Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Heart and soul books on writing

Two of my favourite books on writing - Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (1995), and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (1986) - fall into a category I call ‘heart and soul’ books on writing rather than those that focus on the more technical aspects of craft.

Each of these books has kept my spirits up when my motivation was flagging, when the odds of finishing something, let alone sending it off somewhere in the hope that it might be published seemed (and seems) insurmountable, and when I get stuck in the middle of a piece of work and can’t find a way through.

I must have read Bird by Bird, cover to cover, at least four times and dipped into various chapters and sections countless more. Lamott is a truly funny writer, especially when she shares not just her insights on writing but her own experiences. One of the things she does that I particularly like is refuse to buy into that elitist attitude or tone you sometimes get in books (or in writing courses) where the published writer/tutor preens in front of the unpublished and uses the reader/student as a mirror to polish their own superior status – something I have, unfortunately, experienced more than once. Lamott is quite the opposite. She is warm, generous, full of emotion, and truthful – writing is work, unlike lying on the beach which is recreation. And although not a technical book, it is still full of practical suggestions, like the chapters on short assignments and plot.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is probably more well known – it is really a series of meditations on different aspects on writing, often interspersed with quotes from Katagiri Roshi, a Zen Master Goldberg studied with. Writing as a Practice is one of the chapters and provides insight into her teaching and writing attitude and focus. She is quite different in tone to Lamott, yet they share something precious in common – the ability to cut through pretence and ego, to talk about the process and the work, and to address the reader/student/writer with respect.

A couple of my favourite quotes from Goldberg:

“Don’t worry about your talent or capability: that will grow as you practice.” (p30)

“Be willing to look at your work honestly. If something works, it works. If it doesn’t, quit beating an old horse. Go on writing. Something else will come up. There’s enough bad writing in the world. Write one good line, you’ll be famous. Write a lot of lukewarm pieces, you’ll put people to sleep.” (p161)

Both books are available on Amazon.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Actress, reviewer and writer Michelle Langstone talks about 'Escaping into Stories and Worlds.'

I’ve spent my entire life wanting to live inside books.  I became an actress so that I could escape into the stories and worlds that I loved.  I wanted to be the characters, really inhabit them, and feel how they felt, think their thoughts along with them. While I have always loved language it never really occurred to me until I turned thirty that perhaps I might try my hand at storytelling in a format other than acting.

I took six months away from acting last year to take a writing course with James George.  I thought I was leaving my profession behind, changing hats entirely. Actually what I discovered was that the two are one.  Or rather, that acting informs the way I write, and vice versa.  When I write (or try to write!), it is with my understanding of how to embody a character in the physical, with text as the leaping off point. I write from the same impulse that I act from – the feeling world. To date, my exploration of writing is very strongly through character driven narrative. I suppose that’s because I vaguely know how to do that, given that I spend my professional life creating character. What I’ve discovered, unexpectedly, is that learning to write is teaching me how to be a better actor.  Some of the same rules apply to both.

Something I have found very interesting in writing is how to find a voice.  I was surprised to discover that, much the same as with acting, I can’t write a thing, I can’t learn one single line of dialogue, until I can HEAR the way the character speaks.  By that I mean tone, I mean register, I mean rhythm. An example of this is that I recently completed filming a new show for South Pacific Pictures called The Almighty Johnson’s.  My character in that show is a very strong, very defiant and compelling woman.  She was a stretch for me, because she is fairly ferocious, and quite sexually forceful.  When I set to work on my scripts I found could not learn the lines because I could not hear her voice.  I had to experiment, to muck around with vocal resonance, and finally, to sink into a much lower register and feel the vibrating of sound lower in my body.  When I found that sound, the lines were in.

Similarly, in the Narrative Writing course last year, I was absolutely stuck and unable to write a thing until, during a class exercise, a voice popped into my head that I did not recognise.  I heard this voice, this sound unfamiliar, and I started to write for that voice. Or rather, I let that voice tell me a story, and I wrote it down the way that I heard it.  Now I think about a story I might like to write, and I wait to see who wants me to tell it - which character has something to say.

As an actor, I’m always looking to find a physicality that is specific to each role I play.  How my character holds herself, how she walks. Is she fast or slow?  Heavy or light?  Focused or unfocused? I like to find specific things that each of my characters do – my character in Almighty, for example, can hold a gaze like no character I have played before.  Her unflinching gaze was a way into a still and powerful physicality that was a key to finding her “front”.  In my writing I’m trying to find the little things in a character that may give them away, or inform the reader about them in a very specific way.  For example, in a piece I am working on now, a little boy whose story I’m telling likes to crouch.  He’s always crouching, and it’s for a number of reasons that become apparent as the narrative unravels.  It’s interesting to explore what happens when I put him in a situation where he can’t crouch, and see how he copes when his physicality is arrested.  Another character in that same story now has a swift deftness of physicality that I observed in another actor on set.  This actor is so light, he dances with his dialogue and with his body, and I’ve taken that trait and I’m trying to work it into the lightness of this character in my story, who is quite connected to musicality.

