother tells me off when I go away like this. "You've got a family," she says. "It's selfish to leave them behind while you go on holiday." She's missing the point. This isn't a holiday per se: it's a chance to spend intensive time working on your novel. We do write. Or edit. And we do do it for most of the day. And the evening. And well into the night.

When I've been out with Western Women Writers, half the group wants to spend the whole time writing (I'm in that half), and half wants to spend half the time writing and half socialising. There's nothing wrong with this, of course. Balance is a good thing -- if you're not too time-pressured. I relish the time to be focused. And I get a lot done. 

There's something about being away with other writers -- we all inspire each other to write lots. Procrastination is frowned upon. My friend Ellen is the task-master and gently keeps us all in line. Like me, she's not there to muck around. We measure success sometimes in words, or sometimes in more esoteric terms -- the feeling of having reconnected with your novel after time-out, or of nailing that difficult scene.

The worst part, always, is having to come home, and this weekend was a particularly short one, because of traffic concerns. But it's wonderful to have had dedicated time to spend with dedicated people -- something every writer needs.

28 September 2008

Back to the novel

The best way to write is to write a little every day. There are a thousand excuses we can find not to do this, and I have times where I seem able to exercise them all. But the hard truth is the writing flows best when we are at it every day -- it is then that the juice oozes. The words come easier, and the ideas zing.

I would like to say I'm capable of writing every day, and that I manage to achieve this, but it would be a lie. I invest a lot of time into my students -- into workshopping their work, into preparing classes -- and this year, teaching a new class (always a big time consumer), and this semester doing double my workload is really taking its toll. It leaves me thinking that next year I have to cut back my hours: after all, I'm a writer, and I want to write.

James N. Frey talks about this in his book How to write damn good fiction. One of his chapters is on the seven deadly mistakes a writer can make, and one of these is leading the wrong lifestyle. He tells of the advice he gave a would-be writer whose husband was an obstacle between her and the writer's lifestyle, and that was to get a new husband! While I do think that extreme, we do, in the end, have to decide on our priorities: what it is we want to achieve and what we're prepared to pay for that. There are no right and wrong answers -- only answers that suit you and your circumstances. What if your job is interfering with your writing? It's up to you to decide what to do. I've known people who have been in a position of having to choose and who have gone with their job. Sometimes, they've admitted to a great sense of relief on having made that decision. That's all right. They might come back to writing one day, and they might not. The world has enough writers; what it needs -- what we all need -- is more readers.

Think about it. The writing life is a hard one. There is little financial gain for most of us. After all, how many hairdressers can make a living out of hairdressing in this country? How many writers? Even of the best writers in the country, most have to supplement their income. And we're already talking only of those in the top echelon who get published. Much easier to be a hairdresser. Or bank-teller. Or anything really. It's a life full of rejection (unless you're one of a very elite few like Isobelle Carmody, who has never had a rejection letter), a life of harsh criticism and pulling yourself together and getting your work out there again and again and again.

But we have to do it.

We are driven.

And those who do give it up often come back to it. Writing is the nectar that feeds us.

Those struggling to find time, do find ways of carving out a niche here or there. Or don't.

I know when I'm not writing, I feel angry and frustrated. I am filled with self-loathing at my own patheticness. But when I finally unstopper that testube, then the creative potion fizzes up, a flood of it. In the meantime, I keep it ticking in my head. I think about my characters; I play out scenes in my imagination -- even scenes I've already written. I flesh out backstories, and sometimes, sometimes, I get fired up enough to find the time I need to write.

19 September 2008

Reading and writing

Sometimes we get students who apply for our course who hardly ever read a book. They seem surprised that we expect them to read. I mean why would we? Being a writer who doesn't read is rather like being an architect who never looks at the buildings around you, who never browses the latest in the architectural magazines. If you were hiring an architect, wouldn't you want someone who was up with what was going on, who felt inspired by the amazing things that other architects were doing, who wasn't just peddling the same old, same old? I know I would.

Some writers use the excuse that they don't want to be influenced by what other people are doing -- as if they would have no control over what they were doing and might be impelled to copy ideas or plagiarise actual phrases or sentences. That's a rather naive attitude. Ideas sometimes seem to have a currency -- there's nothing worse than finishing a short story or a book, feeling that satisfaction, then picking up a new book for relaxation -- and there's your idea! What a gut-sinking moment. Only, you know they didn't copy it from you, because your version isn't even out there yet. And you didn't copy it from them, because you hadn't read this book before.

Still, if the book's been published, people might think you've copied whether you have or you haven't. So aren't you better off being aware what's out there so that you can make sure yours is different? How else are you going to become aware of the cliches of your genre?

Fine, so you should read widely in the genre you're writing in -- and I maintain you should write in a genre you know and love, not one that you don't respect but think is easier (is there such a thing?) or that is more likely to make you money. If you don't have absolute respect for the genre, it will show through in the writing. Fans will sense the disrespect and respond to it -- even if they can't put a name to it. But is reading widely in your genre enough?


You need to read widely to teach yourself how to write well, and if you are already writing well, to keep raising that bar. Different types of fiction will teach you different things. Want to know about suspense? Go read some crime. What about language use or characterisation? Look at lit fic. Plot? Try a thriller. Experimental fiction might help you take risks you'd never even thought about. Who knows where you might end up? But if you don't read, you won't ever know.

01 September 2008

My sessions at the Writers' Festival

I booked for five sessions, but because of a family crisis ended up missing one. Still, four isn't too bad.

The first of the sessions I attended was on creating worlds -- I was particularly looking forward to hearing Margo Lanagan speak, as I love her short stories, particularly the sublime "Singing my sister down". If there is one short story I wish I had written, that has to be it. This was a good session, except that a fair portion of the time was spent in writer readings, which I'm not a big fan of. I'd rather read the book myself, and have the extra time hearing the writers talk about their craft or their processes. I caught up with my friend Ellen, who I was meant to be spending the afternoon and attending an earlier session with but, regrettably, that was the session I missed.

