It is time for me to sweep away the negativity and sweariness from the front page of my blog, and talk about something positive. I’ve had a few batches of new students in the past couple of weeks: a new Year of the Novel group, a new Year of the Edit group, and two new courses at uni. It’s been so lovely to talk to them about writing. Together we’ve discussed inspiration, creativity, best times of the day to write, responsibility to the story, and ideas, ideas, ideas. It constantly amazes me that I’ve taught so many people over the last seven years, and yet each one of them has something unique to express. Even if they sometimes write about similar things, the stories always come out so differently, and I always get a little thrill of excitement when somebody tells me what it is they want to write during a course.

Sometimes teaching makes me weary, but I don’t think that I could actually give it up now. I’m quite addicted to it. I feel a bit like a midwife, sometimes, and it is quite an honour to be present at the birth of something new and so passionately loved. Of course it isn’t possible to stay in touch with everyone after a course, or help everyone develop their MS to publication (I apply the rule of Mum before I take on any work mentoring: if I haven’t seen my Mum for a week, then I’m too busy), but it’s nice to have had each student in my life however briefly. A little spark for my engines.

Postscript, or, Some Journalists can’t be Trusted*

Those of you who recall my angry, swear-filled post on PIRs may remember that I was interviewed for The Australian that week, then the interview wasn’t used. Interesting, then, to see this piece in The Weekend Australian by the very same journalist:

But one of the most depressing moments in the past few weeks was supplied by an agent who, when approached to contact one of her authors (a woman whose three novels have done so well she has international status), said she did not think it was appropriate for the author to comment. The author was too young even to understand what was going on (she’s 30-odd), according to the agent; besides, she was in the middle of writing a book, so was probably unable to think about anything else. Pathetic.

That “pathetic” agent was somebody very close to me, and this journalist whom I won’t name (let’s call her Ms Sorensen… no, that gives too much away; let’s call her Rosemary S) has only told half the truth. Yes, The Agent did turn down her request to contact The Author, but that’s what agents do: they know where their authors are at, what other demands are being made of them, how close their deadlines are, and they decide what’s best for them. For the record, my understanding is that The Agent didn’t say The Author was too young; rather, she said that The Author hadn’t been in the industry very long. (Also, basic fact check issue: The Author has only published 2 books, not 3).

The other thing that Rosemary S hasn’t said is that The Agent–who is a passionate advocate of Australian books–gave her the number of another author who might be able to help: somebody she had already had a number of long and detailed conversations with about PIRs, and whom The Agent thought might be able to offer useful commentary.That author was me, dear reader, and we all know how that turned out.

As an aside, Rosemary S was somebody with whom I’ve had a friendly professional relationship over the years. We’ve had a few drinks together in the past, she’s slung a bit of work my way, etc. So this is all the more dismaying to me. The two people of whom she wrote are very much in my inner circle, a favourite aunty and a sister-figure, if you will. Am I taking this personally? Well, yes, I am; there is simply no other way for me to take it.

Now, I’m not going to call anyone a fucking liar or even an unprofessional hack. That would be harsh. But I am going to look a bit closer at this word “pathetic”. Tossed off like that in a column, it only has its common meaning: limp, weak, not good enough. In fact, the word means, according to the OED, “exciting pity, sympathy, or sadness”. I certainly feel sad for a professional relationship lost; I certainly feel sympathy for the two good women so unfairly maligned in Rosemary S’s bitter dummy-spit; and, yes, I feel more pity than scorn for the journalist. The whole situation is pathetic, isn’t it?

* of course, some journalists are very nice 🙂

The science of editing

I’ve just finished my first edit of “Field of Clouds” and the whole process went really well. Now it’ll go off to my agent, who may have more to add, and then to my publishers, who will no doubt have much for me to fix.