One of the exercises we learnt in class I have directly pinched for my acting.  “The Objects on a Mantelpiece” exercise is where you imagine a mantelpiece, and let your unconscious drop items onto it – like a pottery egg cup, a broken locket, one half of a torn photograph.  From there, you can embark on a story, either fleshing out the character that owns these objects, or telling a story involving them.  In The Almighty Johnson’s I sat and did this exercise as a way to flesh out the world and private life of my character.  I only had a small amount of back-story for her, based on what the writers had told me.  I wanted to make her as real as I could.  Her mantelpiece was interesting!  When I could see those objects and write how they belong in her world, how they make her feel, why she has them, where she got them – I began to feel fully dimensional.  It’s a great trick, and one I intend to use from now on.

Ten years ago I had a guest role on Shortland Street. It was one of my first professional jobs, and the dialogue coach showed me how to build a character arc for each episode, and how to plot the emotional journey for the character on it. This is helpful in shows like Shortland Street because you can pretty much guarantee you will be shooting your scenes out of order, and you don’t want to end up breaking down emotionally too soon, getting angry too soon, or just blowing your load before the appropriate build, pretty much.  It helps to plot an emotional course, to keep track, keep a reign on the beats of the story, and the beats of the character.  We learnt this in writing class too, and I’m now investing much more time in both my writing and my acting, to nut out the right course for navigation.

Happily, it also means I’m ok about writing an end before a beginning, in my stories, or writing a scene that belongs somewhere in an arc I haven’t created yet!

At the moment in my writing I’m thinking a lot about the feeling world of my characters and the room they leave inside themselves to let feeling grow and diminish.  I’ve always had a bad habit of cluttering up my acting with too much stuff.  I try to do too much, I’m too fast, and I try to cram too much in, too many facial expressions.  I do the same in writing and one thing I am learning in both areas is how to do less.  What one sentence can I write that can show the reader what I want them to see?  What one gesture, what one look can I give, what one sound can I make, that can convey everything I need to the viewer?

I’m simplifying.  I’m paring back, working on the maxim that less is more.  I know I have more in me, but if I can rein it in, and trust that everything is living inside the story, inside the role and inside me, then hopefully it will translate.  That’s about trusting in the world of the story.

As an actor I know how great it is to work with material loaded with subtext.  The emotional undercurrent, the true meaning, simmering away under the surface.  I’m trying to write like that.  I’m trying to imbue the dialogue in my stories with a greater subtext.  Stripping the dialogue back to the bare minimum, but loading it up, so the truth is shouting beneath the words.  I guess as an actor I’m always on the lookout for what my character is ACTUALLY saying, which is often working in opposition to what appears on the page.  The playwright Harold Pinter is a great example of subtext.  I did one of his plays – “The Lover”, earlier this year and it was fairly torturous trying to unravel the layers of subtext and truth.  What I discovered with Pinter’s writing is that in his characters, as in life, there is always ambiguity.  One choice is not the only choice; it is the thread
of many choices to be unravelled.

I’m thinking about that in my writing.  I’m resisting the urge to sew things up tidily; I’m leaving a bit of ambiguity, to allow the reader to stretch a little further to what the truth of the story may be for them.  We all resonate toward truth that is specific to our own concept of the world.  I’m learning slowly that I don’t have to tell anyone to how to feel in a story, they will absorb it and sift it through their own perspective. If I can reduce the clutter, the story is more accessible for them to reach.  It’s the same with acting – say the words, get out of the way, let the story come out, let the viewer come to meet it.  I think that has to do with trusting the writing.  I don’t trust my writing yet, but I know how it feels to hold a script that soars with excellent language.  I’m hoping I will know it in my own writing when I see it, if at all.

(Michelle has a weekly book review slot, Bookish and Awkward, on George FM.)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Text and Subtext - what you read, what you read into what you read.

Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a very short story. Even by modern standards, this is short.

                        For Sale
            Baby Clothes
            Never Used

Look closely. Is that a story? How many characters are in that? Is there a plot? Is there subtext? 

Yes it's a story, and there's a vast amount of story in those few words. The text is tiny, the subtext is vast. Questions come at you from all over, and questions are the beginnings of story.

There's a sketch by Rembrandt that works in a similar way:

Is she sick/dying? Is she in terror? Has she awoken from a nightmare?

Note how her features are clearly defined but the world around her is left wild, almost dreamlike. There's something unsettling in the combination of the background's spareness and its boldness. Almost a violence. The visual storytelling text gives the viewer the beginning, the rest is for you to discover and interpret.

(Hemingway's typewriter at his former house in Key West, Florida, pictured with its current owner. Perhaps contemplating that 3rd rewrite and finally solving that transitional passage after the second act turning point and how to get Uncle Herbert back from Alaska in time for the climactic car chase. Either that or 'Where's the chicken?')

