Monday, September 27, 2010

Rainy Days and Mondays

I was fooled into thinking the lovely weekend weather was here to stay. Sigh! The upside of a grey and miserable Monday is how wonderful it feels to get home at the end of the day.So shed those sodden clothes and snuggle into a pair of cosy pajamas.  Then treat yourself to a mug of hot chocolate or a bowl of soup and curl up on the couch, book in hand.  Go on, you deserve it.

Some of my happiest moments are spent doing just that. Isn't it great that reading's not just for the rich and famous, the thin or the beautiful? I love the idea that you can borrow a book from your local library without paying a cent, that one of life's greatest pleasures and simplest luxuries is free for all... Do take advantage of it.

And now I'm off to take my own advice. Rainy Mondays have a silver lining, after all.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Writing Class: Single Sentence Synopsis

When people ask what your novel is about, they generally want to know the ‘what happens’ of the story. And they want you to tell them as quickly and succinctly as possible.

Eg. Dancing in the Dark is about a girl raised in an ultra-orthodox home who, when forbidden by her strictly religious parents to have ballet lessons, starts to dance in secret.

Stating what your novel is about in just one sentence might seem like an easy thing to do, but many would-be novelists find it hard. Instead, when asked what their novels are about, they ramble. They begin to tell the entire story. They are often so immersed in minor details that they fail to notice their audience yawning.

Knowing how to describe your novel in a sentence is essential – and not just to enable you to pitch it to a time-poor agent or publisher in a thirty-second window of opportunity. It’s essential because it helps you focus your story.

A good story has a strong and definite direction, and summing your novel up in a single sentence is a great way to keep on top of your story and give it direction. After all, you can’t expect to reach your destination if you have no idea where you’re headed. (Which isn’t to say you need to know every detail of your story before you write it, or how it ends; you don’t).

Do you know where you’re headed? Can you write a sentence that sums up your story?

Monday, September 20, 2010

On Lies and Literature

I have a friend who doesn’t read fiction. It’s not that he isn’t a reader – he’s heavily into history, autobiography, and memoir – but he doesn’t see the point in reading ‘a made-up story’. Interestingly, he reads reviews of fiction (since they are not fiction), but he won’t read fiction, regardless of how glowing those reviews might be. He wants ‘the truth’.

As a lover of fiction, I have always believed that fiction has the edge over non-fiction when it comes to conveying emotional truths. That’s why I love it. That’s why I read it. But I have just finished reading Justine Larbalastier’s Liar, and whether deliberately or not, she has challenged that view.

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read Liar and are planning to, STOP HERE; I might just give the plot away.

Liar is narrated by protagonist Micah, a self-confessed liar. I began reading with the belief that, like with most fiction, by the end of the novel I would know ‘the truth’ of the story, that despite the narrator being a liar, I would be able to sift the truth from the lies.

This did not happen. As the novel develops, the narrator simply admits to more and more lies, until at the end you’re left wondering whether she made the whole thing up. Especially since she constantly reminds us that she is a liar.

At the first mention of the word ‘werewolf’, I was tempted to put the novel down, though admittedly I’d also been tempted to put it down when told that Micah was born ‘covered in fur’. It’s not that I don’t like reading books about freaks or werewolves or people who aren’t wholly human; it’s just that I want to know what kind of book I’m about to read before I begin.

Nevertheless, I did continue reading, and when I finished the book, I was left wondering (though not actually caring), whether Micah was human or werewolf, whether there even was a murder in the first place, and whether there was any point in trying to figure it out.

We all know that fiction consists of ‘made-up’ stories, but generally there’s an unspoken pact between writer and reader. The writer promises to make the story as believable as possible, at least for the duration of the reading experience. The reader agrees to suspend disbelief. Liar breaks this pact, and I can't help wondering whether this undermines the very purpose of fiction.

It’s not that I dislike or disapprove of unreliable narrators. On the contrary – they can be wonderful both as a device and as characters, and can enrich stories immeasurably. But usually the author enables the reader, eventually, to get to the truth of the novel, to the emotional heart of it. With Liar, I couldn’t help thinking: If I still don’t know what part of the story, if any, was supposed to be ‘true’, why did I bother? If Micah is such a pathological liar, then send her to a shrink and leave me out of it.

I guess the fact that I could think in these terms means the author must have done something right – she created a character I ‘kind of’ believed in. And there is no doubt that she is a highly skilled writer. What she has done in Liar has been done deliberately and masterfully.

Perhaps the point of the novel wasn’t to enable the reader to solve a puzzle, but simply to explore the concept of lying. Even so, I’d have liked to be persuaded that what I was reading was somehow true. When I read fiction, I want to suspend my disbelief.

I like verisimilitude in literature, not outright lies. How about you?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Writing Class: Do you know what your character really wants?

Fiction is fuelled by conflict, and writers generate conflict by asking themselves two basic questions:
1. What does my character want?
2. What is preventing my character from achieving that goal?
Almost every creative writing class will teach aspiring writers to ask, and answer, these two questions.

