25 December 2009

Merry Christmas

After enjoying the Victorian State Singers as part of yesterday's "Carols by Candlelight" on Channel 9, we've been listening to their "Nine Lesson Carol Service" while unwrapping presents: a new King Arthur novel (never can get enough of those), and the soundtrack to Avatar -- some fantastic writing music. Lucky Cat Sparks isn't here -- I know I drove her mad with the Return of the King soundtrack while at Clarion, and I'll be the same with this one: playing it on loop while I write. Beautiful!

Anyway, here's the link in case anyone else wants to listen to some beautiful Christmas music. (VSS is a youth choir in Melbourne, led by Doug Heywood. They're centred in Williamstown (in Melbourne) and looking for new members, so if you're 30 or under, love singing and live in or around Melbourne, here's their website!)

20 December 2009

Avatar -- 3D

Mild spoiler alert . . .

Tonight, my kids and I went to see Avatar in 3D. As I walked out of the film, I heard a man lean across to his wife and say, "This is the best film I have ever seen." Princess Sleepyhead said to me, "That's a keeper", meaning it's one we have to buy the DVD for, and I said, "No, that's not a keeper, that's a let's-go-and-see-this-again film, as in right now." The film reminded me of the passion I used to feel for Star Wars (known these days as Star Wars: Episode 4: A New Hope or just A New Hope to some of the younger generation). I saw Star Wars more than thirty times in the cinemas, could hum the entire soundtrack in order and recite the whole movie. My friends thought I was a freak; my parents thought I was a freak. Well, not really, but it's in their interests not to believe that seeing as I had to inherit such freakiness from somebody. To me it was a passion -- and it's the same thing I get from my writing, or perhaps take to it.

I came out of Avatar tonight at 8.40, and the next session was at 9.00. I said to the kids, "Do you wanna see it again? We could go to the 9 o'clock session", and Princess Sleepyhead nodded yes, and grabbed my arm and said, "Really?", whereas Sir Talkalot tilted his head to the side and said, "Are you joking, because I can't tell whether you're joking or not?" I assured him I wasn't, and only then did he give me an enthusiastic endorsement.

Now, unfortunately for all of us, I didn't have a mobile to contact my husband and tell him what we were doing, so we went out in search of a public phone box. There were some inside the shopping centre we were at, but it was already shut. We found one nearby, but someone was in it. Can you believe it? We headed to the nearest large train station, and I was so busy spotting the two there that I didn't notice the traffic island in the middle of the car park and straddled it neatly with all four wheels, crunching the undercarriage of the car, much to my own horror and that of the bystanders. Whoops! No damage done to anything luckily, but by then I was too shaken up to do anything but drive home. The repeat will have to wait now until Tuesday as we have something on tomorrow, and I have a solstice party tomorrow night.

The 3D aspect was interesting, especially the breathtaking views of the planet and spaceships. OMG, was I in heaven, or what? But there were some scenes where the effect was ruined by the painted backdrop. These were only occasional though, but it did effect suspension of disbelief. Sometimes this is noticeable in 2D films, but the effect was more marked in 3D, but aside from that -- I *love* this movie. (My one other critique was I wanted a little more on Trudy's motivation to make her role completely believable for me, just a little more . . . And also Avatar # 3, whose name I don't remember, seemed to disappear for a lot of the film. I thought he hadn't made it to the Na'vi camp, but he was there at the end.)

So, what exactly do I love about it? The story, the world, the characters -- all of it. Also the soundtrack, the special effects. In many ways the Na'vi (alien race) remind me of my own Myrads, except my Myrads are neither as tall nor as elegant. (And there are no romances between my aliens and humans, nor are they capable of having sex -- they're too anatomically different. This isn't a criticism of the film -- after all the Na'vi are interacting with avatars that are anatomically the same as they are, not humans. Whether or not such unions could produce a viable offspring isn't addressed in the movie, so there's no stumbling block there in the science for me. Not that this is a big part of the movie anyway -- it's not.)

I completely bought into this film and was swept up by it and its splendor. James Cameron's wait for the technology to catch up with his vision so that he could do this film was worth it. I believed in the Na'vi in a way I could never believe in the Ewoks. To me the believability is all in the eyes of the character, and whether they can use their eyes to express emotion. The Na'vi could. Chewbacca could. The Ewoks had buttons for eyes. Go figure.

I have the website open as I'm writing this, listening to the soundtrack. I can tell already that I'll be buying it in the next day or so: it's good writing music -- my last four writing albums were the three Lord of the Rings soundtracks and Gladiator (oh, and also "More music from Gladiator"). This is similar and different, just what I'm looking for. Already some of the leitmotifs are embedding themselves in my brain.

Okay, so see the movie already. This one has shot up into my top ten favourite movies of all time, and that's saying something considering I've only seen it once!

01 December 2009



15......... 3193...........12870
25......... 2626...........31056

So, here's the summary of my NaNoWriMo stats, taken from my official NaNo stats on the site -- three big days at the end. This table isn't quite accurate (although two of the last three days are), because I was NaNoing on a computer that doesn't have internet access, which saves me being interrupted by the ping of emails landing in my inbox, a great distraction, particularly if the writing's not going so well. So, for example, the first three days I wrote every day. Most days I did something, though sometimes it was only a couple of hundred words. The stats are also out because sometimes I updated after midnight. I mean, really, when does a session end at midnight? I did have a couple of days where I wrote till I was so tired I didn't make sense anymore -- one time I realised my sentences were no longer coherent, and another they were individual coherent sentences but had no bearing on the sentences before or after them, so I had a sequence of sentences with not only no logical progression of thought but no one thought in common! At this point I left them and they were included in the day's count, but then deleted the following morning, so there were words I had to make up. (And, yes, the NaNo rules are you don't edit or delete, but I always do. I know I'm not alone in that. Horses for courses.)

So, the crazy month is over, and I'm left feeling excited and very much "in the zone". That's what I love about NaNoWriMo, sometimes I hate it, and it's hard, and I ask myself why am I doing this crazy thing to myself, but when I get to the end, I have something substantial to work on, and it's amazing to have done it and been part of it. But some days . . . some days, to use a cliche, it really is like getting blood out of stone. Some days the blank screen is god and it dictates there shall be no inspiration, but countering that is the NaNo dictation: thou shalt write regardless of whether thou feels inspired or no. And so I put my head down, bum down, and plough on, plough the most rugged of fields, hating every moment, every word that comes out mired in crap, hate it, hate it, hate it. Less often are the gifts: days when inspiration is there for the taking and the story flows. I could have wished for more of these, but it's good for all of us to know we don't have to wait for them. I always remember hearing John Marsden talk about the days when the writing was agony and the days when it was gold (not his words, but I can't remember exactly how he put it), and I asked if he could tell the difference in quality between the two, and he thought about it for a little while and then said that no there was no difference in quality. That was a particularly enlightening and liberating moment for me.

The whole NaNo thing -- the loving and the hating it is my relationship to writing really. Sometimes I love the first draft, but mostly I don't. Mostly it's hard work. For me, the pleasure is in the rewrites, the editing passes. The reimagining. The redescribing. The fleshing out and the cutting back. NaNo gives me something to wreak my pleasure on! To take my pleasure from. It's hard but exhilarating and hard and fun and hard and hateful -- look at all those zeroes -- and hard, most of all, but it does say something about the power of deadlines. At least my stats do. There were times when I thought I wasn't going to make it, but I remember last time I did it, two years ago, when I really had to pull some big numbers and thought that I could do it again if I had to. And I did have to. More often. But I did it, and never mind that my husband had to cook dinner every night and no cleaning got done. Writing got done, and that's the main thing.

27 May 2009

The unlikeable character

It's always hard having an unlikeable character as your protagonist. After all, you want your readers to keep reading, right? So if your character is unlikeable, you've got a harder task to keep your readers interested -- if they don't like the character, why should they care what happens to him or her? And if they don't care, what's going to compel them to read on?

There is more than one way to get around this. You can write brilliantly so that there's other things going on with the musicality of your prose, its sheer poetry, to keep readers interested (which won't work on all readers). You can make sure your character is at least well rounded (as all protagonists should be) and that there are enough good characteristics to keep readers on-side. You can start with the good and gradually reveal the bad. Or you can trick your reader and suddenly reveal some abhorrent characteristic that totally puts the reader off.