Omniscient and/or multiple First Person Point of View and Voice

I notice more and more examples now of stories being told in multiple first person point of view. In the AUT Masters of Creative Writing class I mentored and taught on this year there was an excellent example by one of the students, where she used this form to bring out multiple perceptions which gave the story as a whole many possible realities as there was no one voice or perspective a reader could take as some kind of objective truth.

This is not a new form though it’s becoming more prevalent as authors break further away from the traditional omniscient narrator -  a single entity and presence in the story (though not an individualized character in it) who knows and has the power to tell all. Omniscient is one of the oldest Points of View, derived from folk tales and mythology and the work of the Epic Poets. Originally along the lines of:

Oh gather around me men of the land and I shall tell thee a tale of triumph and tragedy.

Or more recently something like:

Spofforth was an irascible boy, as such boys – as we will discover – are want to be.

These openings are really almost a way of saying:

Once upon a time…

The examples (the first two poorly written, by my own hand) above are as much examples of Omniscient Voice as they are Point of View. An omniscient voice feels like a human presence, a perspective, with biases and quirks and foibles and fixations. It’s palpable, not neutral. If you want neutral of voice, go for Third Person Limited (note my post on the work of Kent Haruf.) Not all stories that are omniscient in the scope of their perspective are omniscient of voice. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace with its 500 named (!) characters has to be omniscient point of view by default, because of its sheer size, but the voice is calm, restrained, often quite objective, doesn’t really sound like a palpable overlord presence, but more like the voices of many of the individual characters.

Modern readers by and large seem happier to juggle multiple truths, and try and look for their own truth somewhere in those multiples. This could be because of the influence of other media like cinema where the viewer is right on the edge of the scene, almost with their toes touching the edges of the story’s ocean, and have to find their own way in the scene by the clues laid down by visual symbols, dialogue and the subtext they sense beneath and around the text.

Omniscient narration hasn’t died out altogether and won’t. It’s still popular in magic realist novels, in sagas with great scope of time and place, often in Fantasy works. Satire is a natural home of omniscient, where the narrator’s worldview, usually mirroring the author’s, is critical to the tartness of the story and its context. In satire the author is usually trying to make a point, often ironic, or by using black comedy. The Harry Potter books are an excellent example of contemporary omniscient. Others would be: the work of Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. In Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude there are passages where the narrative perspective shifts into several different characters’ perspectives and thoughts in a single sentence. That’s because the thoughts are never really the characters’, but the narrator’s perception of them. To be honest it can be a basket of handgrenades in the hands of the unwary. Not everyone can do it, not everyone enjoys reading it. Sometimes because the voice ‘nags’, sometimes because the omniscient narrator often goes too far in explaining and leaves no room for the reader to come to their understanding. Omniscient can all too easily slip into:

                And the moral of this story is…
Multiple first person is omniscient’s polar opposite. There is no promise of a master position, or meta-knowledge. Everything is individual perception, brought out in individualized vernacular voice. The reader gains the position (to a degree) of the omniscient narrator only after taking in the totality of the story.  Even then the inherent ambiguity of hearing the ‘truth’ from several biased sources leaves that process of understanding the story’s themes and meanings to the reader. 

Examples of excellent work in multiple first person would be: William Faulkner, ‘As I lay Dying’ written way back in 1930. Graham Swift, ‘Last Orders’ from 1995, Junot Diaz’ ‘The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,’ from 2007, and a fine example from Aotearoa, Lisa Cherrington’s ‘The People Faces,’ from 2004. 
 Things to consider if you’re thinking of trying omniscient.
  • Do you have a single storytelling voice that’s interesting, perhaps idiosyncratic (but not to the point of annoyance) that you can sustain over a large group of characters?
  • Will the master storyteller’s voice actually enhance your story – to the degree that first or third person (limited/subjective) wouldn’t?
  • Are you sure you’re doing it for the good of the story and not just because you want to play God?
Things to consider if you’re thinking of trying multiple first person:

  • Can you find differences in the individual characters’ vernacular voices?
  • Do you want to have potential multiplicity of perception and meaning?
  • Are you comfortable that no one entity will likely possess any degree of objective truth?
Both omniscient and multiple first person can add richness and depth to a story – in very different ways. As an exercise, if you’re backgrounding a short story, say 3000 words, try the first few paragraphs or pages in both omniscient and multiple first person. The obvious difference is that – in terms of character – omniscient is writing from the outside in, multiple first person is from the inside out. See which way serves the story. You’ll discover different things, in different ways. Think of those discoveries from both angles, how it works for you and how you think it’ll work for your reader. 


Friday, December 10, 2010

Reading, writing and dreaming

I discovered the following comments written by Lindsay Clarke a while ago and return to them often - among other things, they remind me of the importance of 'show don't tell' and how that fundamental technique connects the reader to the writer and the story.

