28 September 2008

Back to the novel

The best way to write is to write a little every day. There are a thousand excuses we can find not to do this, and I have times where I seem able to exercise them all. But the hard truth is the writing flows best when we are at it every day -- it is then that the juice oozes. The words come easier, and the ideas zing.

I would like to say I'm capable of writing every day, and that I manage to achieve this, but it would be a lie. I invest a lot of time into my students -- into workshopping their work, into preparing classes -- and this year, teaching a new class (always a big time consumer), and this semester doing double my workload is really taking its toll. It leaves me thinking that next year I have to cut back my hours: after all, I'm a writer, and I want to write.

James N. Frey talks about this in his book How to write damn good fiction. One of his chapters is on the seven deadly mistakes a writer can make, and one of these is leading the wrong lifestyle. He tells of the advice he gave a would-be writer whose husband was an obstacle between her and the writer's lifestyle, and that was to get a new husband! While I do think that extreme, we do, in the end, have to decide on our priorities: what it is we want to achieve and what we're prepared to pay for that. There are no right and wrong answers -- only answers that suit you and your circumstances. What if your job is interfering with your writing? It's up to you to decide what to do. I've known people who have been in a position of having to choose and who have gone with their job. Sometimes, they've admitted to a great sense of relief on having made that decision. That's all right. They might come back to writing one day, and they might not. The world has enough writers; what it needs -- what we all need -- is more readers.

Think about it. The writing life is a hard one. There is little financial gain for most of us. After all, how many hairdressers can make a living out of hairdressing in this country? How many writers? Even of the best writers in the country, most have to supplement their income. And we're already talking only of those in the top echelon who get published. Much easier to be a hairdresser. Or bank-teller. Or anything really. It's a life full of rejection (unless you're one of a very elite few like Isobelle Carmody, who has never had a rejection letter), a life of harsh criticism and pulling yourself together and getting your work out there again and again and again.

But we have to do it.

We are driven.

And those who do give it up often come back to it. Writing is the nectar that feeds us.

Those struggling to find time, do find ways of carving out a niche here or there. Or don't.

I know when I'm not writing, I feel angry and frustrated. I am filled with self-loathing at my own patheticness. But when I finally unstopper that testube, then the creative potion fizzes up, a flood of it. In the meantime, I keep it ticking in my head. I think about my characters; I play out scenes in my imagination -- even scenes I've already written. I flesh out backstories, and sometimes, sometimes, I get fired up enough to find the time I need to write.

19 September 2008

Reading and writing

Sometimes we get students who apply for our course who hardly ever read a book. They seem surprised that we expect them to read. I mean why would we? Being a writer who doesn't read is rather like being an architect who never looks at the buildings around you, who never browses the latest in the architectural magazines. If you were hiring an architect, wouldn't you want someone who was up with what was going on, who felt inspired by the amazing things that other architects were doing, who wasn't just peddling the same old, same old? I know I would.

Some writers use the excuse that they don't want to be influenced by what other people are doing -- as if they would have no control over what they were doing and might be impelled to copy ideas or plagiarise actual phrases or sentences. That's a rather naive attitude. Ideas sometimes seem to have a currency -- there's nothing worse than finishing a short story or a book, feeling that satisfaction, then picking up a new book for relaxation -- and there's your idea! What a gut-sinking moment. Only, you know they didn't copy it from you, because your version isn't even out there yet. And you didn't copy it from them, because you hadn't read this book before.

Still, if the book's been published, people might think you've copied whether you have or you haven't. So aren't you better off being aware what's out there so that you can make sure yours is different? How else are you going to become aware of the cliches of your genre?

Fine, so you should read widely in the genre you're writing in -- and I maintain you should write in a genre you know and love, not one that you don't respect but think is easier (is there such a thing?) or that is more likely to make you money. If you don't have absolute respect for the genre, it will show through in the writing. Fans will sense the disrespect and respond to it -- even if they can't put a name to it. But is reading widely in your genre enough?


You need to read widely to teach yourself how to write well, and if you are already writing well, to keep raising that bar. Different types of fiction will teach you different things. Want to know about suspense? Go read some crime. What about language use or characterisation? Look at lit fic. Plot? Try a thriller. Experimental fiction might help you take risks you'd never even thought about. Who knows where you might end up? But if you don't read, you won't ever know.

01 September 2008

My sessions at the Writers' Festival

I booked for five sessions, but because of a family crisis ended up missing one. Still, four isn't too bad.

The first of the sessions I attended was on creating worlds -- I was particularly looking forward to hearing Margo Lanagan speak, as I love her short stories, particularly the sublime "Singing my sister down". If there is one short story I wish I had written, that has to be it. This was a good session, except that a fair portion of the time was spent in writer readings, which I'm not a big fan of. I'd rather read the book myself, and have the extra time hearing the writers talk about their craft or their processes. I caught up with my friend Ellen, who I was meant to be spending the afternoon and attending an earlier session with but, regrettably, that was the session I missed.

The next weekend I had three sessions.

My second session was on love. Now, there was a separate session on the philosophy of love, so I was expecting this one to be on the craft of love scenes, but it wasn't. It had a philosophical bent and included the love of writing as a major component. I love how I go along to these sessions, and they're often different to what I'm expecting. Some (a few) disappoint, and some are unexpected gems. This was one of the latter. 

My third session was two writers (David Malouf and Michelle de Kretser) talking about the books they loved as kids: the books that inspired them. This also involved readings, but readings of passages from other authors that they loved, and I really enjoyed hearing them talk with such passion and enthusiasm. What I didn't enjoy as much was the introduction by the past editor of a highly esteemed literary magazine (which I won't name) who talked about the uselessness of writing courses. His take was they don't work, and he's in a position to tell because graduates of these courses used to send him stories, and most of these stories were unpublishable in his magazine. Okay, that predisposes that most of graduates want to write that kind of story. Most of our writers are not writing literary fiction, and really why would I encourage them to if it's not their passion? At book length, it's not as marketable as mainstream or genre fiction -- and, interestingly, in a conversation I was having with a book publisher last year, she told me how great it was that we had such strong stories coming out of our course. So, yes, publish in a lit mag with an erudite but low readership, or publish more widely to a less-educated audience? I have nothing against literary fiction -- I think there are some brilliant lit stories out there -- but I do believe that writers should write what they like reading -- I've had other writer friends who were doing courses receive low grades on genre fiction stories that ended up being published and winning awards. What a shame they weren't writing "literature" -- we have no such snobbery. This isn't to say that perhaps the said graduates hadn't done their research, but then there are always the people who send off something inappropriate anyway, but have it picked up because an editor wants to try something new. Go figure. Okay, rant over.

My fourth session was a reading. Let me fall over right now, because I never normally book in for readings, but this was a poetry reading, and I particularly wanted to hear one of the poets. I won't add details, but it's someone who's highly esteemed, and I don't get why. And, really, this didn't change my mind. I don't get it. All right, I don't get it. So, it was worthwhile going just for that... But I did enjoy the readings (most of them) anyway.

I must say the move to Fed Square has me looking forward to next year's festival!