A Novel Idea

Archive for June 2010

Warning: mild coarse language.

I must admit that I am a lapsed diarist. I blame my mother.

In grade five or six I kept a diary (I can still smell its honeysuckle infused pages and see the shiny faux gold lock and key). It contained the minutiae of my friendships and primary school experiences. Maybe some drawings. 

Children are occassionally cruel and I carefully documented a colourful incident. Even then I was committed to an accurate portrayal, so I included a swear word.

It felt good to unburden myself on the page.

Unbeknownest to me my mother had either been regularly peeking, or was curious with unfortunate timing. She had opened my diary, read the offending material and metered out punishment.

My mother and the wooden spoon were good friends. 

To this day, I still remember the burning sense of injustice I had at her invading my privacy.

I stopped writing in that diary.

Soon after I found a way to write whatever I damn well pleased: cryptography.

It wasn’t a very elaborate system. I simply invented new symbols for each letter in the alphabet and wrote with those instead. I did this right until I left home. I never got into trouble again (for that).

Over the years life accelerated and my diary keeping became patchy.

I started this blog with the primary intention of documenting my journey to become a publisher author.

I have the distinct feeling that life is going to open further to me soon and I want to remember what this feels like.

Intention is very important to me. It is the guardian of integrity.

I attended a conference last week which included a session on authors and the internet. Blogging was central to the discussion. Rules such as blog regularly (at least twice a week) were touted. Be topical! Be controversial! Be clever!

Maybe this is good advice if you care about building a big audience you can sell to.

To blog or not to blog, is not the question for me.

Yes I blog. Yes I think you should too if you feel so inclined.

Blogging is the keeping of an online diary or simply a chronology of thoughts.

It is a very human thing to do – to talk about oneself 😉

The question for me is: why blog?

I decided to investigate the blogs of a few authors I respect and gain some insight. I went to my bookshelf and selected living authors where I have bought, read and enjoyed at least two of their titles in the last decade.

The results:

Peter Carey (‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ and ‘Jack Maggs’) – couldn’t find a blog.

Jhumpa Lahiri (‘Interpreter of Maladies’ and ‘The Namesake’) – couldn’t find a blog.

Tim Winton (‘Dirt Music’ and ‘The Turning’) – couldn’t find a blog.

Neil Gaiman (‘Neverwhere’ and ‘American Gods’) – has ‘journal’ on his website but hardly ever blogs anymore to the point where old posts are ‘reprinted’.

Mary Gentle (‘Ash: A Secret History’ and ‘1610: A sundial in the grave’) – couldn’t find a blog.

Perhaps my favourite authors are too busy writing to bother blogging?

Is there a point to this?

Yes, I present exhibit A, Derek Landy’s blog.

http://dereklandy.blogspot.com/

Landy writes the Skulduggery Pleasant series for kids. I saw him entertain a crowd of sub tweens during his visit to Australia earlier this year. I think he drank a bottle of red cordial before he presented.

Landy seems to be blogging with both personal and commercial intent. He writes great slabs of posts and I can imagine the delight he must feel when his ramblings draw hundreds of comments. His fans have even set up a separate forum to discuss his work. He includes them on decisions such as the next title of his series. He truly seems to have a community of fans.

The first book in his series is sitting patiently on my bookshelf waiting for me to read it. I suspect its violence is going to be beyond my tastes, but I am interested in what makes his fans so dedicated.

I present exhibit B, Philip Reeve’s blog.

http://philipreeve.blogspot.com/

Reeve is the author of many great books for children. While his blog smacks you in the face with big book covers and a web trailer for his latest work, the actual content is much more of the ‘look at this cool stuff I found’ rather than ‘look at how terrific my books are’ nature.

Reeve’s blog is more a monologue than a conversation as there doesn’t seem to be a way to leave comments on each post.

I blog to share, to learn and to make connections with like-minded people.

Why do you blog?

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.