Okay, I don't really recommend the last, but I've just had that experience as a reader, so clearly not all writers agree with me. Two thirds of the way into a book I've been reading, and the main character has done something that has left me so cold I'm not sure I want to continue. I liked this character. I empathised with him completely, but any empathy vanished with that one cruel act. It's something that was foreshadowed, so I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was led to a point where it seemed unavoidable and I was spared, so I relaxed and, then, when I wasn't expecting it: bang.

It's unusual for me to have such a strong reaction. But then this particular action was always going to be difficult for me to get over. Leaving it so late -- well, I feel manipulated. Two-thirds of the way in, I don't really want to abandon a story I was enjoying, but now I don't want to stay with this character at all. I suppose I will finish it -- my son asked me to read it because he wants to discuss it with me (and, no, it's not one of his school texts). He says it's one of his favourite books, and I mull over what's just happened and think, how can it be? But we're all different readers -- we all want something different, something we writers have to bear in mind.

18 May 2009

Currently reading

It used to be that I would only ever read one book at a time. I'd start one, and if it were any good, might have it finished in a day or two. And if it were not good, I'd pick it up and put it down, but would stay with it until I'd made a conscious decision (rarely) not to stay with it. This might mean that I would be stuck on one book for several weeks, perhaps longer. There are few books that I have abandoned, and it's usually because of a sludgy writing style -- think too many adjectives, too many adverbs -- rather than a lack of things happening. Sometimes it might be because I don't empathise with the characters, but most often it's to do with style and my own desire to take a blue pen and start paring these books back.

These days, however, I seem to have multiple books on the go. I might pick one up that someone has left somewhere and read a few pages. Next time I'm looking for something to read, it may be that book again or something I can more easily lay my hands on. We're constantly hearing talk of how our attention spans these days are shorter, that the TV age and computer age have made us almost illiterate for longer works. I don't really subscribe to this theory -- well, not in total, anyway -- I can easily believe we have shorter attention spans, but I still enjoy long books. Length is a bonus -- I get to stay with characters I love all that much longer. And yet here my own reading pattern has changed.

I'm currently reading a YA book, a biography, a genre novel, two literary novels and one classic. And I'm having no problems at all jumping from one to another. Interestingly enough, though, I still can only work on one writing project (happily) at a time. I've included "happily" as an aside because I am capable of doing more than one, but I love best just immersing myself in my work in progress, sinking through its layers. I wonder if that too will change with time.

10 May 2009

Chris Baty and NaNoWriMo

Last week we had Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, come in and speak to our students. As someone who entered (and won!) NaNoWriMo the year before last, I was keen to hear his insights.

NaNo was hard for me. I started well by going on a writing retreat to Phillip Island with my good friend Ellen for several days. Although Ellen wasn't doing NaNo, we both wrote furiously, and it was wonderful having time away from family and its constraints and interruptions, and emails. It made me realise just how distracting emails can be -- you're writing away and that ping sounds to tell you something has landed in your inbox, and you have to go see what it is in case it's something important. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Anyway, after a brilliant start, things dribbled off. I returned home to a series of crises (which seems to be an ongoing feature of my family life, but then I have teenagers...) and the writing dried up. But I was determined not to fail, and so, slowly, I picked up the writing again, but it was a bit sporadic. By the end of week two I was way behind schedule, but things weren't looking impossible. By the end of week three I was chasing about 20,000 words, till finally I had several days where I had to pump out in excess of 5,000 words. And I did it. It was daunting and scary and hard and fun, and it felt good to finally scramble those words and send them in for verification. And to see the confirmatory message that I'd won.

Chris Baty talked about tackling NaNo as a series of different weeks. He called weeks one and four the champagne weeks: week one, you're on fire and the words are pouring out, weeks two and three are the slogs, and by week four you're near the end and can see the finish line. Hmm. I'm not sure that quite describes my experience of week four, but I concede it's probably like this for most people who have paced themselves better than I did. I'm sure I couldn't see the finish line because of the burning of all that sweat from my forehead, dripping in my eyes. Never mind.

The great thing about guest speakers such as Chris is that they're usually so inspiring. Chris was no exception: filled with enthusiasm for a concept that's pretty exciting when you think about it. All around the world, all these novelists set aside a month where writing becomes their number one priority. And it did -- with 1660 words per day, every day (or 5000+ towards the end), there's not a lot of time left for frivolous socialising. NaNo is growing -- and I could see the infectiousness of that enthusiasm in our students. Few had heard of NaNo before, but most were keen to try it afterwards and were lamenting the fact that November was so far away.

Chris originally started NaNo with a group of friends, who would take their laptops to cafes and write together. I must say that, having been on several writing retreats where we've all sat around writing, I know that writing socially like this works really well for me. There's something about being there with others that keeps my bum glued to that seat. I can't sit and distract myself with a few games of Spider Solitaire because I'm stuck. I can't get up and wander around the house, pick up a book and start reading. I can't take my dogs for a walk or ring a friend or anything. There's me and the public conscience: I have to write. We all have to write.

The NaNo site was great too. I loved the word tracker and the fact that I could watch how my friends were progressing. There were great bulletin boards where I could go to discuss problems (plot problems, ideas, characterisation) if I had any -- but for me these proved to be a really interesting source of distraction, so I tended not to spend too much time there.

Last year I didn't attempt NaNo. I was still teaching in November (whereas the year before I had finished), and had too much marking to do. This year I'll be finished again (apart from late assignments), so will probably give it another go. The trick will be to get a more regular work pattern than last time. I must confess I haven't gone back and read what I've written, but will have to do that at some point. And after hearing Chris talk, I have to say that like my students I can't wait!

30 April 2009

Vale JG Ballard

Earlier this month (19 April, to be exact), something happened that escaped my notice -- JG Ballard died. I don't know how I missed this news -- probably busy with my head in a book -- but it's something I should've taken notice of. It was only this morning, reading Time magazine over breakfast, that I saw a tribute to Ballard by Bruce Sterling. Sterling writes: "...the orderliness of his personal life allowed him to create a surreal, visionary fiction that was often frankly pathological".

If you've read Crash, it's easy to agree with this. Ballard is, no doubt, best known for this and for Empire of the Sun. Although I own the latter, I must confess to not having read it yet. Or have I? The more I think about it, the more I think I have. In any case, I did enjoy the movie. On the other hand, I've definitely read Crash, a disturbing book, but haven't seen the film. But it was neither of these that spoke most loudly to me. It was one of his short stories: "Billennium". 

"Billennium" is set in an overpopulated future, where humankind has solved the problem of feeding its burgeoning population, so that the main problem now facing humanity is the lack of space. It is the story of a man who lives in a cupboard under a staircase (hmm, sound familiar? Ballard visited it first!), but who discovers a secret room, a large room, which he can have all to himself. Or can he? He gives up his cupboard and moves in, and the story goes somewhere unexpected but completely inevitable. It's one of those stories that left me thinking, and thinking. And a few days later, still thinking.

Ballard wasn't a discovery of my early science fiction years, but of my middle ones. In my early years I read mainly Asimov and Clarke and Hoyle. 

I loved Fred Hoyle's The black cloud as a teenager. Years later, I read it again and it felt dated -- not so much in the science but the way all the characters were always smoking, which annoyed the hell out of me. (I had this gripe about Nevil Shute's On the beach, too -- another book I otherwise loved.) I read some of Hoyle's other books, mostly co-written with his son Geoffrey, but these didn't grab me quite the same way -- though I do remember a wonderful scene where someone skated down through Jupiter's atmosphere... Going a bit hazy there.

In my early days, I was a purist who preferred Clarke to Asimov -- mainly because of Clarke's ideas. Rendezvous with Rama was one of my favourites, but I also particularly enjoyed Childhood's end. And then of course there was the esoteric film 2001, which intrigued me (and I enjoyed "The sentinel, which it was partly based on, and loved the idea of Michael Collins considering telling Houston he'd seen a big black rectangle on the farside of the moon -- if only he had!). You know, though -- I think I preferred the less intriguing, more traditional  2010, at least at the movies. I can't remember which book I preferred. I do remember going on to read 2061 and perhaps even 3001. Did I finish it? I can't remember. I do remember that I found the lack of characterisation difficult to deal with, and these last two signalled the end of my reading Clarke.