The next weekend I had three sessions.

My second session was on love. Now, there was a separate session on the philosophy of love, so I was expecting this one to be on the craft of love scenes, but it wasn't. It had a philosophical bent and included the love of writing as a major component. I love how I go along to these sessions, and they're often different to what I'm expecting. Some (a few) disappoint, and some are unexpected gems. This was one of the latter. 

My third session was two writers (David Malouf and Michelle de Kretser) talking about the books they loved as kids: the books that inspired them. This also involved readings, but readings of passages from other authors that they loved, and I really enjoyed hearing them talk with such passion and enthusiasm. What I didn't enjoy as much was the introduction by the past editor of a highly esteemed literary magazine (which I won't name) who talked about the uselessness of writing courses. His take was they don't work, and he's in a position to tell because graduates of these courses used to send him stories, and most of these stories were unpublishable in his magazine. Okay, that predisposes that most of graduates want to write that kind of story. Most of our writers are not writing literary fiction, and really why would I encourage them to if it's not their passion? At book length, it's not as marketable as mainstream or genre fiction -- and, interestingly, in a conversation I was having with a book publisher last year, she told me how great it was that we had such strong stories coming out of our course. So, yes, publish in a lit mag with an erudite but low readership, or publish more widely to a less-educated audience? I have nothing against literary fiction -- I think there are some brilliant lit stories out there -- but I do believe that writers should write what they like reading -- I've had other writer friends who were doing courses receive low grades on genre fiction stories that ended up being published and winning awards. What a shame they weren't writing "literature" -- we have no such snobbery. This isn't to say that perhaps the said graduates hadn't done their research, but then there are always the people who send off something inappropriate anyway, but have it picked up because an editor wants to try something new. Go figure. Okay, rant over.

My fourth session was a reading. Let me fall over right now, because I never normally book in for readings, but this was a poetry reading, and I particularly wanted to hear one of the poets. I won't add details, but it's someone who's highly esteemed, and I don't get why. And, really, this didn't change my mind. I don't get it. All right, I don't get it. So, it was worthwhile going just for that... But I did enjoy the readings (most of them) anyway.

I must say the move to Fed Square has me looking forward to next year's festival!

31 August 2008

Melbourne Writers' Festival at Federation Square

The last two weekends, I've been attending the Melbourne Writers' Festival at Federation Square in the city (Melbourne). This is the festival's first year at Fed Square, and I've had some debate with writer friends about whether we think it will be a better or worse venue than the Malthouse Theatre, which is where the festival's been held in the past.

I've been firmly in the camp that it will be a much better venue, for two reasons: commuting and space. The trouble with the Malthouse is trying to get a park -- hard enough in itself, but trying to get one for any length of time... More than once I've missed part of a session because I was out moving my car, joining the half a dozen other sharks doing the circle, looking for spots. And as for space, the Malthouse between sessions was sardine city. Literally, pushing through people to breathe, let alone move.

Fed Square means I can catch a train in, because parking in the city -- well, forget about it. It can be done, but be one minute over (or three as my husband found out the other day) and you'll find yourself ticketed.

So, what have I found? Fed Square is certainly more spacious, with more seating in the theatres, and a choice of coffee shops and, as a bonus, a second-hand book sale as well as the festival book shop. What I hadn't expected though was the fragmented feel. A lot of the people at Fed Square aren't there as part of the festival, and festival goers are spread all around the place. I can't even tell who's a festival goer and who's not. It's meant that I've felt far less sense of community, and I think that sense of community is something we all need. It's probably something I have more than many writers because I'm teaching writing and surrounded in my day job, therefore, by writers. And because I belong to two writers groups I'm mixing with writers outside my work hours as well. Over the years, I've gradually whittled away most of my non-writer friends -- something that saddens me, but that's just how it is. Given the choice of shopping with the girls and working on my novel, sorry, but the novel's going to win out every time.

But even so, my writing life can feel a bit insular. Attending writers festivals gives a broader picture -- small fish in a big sea stuff. Usually, at the MWF, I see a number of people I know -- people I've done courses with or been students with or whom I've met through other writers. This year I saw only two (other than my friend Ellen, who'd I'd organised to go with): Kate Eltham, Clarion organiser extraordinaire and representative of the Qld Writers' Centre, and Kathy, one of our students, but not one I'm teaching. It was lovely to catch up (no matter how briefly) with them both. 

So, better venue or not? I'm currently undecided. But my loathing of the parking at the Malthouse is such that I've often chosen not to attend, whereas now I'm much more excited about going back next year. Perhaps that's all I need to reflect on!

08 August 2008

The hardest but most important word for writers

I'm one of those people who hate saying No to people, so I hate it when people come asking for favours. Often it's because I work part-time -- so obviously I have a lot of free time on my hands. I don't. I'm currently teaching 0.6, but have taken on an online subject, which I guess makes me 0.8. When I was 0.4, my husband reckoned I did the same work as a full-time worker, which some weeks would be an over-exaggeration, but on marking weeks would be an under-exaggeration. I go to a writing group one afternoon a week and have stuff I have to do for them. I have home commitments (as most of us do), and writing commitments. Other people don't get that.

Writing commitments -- what are they? Surely, writing is that stuff you squeeze into your spare time -- and other people see their pulls on my time as more important than anything squeezed into spare time. Sorry, but they're not. Today, I had an email from someone who wanted me to look over a chunk of manuscript. Writing related, sure, but I had to say no. It made me feel rotten -- truly -- but I'm not getting enough time for my novel at the moment, and that *has* to be my priority. 

For others, other people (or tasks) demand time for less writerly reasons. It might be the neighbour -- whose concerns and needs are genuine. It might be a mother or father, a cousin or aunt. It might be the man in the butcher's shop, or the girl you see by the lake. In the end it's up to us: we have to decide whether we want to write or not. 