"Reading and dreaming have much in common. In both we generate images out of a limited visual field. These images move and disturb us because we are immediately involved with them... yet they arrive without overt explanations and require us to work for meaning." (p 257)

"...dreams remain a great mystery, but their vocabulary of images seems to allow the oldest, pre-verbal parts of the brain to speak to the neocortex, thus opening a channel of communication between the conscious and unconscious minds. By flexing all the inward senses of the imagination, fiction can tap us into that hotline...good writing literally works like a dream...we are set free to dream the story ourselves." (p 258)

Both quotes come from Clarke's chapter, "Going the last Inch: Some Thoughts on Showing and Telling", in The Creative Writing Coursebook: Forty Writers Share Advice and Exercises for Poetry and Prose, (eds) Julia Bell and Paul Magrs, Macmillan, 2001.

Traditional Folk Music - A stellar cast of folk singers sing 'Wild Mountain Thyme.'

Folk music and writing...

The weekend of January 28-31 will see the 2011 version of the Auckland Folk Festival. This annual event has been going since the early 1970's and showcases folk music and the many forms of narrative storytelling contained within. The festival features traveling musicians from Europe, the U.S.A. and New Zealand and many other points. It's music at its purest and well worth a look. We've made an annual pilgrimage (the most appropriate word in the circumstances) to the event for years. Keep checking the website for dates/times/line-ups.

Folk music has a whakapapa stretching back to oral storytelling and the earliest forms of music that cataloged and celebrated early peoples' lives, in both pragmatic (birth, hunting, family) and spiritual/mythological ways. I recall seeing buffalo hides in the museum in Calgary, Canada with artistic renderings of symbols of the rites and rituals of people's entire lives, created by members of the Blackfoot nation. Folk music also carries this breadth and intimacy of narrative.

Folk music has always been a tool for bringing together communities, and has such has been used by working class people the world over. You can listen to folk musicians from Central Otago and hear Celtic origins, both melodic and in storytelling style. Appalachian folk music from the U.S.A. is filled with the sounds of Ireland, Scotland and England. Early 20th Century folk musician Dock Boggs is now recognized as a progenitor of American Folk, Country and Blues, and by extension - modern rock. That's a lot of different roads for one ol' coal miner from the Virginia mountains.

There has always been a crossover and cross-pollination between folk music and writing. In the 1930's in the U.S.A. for example novelists John Steinbeck, photographer Dorothea Lange and folk singer Woody Guthrie were all telling stories of the plight of the rural poor drifting westward in the Great Depression.

Dorothea Lange's famous photograph 'Migrant Mother' (pictured - right) helped raise awareness of the plight of the migrant workers across America, as did Guthrie's musical ballads and Steinbeck's writing.

Many novelists in various cultures write community derived narratives which are true in design and effect to the fundamentals of folk music. (Stories of family/village/provincial survival, working songs, parent/child songs to be handed down, songs of history and genealogy.) Writers whose narratives for me are reminiscent of folk music would be: Kent Haruf, Toni Morrison, Patricia Grace, Ben Okri, Roddy Doyle, even someone like Raymond Carver.

For me, one of the basics statements of folk music and any other form of narrative that carries its breath would be something like:  this is my stake in the ground. I have survived to write this. For this moment, if in no other, I was here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Writing Groups - Some tips for effective Critiquing and Organizing

Re Trisha's post below regarding Writers Groups. 

Writers Groups are a valuable resource and an antidote to the feeling a writer sometimes gets of being stuck on a solitary road. Writing for others to read is by definition a communal act, with the writing coming alive in the reading, in the communicating of ideas and experience. So here are a few thoughts from experiences in writers groups, my own and those shared by contacts. I've sorted them under three categories.

•    For the person critiquing
•    For the person being critiqued
•    For the group in general

For the person critiquing:

