31 March 2008

My teacherly whinge

Well, Sherryl and I went off to Borders today to meet up with a past student, which was a lovely thing to do. We sat and talked writing for ages. And then we bookshopped, as you do if you're a writing teacher. Now, Borders have always had this 10% teacher and student discount, which we love. We throw a lot of money Borders' way. I buy most of my teaching books there. Now, before you all frown and say I should be supporting the small, independent booksellers (you're right!), the small, independent booksellers don't have the range that Borders do, don't have all the practical how-to books that are so useful for class.

Anyway, today, we found out that the teachers' discount (and presumably the students' too, though I'm not sure about that) has been discontinued. I was a bit peeved, particularly because I was buying, among other things, a $30 novel that I already own but have lent to a student (I think), and now I need it for teaching purposes. So one lucky author/publishing house/bookshop is getting twice the commission from me. And replacing another book I bought my son for Christmas, but which his sister borrowed to take camping before he'd read it, and then left behind.

Oh, well, they do have some fabulous vouchers, which are emailed out from time to time. Guess we'll be even more reliant on them from now on. But I have a sneaking suspicion that I'll be throwing somewhat less money their way.

29 March 2008

Awards night

Well, it's official, folks. Someone other than just ourselves likes our group novel. We're not just navel gazing! Last night, Western Women Writers (well, some of us at least) went along to the FAW (Fellowship of Australian Writers) Awards night to collect a commendation for our group novel -- or the first 30,000 words of it. Originally, we began the project with this award in mind -- not so much because we thought we might win, but because it would give the group a focus for the year, and a deadline. And there we were, happily beavering away, at around the 35 k mark (and nowhere near finished) when we found out that this year there was a word limit on entries, and we'd already passed it. What to do? Well, we shaped the first half of the book into -- well, the first half of the book really. That involved picking out a suitable scene to break the story out, and removing a new subplot that was just starting up at that point, and which would have proved too distracting. And writing a note to explain what was going on (ie why the story abruptly stopped).

Entering any kind of competition is always a lottery. Whether we like it or not, such things are subjective. I've seen it with stories I've been a shortlist judge for -- when a story I think is memorable and outstanding is passed over in the final prizes for something that almost didn't make the shortlist. I know from the decisions I've had to make as a judge -- the final choice between the perfectly executed story that doesn't truly engage and the engaging story that has a number of flaws. The superbly written versus the original idea. Such decisions are not always easy. But winning or placing or even receiving a commendation in a competition offers writers tremendous validation. And going along to the ceremonies is a great way of hobnobbing with the rich (oh, no, that's right -- we're writers! No rich here) and famous (or not!). Awards nights are a great place to network and even, if you're not so good at networking, to feel a part of a community of writers.

Last night was no exception for me. But here were some of the surprises of the night:

(i) Those who were listed. In one category, one of the commended writers was no less than Booker Prize winning author JM Coetzee. He wasn't there, but it was still a moment when I felt a part of not just a writing community but a community of successful writers. Of course there were plenty of other "names" who weren't there, but Coetzee was the biggest, and as I've enjoyed Waiting for the barbarians, I was pleased to feel we were almost rubbing shoulders. (Not in any true writerly sense, obviously. I should be so lucky! Okay, I'll stop gushing now. And name-dropping.)

Another name who wasn't there was Garry Disher, but he did, at least, send a lovely thank you letter, acknowledging the FAW's support over the years. I haven't met Garry Disher. He doesn't know me at all. I have seen him speak at the Melbourne Writer's Festival, where he seemed a nervous speaker (something I can relate to), but he also spoke from the heart. I came away thinking him gracious and honourable and thoughtful and ... Oh, that's right, I promised I would stop gushing. We use his Writing fiction with our first year classes (it's their one set text) and now with our online students, and every time I see something of his I'm glad he's a writer we can support this way. It's a great beginners book, BTW.

(ii) The number of people who will travel from interstate just to get a certificate! This always amazes me. Truly. I suppose it is an acknowledgment of the validation thing I mentioned earlier, but I'm not sure I'd be prepared to do it. If I were a winner, yes. But just for a certificate! Don't get me wrong -- I admire these people greatly. And maybe they're not all subject to the same financial constraints that I am. Anyway, they did add greatly to the night as a whole, and what was particularly lovely was to see a whole writers group come down from Sydney to support two of their writers. Today, they were hitting the bookshops, so I imagine they'll be enjoying their holiday immensely!

