Saturday, January 31, 2009

Yes those are photos of a kitten but don't be alarmed folks...

Don't be alarmed folks, I'm not one to wax lyrical at epic length about my pets, but today is an exception as we have a new member of the family. As we all know any baby has an extra degree of photogenia and this one is no exception. Originally a bribe to squeeze a fourth form (yr 10) book log out of my eldest daughter to gain an english NCEA credit, we finally got Uneous (my daughter's appellation of choice, rhymes with Eunice - long story) last Monday. She is sweet, petite and smart and has won us all over - except for the dog. Our west highland white terrier, Robbie, believes she is a treat for his enjoyment. Apparently she has 'eat me' written on her forehead in dogese. Who knew?
I thought the most difficult part would be toilet training but she already had that sussed before she even came home with us. No, the hardest thing will be getting the dog to like her. She is also housebound until 2 weeks after her final vaccination on February 13. There is a lot of closed doors and 'have you seen the kitten?' and 'where's the dog?' We have had cats before and Robbie got on well with our last two, Claude and Izzie. But they were adults when we got him. They took no prisoners. He knew his place and they were fine with him considering any other cat who ventured on to the property fair game. I am enroling Uneous on a self-defense course as soon as possible.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

So thats how a critique group can work...I finally get it

There has been the most interesting post happening here by Jane Smith at How Publishing Really Works on writers who only take criticism if its positive. Following on from a post I wrote recently on my fears about the benefits of critique groups, one comment by Tania Hershman neatly summed up one way an effective critique group can work:-

"The main aim is for the group to learn more about the art and craft of writing from critiquing each other's work. It's raw material, I suppose, a way to see what works and what doesn't and then to apply it to our own work. If the writer receives helpful advice on her particular story, that's almost a fringe benefit."

Once I read this the lightbulb came on in my head. I still think you need to find the right mix of people. Its better to be in a group of folk at a similar stage and whose company you enjoy and respect, but from this perspective I agree that critique groups can make a worthwhile difference to our writing. I feel enlightened - how cool is that. Sorry if I've been wittering on about something thats been obvious to the rest of you all along!

I've also been feeling emboldened. After my recent prolific (for me) short story writing and submissions to an anthology I went on to submit an idea for a longer work today. In the past, if i have not had most or all of a complete work to put forward, I have turned away from writing opportunities. The brief today was generous in allowing incomplete works but I wasn't afraid to take advantage of it. I have to say I found the whole thing very exciting. I guess I will have to get off my proverbial and actually produce the work now, but the knowledge that it may be of interest to a publisher and that I have put it out there is extremely motivating. Helped of course by the fact i really like the story idea.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A delicate balance of confidence...

I sent off 2 short stories for an anthology yesterday. I will be surprised if they are selected, but I am very pleased with myself for having written, edited, polished and submitted the things. It seems like forever since I last went through this process. Sure I submitted some other stories for another anthology late last year but they were stories already on file - not brand-new hot-off-the-press ones. When you don't do these things for a while you begin to wonder if you've forgotten how or completely lost the ability. I've written previously of how difficult a year 2008 was in some respects but I didn't realise until yesterday how much it had shaken my writerly confidence. A writer's confidence is a delicately balanced but essential element of a writer's being. A bit like the pin in a grenade - you know - it seems like such a small thing compared to the grenade as a whole but without it, you are essentially stuffed (or blown to smithereens - take your pick). Too much confidence will empty the room like a bad smell, not enough and you may never open the door to strangers or stick a toe outside it. Under normal circumstances it is difficult enough to find the right balance but these are not normal circumstances. I'm also trying to find the right balance of hope and realism for 2009. The only way forward is to keep writing, and producing four new short stories over the last week has reminded me what a buzz i get from creating a new story. 2008 had also strangled my productivity till it was blue in the face so I'm relieved to be breathing again.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Nothing's ever wasted...

