30 January 2008

Book buying

Yesterday, S and I went off to Borders. While we both have reservations about shopping in such a big chain, especially a non-Australian one, there are some books that we can't get anywhere else. And did I ever get the most beautiful poetry anthology. Of course, most of the books I bought were for work, but I just love getting in there and browsing in the technical section. S and I have large collections of books on writing. The only person I've ever known with a bigger writing-books collection was a friend and fellow-teacher.

Our friend passed away several years ago, and her husband decided to invite her friends around for a second-hand book sale that was going to be by invitation only. Were we ever excited. And salivating at the prospect. Don't get me wrong -- we were very sorry that our friend died, but this was a good half year or more later so had gone through the grieving process. In the end, an institution she worked at offered a greater sum of money than we could've scrabbled together to buy the collection en masse and to establish it as a collection in her name. A far better legacy, truth be told, than being sold and divided among all her friends, no matter how grateful we would've been. For us, it was never about saving money -- just about perusing books that we might not otherwise have seen. Anyway, it is lovely to think she has her own collection out there.

Now, the guilty secret of yesterday -- apart from the fact that I got so carried away that I bought a book I already had, is that then I went home and placed an Amazon order. And if that weren't bad enough, then I placed a second one. Yeah, I know -- it's more postage that way, but one of the books was a second-hand book, and it was the first time I've used the used-books facility. Funny thing was my first order was processed in AUDs, but I didn't have that option for the second.

I stuffed up the used-book order the first few times, because the cheapest books that I could find were from sellers who didn't offer overseas shipping. It took me awhile to realise this. I ended up having to pay an extra $10 US, for the book, but it was still cheap. Now I just have to wait until the books arrive. Won't be too long. (I confess, I don't mind waiting, and much preferred the old days where you could select actual shipping. Though it took several months it was much much cheaper. I do think it's a bit unfair that people in the US can get free shipping, and we don't get any sort of discount. For a while, when Amazon stopped offering ships as an option, I switched to Barnes and Noble, because their shipping was so much cheaper, but then they too did away with this type of shipment, and so priced themselves out of the market for me.)

I do so love buying books -- just wish I had more money to do it with! Now all I need is an extra three bookcases. Oh, and somewhere to put them!

28 January 2008

Where do writers get their ideas?

This does seem to be the question that gets asked more often than any other at writers' conferences and conventions, and the one that the guest writers always roll their eyes at. Ideas are around us -- they mark boundaries limited only by our imaginations.

Last weekend I was away, staying in a small country town. Now, as it happens, a friend of mine used to live in this town and told me that the people in it were rather strange. This weekend I saw evidence for myself. We decided to have fish and chips on the Friday night, and walked down to the local fish and chip shop, which had signs up to say it was under new management. On the door was a sign that said they had closed that day (and presumably forever) because of small-minded people who'd spread rumours, and then thanked those who had "given them a go". Ah, the old management, I thought. Only there was a second sign that said something like: "Watch out ya dogs, youll get your own", and it was signed by one of the "new management" people.

Right. Nice.

The next day I was going into the supermarket when I heard the following conversation:

Woman: "He says I'm a really nasty person."

Man: "You know what you should do? You should abuse him. In public. In front of everyone."

Now, normally, I wouldn't think too much about such a conversation. A wife having had an argument with her husband and confiding in her brother? A woman who's just dumped a boyfriend? (And already that's the writer at work -- speculating on what the story is, what the motivations are.) But in light of the previous day's discovery, this conversation took on more gravitas. Nice town, that. And not just in a sarcastic sense, but in the sense that this will feed my fiction. My stories are set in a fantastical setting, and there are no fish and chip shops per se, but that doesn't mean I won't use this event, change it, shape it to fit the story I'm writing. Here are some pictures of the nearby environs: a waterfall, and scenery on a bushwalk we did on a day that was too hot for walking. Lovely translucent leaves on trees. And all of that is grist for the story crucible too. Such detail can enrich our settings.

And don't forget to look for character moments -- the time your friend looked like she was sucking a lemon when you told her some good news. And why, exactly, did she look like that? Ask yourself -- constantly ask yourself about why people act the way they do. Why did your mother hang up on you the other day? Why did your girlfriend stand you up?

Some years ago I was in a class run by a reasonably well-known writer, and I happened to mention that a friend of mine lived in a front flat, and in the flat behind lived two ex-prison guards, and that these ex-guards were so worried about being recognised that they jumped in their car and drove down their driveway to collect their letters from their letterbox. They wouldn't get out of the car for this, but would lean out, and then reverse back up the driveway and go inside. The teacher said straightaway, "Oh, that's fantastic. I'm going to use that in my next novel." I was a bit miffed, because I thought it was my story, but of course you can't copyright ideas, and I had shared it with her. I don't know whether or not she used it, and I wouldn't feel right about doing this without asking whether the other person intended to use the idea, but legally she did nothing wrong. You can't copyright ideas, and in any case I could always modify it and use it in a different way if I wanted to. But of course my characters don't have cars or letterboxes either.

