My old cat

photo-1I’m sitting on my bed working and my old cat is lying next to me, pushing her head against me and purring. Every so often, I take my hands off the keyboard and rub her head hard, kneading her ears, and her purring intensifies and her big paws reach out to grasp my hands and hold them there.

I’ve had my old cat since she was a kitten: fourteen years to be precise. She was a little scrap of a thing with big round eyes and a face like a little bear. Her go-to move was the silent miao. Her face would miao, her mouth would open, but no sound would come out. She still does that. It’s her way of saying, “Hello, I am here.”

Her whiskers are turning silver now and she doesn’t do much but lie around. She tolerates the dogs because she knows she is top of the tree. She sheds too much, she dribbles like a tap, but she needs me more than ever because she is old.

Lying here, stroking her soft, light head makes me feel as if the sun is shining on me gently. Everyone should have an old cat. It’s a beautiful thing.

Plot driven versus character driven? All bullshit.

From time to time, aspiring writers ask me what is the best kind of story: one that is plot-driven or one that is character-driven? Somehow the idea that the two are distinct and one can be privileged over the other persists. “Character-driven” is usually seen as the mark of serious writing, while “plot-driven” is understood to be written by hacks pandering to the marketplace. This is a false distinction, and a potentially dangerous one at that. No writer can afford to overlook one or the other: a good story is driven by both good plot ideas and good characters. The trick is managing them right.

1. A story isn’t a story until it has people and problems. These two things (character and plot) cannot in any way be conceived outside of each othttp://www.quickmeme.com/img/8d/8dc1c587351499e97e4ebaf3e21ca63ba55b4fa764b8e4f9d0fe1c1d3cb0f582.jpgher. An idea for a fascinating character means little until that character is challenged in some way; and a high-stakes plot idea means little if it isn’t focalised through three-dimensional people whose thoughts and feelings can be communicated to the reader.

2. What the writer must know first and foremost is the relationship between the people and the problems. Why is this person involved in this problem? Is it random? Or is it a function of the very person they are? What kind of attempts do they make to solve the problem, and where do those attempted solutions lead them? You must always think of the problem as belonging to somebody: a story describes that relationship between people and their problems.

3. Use the problems to create the narrative steps. How is your character going to get out of their predicament? What new problems can arise? The problems create the horizontal movement of the story, from beginning, through middle, and to the end; the movement that sustains narrative interest and keeps your reader turning pages. In some respects, the plot is driven by character: it evolves uniquely from the people and their responses to the problem they were given on page one.

4. Use the people to create the emotional connection. How does it feel to experience this problem? What history of acts and ideas does the character bring to the problem at hand? What do they think of their problem? This creates the vertical depth of your story; the depth that makes the story emotionally meaningful to your reader. In some respects, the characters are driven by the plot: they evolve uniquely from the narrative trajectory, which brings about their transformation from the person they were on page one, to the person they are when you write “the end”.

Friday Writing Tip: Managing Scope

Do some writing this weekend, y’all.

Stories come in all lengths, but it can be hard to judge the scope of a story before http://fantasticthoughts.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/95f3d-19wizardofoz.jpg?w=240&h=185you start writing it. You might find as you write that the story is pulling up too short, or going on far too long.

  • Consider your form. A short story simply can’t deal with too many ideas. A novel has to represent nuance and complexity. If you misjudge, you might end up with a novella.
  • Consider your genre. These things aren’t set in stone, but audiences expect certain word lengths in certain genres. Epic high fantasy, for example, is usually long. Literary fiction, by contrast, is often short.
  • Consider your target age group: Generally speaking, novels for children and young adult are shorter than novels written for adults.

So, what do you do if your first draft of a historical epic for adults is only 40 000 words long?

  • Look for a character with potential for development. What is their version of the story? Could it make a worthy subplot?
  • Check that you haven’t rushed the plot. The tension should rise slowly over the course of the story: perhaps you’ve simply peaked too soon, and need to go back and write a few “spacer” scenes.
  • Look for scenes where you have summarised and see if you can dramatise instead. Sometimes in our hurry to get things down, we don’t take the time to lay out details. For example, “Frodo took the ring to Mount Doom” cuts out a lot of interesting action.

Conversely, what do you do if your young adult romance clocks in at 250 000 words?