A few years ago, Robin Hobb spoke at a Melbourne SF convention. In her Guest of Honour speech she said something along the lines of: you will never have more time to write than now. If you put off your writing until you retire, or until your neighbour moves out or whatever, you won't write because there will always be new demands on your time. If I got nothing else out of that con, it was worth going just to hear that. It's one of the great truths of writing. Write it down and stick it by your computer and then think about what you want to be at the end of day. Do you want to be a writer or not? If you do, you need to make time, not excuses.

24 July 2008

The value of communication

Awhile back, I had a short story published. Nothing so unusual in that. I agreed to the terms of the contract, which were fairly standard fare, and then I waited for my cheque to arrive. Only it never did. Then I hummed and hahed about what to do next because I hate chasing up money. So I emailed a friend who had had a story in the same collection, to see if she had been paid. Perhaps I had just been overlooked, right? Wrong. She hadn't been paid either. As far as she knew -- she was a bit woolly about this.

So, being a professional, I had to do something about this. I sent a polite query letter off via email (as all our business had been done electronically) but didn't get any response. Now, at the moment, I'm having a few email issues -- the day before yesterday I came home to over 40 messages, most of which were failed-to-send notifications, so there is some chance that this email was never received. So, I sent off another polite query. This one did get a response -- an apology to say that things were difficult, but that the editor was endeavouring to pay all the contributors.

Some months later there was still no payment, but a mass communication arrived, apologising to all the authors and assuring payment would be made. Some time passed. A lot of time. I began to write the story off, with a note to self not to send to that market again. This week another missive came, again apologising and begging our indulgence, with a promise of payment soon.

Others might rail at this communication, but I must say I was relieved. Relieved to know I hadn't been forgotten. Relieved to know that our contract was being honoured. Relieved to know that it wasn't only me.

As an editor of a small press magazine (one that only pays contributors only in copies), I know how hard it can be. I still remember all that catering we did to provide seeding money for the magazine in the first place. It sucks for the writers, but the reality is that small press publishing in Australia is done on a shoe-string budget because the market is so small. We do all our editorial work -- hours and hours of it -- for the love of it. So I'm prepared to wait. I know it's absolutely not a matter of the publisher sitting back rolling in all the money while his starving writers are hard at it in their garrets. The small-press publisher is starving too!

23 July 2008

Elizabeth George's THADs

Have you ever been accused of writing dialogue that is just "talking heads"? I must confess my earliest fiction was probably guilty of this a lot of the time -- something an agent told me once before declining my book (and telling me she thought it would be published!). I think she was the first person who had pointed this out -- that my characters were just like disembodied voices chatting away. Sometimes things like this come as a giant wake-up call, and we wonder how it is we never saw this before. Or how it is that we weren't aware of this type of problem. We all have our own types of problems. For one of my friends, it is plotting -- something that has always come naturally to me. But she is brilliant at description and characterisation!

But back to the talking heads: since then I've always been conscious of trying to avoid this scenario, though sometimes a scene does slip past me, which is why it is helpful to have readers going through a manuscript before it gets sent out. We're always blindest to our own errors. I can spot talking heads from a thousand km in a student's manuscript, but sometimes overlook it in my own.

How to address such problems? Research. There are several ways of doing this: talk to other writers and see what they do, read other writers and see what they do (i.e. read as a writer, paying attention to the craft), read books on writing. As a teacher, I read a lot of books on writing. But even before I was a teacher, I always read a lot of books on writing. I love reading books on writing. My friend, Sherryl, and I could start a very decent bookstore with our writing books -- if either of us could bear to part with them, which we can't. (I think being a teacher has just given me justification to buy more and more and more writing books without having to feel too guilty about it -- something my husband hates!)

Often, these books say similar things, but sometimes one comes at something in such a new way that it's almost an earth-shattering moment. Sometimes it's not so much that the insight is new as the way that it's put strikes a chord and gives me a real WOW moment. So it was with Elizabeth George's Write away: one novelist's approach to fiction and the  writing life and her discussion of what she calls THADs -- Talking Head Avoidance Devices.

A THAD is something you get your characters to do in a scene that would otherwise consist solely of dialogue. As well as fleshing out the scene, this can show character, be a metaphor or reveal information. She talks about knowing she has the right THAD when she feels a surge of excitement. I know what she means. I felt it last night.

Last night my students were doing an editing test. Usually, while they're doing a test, I have workshopping to do, but we hadn't yet started workshopping in my novel or poetry classes, and I had forgotten to bring in anything else to do, which is the first time I've done that in eight years! So, I was sitting wondering what I should do, when I started thinking of one scene that my reader had pointed out was talking heads. And as I contemplated a few different things I could do in the scene, I hit upon the perfect THAD. How did I know? That surge of excitement. I wanted to leap from my chair, get to my computer and get working! All around me, my students were sweating their test, and I was so infused with enthusiasm that I felt guilty for not having more empathy with them at that moment. I haven't tackled the scene yet -- am still thinking it through, but still think it feels exactly right for the scene!

Want to know more about THADs? You'll have to buy the book. (It's published by Hodder & Stoughton and is highly recommended! After all, every teacher has to love a book that has a chapter titled "The value of bum glue" -- and, trust me, every writer needs a book with a chapter with that title.) 

16 July 2008

Dennis's book launch

Dennis McIntosh launches his book at Readings, Carlton

Sherryl's already blogged about our mate Dennis McIntosh and his booklaunch the other day, so rather than rehash what she had to say (which you can read at the Books and Writing link), I thought I'd put up what I had to say. Dennis asked me to speak at the launch -- just for a few minutes. I was following another friend, Margaret Campbell, so sat down that morning to think about what I wanted to say. (I hate public speaking at the best of times, but teaching has made it a bit easier. But this isn't a post about that. That's for another post.) And so I wrote a speech.

And here it is. It's not what I said verbatim, because I didn't read it. (Mind you, it was very handy that I had it in my pocket, seeing as I went blank about halfway through. Not one of my better moments, but I just sallied on anyway.)