There's more in the annoying moments of life. Today, at work, I was trying to chase down some forms I needed, and got the ring around -- literally. First, the switchboard sent me somewhere with a press-button menu, and when I selected the most suitable option, I got the switchboard again; then they directed me somewhere else that still wasn't right, and when these new people said they'd put me through to the right department, they put me through to myself. Only I got the answering machine, of course, because I was already using the phone. Moments like that, trimmed back or expanded, can provide comic relief in an otherwise too-serious story. Think about what your story needs, and what you can use to flesh it out. Look for interesting snippets in newspapers -- quite often the Odd Spot can spark ideas, as can strange (and even mundane) article titles.

Keep notes. Use a voice recorder if you don't like to scribble. Keep a dream journal -- something I keep meaning to try except that I hardly ever remember my dreams.

One thing that many writers do is conflate disparate ideas -- it's a great way to come up with something original; after all, we've all heard the chestnut that there's no such thing as a new story. But pulling together two or three ideas and weaving something new out of them can be immensely rewarding and exciting. So don't despair that you don't have any ideas -- they're all around you. You just need to learn to look for them!

19 January 2008

Draft over!

Last night I finally finished the 13th draft of my novel. Now all I have to do is save it as such -- I give my working copy a different name than the drafts, and each draft is preceded by its number. The minute I save this one as a draft, my working copy becomes part of the next drafting process (if there is one). Officially, I'm not redrafting my novel anymore. Time to work on new things. But I am going to do an editorial pass to look for typos and wordiness, and to look at characterisation, motivation, and to add some non-plot related thinking, because an editor who looked at a partial of this current draft suggested these things needed attention, and I want to submit copy that is as good as I can get it.

There's something immensely relieving about finishing a draft, an excitement. For me, it builds as I can see the end in sight, and I'm more and more motivated to work on the project. But there's also something sad about finishing a draft, especially a final draft, because it's a goodbye to characters. Though, of course, if you're working on a series the way I am, that's not necessarily the case. We spoke about it today in the SuperNOVA novel writers' group -- the what-next syndrome. If you're writing a series, do you go on with the next book and hope the first will be picked up, or do you start an entirely new project? I think that answer depends on whether you are driven to do something in particular, or whether or not you're a fast writer. Perhaps also in how much faith you have in your project. If you're a slow writer you'd better keep going because if you do get a three-book contract, and they want to see where you're up to, it's nice to have something to show them. Nice not to be put on the spot, having six months to write your next book, and, horror upon horrors, you haven't even started!

For me, the choice is easy. I'm not ready to leave my characters. And in any case I've already done 140,000 words of the second book. I'm driven. I want to write the sequel. When I did NaNo, this was the book I was working on. I have two separate storylines that run through both books, and I chose the more difficult to write for NaNo. Trouble is that I've just reworked the ending of the first book, and I have a feeling that a lot of what I've written in NaNo will now be redundant. Oh, well. I've done it before.

When I first sent out book 1 (3rd draft stage), it was a far different book to what it is now. It weighed in at a mere 120,000 words. A publishing house commissioned a reader's report, and one of the things they commented on was the structure: that it was too linear. Okay, I thought. I was about 100,000 words into book 2 at that stage, and had incorporated a second storyline, which at that stage was absent from book 1. To me it was always part of the story, but I thought it was too-ambitious a project for a first-time writer. These days, I hope I'd have more courage, more foresight. Anyway, I knew I could make the book less linear by dragging that storyline back into book 1 and weaving it through the book. I usually write sequentially so this doesn't present too much of a challenge, and though tricky at times the rewrite was an immensely rewarding and enriching experience. Trouble was, when I looked at book 2, one of my major characters was now dead. And I do mean major characters. Now I had 100,000 words in serious need of a rewrite. Which happened. But now, I may have done it again. I'm circumspect about such things: all writing is a learning experience. And enjoyable. I like the fact that there have been many incarnations of my book. I can't imagine ever finishing a book and feeling that it didn't need rewriting. I know some people do this -- more so those who labour over every sentence along the way -- but it's not for me. I love the rewrite.

