Friday, 26 June 2009

RIP Michael Jackson

An amazing singer, dancer and songwriter. It's sad to hear of his death, especially since it sounds like he was finally trying to turn his life around. I wish he'd died at a high point of his life, not at a low point where he was just trying to fix it.

The tributes to his life today sadden me. Why couldn't this have been said about him when he was alive? I'm sure he'd have loved to have heard all the wonderful things that people have said about him today — and yet that only comes out after he's gone. During his life he was "Wacko Jacko"; after his death he's the incredible performer who has been there as long as many of us can remember, and who's provided us with so much fantastic music.

To those who have seen a man's death as an opportunity to crack bad jokes at a tragedy: You sicken me. Show some respect.

He may have been unusual. But he had a hard childhood, a troubled life, and yet he never gave up. Many others have killed themselves for far less strife than he went through. But he just kept trying to make more amazing music for us.

Rest in peace, Michael Jackson.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

RIP Mitsi

When we went to the SPCA, she was the one I fell in love with. Standing up against the bars of her tiny cage, she miaowed and rubbed up against the bars and started purring when I tried to pat her through the cage. She was playful, she was sweet, she was always affectionate.

We decided to get both her and her brother — it seemed mean to separate two kittens who had always lived together — and I'm so glad we did. They were best friends. They would play-fight, and chase each other around, and wash each other. Sometimes a play-fight would turn into a real one — especially lately, I think Mitsi was getting too old for Toby's games — and Toby bears a token from Mitsi at the moment, a little scar running down his nose from when he attacked her unawares and she swiped at him.

But Mitsi was always the good one. Toby would miaow loudly if he wanted any food; Mitsi would just sit there, looking up at me hopefully. Toby's a little rebel, jumping up on the kitchen bench even though he knows he's not allowed to; Mitsi, once she learned from the first couple of smacks, never did.

She was always so affectionate. Every morning when I wake up, she's there to greet me, running in from outside when I get up. I go to the loo and open the door, and she's always waiting outside. I go to wash my hands, and she jumps onto the bathroom windowsill, rubbing her head against it and generally trying to look as cute as she can.

I joked that Toby was Dan's cat and Mitsi was mine — she always came and sat on my lap in the evenings.

She wasn't there to greet me in the morning. Unusual — but I was in a hurry, and got ready quickly. As I was leaving in the morning, I thought I should text Dan and ask him to look out for her at lunch-time (he comes home for lunch); then I saw the time, forgot all about Mitsi, and drove hurriedly off.

It wasn't till past 11 last night that Dan made some comment about where Mitsi was that night, and I remembered. I hadn't seen her that morning. I hadn't seen her that evening. There was no doubt something was wrong.

We searched through the house, opening any cupboards she might have strayed into (she's been shut in the hall cupboard for a few hours before), going out to open the woodshed. I wished the garage had been closed all day — she could have been shut in there, which has happened before as well. But if she was anywhere near, we'd have heard her miaow.

There was only one alternative.

We live by railway tracks.

Dan took the torch and headed out. I followed. He warned me not to come, because if he found anything I wouldn't want to see what it was. I didn't care. I was worried. She's my cat.

He searched for a few dozen metres up the tracks. No sign of her. I think we both felt inordinate relief; but we hadn't searched down the other end of the tracks, and there was no other explanation.

Then as we walked back along the tracks, he saw her. A little black-and-white body lay stretched out a couple of metres from the tracks. She'd been hit hard, it looked like — her body was almost intact, but her pelvic area was a big, bloody mess.

Dan thinks it could only have taken a couple of seconds for her to die. I hope so. I can't bear the thought of my sweet-natured, affectionate little cat dying, bleeding, wounded, alone.

She was only a year and eight months old. She was a young, affectionate, playful cat. She was so scared of trains she'd always run inside when one came past — we can't figure how she was anywhere near enough to one to be hit by it.

Toby seemed to know something was up. We took the body into the backyard to bury it, and Toby came over to sniff at the body, to sniff at her wound. We shooed him away. Dan started digging the hole, and I looked over at where Mitsi lay. Toby was sitting beside her, not doing anything. Just sitting. I thought it would be better for him to be inside, not to see his poor dead sister; but whenever I came near he ran away, obviously frightened, not understanding why his little playmate was just lying there like that.

He came over to look at the hole we were digging; Dan scared him away with the spade.

But he came back as Dan lowered her into the hole, and he was watching as Dan started shoveling dirt over her body.

