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!

01 May 2008

Busy week

This week is a full on social week, and all to do with writing:

(i) Wednesday morning: launch of the Ada Cambridge exhibition at the VU library on the St Albans campus
(ii) Thursday night: dinner out with my Clarion South buddies -- or family as we are now -- where we will reminisce about that crazy six weeks where the temperature varied between 31 and 33 degrees every day and we had no air-con in our dorms, and we workshopped over half a million words, and most of us churned out a story a week and a collaborative story. I know I did. And kept a journal (50,000 words worth)
(iii) Friday: lunch out with Effy whom I taught Text and Culture, part of the Diploma of Liberal Arts, with. (All right, this is a teaching one more than a writing one.) Effy drove the subject, luckily, and I scrambled to keep ahead of the class, because I did not have a background in Arts. When they start teaching Haematology for Writers, I'll be right there!
(iv) Friday night: dinner out at a special performance as part of the Williamstown Lit Festival with Western Women Writers, Ellen from SuperNOVA, and Susanna from work.
(v) Saturday morning: attending the first session of the CBCA conference to see Shaun Tan's speech, and then to see Sherryl's new book Tracey Binns is trouble launched. With a character name like that, how could that not be close to my own heart.
(vi) Saturday: go to the Williamstown Literary Festival sessions and attend the prize-giving ceremony of the Ada Cambridge competition. Can't wait to see who wins! I've just found out that at least two of our students have been shortlisted, which is rather nice. Of course, when you're doing the shortlisting, you're looking at blind entries and have no idea who has entered, so it's always interesting later on to find out who the winners are, and whether any of them are even names that you've heard before.

And around all this I've been getting Poetrix ready to go to print, which means finishing typesetting and cobbling together bios (and then paring them back because they were too long), writing an editorial, having it ready for proofing by (last) Wednesday, proofing in writing group, now making the final corrections and then doing one more proofing pass. Should all be ready by tomorrow! Then I better get into my assignments.