24 July 2008

The value of communication

Awhile back, I had a short story published. Nothing so unusual in that. I agreed to the terms of the contract, which were fairly standard fare, and then I waited for my cheque to arrive. Only it never did. Then I hummed and hahed about what to do next because I hate chasing up money. So I emailed a friend who had had a story in the same collection, to see if she had been paid. Perhaps I had just been overlooked, right? Wrong. She hadn't been paid either. As far as she knew -- she was a bit woolly about this.

So, being a professional, I had to do something about this. I sent a polite query letter off via email (as all our business had been done electronically) but didn't get any response. Now, at the moment, I'm having a few email issues -- the day before yesterday I came home to over 40 messages, most of which were failed-to-send notifications, so there is some chance that this email was never received. So, I sent off another polite query. This one did get a response -- an apology to say that things were difficult, but that the editor was endeavouring to pay all the contributors.

Some months later there was still no payment, but a mass communication arrived, apologising to all the authors and assuring payment would be made. Some time passed. A lot of time. I began to write the story off, with a note to self not to send to that market again. This week another missive came, again apologising and begging our indulgence, with a promise of payment soon.

Others might rail at this communication, but I must say I was relieved. Relieved to know I hadn't been forgotten. Relieved to know that our contract was being honoured. Relieved to know that it wasn't only me.

As an editor of a small press magazine (one that only pays contributors only in copies), I know how hard it can be. I still remember all that catering we did to provide seeding money for the magazine in the first place. It sucks for the writers, but the reality is that small press publishing in Australia is done on a shoe-string budget because the market is so small. We do all our editorial work -- hours and hours of it -- for the love of it. So I'm prepared to wait. I know it's absolutely not a matter of the publisher sitting back rolling in all the money while his starving writers are hard at it in their garrets. The small-press publisher is starving too!

23 July 2008

Elizabeth George's THADs

Have you ever been accused of writing dialogue that is just "talking heads"? I must confess my earliest fiction was probably guilty of this a lot of the time -- something an agent told me once before declining my book (and telling me she thought it would be published!). I think she was the first person who had pointed this out -- that my characters were just like disembodied voices chatting away. Sometimes things like this come as a giant wake-up call, and we wonder how it is we never saw this before. Or how it is that we weren't aware of this type of problem. We all have our own types of problems. For one of my friends, it is plotting -- something that has always come naturally to me. But she is brilliant at description and characterisation!

But back to the talking heads: since then I've always been conscious of trying to avoid this scenario, though sometimes a scene does slip past me, which is why it is helpful to have readers going through a manuscript before it gets sent out. We're always blindest to our own errors. I can spot talking heads from a thousand km in a student's manuscript, but sometimes overlook it in my own.

How to address such problems? Research. There are several ways of doing this: talk to other writers and see what they do, read other writers and see what they do (i.e. read as a writer, paying attention to the craft), read books on writing. As a teacher, I read a lot of books on writing. But even before I was a teacher, I always read a lot of books on writing. I love reading books on writing. My friend, Sherryl, and I could start a very decent bookstore with our writing books -- if either of us could bear to part with them, which we can't. (I think being a teacher has just given me justification to buy more and more and more writing books without having to feel too guilty about it -- something my husband hates!)

Often, these books say similar things, but sometimes one comes at something in such a new way that it's almost an earth-shattering moment. Sometimes it's not so much that the insight is new as the way that it's put strikes a chord and gives me a real WOW moment. So it was with Elizabeth George's Write away: one novelist's approach to fiction and the  writing life and her discussion of what she calls THADs -- Talking Head Avoidance Devices.

A THAD is something you get your characters to do in a scene that would otherwise consist solely of dialogue. As well as fleshing out the scene, this can show character, be a metaphor or reveal information. She talks about knowing she has the right THAD when she feels a surge of excitement. I know what she means. I felt it last night.

