22 April 2008

Sweet vengeance

I've had a few visits from friends of late who are in various stages of the publication process. One is a friend and past student whose first book (a memoir) is due out in a few months. His has been a long road, which began in TAFE and continued through academia. We started off as students together, became friends, and then I became his editor and I suppose in a way one of his mentors.

His has been an interesting path and one that should inspire any writer who is struggling, because he has had a lot of knockers along the way -- a lot of people who have told him he's not good enough, he's never going to make it, he should discontinue his studies because he wasn't a good enough writer. Lots of things along these lines. Each year, he seemed to take on another, another who said: drop out now. Fortunately, there have also been a few who have believed. Fortunately, because no matter how strong your fortitude, no matter how determined you are, it can be hard to go on in the face of such relentless criticism.

He's not one to fall easily though. He has spirit and guts, and when he gets knocked down, he gets up with an I'll-show-them attitude. And he has shown them. As I've said, his first book's coming out soon -- much sooner than the would-be manuscripts of some of his knockers. Sometimes vengeance is sweet.

So, there's a lesson in this for all of us. Many writers struggle with that self-confidence demon. A hard crit session can see egos pinned to the board like dead butterflies. But writers who will make it unpin themselves and rise again. They keep writing. Their confidence may swoop and dive, but this doesn't stop them. Writer's block may cripple them from time to time, but they get over it. They get over it because they're driven to write. That's what makes them writers.

18 April 2008

What is story?

While I was at work, beavering away at writing materials for one of our online subjects a few weeks ago, I got into a discussion with another teacher about the difference between plot and story. Both are interesting words because everyone seems to define them differently. Plot can be seen merely the sequence of events in a story, and so can story. EM Forster is often quoted as having said (or at least written in his Aspects of the novel) that "The kind died and then the queen died" is a story, but "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. Plot, according to him, involves a causal sequence. Sometimes it is just defined as the storyline, or the order that events happen in the story (which can of course differ to the order in which they unfold!). Plot unfolds in sequential order (in causal order), but isn't always presented that way. It's all very interesting, and I could spend days (if I had them) researching the differences, but as a writer I feel that it's more important that I spend this time actually writing! It's so easy to get sidetracked into interesting, but essentially meaningless (in terms of how it will improve my novel) research!

So what is the point of this blog post then? Only that I had a minor epiphany last week about short stories. Not so much an epiphany because I had already gathered in the knowledge and consolidated it, but last week was the first time I related it back to something that happened to me in my early days of writing. So what is this piece of knowledge -- I'm sounding mysterious, I know, and I'm not consciously trying to do so.

In my early days of writing, we had a guest writer come into one of our writing groups and do a workshop with us. I submitted a story I had written that I really liked and thought worked well, and braced myself for the criticism I knew would follow. What I didn't expect was at the end of the criticism, the writer said something along the lines of: "This is a nice piece of writing, but of course it's not a short story."


It had a beginning, middle and end. It had conflict and rising tension, a climax. And it was short. How could it not be a short story? The criticism itself was fairly positive and constructive, but that one little worm of a comment dug into my psyche. Unfortunately, I was too shy then to ask for clarification -- his throwaway words "of course" made me feel like I must be stupid if I didn't know that, and so I came away full of doubt. And for the next year, I wrestled with that doubt and didn't write a thing, because I had decided that I didn't know what a story was. Of course I always get over such hiatuses -- what writer doesn't? And in the time I had been reading, and writing drabbles and things -- just no "formal" short stories.

So, the other day I was workshopping something in our writing group and said that I really liked it (which I did), but it wasn't a short story. Hang on a minute. I'd come full circle. So what did I mean?

What I want out of a short story is to see the main character changed by the events of the story, i.e. they have to grow. If the character isn't changed, then at least I want to come away with some new perspective, some new insight into the way the world works. In this particular story, the character came away with new insight, but it wasn't a new insight to me (and I didn't feel it would be for many people) and so, although the story was vividly written and evocative, it failed to satisfy me as a reader -- failed to satisfy my needs of what a short story should do. The character had new insight but hadn't grown because of it. It's almost like truncating a hero myth story before the character returns to the real world, so that we can see their growth. (Maybe Jane Campion should take heart, considering all the flack she copped for The piano where that is exactly what she did do! She showed the return, and from the return, we see the character's growth, in action.)

I'm not sure I quite have all the arguments sorted in my head yet to give an effective enough treatise (to the author) about why her short story wasn't a short story to me, but it's almost there, and then I'll have to do just that, because such comments need to be qualified, justified, so the author has something to work with and to learn from -- rather than just go into a fugue from. Workshopping is never meant to be a tool to sharpen writer's block, but to pierce and deflate it!