(iii) The people we know. So, the winners in our category (writing group anthology) were called The Cartridge Family, which I thought a brilliant name -- brought The Partridge Family (and I always respond well to the writing-group-as-family concept) into the world of writing via ink cartridges. Anyway, turned out one of them was a former client -- someone who's book I'd edited a few years back. The funny thing was that in the last few weeks, I was thinking about her and wondering what had become of her book! If and when it's published, I'd really like to get a copy.

The Williamstown Writers Group, like us, were also commended. Now, they're in our neighbouring suburb, so I know a couple of members, so it was great to see them there. Especially because I've had dealings with one, very recently, through a writing-related venture but this was the first time we'd met both as writers. Another member I'd been in a writing group with years ago, and I know her through her professional life as well. It's a small world, but it's at these types of places that we make the connections.

(iv) The names of unknowns we know. These are the kids. A talented few who seem to win competitions all over the place, and I know some of their names through shortlisting the Imagination Creation literary competition each year. Margaret Campbell, who runs Imagination Creation, and is my mother Rita in our group novel (in other words is part of Western Women) couldn't make the awards last night, but I knew she'd be as pleased as anything to see some of "her" writers up there. They become hers in the same way that the poets published in Poetrix become ours. Those writers might not know we "own" them -- it's just a kinship we feel with them, a pride when we see them doing well, even though their success is completely independent of any (small) influence we may exert. Perhaps I'm just rambling. Humour me.

(v) The judges. Ah, well, as it turns out the judge of our section was someone I know -- luckily such competitions are judged anonymously. He did not know it was our work; we did not know he was judging. It's always tricky, because sometimes such things can seem not quite kosher to outsiders -- for example, if one of Western Women Writers entered the Ada Cambridge this year (they didn't) and won. (Not that I was any more than part of a team who did the shortlisting, and have no influence beyond that on the final judging.)

In our group, we have a policy about awards -- if one of us is judging, the others can only enter something we haven't seen; they must not talk about it in front of us, and can workshop it, but not when we're in the group. That way we can ensure fairness, which above all is what we're all striving for in a competition. But, even so, there's always the fear that such an event would not quite seem fair -- that whole thing about not just doing the right thing but being seen to do the right thing as well. (And that in itself isn't necessarily fair!) I prefer not to enter if I know a friend is judging. It's easier all around.

(vi) The amount of interest there was in what we had attempted, especially by the other writing groups. Others seemed to think it was difficult, extremely brave, inventive -- all types of things. What they can't have imagined was how much fun it's been. How fantastic the plotting sessions are. How easy it is to get into character. My character is exactly like me (okay, now the members of my writing group have just keeled over in shock), and nothing like me. And I do enjoy becoming him. But now I'm back in my own novel, there's the worry that Brendan (my group novel character -- a 30 yo contemporary cartographer) might just pick up his sword, put his foot in the stirrup iron and swing up onto his warhorse. For the record, he doesn't ride. Or own a sword. But that's where my head is right now!

I just wonder if we've started something and next year the FAW might have a flood of partially completed group novels. Go, the group novels!

(vii) The shy authors. Okay, I admit: I'm one of them. I'd prefer not having to get up and collect my award. Was perfectly happy to stay in my seat while the others went up, but for some reason this is a three-muskateers thing: one for all and all for one, and all of that. One could have gone up. Or all. And the others do enjoy their moment in the sun. And why not? It's well earned. (All writers deserve it!) It's just that I personally don't enjoy it. And, like me, there were others who took their awards, head down as they walked in and out, and made no speech. Or the one who said that she wrote so that she didn't have to do that -- or something along those lines.

(viii) The great speeches. Okay, the winners had to be the Sydney author who praised Melbourne (so much so that the convenor said she should be bumped up to first place) and the boy who said that he was glad he'd entered his commended poem and got a second opinion because his teacher had read it and said that poetry obviously wasn't his strength! There's a note of caution to all teachers in that one!

Well, I seem to have rambled on a bit -- but I do see this blog more as a place where I can explore my ideas than somewhere where I put up well-structured articles. Hope you weren't too bamboozled by my being all over the place!

26 March 2008

Immersed in editing

Writer at work -- it's a hard life!