I first met Dennis in 1996 in Sherryl Clark’s TAFE poetry class. Dennis was the only male student with his own harem of girls, following him around, and I guess I was one of the harem. Being the only male might’ve daunted a lot of students, but not Dennis. He revelled in it.

One day he asked me to read something for him – a book he was writing for his daughter’s 21st – Nicole’s Story. I’d just started editing so he thought perhaps I could edit it for him. Even back then two things were immediately clear about Dennis and his writing: the first was that he had a story to tell, a big story and one he was passionate about, and the second was that he had a voice. Now, the non-writers among you won’t necessarily appreciate what a fantastic thing that is, but it’s something that can’t be taught, something that each writer has to find somewhere within themselves, and Dennis’s writing was oozing with it. But the other thing that struck me at the time was his lack of spelling, grammar and punctuation skills – I was left thinking, does this guy even know what a sentence is. And the answer, probably, was no.

Dennis has come a long way since then. Many of you probably know that he used to be a swimming coach and trained elite athletes. In writing, getting a book published is the gold medal at the Olympics. I think all that coaching probably taught Dennis a lot of what he needed to know – and maybe he already knew these things. He knows about persistence, perhaps the most important thing. He knows about wanting to improve, wanting to achieve a “Personal Best” – since our days as students together, he’s studied editing under me at TAFE – even repeated the subject, not because he needed to, because he did pass first time around, but because he thought he had more to learn. He’s gone through university, honours, a masters, finishing with first class honours. Along the way, at different points, he’s been told to give up, he’s not good enough. Many people would have hung up their goggles, but not Dennis. He just squares his shoulders and says, “I’ll show them”. And he has. He’s shown everyone. I’m sure he would’ve gone on and done his PhD and blitzed it, if he felt he still had something to prove, but clearly he doesn’t.

So, if you ask me am I surprised, given his early work, to be here at his book launch, I’d have to say no. I’m not surprised. Dennis always was determined, and that uniquely larrikin voice set him apart from everyone else. But I am proud, immensely proud, of all he’s achieved. I hope his book is a great success, and I’m really pleased to be here helping him celebrate his launch. Mate, you’ve done a great job, and I hope it’ll go on to be an award-winner and a bestseller! You deserve it.

I know I forgot to say the goggles bit, and did say a little more about his memoir: Beaten by a blow: a shearer's story, which for the record is a great read, with a really strong, unique voice. It's honest, brutal, evocative, gripping, often harrowing and uncomfortable -- a total immersion for the reader into the life of a shearer.

08 July 2008

Progress: my rant about technology

At the moment, I'm wrestling with my printer, trying to convince it to print out my novel. It's old. A laser printer -- 300 dpi, and it cost me $1100, an awful lot of money at the time, which tells something about how old it is. I'm guessing about 15 years, and it's served me well. Very well. I've never done any maintenance to it, never had any problems -- up till now. (Can't say the same about our inkjet we bought six months ago -- same brand, which is clogged and not working at all.) Now, the paper feeder on the old laser is worn, and every few pages the paper misfeeds, and I have to unjam the printer, ending up with two mangled pages, half a page of wasted toner, and then more and more and more misfeeds. It's enough to make a writer tear her hair out.

My solution would seem easy -- buy a new laser printer, except that I'm using my old computer and Windows 98. This computer's no longer on the internet, and I'm sure it won't have drivers for any new printer that I get, and they won't have drivers compatible with such an old dinosaur.

My problems don't end there. Most of the novel was written using WordPerfect. Can I tell you how much I love this program? Let me say two words: "reveal codes" -- the one thing that gives me so much more control than I seem to be able to get in Word. I love the way WordPerfect looks, I love the little arrows on the toolbar that let me zip backwards and forwards to find the same word, so I can quickly check that I haven't used it too often in too short a space. I love that there's a little window there all the time that acts as a thesaurus, and that I get about four times as many choices as Word's thesaurus ever gives me. And "reveal codes" -- have I mentioned that? Oh, yeah, I did, but it's worth mentioning again. When I'm laying out Poetrix, I can adjust letter space and word space if I need to, I can rotate text ninety degrees to get a shape poem on the page. Trying to do such things in Word would give my brain a meltdown. There would be much yelling in the house. And some swearing.

But, alas, WordPerfect is also starting to meltdown. Now, when I do a table and print it, it comes out in a lovely checkerboard pattern. Nice if that was what I wanted, but it inevitably is not. A waste of ink. And hard to read. Then WP took a disliking to my novel. Whenever it got to a certain page it crashed. In the end, I did what I had to and saved it as a Word file and began working on it in Word, which led to other sorts of problems. I'm using underlining for italics, as all good editors and most good writers do, and, as I've chosen to show my telepathic conversations with itals, I sometimes had successive paras beginning and ending with itals. And what did Word do? Very helpfully underlined all the indents. They were not underlined before. Grrrr. Don't get me started on Word...

Really, it's a sad day for all of us that WordPerfect is not a viable option anymore. I'm using Version 8 -- a beautiful program -- but XP on my laptop doesn't like it at all and now refuses to open it. And you can't get it for Macs at all anymore. If you subscribe to conspiracy theories, there's the suggestion that Bill Gates paid Corel a lot of money not to make a Mac-compatible version anymore. I hope that's false. Lack of competition is not good for anyone, least of all us monkeys at the bottom of the equation. In the past, Word and WordPerfect fed improvements to each other. Competition's good, right?

One of the other great things about WordPerfect (that Word could've learnt about) was compatibility. Ever since one of the really early versions, all the new and old versions have been able tol talk to each other. How neat is that? Just ask my version of Word what it thinks about the new docx format. That could be another rant altogether...

07 July 2008

Draft's finished

So this was my plan for the holidays:

2 weeks: working on novel and finishing draft (included going in to work one day for staff meeting)
1 week: stuff for classes
1 week: R&R -- movies, bowling, walking, reading, reading, reading

This is how it's panned out:

3 weeks + : working on novel (and reading one and a half books)
rest: doing the rest of the stuff, which I suspect means very little R&R. Never mind.