31 January is the closing date for submissions to the annual Random childrens anthology. I have been wracking my brains trying to find a fresh angle on this years topic 'Friends'. There is not alot of unmined territory left on this theme - it has been sucked dry. I have written three short stories in the last week (including one fun twist on a fairytale that I rather like) with the purpose of having something to submit. They're okay as short stories go but none of them fit the bill. Of course nothing is wasted but I am not achieving my particular purpose. But i am getting back in the daily writing habit which is extremely good and more than a little exciting. Only one week left before the school's can no longer avoid taking my children back. I only have stationery and school shoes to buy. I hear lava lamp ruler's are good (don't tell the kids). I may have to go pillage old stories to find something to submit. See! - nothing's wasted. Three, five, ten years ago that story had nowhere to go but the filing cabinet, but maybe now its time has come. A little creative editing and voila. I am determined to send something away. Maybe I'll send everything. You never know...

And BTW I have enrolled for the university course I was considering. Just one paper to keep me out of mischief and make me smarter. Bring on the assignments - I'm ready

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Using nail polish is not genetic

In my ongoing study on nature versus nurture in my own children I can report that the use of nail polish is not genetic. I do not like nail polish on my fingers, it seems to cloud my mental processes and make my fingers sluggish on the keyboard. But my eldest daughter (in so many ways the antithesis of a nail polish wearer) loves to paint her nails. Often. The brighter the colour the better. Glitter is good. My younger daughter includes nail care as part of her daily routine. What does it mean? It means, I guess, that my children will always be surprising me. It means that they are their own people. It means that I can learn new habits from my children. These are all good things. The study continues...

I have been considering going back to University this year. I want to write a lot more this year than I did last year. I want to finish a couple of things that need a jolly good finishing. But beyond that I do not know what 2009 promises for my writing career. In addition to the writing I need to pursue something over which I can exert more control about the results. I need to do something that moves me forward, and expands my skill set - skills that might benefit my writing and things related to it like teaching and reviewing. I've been considering the Diploma in Children's Literature run by Canterbury University. But the course is costly. In the grand scheme of things I suppose the cost is not greater than any other equivalent course at other tertiary institutions but it's still a lot of money. And is this just another way to avoid doing the hard yards of writing. Will my writing suffer? I already have a few qualifications. On the plus side I know I can do this course. I know I will benefit, and I enjoy learning. But have I exceeded my quota of being educated? I may just do The University of Auckland's continuing education history classes on domestic life in medieval times. Its a period in history that has always fascinated me and might provide good background for a novel (or two). I have until early February to make up my mind. Any advice on this topic would be much appreciated :)

Monday, January 19, 2009

If its good advice why isn't it helping...

So the other day I laughed alot at Joshilyn Jackson's post and I nodded alot too. She said smart things about writing critique groups - about belonging to a group whose writing skills can help you grow your own. I have a friend who belongs to a functioning group where the members have been making a positive difference to each other's writing for years now. But I have to say I think her group is rare. I love writing groups for the sense of community they give me. Writing is a solitary occupation and I am a social creature. Other writers understand best the difficulties of this industry. The best inside info comes from other writers. But while I've received some good advice from members of critique groups I've belonged to over the years, ultimately I have too many misgivings about the benefits. Thanks (again) to US agent Janet Reid, I swung over to this post at moments in crime to read their opinion on critique groups.

A writer's critique will always be influenced by their own style, voice, skills, taste and reading background and by their beliefs and opinions. I've read and been told to just take the useful stuff i agree with and discard the rest but sometimes all it does is sew niggling seeds of doubt. Is it just a matter of taste or is that part of my story a brontosaurus-sized fundamental flaw? And when one person loves something that someone else loathes - aargh - I want to run screaming for the hills.

When I've taken my writing to a group, what I've always really wanted to know is: - do you like the story, are you interested, do you feel compelled to read on, is it believable, do you care. It's the story - how everything comes together - plot, characters, voice, style - that I worry most about. Okay, of course I am also concerned with my writing skills; technique is important (although as another writer friend and I were discussing last night, mostly ignoring the rule of show-not-tell hasn't prevented one YA novel from selling in the millions) but my main question as I go along is 'does the story work'. And of course this kind of feedback is totally subjective too. Think of how many books on shop shelves don't spin your dials enough for you to buy them. One person's 'OMG you have to read this, its the best thing ever' is another person's 'ho hum'. So if you find your critique group has improved your writing, I say - you lucky thing! If it hasn't, don't fret. Its okay not to belong to a group, you can write a great novel without one. Or as Blaize Clement at moments in crime suggests, maybe your group could work in a different way. Experiment with exercises or just make it social and information sharing.