In the morning, Toby was waiting for me when I got up. He can't know, of course; but it was a small comfort to me. When I sat down to start writing this post, he came and curled up on my lap, purring.

I think the best a cat can have is a good life and a quick death. I hope Mitsi had both of those. She loved us, and she knew we loved her. She grew up with a playmate she loved, who played with her and who looked after her and washed her.

She would sleep on our bed on the cold nights — and had done so that last night. (Apparently, Dan woke up one night to find her asleep on my face.) I'd fed her chicken skins when I was making dinner that night — I know you aren't meant to feed your cat non-catfood, but I'm glad I did. I hope she had a good last night. I hate that she's gone; I hate that we only had just over a year with her. I hate that she was so young when she died, and that she was stupid enough to get hit. I hate it took us almost 24 hours to realise she was gone.

But there was nothing we could have done. All I can do is hope she had a good life — and a quick death.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Writing tips

First: I haven't been blogging as much as I've wanted to this week, partly as (yay!) I now have a full-time job, and partly as I've been slightly busier this week anyway. My evenings have been taken up with committee meetings, making mulled wine and playing Wii, and celebrating five years with Dan. (I'm not sure whether he thought having put up with me for five years was a cause for celebration.)

Moving on: I've been reading a lot of debut authors' blogs today, and thought I'd share some of the wisdom.

The talented Sarah Rees Brennan, whose debut book I've blogged about previously, has released the original first chapter for The Demon's Lexicon.

I haven't yet read The Demon's Lexicon, but it is currently winging its way to me, so I was curious to read the original first chapter (complete with author's annotations). I was also slightly relieved to read it — Ms Rees Brennan's blog is entertaining and funny, but those traits in a blog don't translate to writing ability. This chapter shows her writing skill.

...It also made me start comparing her writing to mine, as I sometimes do, and although she writes much better than my current draft is in, I'm taking note of her style. I don't want to copy any writer's style, but I think a vital part of writing is reading, and learning from other writers' styles.

I found a helpful writer's resource today: Carol North's writing tips. A few of the links weren't relevant to me, but I found her tips on writing Chapter One and Story Arcs a useful reference, as well as the Critiques don't bite PDF from the Muse It Up Club.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Writers' readers' group

As far as I can find, there are no writers' groups in Palmerston North (barring our NaNoWriMo group).

As far as I can find, there are no book clubs in Palmerston North (barring the City Library one, which seems to be a turn-up-with-random-book rather than an actual discussion of a set book).

I think this is appalling. I'd like to be a part of either one of these types of groups; but, barring online communities, there are no Palmerston North-specific book clubs or writers' groups, that I can find.

Want to help me make one?

I'm tossing around the idea of forming a combined book club/writers' group, meeting every alternating fortnight or so (e.g. the book club would meet every second Tuesday of the month; the writers' group would meet every fourth Tuesday of the month). Thus, while anyone could of course join both groups, you could just as easily join only one.

The writers' group would be a critique group, for more serious writers. There might not be a lot of "serious" creative writers in Palmy, but I've heard the ideal size for a critique group is 4-6 people; and I think Palmerston North can do that.

Writers' critique group: This could work in two ways. Each writer could bring their WIP along, read it out to the group (scary but helpful), and have it tactfully but honestly critiqued by the group. Alternatively, each month we could give one writer the "floor", and all help critique that writer's work. (Ideas? Suggestions?) This would be for creative writing only in any format. (Any genre; short stories, novel chapters, etc; fiction or non-fiction — as long as it's creative writing.

Book club: Every member could take turns suggesting a book to read and discuss at the following meeting. I think it would be neat if we could focus on New Zealand authors (buy NZ made!), but we wouldn't limit it to that. Again, any genre would be fine; if someone suggests a book in a genre that Person A doesn't normally read, it's a chance for Person A to enlarge their reading horizons.

I think both groups would be great for meeting new people; for connecting with friends you don't often see; and for just finding out about new books out there. It's always great to find (or meet!) a new author — and sometimes not in the genre you "normally" read, too.

Would anyone in Palmy be interested? Alternatively, does anyone who's not in Palmy think this sounds like a good idea? If you know any writers in Palmy who might be interested, spread the word! Let me know your feedback, and I'll look at taking this further.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Paragraph in a sentence

I've been having problems restructuring my WIP, mostly because I can't figure out what a "scene" is. I'd always thought of a scene as the kind you get in a play — action confined to the same time and location. Apparently not; there are so many definitions out there that I'm getting totally bewildered.