•    Critique the writing, not the writer. Sometimes the two are inseparable, that’s true but even so, aim your feedback at the text. Talk about the text as a thing in and of itself, even if you feel that speaks to the writer’s background and philosophy as well. If the text is the focus you can be open and honest and critical about it. You’ll never get any traction in a group by critiquing someone’s worldview, cosmology, or feelings
•    You can be both objective and subjective – it’s okay. Really. What the piece makes you feel is just as important as what it makes you think. Remember to make it clear which facet you’re speaking from. E.g. ...this piece makes me feel uneasy... Say why you feel that is, or if you don’t know (as sometimes happens), say you don’t know, but it does make you feel uneasy. It’s your opinion and you have a right to it. It might also reflect what audiences at large may feel when they read it. Always keep aggression or sarcasm out of it though. Critique unto others as you would have them critique unto you
•    If you come upon a teaching point, say you’ve done some serious research and learning in Point of View, or Narrative Structure, keep it specific to the text being critiqued then expand into your wider knowledge if asked to. Don’t patronize the writers, or assume you know far more than they do. Make your points quietly, succinctly.
•    Feel free to suggest changes – they might be good ones. I’ve heard it said you should just critique, not suggest, but in a peer-to-peer group context critiquing could and often should include alternatives and suggestions. You're there to help each other make your work more effective. Nobody has to take suggestions, but all should listen and consider. Make sure if you suggest changes it's clear that they are suggestions, not commands. Don't do the ...What you should do...
•    Get over yourself. Yes you have an opinion or maybe a pet peeve, but don’t bang on and on about it every meeting, to the point where you’re just repeating yourself. That’s badgering, not critiquing. I’m talking mainly about getting too fixated on letting the world know what your opinion is, not so much about the opinion itself. If you have a serious problem with adverbs or fancy attributions then say so, that's a valuable technique point, but remember to talk about why, pointing out specific examples of where and why you see them as weakening the text.
•    Re the point above – be as exact as you can. Instead of saying ...well I can’t stand flowery language....point to specific words or phrases you define as flowery and what you mean by that and how you feel that negatively impacts on the writing/reading experience. I read a line in a book once that said ‘I repeat,’ repeated Alex.' That’s a tautology, clunky, and possibly unnecessary all in one hit. Be exact in your analysis.
•    Remember you have the breadth of the writing world at your disposal. If you have an issue with a particular technical point in a writer’s text, consider bringing an example from an effective use of the issue you’re discussing and quote from it, by way of illustration.
•    Avoid sweeping generalities. ... Well, I don’t really like women's fiction...well I suppose that’s the kind of thing the blue rinse set would like...etc. That's too general to be helpful, and a bit of a cop-out, and can be offensive as well. Stories are individual entities, read by individual human beings, both within wider contexts. Speak to the text and the individual at hand.  

For the person being critiqued:

•    Listen with intent, with your writer’s mind primed to learn. Be careful of just sitting with your foot tapping, waiting for a break in their analysis to then just justify yourself or what you’ve done. Remember, they’re responding to your text as written, not everything you know about your text and your totality of ideas and character insight.
•    Remember that the responders are your first readers, and most of the things they cover will be seen by your readers down the track (buyers, publishers, agents. ) What they’re saying is most valuable because they’re saying it now, while you’re still working on it and can use the feedback to improve your work
•    Sometimes critiquers may be too subjective and be speaking from personal biography or pet fixations or things that – for their own reasons – disturb them. Just listen, thank them and move on. Don’t harangue them or try to change their world view. It isn’t worth it.
•    Don’t lurch. You may well be centered in your story and have a sense of its inner emotional core and the core of your characters. Or you may not. But don’t lurch way off in a different direction, change your protagonist from male to female, make your librarian a gun-toting kick-arse, change your 40 somethings to teens because ‘teen stuff sells at the moment’, just because someone says so. Consider suggestions. Consider them. But ask yourself, what is your story about, why do you want to tell this character’s story, who are they? You own that. Often problems are smaller and much more technically based than you might think, and the answer isn’t wholesale change. Remember it’s your story, even if you appreciate your audience’s needs it’s still your story, at least until you sign it off and it goes out into the wider world.

For the Group:

•    Appoint a timekeeper for each meeting – rotate the task if necessary. Divide the time you can afford to spend at the meetings by the number of writers who’ve submitted, then stick to that allotment. Be very careful of ‘dawdle then rush’ syndrome, where the first couple of critiques are expansive, then (because you’re running out of time) rush the last couple. The later writers will not be happy – with good reason. In the meetings separate the chat from the critiquing. Use informal chat to relax you for the focused work of writing analysis and discussion, don't let chat seep into the writing discussion. You don't want people crying off because the meetings have got too long. 
•    Get to know each other and get comfortable through the process of looking at and talking about the work submitted. Don’t wait for trust and comfort to develop. This is crucial. You might wait a very long time for the magical moment when you’re all comfortable enough with each other to critique honestly and openly. It's an ongoing process, and only becomes more effective through focused, work-oriented practice.
•    Look for a mix of preferred styles, of backgrounds and knowledge bases (unless you’re genre specific as a group – e.g. romance, thrillers)
•    Everyone’s opinion has equal value, but not necessarily equal weight or insight. That’s just reality.
•    Encourage everyone to do their share of the work. Be responsible and pro-active and make sure you don't attend looking to get feedback then make some excuse as to why you haven’t given it in return (too busy, their writing is too different/genre specific for you to comment on.) Sometimes you will be too busy, that's life. If you are, opt out of a meeting or feedback cycle. But not consistently.
•    Be careful of anyone wanting to take over the group, and remodel it in their image. Not every group (most groups in fact) needs a leader
•    Do not allow excess volume or aggression any place. People are passionate about writing, sure, but be aware of boundaries. A serious insight would still be a serious insight even if it was whispered, or written in very small text. Police this, as a group, be honest and frank about it.
•    If you’re planning on meeting face to face, as opposed to entirely online, then set a workable time frame for submissions. Say 2 weeks before the meeting. One week minimum. Give everyone time to do a close reading and formulate a considered, informed analysis.

