02 October 2010

Con report day 4: part 2

"Editing the novel" with Simon Spanton, Zoe Walton, Jean Johnson and Ginjer Buchanan.

Buchanan said that Jack [I'm thinking Dann, but it wasn't specified, or if so I didn't record it] once turned in an 800-page book, and she told him to cut it because it was 200 pages too long, which he did, but when he tells the story he says that she said there's no 800-page book that wouldn't be better as a 600-page book. She couldn't remember saying that, but it seemed she still agreed with it.

Spanton said he had one book he was editing that was too long and so he took two lines off every page and made further suggestions for cutting and returned it to the author, and the second draft came back 10,000 words longer than the first. [I'm glad I'm not the only writer who is capable of that!] He reminded us editors in the audience that he never has a better suggestion for fixing a problem than the author's -- that editors are not there to be creative alongside an author but to shift an author's creativity. I've never quite thought of it that way.

Johnson had a similar story of an author lengthening a book they were supposed to be cutting, whereas Walton said as a YA editor she was often looking for ways to make a book chunkier.

Buchanan talked about the other ways to finesse length: smaller typeface, adding lines to page lengths, running-in chapters etc. She has one author who always writes over but doesn't like rewriting, but rather than leaning on the author, she tells the agent that that's fine but the paperback will cost so much extra. The agent will then say they can't have that and will get the author to make the changes. Sneaky! But good.

Spanton talked about using big margins to make a book fatter. He said this can be advantageous because readers feel like they're getting through it more quickly, and therefore it must have flowed well and been a good read. [And I was sitting there thinking: and that may be so, but I always feel ripped off!] Buchanan added that editors aren't doing authors a favour in saying the book needs another 10,000 to 20,000 words if the story doesn't need it.

Spanton discussed how different parts of the market have different requirements -- he'd given a writer a brief for a book with economically drawn characters in a complex plot that really shifts, but some reviewers said not enough happened, there wasn't enough worldbuilding, so he let the writer fill out the later books, which didn't actually feel longer.

He also talked about there being no ideal book or style of writing and the need to wear different editing hats for different books in terms of what you're looking for. Buchanan commented on the advantages for continuity of having the same editor across a series, especially in terms of deciding what information needs to be imparted again: that not all readers will have read all books. [This is tricky, isn't it. It isn't something I've had to face as an editor, but I have had to face as a writer -- but I think there might be enough material in that for another post.]

Johnson said that as writers, you want five people to edit your books before you sent them out, and you should be specific about what you want them to look for.

There was some discussion about how people edit, and all do their editing onscreen, which surprised me. I have certainly done some of my editing wholly onscreen, sometimes using Track Changes, but when I did Cranium that was done in Filemaker Pro, and involved copying and pasting -- I was never allowed to touch the original text. I still prefer to edit on paper though, especially if I'm working on fiction. Johnson did add, however, that she edits short stories on paper, and that she does pick up more errors on paper than on screen. I second that. She also reminded everyone that editors need to read through for comprehension as well as errors. She has had authors who will just write "stet" against the whole manuscript, but the readership always complains.

Spanton, who is a structural editor, can't resist copyediting as he goes. Oh, I understand him completely! He uses a different method for each author: for some, all they need is a half-hour phone conversation; others need five to ten notes on every page. He does most of his editing at home because he doesn't have time at work. [Bit like all that workshopping and marking that we writing teachers do. But writers should take note of that -- imagine someone who puts in all this unpaid time trying to improve your manuscript: they've certainly earned the right to have every change considered. Not necessarily agreed with or accepted, but considered.]

He doesn't mind that he takes the extra time to copyedit, because it's hard to get good copyeditors and there's not enough time to spend on manuscripts anymore. [Or really enough money to pay someone to spend enough time to copyedit properly.] He said [and I like this] the copyeditor's job is to make the structural editor look stupid, and the proofreader's job is to make the copyeditor look stupid, but sometimes readers make them all look stupid. [Of course, I didn't like that end bit quite so much!]

Walton said she never wants authors to agree with all of her changes, but she hopes they will say we don't agree because ... and be able to suggest something else. Spanton also talked about how it is the author's work so although he may suggest strongly for changes it is the author's call, and everyone will live with the consequences. An unhappy author may hide resentment, but it if it's there it will come out.

Buchanan said that authors you've been working with for years need very little, and this gives you more time to work with other writers.

Johnson had three rules for writing:
(i) start your book
(ii) finish your book
(iii) know how much editing is enough and then let it go -- put it out there.

Another long report, so I'll leave it there for now.

30 September 2010

Con report: day 4: part 1

I took in five panels on my final day of the con, so here's the rundown.

"The series question: big books chopped up or small books glued together" with Ian Irvine, David Cornish, Kate Forsyth, Lara Morgan and Mif Farquharson (although, looking at my notes, I haven't written down anything she said so it may be she was very quiet, or perhaps she wasn't there. I can't remember now.).

Cornish said the most disconcerting thing for a writer is to have readers not just waiting for the next book to come out but the next book with a better plotline. Hmm, we hear a lot about second-book syndrome, but this would really put the pressure on! In a discussion about the problems with continuity over such a large work, he said he leaves questions at the end of all his ideas so he has room to change things. And he said he couldn't tell whether an idea was a short story or seventeen volumes until he'd written it.

Irvine said his first book went through twenty-two drafts over twelve years, which gave him time to tweak the plot. His research and worldbuilding were so extensive he even had charts of moon phases. He talked about how many viewpoints were reasonable to handle (few can handle six to eight well [note to self ...] -- that each time you add a viewpoint character you dilute the reader's investment in the other characters.

For Forsyth, continuity is part of the enjoyment. She charts the time of year against the main character groups, what they are doing and where they are. She also writes timelines for each character and wrote an encyclopaedia of several hundred pages for Eileanan -- each country had an entry of eight to ten pages. Wow! I thought I had quite good worldbuilding, but mine looks paltry next to that. She constantly updated hers and kept it open on her screen as she was writing so she could constantly switch back and forward. With Gypsy Crown, she made sure she'd written all six books before it was published because she found with her first series there were things she would have liked to have changed when writing the latter books, but she couldn't because the first books were already published.

She said that every book in a series needs a sense of completion, resolution or something achieved, and that this along with paying attention to the structure of each story would help avoid sagging middles or the weak second book. Each book is part of an overriding arc and each book must increase in tension and importance -- something it is easy for writers to forget this as they could get bogged down in the subplots and characters. She added that she likes to make subsequent books bigger and brighter as a reward for readers for returning. Isn't that a nice idea!

She said her imagination had an epic grandeur about it [I like that!], so she couldn't write small and didn't like short stories, but she always knows exactly who she's writing for. She also talked about being completely absorbed in what she's currently writing, dreaming about it, thinking about it all the time, and so her favourite book is always her current one. Before cons, she always does a brief refresher course on her past books so she can answer reader questions.

Morgan, in her trilogy, gave each book one big event to keep them all exciting. She killed off characters because she realised she had too many and although she cried while writing these scenes [or this scene?], she said the book was better for it.

In fact, that was such a long report, I might just leave it at that.

27 September 2010

Con report: day 3

Sometimes I feel like I live on a slightly different planet than anyone else -- it arises from that novelist's thing of spending too much time immersed in my own head. It hit home when I was a writing student in class years ago, when one student asked what a gantry was. Another student tried to explain it in terms of railways and railway lines, and I became frustrated with the explanation, which was taking too long, and said something along the lines of: "Oh, there's a far easier and more commonplace explanation than that: it's what an astronaut walks across to get into the spaceship." More commonplace? In my world, yeah, but maybe not in everyone else's. Clearly not judging by all the faces.

And so I was reminded again when I turned up at the double session workshop on "Write the fight right workshop" with Alan Baxter. I thought it would be sword-fighting. We're at a con, right? SF people. Fantasy people. It's got to be sword-fighting. Right? Wrong. It never even crossed my mind that it might be anything else, but when I got in there it was about boxing and brawling. Okay, I figured, that's relevant too -- and in fact a lot of what was said would be relevant to the sword-fight as well.