So rather than scenes, I've divided my story into conflicts, and briefly written what happens within these conflicts/chapters. Some chapters are shorter than others; some may merge into one. I hope a couple of chapters will expand into several as I figure out further plot points.

The other thing I'm doing is summarising each paragraph or set of dialogue into one sentence. This has been really useful as it's shown me where I'm repeating myself; where I need to devote more time to a subject; or simply where I'm not saying anything worth saying.

After this, I'm going to write a synopsis of my story the way I want it to be. Mentally, I've already cut two scenes and added two others which will help the characters' motivations for acting the way they do, later on.

Then I can start the rewrite.

I really like this new sum-every-paragraph-up-in-a-sentence technique; it clarifies whether the paragraph needs to be there.

I want to start rewriting, anyway. I'm sick of trying to re-structure and re-plan everything; it feels like I should start doing. Once I do start writing again, I'll still keep the new structure very much in mind; but after I've done this synopsis, I'm going to start writing the actual story again.

I already know what my problem will be with my (new) first scene... but that's a problem for another day.

Friday, 12 June 2009

The way the world works

After nearly two months of unemployment, isn't it fitting I should be offered two jobs in one day?

Neither job's perfect, of course — neither's in the newspaper/publishing industry, and neither's full-time and permanent. (One's permanent and about 35 hours a week; the other's full-time but only a temp position.)

It was easy to pick which job I wanted to do, though, and I start my new job on Monday.


Thursday, 11 June 2009

Spreading the word: The Demon's Lexicon (Sarah Rees Brennan)

I first heard of Irish author Sarah Rees Brennan through her agent, Kristin Nelson. Kristin had posted Sarah's query letter on her blog to show us poor writers how to do a query letter well, and I gotta say this query — as well as Sarah's entertaining interviews and blog — sucked me in!

So without further ado (and with permission from Sarah), I hereby reproduce the "plot" part of her query letter for her debut book, The Demon's Lexicon, released on 1 August 2009 in New Zealand (according to Sarah) and already released pretty much everywhere else in the world!

What would be the first word to come to mind about the runaway romance between a beautiful, headstrong woman and a darkly fascinating magician?

For Nick, it's 'embarrassing', since said beautiful, headstrong woman was his mum. 16 year old Nick has been brought up on the run from the darkly fascinating magician after things really didn't work out between him and Nick's mother. He resents his mother for the predicament they're in, and he was mostly raised by his older brother, Alan.

Nick has also been brought up knowing that there are certain people who have limited magical abilities. Some of them, the magicians, increase these magical abilities by summoning demons who give them more power - in return for the magicians giving them people to possess. The other magically gifted people have considerably less power and rely on magical trinkets and information, exchanged every month at a 'goblin market.' As the only people who know about the magicians and their victims, they do try to control things, but it's an endeavour that is not going well.

Nick, who can summon demons and is pretty handy with a sword, is mostly concerned with just getting by, but his life is greatly complicated by the advent of his brother's latest crush. Not only is she a little too attractive for Nick's peace of mind, but she has a boy in tow who bears the marks of demon possession. Added to that the fact that Nick has started to suspect that Alan, the only person in his life who he trusts, has been lying to him about a few very serious things, and not only Nick, but everybody else, are in for some surprises.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Work experience

My second copy of The Snow Dragon is here, all beautiful and shiny and utterly useless. Maybe if I ever get a novel published, I'll run a competition where the winner gets a copy of my novel plus a copy of The Snow Dragon. Although I'm not sure that, having read The Snow Dragon, anyone would bother with anything else I've written... but hey, it was fun to write.

Anyway. I'm still unemployed, and need experience to get into my chosen field: anything in the newspaper/publishing industry — but ideally, editing. Every industry job I apply for, it's the same response: Good application, but we need experience. (Either that or a polite form rejection.)

Then Dan, wonderful person, was talking about me to a customer who works for a local community newspaper; she said they don't have any vacancies but they do often do work experience for students, and she passed on her card for me to call her.

Got in touch with her yesterday, met the editor today — and now I'm off On Assignment! All unpaid, all work experience; I don't care. I just want the experience. The deadline's Friday midday; if I can get the interview, photo and article written up before then he'll give me some more work to do.

It's just encouraging. I don't mind starting at the bottom and working up, but I've just had trouble finding that place to start. I had been planning to do cold calls/CV drops at the local newspapers, but it's nice not to have to do that. Although, if this work experience ends and I still can't get a job, I will do the cold-call/CV drop thing.