Here's a great recipe:

Take two writers, two partially finished manuscripts, four days, a holiday house on an island, and Easter -- throw them all together and what have you got? You've got a recipe for getting lots of work done. And feeling inspired.

Four days and lots of chocolate later and a serious amount of work has been done. Last time E and I went away together I was NaNoWriMoing (and working on book 2). This time I was doing an editing pass on book 1.

Normally, when I'm editing, I work from front to end. Simple really. Start at page 1, finish on the page that says "Ends". But this time I decided on a different approach. I have eight POV characters (I think) in my novel: four in each storyline, and one in each is quite minor. This time I chose the major storyline (about two thirds of the novel) and worked through the storyline one character at a time.

First was my major protagonist, who's story this really is. Working through his scenes was always going to be a joy, because, let's face it, I love spending time with him. And I did love it. (Though enjoyed the other characters almost as much.)

Things to think about for me in this pass were to add to characterisation, and make sure character motivation is always clear. When I was at Clarion I was told that motivation was one of my great strengths, but someone had recently said they thought it was lacking in my novel. Now this may or may not be true, but when I get a comment like that I always want to take it seriously and give it due consideration. After all, I want to put the strongest book I can in front of editors and, indeed, the world. So these two things have been my key -- oh, and cutting words. Not that the book is wordy. It isn't. But it's a big, sprawling story, and so involves a lot of words to get all that action across. But long novels cost more to produce so the risk is greater, and we're all about getting our mss into as publishable shape as possible, right?

The thing about looking at individual storylines is that it gives you a really great feel for whether the individual voices are working and whether they are what they're supposed to be: individual. Staying with just one storyline allows you to make sure the voice is consistent -- so, for example, the different characters speak with differing levels of formality, they notice different sorts of things, they have their own vocabularies and favourite sayings. Oh, this is such fun.

(Similarly, in an earlier draft I colour coded all my dialogue, by character, and that was equally insightful.)

Of course the trap is that you need to do this over a fairly short period of time to pick up any plot inconsistencies, because you're now not reading in a causal sequence anymore. It's also harder to evaluate pacing as a whole, because you're not looking at the whole novel. Still a worthwhile experience. I'll have to do at least one pass this way on every multiple-person POV story I ever write. More on the weekend later.

12 March 2008

In the zone

Is there anything as wonderful as writing in the zone. You sit down to your computer -- you may or may not feel inspired, and you stare at the blank page, bring up the novel that you've been working on, read over the last few pages, make a few changes, fix a comma, take out that apostrophe in "it's" that shouldn't be there, add a bit more setting, and then suddenly your fingers are alive and trying to keep up with that zinging going on in your brain. You're in the zone. In your character's head. The ideas are coming thick and fast, and you're struggling to keep up. You go, go, go. And keep going. An hour later there are 1500 words on the page, and you know what? They're not too damned bad. You know, though, that in the morning, when the heat has passed, you may look back on them and think they're crap. There's a high probability that this may happen. You expect it. But you know what else? You get up in the morning and look at those words and think, hey, they're not too damned bad!

Inspiration's like that. It can hit at any time. And when it hits writing is magical. At times like that you know that writing is the best thing in the whole world. That's not how you feel when a rejection comes in. Or when you realise you still haven't been paid for that award-winning story that was published twelve months ago, and that the reality is you're not going to be paid for it. Contract or not. Not unless you go and do some serious chasing.

Sometimes writing as a profession sucks! The endless waiting. The heart-dropping parcel on your doorstep. The no, thank yous -- great story, but we've recently accepted one just like it. Or the no, thank yous -- I just didn't fall in love with your story. How could they not, with a hero like yours?

But you plug away at it because you have to.

You plug away at it because you're driven.

You plug away at it because you've got no choice.

Sometimes it's the hardest profession in the world. You have a deadline, and no time. After all, you have a real job -- one that pays you money. You have to make work deadlines because they're your bread and butter. And you're not feeling inspired to write.

The gut-wrenching truth is that professional writers write whether they feel inspired or not. They sit on their chairs and sweat blood, trying to distill words from thin air. This is their alchemy. And they do it: that's the real magic of writing. They do it. Day after day after day.

Sometimes, lightning hits, frazzles the locks on their brains and unleashes their creativity. Not very often, but sometimes it does. Then they're in the zone. They take those days and they know that such days are gifts. The stories that come out of such writing are gifts.