My least favourite part was when we had to get up and act things out -- but that doesn't mean it wasn't useful because it was. In fact, in retrospect, it probably should've been my favourite part. I learnt a lot in this workshop. An awful lot. [Note to self: go look over all fight scenes and rework!] Lots about techniques and the type of language to use when writing the fight scene (ie not the tech terms we were discussing). The main thing to remember is that no-one comes out of a fight unhurt. (Yep, I remember my father's story about hitting and flattening his brother, and when he went home his father demanding to know what he'd hit him with. And my dad showing off a very swollen hand.)

I liked that Baxter had prepared a handout for us -- handouts are always good -- and yet I still managed to take lots of notes. In between the acting out stuff. (There wasn't really too much of that.) Good movies to watch for realistic depiction of fighting: the Bourne movies. And, surprisingly, Bridget Jones's diary -- a great depiction of a fight where neither character knows what he's doing.

This was a fantastic workshop, and after that I should have had a break and some lunch, but I wanted to keep going. I did six panels in a row (counting this as two), but the rest of the day I felt tired and washed out, and everything else was an anticlimax.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Guest of Honour speech was next, which was interesting, but I wished it was more about writing. (Another friend later told me he wished it was more about mountaineering.) Robinson said the book he's most proud of is The years of rice and salt, which I have, so I'll have to read it now!

My next panel was an academic one: Laurie Ormond on "Studying fantasy fiction as genre: magic and violence and generic convention in Sara Douglass and Fiona McIntosh". Now, the first thing I noticed was that Fiona McIntosh was in the audience. I wondered whether the presenter realised this, and if she did the effect this had on her -- I imagine it would have really played on my nerves had I been her. It reminded me of that panel way back in Aussiecon 3 when J Michael Stracinzky destroyed two fans he was on a panel with because he totally disagreed with their views of his TV show ("Babylon 5"). It's something I never want to witness again. But this case was different: McIntosh was quiet and never drew attention to herself. Ormond made the point that fantasy fiction has taken up feminist concerns, but avoids showing characters exhibiting the disintegration of self. Okay, interesting. I wonder why not.

The second part of this panel was Narelle Campbell on "The sky and the cave: differing representations of the God and Goddess in Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry". Campbell talked about the long history of femme fatales dating back to Eve, Guinevere and La Belle Dame sans Merci. She mentioned how Kay's societies are definitely patriarchal, and that the imagery associated with the God (sky) and Goddess (cave) are very telling. She also said that Guy's females want to jump into bed with every man around, and that Kay says he hates books that give females broadswords because they're ahistorical, but that he's happy to ignore the lack of contraception . . .

Then I went to "Finding the right voice: accents and speech patterns" with Karen Miller, Jack Dann, Deborah Kalin and Kaaron Warren. Good examples to study: The road, Huck Finn, Kipling's short story "Gloriana", and Australian writer Andy McCrae's short stories. [Go, Andy!] Poor Andy looked suitably embarrassed at all the attention. Dann said conveying about one tenth of a dialect was about right. I've never heard anyone put a figure on it before. They talked about various things: techniques to tell whether it's working or not, eg having someone else read it aloud. I sometimes tell my students to do this, but it's particularly important in dialects because you can see where someone else stumbles over what you've written and more accurately judge whether it's awkward or not.

22 September 2010

Con report: day 2, part 2

My third session was Shaun Tan's Guest of Honour speech. I'd pretty much heard this before at a SCWBI session a few years earlier, but it was well worth hearing and seeing it a second time. One of the things I found most interesting was that an earlier version of The arrival had a small amount of text, in terms of letters being written home. But Tan discussed how when there's words we read too quickly, that we rush on to the next set of words. Isn't that an arresting thought? He wanted to slow down the reader's experience so he took the words out. I would've thought that was the opposite to what would happen, but that was my thinking on a superficial level. If I put myself in the reader's shoes, I can see he is right. (He also said that the letters would have been in English, and that would have been too culturally specific for the effect he was trying to create.)

My fourth panel for the day was more of a chill-out-and-enjoy rather than you'd-better-concentrate-because-you-might-learn-something panel: "Eowyn and Sam: unappreciated heroes in LotR" with Laurice Mann, Helen Lowe, Rose-Marie Lillian and Alison Croggon. This panel covered some interesting ground with thoughts such as Aragorn had been feminised in the film. [What?] That Faramir is the character the film let down, that what they lost was the possibility of pure honour that Faramir embodied. He had to be far more human in the movie, but in the book he was both. So there was speculation that this was because Aragorn was humanised more in the film, and they had to differentiate him from Faramir so Faramir also had to be humanised more.

An audience member posed the theory that had Eowyn been male, she may have been cast as a traitor as she abrogated her responsibilities of looking after the people, but the panel thought perhaps not because a) she was royal and b) she was successful. One decided that in the military she mightn't be branded traitor but probably would have beeb court-martialed. Another said the book does make a point of it being wrong, but another panelist disagreed and said it was a very English attitude that you should do what you're told rather than take action, which brought in the audience member again with the rejoinder "But she abandoned her post!". So, even this left me with something to think about.

My final session was a double session -- a workshop on map-making with Russell Kirkpatrick. This was the session in the whole con that I most wanted to go to, but I did go in feeling guilty that I wasn't at the Clarion get-together, which I also wanted to attend.

Kirkpatrick had us looking at maps in new ways -- starting off with why we shouldn't put borders on our maps. (They constrain people, whereas he wants them thinking about what's beyond the border.) We looked at cadastral, thematic and topographic maps.

He talked about fantasy maps needing to include things that aren't in the story -- about the need to suggest a bigger world. And about whether maps need to be accurate or not. About how things are deliberately left off maps.

He said one of the main reasons for fantasy writers doing maps was not so much for the publishers as for the writer to feel like their world is real. And his advice on drawing maps: don't draw the coastlines first. [What? That's always where I start!] He said it's too constraining. He said and showed us a lot more of course, and it made me wish I could go and study cartography at university, so I was very glad I'd done the panel, despite what I'd missed out on at the same time. Oh, if only there weren't so many compromises.

19 September 2010

Con report: day 2, part 1

First session I attended was "Keeping pace: maintaining momentum in fiction" with Peter Brett, Jay Lake, Howard Taylor and Carrie Vaughan. Taylor talked about how every character and setting has an arc. I always give my characters arcs, but I hadn't thought about settings and how they might be changing (well, beyond the obvious seasonal changes). But it hit home because my husband came home the other day after three days away, and one of the houses in our street was gone. I'd seen the bulldozers and cranes, but all he got to see was the vacant block, which rather startled him. Something more to think about. My characters go away on a journey, a quest, so what has changed when they return? I'll be certain to make sure some things have.

Taylor also talked about getting his readers to read and highlight places they think he has made a promise to the reader, and that sometimes they'll come up with something he thought was a throwaway line. I'd never thought about this -- but what he says is important, especially given that his readers had different ideas to him about what had been promised.

Taylor also talked about using chapter endings to control pacing -- that one friend has cliffhangers all the time to keep readers immersed, but another, who writes epic fantasy, designs his chapters so readers can come up for air.

And he talked about using POV to give further character penetration, for instance by comparing things to things in a character's past, but that this should still inform the story. It's like everything -- the more multifunctional it is the better.

I liked his analogy for remembering that we meet a character for just a small portion of their lives, that we have to remember they had a life before the story started and will have one after it ends: that a story is like looking through a keyhole at a character as he or she walks past. The character was doing something before and after they passed by, but we only got to see that brief fragment of time.

Vaughan talked about the list of questions she asks herself about her scenes. Many of them were ones I already thought about -- scene purpose, character goals etc. But one she asks that I hadn't thought about is what keeps readers invested in these characters? (So what keeps them turning the page?) Because, of course, readers must care about what happens to characters or the book won't move them, and we, as writers, need them to be moved. It's something I will take back to my scenes: I've set up reasons a reader should care, but what reinforces those? What will keep the reader caring?

