Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sunday Salon - my office and my job.

A few people have asked me to post photos of my office. I think there is a whole new phenomenon here - office porn, or, the art of looking at writers' desks. I am happy to oblige. So here they are: I have two desks, one with the obligatory pin-board with inspiring pictures, photos, index cards etc, and the other housing my computer. Above that are the images from A Cabinet of Curiosities. I have included the outlook from the window, although it was the university holidays when this was taken, so there are no students sullying the view! 

I am happy to inform my readers that if they like the look of what they see, my position as the Ursula Bethell writer in residence at Canterbury University is up for grabs next year. For details of how to apply, go here. I can't recommend it enough - an office, a computer, a salary, access to the library (and gym!) and almost complete solitude. I can go for days without talking to a soul, but if I need company, it's easy enough to find, too. A very productive environment for any serious writer.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The perfect novel.

I have written the perfect novel. It is complex, multi-layered, gripping and very important. The story is fantastic. It will move readers, and sell extremely well. The critics will laud it, and of course, it will win the Booker. Or the Orange. Or both. How could it not, when it is perfection itself?

The trouble is, so far I have only written it in my head. In your head, things can afford to be perfect. And effortless. The novel assembles itself with precision; all you need to do is get it down on paper, right?

Wrong. In making the transition from head to page, that perfect creature becomes a baggy, twee, trite, lack-lustre, confused monster. I wonder how many great ideas never make it into book form because people can't bear to see their precious darlings being born a bit spotty, or, OK, hideously deformed.

But this, I have to remind myself, is what writing a novel is all about, and those of us who persevere - who don't abandon our ugly babies but work with them to make them achieve all they can in life - are the ones who get the books finished. And OK, they might not be the flawless art that we first imagined, but we have to at least try and mould that first effort into something as close to our dream as we can manage. We can't give up.

On a personal note I thought I could get this novel out in a year, no worries, because it was all there in my head. The days when I hated what I saw appearing on the screen sometimes crippled me for the rest of the week. I have come to realise that I was being a bit optimistic. Sure, I will try and write it in a year, but with a few exceptions, novels can - and probably should - take a lot longer that that.

A few weeks ago, a night class student asked me how many words I like to write a day and I said a thousand (this wasn't a lie - I do like to write a thousand, but I usually fail at this target miserably). He said with a very confused look on his face "But this isn't very many at all!" People have this image of the full-time writer sitting at their desk banging away on their keyboard for 8 hours straight, but those who have actually been there know that this is virtually impossible. Sometimes I sit in my office all day and only write for an hour. But try and explain to people what you're doing for the rest of the time and you realise that to the outside world writing a novel looks an awful lot like laziness.

Other people have also said "If you write a page a day, that's a novel in a year". I think those people have never written a novel either. They must be the kind who think that the perfect novel in their head will pour out of them at a perfect page a day, and at the end of that year all they need to do is print it out and send it off.

The conclusion to this rant is that I am going to go back to trying to write 1000 words a day, and if they look nothing like I was hoping I will shrug my shoulders and tell myself that I have all the time in the world to shape it once the first draft is out. If I hate it, I don't have to live with it. I have the power to change it to the best of my ability. And I don't need to rush it out. If I take the time to research, and ponder, and read things that inspire me, I am not being lazy; I am being kind to my baby.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Oh, I don't read novels."

I was thinking today about how often I meet people, men usually, who say "I don't read novels". They usually say they only read non-fiction. One of the main reasons seems to be that they have little time for reading, so if they're going to read, they want to learn something.

Of course I think that you can learn something from novels, but that's beside the point. I just realised today that you never hear people say, when talking about films, "I only watch documentaries." Surely there are so many people (*cough*men*cough*) who think nothing of flopping down in front of TV for the evening to watch a drama or a comedy, and certainly those who, even if high-minded and anti-TV, will go the the movies to watch a good shoot-em-up or a well-crafted, thought-provoking piece of arthouse cinema.

So why don't they look at novels in the same way?

Incidentally, those readers who claim to only read biographies etc, also seem to take forever to read their chosen books, reading a couple of pages a night before falling asleep. I would venture that if they gave a good novel a try, they might learn something and be engaged enough to read a good chunk at a time. They could even read a book instead of watching TV.

Any thoughts?