You'll learn as you go, and learn to make adjustments when necessary. Remember that group members are humans just like you, and both their text and their beings are worthy of your respect. As peers, part of that respect is a responsibility to help them. Often with group critiquing there's a new or extra insight that no one person (including the original writer) walked into the room with.

The whole process isn't a perfect science, and you may have your ups and downs, but peer-to-peer critiquing is a very productive way to improve your writing and the writing of those in your group.

Puppet story - key writing elements

The piece with the puppet below is a great example of several storytelling elements.

  • Suspension of disbelief. You know the puppeteer walking alongside is operating an inanimate object, but your imagination begins to flesh out character. 
  • Show - don't tell. There's no verbal narration, you come to know the story by what you see, and the connections you make in your head. Connections to character insight, to a wider sense of what does it really mean to be alive. The more symmetry in the gesture, e.g. the head turns to point towards the hand, which we see as the puppet 'looking' at his hands, the deeper the illusion of reality. If it becomes emotionally true for the viewer, then it is no longer (in any meaningful way) an illusion.
  • What is most personal is most universal. We all yearn for freedom, for aliveness, so see that yearning in the movements of the puppet.
  • The relationship between text and subtext. We see the puppet move, with his newfound freedom, but then realize that he realizes that he really has neither movement nor freedom. That's a human moment, and makes us wonder if his choice would be our choice. What is driving his choice, what forces are driving our choices. 
I've seen less story in entire cinematic movies than those few minutes of illusion of reality.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Writing Competitions over summer

Writing Competitions over summer.

There are a couple of writing comps closing in December and January that you might want to consider entering. Here are the links.

Unity Books - The Long And The Short of it - short story competition  closes 24th December.
It's an unusual concept and a good one, especially if you've found yourself with the short story that just won't quit. It's hard to find a home for longer (5000 words plus) stories. 

AUT competition for unpublished authors closes 31st January.
We went to the prize-giving ceremony for the 2010 competition and it was great to see the placegetters so energized. 

Have a go...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Words Chosen Carefully - Interviews with 15 New Zealand writers

The Going West Festival in September this year saw the launch of the first new dedicated collection of interviews with writers from Aotearoa New Zealand in a good 20 years. The collection is titled:  

Words Chosen Carefully.

All interviews were done especially for the book, and the project was driven and edited by Auckland poet and teacher Siobhan Harvey, whose dedication and energy saw a complex task come together over many months. Raps also to the good people at Cape Catley Ltd publishers.

Writers on both sides of the interviewing process include: Kate de Goldi and Kim Hill; Jenny Bornholdt and Harry Ricketts; Lloyd Jones and Finlay Macdonald; Damien Wilkins and Lynn Freeman; Fiona Farrell and Iain Sharp; Peter Wells and Siobhan Harvey; Paula Morris and Alice Te Punga Somerville; Elizabeth Knox and David Larsen; Charlotte Grimshaw and Nicholas Reid; James George and David Eggleton; Kapka Kassabova and Louise O'Brien; Elizabeth Smither and David Hill; C. K. Stead and Lawrence Jones; Owen Marshall and John McCrystal; and Witi Ihimaera and Selina Tusitala Marsh.

At while we're at it, a nod of thanks to Murray Gray and the team at Going West, for their long standing support of the reading and writing community in Auckland's west. (I'm defining West in this case as everywhere west of the Chatham Islands.)

Michael King Writers Centre Fellowships

It's the time of year again for the Michael King Writers Centre in Devonport in Auckland to call for applicants for their fellowships.

The residencies are in the old Signalman's Cottage halfway up Mt Victoria, with one of the finest views of Auckland city. If you can tear yourself away from the view it'd be a quiet place to get some work done. And you're within a short stroll of some of the better cafes north of the Bombay Hills and some gorgeous harbourside walks.

Here's the contact details to get some more info:

Applications may be sent by post or email to:
The Manager
Michael King Writers’ Centre
PO Box 32-629
Devonport, North Shore City 0744
Email:  administrator@writerscentre.org.nz  
Ph:       09 445 8451

Or check out their website: Michael King Writers Centre

Writing groups

Although there is now an increasing number of writing courses and qualifications available to aspiring and emerging writers – not of all of which offer value for money, but that’s another post – the humble writers’ group is still an effective, and much cheaper, way of improving and developing as a writer. Most groups I’m aware of provide a mixture of support and feedback, while a more limted number focus only on support or concentrate on giving and receiving more rigorous critique.

My own experience of writing groups has been, in the main, very positive – I’ve received invaluable insight from others who have given up precious writing time to read and comment on my drafts, and if (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde) I received good advice I couldn’t possibly use, I most certainly passed it on to someone else, hopefully without undue haste.

As well as the privilege of having others pay attention to your work, there is also the opportunity of learning how to give feedback to others, and the realisation that by closely reading and critiquing another’s work your understanding of your own strengths and weakness as a writer expands.

At best, writing groups provide a sense of community, insight and critique, the opportunity to develop your voice and present your work to a first, supportive audience. And having an audience, no matter how small, who takes you seriously, is not something to be sneezed at.