Advertisements

I’m certain there’s a glamourous image evoked in the minds of potential authors by the term ‘writer’s group’. If I thought about this term even two years ago, my mind would conjure up famous gatherings like The Bloomsbury Group or The Inklings. I would imagine Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and E. M. Forster dining and debating in a London home. I could see C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkein reading aloud and laughing over a pint in an Oxford pub.

Now the term ‘writer’s group’ means something much more humble but far more useful to me.

Today I am a member of three disparate writers’ groups. I write across ages and genres, so each group sees different pieces.

By writing group, I mean a gathering of people who bring their work to each meeting to seek and provide feedback aimed at improving everyone’s writing.

I don’t mean a reading club where you talk about how incredible Toni Morrison is or a drinking session where you moan about writer’s block or how much you hate that your teenager thinks Twilight is good reading.

It takes some brass to open yourself to critique, but every instrument needs polish to shine.

I want to share my thoughts on what constitutes a successful writing group.

1. Common purpose

Writing groups are like relationships – they work best when you both want the same outcome.

Just as the girl who repeatedly stalls in front of jewellery shop displays studded with sparkling engagement rings in the hope that the boyfriend will one day get the hint, some groups are ultimately a waste of time.

Not everyone who writes needs to be published. They may want it, but aren’t prepared to do what it takes to make it happen.

Let me be clear. Any feedback about your writing is helpful. Regardless of whether someone has published One Hundred books or just read that many, their response to your work is of interest. But if your writer’s group is composed of people who are just dabbling, odds are you’re not maximizing the quality of feedback.

2. Regularity and size

At this risk of sounding like an advertisement for Metamucil, do not underestimate the importance of staying regular.

Two of my groups meet monthly, one meets fortnightly. Weekly meetings are possible, but I find fortnightly works best. It is long enough to produce a satisfying chunk of work and incorporate feedback into the editing process. One also has a life beyond writing to juggle…

Inevitably people cannot make every group meeting. That’s where size matters. Like a house of parliament, you need a quorum. If only two other people turn up, it makes it difficult to decide how to treat feedback you don’t vehmently agree or disagree with. If you have four or five opinions on the same piece, you have a better chance of obtaining an objective analysis of your work.

Twelve is a good number for a writing group. It’s manageable if everyone turns up, but half the time you’ll be receiving four to six diverse responses to your work. But like the Apostles, you’ll probably have one Judas.

Which leads me to my final tip.

3. Protect your work

The risk with sharing your work is not so much that someone will plagiarise it (in Australia the form of words is protected by copyright), it is that they will steal your idea and write something better. Or even something average that gets published before yours and sops up the public interest.

This is tricky.

It goes without saying that you should add a copyright note to all your material, whether it’s the first or thirty-seventh draft. I would also caution against giving people electronic or hard copies of your work until it is published. Make sure you collect every copy of your work at each meeting.

Unfortunately you can’t stop someone using your idea. I have heard speakers respond to this by saying your idea probably isn’t as unique as you think it is – there’s nothing new under the sun. That may be true, but it’s not very comforting.

I was at a course recently, with a well-known Australian author (within their field), who confided that a writing friend had published an almost identical book to the one this author had discussed with them just a year earlier. The so called friend had had a nervous breakdown and seemingly had no idea that they had done something wrong.

If you had the money to sue, you could. You might get back your expenses or even a share of royalties. You don’t get your book back though.

Protect your work by sharing it when you are close to finishing the draft cycle (within 3-6 months of your completion date). This makes it harder for someone to pip you at the proverbial post. This has the added benefit of putting some time (and therefore some objectivity) between you and your writing.

Take comfort in the fact that you are a writer, not a one-hit wonder. You will have other novel ideas.

Where to begin? 

Contact your national or regional writer’s centres to find out about active writer’s groups in your area.

Or start your own.

I would love to hear about other writer’s thoughts on writer’s groups. Any catastrophes? Any triumphs?

I’ll leave you with a quote from E.M. Forster:

‘Either life entails courage, or it ceases to be life.’

Time to print out copies for my next meeting…

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.