Last night my students were doing an editing test. Usually, while they're doing a test, I have workshopping to do, but we hadn't yet started workshopping in my novel or poetry classes, and I had forgotten to bring in anything else to do, which is the first time I've done that in eight years! So, I was sitting wondering what I should do, when I started thinking of one scene that my reader had pointed out was talking heads. And as I contemplated a few different things I could do in the scene, I hit upon the perfect THAD. How did I know? That surge of excitement. I wanted to leap from my chair, get to my computer and get working! All around me, my students were sweating their test, and I was so infused with enthusiasm that I felt guilty for not having more empathy with them at that moment. I haven't tackled the scene yet -- am still thinking it through, but still think it feels exactly right for the scene!

Want to know more about THADs? You'll have to buy the book. (It's published by Hodder & Stoughton and is highly recommended! After all, every teacher has to love a book that has a chapter titled "The value of bum glue" -- and, trust me, every writer needs a book with a chapter with that title.) 

16 July 2008

Dennis's book launch

Dennis McIntosh launches his book at Readings, Carlton

Sherryl's already blogged about our mate Dennis McIntosh and his booklaunch the other day, so rather than rehash what she had to say (which you can read at the Books and Writing link), I thought I'd put up what I had to say. Dennis asked me to speak at the launch -- just for a few minutes. I was following another friend, Margaret Campbell, so sat down that morning to think about what I wanted to say. (I hate public speaking at the best of times, but teaching has made it a bit easier. But this isn't a post about that. That's for another post.) And so I wrote a speech.

And here it is. It's not what I said verbatim, because I didn't read it. (Mind you, it was very handy that I had it in my pocket, seeing as I went blank about halfway through. Not one of my better moments, but I just sallied on anyway.)

I first met Dennis in 1996 in Sherryl Clark’s TAFE poetry class. Dennis was the only male student with his own harem of girls, following him around, and I guess I was one of the harem. Being the only male might’ve daunted a lot of students, but not Dennis. He revelled in it.

One day he asked me to read something for him – a book he was writing for his daughter’s 21st – Nicole’s Story. I’d just started editing so he thought perhaps I could edit it for him. Even back then two things were immediately clear about Dennis and his writing: the first was that he had a story to tell, a big story and one he was passionate about, and the second was that he had a voice. Now, the non-writers among you won’t necessarily appreciate what a fantastic thing that is, but it’s something that can’t be taught, something that each writer has to find somewhere within themselves, and Dennis’s writing was oozing with it. But the other thing that struck me at the time was his lack of spelling, grammar and punctuation skills – I was left thinking, does this guy even know what a sentence is. And the answer, probably, was no.

Dennis has come a long way since then. Many of you probably know that he used to be a swimming coach and trained elite athletes. In writing, getting a book published is the gold medal at the Olympics. I think all that coaching probably taught Dennis a lot of what he needed to know – and maybe he already knew these things. He knows about persistence, perhaps the most important thing. He knows about wanting to improve, wanting to achieve a “Personal Best” – since our days as students together, he’s studied editing under me at TAFE – even repeated the subject, not because he needed to, because he did pass first time around, but because he thought he had more to learn. He’s gone through university, honours, a masters, finishing with first class honours. Along the way, at different points, he’s been told to give up, he’s not good enough. Many people would have hung up their goggles, but not Dennis. He just squares his shoulders and says, “I’ll show them”. And he has. He’s shown everyone. I’m sure he would’ve gone on and done his PhD and blitzed it, if he felt he still had something to prove, but clearly he doesn’t.

So, if you ask me am I surprised, given his early work, to be here at his book launch, I’d have to say no. I’m not surprised. Dennis always was determined, and that uniquely larrikin voice set him apart from everyone else. But I am proud, immensely proud, of all he’s achieved. I hope his book is a great success, and I’m really pleased to be here helping him celebrate his launch. Mate, you’ve done a great job, and I hope it’ll go on to be an award-winner and a bestseller! You deserve it.

I know I forgot to say the goggles bit, and did say a little more about his memoir: Beaten by a blow: a shearer's story, which for the record is a great read, with a really strong, unique voice. It's honest, brutal, evocative, gripping, often harrowing and uncomfortable -- a total immersion for the reader into the life of a shearer.