Friday, January 16, 2009

When out in public remember to hide the crazy...

Some very sage, hilarious advice from novelist Joshilyn Jackson, found here today, including 'writing and publishing are not the same thing' and some smart stuff on writing groups and the whys and wherefores of writer's conferences (including the line - "[publishing sometimes requires...] a big bucket in which to hide The Crazy while you front like Mental Health is your long time lover instead of a guy you saw on the bus one day and he looked kinda scared of you") via Janet Reid's Blog here (always wise and funny). Its excellent stuff and I definitely had some 'a-hah' moments as I read the post. Don't know what it is about 2009 but even though the publishing world still seems to be in holiday mode in my neck of the woods I feel like I'm finally understanding this business a bit better. And the nett result is a more zen-like attitude to publishing. I hope it lasts because I like how it feels.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Its time to get started...

So 2008 passed away, and I am itching to get on with 2009 but my days are full of children booking time in on our main computer and cleverly dropping my booking down to the bottom of the list each time. I love my children very much but find it very hard to write when they are around. And I am ready to write NOW. The only reason I'm blogging now is because THEY ARE ALL OUT OF THE HOUSE - but it is only temporary and I know at least one of them will be back soon. I want agents, publishers and editors to be back at work, but all is quiet. The weather is divine and the days long and I have a huge pile of wonderful books to be reading BUT I WANT TO GET ON WITH IT! I want whole selfish days of empty house and solitude to contemplate my WIPS in. I want to fritter time playing solitaire and free cell. I want to go watch movies on my own at the picture theatre even though my eldest thinks this is a tragic disease to which she must find a cure. Really honey, I not only don't mind, I like it. I want to learn new stuff about literature and writing and the world in general (why are there so few options at NZ universities for writers of childrens literature). I want weekend-long dates with my SO where we can wake up as late as we like, eat meals without being interrupted and watch whatever we like on the tv. We are already half way through January and the year hasn't started yet. Come on 2009, I'm ready for you, bring it on. I have an important job to do. I have to think up great stories and clothe them in credible outfits of description and imagery. These stories need to transport the reader out of their current reality and reward them for the time spent reading. They have to be more satisfying then the reader's favourite meal and I have to tell them well. Its not enough just to construct sentences out of novel word combinations with correct grammar. Publishers don't just want good writing. Its my job to make the reader glad they picked up my book. To wonder about the world I created. And care about the people in it. And maybe understand their own world a little better too. I can't do anything less. Its a tough job and I don't know if I'll succeed. But I want to give it my best shot. And i want to start now.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Avoiding that enormous pile of...dirty laundry

Just back from vacationing with the family and I'm happy to say there is no better way to avoid that enormous pile of dirty laundry than by blogging. We got to catch up with my SO's family while we were away, visit a bunch of friends and take a nostalgia trip to the suburb my husband grew up in. Eastbourne in Wellington is little changed from all those years ago. Its character and charm have been preserved and I felt a little jealous of my SO's idyllic childhood by the sea and the fact that he does not have to rely completely on his memory to relive some of his childhood exploits.

In personal book news - while I was delighted in 2008 to have two books come out (The Were-Nana and Jack the Viking, just in case, by some remote chance, you couldn't recall what they were) and found the teaching and author visit experience very positive and rewarding I had more than a few disappointments during the year and felt like I'd made little progress with my writing career. However one of my disappointments has happily turned out to be untrue. Scholastic Australia have indeed taken my picture book The Were-Nana. I came across this by accident when a google alert (yay google alerts!) advised a library in Queensland had ordered three copies. Following this info on the internet I subsequently discovered my book available on the Scholastic Australia website (Now if only the NZ public lending right for books extended to Australian libraries!). I'm thrilled that one of my books has officially crossed the Tasman. I know sometimes this kind of progress takes time and I must exercise my patience until it is as big and strong and strapping as Arnold Schwarzenegger. I can also report my SO and his able assistant - spy son - reconnoitered in a number of book shops on our travels and in all but one instance at least one if not both 2008 books were carried. I plan to cherish every little step in the right direction this year. And I hope to avoid any clompy great footfalls backwards - may they be a thing of the past.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