Asimov grew on me first with a robot -- R. Daneel Olivaw -- in The caves of steel and The naked sun, but then even more in the Foundation series. Until then, I think I had mainly read his short stories, and I never liked any short stories as much as novels -- mainly because I always bought them by accident, and then would do the work and just be getting into them when they would finish. I've since learned to appreciate the form. 

Then I made the discovery that the unsophisticated but fast-paced Lucky Starr books I'd read when I was younger were by Asimov too, writing under the pseudonym of Paul French. 

But the Foundation series -- initially, just three books -- really blew me away. What a concept! How amazing. And then R. Daneel turns up in the Foundation series, tying this series with the robot series. More, more, more. Give me more. Eventually, I think I read the whole Asimov canon, and was amazed at how he'd set all his novels in the same universe -- in his universe. It was so cool. Later, after he died, I tried to read some of the follow-ons to the Foundation series, written by other authors. Greg Benford's was just too dry to engage me. I almost wept with disappointment.

Strangely, both Clarke and Asimov had their own three rules, though Clarke's were more about writing (apart from no. three), and Asimov couldn't count because he cheated and snuck in a Zeroth Law, which seemed totally right and necessary when reading the later Foundation novels. I imagine most people would be more familiar with Asimov's laws of robotics, and I confess I'm more aware of Clarke's third law -- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic -- than his other two.

The purists may prefer Clarke to Asimov, and indeed I've heard many of them snigger about Asimov, but to me Asimov's writing had a warmth, a human interest that I just couldn't find to the same degree in Clarke's books. It was this factor that I found in abundance in fantasy, which was why I responded so well -- and indeed shifted my allegiances -- to this genre.

Bradbury, as I think I've posted about before, was my first induction, and I will be forever grateful to him for the two seminal stories that changed my life: "A sound of thunder" and "The scythe". But the discovery that they were by the same author was for the future -- at that time I read Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and liked it, but didn't feel the need to dip any further.

Then I entered my middle years -- which involved Ballard and Larry Niven through his wonderful story "Neutron star". I have these two in a book of ten SF stories everyone should read, but these were the two that resonated. (And I loved Asimov's footnote about how he said to Niven that he could have written "Neutron star" because he'd written a paper on the idea behind the story. And Niven had replied that he knew -- he'd read the paper and it gave him the idea for the story! Asimov said he was kicking himself.)

My later years gave me back the terrific Bradbury (with an 800+ page book of his short stories! Just heaven.). And with his more writerly Zen in the art of writing. A great book every writer should read. But in the meantime, I'd found fantasy.

So that leaves me with Ballard, who has just died. Such was his influence that a word was coined after him: Ballardian. It probably doesn't need explaining. Orwell is the only other author I can think of offhand (I am pretty tired) with his own adjective! Perhaps you'd like to remind me of the ones I missed.

20 April 2009

Movie and live show reviews

Well, I've been a bit remiss here and haven't posted for a while -- partly because my wrists are sore, and I'm trying to give them a break from so much typing, and partly because it's been school holidays, and I've been busy editing a book for a small press publisher, leaving my kids to take over this computer.

I have seen a number of movies in the last couple of weeks and one live show, so I thought it might be good to review them here, as much to sort out my own thoughts as a writer, which is how I always look at things now. It's been a spec fic bonanza for me, as three of the five films have been spec fic, and so, I guess, has the live show. Perhaps I'll start with that.

Wicked is the prequel to The wizard of Oz, and tells the story of how the Wicked Witch of the East and Glinda the Good met, and of course subverts all the well-established conventions of just who the good gal is. I loved this show: it's big, bright and boisterous, though I could've done without Glinda's whiny stage voice (part of her character, not the actress playing her -- I did love her one truly operatic moment, however). 

But I have to say I thought there was a little too much subversion -- it's rather like reading The mists of Avalon and comparing it to every other book on the Arthurian legend. Or seeing how Sara Douglass reworked her characters in her second trilogy of the Axis series. In the case of Wicked, I was happy to have things changed around -- and, after all, that adds to the story's freshness -- but I'd like more shading, more darkness in Elphaba's character. After all, she made a truly terrifying antagonist in The wizard of Oz, and I came away from Wicked finding it difficult to reconcile the two. Glinda's character was easier. 

But, for all of that, it's a satisfying story and entertaining. We bought the soundtrack afterwards, and my daughter seems to have it on a permanent loop! My favourite song is "For good", though I wonder if I'm biased because my daughter and one of her Victorian State Singer friends were singing this together for a performance that never eventuated. It's a beautiful song, heartfelt and moving. But my daughter seems to have settled on the more uplifting "Defying gravity". Well worth a listen, and worth seeing. (The soundtrack and the show, that is.)

The reader is a story of seduction and its consequences -- a young boy is seduced by an older woman who later abandons him, and then, at a Nazi war criminal trial, he learns more about her than he ever wished to know. 

I wish I had taken my kids to this film. After the movie, we could have sat down and had an in-depth discussion about morality and ethics, the type of discussion I love to have with them. On the other hand, the first half of the film is so steamy that I'm sure I would've been squirming in my seat had they been there: my son would have been leaning forward in his seat to make sure he never missed a second, and my daughter making gagging motions behind her hand. 

This is a deep and complex film: slow moving but compelling. Kate Winslet is a stupendous actress and at the top of her form here; she is mesmerising on screen, beautiful and ugly at the same time: a terrific performance. The reader is a movie I'm still thinking about -- on many levels -- and will be awhile yet. It's one I'll have to buy and watch with my kids later -- when they're older, perhaps, so I can have that discussion I so want to have. This is must-see cinema.

Race to Witch Mountain is an action film on steroids. It's go-go-go with barely a breather anywhere. The action starts right at the beginning and never lets up, which makes for breathless viewing. That's great if you like this kind of movie (and I do), but not so much if you want something deeper. This wasn't a film that left me thinking. Plot -- two aliens, being chased by the government, co-opt the help of a taxi driver in their endeavours to return to their crashed spaceship and escape. It's a fun film for kids and those who love an action movie. (And funnily enough, there was a reference to The wizard of Oz in this one.)

Inkheart is the story of a man who can read characters out of books (can I borrow him?), and the consequences. I must say that having seen the trailers for this film, I thought part of the story involved our real-life characters entering into the world of the book -- that there was some kind of portal that they crossed, but that wasn't the case at all. Rather, the characters who had come out of the book brought their own little world to life in the real world. While this made more logical sense, given the film's premise, I was disappointed as I wanted to see the real-life characters enter the world of the book, giving this world a larger canvas. Perhaps that's just my own thwarted desires as a writer coming to the fore. And I did spend part of the film wondering what would happen if I were able to meet my characters, but I've already explored such things in a short story I started once about where book characters go after a reader finishes reading them. 

Aside from my expectations, which is not the fault of the writers but whoever made the trailers (and this isn't nearly as bad as it is for the comedy film you go to see and realise you've seen every funny gag already in the trailer!), I found this film both fun and interesting. It was meatier than Race to Witch Mountain, but had enough action to satisfy those who like a fast pace. (And it too contained a Wizard of Oz reference -- they seem to be following me.) Well worth a watch.

Knowing is the story of a mathematician who "inherits" a piece of paper that has been buried in a time capsule for fifty years and that predicts accurately every disaster that has happened in the last fifty years, and a few more that are about to happen. The paper is written in code, so we track his unravelling of this code, his disbelief, his trying to convince others. This was a solid spec fic premise, so the writers had me from the beginning.

My son had auditioned unsuccessfully for a part in this film -- he was a bit too old anyway, and always has looked older than he is, which is not a benefit for a child actor -- so we felt we had a personal connection to the film. This was intensified when I was speaking to a friend who is friends with a girl who did get in (and she was very good!). And I have to love an apocalyptic image of the end of the world happening around the State Library of Victoria. Very reminiscent of On the beach. (I'm sure Ava Gardner would have found that appropriate! Or perhaps not. And isn't that disappointing to learn!) Anyway, I've digressed...

I loved this film. I always like Nicolas Cage, and it was funny seeing some American city with the West Gate Bridge in the background (another touchstone for me), and there was a great mixture of intrigue and darkness and action and fear. It ends with Biblical symbolism, which may colour the response of some viewers, but didn't bother me. This will be another I have to buy.