But there is a 'surface want', and there is a 'deeper want'. The 'surface want' is usually clear to both writer and reader. The 'deeper want' is another matter. You may not know your character's 'deeper want' when you start your story. You might have to dig deeper to find out.

Stories that don't look beyond the 'surface want' generally won't get published, and if they do, they'll fail to satisfy. It's the 'deeper want' that will give your story substance and meaning.

When the 'deeper want' is understood by the character, and fulfilled, the 'surface want' can then be realized. (This is usually the case, though occasionally the 'surface want' becomes unmportant, and is therefore abandoned.)

Think of one of your favourite novels. What is the main character's 'surface want'? What is the 'deeper want'? Think about the book you're writing. What does your character want? And what does your character really want?

Feel free to share your answers.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Question of Genre

Hannah Moskowitz has written a really interesting post about the differences between MG (Middle Grade) fiction and YA fiction, the first which she defines as being for ages 11-14 and the latter for ages 15-18. She says that MG fiction is more of a protagonist-against-the-world  situation, where the main character is trying to fit in, whereas YA fiction gives us protagonists dealing with personal problems focusing on very specific relationships, and the group is less important. (This is a very brief summary; for a more comprehensive analysis, read her post.)

Personally, I feel the differences she describes relate more to genre than to age, and that both kinds of books can be found for readers ranging from the very young to those who no longer count their birthdays. What do you think?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

What is it about love stories?

Adele at Persnickety Snark doesn't quite buy the idea of love at first sight, and thinks YA literature is suffering from unrealistic ideas about love. As for me, I'm a sucker for a good love story. There has to be a reason that romance sells, and some of the best contemporary YA literature combines good writing with quirky characters falling in love.

That said, the characters aren't always the obvious 'hotties'. The last 3 books I read were: Beatle Meets Destiny, Six Impossible Things and Graffiti Moon. They're all great books, and they're all love stories. But they're not just love stories. The characters must also deal with other issues. And though these teenagers are modest, likeable and endearing, their flaws are revealed as well as their strengths.

It's the combination of characterisation, real-life problems, and fabulous writing that makes for a book you want to read.

Of course we want love to triumph in the end, but it triumphs only when the characters admit their mistakes, and become stronger, better people as a result of doing so.

Unrealistic? It may be, but is there something wrong with a bit of escapism in fiction? And isn't it good for our souls to believe in love?

Friday, September 10, 2010

On Blogging and Reviews

A number of posts have been floating around the YA blogosphere raising questions about reviews. It has been noted that sometimes little cliques of bloggers write reviews to promote their friends, and as a result the reviews are less than honest. I must admit, sometimes I rush out to buy a certain book after reading rave reviews, only to be greatly disappointed.

Megan Burke asked: What are authors and publishers looking for in a blog review? Clearly, publishers and writers want their books promoted and praised, but surely the point of a review is to give the reader an idea of what to expect. While opinions are obviously subjective, I do feel bloggers should be writing honest reviews.

When Megs helped me set up my own blog, we discussed the issue of reviews, and it was actually she who pointed out the need to be honest. I’d been thinking of using my blog to write reviews, but on reflection, quickly realised I wouldn’t be able to write anything negative about another writer’s work. You see, I know how much goes into it, and I can honestly say that completing a book is a huge accomplishment. So unless the writer was guilty of racism, sexism or any other kind of unsavoury ism, I’d be loath to criticise. (Strangely, I wouldn’t feel quite the same way if asked to write a review for a professional magazine, such as Viewpoint or Reading Time. Somehow, I see the Blogosphere more as a friendly than a professional space.)

Tye Cattanache of The Book Gryffin is also averse to the idea of writing negative reviews. Her solution is to review only the books she likes. If she thinks a book doesn’t merit a positive review, she simply won’t review it at all.

But while there’s something a little distasteful (to me) about the idea of writers posting negative reviews, I don’t mind the idea of bloggers doing it. Bloggers who aren't published writers (as in, don’t have a book in print) wouldn’t necessarily have the same sense of loyalty as published authors to support their peers.

Having said that, what if your status changes? I wonder how blogger extraordinaire Steph Bowe of Hey, Teenager of the Year will manage the transition. Now that she’s a published (and very famous) author (of a book I'm looking forward to reading), will it change the way she writes reviews? Will she even continue to do so?

(I should have said in a previous post that I met a number of wonderful authors up in Brisbane, and she was among them. And yes, she looks every bit as gorgeous in real life as she does on her blog. I chatted with her and her lovely mum at Festival First Night, and sat next to her for a few minutes at the signing table, where we signed scraps of paper and the occasional book.)

So, should writers post reviews of other authors' books? And if they do, is their obligation to their readers or their peers? What do you think?

It’s a sticky issue; hence my decision not to use my blog to write reviews. However, if I read a YA book and love it, I might just mention it... On that note, I'll finish by saying that in the past month, I’ve read and loved: Beatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle Williams and Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood. I’m currently reading and loving Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley.