She also talked about the counterintuitive effect of suspense -- that to increase suspense you slow down the pace, which you can do by layering in description. Ah yes -- just imagine how excruciating that can be for the reader who can't wait to find out what happens. Some may cheat, but that's their business; others will keep at it till the end. (And I've always loved Miss Snark's take on suspense, which was something along the lines of: want to know how suspense works? I'll tell you tomorrow.)

Lake talked about the difficulties associated with using multiple viewpoints, and then about how he got two characters into a difficult situation that he couldn't see a way out of, so he did it with a transition. Three days later, having fixed their insurmountable problem... (my words, not his). Wow, you wouldn't want to do that more than once in your career. It reminded me of a favourite author who did something similar and nearly lost my readership. He said that surprisingly he hadn't had one complaint about it, which surprised the other panelists.

Brett talked about how description can be a character, but that if two characters are sitting on a mountain enjoying a magnificent view and what's interesting is their dialogue then description of that view is just getting in the way of the story. Just so. I think those of us who love description can sometimes lose sight of that, and conversely those of us who eschew it can leave it out when it is crucial to the story. One of the best examples I've seen of setting being crucial to action is the accident at the beginning of Nicholas Evans's The horse whisperer.

Overall, a fantastic session -- one that I nearly didn't make, because I started in a different session and realised I'd completely misread the title. (And it was about the only panel in the program guide that didn't have a description.)

My next panel was "Foundlings and orphans" with Mur Lafferty, Sarah Parker, Delia Sherman, Gillian Polack and Mary Victoria.

One thing that came out of this panel was a discussion on the orphan state and how it is treated by many writers as a blank page when it shouldn't be. The prime example was how Harry Potter, given his upbringing, should have been a complete worm. This was not a criticism of the books per se (well, I suppose it was) but it was also put out there that they are amazing adventures, and I suppose would have been far less entertaining and completely different types of books had he not been the feisty character that he is. Although I hadn't thought of this before, I think it's true. One writer spoke about the subconscious effect of growing up without one of her parents and how this had coloured her fiction writing -- something someone else had pointed out to her.

Discussion revolved around how the central relationship -- the central romance -- in a children's story is with the family, and how kids with one or no parents feel adrift. The fantasists then use this to show kids that they too can go out and kill a dragon. This led to an appreciation of why the orphan story tends to be YA -- after this age, the protagonist isn't trying so hard to find out where they fit in to the world, and absence/presence of parents makes less of an impression. This led to a definition that a quest story is about finding out where you come from, and a non-quest story is about finding out who you are. The someone said that girl protagonists traditionally don't save the world -- that their problems are smaller-scaled and more domestic, but ultimately they end up saving their own world.

The final discussion rounded on a theory that cultural differences might explain the popularity of the orphan/foundling trope -- that Pokemon, which is of course hugely popular, is about a ten-year-old who goes out and fights monsters, but in Western society this wouldn't be allowed. Parents wouldn't let their children go and do this -- so it's a matter of how different cultures view the child alone.

Plenty to think about in this session too -- stuff that would make me approach this kind of story in quite a different way than I otherwise might have, which means it was worth every minute that I spent in there.

15 September 2010

Con report: day 1

The first session I attended was in the academic stream -- a talk by Gillian Polack on Writers and their history: how writers use and view the historical aspects of their settings. Polack is a historian, and I've attended her sessions at other cons, and they're always well informed and interesting, so I knew I had to see this one.

Polack talked about why fantasy and historical writers draw on the Middle Ages, and then the different ways that fantasy and historical writers approach and use history. Of course the fantasy writers felt more free to take liberties than the historical writers, but even the fantasists said they would move the time period of their novels if the historical credibility of their stories would be challenged. It's interesting because to me the setting comes first -- I have to imagine the world and how the people fit into it, so I'm not sure I could just move time periods, which is not to say that any of these writers have ever actually done that. They were responding to questions in an interview situation. Perhaps if you imagine the time period first, really imagine it, and come up with a world that is internally logical and cohesive, you won't have this problem. (And maybe this is my way of thinking because my novel isn't set in the past but in the future, in a medieval-type society, which is to say a pre-industrialised society, but so I am free to move away from historical accuracy as long as I don't stretch the reader's disbelief. So I have still had to go and do research, and I'm resigned to the fact that I can never do enough -- if I did I'd be forever researching and never writing.)

I was so caught up in all of this that I was wishing I had sat in on Polack's interviews so I could hear the whole story and ask questions myself. But the other major point that Polack made was that all the writers agreed that modern perspectives had to be taken into account -- that in the end readers need a good story, and that's more important than anything else.

This point was reinforced by Alice Davies who presented the second half of this session: The stories we tell ourselves: myth and history in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman: Thermidox. The fascinating thing I took out of this paper was the point that historians use pattern recognition when deciding which facts to include and which to exclude, which sources to listen to and which to ignore. Now, that's an interesting idea -- and I wondered if I could extrapolate this to work with the few of my students who struggle with the idea of which details to put in and which to omit in their own writing. Pattern recognition -- I suppose that if you go and read the classics, the books that you really admire for whatever reason (page turners, well written etc) and study them, read them as a writer, then you are employing exactly that. I do tell my students to do that, but I've never called it pattern recognition before . . . I think it's worth a try -- sometimes it's that slight change in phrasing that can be the difference between someone getting an idea or not.

The second session I went to was called "Steal the past, build the future: new histories for fantasy", with Kate Elliott, Amanda Pillar, Catherynne Valente and Jonathan Walker. The most interesting aspect of this session for me was thinking about how we view past cultures -- that we view them through modern-day filters, interpreting how people behaved, using our modern-day sensibilities. Is there any way around this? Is there any need? After all, our readers have these same sensibilities and, as someone pointed out, we mightn't understand the behaviour of past people at all. (Makes me think of Annie Proulx's short story "People in Hell just want a drink of water", which has one of the most arresting beginnings of all times. It's set in the early twentieth century and the actions of the woman in the story would stretch credibility today, but her motivations are clear and understandable. Yes, it's not quite the same point, but makes me think of it anyway!) The bottom line, again, is that the needs of the story are paramount.

The panelists talked about the telling detail -- something I often discuss with my students -- but the fascinating thing was hearing Valente's story about 1816, the year without a summer, what the telling detail was for her, and how another friend wrote about the same time period but omitted the one thing that Valente thought was crucial to the time period. Writers -- we're all different!

Walker said the telling detail must have imaginative as well as conceptual power, that it must attract us to it, which was something I hadn't thought of before.

Pillar, who was an archaeologist, spoke about how Ramases perpetuated the myth of what had been a giant stalemate as a victory, and she raised the question of how he could have done this when all of his army knew it wasn't a victory. Really makes you think about the differences between then and now -- in the days of CNN that could never happen. Or could it?

I was then going to a session on creating zoological lifeforms, but the previous session was so interesting we needed to go and discuss it, so that was the end of panelling for day one. (The con only ran for half a day.) Already, I was fired up, ready to go home and write, which is the great thing that happens when you attend these sessions. And why I'd really really recommend attending cons to anyone who's working in the spec fic area. And they're a great way of meeting new people and networking too!

09 September 2010

Worldcon report 1 overview

Well, Aussiecon 4 has been and gone, and though I only attended four of the five days (had to work the fifth), I'm left with nearly 110 pages of notes from the panels I attended, and more importantly a sense of fellowship with my fellow writers, a sense of belonging to a strong and vibrant writing community. Over the next few days or weeks (depending on how diligent I am), I'm going to try to summarise the sessions I went to. Not 110 pages worth, but the highlights, the lowlights (were there any?), my observations.

I didn't get to as many sessions as I marked. I never do. Things interfere at home, and I arrive later than I want. Happens every con. Or I get panel-exhaustion, and something that had seemed a must-see when I first sat with a highlighter and mapped out my con experience (or wish list) suddenly doesn't seem as enticing as spending time with friends over hot chocolate. Or should I call that networking? It's an essential part of the con experience. And in fact the only three sessions I didn't enjoy as much as others were three back-to-back sessions that were my fourth, fifth and sixth consecutive panels on one day. Sometimes that break is a freshener -- just the way a fast-paced novel needs occasional slower, reflective scenes so the reader can take a breather. In fact, I didn't go to one dud panel. Usually, at the smaller cons where there's not as much choice, I'll find that something I was really looking forward to isn't that great, and something else that I've gone along to without great expectations has been fantastic.