I have had the opportunity to road test a brand new Apple iPad (32GB, Wi-Fi + 3G) this weekend. Playing with new toys is always fun, but this is not just any new toy. This is a toy with the power to transform an entire industry.

My friend graciously lent it to me but that won’t stop me from telling you whether they just blew $928 (AUD inc GST) plus data costs or not.

Much as Apple’s recent reinvention via iTunes and the iPhone has impressed me, I’m no Apple evangelist.

In the interest of providing a fair review, I declare my ownership of at least one Apple device (an iPod Touch). My partner also has an iPhone which is never more than 30 centimetres from his grasp at any moment.

I must also reveal that my relationship with Apple extends back into the 80s when I got my first computer – a hand-me-down from a family friend – an Apple ii C. It was boxy way before electronic cubes became fashionable. I credit the Lemonade Stand game for my later business exploits.

Back to the shiny new toy.

I shall confine myself to the three best and worst features of the iPad. You can google for more extensive, technical reviews elsewhere.

Here is the subject of this post:

I am an avid reader and a lover of books, so I was not expecting much more than an electronic page-turner with the functionality of my iPod Touch thrown in.

Best three things about the iPad

  1. You can read in bed, staying warmer than you would with a book
    It is winter in Australia, which I admit is pretty lame compared to a Northern Hemisphere winter. Nevertheless, I am female and I feel the cold. With a book I need both hands out in the cold – one to hold it upright and one to turn the pages. With the iPad one hand can stay cosy under the covers as it only takes one hand to hold the iPad and flick the pages. Brilliant.
  2. You can travel lighter
    Whenever I travel, I always end up carting a few kilos of books. I never read the entire selection, but I never find myself bored and unable to switch to a new text. The iPad takes my need for choice and uninterrupted reading to a new lighter level. This iPad has 61 books already (many which were free classics), a bunch of apps and miscelleneous media and still has more than 28 GB free.
  3. You can settle domestic disputes and confirm trivial questions
    How many gold medals does Michael Phelps have? What is K Rudd’s all new low approval rating? What is Doraphobia? These are the sort of questions that arise in our household over dinner (judge us as you will). The iPhone is great for a quick web search but the iPad is bigger and better. Here’s a close up of my blog, to give you an indication of readability.

Worst three things about the iPad

  1. Really expensive
    Maybe you have a spare thousand dollars (and the rest for data). I wish I could say the same right now. Even if I could justify spending that grand on non-essentials, would the iPad be good value for money? You could buy 48 books for that cash. If you read one a month, that’s four years of entertainment. Will the device wear out in that time? Probably not but you may drop it one too many times…
  2. Not so easy to read in sunshine
    One of my greatest pleasures is reading on our balcony or in the park in glorious sunshine. Add a picnic lunch and I’m in heaven. Unfortunately the reflective surface of the iPad is not conducive to reading outside. Added to that I can see myself behind the text – a distraction for even lesser narcissists. Thanks Apple, you’ve just reminded me that my hair is out of control as usual.
  3. The Death of the Book
    Won’t the sharp increase in eBooks lead to the cessation of traditional book publishing? Books might disappear! Libraries will be digitised then sold off to property developers…In the last year book publishers seem to have woken up inside a digital nightmare.

    Thankfully many Australian publishers are looking for the opportunity in the new landscape rather than bracing for the end of the world.

    I love books – the smell of the fresh new purchase and the well loved musty classic. The iPad cannot replace the sensory experience of reading a book. It cannot replace the feel of paper beneath fingers.

    I do think we will see more people reading electronically and less books published.

    The iPad questions the dominance of the book form. eReaders will reduce the number of printed books.

    eReaders do not threaten publishing, rather they represent a triumph of story. I want more stories not less.

    Story tellers have a new distribution channel and a new set of challenges.

    The iPad is not the apocalypse. It is a new dawn.

The Verdict

Is the iPad a waste of money? Not if you can spare it.

I have read more in the last few days than in the previous two weeks. I can read on the bus, in a queue, while cooking dinner.

Not only can I read downloaded books but I can check newspapers and websites easily on whim.