08 July 2008

Progress: my rant about technology

At the moment, I'm wrestling with my printer, trying to convince it to print out my novel. It's old. A laser printer -- 300 dpi, and it cost me $1100, an awful lot of money at the time, which tells something about how old it is. I'm guessing about 15 years, and it's served me well. Very well. I've never done any maintenance to it, never had any problems -- up till now. (Can't say the same about our inkjet we bought six months ago -- same brand, which is clogged and not working at all.) Now, the paper feeder on the old laser is worn, and every few pages the paper misfeeds, and I have to unjam the printer, ending up with two mangled pages, half a page of wasted toner, and then more and more and more misfeeds. It's enough to make a writer tear her hair out.

My solution would seem easy -- buy a new laser printer, except that I'm using my old computer and Windows 98. This computer's no longer on the internet, and I'm sure it won't have drivers for any new printer that I get, and they won't have drivers compatible with such an old dinosaur.

My problems don't end there. Most of the novel was written using WordPerfect. Can I tell you how much I love this program? Let me say two words: "reveal codes" -- the one thing that gives me so much more control than I seem to be able to get in Word. I love the way WordPerfect looks, I love the little arrows on the toolbar that let me zip backwards and forwards to find the same word, so I can quickly check that I haven't used it too often in too short a space. I love that there's a little window there all the time that acts as a thesaurus, and that I get about four times as many choices as Word's thesaurus ever gives me. And "reveal codes" -- have I mentioned that? Oh, yeah, I did, but it's worth mentioning again. When I'm laying out Poetrix, I can adjust letter space and word space if I need to, I can rotate text ninety degrees to get a shape poem on the page. Trying to do such things in Word would give my brain a meltdown. There would be much yelling in the house. And some swearing.

But, alas, WordPerfect is also starting to meltdown. Now, when I do a table and print it, it comes out in a lovely checkerboard pattern. Nice if that was what I wanted, but it inevitably is not. A waste of ink. And hard to read. Then WP took a disliking to my novel. Whenever it got to a certain page it crashed. In the end, I did what I had to and saved it as a Word file and began working on it in Word, which led to other sorts of problems. I'm using underlining for italics, as all good editors and most good writers do, and, as I've chosen to show my telepathic conversations with itals, I sometimes had successive paras beginning and ending with itals. And what did Word do? Very helpfully underlined all the indents. They were not underlined before. Grrrr. Don't get me started on Word...

Really, it's a sad day for all of us that WordPerfect is not a viable option anymore. I'm using Version 8 -- a beautiful program -- but XP on my laptop doesn't like it at all and now refuses to open it. And you can't get it for Macs at all anymore. If you subscribe to conspiracy theories, there's the suggestion that Bill Gates paid Corel a lot of money not to make a Mac-compatible version anymore. I hope that's false. Lack of competition is not good for anyone, least of all us monkeys at the bottom of the equation. In the past, Word and WordPerfect fed improvements to each other. Competition's good, right?

One of the other great things about WordPerfect (that Word could've learnt about) was compatibility. Ever since one of the really early versions, all the new and old versions have been able tol talk to each other. How neat is that? Just ask my version of Word what it thinks about the new docx format. That could be another rant altogether...

07 July 2008

Draft's finished

So this was my plan for the holidays:

2 weeks: working on novel and finishing draft (included going in to work one day for staff meeting)
1 week: stuff for classes
1 week: R&R -- movies, bowling, walking, reading, reading, reading

This is how it's panned out:

3 weeks + : working on novel (and reading one and a half books)
rest: doing the rest of the stuff, which I suspect means very little R&R. Never mind.

This editing pass has taken a lot longer than I expected. The rewrite started at 195 k approx, and finished at 185,663, which was my starting point for this editing pass. It's finished at 178,285. There's something nice about being in the 170s. It's still not quite as low as I'd like, but it's a big story, and I had a horrible thought that I was adding words rather than cutting!