17 April 2008

Writers' group

Business as usual: talk, papers, cakes! (Which means publishing success.) No starving in our garrets here!

Well, I have been superbusy with work this week, one of the bane's of teaching a new subject (but also one of the joys!), and so I'm way behind on my blog again. And I have had so much to post about, but I wanted to do one about writing groups first. Honestly, writing groups can be the saver of sanity for many of us -- a chance to get together and talk books and writing (hmm, there's a blog title in that somewhere), and the whole publishing process with people who understand, truly understand, the passion, the drive. What better way to spend a few hours than talking writing! We will workshop, talk about articles (on writing) we've read and any new insights we've gleaned. Something I love about writing is that no matter how much you already know, there's always so much more to learn! I love it! The day I think I know everything (which I hope will never come -- on several levels, I hope this) is the day I give up writing!

The cakes: celebration of Sherryl's CBC shortlisting (fingers crossed here!), and Margaret having poems accepted into two different magazines

We celebrate the triumphs, and commiserate over the failures. We toast the near-successes -- for example, when I was recently shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards. I didn't win, but just being shortlisted was a fantastic thing. And a success in itself. And (for any members of Western Women), yes, er, I do realise that I haven't brought a cake along for that yet! It's coming, I promise! We work on Poetrix, our poetry magazine -- and indeed did that last week and this week, where we finalised selections for the next issue. It's a rich and varied experience. In the old days, we used to do a writing exercise each week. Sometimes we still write, sometimes we plot out the group novel or read excerpts, sometimes we workshop, and sometimes we attend to our social calendars. In the next few weeks (including this week), our group has (or has had) a book launch, the launch of the Williamstown Literary Festival, lunch out, the launch of the Ada Cambridge exhibition, a literary dinner and performance, another book launch, the Williamstown Literary Festival. Lots of stuff happening. And it's great. Keeps us on our toes, and makes us feel part of a literary community.

The vagaries of publishing: a fantastic writer laments the size of her latest royalty statement

05 April 2008

In the shadow of the moon

Tonight, I went to see In the shadow of the moon, the documentary about the moon landings. I am a child of the space-age (just), and I remember as a child, leaving school with my class to watch the moon landing. I remember not quite understanding what we were going to see or understanding why, but, once the broadcast started, being entranced. At one point all the kids went off into another room to eat their lunches, and I just wanted to stay by the television. It could be, of course, a glorified and romantacised notion now of what really happened, but that's how I remember it. It had a huge impact on me, and no doubt seeded the future spec fic writer in me.

One of the astronauts in the film (was it Michael Collins?) talked about afterwards, visiting other countries, and the people talking about how we had done this -- we, as in all of humanity, something he'd never really experienced before. I got that. I felt it too -- this immense pride that we had been able to pull back impossible boundaries and do this marvellous thing. If we could go to the moon, we could achieve anything. We could rise above all the ugly aspects of our nature, the selfishness and pettiness and greed, and achieve greatness. Human beings might actually be worth something!

There are those who have always disputed the money spent on the space program -- that it could've been used to address poverty or pollution or something else, but you might as well argue that humankind doesn't need art. The space program is a powerful symbol of the peaks we can aspire to, an embodiment of hope. Or, if you want to take the bleak view, something we'd better perfect for when we completely stuff things up here.

And for me there was a writerly parallel in this film. Something I always find amazing is the chasm between the published writer and the unpublished in terms of their "authenticity" (for want of a better term). If my book were accepted tomorrow, then overnight I would go from being a small player in the scene to being a major player whose opinion was sort after and trusted, and I might not have learnt a damned thing extra in the inbetween time. This film, and The right stuff both touched on this too -- in quite different ways -- how the astronauts were suddenly catapulted to the position of national heroes, but they hadn't actually done a thing. How interesting to hear them talk about it from their perspective.

Would I recommend the film? Absolutely. Those who don't go gooey at the sight of a Saturn V (are there really people out there who don't?), who don't want to go to space camp -- or even better: space itself! -- who don't know who the Mercury 7 were, or the first Russian and American into space may not be as het-up about the whole film, but should find enough of interest anyway. Makes me want to go out and watch The right stuff all over again. Already the soundtrack is playing in my head...

04 April 2008

The other Boleyn girl (mild spoiler alert!)

The other day I went with a friend and my kids to see The other Boleyn girl. I always love a good period drama -- I'm a fantasy writer, after all, and a lot of times I feel fantasy is closer kin to historical fiction than it is to its bedfellow science fiction. And this film put me right there: forests, galloping horses, costumes, castles -- ah, fantasy writer's heaven. And the type of soundtrack I could write to. (But which my husband hates.)