However, the essence of writing groups – the fact that they are a voluntary group of peers - can also be a potential pitfall. While group members obviously all have areas of competence and strength, without input from writers with more experience, insight and technical expertise it is easy to get either too comfortable – we all like each other’s work and don’t really want to change anything - or to get buried by feedback that is ill informed or just plain wrong in a technical sense. Ineffective feedback is often an issue of not possessing the right (technical) language, or of not having the confidence to use that language to express intuitions, feelings or opinions; and there is the fear that the other person will not understand (or be hurt) by what you are trying to say.

So, writing groups have always presented me with a dilemma: I love the sense of equality and community , the give and take of feedback, the conversations not just about writing but about what it means to be a reader; but I’m also aware that I, and others, often flounder when it comes to giving feedback on the technical or craft aspects of writing. And it seems to me that these are the very areas we all struggle with and want to get better at, and the mastery of which has the potential to make us more successful, even great, writers.
It would be interesting to hear about other people’s experience of being in writing groups – what your focus is, what has worked for you, what issues or dilemmas you’ve faced, how you organise yourselves, what you have, or would most like to achieve. Feel free to comment or to use the community page to post information about your group.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Community Bulletin Board

Community Bulletin Board. 

We've set up a Community Bulletin Board page for updates for: book launches, art expos, plays you're involved with, upcoming writing competitions. Check the link on the PAGES tab above. If you've got something you'd like circulated email us at the addresses below and we'll post it on the Bulletin Board.

Emails to:



Monday, November 22, 2010

NZSA Publishing for authors - the whole picture seminar

On 29th October 2010, along with well over 100 other people, I attended the New Zealand Society of Authors’ (NZSA) one-day seminar, Publishing for Authors – the whole picture.

I’m not sure it was ‘the whole picture’ about publishing, as any critique of the traditional publishing industry was implicit rather than explicit, but it was the best attended NZSA event I’ve ever been to; and it was obvious from the packed room, and the level of attention given to the presenters, that NZSA had responded to many of its members’ interests and needs. The overwhelming message of the day was that authors need to embrace new opportunities provided by digital publishing, print on demand technology, and the marketing and distribution possibilities of the internet.

The high point of the seminar was the first presentation by Mark Coker, founder and CEO of Smashwords, an American epublishing and distribution platform. Mark spoke about three trends: book buying and selling is moving to the web; authors are bypassing traditional methods of publication and becoming their own publishers and; reading is moving to screens (with smart phones and ipads leading the way).

While he emphasised marketing and distribution as the key to successful epublishing, he cautioned authors not to expect instant success or money. What they do achieve, he said, is more control over the publishing process, and a much greater percentage of money from each sold book.

Among his many ‘secrets’ for success the following stood out:
• write a great book – a quality product gets better readers
• build a backlist – create trust and relationships with readers
• maximise distribution - use a distributor to create a relationship with ebook retailers
• have patience – ebooks sales start small and grow slowly; sales rank on Amazon depends on good reviews by readers
• marketing starts yesterday – focus on social networking, create networks and communities, don’t spam
• maximise virality – eliminate barriers for readers.

After lunch, Steve Messenger from Astra Print, an enthusiastic supporter of print-on-demand books, highlighted the pitfalls of the traditional publishing model with its high cost and high profit paradigm, and emphasised the advantages of DDP – distributed digital print, or print-on-demand. These advantages include: no inventory; changes can be made to documents in real time and; the book is always available. He also spoke of Printernet, the local – and therefore cheaper - printing of global books.
The advantages of print-on-demand seem obvious and not just for self-publishing –someone in the audience asked if traditional publishers were taking advantage of it, and if, by implication, were prepared to take on more new and emerging authors because of much lower print run costs but, alas, the answer still seems to be no.

The other afternoon speaker I was impressed with was Sarah Gumbley, a PR and social networking spokesperson. (www.literatlas.com )
Her key messages included:
• Readers use the new media landscape and expect to interact with authors
• Authors need to create a name and ‘brand’
• Online tools are the fastest and easiest way for authors to build readers.
Overall the seminar was informative and positive, without pretending there are any magic bullets – after all, you still have to write a good book - and NZSA should be congratulated for organising it. In contrast to recent dire warnings from traditional publishers of shrinking markets and an almost total lack of opportunity for new/emerging writers, most of the presenters encouraged authors to use new technology and take their publishing futures into their own hands.

The seminar would have been even more interesting if it had included discussion of David Haywood’s suggestion (http://publicaddress.net/southerly/at-last-david-haywoods-2010-foo-camp-presentation/) that, given how little writers make under the current publishing and distribution model, creating an online, collectively owned bookshop could significantly improve the financial lot of NZ writers - an idea surely worth thinking about.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Kent Haruf

I've recently finished Eventide, by Kent Haruf. It's a companion piece to his earlier Plainsong. Both are set in small town Colorado, in contemporary times. Haruf is a master of subtle layering (and unpeeling of those layers) of character through a cool, controlled voice in Third Person Limited.