This editing pass has taken a lot longer than I expected. The rewrite started at 195 k approx, and finished at 185,663, which was my starting point for this editing pass. It's finished at 178,285. There's something nice about being in the 170s. It's still not quite as low as I'd like, but it's a big story, and I had a horrible thought that I was adding words rather than cutting!

And today it's finished, other than some minor adjustments (I hope) after I get it back from my readers. In the end I cut two-thirds of the words with general tightening -- things like getting rid of prep phrases, cutting repetitions etc. But there were four things I cut at the end that took out a couple of thousand between them:

(i) a scene from the POV from someone whom I'd taken out as a viewpoint character -- so how did this slip through? I think in the end, I'd decided to keep it because it was towards the end of the novel, and he is a viewpoint character in the second, and so it seemed like foreshadowing. The trouble with not using him was that the one viewpoint character in that scene was now dead, and so couldn't convey the scene. In the end though, there was nothing in the scene that was essential to the plot. Wholesale cut. Easy solution.

(ii) cut the guts out of another scene. This was a scene involving a telepathic conversation, where the main character reveals something she's about to do (at the beginning of the next book), which is going to have serious repercussions. I really liked this scene. It seemed like good foreshadowing of the trouble that was to come. The characters she's conversing with used several techniques to get her to change her mind, all to no avail. Heaps of conflict. Snappy dialogue. Fast paced. Working well. Only, when I looked at it again, I thought -- she wouldn't tell them. And she wouldn't. And that was that. It had to go. All of it. All those lovingly crafted words. Gone. A scene has to serve the story, and while the foreshadowing was good, the characters have to be true to themselves. Absolutely. One hundred per cent. And she wasn't being. Really, too, readers are going to get that the consequences for her are going to be dire. They're quite good at picking up the hints -- and we writers have to be good at leaving them room to work!

(iii) and (iv) two nice moments between two of my main characters -- the first from one's point of view, and then a reflection on what had happened from the other character's POV. Neither of these were huge -- a couple of paras each, but this whole idea contained within was no longer relevant after other changes I'd made to them and their relationships with one another. Or not at this point. I may rejig this to reflect something else and use it in the next book. I'm not sure at this point. I do like the idea of what went on, but it just wasn't necessary. Zap. Gone.

On the other hand, there was an earlier scene where I'd cut out a half-page incident between the two of them when I was doing the rewrite, and when I came across it again, I was really sad that I'd done this, so I put it back in the editing pass. Not wholly the way it was. I didn't dig out that earlier draft -- just captured the essence of the exchange in a quarter of the space. It's not essential to the plot, but is a nice character moment for them both, helps define the shifting dynamics of their relationship.

So, as much as I've not had the chance to have that R&R, I have a great sense of satisfaction at having completed this draft. It really is a great feeling!

03 July 2008

Making the changes

I'm a bit light on blogging at the moment because I'm fully immersed in my editing pass over my manuscript. The rewriting's finished, and I'm two-thirds (three-quarters?) through the edit, and I'm loving it. The process, that is.

Some days are better than others though. A few days I got to a scene that just wasn't working for me -- too passive, too much telling of things after the event. The fix wasn't too difficult. I moved the scene backwards in time so that I could show the events as they were unravelling. It's not an action scene, but it feels a lot more active now. Of course it meant I added about 400 words, at a time I'm desperate to cut words. That said, I've eliminated nearly 3000 at about the halfway point, so I'm on target. (Well, I would've liked to get rid of 10-15k, but realistically that was never going to happen because I'm also trying to add some characterisation and some non-plot related thinking.)

The day before yesterday, though, I came across a different kind of hurdle. Let me backtrack... When I started the edit pass, I had a brainwave about how to increase one of the main character's motivations so wrote a new scene that I banged in at the start of her story, and have been editing along the way to take this into account. It was all working beautifully until I got to the midway point and realised that I'd undermined one of the basic tenets that I'd based my alien culture's society on. Oh, dear. What to do? In the end such decisions can only be made when taking into account what will most benefit the story. And this time having the stronger motivation is a definite plus, so I've had to rethink that aspect of their society. It took me most of a day to sort that out, so I felt frustrated at the end of the day with how little progress I'd made, but the main thing was that I had made progress, and that I'd ironed out what could've been a problem further down the track. And in fact it still might -- but I'll be looking for it as I continue editing and will be able to fix it as I go. Bring it on!

24 June 2008

Unfinished sky

My mother said the other day, "You know, I thought once you were working part-time, we would be able to do things together, but it just hasn't happened. You're always busy."

That's the trouble with teaching -- if I'm not in class, I'm at home doing class prep, or marking, or workshopping. And the trouble with being a writer, because if I'm not doing that, I'm writing. And she doesn't get that at all. "How can you write," she says, "when your house is in a mess?" Or "You should do the dishes before you sit down to write." No. No writer should do the dishes first (unless of course they distract him from writing because he's worrying about them).

Now, as it happens, she levelled her complaint at me just before we went on mid-semester break. So, I said, "You know what: I've got the next two weeks free. I can give you one day each week." I actually thought this was pretty generous, because I still have writing group commitments, and one day of work, and writing to do. Lots of writing. I have to get my novel finished and out to readers, and back to my agent.

So, Mum says great and that we'll go see some movies together. Then she says, "And I can come on another day, and we can sort out your wardrobes and start getting rid of the old clothes." Hmm. Suddenly she was trying to wheedle her way into two days.

So I said no, and then after a brief hesitation (because what she's proposing is my idea of hell) I backed down and said, "Well, fine, we can do that -- if that's how you want to spend the one day that I can give you."

She quickly backed away from that one.

As it transpires, she was busy the first week, but this week we went to see Unfinished sky, with William McInnes and Monic Henrickx. I had no idea what we were going to see, but I like most movies (with the exception of the stupider type of comedies). So I went along with no expectations.