Recently (as in some time in the last six months) the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) ran a miniseries about the Boleyns and Henry XIII, and it was interesting to see how the miniseries differed from the film. One account was it made much more of Mary's happiness in her initial marriage and reluctance to go to the king. This was touched on in the film, quite clearly, but still wasn't as big a deal. OTOH, the movie had a two-hour running time to the TV show's three and a half (or thereabouts). I remember despising her husband for his weakness, feeling much more of her desperation. I suppose he was still portrayed as weak -- his only reaction to the news seemed to be eyes brimming with tears, but his part was over so quickly that I barely noticed.

The incest issue was handled differently too. In one it happened; in the other it didn't. I won't say which is which for those who haven't seen the film. I did wonder though whether I really believed Natalie Portman the more beautiful of the two -- Scarlett Johansson has that exquisite almost ethereal beauty that I can imagine angels having. It's almost otherworldly. She was the girl with the pearl earring, after all! (I'm waiting for the film that pits Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley as sisters, as I think they look alike. And the one with David Tennant and Tom Ward as brothers!) And, of course, beauty *is* in the eye of the beholder, but even so... Anne did, however, have all the fire and temperament that Mary lacked, so that may have added to her attractiveness for some -- not that Mary was meant to be unattractive, but a point was made that Anne was the beautiful one.

My children came away wondering why Anne was, in their words, "such a bitch", so we had a good discussion about ambition and power, but this seemed almost mystifying to them. Ah, how jaded we become as adults.

Would I recommend this film? Yes, to anyone who loves a slower, beautifully shot film. For some it may be too slow, but I really enjoyed it. I just wish there were more films like it on these holidays... Just means I'll have to return to my books -- one that I'm reading is all about the kings and queens of Britain, and there are so many good stories between its covers. Plenty to inspire the fantasy writer within me!

01 April 2008

Writers supporting each other

One of the things I love about writing groups is the support that we give each other. Sometimes this is via critiques and workshopping where we give each other feedback. This can, at times, be uncomfortable, but a good critique group is worth its weight in book contracts. Good critique groups help us to grow as writers, and let's face it: that's what most of us want to do.

Sometimes this support means going along to things together -- whether that's a night when one of the group is getting an award (such as the group from Sydney did for the FAW Awards, which I blogged about earlier) or just doing something together as a group as a bonding experience. Western Women Writers has had trips to art galleries to write poems, or to support a past-member who is an artist and had an exhibition. We've conducted launches of our magazine Poetrix, done readings together and attended residential weekends, hired people to run workshops for us, baked cakes to raise seeding money for the magazine -- all kinds of things.

Sometimes this support means picking someone up when they're down. Writing is a hard game. Few of us go through it without facing some kind of rejection. There are exceptions, of course (Isobelle Carmody comes to mind), but for most of us there are those depressing days when a manuscript comes back with a no-thanks (and if we're lucky a comment), or when we find out we weren't selected for a masterclass or workshop or whatever. One of my close friends is facing down this experience at the moment, having missed out on a place in a development program with a manuscript I thought was working really well. It is disappointing, but somehow being surrounded by fellow writers who understand, truly understand, what this kind of disappointment feels like makes it easier. Not pleasant, certainly, but easier.

We need to support each other through such times. Manuscripts get rejected for all kinds of reasons: not good enough, not right for the market, the slot that was going has just been taken, another similar story has just been signed, too long, too short, didn't like the main character... The list is endless. Our friends can remind us of the great things that our manuscripts have going for them. My friend's was full of terrific writing with great characterisation and setting.

The other thing about supporting each other is being able to rejoice in the success of others. My great friend, Sherryl, today was shortlisted for the Children's Book Council Awards, and I cannot tell you how happy I am for her. This is a well-deserved honour, and it's fantastic to see her up there with all the big names, because she sits rightly among them! So woo-bloody-hoo, Sherryl! Let me put my happiness out here in the public sphere.

Sometimes I hear of writers who aren't capable of offering this kind of support. They begrudge their friends their successes, seeing each as an opportunity they missed. That kind of competitiveness (the oh-you've-just-been-accepted-by-such-and-such-mag-so-I-must-submit-there-too) diminishes us all as people. This is not a competition; one person's fantastic success can open doors for all other writers, so we need to be happy about such things, not bemoan them. I really don't understand people who think otherwise, especially when they're your friends.

At Western Women, we have a tradition that anyone who has a success has to bring cake. It's not a recipe conducive to skinny writers, but perhaps it has fostered this atmosphere of goodwill that pervades the group. Personally, I don't know if this is the case or not, but I do know I enjoy working in such a supportive atmosphere.