Duplicity is the story of two ex-spies (CIA and MI6) who get together to organise their own corporate sting. I have to say it's a very brave screenwriter who puts together a movie where nobody has any idea what's happening for the first third of the movie. And I mean no idea. I went in prepared to love this movie, but by the time I realised it was a puzzle I had to put together, I'd already lost interest. My son said this was the first film he'd ever considered walking out of. It wasn't quite that bad for me, but I felt all of its length (unusual for me), and, while it did end well, this wasn't enough of a save for me to ever (and I mean ever) want to watch this one again. 

After my summer of "Spooks", I was really disappointed not to be gripped by this. Once the pieces start to come together, it does become more interesting, but as I said it was way too late for me. The first fifteen minutes are meant to establish what type of movie it is, what it's going to be about, the characters, the tone and atmosphere. And I was just sitting there wondering where all this was leading and whether I'd missed something crucial. I hadn't come in late, had I? The first hint that something more was going on was a repeated scene -- the dialogue repeated but in a different location, which piqued my interest, but I still had no idea what the hell was going on. Some time after that, I did have an inkling, and had put the whole story together by the end, but it annoyed me to be in the dark for so long. Be warned. See this one at your own risk!

09 April 2009

Not settling for the first thing

The other day I was watching a film with my children, one none of us had seen before, and I said, "Oh, I know what's going to happen next. He's going to . . . and then . . ." And sure enough, he did.

My kids looked at me and asked how I knew that. And I said I just knew. "Actually, no, it's more than that," I said. "It's because that's how I would've written it."

I never used to be able to do that. Or only very occasionally. But the longer I've been writing, the more I have my prediction-meter turned on. At some point in the TV show, or movie or whatever, I'll just know.

Of course, I'm not always right, and the best films and shows are the ones that don't end up where I've predicted, that subvert my expectations and surprise me. I'm not talking the old-fashioned twist ending here, but an ending that grows out of the characters and the story.

The best writers don't settle for the predictable. They toss away the first idea that comes into their heads and explore other options. The best way to do this is with the "what if?" question. What if this happens? Plot out the likely chain of events. What if that happened? What about something else? Each time you ask that question, you'll move into more original territory. We shouldn't settle for the first idea, but nor should we for the second or third either. 

The further we push, the deeper we explore, the fresher and better our writing will be. If we're scriptwriters, we won't have audience members like me who've worked out the plot halfway through the movie. If we're novelists, we may still have people who flick to the end of the book (there's no getting away from them), but they'll see it doesn't end where they thought and so will still need to read on to see how we got there. But the best part of all is that we'll have something we know is ours and is good, something we can be proud of.

02 April 2009

Responding to criticism

The dynamics in class workshopping or in a writer's group's workshopping is always interesting to note. My number one rule of workshopping is that you (the writer) should only ever put up your best work. If you know it's not working, but it's as good as you can get it, then fine. But if you know there's a problem, and you know how to fix it, then you should fix it before you give it to anyone else to critique. 

If you know your punctuation has been sloppy, but your friends are ace at fixing it so you think you don't have to bother, then that's just disrespectful. Everyone's time is important. Aren't you busy? Do you have loads of time to write? Or do you squeeze your writing in around a hundred other things the way most of us do?

So, you might think you haven't got time to check the spelling of that difficult word -- and, hey, you know there is a verb "curb", and you've seen the noun "curb" in the latest book you just had sent out from the States, so it must be right, right? Not if you're living in Australia (or Britain for that matter). In Australian usage, the noun is "kerb". You mightn't have time, but if you don't do it, you're taking up your workshopping buddies' time. Some of them are going to have to look the word up. It might take you an hour to fix the punctuation, but if you have ten friends and they're all spending an hour on it, it's not very fair, is it? Trust me: their time is just as important to them as yours is to you. And, if they're not busy looking at all the stuff you know how to fix, they might just have the time to see something more in your story that they otherwise might have missed -- the forest for the trees, and all that sort of stuff!

But what about when you're in the workshop. In the typical Clarion workshop (and many other serious workshops), the person being workshopped is not allowed to speak until everyone has said their piece. There's a good reason for this. There's nothing worse than someone who argues with every point that you make. (Yes, you've swapped hats now.) If people don't want criticism, they shouldn't put up their stories for workshopping. They shouldn't feel compelled to defend every word their written. After all, it's been put up because they want feedback on how to improve it, right? Not because they want their egos stroked. Well, that's the theory. The trouble is that some people do put up their stories so they can be told how brilliant they are.

I remember spending a lot of time workshopping a story that I thought needed a lot of work, and then the author very smugly telling me and the rest of the group that the story was already published. What a waste of my time. Not just disrespectful but rude as well. Did that mean we all didn't know what we were talking about? Not at all. I'm sure we've all read published stories we thought could have been better. Perhaps the writer (who was new to our group) had no trust in our abilities as workshoppers, but from that point forward we had no trust in her as a serious writer who was making good use of our freely given time.

A good workshopper will give specific, rather than vague comments. So, not: "This sucked big time, and I hated it..." but something more along the lines of: "I thought your setting and characterisation were great, but your POV was all over the place, and all that head-hopping made me dizzy..." 

Good feedback will point you in the direction you need to go to get things working more effectively. Good feedback is constructive, not destructive -- with any negative comments justified and a balanced reporting of what works in the story as well. This is important, not just to help preserve the writer's faith in their story, but because someone else might have knocked the very thing that you loved, and the workshopper needs to know that you did love this aspect -- that it did work for some readers.

I'm currently going through reader comments on my novel, and trying to address a saggy middle. As I'm reading through the chapters, I keep seeing opportunities to expand, expand, expand. (Add more characterisation here, put a few more thoughts in there...) I'm working through, looking at scene purpose, commenting on how well I think the scene is working and how I can address any problems. I thought by now I'd be distant enough to be able to see these problems manifesting themselves, but I'm struggling. What should I do? Consider that I'm right and my reader is wrong? This could be the case -- it is always something you need to think about -- but sadly and happily for me, I don't think this is true. Why sadly and why happily? Sadly, because I know dealing with the problem is going to entail more work, and I'm going to have to keep wrestling with it, but happily because I also know the book will be stronger when I emerge out from under it. And really that's exactly why I asked my reader to read it.

25 March 2009

The scope of your novel and POV

The other day, my friend Ellen blogged about POV in the first chapter of her novel, and her horror when someone suggested she was writing in [third-person] omniscient when she thought she was writing in "intense third person" (or what I would call third-person intimate, or subjective or limited). And I've added the bit in the square brackets because there actually is also a first-person omniscient, but it's extremely rare as you would imagine.

I've read Ellen's opening chapters, and there's no way I would call them omniscient. For a start she has one person per scene, and she doesn't slip into anyone else's viewpoint, and writes firmly from inside her characters' heads.

K's justification of why Ellen's novel started in omniscient was to do with the characters thinking about their past in order to deliver backstory. K said that we don't often sit around thinking about our pasts in a coherent fashion, and she does have a point. But does that make the POV omniscient? I don't think so.

In an omniscient viewpoint, anything goes. The writer can move from head to head at will -- of course this should always be done for a reason, or the reader can end up dizzied or confused. But the reader *does* move heads throughout a scene. The author can jump in and give an insight that none of the characters know, for example: What none of the characters knew was that everything was about to change... 

Or the writer can jump forward into the future and point out something that would happen at a later date. The author can address the reader: Dear reader... This is called "authorial intrusion" and is a perfectly legitimate (if dated) device in an omniscient viewpoint, and one that I cannot stand! When I'm reading, I become the main character; I am in the story; I am experiencing it: all those terrible things happening to the main character -- well, they're happening to me. Authorial intrusion reminds me that I am not the main character, and in fact that I am the reader, and I'd better damn well stay on that side of the page! It completely interferes with my enjoyment of the story.

The other thing to say about all of this is that the way we represent thoughts on the page is not really how thoughts are in our head. I know sometimes mine are an almost incoherent jumble, as my thought-trains switch tracks, derail, get overtaken and stall. Thoughts on the page are a representation of what the character is thinking, and while K's representation may be closer to the truth, it's still a representation of how we think thoughts are -- just in the same way that dialogue is not the same as how we really speak -- it's more like how we think we speak.

