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AUT competition for unpublished authors closes 31st January.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
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. ( )
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 ( 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 ( 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.