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!