  • Check that you haven’t started the story too early. A story should start with a point of strong narrative interest, not with acres of character history.
  • Reduce the amount of viewpoint characters. Do you really need all of those perspectives on the action?
  • Cut all repetition. Look for characters who perform similar functions, scenes that describe similar actions, even sentences that say the same thing twice.
  • Look at every scene and decide whether or not it’s contributing meaningfully to the progress of the story. Those that don’t will have to go.

Of course, a story is as long as it is, and you shouldn’t feel you have to cut out important things, or puff it up with irrelevant subplots. But if you are determined to be published consider the expectations of your reader, and don’t wear out your welcome or abandon them too soon.

 

Why I loved Godzilla

So this is not a review, but a discussion about all the cool stuff in the latest Godzilla movie, so it has a billion spoilers. If you want to just watch the trailer then run away, here it is:

In the 70s, my brother and I would lie flat out on the living room floor and watch 1950s daikaiju movies on the TV together. I remember being particularly affected by Mothra, though now I see pictures of him I wonder why. Godzilla is, of course, the most famous of the daikaiju, a monster who lays waste to Japanese cities the way that the atom bomb laid waste to Hiroshima and Nagasaki just a decade earlier.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/29/Godzilla_%2754_design.jpg

Now you probably all know by now that I love the b-grade stuff big time. I don’t go to see art movies because it seems a waste of a trip to the cinema if there are no ‘splosions (and a waste of money because I love Gold Class where you can eat ice-cream and drink wine), and then I tend not to watch much on the small screen at home because I get bored and uncomfortable and would rather be reading in bed.

But I’m pretty particular about my b-grade viewing. It has to have something special for me to LOVE it, and 2014’s Godzilla was a movie I loved. Given the shitty reviews it’s getting everywhere, I figured I should explain why. Because, honestly, there’s a lot of crappy stuff in it too. At one point during the movie, my viewing partner and I turned to each other and rolled our eyes, and I whispered to him, “Let’s drink quicker.” A little wine makes the suspension of disbelief much easier.

Having said that, though, this movie nails it in so many ways that I forgave every flaw.

The film starts off with the kind of stuff that orients the viewer to expect what they’ve seen before in disaster flicks. I settled in with my Sauv Blanc and pork sliders and got to know the key characters, then BLAMMO a couple of them were dead. Slowly a theme emerged: the tissue-like ephemerality and savage randomness of human existence. People come together or they don’t. They save each other or they don’t. They survive or they don’t. No pattern of story-telling or genre seemed to govern the fates of characters. More and more, I began to notice that humans looked tiny and futile: swarming up the sides of a mine, or out in their cars jammed on the freeway, or running from a tsunami. A mass of undifferentiated and  almost completely ineffectual creatures, dwarfed by the extreme zoom-out or by the size of the daikaiju stomping on their stuff. The scene near the end, where the hero (by lucky happenstance a bomb disposal expert) is stranded on a boat with a ticking bomb ends nothing like you expect it will. It’s written all over his face: there’s nothing he can do. No message of America-fuck-yeah glory-of-human-action can be taken from this film. We are all fucking ants.

In a stupefying contrast of scope is Godzilla: big, beautiful, and b’dass. How I loved him. Especially the bit where (extreme spoiler alert) he grabs that other monster, spews blue lightning down its throat, then rips its freaking head off. I may have fist-pumped in the cinema (but then, I had drunk my wine quite quickly).

Godzilla was a glorious movie to watch. The last forty-five minutes, in particular, featured a series of beautiful set-pieces. The HALO jump that opens the trailer embedded above looked like a Gustave Dore woodprint, shaded in gold and fire. This last act of the movie blew my tiny mind, and I forgave any awkwardness that came before. Sheer, beautiful pandemonium. Godzilla is awesome in every sense of the word.

 

So, it’s been a while…

Surrealistic-Paintings-Salvador-Dali-Spain-06 I know, I know. I should have written before now. I got sick at the start of the year and have been playing catch-up ever since.

Rest assured that I’ve been busy. The big news is that the book formerly known as Garden of the Mad King is going to be published in November! At laaaaaaaaaaast! The new title the publishers have chosen is “Daughters of the Storm”. They’ve signed me up for a series, so YAY. I hope to have an extract and a cover to show you soon.

In order to make sure I keep the blog up-to-date, I’m introducing a new thing, which is every Friday around lunchtime I’m going to release a quick writing tip.

If you haven’t already, please sign up for my Facebook author page. There will be news and giveaways and other nonsense there regularly.