But it's nice to be moving forward.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

YouTube Tuesday: Wii Lego

I thought it might be kind of fun to have a couple of regular "features" on my blog, since I've noticed lately there are a few things I write about quite often. To this end, I'm considering having a "YouTube Tuesday" (cos I keep finding cool little video clips which are completely unrelated to anything my blog's actually about); an Author Thursday (when I talk about a book I've read, or a NZ/debut author that I've recently come across); and Writing Friday, when I sum up my writing for the week (good incentive to, y'know, make sure I do some writing).

Will I end up doing this for more than a week or two? Who knows. But I thought it might be fun (for me) to have a couple of little blog "features" — while at the same time giving me (a) ideas of what to post about or (b) an excuse to surf YouTube.

To that end, and in the spirit of YouTube Tuesday, I present to you:

Wii Lego.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Structure, scenes and snowflakes

I'm so much more confident today. I had a minor panic yesterday when I realised that, while I knew what editing I wanted to do, I had no idea where to start. I wanted to re-shuffle scenes. I wanted to rework the novel's structure. But what structure should a novel have? And what is a "scene"?

Today brought wiser counsel. Kerryn left me a really helpful comment (thank you!); I found a scene structure guide; I browsed Holly Lisle's site for advice; I downloaded yWriter and spent a while at the laptop with a note-pad by my side. I didn't do any writing, but it seems that for now, I need to focus on planning.

I started by crafting a 15-word sentence summarising the novel (difficult, especially when you're trying to make that sentence sound like a blurb on the NYT bestseller list). That was really helpful, though, as the result helped me focus on what should be — and isn't — my novel's main conflict.

I dabbled in the Snowflake Method; wrote blurbs; practised writing scenes; and found a new first scene for my novel. I wrote down specific issues with my novel, with 2-3 possible solutions to each issue; I clarified the central conflicts of my novel; I drew a map of my world. I summarised "chapters", each ending on a point of conflict or danger to my characters; and after the "events" of each chapter, I wrote up their "purpose" in the story.

Sometimes the purpose could only be summarised, weakly, as character development: "This shows M's independence." That helped show me problems. While the central events of that scene may be necessary, is the whole scene needed — or do I need to ruthlessly cut extra dialogue, actions, description? And do I need that scene, or can the events be related later in a conversation, or in a passing reference by the narrator?

I wrote pages and pages of notes.

I still have heaps to do. I want to rewrite my paragraph-summary. I want to write a plot synopsis, and a "character synopsis" for my main characters. A character synopsis is a single-page outline of the character's storyline during the novel; and while this may be obvious for your protagonist, and possibly your antagonist, what about your other main characters?

The place I tripped up when writing my first draft, was when I didn't know what happened when my anti-hero left the picture for a while. I knew exactly what my heroine did, the whole way through the novel; and I knew what the villain did. I knew all the on-screen actions. But when my anti-hero exited the piece and then, later, reappeared, I didn't know where he'd been. This was a major issue for me, and one I should have been better prepared for. I hope writing these character synopses will help me there.

The great thing was that while doing all this, ideas kept occurring to me. The tidiness of my carefully organised notes soon disintegrated as I kept adding excited side-notes: What if M overhears W berating E for [...]? M could then play on E's weakness by [...]. Would E figure out what she's doing? — with possible outcomes bullet-pointed after my side-notes.

I have such better ideas of where my novel's going, than I did 24 hours ago.

It's exciting. I don't know if I'll get writing tomorrow. In a way, I'm straining at the leash to get back to my writing. In a way, I'm cautious to approach my novel because I want to make sure I've got my plan right, this time.

But it's exciting. I can't wait to keep going.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Conducting a large-scale assault

So, the tortuous first stage is passed. Now all I have to do is obsess over whether I should have said "tortuous" or "tortured", and check it is meant to be "passed", not "past", although I think technically both are true. (And I want to be a writer. I'll try to learn basic English soon.) Now I'm on to Step Two, the one I've been looking forward to: Editing.

But where do you start?

Seriously. I'm asking anyone. Where do you start editing a novel?

Don't say "at the beginning". I'm not talking about fixing sentences — I'm talking about a proper edit — rewriting a good chunk of the novel.

I figured I'd start with structure. I want to begin with a different scene (much more interesting than its current bland introduction), move a few scenes around, make some scenes into flashbacks for later on.