Where did this little gem come from and why hadn't I heard about it before? Unfinished sky is a well acted, gorgeously shot and interestingly written film. My first thought was why wasn't it a mainstream cinema release? Surely it would have mainstream appeal? But perhaps not. To not give too much away: it's the story of an illegal immigrant who is escaping a bad past and happens on the farm of a reclusive farmer who is still coming to grips with the death of his wife. She doesn't speak English -- and this to me is what would probably preclude it from a mainstream cinema release, but it's utterly watchable and compelling. (Perhaps the other stumbling block is the unlikeability of the main character at the beginning, but you soon begin to warm to him.)

If you have an arthouse cinema nearby, chalk this one onto your list of must-sees.

23 June 2008

Writer as celebrity

Today I was in a bookshop browsing the aisles while waiting to see a film. Nothing like multitasking -- while browsing, I was listening to the person behind the counter talking to someone else about a writer he had just seen in conversation somewhere. Apparently, the said writer was not a good public speaker, and he was justifying this by saying that of course a lot of writers aren't great public speakers, and in fact often the best writers are the worst speakers.

It is a conundrum for the shyer writers among us. And, yes, I'll put my hand up here -- which is not to say I won't do public speaking engagements because I will. That's part of the territory, part of the professionalism, but it doesn't mean I have to enjoy them. For example, I'm speaking in a few weeks time at a friend's book launch. But I've digressed...

I don't think it's a matter of people who aren't great speakers being drawn to writing, necessarily -- that this is a venue for them to get their message out. Rather, it's just that writing often appeals to shy people. There's the whole romantic notion of the starving writer in her garret -- it appeals in its solitariness. (Of course, these e-days, that solitary writer is just as likely to be checking emails and engaging in online gaming...)

Some of us are more at home in front of an audience than others, but the reality is that it is what's expected of us as writers. One of the books on writing I own talks about this being the age of writer as celebrity. And that's why some writers write. Some come to classes with stars in their eyes and talk about which publishers they would and wouldn't let publish their books, as if the publishing world is going to lie down at their feet in awe of this great, as-yet-undiscovered talent. I try to break the realities of the publishing world to them gently, try to disperse the spectres of seven-figure advances coming their way. Sure, such things can happen, but they don't happen to most of us. Most of us plug away, honing our craft, because we love to write, because we are driven to write, because it's a passion -- even if it's a passion that's going to make us face up to our fear of public speaking! We write our first drafts for ourselves, and then craft with a mind to an audience because we want to be professional writers -- or at least published writers.

It's not just novelists who have to suffer this. Poets are expected to front up to readings, to share their work with an audience that might be judgmental. Some of course revel in it: a great reading can lift a mediocre poem just as a crappy reading can shoot down a great one. Short story writers often read at conventions and other places -- the last con I was at, one of my friends despondently told me that he'd had a really small audience for one of his readings, and I was able to say that that may have been the case, but he'd obviously made a big impression on someone because I'd heard someone discussing his reading as being the highlight of the con, that that reader had found a new favourite writer. It's all about getting the word out, and then of course this flowing on to book sales.

Like it or loathe it, most of us have to face the audience at some time. There are a few reclusive published authors, but this is a strike against them. It makes it harder for the PR wheels to turn, harder for the cash registers to ring, so their books have to be so much better than everyone else's.

For me, the key to public speaking is preparation. I need to plan out in advance what I'm going to talk about, or if it's a reading have several dry runs. I do remember Jack Dann's advice to do schtick, which works for him, but I think I'd founder in a blubbing mess of ums and ahs if I tried to wing it. Maybe that ability will come in time because public speaking is like anything else: it gets easier with practice.

15 June 2008

The importance of the right word

The importance of the right word -- poets know about this more than anybody. Le mot juste as the French would say. Not just the right word but the perfect word. We scrabble around for it. Cross out "cross out" and replace it with "strike through". Hmm, not quite. Perhaps "erase"? "Delete"? We think about the word's denotation and then what other words or ideas it connotes. Then there's the rhythm of the word, the sound of it, how it feels in our mouth. Words give our writing flavour and texture. The combination of words gives a writer style.

But what about when words go wrong? When they go wrong at the most basic level there can be a comedic effect. Take, for instance, my son. Yesterday, we were driving him off to an exam, and he was talking about the history assignment he had just submitted, which was to make his own newspaper (or at least the front page). Anyway, he was telling us he called it The daily brothel, and then finished with: "What exactly is a brothel anyway?"

Hmm. Too funny. His face, when we told him, was a study in mixed emotions: amazement, embarrassment (okay, more mortification than embarrassment), disbelief -- various other things, no doubt.

I like his newspaper title. I imagine a gossipy mag, with a mishmash of articles all mixed in together (obviously drawing on the messy house as a brothel simile/metaphor). But of course this is not how he sees it. And the lesson here is that we should all check meanings first. "Body" and "cadaver" are not interchangeable. A cadaver is a body, but a body is only ever a cadaver under certain circumstances. Not sure which -- then don't use it without checking the dictionary. The same with "horse" and "pony". All ponies are horses but not all horses are ponies. (And then there's the "galloway" in between...)

I love my dictionary. I live in it when I'm editing. Less so when I'm writing. But if I am writing and my brain supplies that word that I'm not a hundred per cent sure of, then I'll hit the dictionary. Doesn't mean I won't ever get it wrong -- there may, of course, be that word I am one hundred per cent sure of that doesn't mean exactly what I think it means. There are no guarantees against that. And of course meanings shift. I'm a great believer in preserving the difference between "disinterested" and "uninterested", but it doesn't mean the dictionary supports my view. I sometimes think that dictionaries are too permissive in what they allow, but they do aim to reflect current usage, so perhaps I just need to get over it. In the meantime though, I'll be running my finger down the columns, looking for that word, and only ever using my thesaurus with a dictionary alongside it!

12 June 2008

New movies

Well, the marking isn't quite finished, but last weekend I took some much needed R&R time and went off to see a few movies.