Ellen saw what she'd done as a judgement error rather than POV error. I agree that it isn't a POV error. A POV error is when you slip into someone else's head when you shouldn't. Or when you move outside the perspective that you're writing in -- so if you are writing in an intimate viewpoint, where you are inside your character's head (as in third-person intimate, or first person), you can't say that your point-of-view character had a beatific smile on his face, because he can't see his own face. You could of course say that if he were looking in the mirror, but that's cheating. You can say he smiled. Or that he felt beatific -- even better, you can show it.

Ellen is writing a story with a big scope. She has parallel plots, so is tracking the journey of two main characters. If she were to use the type of very close POV that K favours, where thoughts are detailed and go on for paras, instead of a 120 k novel, she might end up with an extremely intimate account that spreads over 250 k and that is imminently unpublishable just because of its length. (Yes, publishers do occasionally publish books of this length, but rarely rarely rarely first time authors just because it's prohibitively expensive and the risk on a new author isn't worth it.)

The scope of our novels do, to a certain extent, dictate just how close our POV can be, as does whether a story is plot or character driven. If you're writing a literary short story where not much happens, you can afford to have pages and pages of thoughts -- in fact, stream of consciousness stories are exactly this. I can't say I particularly enjoy these, but it's horses for courses. Some people love them.

In the end, the labels we give things like POV don't really matter, but they are a way for us to check that what we does works, a way for us to understand why doing this particular thing (showing the beatific smile) doesn't work, and why we should change it.

22 March 2009

What we say and imply

Among my other reading, I'm currently reading a book on myths and legends, and the story I'm reading at the moment is called "Chimaera", though so far it's not really about the chimaera, but about Bellerophon and Pegasus, and his attempts to capture the winged horse. Now he has, and they're about to go fight the chimaera.

The story was going along nicely, when I came to a sentence that stated that they were flying so high that the earth looked to be about the same size as the moon. Now, I know this is a fanciful tale and doesn't involve anything scientific, but a comparison like that completely suspends disbelief for me. If it said they flew 10 or 20 km, even 100 km or 1,000 km (remembering Mt Everest is 8.85 km, and already the air there is thin enough to make breathing difficult), I could accept this. Sure, there would be no breathable air (a space shuttle flight often has an average altitude of 300 km), but having those numbers I wouldn't necessarily imagine them past the space shuttle's stalking ground. I'd just go, yep, okay, and move on. But even if I paused to think about the numbers, I'd still imagine them attached to the planet. (Mind you, this might be a sticking point for other members of society, particularly those more familiar with the numbers than I am.)

The moon is about a quarter of the earth's size (the mass is a lot less, but we're not concerned about that). So, for the earth to look a similar size to the moon, they'd need to be four times further from the earth than the moon is. (Admittedly, the story says "hardly bigger", but that is "hardly" an ameliorating condition.) For the size of the earth to be even four times the size of the moon, our adventurous couple would have to be the distance of the moon away! (Remember, it took the Apollo astronauts about eight minutes to leave the atmosphere, and three days to reach the moon.) Considering, Pegasus is doing this as a joy flight, he's one very fast winged horse! But we're actually talking four times further away. I don't think so.

Unfortunately, with a comparison like that, I am going to stop and think about it. Rip. I'm out of the story.

Funnily enough, I also had problems with the next sentence, which has a much more subtle problem for me. The next sentence talks about how they [Bellerophon and Pegasus] amazed people in far off lands, who thought that the pair "must have come down out of the sky". I immediately stopped and thought, but they did!

Although it doesn't say it, that sentence implies to me that they thought [mistakenly] that the pair had come from the sky. Maybe I'm reading more into this than other people would (and maybe you need to see the full context), but I had no doubt that that was what the writer was implying. If I'm wrong in the implication, then why would we need the sentence at all? Why state that the people thought they came from exactly where they did come from? What does that add to the story? In any case, it's another strike against the story, one as equally dangerous as suspension in disbelief, because like that one it shakes my faith in the writer.

As writers, we need to hold onto our reader's trust. We do this by setting up the rules of our story in the story opening (whether that's as simple as "this is the normal world, and the normal rules apply" -- done without our necessarily giving any conscious thought to what we are doing). We do this by then not violating those rules. So we can have a winged horse and strange creatures, but unless they have SRBs (sorry, Solid Rocket Boosters -- I love those NASA acronyms!) attached to their underbellies, chances are they're not going to go skipping from planet to planet -- unless we've set up this possibility.

We also do this by writing to a professional standard, employing a professional standard of spelling, punctuation and grammar because all of these things give the reader faith in the writing, faith that the writer knows what they are doing, faith that the writer is in control. And if there is one thing the writer must have, it's control over their own work! (And while some might argue that the editor can fix all of this, you must first convince an editor that you are a professional writer, professional in your approach and intent, and you can hardly do that if you don't approach your work professionally, if you don't embrace the rules of your own trade.)

21 March 2009

Best laid plans

This week, I'm having the week from hell as far as time goes. I have two lots of marking to do -- something I try to avoid as far as I can. And indeed I'd staggered these assessment tasks so that one was coming in last week, but then Higher Ed called a strike and, because they'd be picketing the gates, I pushed back the assessment task a week. Now that's the shortened version of the story, but close enough for the purposes of this blog as to why it was moved. 

Fine, I was going to have a big week marking. No problems. I'd finished my Ada Cambridge shortlisting, and was waiting for a manuscript I'm supposed to be editing for a small press publisher. All I had to do was be focused, not waste a second, mark, and I ought to be able to write as well.

Tuesday, I worked all day -- got home at ten thirty pm, only to find out I had to go to a funeral on Wednesday. Normally, I'd have writing group, so some of this time wouldn't have been spent marking anyway, but it did mean driving over the other side of town (an hour each way). But I'm not complaining. I had to go. I wanted to go. Sometimes these things happen, and part of living a writer's life is living a life, and that involves commitments and family time and all of that. (And, anyway, I had spent the morning marking.)

Thursday, though, I spend the day in hospital, taking my son to a fracture clinic. This involved several lots of waiting, casts being taken off and put back on, Xrays, the works, and by the time I got home in the late afternoon, I felt flat. What I didn't know was I was getting sick.

So, I spent Friday laid up. No, that's not exactly true. I spent the first couple of hours ferrying around my son, but that's a long and irrelevant story. Suffice to say, by the time I got home I had a fever and was aching all over, so that was really it for the day. I rarely have sick days, so shouldn't complain -- but couldn't it have been another week?

So, today, I'm marking like mad. Tomorrow too. Monday is class prep, perhaps workshopping. Perhaps more marking?

Somewhere in the next two days I might also need to hop back over to the other side of town, as another family member is desperately ill. And I don't use that adverb lightly.

And I have to do some writing. I have to squeeze it in somewhere. I could put it back a few more days -- I haven't done any since Monday, so what's the difference? The difference is that I'll rise further and further out of our story. I've just blogged about my writing process on our student blog and talked about how important immersion is for me. What I don't want is to emerge from the story, and I will if I don't get back in, quick smart.

I still come back to hearing Robin Hobb speak at one of the SF conferences in Melbourne a few years ago, and she said that we would never have more time to write than we have now. It's a sobering thought, and a true one. Life is precious. And it's short. And as busy as Flinders Street Station. Whenever you have free time, you have a million things that want to fill it, that want to cram out every writing moment. At least I do. I listen with envy to people who say they are bored. How does anyone get time to be bored? I mean, really. Boredom -- what is that? A luxury, I say, to those who have computers and want to write.

16 March 2009

Missing brunch

Damn it! I missed our SuperNOVA brunch meeting this week. It was scheduled a week earlier than usual, for various reasons, and this suited me perfectly. On Tuesday I have assignments due for my novel class, and a test for my editing students, so I'm going to be busy marking next week. Plus I've just accepted a commission to edit a novel for a small press publisher, and it's on a rather short timeline. (I had thought I was going to be busy on it this weekend, but as things have turned out, I haven't received the manuscript yet. I do try not to take on editing jobs as editing time replaces writing time, but usually my jobs have been nonfiction, and fiction is where my heart lies, so I thought I should take this on. Plus it's good for me to keep my hand in. I like to do at least a job a year, and I didn't do one last year, so it was time.)