When you've been to lots of panels on writing, read lots of books on writing, attended lots of courses and masterclasses etc the way I have, you often hear the same things over and over, so if I go to a panel and get one really new insight or hear something couched in a way I never have before then I feel I'm doing well. But even if I don't, I'll usually enjoy myself because I love to hear other writers talk about their craft and what inspires them or troubles them or whatever.

And sometimes the really memorable panels aren't the ones on writing but the more atmospheric (in terms of my own novel) panels: some remarkable ones have been on sword fighting and weaponry, blacksmithing, medieval music, cartography and forced marches. Oh, and watching the final episode of "Babylon 5" on a big screen (just before it had been aired in Melbourne) after J Michael Straczynski spoke about it was amazing. This time it has again been mapping and one on writing fight scenes right.

What I missed this year was the night life. Where was that exactly? I didn't get to one room party. There just wasn't the same sense of where things were happening at night -- things were more spread out. I believe some things happened at Crown, though the only one over there I actually got to was the HarperCollins Voyager party, and that was half over when we arrived. I did get to the bar a few times and hung around with my SuperNOVA buddies, and I did get out to dinner with some of them and a couple of HarperCollins writers. Don't know what happened after the Hugos, as I didn't get to attend these, or the masquerade, or the nightmare ball. But, oh well. I had a blast, so I'm not complaining!

And the next thing will be finding out when the next con is -- local con as I don't have the funds for overseas travel, and am envious of my friends who are talking about attending the next World Fantasy con. The trick with cons is to book early because the price rises incrementally as the con date gets nearer and nearer. So, I must off and do some research!

02 September 2010

MFW and Aussiecon 4

Almost every year for the last ten or more years, I've been attending the Melbourne Writers' Festival. I love going to sessions and listening to what the writers have to say -- especially when it's about writing. (Can't say I'm as enthralled with all the political-type ones that seem to have been increasing in favour over the last few years.)

This year, the MWF overlaps with Aussiecon 4, the world science fiction convention. My first ever convention was Aussiecon 3, and it was there I first met one of my best friends, Ellen. We were both in a writing workshop together on the first day, and I spent much of the rest of the con with Ellen and her friend Simon. Since then, I've been to at least one convention every year -- all of these, bar one, have been in Melbourne. Since that first one I've built up a reasonably large network of people I know in the SF community, some through conventions, some through attending Clarion, some through attending the MSFC (Melbourne Science Fiction Club) albeit briefly, and some through my writing group SuperNOVA. But I still spend most of my con time with Ellen as we share a lot of common interests and are both keen panel-goers. But this will be the biggest con for us both since that first one, so it will be interesting to see how it differs. I do remember being surprised at my second con at how small the program seemed in comparison (understandable, of course), and how intimate it all seemed. Now I'll be experiencing that in reverse.

So, consequently, it doesn't look like I'm going to make it to the MWF this year, which is one of the great shames that they overlap (although the MWF is on the weekend before too). On the positive side, they have been able to share some guests. (The con date was booked years ago -- at the time I think the MWF started a week earlier than it currently does, so there would have been no overlap.) If life at the moment weren't so chaotic, I could've made both -- I'm sure some of my friends will -- but I'm saving my energies. I'll need them: five days (well, four for me because I have to work Monday) of wall-to-wall panels -- writers talking about writing. Lots on fantasy writing. It's SF writers heaven!

The two panels I'm most looking forward to are both workshops: one on mapmaking and one on writing fight scenes right. Stay tuned for the con reports!

01 September 2010

More on reading . . .

I've just finished Kirstyn McDermott's Madigan Mine, a deliciously dark and immersive read with great characters (not all of whom are likeable) and enough twists in the plot to keep me guessing. The book opens with Madigan's funeral and from page one I was hooked. The strong characterisation and intimate viewpoint make for a compelling read -- just watch out if you have other stuff you should be doing, because I couldn't put the book down. I'm not usually a reader of paranormal thrillers, but this book could turn me onto them. Highly recommended.

Since then I've started Hilary Mantel's Booker-prize winning novel Wolf Hall, a historical novel set in the time of Henry VIII and following the life of Thomas Cromwell. While it is well plotted and the setting is detailed and believable, there's one thing that Mantel keeps doing that is driving me nuts. The book is told in third-person, from Cromwell's POV, and sometimes she'll be mentioning another character and will go on and say "he" did something, and a few paras on, I'll realise it's not the character she was talking about before the "he", but Cromwell. Then I have to go back and reread the passage because the pronoun reference wasn't clear. I don't know about anyone else, but I think sentences and paragraphs should be instantly clear -- they shouldn't need to be read twice for the reader to know what is happening. Maybe I'm just reading the text too closely . . . Maybe, I should just chill out and run with it. I do have to say I am otherwise enjoying it, but this little -- well, it's not exactly a stylistic glitch -- problem keeps ripping me out of the story. Maybe she should have bolded the pronoun, and then perhaps I'd know . . .

09 August 2010

What you learn on trains . . .

I was travelling by train the other day -- something I don't do that often because I love driving -- when I heard two teenagers or early twenty-somethings talking about their university courses. As a TAFE teacher, my ears instantly pricked. I'm always interested in what's going on in the trenches -- even if they're not exactly our trenches.

So, one of the students was talking about having to do a compulsory online subject. Seeing as I teach (or, rather, moderate) online subjects sometimes and am involved in their design, my ears pricked further. This I wanted to hear.

The main thing I picked up was that the student thought his online subject was great because he was paying his sister $10 to do all his assignments for him. Hmm. Apart from the fact that she was charging far too little in my opinion, I was also struck that this was one of my great fears in online teaching. How can we verify that a student's work is their own -- how do we know they're even engaging with the content?

Well, we can tell that they've been online -- how long exactly, how many files they've looked at, how many sessions they've had, when the first and last time they logged in was -- all sorts of stuff. (And don't I love the student tracking device!) What we can't ascertain is that it's actually them on the other end of the computer. Maybe they should have their webcams on -- might make for some interesting viewing of those who like working at midnight in their PJs!

Ultimately, though, university (and TAFE) students are supposed to be doing a course because they want to do it -- places are competitive. Not everyone gets in. Of course, it would be naive to think that that means they all do want to be there -- some are there because of parental pressure and for all sorts of other reasons.

What I wanted to ask this student was whether he had thought about why he was doing this subject. Most probably he would have told me it was compulsory, and that he didn't particularly like it, and that's why he was paying his sister, in which case I would have asked him why he thought it was compulsory. Subjects usually are for a reason, and that reason has to do with skills -- essential skills.

As well as novel writing, I teach editing. Novel writing is not a compulsory subject, and generally I know my students enjoy it. Editing, which involves the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation -- before they get onto the more exciting stuff -- is what lies under good writing. I'm not saying all good writing has to be grammatical -- it doesn't -- but if someone's going to break the rules, they'd better understand them first. Many of my students don't enjoy the subject -- well, not at first, anyway. Some grind their teeth all through the year, whereas others learn to appreciate it, or even to love it. (I was one of those.) By the end of the year, even those who haven't particularly enjoyed it have learnt a grudging respect. They understand why they have had to do the subject. I've even had a few who haven't enjoyed it but who have sacrificed a Pass to do the subject again because they know they haven't yet quite mastered it. (After all, if you score 50%, realistically you know about half of what you should know.)

So those students who cheat, ultimately cheat themselves. They might think they've come out on top, they might feel they've outsmarted their teachers and the system, but the only person they've truly outsmarted is themselves. Kind of sad, really.

07 March 2010

Currently reading

Student first chapters and outlines -- a great way to get a feel for what my students are going to be working on this year, though sometimes one will change horses midway through, but that's okay.