For those of you embarking on a self-edit, the most important thing to remember is to be methodical and detached. You can get swamped in an edit very easily. I always tell my students that it is like autopsying a puppy. If you can’t be methodical and detached, then more puppies may die. Rule number one is to have a printed copy of the MS, and go through it first with a pen, marking what’s wrong. Don’t try to fix it on the first pass, just make a note in the margin about what’s wrong. (Okay, if you know the perfect substitute word then put it in, but in general don’t fix, just mark). I do this, all the while imagining that I’m not the person who has to fix it. Makes it far less overwhelming (though a little more pathological).

Then take your MS back to your computer, and start at the beginning making the changes you’ve noted. Do the easy ones right away (e.g. typos, deletions, small rewrites) in order. The ones that are a bit harder or need a bit more thought, mark them with a note (I used the “review” menu in Word for Vista) and keep moving on. Once you get to the end of the MS, you can count up your notes. For this MS, I originally had 63. Then you can work on screen, methodically fixing them one at a time. They don’t have to be in order: fix the easy ones first so you get a sense of satisfaction, seeing the number grow smaller and smaller.

For those big structural issues, isolate the sections that need to be worked on. For example, in this MS I had a love affair that felt a bit rushed. I isolated the problem to a particular group of nine chapters, then just concentrated on reading through those, weaving in an extra line here and there, and then writing one extra scene.

What always surprises me about editing (pleasantly, as I’m usually daunted and avoidant about doing the work) is how little is actually needed to effect big changes. I had a huge motivation issue with one of my characters: she does something that seemed awkward and implausible. So, again, I isolated the group of chapters that were bothering me and made a note for every scene on “how is she feeling about her current situation?”. It took minutes to identify that her feelings were inconsistent, and minutes again to excise the internalisations that didn’t fit and replace them with ones that did.

It’s impossible to know if the MS is working now. Ideally I’d put it away for a few months and come back to a complete read-through, and I don’t have the luxury of that time. The next person who reads it will have to tell me if it’s okay. So this is a good stage to seek feedback from trusted writing buddies. Certainly, the next pass will involve finessing the expression a bit more.

Right, on to the changing of the notebooks. All of this paperwork and research is being filed, and my next story’s notebook is making its way onto my desk. Onwards.

Really, really angry (be warned: swears)

I am so fucking pissed off right now, and I’ve spent the last couple of days writing polite and considered letters, so here is my chance to say what I really think.

Yesterday, the productivity commission, in its infinite bullheaded ignorance, recommended lifting the restrictions on parallel importation that protect the Australian publishing industry. What does that mean in simple terms? Well, if an edition of one of my books comes out at the same time in the US, and the US copy is a nasty cheap version with no “u”s in the word “colour”, bookstores over here are free to import the nasty cheap version instead of selling the Australian (correctly spelled) version. The profit will leave the country and go to a US publisher, I will be paid less because (1) it’s a cheap version and (2) US publishers offer lower royalty rates.

The Australian publishing industry is a beautiful, yet delicately balanced eco-system. It operates on the slimmest of margins, and once those margins disappear, the whole shebang is put at risk. Where do they get the money to pay the printers, the sales reps, the transport workers, and so on and so on? Who’s going to lose their jobs first? (Hint: it’s the writers, both published and yet-to-be published. Imagine the voices we might never hear). What is now a thriving and wonderful business will become a cottage industry: publishers will become glorified distributors for overseas product. Oh, by the way, the US and the UK are smart enough NOT to have an open market. But they’re going to totally love ours; they will be in here like fucking wolves.

The most vociferous supporters of this unholy mess are, of course, the ugly greedy corporations. Dymocks, for example, who bang on about how it’s going to make books “cheaper for everyone”. Well they are big fat fucking liars, because they could make books “cheaper for everyone” if they immediately stopped the practice of charging more than the recommended retail price for books whenever they fancied. Do not listen to them: they are not interested in promoting literacy, they are interested in putting gold flakes in their water coolers.