The first was Sex and the city. I was a fan of the television series, though it wasn't must-see television for me. Translation: I really enjoyed it and would watch it whenever I was home, but didn't tape it if I were going to be out. I'm not into fashion, but I loved that Carrie was a writer, and I loved that the show was bigger than life in the same way that "Desperate Housewives" is bigger than life. And that I kind of related to these girls. In "DH" I see myself as halfway between Susan the ditzy but loveable nutcase (not that I'm implying I'm loveable!) and Lynette, the harassed housewife, struggling to balance motherhood and career.

In Sex and the city I suppose I'm a blend of Carrie (but really only from the writing viewpoint), Charlotte (whom I feel I'm most like in a lot of ways -- except when she runs and when she's so anal. No scratch that. Anal editor person speaking here!) and Miranda. I'm least of all like Samantha. Not at all like Samantha. Are we even from the same planet?

So I enjoyed watching their characters interact, the ripostes from one to another. Such clever dialogue. (Though, going back to the TV series: why Carrie threw over Aidan for Big was always beyond me!)

I enjoyed the movie very much. And the surprise for me was Charlotte. I thought she had a couple of huge moments with Big -- considering one of the reviews I'd read said she (Kristin Davis) didn't really have to do any acting! I thought she was brilliant! Fans of the TV show will love the movie, because it's stayed true to the show. I've seen other TV shows made into movies and wondered how the writers could get it so wrong. (The first Star Trek movie was an example of this -- not a bad movie in its own right, but not true to the feel of the TV show for me. It was only the later ones that captured this.)

The beauty of Sex was that I went along with my mum and two of her friends, and of the three only one had ever watched the TV show, yet they all enjoyed the movie. That, IMHO, is great writing! It's like a poem where everyone can get something on an initial reading, but that some readers will draw further and deeper meanings from. (And it's why I never minded when actors from one show appeared in another playing their characters from the first -- as long as they "worked" in their own right.)

Movies can be great food for the writer's soul, and the second movie (all right, all right, I admit, I saw it twice in two days!) was one such movie for me. Prince Caspian, which I enjoyed so much more than The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. Perhaps it helps having a character who reminds me physically of the main character of my novel. Yes, I'm always looking for him, even though I've settled on Tom Ward as the most likely candidate. But perhaps it's the grittier battles. I do love a gritty battle. The heavy thwacks of swords on metal. The grimness of stone walls. Ruins. Some beautiful coastal scenery. Horses. (Of course, horses. I'm far less fussed about lions who come along and save the day.) Men in armour.

Interesting to note how much cross-pollination was going on between Tolkien and Lewis, and one of those vagaries of being in a writing group together. I've never read the Narnia books. Probably a bit inexcusable for a fantasy writer, but then I came at Tolkien late (in my mid-twenties, and wondered about how I'd missed such a masterpiece!). The lion, the witch and the wardrobe didn't inspire me to read the book, but this one has. Though I'll probably only read that one unless I love it. If I love it I'll go back and start at the beginning and hope it's as good. That's not always the case.

I've got a book called The last legends of Earth by AA Attanasio, and it was one of the most amazing books I've ever read. If you like SF, and time travel, and disasters, and apocalyptic visions, go out and read it. Trouble was it was fifth in a series of linked books. I wouldn't usually start at number five but someone gave it to me, so then I had to go back and get number one and start from there. I hated number one. It was boring and didn't draw me in. I persisted, and it just never got better for me, and I didn't get that at all. How could that happen? So, yes, assuming all books in a series will be as good as each other can be quite fallacious. But I'm digressing. The blogosphere seems always to encourage me to do that. Friends write coherent posts, and mine ramble. But then I see this as a very different kind of writing (for me) than if I were writing, say, an article or a movie review. I'm perfectly happy to let it ramble!

But back to Prince Caspian... Highly recommended if you like battle scenes. Some violence but nothing to make you too squeamish. Others I'm looking forward to: Indiana Jones. And perhaps one or two of the new horror offerings. And Mongol, I think it's called! Seems like a few good movies coming up!

26 May 2008

Into the end of semester

I'm likely not to be posting much over the next few weeks as I move into full-on marking mode. Today, I've been collecting up major assignments, and will get more tomorrow and more next week. As well, I'm currently reading a friend's novel, plus reading an anthology (and proofing) for another friend, and reading short story competition entries. But where does that leave my own work? On hiatus unfortunately. The only writing I'll be doing this week will be an editing test. Not exactly the stuff that feeds the soul. On the other hand, the course I've been writing is almost finished. Soon, I'll be at the end of semester break, and then it will be full-on novel. I'm hoping to get my draft finished in the first week and get it out to a couple of readers. How exciting is that? This is the worst time not to be writing -- so close to the end. So close I can smell it, and there's no better incentive.

What I have been happy with is that I've started implementing some of the changes (ie transferring them from paper onto the computer). I was hoping to cut 15,000 words in the editing pass, but every time I looked at how many words I was adding, I was worried -- really worried -- that I was going to add 15,000 words. Happily, I am actually cutting. Not as many as I'd hoped, but definitely cutting. Oh, let me at it: I long to be finished!

19 May 2008

Writing the novel

I had a discussion with a student last week about how many projects a novelist can work on, because our students who are taking multiple classes that involve novel writing are expected to work on different projects. Of course, there's no correct answer to this question, and I've always said that you've got to find what works for you. Only this last year I've found that that's not necessarily the case.

Up until recently, I've always thought I was a one-project-at-a-time person. Even when it comes to short stories.

I get an idea and think about it, and that's where my focus is. It's one of the reasons I don't write many short stories -- because mostly I'm focused on my novel. It's a lovely, indulgent, obsessive thing, writing a novel. I don't get that same pleasure out of short stories or poetry -- but they do offer their own pleasures and satisfactions, especially the satisfaction of finishing something!

Some people have bags of projects on the go -- they swap and change depending on their mood or deadline, even working on several in the same day. My friend, Sherryl, is like this, and it's always made me shake my head in wonder. But writing our group novel this year has taught me that I can work on more than one project at a time, and the longer I've been doing both the easier it's becoming.