And finally, I gave a TEDx talk in March, and you can watch it below: It’s about being creative amid distractions. Don’t get too distracted now:

 

Your Writing Fitness

About a year ago, without really intending to, I started to get fit. I am a girl with a permanent moontan who has spent a great deal of her life in libraries, so don’t underestimate how unusual it is in my profession to be physically active or outdoorsy. It started with me buying a bicycle, then deciding I was going to ride it to the top of the mountain near my house. It took a few months for me to get all the way to the top (up the easy side), and then another few to make it regularly all the way around, then a few more to make it up the hard side and around (which is now my regular route). Because I started to get muscles in my legs and feared looking like a Tyrannosaurus, I then signed up with an exercise physiologist to do some upper body work once a week, then did a bit more of that, got back into my pilates, decided to learn to swim, and so on. It was kind of an avalanche of physical activity and I certainly feel wonderful for it (especially boxing; lord how I love boxing). My back has never been better and I’ve put on 4kg of lean muscle (still can’t get lids off jars though) and my resting heart rate is 62 beats per minute. I like to imagine my heart looking like Conan, pumping out such a big whoosh of bubbling blood every second that it can rest and pick its teeth in between.
kim on a bike
But this isn’t about physical fitness, it’s about writing fitness. While riding my bike around and around that mountain, I have had plenty of time to reflect on my writing and about writing habits in general. These are the five lessons about writing fitness I have learned from regular exercise.
1. A 6-week binge won’t improve your skills measurably and permanently. You need to do a little every day if you want results. Think sustainable, not grandiose goals that won’t stick.
2. There is always somebody faster than you. Don’t compete with them.
3. There is always somebody who seems to get to the top of the hill with much less effort than you. Sometimes it’s because they have an advantage, like a personal mentor, or a family who have encouraged them since birth, or expensive equipment. Don’t compare yourself with them.
4. Your writing fitness will be apparent in more than just measurable goals such as word count. It will be in nuanced craft things that you don’t notice at first, but which start to come naturally and readily where they didn’t before.
5. Find a way to enjoy the process rather than solely being motivated by the outcome.

That’s it.

Read, and let Read

In light of this ridiculous article on the differences between “mainstream” and “literary” writing, I’ve decided to reprint here an article I originally wrote several years ago.

So what is the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction? James Cowan says literary fiction “endure[s] in the imagination”, while genre fiction is an “opiate… designed to titillate”. Judy Wilson says literary fiction is “craft” and genre fiction is “production line work”. Nancy J. Holland says literary fiction is “intellectual work”, “artful”, “new richness”, while genre fiction is “low brow”, “flat, without depth”, “the exact same thing”. Rosemary Neill says literary fiction is “chiselled out over six years”, while genre fiction is “tossed off in six weeks”. Hmm…. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a distinct feeling that these people think literary fiction is better than genre fiction. Of course, that would explain why lit fic is the default setting in the Australian literary community: it wins the lucrative awards, gets most of the review space, does better in arts funding. And yet, nobody has ever managed to explain to me satisfactorily why literary fiction is so superior to genre fiction.

But, of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I? I am steeped in the worlds of genre fiction, both as a writer and as a reader, and have been since I found my way through the back of the wardrobe at age 7. I learned a particular way of reading—a set of competencies, if you will—that continues to colour the way I read today. And if there’s any point I want to make above all others, this is it: what we have read and enjoyed in the past primes us for a particular kind of reception of certain works. If you are a fan of lit fic, I can almost guarantee you won’t find “quality” in the genres that I find it in. It may surprise you to know that I don’t find much to like in lit fic either: it kind of all looks the same to me.

I like to explain it this way: there is a lot of pleasure to be taken from familiarity—coming home is always nice, as is putting on worn-in shoes, or heading out to a favourite restaurant, or upholding a family ritual. There’s also the distaste we feel for too much predictability—some of us just can’t be “it’s Tuesday so it’s meatloaf” people. Where familiarity tips over into predictability is going to be unique for everyone. A fantasy novel with a medieval setting is always welcome on my bookshelf (pleasure in familiarity) but I will roll my eyes if it features a farm boy who doesn’t know he’s the prophesied saviour of his realm (contempt for predictability). The interesting thing is that if we read in other genres where we feel no pleasurable familiarity, all that is left is contemptible predictability. So, if you’re a lit fic reader and you pick up a book about dragons and castles (maybe even dragons that live in castles), you’re probably already rolling your eyes. How predictable! But, if you’re a fantasy reader and you pick up a book about the struggles of small-town folk, written in a self-conscious overly stylised way, you roll your eyes pretty fast too. Lit fic is utterly predictable to people who don’t read it, trust me. “But that’s only because they don’t understand it!” you say.