Trouble is that most of them have been together for a year already and know each other's novels intimately, whereas this is the first time I've seen them. It's more work for me, of course, but well worth the time and is always interesting to see where they're coming from. I've also had them talking about their novels and filling out a questionnaire, so hopefully I'll have a good handle for where they're coming from.

One of the worries that someone will always have is what if what they're writing isn't my thing. I'm a genre fiction writer, which their first year teacher wasn't, so the genre writers are always happy to discover that. (And it's a great balance to have.) But even so, there can be that persistent niggle. And really it doesn't matter. There will always be books that aren't quite my thing, but it doesn't mean I can't look at them objectively to see whether they're working, how well executed they are. I'm more interested in the craft than whether something rings my particular bells.

One of my pet peeves in workshopping is the workshopper who says they can't comment on something because it's not their genre. What a cop out. I was in a workshop once where someone had written a magic realism story and every workshopper except me and the workshop leader used that line. It was hardly fair to the poor writer who had made detailed comments on everyone else's stories even though they weren't in the same genre as what she was writing. Anyone can comment on craft, and, really, one of the great pleasures of teaching writing is the variety of projects we get to work with, so students shouldn't worry about such things but should rejoice in the fact that they're writing something only they can write.

06 March 2010

Currently watching

Over the last few weeks, my husband and I have been watching a series of motivational talks on TED.com. We've watched all kinds of things, including a fascinating talk on statistics. Yeah, I know. Go figure.

The TED site has heaps of great content and is well worth a browse. A lot more than a browse, actually. This is a site you could lose yourself in for days if you have time!

Here's today's (for us) by James Cameron, good not just for the Avatar-mad lot (like me), but all those of us who are creative, artistic or imaginative in our endeavours. It's called James Cameron: Before Avatar . . . a curious boy.

I'm going to pin his parting quote near my computer, so I can look at it when I'm wrestling with my novel: "Failure is an option, but fear is not." Go listen to the talk for the context. It's well worth the seventeen minutes that it takes.

05 March 2010

Online teaching (and face-to-face)

The last two years I've taught a class online, but this year because I was dropping back from 0.5 to 0.4 to get more writing done, I decided to forego my online class. My other two face-to-face classes are two I've been teaching for a while, and still feel passionate about. I've enjoyed teaching online, but have found it seriously impinged on my desire to keep my blog going. I've also joined Facebook, but haven't really got in the swing of it yet, perhaps because my kids are always on, and we have to share the computer with internet access and so I never seem to get on.

Anyway, back to the point of this post: so, there I was dropping back my time fraction, but then found out that my contract was set at 0.5 until December, so decided to run with it. Only I decided to take on another face-to-face class, a repeat of one I'm already teaching, which would free up my home time to write, rather than to teach. But you know what? I'm missing the online class. It was fun. (Which is not to say the face-to-face classes aren't, because they are.) I suppose what I'm really missing is the Discussion Board, where I got to read what my fellow writers thought about all sorts of things writerly. We had some really in-depth discussions on the Discussion Board.

On the other hand, I've had some great discussions in my novel class this year already. But it's different reading it online. More people contribute. (Though I can't complain about that with this year's class: they're a talkative bunch, with lots of interesting stuff to share.) Online, people have time to think about what they want to say, to formulate a response. They often get to a deeper level of engagement, just because they can take the time to think about it. In class, they're on-the-spot more, which doesn't mean they can't come up with some terrific ideas, because they can.

Sometimes, when we teachers get together and think about how much unpaid work we do (and believe me, with all the workshopping and marking of assignments in teaching writing, there's a lot), and think about all the admin stuff that's driving us crazy, we forget just how lucky we are. Some of the class discussions, both online and in class, are energising. I come out thinking, wow, that was a great class, and I remember how I loved being a student.

The other great thing is that every year is different: every class is different. Each year has new challenges and new rewards, and these aren't always easily apparent, especially not at the beginning of the year. But they make the job interesting -- there's never a feeling of same-old, same-old, because it's never the same.

03 March 2010

Currently reading

Submissions for the Ada Cambridge Award. Great to see so many high quality stories. I reckon the authors are doing what they should: getting hold of previous anthologies and studying them, reading the judges reports, learning. It makes the whole judging process more enjoyable!

26 February 2010

Punctuation point: comma use in reasoning and consequences

In my last post, I had the following two sentences in succession:

(i) And this is where I grumble about droughts that necessitate four minute showers, because I used to do some of my best thinking in the shower.

(ii) These days epiphanies are fewer because I'm under the water a lot less.

When I'm reading over my blog posts (which, I'm rather ashamed to say I don't always do), I'm reading as an editor and thinking about my grammar and punctuation. So when I got to these two lines, I noticed that I had a comma before "because" in the first, and no comma before "because" in the second. A flag went up in my head because both sentences were similar, yet punctuated differently. Was this correct? Yes, it was.

Both sentences begin with a main clause (which expresses the main idea in the sentence) and are followed by a subordinate clause (which cannot stand alone). The first "because" is introducing a clause that explains a consequence of the action in the first clause. In the second, however, it's introducing a clause that shows the reasoning behind the first clause.

This difference is seen more readily when two main clauses are linked together with the word "so". Here's some examples:

Just before five pm, I went to the post office so I could pay my bills. (The reason why I went -- no comma.)
Just before five pm, I went to the post office, so I didn't get to the bank. (The consequence of my going to the post office; this one takes a comma.)

Here's another example:
Mrs Jones's dog has a muzzle so it can't bite. (Why it's wearing the muzzle, the reason she has muzzled it -- no comma.)
Mrs Jones's dog has a muzzle, so it can't bite. (Ah, now it's not why it's wearing the muzzle, but a consequence of its wearing the muzzle -- that comma changes the reading of the sentence.)

I know I'm anal about such things -- that's the editor in me -- but I have to say I love this kind of nuance I can give just by knowing the rules. Of course many readers won't get the fine distinction, but some will. I can't determine exactly how readers will read my writing, but I can make it as clear as possible so that those who can get it will.

25 February 2010

The recalcitrant scene

On and off for the past year or so, I've been wrestling with a difficult scene. It was one that initially caused me writer's block, but then I told myself to get over it -- that if I couldn't write that scene there were plenty more I could write. So I did those instead. But I kept coming back to this one.

At first, I thought it was that I didn't know what my character would do. That surprised me, because it's a character I know well. Eventually, I wrote the scene, but I wasn't happy with it. It didn't feel right, and I couldn't figure out why.

Then one day, in the shower, I had an epiphany. (And this is where I grumble about droughts that necessitate four minute showers, because I used to do some of my best thinking in the shower. These days epiphanies are fewer because I'm under the water a lot less.) The reason the scene wasn't working was that I had my character doing what the plot needed him to do, not what he would really do. I had forced his hand. In my head, where he ended up was where I'd envisaged him ending up right from the start. And the truth is -- he didn't want to go there. That's why I had so much trouble in the first place. It wasn't that I didn't know what he would do -- I did know, but it wasn't what I (or rather the plot) needed him to do.

Okay, easy enough. Scrap the second half of the scene and rewrite it. The more I looked at the scene, though, the more I liked what I had done, the emotional journey he'd gone on, the reasoning he'd used. So I put the scene aside again. I reread it. And reread it.

Then I thought that maybe I could just cut and paste some of the old scene and rewrite a new bit in the middle. I did this and now suspect I've ended up with a mishmash of what the scene had been and what it should be, but I have something I can work on now and refine. I'm excited. I love the refining process. I love writing! I'm going back to it right now.

21 February 2010

Book launch: Solace and grief

Yesterday, Foz Meadows, one of my SuperNOVA writers group, launched her first book Solace and grief. I'm a great believer that we all feed each other as writers, that we all grow from reading each other's work and from critiquing -- not just from the comments that other people make on our stories, but as much from the comments we make on theirs. However, we didn't have any input into this book -- it was written and perhaps even accepted before Foz joined SuperNOVA. (If not accepted, then this followed shortly after, but the book was certainly already with the publisher.) But none of that stopped us coming out in force to help Foz celebrate.