Actually, further to this, I was interested in a survey the Guardian did recently about male and female reading habits. Men read significantly less fiction than women (no surprises there, I worked that out when I was a shopgirl in a bookstore - they also don't read books written by women*), and the novels they name as being their favourites seem to be the ones they read as angry young men or studied at university 5, 10, 20, 30 years ago. Anecdotally, I have come across just these types, who name books such as The Crying of Lot 49 as their favourite novels, but who haven't ever bothered to pick up something that's come out in the last 20 years which might be just as good. One guy even said to me once "fiction these days is crap"! Well how does he know if he never reads any? Oh, that's right, he doesn't have time, and he wants to learn something when he reads. As far as he's concerned, he's read a good novel. Why bother looking for any more?

*Of course I'm not talking about all men; there are plenty of exceptions, including my husband who not only reads novels, but novels written by women. I think that might be why I married him. But on the flipside I have a male novelist friend who says he doesn't read novels. That's even more scary.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Grumpy old woman moment #2.

I take the bus every morning to work and most evenings home again. There are only a couple of seats I can bear to sit in, and I'll tell you why. Buses these days seem to be plastered with advertising, or if not advertising, then some kind of decoration, which spreads up the side of the bus and over the windows. The decal stickers they use are sort of pixilated to let the light in and to allow passengers to see out. The trouble is that if you look through them, everything is blurred - it's like watching things move under water without goggles - and once the bus starts moving, it just makes you feel plain sea-sick. So I always try to choose a seat that has a clear view to the outside, otherwise I have to stare at something inside the bus for the whole 30 minute journey to settle my stomach.

Bah! Who had this bright idea? Clearly someone in an advertising agency who drives to work. Bah!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sunday Salon - I am Heathcliff.

I am still on a 19th century novel kick - both as 'research' for my new novel and taking advantage of my academic setting this year by attending lectures on the subject.

I can't remember when I last read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, but it must have been a long time, because I am finding it as fresh and interesting as if it were the first time. There is so much I could say about it here, but I'll be saving it for the essay I'm going to write. Yes, you read correctly - I have decided to tackle a third year academic essay 18 years after I last studied Victorian literature at university.

Let's just say that for what is arguably the greatest romance ever written in the English language, the lovers are two of the most unlikeable heroes and heroines you are likely to meet, and the love story unconventional to say the least. I remember thinking that the first time I read it, but now my reaction is a bit more complex.

For example, everything we know about Heathcliff and Cathy is not from their point of view, but through the eyes of Nelly Dean, the nurse, and she brings all her morals and standards and prejudices to her view of them. I feel as though I understand them so much better now that an older me is taking the narrative with a grain of salt and reading between the lines.

Cathy is certainly spoiled, and Heathcliff a bit of a thug, but that doesn't stop me from feeling for them when they are kept apart and their love is unrequited, save for some kisses and tears just before Cathy's demise.

I love reading it at the same time as gong to lectures, which are opening my eyes to so many aspects of the novel as I read it. I had always imagined, even after I read it, that WH was so evocative in its descriptions of the wild Yorkshire moors; in the edition I'm reading, it even says as much on the back cover. But the moors are never described directly; all the action takes place either at Wuthering Heights or Thrushcross Grange. Instead, the moors are really brought to life in the descriptions of Heathcliff, when he is compared to the natural landscape. Heathcliff is the moors.

I could go on but I think I'll save it. I am thoroughly excited by the prospect of writing an essay and putting into it everything that I didn't when I was younger and more distracted. I am also excited by how re-immersing myself in the world of the Victorian novel has reinvigorated my own novel and taken it in a new direction, which proves once again that you can't write a novel without reading and appreciating those who have gone before. 

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Writing and babies.

Many of us have done it and failed. Some have succeeded. Some of us are thinking about doing it. I recommend Making Babies by Anne Enright for those who have done it and those who are thinking of doing it, and also the latest post by Lauren Groff. I just read it, smiled, and thought, ah, yes. You can't ever help seeing the humour in such endeavours, and this is what keeps you sane. I can't believe I went through it all and out the other side. And could quite possibly think about doing it all again.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Right back at ya.

Mark Sarvas has written about his time in New Zealand and at the Christchurch Writers Festival on his blog, The Elegant Variation. He says very good things about everything and everyone. What a nice man. He can come again.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A couple of my favourite things.

I was going to say "a few of my favourite things" like the song, but realised I only had two for now.

1. Not For Robots. ("Writing is hard. People for whom writing is not hard are robots and should go away. Thank you.") I have spoken before about how sometimes when my novel is going badly I start scouring the internet for answers. The trouble is I don't really know what the questions are. But I think this website might actually hold the answers to them, whatever they are. It's written by American YA author Laini Taylor, which is everything she knows about writing and the process of writing novels. It's great. I have already picked up some very useful suggestions, such as keeping two documents open side by side as I'm writing: one for writing the actual novel, and one for twittering on as I'm thinking about it, or trying stuff out (similar to what Peter Carey refers to as cantillevering), so I'm always getting down what's in my head. She says it helps her enormously and I'm going to give it a go. I could go on about all the great advice, but you should probably go and check it out yourself.