Yeah. Ditto.

Why do I even care, you may ask. If I like what I like and you like what you like, then let’s stop all this fighting (and may I just add with a petulant whine: “lit fic started it!”). But there’s more at stake, as I see it, than just a squabble over who deserves the good reviews and who deserves the cashola (tip: both kinds of authors want good reviews and cashola, preferably in large measure). The problem is that as long as we perpetuate this divide between worthy writing (lit fic) and other writing (genre fiction), then we aren’t getting a robust idea of what Australian literature really is.

An article published in 2006 in The Australian asks, what is “killing the great books” of Australia. It suggests that in 25 years “nobody will be reading novels” and cites alarming statistics for the “shrinking canon” of “Australian fiction.” How terrifying! You have to look really hard to find the asterisk and the subscript: “excludes genre fiction.” But fiction written in Australia by Australian writers and published by Australian publishers…. that’s Australian fiction, right? Right? Well, apparently not. And the choice of language is so telling: Australian literature has become far too “exclusive” and our understanding of its function and influence is therefore very incomplete. We discuss and analyse Australian literature to understand our culture better, to know what is unique about us. From this discussion and analysis we plan arts policy, decide how government and arts organisations should work together, settle on funding priorities, and review the ways that readers and books are brought together. And yet we are basing all these conclusions on only one small sliver of Australian literature: we continue to exclude the majority of books. It is such a blinkered approach. The defence, often trotted out, that genre books do well in the marketplace and so don’t need any kind of cultural or governmental attention is stunningly naive. Last time I looked, Kate Grenville was selling a lot more books than I do.

Moreover, we need to respect more fully the needs and opinions of readers. They are, after all, the chief reason that writers publish. Anyone can write for the sake of writing, but somebody who seeks publication seeks an audience. That audience is developed in many ways, and one of them is through the mainstream media. But in the literary pages of the mainstream media, again, we see a bias against genre writing. In 2003 Peter Carey’s lit fic My Life As A Fake and Lian Hearn’s fantasy novel Grass For His Pillow were published a month apart (August and September respectively). Both sold in the 30,000 to 40,000 hardcover sales category, a significant bestseller by Australian standards. Over the next nine months, the Australian media ran 70 headlines out of 367 articles about Carey; and only 7 headlines out of 49 articles about Hearn. The same year, Jane Goodall’s The Walker and Gabrielle Lord’s Lethal Factor (both crime novels) sold comparably to Janette Turner Hospital’s Due Preparations For The Plague (11000 to 12000 copies). In the eighteen months surrounding the books’ publications, Goodall garnered 17 mentions in the Australian media, Lord 19 and Turner Hospital 56. The example of romance fiction, a genre usually held in low esteem, offers no surprises. Belinda Alexandra’s White Gardenia attracted 2 headlines (one titled “Flower Power”), while Melanie La’Brooy’s Love Struck attracted 4. Alex Miller’s Journey To The Stone Country, which sold similar quantities in that year, attracted 29 headlines out of a total of 86 articles. Yes, okay Miller won the Miles Franklin that year, but it still shows that books of comparable commercial significance receive unequal attention from the Australian media based on genre. In real terms, these figures suggest that readers are going to have a much harder time finding articles about their favourite genre authors, than about their favourite lit fic authors. Number one: that’s not fair. Number two: is there a chance that the low regard for these books might actually make readers feel ashamed or stupid for reading them?

The latter idea is one that particularly irks me, and feeds into one of my biggest issues with the way that lit fic is assumed to be our default mode of Australian writing: it’s plain undemocratic. I’m always amazed at how elitist lovers of lit fic can be about fiction, especially when so many of them seem lefter than Lenin in other ways. Dan Brown recently published a new novel, The Lost Symbol, six years after The Da Vinci Code. The new book was the very definition of “long-awaited”: both by readers and by snarky reviewers. It was entirely predictable, then, that shots would be fired the moment the book hit the stores. An article in UK publication The First Post, for example, warned readers not to be “tempted” to buy it as there are so many books by “better writers” out there. The article then goes on to suggest a number of alternatives. Some of them look good; some of them, I’m certain, Dan Brown readers will have already found (Stieg Larsson’s for example). But some of them belong to the School of Wha…? Imagine this exchange in a book store:

CUSTOMER: Excuse me, I am looking for the new Dan Brown novel.
SALES ASSISTANT: I’m sorry, but we’re fresh out. However, I do have many copies of Paradise Lost still in stock.
CUSTOMER: Wonderful. I will take a copy as I am sure they will provide a similar reading experience.