Finishing a draft is a huge thing, so is whipping the book into publishable shape (or finishing the redrafting process) and getting it out there, and having it accepted and published is the hugest of all. Each stage should be celebrated because each is a success. And we should take joy in the success of our peers. One writer whom I was in a workshop with once, both as unpublished novelists, signed a seven-figure deal awhile ago. I'm ecstatic for her. Such success helps all local writers -- it opens doors for all of us.

Every so often I hear of writers, often published and successful writers, who hear of somebody else's success and get their noses put out of joint because they see that as a success they've missed out on. There are many different readers and many different books to meet those differing tastes -- to hear of someone else's success and see it as a loss for you is not only likely misguided but a path to self-destruction. Such small-mindedness harms you.

It astounds me that people are so competitive in this sort of pursuit. You have control over what you do in terms of perseverance, you have control over how much reworking you do, how exacting you are, you have control over whether you research a publisher to make sure you're giving your book the best chance, but you have no control over whether that publisher will take on your work or not -- whether the editor who reads it falls in love with it enough to go out and bat for it. That's what you need -- and it's not easy to find, so rejoice when you find it, and rejoice too when your friends do.

Foz's launch was unusual in that it was the first book launch I've been to where the books weren't actually out yet. Don't get me wrong: they were there. I've been to launches where there were no books because they hadn't come back from the printers, and to launches where there was no author because of illness. But this was the first preemptive book launch I've been to. Anyway, Foz, I hope it's strike is long, hard and successful! I look forward to the launch of the sequel! (And in a side-note, I haven't been able to lay my hands on it for reading yet -- my daughter took one look at it and said, "You must've been reading my mind. I want that book. And she's had her nose in it ever since.)

19 February 2010

Nonfiction reading

I'm not a great nonfiction reader. Actually, I say that thinking about books. Give me a novel any day! But I do read the newspapers (though not every day), and I read Time magazine, and sometimes rail about the Pacific edition being full of US news, especially if there's an election on. I mean, I'm like most writers in that I read whatever is in front of me at the time -- I'll eat my cereal while reading the back of the cereal box if there's nothing else at hand. And it's not that I mind the back of the cereal box as much as that I've read it several times already. All right, more than several.

At the moment, though, I do seem to be on a bit of a nonfic drive. Last year I read Captain James Cook: a biography by Richard Alexander Hough and A short history of the 20th century by Geoffrey Blainey, both books that I enjoyed. I'm currently reading Blainey's A very short history of the world, and then have a book lined up about how the barbarian invasions shaped the world. I've been dipping in and out of other history books -- one a pictorial history of the twentieth century, one about history's greatest hits, and really enjoying the experience. I suppose it's not that unusual for a fantasy writer to be reading history, but this is more recent history than the timeframes I'm writing about.

I'm also marvelling at Avatar: a confidential report on the biological and social history of Pandora (James Cameron's Avatar) by Maria Wilhelm and Dirk Mathison. It's staggering to see how much worldbuilding Cameron did. I suppose it helps to have the kind of resources he has behind him. I can't pay someone to develop a Myrad language the way he was able to do for his Na'vi. On the other hand, I respect that he went to that effort. Not everyone would have. Tolkien did of course. But as I say to my classes, it's the whole tip of the iceberg thing -- that you show your readers the tip of the iceberg, but you have to know the whole thing. (I kinda like that I can include an iceberg reference in the same para I'm talking about Cameron's masterpiece!) You can't do too much worldbuilding. Unless of course that's all you end up doing -- there comes a time when you have to say enough and actually start writing. You can always do more as needed.

The other book I'm dipping in and out of is The art of Avatar: James Cameron's epic adventure by Lisa Fitzpatrick, James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Jon Landau. All right, this one I'm not reading so much from a writerly perspective but because I still can't get enough of Avatar. I was the same with Star Wars. Bought the Art of for that as well. And the script. Hmm, I haven't seen that one on the shelves yet . . .

13 February 2010

Copyright and greed

Let me say first off that I am not a copyright lawyer and don't fully understand all the complexities of copyright law. Working from time to time as a freelance editor, I've come up against copyright issues and have spent some time, therefore, perusing the Copyright Council's wonderful website and reading their free fact sheets, and have once or twice spoken to their lawyers about some of the trickier aspects.

As a writer, I'm a great believer in copyright and the protection it gives me. I think if someone borrows something from someone else, they should get permission and perhaps pay for the privilege. As an editor, I have sometimes sent writers scurrying off for permission, or advised them to remove something that I think is an infringement. They are often astounded that I could think it so -- but it's only two lines of a poem. Yeah, I know, but it's not about quantity: it's about quality. About how much craft went into something. And if that something is a poem or a song, then it might be a lot of craft for a few words.

Copyright protects all of us. It means you can't just take my short story, put your name to it and publish it somewhere else. Think that kind of thing never happens? Think again. It does. (Well, I haven't heard of it with short stories, but I have heard of a poet in the US who fortuitously discovered some of their poems published by someone else; I also know of a rather notorious Australian writer who plagiarised someone else's whole article and put their name to it and got caught out. Astounding, isn't it? Why would you do it?) It also means that you can't take that page I've reworked several times and drop it into your story without my permission. I may choose to grant you permission or I may decline. It's entirely up to me.

Having said that I've also heard of writers who've applied for permission and been asked an astonishing amount of money. Several hundred pounds for the reproduction of a couple of lines, for example. The writer decided not to use them. The owners were within their rights -- but, really, does that sound fair? It sounds somewhat excessive to me.

So, what has set me on this train of thought is the copyright battle that has been playing out in the music industry. Men at Work and their iconic song, and that other iconic Australian song "Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree". I'm not going to comment on whether or not I think there was a case to answer to because my opinion is irrelevant and in any case a judge has made a decision. What I am astounded by (all right, I've used that word already, so let me say appalled by) is the amount of money that the plaintiff's have been demanding. One newspaper reported it as sixty per cent of the profits. Sixty per cent! The more the better, I read that their lawyers had said. Is that attitude really about fairness or about greed? (Yeah, I know. Wake up and face the real world! The real world runs off greed. And some professions seem to embrace it more than others.)

Part of deciding whether copyright has been breached includes an assessment of how much work went into the original -- perhaps part of the consideration of recompense for a breach should include an assessment of what percentage the infringement makes up of the new work it appears in. I'll be waiting with interest to see what amount is awarded. I hope I'm not astonished.

08 February 2010

Currently reading

Short story and poetry entries for the Friends of Newport and Williamstown Library literary competitions. I love seeing the inventiveness of children's writing. It reminds me of the fun we forget to have as adult writers when we're trying hard to be literary or serious. Or even sometimes when we're not. That's what I loved about ... Oops, almost dropped the A-word, and I promised I wouldn't do that!

05 February 2010

Travels in the land of my imagination: the beaches

My characters don't spend a lot of time at the beach, but there are a few beach scenes, all at a place called the Forgotten Beach, which I largely modelled on the beach at Tidal River, Wilson's Promontory, but with whiter sands -- something like Denison Beach, near Bicheno (below). It could otherwise have been the bottom picture, which is on the Southern Ocean. When I was at the prom (in Victoria), I walked part of the beach blindfolded, to see whether it could be done, because one lot of my characters have to walk the Forgotten Beach in almost total darkness. As well as finding out whether it could be done, I wanted to experience their sensory deprivation, to experience the cold mauling on my ankles the way they would, so did this walk late in the evening.

I've always lived near the sea, but on a bay, not the ocean. I know its moods, its scents and sounds. I know the birds that wheel overhead. It's amazing to me when I go somewhere like Squeaky Beach at the prom, or Denison Beach in Tassie, to hear the different sound that the sand makes, that sharp squeak on the ball of my foot. Or to go somewhere like Perissa Beach in Santorini, and feel just how hot black sands get -- quite different to the paler sands I'm used to.

I've never seen a beach with the sand rippled the way it was in the picture taken near Strahan (below). This was an estuary with day-tripping cruise ships moving up and down it, their wakes causing the rippled effect.