2. The smell of the printer/photocopier room. I had to print out a couple of boring invoices today and when I walked into the room that houses the enormous Deathstar of a printer here in the English department I was hit by a smell that simultaneously excited me and reassured me. Why? I think because usually when I go into that room it's to print off pages of my novel. It makes me feel as though I've been working and I have something to show for it. Of course, today I haven't earned that smug feeling the room has given me (perhaps it needs more ventilation and I am in fact high on ink fumes), but I have it anyway. Come to think of it, I think I'm getting a headache.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A small voice.

A few months ago I wrote this post, which I ended with suggesting that the Sunday Star-Times short story competition, which is arguably New Zealand's highest-profile competition, should perhaps think about employing a different judge. I was worried that employing the same judge year after year would lead to writers tailoring their stories to one person's taste, and that the fact that those stories get published in the newspaper and exposed to so many readers might produce a uniformity in the types of stories that are considered excellent. I was worried that diversity might be at risk.

This year, Owen Marshall is no longer judging the competition; Stephanie Johnson is. I am delighted. No doubt she will have different ideas to Owen as to what constitutes good writing, and I for one welcome the change. Who knows why they changed, whether they had intended to have someone different all along, or whether Mr Marshall wasn't available this year, or whether the organisers had heard my small mumblings from cyber-space and it gave them some food for thought.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Festival report #1.

The Christchurch Writers Festival is over. It was a great but exhausting few days, and I didn't even go to as many sessions as I would have liked. I think I'm tired from a combination of going to hear writers, being a writer on panels myself, being 'on', partying (ie drinking) more than I'm used to, and still having to be the usual mother when I came home. But hell, it was fun.

Chairing a session in particular takes it out of you as you're responsible for the whole thing running smoothly, and I am a compulsive over-preparer for that kind of thing (although strangely when I am there as a panellist I find it easier to prepare nothing at all), so it took me all week to write introductions and to generally feel anxious. Well, I'm happy to report that the Friday session did run smoothly, despite being told when I arrived that Mark Sarvas wasn't going to make it (which would have meant rewriting my introduction, coming up with more questions and dumping the rather nice intro I had written for Mark). Luckily I found out in time that he would in fact be coming; he'd just be a little late. This actually provided a bit of flair to the session as Mark arrived in a flourish about halfway through.

I couldn't have asked for an easier group of writers (Anya Ulinich, Christine Leunens, Maxine Alterio, Mark Sarvas) to chair. They all had plenty to say, and rather than sticking rigidly to my plan for the session, I just let it flow organically, with readings and questions that arose out of the pieces that were read. I do wish we'd had more time, as we were really only just getting warmed up when it came to an end. Four writers is one too many for a session such as that, even if we did have more time. Mark Sarvas in particular could have had a session all to himself to talk about his book, Harry, Revised and his blog The Elegant Variation (more on this when I write about the blogging panel we were both on). But I guess no matter how well a writer performs on the day, the nature of festivals and their resources is that sometimes people have to share the stage, and it would have been a gamble to give a writer who is really unknown in New Zealand a session all to himself.

I did, however, get feedback that it was a good taster for the works of the writers involved and that plenty of people went out and bought their books after.

I have to say that a highlight of the festival for me was meeting and hanging out with the wonderful Anya Ulinich. She is one cool chick and we had lots of laughs. And quite a few drinks.

More on the festival here, here, here and here.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


The Press Christchurch Writers festival has started. Just a reminder, if you are in Christchurch, the events I'll be appearing in are in the column to the left, under the big blue festival ad.

Chairing a session is a challenge - as the chair it is up to you to make the session run smoothly and to make it interesting. This means giving good introductions to the writers but not rambling on for too long, which sadly happens all too often at festivals. I hope I can get the balance right. I have certainly done my preparation - to the point that it has consumed everything else this week, and that's not to mention all the reading (which has luckily been enjoyable).

With four authors to read and interview in one hour I won't get to ask probing questions about their work, but I hope some interesting anecdotes will come out of it and that it will be an entertaining and informative hour.

As always with these festivals I'm looking forward to the parties and meeting fellow authors from far flung places - Kate Atkinson and Kate Mosse among them (I'm sure Robert Fisk is very interesting but what would we find to talk about?) - and catching up with my publishers and writer friends.

I shall report back next week.