This pair of novels functions as a clinic in how to use Third Person Limited (almost Camera Eye) Point of View to do the paradoxical, to get right inside character. In this mode of POV half the work is done by the author and half by the reader (guided by the author's prompts.) That balance is critical. What is shown and not explained is what's most important. There's no emoting on the page, not even in dialogue (as these are tight-lipped, plain spoken rural people and Haruf is authentic in his evocation of their speech.) The author writes what he sees, and describes situations that have emotional power and resonance in them, but he leaves the prose plain, to force the reader to confront that emotionality themselves. The reader is propelled to inhabit the characters, to watch for their nuances of gesture, to see and feel and come to know them within the context of their world and their relationships. To learn of their lives and struggles from often small but significant details, piled layer upon layer. Much as we do in the walk-around world.

If you haven't already, read these two books.

Quote from Flannery O'Connor

In the article referenced below from Charles May's 'Reading the Short Story' site there's a great quote from Flannery O'Connor, (1925-1964).

About a writer of fiction with depth... "what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.. The meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology ... have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do."

Ernest Hemingway talked of the 'iceberg' theory, speaking of the relationship between text and subtext. Where the portion of a story 'visible' above the waterline was dwarfed by the portion that lay beneath the water. In terms of depth (of possible meaning to the reader, via the story) and character I think that the waterline can also function as the dividing line  between the 'adequate' (in O'Connor's terms) and the mystery.

Reminds me not to stop at the adequate, either as a reader or a writer.

Henryk Górecki, 1933-2010.

Dedicated to Henryk Górecki, the Polish composer, who died on the weekend, This is part of his Symphony Number 3, Opus 36 (Symphony for Sorrowful Songs) 3rd movement. One of the most beautiful pieces of the 20th century.

Górecki attempted to write a musical work in the 1960's about the Holocaust. He never finished it, but part of the lyric used in this Symphony is taken from a message from a young woman prisoner scrawled onto the wall of a Gestapo cell in 1944, addressed to her mother. Górecki has said that this piece is an evocation of the ties between mother and child. Of the challenge of writing music in response to something like Auschwitz, he said, "Many of my family died in concentration camps. I had a grandfather who was in Dachau, an aunt in Auschwitz. You know how it is between Poles and Germans. But Bach was a German too—and Schubert, and Strauss. Everyone has his place on this little earth."

When listening to this I'm reminded of the (misquoted) line from Theodore Adorno, usually said as 'There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.' (The actual quote, from Adorno's 'Cultural Criticism and Society,' in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1967), p.19.) is 'The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.'

I recall once hearing in a radio interview a response to this, from author Anne Michaels, author of holocaust novel Fugitive Pieces.  to paraphrase... 'Because of experiences like Auschwitz, there should be poetry.'  
And music.

Henryk Górecki died on Saturday in Katowice, itself a short railway journey from Auschwitz.

RIP. Maestro.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs - Henryk Górecki - 3rd movement

Charles May’s blog: Reading the Short Story

Charles May is an Emeritus Professor at California State University. He's taught English literature and published widely in the field for over 40 years but of more interest to me is the fact that he has been reading, reviewing and critiquing, and teaching people how to read, short stories for many years.

His blog on short stories and how to read them (may-on-the-short-story.blogspot.com) is a delight for anyone interested in reading and/or writing short fiction.

His posts are clear, easy to understand, informed and insightful. His knowledge about, and love of the short story form - in contrast to the novel - shines through each post; his archive is a treasure of explanation, opinion, critique and inquiry about the work of new as well as established/famous writers.

To get a flavour of the kind of issues May likes to discuss you might try reading a post from Monday 13th 2009 entitled, Robert Boswell, Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards and the half-known world - its not that I agree with everything he says, just that I'm pleased someone out there bothers to raise issues, ask questions and share their knowledge and expertise about short stories.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cohen in Auckland

Leonard Cohen performed in Auckland October 28 and 29. We went to the concert on the 29th. He looked a little thinner than when I saw him 20 months ago, and still put on a great show. A new element was a fabulous Spanish Guitar player originally from Zaragoza (Javier Mas). Cohen's team have picked a band that compliments his music with great variation of colour and tone, while leaving the essential purity of the lyric lines and their metaphoric journeys untouched. It would be so easy to drown out his poetry, but they haven't. His singing voice has matured into a monumental instrument, full of weight and gravity, but still allowing his often ironic humour to lightly play over the lines. Many musicians and  bands eventually become self-parody acts or just regurgitaters of a greatest hits setlist, but Cohen's arrangements breathe new life into some of the most profound works of our culture. The man and his music are both living taonga.

Leonard Cohen - A Thousand Kisses Deep (Spoken Poem Live @ London 2009)

Welcome to Island drafts

Welcome to Island drafts. This blog is dedicated to writers and writing, stories in all their myriad forms and styles, reviews and informed opinions.