Visiting places gives you those telling details that you might not have otherwise imagined. I remember one of the surprises for me was walking on Corfu on a hot day (say 40ish degrees), and the hot wind (which I'll always think of as a north wind, because in Melbourne our hot winds come from the north) bringing the scent of eucalypts -- a startling smell that made me nostalgically homesick. Had I never travelled, I don't think I could have imagined this as something I might smell in Greece. You really do need to get out there.

One day, I'm going to set a novel in Delft in Holland. My father's from Holland, but not from Delft, which is somewhere I haven't been. Yet. But if I do write that novel (have to finish the current and next trilogies first), then I will be going -- going to track down its sounds and scents, its colours and textures, all the things that make it unique.

Honeymoon Bay, Freycinet National Park
Honeymoon Bay, Freycinet
Nine Mile Beach (near Swansea)

Denison Beach (near Bicheno)
Tessellated Pavement, near Port Arthur
near Strahan
near Strahan
near Strahan

30 January 2010

Travels in the land of my imagination: the forests and mountains

I live in the city, but I'm not writing about city or suburban life -- I'm writing about a land that's been partially terraformed by humans and is essentially a medieval-type landscape and society. My characters are riding around on horseback, through forests, on beaches; they live in castles and in underground homes. In my imagination, I dwell in these places while I'm writing, but it helps to remind me of what that means by researching, by visiting places that are as close to the ones in my novel as I can find.

Perhaps one of the most famous writers maxims is to "write what you know". To me that doesn't mean I have to write about suburban life, but that I must try to capture emotional truths. I know what it is to be frightened, to feel horror and loathing and joy and love and embarrassment. Frustration is often a parrot on my shoulder. I know these things, and I try to give them to my characters: I try to write my characters from the inside out.

Visiting forests, walking through the leaf-litter and hearing the soft pad underfoot (not so much the crackle of leaves because of the dampness), feeling the cool air lace fingers through my hair, smelling the dankness, experiencing the quiet, the sense of being alone in the world, in a world that could be medieval helps me to know my setting too, to bring it to life (I hope) for my readers.

We've just come back from a family holiday in Tasmania, where I got to inhabit quite different forests to the Victorian ones I'm more used to. Below are a few of my holiday shots, all of which could be part of my novel. They remind me of what it was like to be there, what it's like for my characters, and help me enter that place in my imagination where I do know what it's like to be a soldier or a king or any other thing I want my characters to be.

Freycinet National Park
Looking across to Freycinet
near Strahan
Dove Lake & Cradle Mountain
Enchanted Walk, Cradle Mountain National Park
En route to Cradle Mountain
En route to Cradle Mountain

23 January 2010

Contemplating the holidays' end . . .

It's that funny thing when you work in teaching that half of me wants the holidays to go on forever (who doesn't, right?), and yet the other half is excited about starting new classes with new students, wants to see how many students we'll get at enrolment, who will be in my classes.

Our course is more hands-on between year's end and beginning because we do so much work on student selection. Oh, in some ways, I envy the courses that just look at TER (Tertiary Entrance Rank). This is the least of our concerns; we do consider TERs, but only as part of a much larger package. We also get a statement of why students want to do the course, a folio of work, which we have to read and appraise, we get them in for an interview, we get them to do writing on the day, which we read and appraise, and we give them a short grammar skills test, which we then have to mark. Only when we've done all of this can we make our selections. The extra work is worth it because it helps us weed out those who won't be able to cope with the course.

But back to the end of the holidays -- the thing I love best is not having to live my life by a timetable: not having to get kids off to school, not having to be at work early to make sure I get a car spot, the more relaxed atmosphere in the house (ie not having to nag kids about homework, which I know doesn't work, but I find I can't help myself), not having to work and think when it's stinking hot. I'm less social and more family orientated in the holidays, and we do so much more. This holidays the theme has been Avatar, which I'm sure you've noticed! Last year it was "Spooks" -- we watched the first six seasons, averaging two or three episodes a day. We also do a lot of swimming. The kids play computer games, and I write. And read. I have this funny relationship with reading because I love doing it -- and really I read all the time, but not in extended bursts like I do over the holidays -- and I know I need to read lots as a writer, but I feel guilty if I sit down to read a book. It must be my mother's voice in my ear, telling me to clean up, or the writer telling me I should be writing! But in the holidays there's time to do both. (Note, I didn't say all three. My mother's voice is still in my ear!)

17 January 2010

The last post on Avatar -- I promise (I think)

A recent article I've read on Avatar is all about how some people have become depressed and suicidal after seeing the movie because the real world now seems dull in comparison. Someone even wants people to get together and start our own Na'vi tribe. Does that mean we all have to grow a metre and a half and turn blue? How bizarre. (I do note the attractiveness of the Na'vi though -- tall, slender to the extreme, muscular, large eyes . . .)

It's been interesting looking at the criticisms levelled at this film. One said they hated the film because the theme was, basically, as long as you have one US soldier with you, you'll be right. ?Another said they hated the film because it was fundamentally just another attack on the US military. Did they both see the same film?

The Vatican has given the film the thumbs down because it says Avatar turns environmentalism into neo-paganism.

The Russians (or at least a few of them) are saying that Cameron took his ideas from Russian writer Strugatsky, who came up with the planet name Pandora and a race called the Nave (Cameron of course has the Na'vi). Hmm, I have a Hell's Gate Woods in my novel, which will feature a lot in the third book, but I came up with that all on my own. I note that Hell's Gate is the main human camp in Avatar, but that doesn't mean I drew on the film. I had this name years ago. I mean, Pandora's box -- hello? Sound familiar. I did like the rather hilarious adaptation of the summary of Pocahontas though, to make it sound like Avatar. Yes, lots of similarities in the premise but the delivery is quite different. There are only so many stories around (though the number varies -- sometimes it's as few as three, sometimes in the twenties).

A science fiction site says the film is an allegory for the fight between science fiction and fantasy, and fantasy always wins because people prefer utopias over dystopias, and in the end we have our utopian happy ending. On the other hand, in the article I read about the Russians, the film was described as being anti-utopian.

The racist comments -- that the Na'vi have to be saved by a white American male, I think are silly. I mean couldn't you also argue that the white "American" male can't become heroic until he gives up his white American ways -- until he abandons what most of his people stand for? (It's not black and white enough to say "his people" because the scientists do not embrace the corporate greed but the quest for knowledge.) And it wouldn't be "racist" as much as "speciesist" -- we are not the same race as the Na'vi. (And, remember, all of humanity is one race.)

One thing I've loved reading is a comparison of the original script and the final script. In the original, Tsu'tey lives but has had his queue cut off so can't commune with nature anymore, ride any beasts, or even mate. He begs Jake to kill him, and Jake does. I'm rather glad this was cut -- I'm not sure about the message behind that: that man who has escaped (rather than overcome, I suppose) his disability kills one who has become disabled because he understands the frustrations? Hasn't Jake found something worthwhile to do with his life? Mightn't Tsu'tey? I hope they do bring him back. I thought he was a great character -- he delivered one of the most moving moments for me, when he finally agrees to fly with his long-standing adversary who has now exceeded anything he (Tsu'tey) has ever dreamed of achieving. I could imagine all sorts of potential conflicts about leadership if he's around. Also, if he were to have broken his back or suffered the loss of his queue, there's lots of conflict potential there too, both for him or Jake. (But please don't have Jake kill him! Jake might stop other clan members from doing this or fail to stop them and then have to deal with his own demons.)

Having seen it multiple times, I can't tell you how many people I've overheard saying, "That is the best film I have ever seen!". It was about my third go when I decided that. People can criticise the plot and characters all that they are like: the bottom line is that this film is moving a lot of people. Part of it may be the special effects, but I think it's more than that -- I think that this is a film that has a great heart beating beneath the spectacle. It has great heart.

11 January 2010

A short one on Avatar

Yeah, enough already, I hear you say.

Just a quick thought -- I've been following the box office success of Avatar and noted in the lists of SF movies, District 9, which I saw earlier this year. I saw this movie twice -- because it was interesting, and I wanted to think more about it. But it was so ugly -- perhaps the ugliest movie I have ever seen. Twice was enough. Not sure I'll buy it on DVD. Maybe, when it's cheap. In comparison, Avatar is probably the most beautiful movie I have ever seen. I've told The Gadget Man that once it's out on DVD we're buying a home theatre system. (Similarly, when Gladiator came out, I bought the DVD even though we didn't have a player. When TGM pointed that out, I said that, yeah, we'd have to do something about that.)