And am I happy with my new ending? Absolutely. Every draft I've looked at it and wondered what to do with it. It felt like a good ending, left the reader with the emotion I wanted them left with -- trouble was it was a little cliched. This time, because of changes I've made throughout the book in adding a new storyline, which really only minimally affects the first book but will become successively more important as each book goes on until it is the driving force behind the plot by the end of the third book. This new element really suggested a new ending for me. Out it popped as I was editing. Persistence -- that's what helped me find it. It's a long haul writing a novel, especially a big one, and you just have to be prepared to stay the distance. Believe me, the rewards (in terms of personal satisfaction) are worth it.

16 January 2008

I am Legend

I said the other day I would post about this movie, which is the last one I've seen -- I am so relishing the chance to go to the movies more often. Soon, I'll be back at work and time will be shorter and something will have to give. In the meantime, I'm making the most of it.

I am Legend was an interesting film experience for me because I felt that I'd seen it before. Didn't I read somewhere that it was a remake of The Omega Man with Charlton Heston? I have seen that but so long ago that I don't really remember it. I do vaguely remember him flitting out of his apartment in daylight hours and barricading himself in at night, but am more familar with his performance in Planet of the Apes, a film that was vastly superior to the original. And whatever did they do to The Time Machine in the remake? Took the guts out of it is what! But I'm getting off the track.

More recently, however, I've seen 28 Days Later, and this felt like the same movie, even though there were striking differences. Setting for a start. I suppose, the longer I dwell on the Charlton Heston movie and the more it comes into focus -- even if still blurred -- the more I can see that it does bear a stronger resemblance, but even so there's the sense both in Legend and 28 days at their beginnings of a man alone in a devastated world filled with violent creatures who used to be human. In both films that whole I-am-alone experience proves not to be exactly true. Both have moments of high tension, guaranteed to make at least half the moviegoers jump. We did.

Without getting too deep into spoiler territory (I hope), the ex-haematologist railed at the ending. Just didn't work for me on a scientific level. Let me say a few words that might mean something to those who have seen it: transport of biological specimens, and the scientific logistics of doing what was suggested . . . Yes, already, that's more than a few words. I'll shut up now, except to say that again the whole spectre of suspension of disbelief rears up and spoils the storyline for me. Writers, research please!

14 January 2008

Towards the end

I'm getting towards the end of my current rewrite -- with less than 25,000 words to go. Now, to many writers that would be a big swag, but this is a big fantasy novel. I feel like I'm in the final stretches, and my enthusiasm to get to the end is waxing. I have found, however, I've moved more from rewrite to big edit at this point. Not quite sure why this has happened. Maybe it's because the later sections of the book were written later than the earlier sections and needed less? Maybe not.

After this comes a final editing pass -- this time on a print out, whereas at the moment I'm working on screen. What this pass is about is to make sure there are no typos, that the text is consistent (sometimes, with so many drafts still in my memory, I might insert something that relates back to something and not realise that the thing it related back to was omitted or reworked in this draft), that it all makes sense. I also want to have a quick look at a couple of particular aspects that someone mentioned may need a little attention. Easy stuff, and much quicker than a rewrite. Fun stuff. I love the editing stages, adding texture and layers and all of that. Then it's off to a couple of trusted readers for final comments and out into the wide world. Exciting stuff. And nerve-wracking. And then my dilemma is whether to hop right into the next book, or spend a couple of weeks reworking some short stories and getting them out. Might do a bit of both. And there's the group novel waiting patiently in the background too. So, plenty to go on with.

07 January 2008

More movies and books

We seem to have set up a two-day pattern where we go to the movies every second day, which means we should've gone today. Instead, I've been writing, which is a better excuse than just about any other I could give. Or rather I've been wrestling with a draft, more than doing a straight rewrite. Today's scenes were half rewrite, half edit.

Anyway, in the meantime we've been to see National Treasure: Book of Secrets. I'll state straight out that I'm somewhat partial to Nicholas Cage, so that was a plus already. And I like Ed Harris too (have done ever since he did one of my favourite movies: The Right Stuff). This was fast-paced, car chases, excitement plus plus. I had read a review saying it had lots of plot holes, but they were more in terms of being so over-the-top they were unlikely than that something was missing or didn't make sense. Okay, this is a film very much in keeping with what I've been reading this week: Matthew Reilly's Area 7. Yeah, yeah, I know, I said I'd finished Reilly-reading, but I saw it cheap and couldn't resist. It sat in between the other two books of his that I've read recently, so it was funny thinking forward to what would happen to those characters in the next book. A bit like reading the end of a novel before I've finished -- and I know a few people who do like to do that.