And today it's finished, other than some minor adjustments (I hope) after I get it back from my readers. In the end I cut two-thirds of the words with general tightening -- things like getting rid of prep phrases, cutting repetitions etc. But there were four things I cut at the end that took out a couple of thousand between them:

(i) a scene from the POV from someone whom I'd taken out as a viewpoint character -- so how did this slip through? I think in the end, I'd decided to keep it because it was towards the end of the novel, and he is a viewpoint character in the second, and so it seemed like foreshadowing. The trouble with not using him was that the one viewpoint character in that scene was now dead, and so couldn't convey the scene. In the end though, there was nothing in the scene that was essential to the plot. Wholesale cut. Easy solution.

(ii) cut the guts out of another scene. This was a scene involving a telepathic conversation, where the main character reveals something she's about to do (at the beginning of the next book), which is going to have serious repercussions. I really liked this scene. It seemed like good foreshadowing of the trouble that was to come. The characters she's conversing with used several techniques to get her to change her mind, all to no avail. Heaps of conflict. Snappy dialogue. Fast paced. Working well. Only, when I looked at it again, I thought -- she wouldn't tell them. And she wouldn't. And that was that. It had to go. All of it. All those lovingly crafted words. Gone. A scene has to serve the story, and while the foreshadowing was good, the characters have to be true to themselves. Absolutely. One hundred per cent. And she wasn't being. Really, too, readers are going to get that the consequences for her are going to be dire. They're quite good at picking up the hints -- and we writers have to be good at leaving them room to work!

(iii) and (iv) two nice moments between two of my main characters -- the first from one's point of view, and then a reflection on what had happened from the other character's POV. Neither of these were huge -- a couple of paras each, but this whole idea contained within was no longer relevant after other changes I'd made to them and their relationships with one another. Or not at this point. I may rejig this to reflect something else and use it in the next book. I'm not sure at this point. I do like the idea of what went on, but it just wasn't necessary. Zap. Gone.

On the other hand, there was an earlier scene where I'd cut out a half-page incident between the two of them when I was doing the rewrite, and when I came across it again, I was really sad that I'd done this, so I put it back in the editing pass. Not wholly the way it was. I didn't dig out that earlier draft -- just captured the essence of the exchange in a quarter of the space. It's not essential to the plot, but is a nice character moment for them both, helps define the shifting dynamics of their relationship.

So, as much as I've not had the chance to have that R&R, I have a great sense of satisfaction at having completed this draft. It really is a great feeling!

03 July 2008

Making the changes

I'm a bit light on blogging at the moment because I'm fully immersed in my editing pass over my manuscript. The rewriting's finished, and I'm two-thirds (three-quarters?) through the edit, and I'm loving it. The process, that is.

Some days are better than others though. A few days I got to a scene that just wasn't working for me -- too passive, too much telling of things after the event. The fix wasn't too difficult. I moved the scene backwards in time so that I could show the events as they were unravelling. It's not an action scene, but it feels a lot more active now. Of course it meant I added about 400 words, at a time I'm desperate to cut words. That said, I've eliminated nearly 3000 at about the halfway point, so I'm on target. (Well, I would've liked to get rid of 10-15k, but realistically that was never going to happen because I'm also trying to add some characterisation and some non-plot related thinking.)

The day before yesterday, though, I came across a different kind of hurdle. Let me backtrack... When I started the edit pass, I had a brainwave about how to increase one of the main character's motivations so wrote a new scene that I banged in at the start of her story, and have been editing along the way to take this into account. It was all working beautifully until I got to the midway point and realised that I'd undermined one of the basic tenets that I'd based my alien culture's society on. Oh, dear. What to do? In the end such decisions can only be made when taking into account what will most benefit the story. And this time having the stronger motivation is a definite plus, so I've had to rethink that aspect of their society. It took me most of a day to sort that out, so I felt frustrated at the end of the day with how little progress I'd made, but the main thing was that I had made progress, and that I'd ironed out what could've been a problem further down the track. And in fact it still might -- but I'll be looking for it as I continue editing and will be able to fix it as I go. Bring it on!