I’m part way through Treasure Island, but I must return the useful device to its owner. Farewell trusty iPad.

Read well. Read often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.

I’m starting to feel a little lonely typing away all day.

I’ve been working for almost two months on my first draft of my first novel.

Today the words flowed well. So well in fact that I’ve had time to do a little self-indulgent web-browsing.

No I wasn’t on a dating site.

I’ve got the right man thing all sorted already.

I’ve been looking at potential pets.

As child I was constantly surrounded by cats, dogs and birds (until I started to open cages enabling their freedom).

As an adult I’ve always travelled too much every year to keep a demanding pet. Unfortunately they’re also the type that nuzzle you and make you seem like less of a loon for having a one way conversation with them.

I have managed to look after a fish.

Sadly my Siamese fighting fish of two years passed away just before Christmas. No other fighting fish looks as kooky and intelligent, so there’s no new pet fish.

Two years is terrible time period anyway. Long enough to form an attachment, short enough not to be able to countenance the idea of another fishy friend dying on you in two years’ time.

Now I’m home most of the time writing. It’s wonderful. It’s just really quiet.

I’m concerned that my collection of stuffed Tiggers in various sizes (which I’m trying to preserve for my child’s nursery, if I ever get around to that) is going to be pulled out of storage and dotted around the study to give the effect of company.

I want a pet. I need a pet.

Many writers have cats. Mark Twain loved them. He affectionately named one Satan. I’m not kidding.

2010 marks the 175th anniversary of Twain’s birth and the 100th anniversary of his death. Maybe I should get a cat?

My partner Connor hates cats. He loves Dumas though. I discovered today that author of Count of Monte Cristo fame loved cats. Would he reconsider on that basis?

Probably not.

It’s pointless anyway. I’m asthmatic so I can’t have furry pets inside the house permanently.

We don’t have a backyard here, so we can’t get a dog.

I’m not big on birds in cages, even though I love the graceful brass curves of the antique variety.

We’ve got a balcony. A rabbit hutch would fit on it with room to spare.

Would a rabbit make a good companion?

I’ve changed my desktop background to a fluffy ginger rabbit.

I wonder if Connor would agree to a rabbit?

I hope I’m not allergic to them.

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.

Today writing has been like trying to peel the label off a jam jar without ripping it: nigh impossible.

I didn’t particularly make it easy for myself. I’ve been chief procrastinator all day.

I spent most of the morning flapping around organising stuff rather than writing.

Sure, some of it is related to my writing:

I’ve registered for an upcoming conference, coordinated the next catch up with my writing group, and researched an aspect of my novel.

I spent a great deal of time on Google Maps locating the best town of origin for the protagonist’s nemesis.

I resisted the urge to answer my phone.  Sorry mum. Thanks for the txt.

I’ve unsubscribed from a random mail list (just because I buy from you once does not mean I want to receive your World Cup Socceroos thinly veiled selling attempt).

Some of my procrastination has been totally unrelated to my writing:

In an attempt to stop my close friends from thinking I’ve turned into a hermit, I’ve arranged a weekend catch up.

I’ve washed up.

I’ve bought pasta for our dinner tonight.

I’ve researched various perfumes even though that is by no means in the budget.

How do you write when you’re just not in the mood?

One blessed letter at a time.

Back to it for me. This could be a late night.

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.

Warning: Contains mild coarse language that may offend.

When I felt unwilling to put fingers to keyboard a couple of weeks ago (more writer’s avoidance than writer’s block), I turned to another writer for advice. More specifically, to another writer’s book about the craft.

I reopened Stephen King’s On Writing. I read it years ago, at time when I fancied the idea of being a writer someday, but wasn’t yet ready for what that actually means.

All I remembered from that reading was the admonishment against adverbs.

I had been giving myself a hard time mentally because of what I felt was imperfect prose. I’m on my first draft of my first novel.

I’ve read great literature. I have a degree in it and am pursuing a Masters right now. I feel suitably qualified to criticize my own work.