its good advice - write, write and write some more

Like storytelling itself, there is something magical about the process of learning to be a writer. In interviews, authors are often asked what advice they would give to aspiring writers and one of the most often mentioned is to 'write, write and write some more.' I used to be sceptical about the benefits of this. Most jobs require training, followed by hands-on experience in the job itself. But in other jobs this hands-on experience provides external variables which teach us how to handle different situations. But hands-on experience in writing involves the rearrangement of our own thoughts and words. How can we learn from this? Yes you can join critique groups and get manuscript assessments and these can make an enormous improvement but I also believe your writing will improve through the sheer effort of keeping at it on your own. Without external influence or guidance change can happen. Well this is where the magic happens. I write and then i write some more. I send material away and sometimes it gets accepted (yes this does improve my understanding of what a publisher wants and how it becomes a book) or it gets rejected - sorry not right for us, does not fit our list or just a minor range of variation around the simple statement 'no'. Most times there is nothing edifying about a rejection. No, I don't like their brevity, yes I understand why they are brief but the only learning opportunity here is that what I wrote fell into the enormous pool, the structureless amorphous mass of what doesn't work. There is nothing to apply to improve that work. And yet over time I can confirm that through practice my writing has improved. The more I read, the more I write, the clearer my understanding of how a good story is told well. That doesn't mean i always get it right. Some stories don't have it in them. Some are tricky to tell. Sometimes my skills aren't quite at the stage where they can do a particular idea justice. I have to struggle through and nut out how to tell a particular story to learn how. Some of my ideas have to twiddle their thumbs and hum a little song on the sidelines waiting for me to catch up to them but now I feel more confident I will get there. So even if you don't understand how it happens or can't see the process at work, its good advice. Write, write and write some more. Go try it. See?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Don't give up...

Came across a brilliant post this morning on Not Giving Up. You should read this whether you feel like chucking the whole writing thing in or not. I think I seriously gave up writing at least three times in 2008 but it turned out to be 'bungy giving up' because I just bounced right back. Its the sort of thing that should be printed off and framed or memorized or something. She's right. Don't give up.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Farewell 2008. Here's to 2009...

(two of my three children on holiday in Rotorua in 2008):-

HAPPY NEW YEAR! 2009 dawned bright and shiny here in Auckland and looked as hopeful and ripe with potential as it could. I've never been so keen to start a new year as I was this time around. 2008 was not without its own charms but it had more than its fair share of frustrations. I hope 2009 does not buckle under the wait of expectations as I know I am not the only one looking for better things this year. I have made one New Year's resolution but have decided to keep it mostly to myself.

I'm also not keen to out too many of my hopes and ambitions for 2009 either. Mostly because they rely on things outside my control and it is impossible to say right now how things will pan out. If the incidence of 'better things' relied solely on people's hopes then this year would be a doozy but it all feels very up-in-the-air. Anything is possible. I have two stories to finish (the YA and an intermediate thriller) and I will be putting the hard word on myself to get those done. One at least must be done ASAP. Hopefully both. As my daughters are off to the States in April to represent NZ at the World Cheerleading Champs in Florida I know a lot of my time will be focused on helping them get ready. I don't have too many other plans in the first half of the year. The latter half of 2008 came to such a swift conclusion because of all the things I had on in September, October and November that i am looking forward to a calmer pace in 2009.

I've also been too hung up on the fate of old manuscripts and it has been holding me back so one other ambition I will own up to is the one where I let go of those old MS and their fates and devote the attention they deserve to my current WIP. This sounds so dreadfully easy when I put it like that but I really struggle with this one. I love all my babies and want them to do well and they have been unemployed too long! Worrying about them really does slow me down on my writing. This morning the son of a friend of mine stirred another idea i've had festering away in my brain for a while with an idle observation about school footwear (its a long story - hopefully an interesting one when i get round to writing it) but i really must finish what's cooking now before i can get started on that.

Heres to 2009 - may it be as bright, shiny and prosperous as it first looked.