05 January 2010

And another one . . . hype

My mother won't see Avatar. She hates that kind of movie, she says. I know this is true, but I'm trying to convince her to see it anyway. I think it's worth it -- I think the three-D is done so well it's a game-changing movie, much as the first talkies must have been, the first colour movies. I think it's that good. However, I've heard a few people, including a girl we took the other day, say that it gave them headaches, which is a shame. Maybe it won't be game-changing if that's the case. If they can iron that problem out, which is what I think they tried to do with the new 3D-camera, then it will be game changing. Absolutely.

As for my mother, she steadfastly refuses, and I know I'm not going to win this one. I often wonder how she can be my mother when she hates SF and I am so into it -- and Avatar conflates my two loves: science fiction that includes space ships (I love space opera) and fantasy. Yeah, there's no magic in this, but I'm talking about the feel of it, and all the bits with the Na'vi, apart from the battles with the humans, feel like fantasy.

I have other friends whose responses to this movie perplex me more than my mother's -- my friends who love science fiction, but refuse to see this one, who say it looks stupid or cartoonish. Now, to me, those Na'vi were completely real. I'm not that into animation either, but I didn't see any in this film. I was there, on Pandora: those people were as real to me as the humans in the film. I wonder if my friends' responses have anything to do with the hype. This film is getting lots of hype, even from me! I can't stop talking about it.

I've read that way back in the 1970s, James Cameron went to see Star Wars and was seriously pissed off. This was the film he should've made. And so off he went and made movies and wrote a script for his Star Wars (yes, Avatar), but which he had to shelve until a time that technology could reasonably cope with it. I too went to see Star Wars, but a bit reluctantly -- because of all the hype! My brother had seen it and said it wasn't that good, and I remember going with a few friends and warning them about what my brother had said. They all said they'd heard it was fantastic. Somewhere in the movie, probably in the first thirty seconds, I went from doubting to loving it, and they went the other way. They were all lukewarm when they came out, whereas I was raving. I went back to my brother and said, "What about this . . . ?" and "What about that . . . ?" and he kept saying, yeah, that he'd forgotten that had happened. By the time I'd finished, he was as convinced (or almost as convinced) as I was that it was the best movie ever. I couldn't get enough of it and saw it more than thirty times in the cinema. (Admittedly, in those days, films weren't on in as many cinemas and had longer runs. Star Wars ran for over a year, something impossible to imagine for any contemporary movie.) The hype had put me off initially, but once I'd seen it I was on the bandwagon. Star Wars was unlike anything I had ever seen, and the battle to destroy the Death Star had me on the edge of my seat, in a way very few movies have (in fact the only other movie that did this to me was Gladiator, in Maximus's first contest at the Coliseum.)

There have been several other movies along the way that I've seen many many times, though none quite that many. There's finally a movie I could see that many times, if time allows. For me, Cameron's quest to make his own Star Wars has been a success. This is the first movie that has excited me to the same degree. (These days, however, I prefer The empire strikes back to what is now known as A new hope. But I didn't at the time. I like that there's a lot more character development in Empire, but at the time, notwithstanding that blood-chilling moment when I first discovered Darth Vader was Luke's father, I was disappointed in the ending as it felt unfinished. Because it was. It was much more part of a trilogy than stand-alone, whereas Star Wars did stand alone.

My other really major movies:
  • Alien -- I saw the opening session in Melbourne and was completely freaked out. I have never been more frightened than I was seeing that movie, and seeing it over and over in no way diminished the fear.
  • Battlestar Galactica -- yes, it had a cinema release, and I went about seven times, then had to content myself with seeing it on TV. While it wasn't quite a Star Wars in terms of movie experiences it still held me captive.
  • Excalibur -- the film that turned me from science fiction geek to fantasy geek. I have loved everything Arthurian ever since, though these days have moved away from wanting to write my own King Arthur novel, maybe because I'm addressing aspects of this story in my own -- just things like the triangle of lovers, which is a stalwart in fiction, anyway.
  • The right stuff -- my goodness this was an amusing movie (even though many others didn't seem to notice). Very, very clever. And tapped right into my love of rocketry. Yeah, rockets make me go all gooey. Nothing phallic in that, I assure you.
  • Capricorn One -- did I say that rockets make me go all gooey? Yeah, so does all that NASA chatter -- "We have Outboard Engine cut off." "Roger that, OBECO at ten minutes after the hour . . ." (It's cool to be a nerd these days, right?)
  • Gladiator -- completely swept me up, the politics, the unfairness of it all. And, as I've said, the first film since Star Wars to have me literally on the edge of my seat. (Alien had me jumping out of it!)
  • Lord of the rings trilogy (especially The Two Towers). I'm not sure I needed all the endings in the last film, and there could never be too much Aragorn, but these were beautifully realised films, and I loved them. Love them.
  • Avatar -- yeah, but I think you've gathered that already.
Which brings me back to my mum. When Star Wars came out, I argued and argued to get her to see it and eventually succeeded. She slept through the first half. Was asleep (it was a hot day, and we were on holidays) before the movie even started -- though how anyone can sleep through all those explosions is beyond me. By the time she woke up, she had no idea what was going on and so declared the movie stupid. I tried to get her to see it again, but failed. And so not even Star Wars was able to change her mind. I know if I get her to Avatar she'll hate it, but I still think she should see it and see if we can maybe expand her boundaries a little bit. Maybe I'm just crazy?

01 January 2010

More on Avatar: three similarities to Titanic

Yes, I know I've already done a post on Avatar, but it's still very much in my mind at the moment (probably because I keep going to see it), so you might just have to put up with this for a while.

I know that Avatar has more in common with Aliens than it does with Titanic, but there are three notable similarities between Cameron's last two blockbusters, aside from the one piece of music that always sets me to thinking that the ship's about to hit an iceberg (it's in "Scorched earth" for anyone who has the soundtrack).

(i) the defining image. Both films have one image, above all for me, that encapsulates the unfolding disaster and that will forever remain in my memory. Both images do not include any of the main characters from the film, but are absolutely striking and absolutely beautiful, yet convey a real sense of horror. In Titanic, it is the image of a drowned girl or woman, splayed out underwater, her dress moving gently about her. In Avatar, it is the image of a pa'li (or direhorse if you prefer the English) on fire and galloping through the burning forest. Neytiri is observing this, but she's not in the frame. This is a nightmare image, yet slow-mo turns it into one of strange and compelling beauty. Beautiful and terrible at once.

(ii) in both movies, one of the main characters (two in Avatar) is (are) bound and trapped as the disaster unfolds all around. In both cases, neither really deserves to be there. Jack is handcuffed below decks for stealing a necklace, when in fact he has been framed. Jake is tied up -- for what exactly? I think it has more to do with Eytucan's being angry that Jake has distressed his daughter, and a general anger at the skypeople than anything Jake has done personally. Unless it is just a case of wanting to shoot the messenger? Or because he has withheld information that he wouldn't have been allowed to deliver and wouldn't have been believed? He has, in fact, betrayed them through his reports, but they don't know that. (And for him it wasn't a deliberate betrayal. I imagine he had forgotten, if he were ever aware, that Quaritch was looking at these as well has his official reports, which had become a lot more guarded.) In both movies, someone has to rescue the main character rather than their being able to get themselves out of trouble.

(iii) something big falls! Yeah, this is kind of obvious, I know, but it still leapt out at me -- hometree almost trembling in the air, as did Titanic, then canting sideways and going down -- both achieving the same kind of "splash". Maybe it's just the cinematography -- not sure -- maybe it's just that it is the same type of event!

Post script: For the record I'm an Alien (Ridley Scott) rather than Aliens (James Cameron) girl -- much prefer the suspense than the action-shoot-'em-up kinda thing in those two, and yet here I am absolutely loving Avatar . . .