Instead of brunch, I spent the day sitting in a hospital waiting room with my son. He'd hurt his arm the previous Thursday, but hadn't been too fussed by it. It was nicely bandaged up, but I was getting suspicious by the fact that a few spots were tender, but most movement was okay, so I didn't think it was a sprain, but perhaps a fracture. Sure enough, a bone is broken, and he's now sporting a cast, and I'm feeling like a heel for not having it attended to earlier. But I suppose I walked around on a fractured pelvis for three days too, till I told my mum it was hurting badly enough to warrant a trip to the doctor's.)

Instead of talking writing with my SuperNOVA friends, I got to do some reading, some people watching and thinking about issues (mainly to do with hospitals, funnily enough). Perhaps it was important to my son that I gave up my brunch (which he knows I value) for him. Too often he makes the accusation that I put my work (whether it's my teaching or my writing) before him. This time he was first. It's often a matter of priorities. If I have to have student papers marked, I have to have them done, and I'll stay home to do them rather than attend the family picnic. It's just the way I've been brought up to be: my dad's working class work ethics: work hard and never take a day off sick unless you're nearly dying. But family is important too. We have to make time for them. 

When I was early on my journey of taking my writing seriously and with small children, some of my friends would tell me to always put my family first, that I'd never regret it. My impatience didn't allow me to always do this. But I've never put it so far in front that it sidelines my family either. Both are important to me. I don't always strike the right balance, but I try. That's all any of us can do, really.

15 March 2009

Currently reading

1. Poetrix submissions
2. Ada Cambridge entries (biographical writing) for shortlisting judging with my Novel 2 class
3. Student first chapters and synopses
4. Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk) -- within a few pages of the end
5. Life of Pi (Yann Martel) -- about 1/3 way in and stalled because I can't find the book
6. Love in the time of cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) -- about 1/4 way in and stalled because I can't find the book
7. The secret river (Kate Grenville) -- read this before, but am teaching it so am rereading it with my class. About 1/4 way through, currently.
8. The enchanted wood (Enid Blyton) -- it was around. I couldn't resist -- can never resist a book with Dick and Fanny as the main characters. (And of course that's far funnier in Australia than it is in the US.)
9. Emotional structure: creating the story beneath the plot: a guide for screenwriters (Peter Dunne). All right, I'm not a screenwriter and have no aspirations to be one -- I like my narrative too much -- but there are a lot of great books on how to write screenplays that have heaps of useful info for novel writers too.

And you have to love a book that has this on its opening page: ". . . you can only be a writer on the days you write. On the other days, the days you decide not to write, you will be something else. However, there is a caveat. On the days you decide to be a writer and you write, even if it's for only an hour, you get to be a writer for the other twenty-three hours, too. Pretty good, huh?"

I love it. Love the voice. Love what he's saying. I'm there. In for the long haul. Although, rather than read from beginning to end, I'll probably dip in and out, which I do with all my writing books. I'm constantly trawling through them. (And having done my tax the other day, I realised I'd spent over $700 on writing books in the last financial year. Eek! Husband is not happy. Admittedly, I did teach a new subject so was busy acquiring both textbooks and also compilations (of poetry) to draw on for my reader, especially given that Fair Trading means I'm quite restricted in how much I can use.)

What I'm looking forward to reading next:

World without end (Ken Follett). I bought myself this for my husband to give me for Christmas. I loved Pillars of the earth: so rich, so gripping, that I had to have the sequel.

The series beginning with Kushiel's dart (Jacqueline Carey), which comes to me highly recommended as fantasy that's completely different. I have perused it -- looks like it's going to be a -- er -- let's say racy read!

The Farseer Trilogy (Robin Hobb). Truth be told, I've dipped into this once before -- after I'd read the follow-up series The Liveship Traders, which I absolutely loved. I found I just didn't want to slip into first person -- and where were Althea and Brashen? -- but it was a cursory look that no doubt didn't do the series justice.

The time traveler's wife (Audrey Niffenegger), which was highly recommended by a student of mine. The concept sounds intriguing, and I've just been watching the rather funny "Lost in Austen" about a modern day girl who crosses through a time and I guess dimension (to do with the real and fictional worlds) portal into Pride and prejudice, so I'm ready for something in this vein.

I've always felt like I haven't read enough of the classics, but I've been focussing on addressing this a little over the last few years to the detriment of my genre reading. Now it's time to get back to some of the stuff that I love to read. (Though I've loved many of the classics too.)

04 March 2009

Casting my novel/Computer games

One thing I've sometimes talked about with my writing group friends is who we'd cast if we were in a position of casting the screenplays of our novels. For me, it's particularly important because I'm not visual. I don't carry an image in my head of what my characters look like; I carry the ideas of them, and so it is really important to see the embodiment of these ideas.

I know I've had this discussion with several groups of friends, and we get excited when we see an actor who fills the part. I first saw Arinka, the protagonist of my novel, when I was going to a poetry reading at Montsalvat. I don't know who he was -- he wasn't an actor -- he was just someone in the crowd, someone whose looks stopped me in my tracks because I thought: that's him. That's Arinka. 

Well, okay, obviously it wasn't him. But it was the right look. The right hair colour, the right eyes, the right shaped face, the build, a certain way of moving. 

In my one storyline, I have three characters I've always wanted to cast: Arinka, his sidekick, Millyon, and the thorn in his side, Lieselle.

Arinka has been through a series of actors since I first saw that unknown young man. First was Keanu Reeves, but then I spent too long writing and rewriting and he became too old. Then, for a while I thought about James Franco, more as he appeared in Tristan and Isolde than in Spiderman. But he was a bit too sulky in the film, and a bit too well built. Then I thought about Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian), but he was too good looking. Finally, I've settled on Tom Ward ("Silent witness"), and he's just got the best voice...

Millyon has been easier: Rupert Penry-Jones ("Spooks" and Persuasion), though he should have hazel eyes, not blue. No-one is ever quite perfect for their roles -- and how funny that I'm assembling a cast of BBC actors.

Lieselle. Hmm? Who? Jennifer Connelly is too old, but is the right sort of look.

Then the other day, I was watching You Tube videos of various songs my daughter wants to sing, including clips of "Don't cry for me Argentina", when I noticed a Karen Carpenter version. As most versions were sopranos, and she has a rich, dark voice, I thought it might be an interesting contrast. How strange then to find myself watching an anime film clip from a computer game called Final Fantasy VIII. How much stranger to find Lieselle there -- as the character of Rinoa. And, even, in a way Arinka in Rinoa's lover Squall. Well, Squall has the wrong eye colour and is too good looking, but the build's right -- the comparison to her is right. And funnily a photo of a real person, modelling a Squall outfit could be Arinka. I'll have to get the game! (Though it's disturbing that in this game is a dance sequence that could come out of my second book. Still, there's still a rewrite of that one coming up...)

Actually, buying the game could be disastrous. I do remember my addiction to The Sims, and how I made it much worse by buying an expansion pack (Living Large) that allowed me to build castles. Then I modelled my sims on my characters, and that was the worst thing, as all I wanted to do was play with them all day, and playing is not writing. 

I've had students who've told me they can't write because they're busy playing World of Warcraft. For days on end. Or friends who distract themselves with Solitaire. I do still play computer games, but more the Solitaire-type that aren't too addictive. I'll play them when I'm blocked, a game or two, no more, and then return to the white page. While I'm playing, I'm thinking. What I won't do is spend hours playing, days. Such distractions do not help me as a writer.

In the meantime, I now have printouts of my newest cast members -- something to look at, to inspire me -- and they will inspire me much more successfully than any computer game ever will. Computer games are stalling tactics, nothing more.

23 February 2009

Unexpected pleasures

Last Saturday, we had our SuperNOVA monthly novel group meeting. This group is largely the love child (can I say that?) of Ellen, who for years kept thinking she wanted something more or something different to our crit group. Now, the crit group is a really valuable thing in itself, but for me, who already belongs to another crit group and who is doing critiquing every week for students as part of my job, I just found that it was too much. I came to resent having to spend hours and hours on other people's work, and because I was working on a novel, I didn't really have anything I wanted critted, and so I'd stopped going. But I also fretted about the loss of contact with the others, who were one major part of my network of writers.