One writerly thing that Reilly does that I don't like is to withhold information through the POV character (though he is using omniscient). But he'll be in someone's head and give half the information, and we know that character now has the full story and is not sharing it. I always see this as false suspense. Cheating, really. If the viewpoint character knows, then the reader should know. It leaves me feeling manipulated as a reader. Still, the book overall is another page turner. Plenty of excitement.

But the book and the film, totally unrelated to each other, both involve the kidnapping of the president. Very similar experiences overall. Fast. Exciting. And you just have to tell yourself to go along with the plot because it will be one helluva ride.

Atonement, the other film I saw, is a far different experience, but one very close to the book, which I read last summer (or the summer before?). My mother told me the film was slow-paced and confusing. I actually found the film got going a lot more quickly than the book did, but both are sumptuously rich and, oh, so tragic! My son said, after the film, "Oh, Mum, look at all the tears on your face." Indeed, it did make me cry. Not confusing at all. But it's one that does involve frequent time-shifts, and going over the same ground from a different perspective.

Currently reading: The Monkey's Mask by Dorothy Porter, which is diametrically opposed to Reilly, in that it's a verse novel (and a crime novel at the same time). Very interesting so far. I'm enjoying it.

Also currently reading The Stars My Destination, which I know I blogged about earlier. I was quite happy to reread the first half to reacquaint myself with the story -- that's always a good sign.

Currently writing: my novel, of course. Working now on Chapter 40 -- and a change I made in Chapter 2 is now having quite an impact on character relationships. It's always good in a rewrite to change things around a little so it still feels fresh to me. I'm not sure another reader who'd read an earlier draft would notice, but because I'm so close to it, I know. (The worst part is that sometimes I'm not sure what's in what draft. Can get confusing. Anyway, back to it . . .)

02 January 2008


Well, we're in holiday mode in this house, which means getting out and doing things and seeing movies. As well as catching up on some reading and writing.

Just before Christmas we went to see Phantom of the Opera. The kids and I all love the movie, but none of us had seen the live show. I knew I'd love it because I know some of the music and really enjoy it. My brother and his wife, who consider themselves connoisseurs of theatre, and my mother are all keen Les Miserables fans and say that nothing stacks up to Les Mis. Mum even says she can take or leave Phantom. I'm the opposite (but admittedly I've only seen amateur theatre productions of Les Mis, albeit very good amateur productions). I loved Phantom and would happily see it next time it's on. We didn't see Anthony Warlow -- Simon Pryce played the phantom -- and I'd heard Warlow was brilliant so that was a little disappointing, but only a little because Pryce was excellent in the role. (It's just that thing that you always wonder about what you might have missed, but I can't imagine Warlow doing it any better. Friends have raved about Warlow's performance, but I could just as easily rave about Pryce's.)

In the last couple of days we've been on the cinema trail, first of all seeing Enchanted and then The Golden Compass.

Enchanted was interesting because of the structure. The first ten or fifteen minutes are animated, and set up the "fairytale" world before the main characters cross into the "real" world and become "real" characters (ie played by real actors). And was the fairytale world full-on fairytale -- the princess was just like Snow White only more so. It's a fascinating structure because the first fifteen minutes of a film usually set the film up so that the audience knows what to expect, but this film, instead of giving more of the same, then does a 180 degree turn and becomes something incredibly different. The tone particularly is different. We could look at it as a hero's journey kind of set-up, establishing the status quo, but the first fifteen minutes have such a different feel that I wonder how children will take to it. I took my two (who are in their teens), and my son wanted to walk out of the animated part, but enjoyed it more once the film got going. But I'm thinking that small children might be disappointed when the film moves away from the fairytale feel, which was far too saccharine-sweet for me. Overall, I found the film enjoyable. A fun movie.

Yesterday we saw The Golden Compass. I've read Northern Lights as it was published in Australia (and the UK and no doubt various other places). It's been a while since I've read the book, and my feelings were the movie felt true to the book. Various people/reviews have said that there's lots missing, but I didn't feel that there was. Sometimes, too, I wonder if it's that they remember bits that are revealed later (because it is a trilogy) in the other books. Maybe. But maybe not. Parts of the film seemed dull in terms of lighting -- the Svalbard parts, which are no doubt set in winter so the dimness is obviously intentional, but I just didn't feel it aided the experience. They left the film feeling almost colourless in parts. On the positive side, I thought Dakota Blue Richards did a fantastic job of Lyra. Great to see a child actor who can really act a la Jodie Foster. The acting all around was fantastic. It's a film I could easily sit through again, and yet don't feel driven to see again, as I did with Lord of the Rings or Gladiator, which is a shame, as I like nothing better than a mild obsession to get me through the summer. Not this year, it seems. Which all sounds a bit damning, but it shouldn't. Definitely a movie worth watching.