One of the things that pisses me off the most is the way that authors are being frowned upon for talking about how the changes will affect their incomes. That hoary old romantic chestnut about real art not concerning itself with commerce gets an airing. “Artists aren’t supposed to want money!” (blanches). Well, you can’t buy your groceries at Coles with artistic integrity. Doesn’t fucking work. Tried it. Why shouldn’t I care if I lose money? Should everybody who likes their job be happy just to do it for free?

Yesterday The Australian hauled me out of my office to take my photo looking cranky in an independent bookshop and interviewed me about what I thought, for today’s paper. I’m not in today’s paper, and nor is my photo. There is a photo of a teenager with gigantic tits (in a Dymocks: they’re getting shitloads of free advertising this week) who is happy that she will be able to buy cheap books now. She can’t even vote. Why did I waste my fucking time and breath?  The media likes the issue because it has two very clearly opposed sides and they’re getting top page-filling mileage out of it. They don’t give a fuck who wins (tits may win), cos they’re still going to have jobs when the publishing industry shrivels up.

And plenty of journos are bitter, scorned, unpublished novelists anyway. Just saying.

So the productivity commission suggests to offset any loss of income for writers (note: by saying this they show that they do believe writers will lose income) the government should look at increasing funding for writers. I’m sorry, but that’s just a leeetle too vague for my liking. Does that mean the government, rather than the readers, are going to decide what constitutes suitable Australian literature? Am I the only person who can see the looming disaster here? “We asked around at some universities and have decided on more contemporaryrealistliteraryfiction for everyone!” “Excuse me, Mr Government, can I have some money for my book with dragons in it?” “Dragons!” (blanches AND faints).

If you want to do something, write to Peter Garrett. Write to the PM. Write to your local member. It still has to get through parliament. Write them letters, not emails. And shop at independent bookstores. Give Dymocks a big swerve. Google the issue. Mark Seymour did a great article on it, comparing it to the nightmare that was the deregulation of the music industry.

And bring on the digital revolution.

Winter wonderland

P1050480Just back today from Tasmania, where I finalised my research for “Field of Clouds”. I’ve been to Tassie half a dozen times now, but have never seen it so green (and so cold! sub-zero nights and mornings!) I must confess to having developed a much greater appreciation of the Australian landscape through writing this book. I am ordinarily such a Europhile. But the contrast of the rolling English-style countryside with the eucalypts and lomandra is so unique and so beautiful. I wrote a whole page of notes describing mist, cold, trees, fields, and shadows. I also did a complete read-through of the MS and marked up all the things that need fixing (there are many). I had a long chat, too, with the owner of the farm we stayed on, and that was invaluable. A few ideas in the book that were ad hoc and a bit random came together beautifully. When that happens, writing feels like a kind of alchemy: elements transformed. I really like this book. Really, really.

A first scene

I’ve written a prologue and a first scene for my new book, an intimate epic fantasy called “The Garden of the Mad King.” I’ve been fiddling with a few ideas for a while, and have mapped out the first couple of chapters vaguely. But books are made of more than vague ideas, they are made of concrete scenes. Scenes that start somewhere, do something, then end somewhere. So “character A finds a portentous symbol on a guy she just killed” is not made of the stuff that people like to read. But once you set the scene: twilit snow, blood, a horse breathing hot fog; and imagine how it feels: the post-battle ache, the angry fear; and shade in some history to fill in what it all means, then you have a scene. You just need a killer opening line to drag the reader in, and a killer closing line to spit them back out the other side with enough momentum to land in the next scene.

I must warn in advance: don’t look for superfast word counts with this one. I’m taking my time. I’ve been influenced by the Anglo-Saxon elegies, and I want to imbue every scene, if I can, with that feel of melancholy longing. I intend to spend at least a year in this world, because ultimately I am writing it for my own pleasure, to recapture the feeling I had as a child: new, crisp-paged notebook; quiet place where nobody will bother me; head full of delicious ideas. For the first time in many years, I’m writing without a contract. If it sells to somebody, that’s great. If it doesn’t, look here for the free downloadable pdf!