So I turned to an incredibly successful mainstream author for help.

You can’t imagine my relief when I came to this nugget in King’s book:

‘In the first draft, I’m telling myself the story. It’s the following drafts that I’m telling the audience.’

(I’m paraphrasing to avoid wasting the half hour it would take me to find the page number when I could be writing more).

I took this as permission to bang out the first draft and not worry about the fact that I know this will probably take many more drafts to pass my standards.

Today, passing my enormous bookshelf on the way to make another cup of tea, I noticed my motley collection of writing manuals.

I’ve actually stopped buying them. I’ve read enough now to reassure myself that what I most need is just to get on with it.

Here are some books that have helped me along the way:

  • S. King – On Writing
  • W. Strunk & E.B White – The Elements of Style
    A set of rules to make your grandmother sound positively uneducated. Short sharp smacks to the head. For example “Meaningful – a bankrupt adjective. Choose another…’
  • S. Stein – Stein on Writing
    Includes a formidable table of contents and an entertaining version of the Ten Commandments for Writers. Number 4 “Thou shalt not saw the air with abstractions, for readers, like lovers, are attracted by particularity.”
  • J. Wood – How Fiction Works
    Just a bloody good read.
  • J. N. Frey – How to write damn good fiction
    The Seven Deadly Mistakes address ways to avoid stuffing up your own writing life. These include timidity, trying to be literary, ego-writing, dreams, faith, lifestyle and failure to produce.
  • D. Gerrold – Worlds of wonder: How to write science fiction & fantasy
    I’m not sure I’ve actually read this – an old book mark was stuck at chapter two. The bookmark had a great quote though. See below.
  • R. Silverberg – Science Fiction 101

Let me know if you have great writing manual which really helped you on your journey.

My random book-mark quote find:

‘We are made whole /

By books, as by great spaces and the stars.’

Mary Carolyn Davies, Poet.

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.

I’m not a starving artist, I’d never let it get to that stage. I’m also not flush with cash.

I’m of the belief that you do your best work when you’re not distracted by hunger, family dramas or daytime soapies.

Saturdays are splurge day. A recharge day which is not as frugal as the rest of the week.

It starts with a sleep-in. Strangely I need much less of a sleep-in since becoming a full time writer even though I’m working harder than I did in my demanding corporate career.

Next I have a real coffee from the local cafe. Smooth thick crema. No more than a hint of bitterness.

Saturdays are not all relaxation and rainbows (although yesterday I saw a double as the rain cleared).

I have to run the grocery gauntlet, but Connor does the heavy lifting, so it’s not so bad. In fact this weekend’s shop is likely to be the most enjoyable all year – A4 paper was on special. I now have a year’s supply.

Saturday night dinner is the most extravagant of the week. It involves a bottle of wine and a dish that takes longer than you’re prepared to spare of a weeknight.

Last night was grilled salmon with potatoes dauphinoise accompanied by corn and glossy green beans.

I can highly recommend the version in The fundamental techniques of classic cuisine by The French Culinary Institute.

We’re talking creamy cheese potatoes but more decadent than a simple au gratin.

This perhaps sounds like a fancy-smancy meal but it’s actually not that expensive. We go to the source for fish which means we pay at least a third less and it tastes amazing.

The Gruyère cheese in  potatoes dauphinoise makes the dish. It’s earthy and morish. In small quantities it’s affordable.

Similarly if you’re a meat-eating writer on a budget, don’t go the supermarket steak option. Make steak the special dinner it used to be. Eat it once a month and you can afford top-end happy cows.

If you don’t like food, I don’t see how you can be a good writer.

Good writers transport you into the character’s world. You can not only see and hear it, but you can smell it, taste it. Touch it.

Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume is an extreme example of this. The protagonist has a perfumer’s nose so the olfactory is heightened in description.

I once read Helen Keller’s description of being stuck in a tree as a thunderstorm emerged. She used her other senses to make us feel the texture of her fear.

If you allow yourself to fully experience life, with all of your senses you can capture those on the page.

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.