22 May 2011

What makes a great poem?

Without subscribing to any kind of cultural cringe, I have to admit to sometimes looking at the American poetry publishing scene with envy -- poets like Ted Kooser and Billy Collins, Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou, who write amazing poetry that's brilliantly conceived and executed and yet easily accessible to most readers. Where are Australia's great poets writing in this vein? Yes, they are out there. We do have fantastic poets like Peter Bakowski, whose poems are gifts to the rest of us. As an editor of Poetrix, I am privileged to read the works of many amazing women poets, poets whose work I love like Asuncion Pritchett and Connie Barber. But we still don't have the breadth of great poetry that they have in the US, which I suppose is not surprising given we have a much smaller population base. It's to be expected. But is that all it is?

Peter Bakowski came into one of our poetry classes the other day and spoke to our second-year poetry students about his philosophy of the art and craft of poetry and his life as a poet. As always, his talk was from the heart (just like his poetry!) and informative -- packed with great advice. Bakowski spoke about the importance of clarity in poetry writing (something both Kooser and Collins advocate), and how reading obscure poems makes him either angry or tired. I know how he feels. If I read a poem and my first reaction is "huh?", I might put it down to tiredness. If I then take a walk or a break and come back to it fresh, reread it and think about it and my reaction is still "huh?", I don't think it's a successful poem -- at least not for me. I want to get something out of every poem I read, and ideally I'd like to get something on a first reading. That isn't to say that I don't enjoy poems that give me more, that unfold their secrets on deeper thinking or subsequent reads -- I do -- but I should at least get something on that initial read. I should know what the poem is about on a superficial level at least.

Last weekend, my friend Sherryl and I went to the Booktown weekend (Back to Booktown) at Clunes. So many bookshops! I think we both almost melted with pleasure on the spot. While she attended a masterclass on crime writing, I went bookshopping (note, I use that as one word because bookshopping is far superior to any other kind of shopping and deserves its own word!). Later, when she went bookshopping, I attended a panel on biography writing. One of the speakers was well-known poet and biographer, Peter Rose. I've heard Rose speak before -- and every time he speaks candidly about his experience as a biographer, I come away thinking I must read his book (Rose Boys). I am interested in football (go, Tigers!) and families, and I own one, maybe two, of his poetry collections, and from what I know of the story, from what I've heard him say, and from the reviews I've read, I expect Rose Boys to be a powerful read: elegantly written, insightful and moving. But I have to say he astounded me with what he had to say in this session -- not so much on biography writing, which did nothing to change my intent to read his biography, but on poetry writing.

Rose said that a biographer has to take the audience into his confidence (so far so good), which was a new experience for him. He said it was the exact opposite of what he was trying to do as a poet -- and at this point I sat straighter in my chair -- that a poet's job was to be as obscure as possible. What? Of course, I've read obscure poems published in prestigious places -- they always leave me shaking my head and wondering whether I really need to read such prestigious journals -- but to hear someone actually say this . . .

The audience laughed. And Rose laughed too, and called it the poet's badge of honour. I wasn't sure whether the latter was tongue-in-cheek or not, whether he was surprised by the audience's reaction, whether the laugh was a bit self-deprecating. I still don't know. Taking the audience into his confidence -- as I've said he said nothing that put me off reading his biography, but his thoughts on poetry writing did leave me thinking deeply on the state of Australian poetry.

Of course there are all sorts of readers, and as writers we need to celebrate this, because if we all liked the same kinds of stories, the same kinds of poems, we wouldn't have much need for as many writers as we have. Some of us love the elegance and strong characterisation of literary writing, while others find the lack of plot leaves them bored. Some of us love the fast action and pace of genre writing, while others consider it hack writing and a waste of time. Some of us no doubt love obscure poems -- although I sometimes wonder if it really is about the flip-side of that "badge of honour": no-one wants to admit they can't understand an obscure poem.

But look at poetry sales. They're hardly what I'd call scintillating. I have lots of friends who don't read poetry. At all. Ever. When I ask them why they don't like it, they usually shrug and tell me they don't understand it. I always suggest they try different poets -- try Bakowksi, try Kristin Henry -- but persuading them to give it another go isn't so easy. Not when it comes to spending hard cash. I have writer-friends who say the same thing about poetry writing. They don't like it because they find it incomprehensible. There's a lot to be said for clarity, I think.

The poems that I love usually have a strong focus on imagery, but sometimes it's a clever turn of phrase or an unusual metaphor that strikes me. They might give me new understanding -- put me into someone else's shoes or challenge my beliefs. They might make me laugh or cry or speak to me on a personal level about something I care about. They always communicate an idea to me -- something I can hang my understanding of the poem on. That isn't to say that they're simple poems, although they may be, but more usually they're not, and I'll be rewarded for thinking more about them. I subscribe to the inverse way of writing complex ideas -- that the more complex an idea is the more simple the expression needs to be to make it understandable. I do, after all, want to communicate something to my audience -- if I didn't, I don't think I'd bother to write.

But I'm interested in what others think -- what do you think makes a great poem? And how do you feel about obscure poetry -- is it clever or does it leave you cold? I'd love you to share your thoughts with me . . .

15 April 2011

The itinerant blogger

I sometimes wonder what happened to my good blogging practice -- why I have been so itinerant over the last few years, and then I realise that several things happened. One was I started teaching online, and with the time spent on my online classes, which I have to say I really enjoyed, and time spent on emails and other online stuff, I became resentful of the time the internet was taking from my life. Time spent blogging could be time spent writing -- and while I have friends who manage to productively do both, I don't seem to be one of these. Not when I'm also trying to teach and run a rather chaotic family.

The other thing that happened was a change to my living circumstances that sees me without internet access for part of each week, and that part just happens to be the time of the week when I did most of my blogging. And living without internet is interesting as we're so used to having it there, handy, when we want it. On the other hand, we seem to be at its beck and call. The ping of the email program. The call to surf. Or go on Facebook. Or whatever.

I am going to endeavour to be a more regular blogger again -- but I'm not making any promises. At the moment, I'm working on my novel and that will always take priority. And so, back to it! And the great beauty of that is working in WordPerfect on a computer that has no internet access, so no pings will disturb me!

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.