At the beginning, it would take me a few weeks to reacclimatise -- I'd have to sink back into the depths of whichever project I was working on. Being in the writing group and doing the plotting or reading out what we'd just written and discussing it made it easier to get back into this. But there was the unfamiliarity of what others had written -- I say unfamiliarity because clearly I had heard their portions and discussed them, but they weren't integrally part of me the way the parts I'd written were. I know the details of my character's background, for example, in far more details than I know of their characters'.

The challenge with my own novel has been different. I've been working on this book a long time, so I'm very well acquainted with it. But it's a complex story with multiple viewpoint characters, and worse than that, multiple drafts. I say worse because the problem is that when I've been out of it awhile I forget which things belong in which draft. I might remember that A does this, but it might be something that I've taken out of the current draft for whatever reason.

Paradoxically, I've found that the thing I thought I needed (time to reimmerse) has been the thing working against me. It's actually easier to work on multiple projects if they're all on the boil at once, if I'm working on both in the same week, rather than having that gap between them. This works really well in that I can do whatever the mood takes me. If I'm in a writing mood, I'll head off to the group novel. If I'm in an editing mood, I'll work on my own -- which also requires some slabs of writing as I make changes that I've decided on. This week's change, for example, is in a background scene that my main character remembers. When he was a small child, he found his sister hanged, and that change has been to make him find her a few minutes earlier, when she was dying and imploring him to help her when things went wrong (knot on the wrong side of her neck so that she was strangled slowly). This secret he has kept. Everyone else thinks he found her dead. It's all about making the worst thing possible happen to your characters. This doesn't have a great effect on the story as a whole, but does strengthen his motivation for doing the things he has to do, and is perhaps something I'm thinking more about because I'm busy writing the other novel, putting my character there through the wringer. Honestly, you have to love writing!

06 May 2008

Reading your writing

Today in class, I did something I do most years in my Novel 2 class: I started reading James N Frey's "Seven deadly mistakes" that a writer can make (from his book How to write damn good fiction). The first mistake is timidity, and he talks about the different types of timidity a writer can experience or exhibit. One of the things that often comes up in such sessions is the fear of public speaking -- I mean, writers in their garrets and all of that, right?

Yeah. We wish. (Or I do, at least.)

Like it or not, these days writers are expected to promote their books -- book tours, interviews, readings, writers' festivals, conventions etc. I used to suffer terribly from a fear of public speaking -- so much so that in my first six weeks of teaching, I didn't sleep for three days before each class. By the time I got in there I was so exhausted I needed the adrenalin-kick of the fear to keep me upright! These days I've learnt some modicum of control over it, and enjoy walking into my classes. I don't know that I'll ever be entirely comfortable in front of strangers, but it's not the incapacitating experience it once was. I have teaching to thank for that.

However, I'm always aware of reading aloud and how nerves affect readers. On my twenty-first birthday, I had to give a speech at school on the affects of lead on haem synthesis. I was worked up over it (vomiting beforehand and all), and annoyed that I had to do it on the day of my twenty-first birthday. Afterwards, I sat down and leaned across and said to my best friend, "How did I go?", and she told me that it was probably okay but that I'd spoken so quickly she didn't understand one word. Not one!

So, that's always my first piece of advice to anyone who wants to read their work: read slowly. No matter how slowly you think you're reading, you can probably read it even more effectively by slowing it down more.

My second piece of advice is about diction -- about pronouncing your letters clearly, really biting out the consonants. My daughter sings -- she has a great voice and range, but she sometimes slurs her letters. I see it with some of my poetry students. It's something you have to be constantly thinking about. Pronounce each letter. Practise. Read your story or poem out loud and anticipate any problem words. Write them on the page phonetically. (Don't forget to use double spacing for prose!) Record yourself reading your story and then listen back to it. Was it clear? Did you stumble over any words? Can you replace them with something easier?

Thirdly, run your finger or thumb down the page as you're reading. This helps you keep your place if you look up at your audience -- and you should look up at your audience. The more people you can make eye contact with, the more you'll have in your bag.

Fourthly, warm up beforehand. Some poets like to do vocal exercises first -- just like singers warming up with scales.

Fifthly, time your talk -- especially if you are time-limited. Nothing worse than a five minute talk that runs for fifty. Yes, I've been to some! Have your introductory patter prepared and written out, and include this in your dry runs.

Sixthly, don't just practise alone. If you can, get some friends to listen in. You may feel self-conscious, but it will be worth it for the insights they can give. Listen to any advice they give!

Seventhly, if you're doing an interview, you can ask for a list of questions or, if your interviewer isn't prepared to give you one, at least the likely topics so you can have something prepared. Having said that, bear in mind that some level of spontaneity enlivens a talk. Go ask Jack Dann how to give a great talk, and he'll tell you he just goes out there and gives schtick! It's great if you can do it, but I, personally, like to be prepared! If you can't be, though, just chill out and take the time you need to answer questions. I know plenty of writers who will answer questions with a stock sentence like "That's a really good question" just to give them a bit more time to think.

Having just attended the Beyond Cuisine dinner, with actors reading works of fiction -- see Ellen's blog for a report -- I took great notice of how the actors read. There were a few notable points: the main difference was how much they varied the pace -- mostly reading slowly, even more slowly than I ever have, but with occasional bursts of speed, especially in the dialogue or in direct thoughts. These bits were much faster than I would have ever dared. Of course they all had superb pronunciation, so that the words were clear, and their great clarity meant that the sped-up reading was still easy to understand.

They also were more animated, which of course I'd expected, but the other thing they did was use pauses to a much greater degree, and for a much greater length of time than I ever have. And it worked. It was as if they were reading a story to kids they wanted to engage, but they exaggerated things even more. Well worth going to see some actors do it, just to get a feel for how better to perform your own work. Oh, I'd love to do some acting classes to develop this even more!