Ellen's idea was that the novel writers of the group could come together once a month (as the crit group does, but not on the same day, obviously) and talk about their novels and novel writing in general. We would meet for brunch, get inspired and all go home early in the afternoon to write lots. Ellen's vision has largely come about, except the bit about all going home early to write lots, and that's because we tend to hang around for most of the afternoon. Sometimes lots of writing-based discussion takes place and sometimes not so much -- largely because we're all friends now as well, but there's always some at least.

Some members attend both the crit group and the novel group, and others (like me) just attend the one, whichever best serves their interest. Mostly, but not always, the novel group tends to be women.

I tend to come and go a bit. Like another of our members, I have children I'm often ferrying around, so sometimes I have to come late or leave early or can't make it at all. But I hate missing it. It's become dynamic and fun and inspiring, everything Ellen thought it could be. Last Saturday was a particularly good meeting, very much writing focused.

And then as if it wasn't a great enough day, Ellen commented that she was going off on a writing retreat for three days and, to cut a long story short, two of us decided we could go for part of the time, and so I went off in late afternoon to pack for an impromptu writer's retreat (even if I did have to spend one day on class prep!). It all sounds too easy, but there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing while I checked that this was okay with my husband. Still, he's pretty cool about such things and let me go, so that was all fine.

The scary part for me was realising that most of the writing I did last year was while on retreats. I had realised how much my work commitments, and the increased time fraction I'd worked last year, were encroaching on my writing time and have cut back on work, so this is my year for my balance, to keep things chugging along. And when they are chugging along, I'm not spending a day of each retreat re-immersing myself in the world of the novel, but instead can hit the keyboard flying!

21 February 2009

The promise

In my last post, I touched on not meeting reader expectations, something I wanted to explore further because it's something that is really important. And really it's all about the promise we make to the reader in the beginning of our stories.

The opening of a story sets up the type of story we are writing. It sets up the genre: whether it's action, fantasy, crime, science fiction, romance, literary, mainstream, whatever. It does this on several levels if it's all working properly. It does this through how we start, whether it's with a description setting up the world of the novel, action, dialogue, characterisation, situation. It does this through word choice, the sound of the language, the tone of the piece, the voice. 

The story opening has to do several things: engage the reader (hook them in!), establish the story problem, introduce the main character/s. I know as a writer I often think about these things. Am I setting up the story problem well enough for the reader? After all, this is something that needs to keep them interested for the whole book. Will they know what the book is about by the end of chapter 1?

I don't really think about the promise I'm making to my reader -- because it seems so obvious. Imagine you are the reader: you've picked up this nifty looking murder mystery -- the front cover is dark with a slashing blade and splash of blood. You're ready to be thrilled. The first chapter has you hooked -- there's been a murder, a grisly murder in a lonely alleyway. It's the third in a series of brutal attacks. You want to find out what happens. Then in chapter two the main character, a female PI, meets the son of the murdered man, and fancies him like mad. All her hormones are raging. The next twenty-six chapters (if you get that far) detail her attempts, unsuccessful and successful, to drag him into bed. The sex scenes are raunchy, but there's so much angst. And, er, what happened to the murder? Oh, yes, it's now become a subplot. Your gripping crime is really a romance in disguise. You throw away the book, disgusted. (I'm not having a go at romance here: you'd be equally disgusted if you were snuggled up on your couch with the latest romance novel, only to find it was really a crime novel, far more dark and violent than anything you normally like to read.) 

Okay, if it's so obvious, then why am I banging on about it? Probably because it's not obvious to everyone. We all have things we don't need to think much about in our writing: for some it's their brilliant dialogue, for others it's their complex and fascinating plots, or bigger-than-life characters who leap off the page. And not all examples are as obvious as that one. Sometimes it's the formality of language, the type of diction, a particular POV. If you are going to start with first person and then jump to third after the first two pages, set these off and call them a prologue. Better still: ask yourself whether you really need to do that. Whether what you're trying to achieve offsets the likely discomfort or confusion your readers are going to experience. Usually, you're better off not being so "experimental".

If you've never thought about the promise, then it is worthwhile reading over what you're writing and thinking about it. Dig out your favourite novels and have a look at these. Could you tell what type of story they were going to be right from the beginning? My bet is you're going to answer yes.

19 February 2009

Launch of new short story collection

Sherryl and I have just been to the launch of Scribe's New Australian stories (ed. Aviva Tuffield), mainly because one of our past students, Demet Divaroven has a story in it. And isn't that a fantastic thing for a teacher: going to see your student successes!

Aviva spoke about the health of the short story, which is always a concern for short story writers. I have to admit that before I started writing seriously, I hardly ever read short stories. I've learnt, over time, to appreciate them -- and perhaps part of the problem for me, originally, was that most times when I'd encountered them it was in buying science fiction books that I thought were novels. I'd be all set, engrossed in a story, and then it would end. (Truth be told, many of these were probably novellas rather than short stories.) I'd always be so disappointed when they finished, and felt ripped off. I'd become emotionally engaged with these characters and was ready for the long haul, only there was none, and I do love the long haul! I thought I hated short stories. Really, I don't think I did -- what I hated was not having my expectations met. This is a concern for all writers, or should be. But that's for another post.

These days when I read short stories, my expectations are for a different type of experience. I love the short story form. Many believe they're easier to write than novels, but I don't think so. Shorter, yes. Don't take as long. But not easier. 

They're often talked about as the training ground for a novel, and they really can be this. This is not to say that all novelists write short stories. They don't. Nor do they need to. Nor is it any kind of slight against the short story or implying that the short story is, in any way, inferior. It's not. It's just that the short story form, because it is shorter, can teach you a lot about structuring fiction. In the time that you write one 80,000 word novel, you can write many short stories, learning how to get in and get out of the story, how to show rising tension, a whole host of factors. This gives you time to improve, experience. To get that same amount of experience in structure, you'd need to write several novels. Many novels. That's going to take longer. So the short story is like a short cut to gaining useful writing experience.

One thing Aviva spoke about, which I'd never really thought about, was how the publishing of short stories has changed. In the past, new writers often began with a short story collection and then graduated to novels, whereas these days most short story writers need a successful novel or, better, a few successful novels published before they can get a short story collection published. I knew both of these things, but somehow I'd never quite juxtaposed the ideas and thought about that change. (And of course there are exceptions to this, particularly with small press publishers, but there are also publishing houses that never seem to touch the short story.)

These days, we're more likely to read our short stories in literary (or genre) magazines. The mass market magazines do publish a few, but some will only take these through agents. But if we all do want to see more short stories published then we have to let the publishers know this in the one way they really care about: book sales.

15 February 2009

Heckling at The Bank

Yesterday, my friend Sherryl and I went to a poetry reading at The Bank restaurant in Yarraville, a few suburbs from where I live. The reading was part of the Yarraville Festival, which I didn't really know much about, but also part of our Rotunda nights -- a series of sessions we've (Professional Writing and Editing at Victoria University) had with well known writers, mostly at the Toniq Bar at our Footscray Park campus. We've had a great turnout both from students and from the general public, and the atmosphere at these nights has been buzzing. (And that's largely thanks to our fabulous organiser Bruno Lettieri, who is just a dynamo on legs!)

So, we're at The Bank, part of a large crowd, which is partly composed of genuine audience members and partly of the lunchtime dinner crowd. I wondered how they felt about the reading: happy to have had some extra entertainment, or pressured to stay silent. Hopefully, the first.

Anyway, all was going well -- we were onto our third reader when he just happened to mention that one of his poems was based on or inspired by one of Rumi's poems. He read the poem, and then two audience members arced up. One started by saying that it was nothing like a Rumi poem. But so what? The poet hadn't said it was his intention to copy Rumi's work or emulate him in any way, just that that had been his leaping-off point, his inspiration.

The poet was pretty good about it. He just smiled and said, "Thank you for your opinion."

But of course that wasn't the end of it. The second one got going, getting more and more vitriolic by the minute, and finishing up with: "That was a load of shit."

Again, the poet thanked her. Fortunately, her partner, perhaps embarrassed at how far the little exchange he'd initiated had gone, shut her up. But it left a sour taste in my mouth. Why do people have to act that way? It can be hard enough for most of us to stand out there on a limb, airing our most private thoughts and being judged, without this happening.

