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.