That’s all, folks. Comments welcome!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Home, Sweet Home and No, I'm really not interested in becoming a Christian...

Arrived back in Melbourne earlier this evening after almost a week away. It's always nice to come back home. Loved Brisbane. It's a really pretty city, and it's built around a river so you can zip across one part of the city to another by ferry. Went on to Mooloolaba (hubby came too), and spent two nights and a day walking, eating, and reading Fiona Wood's Six Impossible Things, which I finished on the plane. It's delightful, charming, witty... well worth your time.

Didn't have Internet access in Mooloolaba, which is why I couldn't fill you in on my last day of the BWF until now...

Friday's session was called 'Let's Talk About Religion' and it was chaired by Belinda Jeffrey, who wrote an excellent book called Brown Skin Blue. She's also just published another one - literally just out - called Big River, Little Fish which I haven't yet had a chance to read. Anyway, the session took place in the Breezeway, which is basically a big red tent set up outdoors between the State Library and the Gallery of Modern Art (where my other sessions were) and it went really well. Not only do I love talking about my book, I also love talking about religion...

Anyway, after the session ended I headed over to the designated author-signing area - has anyone else noticed that school kids rarely line up with the actual book in hand, but with bookmarks, notebooks or scraps of paper to be signed instead? Some just want a bit of a chat, or to ask a question they didn't have a chance to ask during the session. And sometimes it's not the kids, but their teachers, who have comments or questions.

Most of the comments and questions are the sort of thing you might expect, but on Friday after my session something rather bizarre happened. An elderly teacher from a Christian school thought this might be an appropriate time to try to convert me. She wanted to know whether I had considered Christianity, whether I had read the New Testament (assuring me that everything would fall into place if I did), and whether I had delved into what Jesus had to say...

Moving on...

I absolutely loved every moment of my experience both at the MWF (too short) and the BWF, and hope I'll be asked to attend again.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Brisbane Writers Festival contd. and Why teens think bigger than adults

The Festival was buzzing today, as a steady stream of both adults and kids flowed through the various venues. My sessions went well. The online session was a first for me. What a great way of involving kids from regional schools!

Simone Howell posted a link to an article by Jason Steiger about the session at the MWF on why teens think bigger than adults. Apparently, the writers featured spoke of the sense of wonder kids have, and how important it is to maintain that sense of wonder in order to view the world with the fresh eyes of a curious child.

I think another reason teens think bigger than adults is that their prejudices have not yet set in. Where some adults' opinions are so firmly set that nothing can possibly change their minds, teens are more open to to other viewpoints. And unlike younger kids who tend to buy into whatever it is their parents are selling, teens are at a time in their lives when they're ready to challenge previously unexamined ideas and beliefs.

Books help them to do that. They also help keep alive that sense of wonder Lia Hills and Jostein Gaardner spoke of, and give them (albeit vicariously) experiences they might not otherwise have.

Can you think of any other reasons teens think bigger than adults? Please let me know.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My First Writers Festivals… uh, as a writer, that is…

Yesterday morning I left my luggage in a locker at Southern Cross Station and continued on to Fed Square for my session, Family Matters. By the time I found the Green Room I was much later than I’d anticipated, but luckily, I did make it to my session on time. I hope I managed to appear cool, calm and collected by the time the kids filed in.

Amra looked striking in a brightly coloured dress and bright red coat, in contrast to my purple and black. Ruby is tall and slim and is the sort of person who looks elegant even in jeans, and she chaired the session with grace and professionalism. She gave a (brief) bio about us both, then asked each of us to tell the audience about our books and read an extract.

We discussed, among other things, the degree to which our work was informed by our own lives, how people have reacted to our novels, and to what extent they recognise themselves in our stories. We also talked about the fact that what kids grow up believing is so much a result of their upbringing and the families who raise them, and that there comes a time when they themselves begin to realise this.

The audience were terrific – very interested and attentive. I’m not sure exactly which schools were represented, but I did recognize the uniforms of The King David School (Year 9 was there) and Xavier College – it was great to know that boys too are reading my book despite the ballerina on the cover.

After the session I got to meet Kirsty Murray (yay!) – she’d come to see Ruby, her daughter, who did her proud – and we had a nice chat.

Brisbane greeted me last night with lovely warm weather. I arrived too late to attend the Qld Premier's Literary Awards, though I was chuffed to be invited. This morning I met Fiona Wood and we  had breakfast together. Just bought her book, Six Impossible Things, and am looking forward to reading it. Also met Dave Hackett and Rebecca Sparrow.

My session went well. I was introduced and interviewed by Joy Lawn, longstanding member of the
CBCA and current judge of the fiction award for younger readers. She's really gentle and softly spoken.

The kids were fabulous. They were really engaged, and their questions were intelligent and thoughtful. I'm looking forward to tomorrow.