The day before the reading I had bumped into another friend of mine who is shortly to appear on a panel at a library with some other well-known writers. I know he hates public speaking. I told him just to be himself, and that I think a lot of times this nervousness arises out of our feeling that we have to be someone -- someone impressive -- rather than just ourselves. Why do we do this to ourselves? That kind of pressure is crippling.

Most people want to see us do well. They don't want to hear us stutter and fail; they want us to succeed. One of the poets yesterday made a few little slips and kept apologising, something I'm aware I do when I read. I know that I'm better off to just move on -- it disrupts the flow of the poem far less -- but apologising is instinctive. I do it without even thinking. So the trick for me is to keep my brain engaged (or at least hitched to this idea) without freaking myself out. I'm getting better at it -- it's like anything: it needs practice. Practice and dignity -- and that's what yesterday's reader had: plenty of dignity. Good for him!

12 February 2009

Black Saturday

Really, I've been divided about whether to blog about Black Saturday or not -- there has been so much media coverage that it feels like there is nothing left to say. And yet it is still a preoccupation I can't move away from, a tragedy I'm nursing inside. I have read more articles in the newspapers and on the web, have listened to more radio news and watched more television news this week than I have since the opening days of the Gulf War, which was streamed live to us nonstop for weeks. (I remember I was in Sydney for a three-day training camp on a new piece of lab equipment we'd just acquired -- the first time I'd ever been sent, and I just couldn't concentrate on training at the time.)

Black Saturday was a phenomenal day in every bad way imaginable: 46.4 degrees in Melbourne, 47.9 in Avalon, which is less than an hour from here, with gusting and searing north winds. We ran the evaporative cooler and kept braving outside to jump in the pool and then beat a hasty retreat inside. We couldn't stay in the pool: the wind was smashing grit into our faces and made staying there very unpleasant. But being wet and back inside with the evaporative cooling was almost comfortable.

Outside was like standing in front of an angry dragon: the air was scorching. I could almost smell the brimstone. So how those poor people who were trapped in it felt -- how those firefighters faced up to it . . . I've always been afraid of fire, of dying in fire, and to see this conflagration was the stuff of nightmare. Trite, I know, for what was truly tragic and unimaginable and horrific and awe-inspiring and awful and fearsome and a hundred other adjectives, a thousand other adjectives that describe hell itself.

I suppose I'm lucky in that I don't personally know anyone who has been affected --it's more of a three degrees of separation thing. The closest I've come is with the death of Brian Naylor, the Channel 9 newsreader. We grew up with Brian Naylor in our houses -- a generation who remembers what it was like when "Brian told me so". He was one I wept for, but there were many more. I could recount some of them, but they're not my stories to tell. Not often a writer feels like this.

Such tragedies bring out the best and the worst in us. I've been moved to tears several times, listening to stories of selflessness and courage. And to see Australia's (and some other countries') response/s also moves me. Then there's the other side: the looters, those who've stolen collection tins, and the firebugs themselves. Bad enough those who lit the fires in the first place, but after such carnage, such loss of life, how could people light more? How? I just don't understand, and I'm not sure I want to. Humanity has both its great side and its repellent.

In the meantime, we're left with smoke haze, the smell of burnt eucalypt, and spectacular sunsets. (Here's one I've added later, from 13 February. Reminds me of the Tim Winton novel That eye, the sky -- well, not so much the novel as the title. It is like a large baleful eye, looking down on us, on the disaster unfolding around us.)

06 February 2009

Words and white space

A couple of days ago, my daughter picked up the novel I'm currently reading and began leafing through it. She's just begun studying English Lit at school, which will challenge her because prior to this Christmas all of her reading was either Dr Who, Star Wars, the Twilight series or the Eragon series. Just before Christmas, she read Jane Austen's Persuasion, which she quite liked, and which gave me hope that she may be ready to expand her reading range.

So, anyway, she picked up the novel and read a couple of paras, and said, "Oh, this looks interesting. What's it like?"

I told her I liked it, but that it was a dense read.

"Dense?" she said. "What do you mean by dense?"

Indeed -- what did I mean by it? It's something that I recognise as soon as I see it, but it can be due to any combination of a number of things. Not much dialogue. Long sentences. Complex vocabulary. Complex ideas. Long paras. Long chapters. Not much white space. A slow turning of pages. (Not boring, just slow.) Lots of detail. Not much happening. Lots of words on the page.

Dense reads are often a slog, but a rewarding slog. I rarely begrudge the time I have spent on them. They feel profound, full of gravitas. I think of books like Cold mountain and remember the surprise that I felt (and that my teacher felt, I think) that no-one else in the class liked it. It was bleak. Very bleak. And dense. A book to wade through as you might wade through the mire of the battlefield, but one that you would come out of with your mind whirling -- a book that would leave you thinking for days after it. A book that you have Experienced. (Yes, with a capital E.)

Dense books are sometimes lyrical, sometimes not. They're rarely plot-driven -- and the pacing is so different from most genre novels, most popular novels, that perhaps it's no surprise that people struggle with them. We've become a world of ten-second grabbers -- we want everything now, and everything fast. Onto this, get through it (or don't) and then onto the next thing -- no time to luxuriate, to wallow in a dense book. And yet they have their appeal, for rarely are worlds so well realised as in dense books. I am there: immersed in sensory details -- the headiness of frangipani, the glide of fingers over marble, the iron-rich tang of blood on a tongue, the cold shawling my shoulders.

It's funny, then, that the psychological effect of white space is so strong. I can pick up a book, flick through the pages -- and if there's no white space, if there's only two or three paras on a double-paged spread, I'm likely to put it down again. I have to be in the right headspace for a dense read. Holidays are good -- not too much on my mind. Perhaps it has to do with knowing that the plot is unlikely to have me tearing through the book to find out what is going to happen. Dense reads do take me a lot longer (but then there are more words to get through, right?) than another book of similar length, and it's easy to walk away from them if you haven't been at them for a couple of days. Language, no matter how beautiful, isn't enough to hold me.

My own writing isn't dense. Sometimes I feel it should be more so -- things that aren't dense can feel shallow. On the other hand, editors have said it is well paced, and to flesh things out more is to compromise that fast pace. But isn't that partly the beauty of writing -- finding the balance for each individual project?

03 February 2009

Playing with cameras

One of the great beauties of an SLR (single-lens reflex) camera is the control over your shots. For years, I used a manual OM1, which I loved. Nothing was automated -- I controlled aperture, shutter speed, and hence depth of field. One day, thousands of photos after purchase, my old SLR packed it in. I had it repaired, but it came back with a part missing, and I tried to get it fixed again, but I ended up leaving the body at the store, because the bill to fix it was worth more than the camera -- which I wouldn't have minded had they been able to fix it properly, but they couldn't, so it was then only good for parts.

For a few years, I was cameraless, which was hard with young children. I'd borrow my mum's for a while, and then give it back. I did find that one of the beauties of not having a camera was that I got to live the moment, rather than trying to capture it. But one cannot live without camera forever -- especially one like me who has no visual memory. Photos *are* my visual memory.

So, I bought my first digital camera: a two megapixel instamatic, and found I loved the ability to just snap away. Later, I could decide what was worth keeping, rather than being frugal in what I was taking. Brilliant! Then that camera was stolen, and after waiting awhile I bought a five megapixel camera. A Canon. Now what I really loved about that camera was the ability to take 16:9 format photos. Sure, I can crop an image to this size, but I'd much rather do my work when composing the photo. I'd rather not play with the photos afterwards at all: get the colour temperature right, the horizon where I want it, the right depth of field and go.

Now, at last I have a digital SLR, and aren't I loving that? Back to my old stalwart, Olympus. A beautiful camera. My one regret is that I no longer have that 16:9 option, but I do have a panorama feature, which I'm starting to play with. Here's a small example: three photos knitted together. It's not perfect: you can see the joins, especially the left-hand one, but it's still better than I used to do with scissors and glue.

What I've learned that they only work in one direction -- shooting left to right. I completely bamboozled the software by shooting a few right-to-left. What a waste. I've also learnt not to use too short a focal length: that fish-eye effect is disconcerting when it makes the horizon look like a series of hillocks in a multiple-photo (eight) stitch.