Seriously? Paradise Lost? I’ve read both John Milton and Dan Brown and, just quietly, they’ve not a lot in common. There’s so much wrong with this article. It bags the common reader’s taste; it assumes (incorrectly) that it knows why the common reader reads the books they do; and it suggests that the common reader read something a little less common as it would be Improving. I am reminded of the shout line that appears on Umberto Eco’s official website regarding his book Foucault’s Pendulum: it’s “a thinking man’s Da Vinci Code.” A thinking man? Let’s put aside the gender issue (that noise, by the way, is the grinding of my teeth) but what on earth has given Eco the notion that Dan Brown readers don’t think? Is it just because they’re not thinking of Foucault because, I’ve got to tell you, I sometimes go weeks without a single Foucault-related thought. Making an audience feel dumb is a really good way to lock them out of an art form all together. Why would you read if you were in danger of being outed as an unthinking woman? Every time I hear somebody say they felt embarrassed about reading a book on the train (usually a romance), I want to weep. Read what you like; life is so short and books are so much fun.

I realise that much of what I say may be uncomfortable for many supporters of lit fic to hear. Am I an insane relativist, hell-bent on the destruction of all that is good in overworked metaphors? No, I’m not. I am a critical reader, and I acknowledge that some writing is much better than other writing. I just don’t believe that all the quality is located in one genre. This is an idea that gains traction by our insistence on seeing lit fic and genre fiction as opposites. They aren’t. Lit fic is a genre, just like crime or fantasy or romance.

Genres aren’t as rule-bound as people generally believe. Sure, there are some familiar aspects to genres (that’s how we recognise them as genres), but genres are actually a product of complex processes that are continually being negotiated and renegotiated between authors and their readers and the industry that brings them together. Genres are changing and shifting all the time, spawning sub-genres and hybrids. The real difference between lit fic and genre fiction is that lit fic is the only genre that doesn’t know it’s a genre. It likes to think it follows no well-worn paths. But it does: that’s how you know a lit fic novel when you see one. It centres on recognisable material, follows a recognisable trajectory, makes use of a recognisable style.
It’s interesting to note that film criticism has nowhere near the difficulty talking about genres that literature does. Romantic comedies, thrillers, and art-house are all genres. Nobody tries to claim that some films fall outside classification because of their quality and originality. Art-house produces quite a few pointless turkeys, and the occasional romcom is a work of art (ah… The Wedding Singer…). If you take the 10% across the top of all the genres you find the best quality films. Same for literature. We must move past the idea that, in the field of writing, all the quality is aggregated in the one place.

How we define quality is, of course, a slippery operation. It seems to me that we are stuck in a mindset, characteristic of the late 20th /early 21st century, that says originality is king. Originality is great, I absolutely agree, but I’m uncomfortable with holding it up as the single defining marker of quality writing. Are writers supposed to be telling stories or conducting experiments? Forgive me, but I believe very firmly it’s the former. The impulse to experience a story—to move through beginning, middle, and end—is a profoundly and uniquely human pleasure. I think, in our attempt to define quality, one thing has been continually overlooked: heart.

Heart is what I always look for in a book: a deep, human connection with the characters that is unique and feels real. I like a book that can make me cry, or make me laugh, or frighten me, or provoke joy, or temper my fear of death; then slam me home again, leaving me with the feeling that I’ve been somewhere wonderful and I’m a better person for it. For preference, I like all of these things in the one book. A book should read as though it’s been written with care and passion and deep commitment. And I don’t care if it took six weeks or six years: just however long it took is fine. Nobody calls Handel a hack for writing The Messiah in 24 days. Problem is, heart is often confounded with sentimentality, which, I understand, is a very grievous sin in the lit fic world. And so, much lit fic, to my mind, is detached, cold, overly intellectual, circuitous, iterative, never quite gets to the thing of it. But, yes, I concede that it’s often more original. Though originality doesn’t inspire me to press a book close to my bosom and sigh.

But I don’t hate lit fic; I don’t see it as my enemy. I want lit fic lovers to keep reading it and loving it. People who love to read are the best kind of people in the world. All I’m trying to do in this article is challenge a few misconceptions, and open up a space for mutual understanding instead of mutual suspicion. Read and let read, I say. Write and let write.