Many newcomers to the craft are out searching for the great secret of how to write. Books tell them there are no secrets. Published writers tell them there are not secrets. No secrets, only words on the page, long hours of practise, practise, practise.

But there is one great secret. Shh, don't tell anyone, because I'm going to share it with you. The great secret is that professional writers look at the writing they've done and they can't tell whether they wrote it while in the zone or not. Those hardwon words are just as precious, just as polished, as those rarer ones that come as gifts.

It's something you need to remember when you're not feeling inspired. Something I need to remember too. Something we all do, because, really, lack of inspiration is no excuse not to write. You know it. I know it.

We just have to keep at it.

Deadlines are great. NaNoWriMo is great. Writing contracts are great.

This is your passion so take it seriously. Professionally. Back yourself in. And when those gifts arrive, celebrate them, for no doubt if you're plugging away daily, you've earnt those gifts, and they are rightfully yours.

11 March 2008

Chaotic year

Well, there has been a long silence from my end, I know. And it hasn't been from lack of desire -- just exhaustion and eye strain (I think). Normally, the school year gets underway, and I'm on top of things, especially in the early weeks before the assignments start rolling in. But this year -- this year has been so over-the-top nuts that I don't know whether I'm coming or going or even here in the moment!

I'm trying to sort out what is different:

(i) I've increased my work load from 0.4 to 0.6, which is always going to be a big thing as it's a 50% increase in hours. But it seems like about a 200% increase... On the other hand, it's not like I haven't had a similar teaching load in the past, because I used to be 0.4 in my current job, and teaching one subject off campus as a sessional for another institution. But this still feels like more.

(ii) I'm not teaching a small online unit I've taught the last few years -- this is a good thing as it tended to sop up all my office time, so this should have cut me a lot of slack.

(iii) I'm teaching a new subject so have spent an awful lot of time putting together a new reader. You know, we do get marking and preparation time, but it doesn't come anywhere near the time we spend doing marking and preparation. I'm not complaining, because for all the extra hours I put in, I still think this is a better job with better conditions than my old science job. For a start, I don't get called in at 3 a.m. for a couple of hours, and then be needed back at 9. And then I'm not working with carcinogenic, infectious, corrosive, acidic, smelly, explosive materials. I haven't set my workplace on fire. (Yes, did that in the lab once!) And I don't have the same levels of stress -- I well remember the day the immunohaematology teacher told us that in most subjects if we got 5 out of 10 we passed, but in that subject if we got 9 out of 10 we had just killed one person. And she wasn't joking. And I also remember all the histology teachers with their missing fingers. But that's another story. Suffice to say I now resent giving up whole weekends for marking, but I do like my job.

(iv) I'm teaching a new subject so have a lot more class prep to do. It's always hard teaching something new because you have to assimilate so much more knowledge. If you want to learn about something, teach it. Seriously. So that's a big drain on my time, but on the other hand it's a great learning experience, and I'm really enjoying that class. And it's a great complement to the other two classes I'm teaching. They're all so different.

(v) I'm writing materials for an online subject that another teacher is teaching, so the challenge is for me to stay comfortably ahead of the class. That's been both harder and more rewarding than I thought, so again it's sopping up lots of time -- time I could be writing -- but I am getting something out of it all.

(vi) I've just finished judging one literary competition and started shortlisting judging for another. These have also been big drains on my time. It's always an interesting process, judging, and so much harder than I expect it to be. How does one weigh up apples against oranges? I don't know. But it's also a great experience for any writer to go through to truly understand (yes, split infinitive, I know. Shocking, isn't it?) what the other end of the process looks like.

(vii) I'm tired. Every year I seem to be sleeping fewer hours, and this year I can't remember the last time I had a weekend, or even a full day off. Doesn't mean I'm always using my time effectively, or every day is jam packed with work, but then I am trying to maintain a house and a family outside of all of this. And read. And write. It's not an easy balance, and sometimes the things that go are my online presence. So I'm sorry to all the people I owe emails to!

Part of the problem is that I had a bit of January off, and actually had it off. Didn't do any work for work, but boy am I paying for it now. Anyway, it's all good -- the midsemester break is looming, I've just written next week's test, and am starting -- just starting to think I can see that light at the end of the tunnel. Let's hope it's not just a glowworm, leading me into deep, dark places!