But how do I even change the structure? Do I make index cards of each scene and decide which order they go best in? Copy/paste scenes? Refer to a "novel outline" ("First 5000 words: Introduce protagonist. Next 2000 words: Catalyst event", etc) and organise it that way?

There are so many courses and books on how to write. So many helpful websites and blogs on how to sell and market your book. But where's the information on how to do a large-scale edit?

I feel I should know this. I am the writer. I've edited lots of short stories — done big structural changes, rewrites, you name it — but they were short stories. They're a whole different level of writing.

I think the approach I'll go with is the index card one. Write out a one-sentence summary of each scene, and figure out which should go where in the narrative. Conduct large-scale assault on every scene in my poor little first draft. Everything that can go, must go! (Sale on now.)

Does anyone have any other ideas?

Friday, 5 June 2009

The death of books

I've heard about this a lot lately, mostly on different blogs. The emergence of the Kindle; the development of digital paper; the spread of online books; the death of the physical book.

I hate the sound of this happening.

You can't replace a book, that physical object in your hands, that cover, those pages, that spine, the blurb. You can't replace a bookcase. An online book seems stupid. My eyes get tired after staring at the screen for too long, and I'm paranoid that a virtual book would be corrupted, that I'd lose my licence; that there'd be a power failure and I'd lose my whole library. (Having experienced similar things with DRM music — such as my licence magically disappearing off the computer that I bought and downloaded the music on — I'm none too keen to repeat the experience with books.)

I always prefer something physical, something tangible, to something that only physically exists on a screen and in a corruptible hard drive.

How appalling for writers, too. I can't imagine selling a manuscript and never getting the actual, beautiful book; only seeing it sell online.

I know I'm old-fashioned, that the world is moving forward without me — an appalling thought when you're in your twenties — but the concept of a digital book being preferred to a physical book, seems almost laughable. The concept of physical books actually starting to go out of business... I guess if it wasn't so horrific, it would be laughable.

Music and movies, I don't mind. I prefer legally buying and downloading my music to buying a CD that will, no matter what I do, get scratched. Music I can transfer onto my mp3 player, USB drive, CDs, whatever I want. It's more convenient. It works.

But books... they have to be physical, or it simply doesn't work. It's just such a foreign concept that I can't think of anything else to say about it.

Thursday, 4 June 2009


I didn't finish my first draft in time, so I didn't get a free proof copy of my 2008 manuscript. I mean, I finished the manuscript the previous day, did a very-very quick edit and sent it in about 12 hours before the deadline... but the files weren't approved on time, so no proof copy for me.

The good news is that, foreseeing this eventuality, I'd already uploaded files for my 2003 manuscript (the one I already have a copy of), so currently winging its way to me is the second proof copy of a book I already own and don't really need another copy of. Any takers?

I'm not as disappointed as I maybe should be, though. I didn't care too much that my 2003 manuscript was rough, because I like it as it is, and I don't want to do anything more with it. My 2008 manuscript has potential, and if I'm going to get it printed, I want a good copy of it printed. A cover that wasn't rushed through at the last minute (although Dan still did an excellent job of it); a restructured, rewritten, properly edited manuscript.

So now I'm hoping they offer a free voucher again this year for NaNoWriMo, so I can get a free copy of my manuscript then. In fact, that might work out pretty well, since this year for NaNoWriMo I'm planning to write a sequel to my 2008 manuscript... a two-book volume, perhaps?

And I'll leave you with this version of "Can I have this dance" from HSM3, which I found through this writer's blog, and thought was too good not to post. I don't actually like either HSM3 or any of the songs in it, but this singer, Sam Tsui, turns the song into a really beautiful one.

Monday, 1 June 2009

#11: Finish a 100,000+ word draft

111,096 words: finished.

It needs a wealth of rewriting, of course. I've already mentally changed the structure, started with a different scene, and dramatised my sadly tame penultimate scene. Plus I need to just rewrite a lot so it's not so... crap.

But if it's not finished in terms of editing, it's a complete story of over 100,000 words — approximately the right length for a fantasy novel (which it is), although I plan to cut it down in the rewrite so that it's between 90,000-100,000 words. I think 111,000's a little long for a first novel; besides, my writing can always be tightened up.

I've read a few novels lately, written in a similar style to how I want to write. I love how Dunedin-born Juliet Marillier writes; her stories always involve me so emotionally. I also read The Sound of Butterflies by Rachael King recently, and I noticed how beautiful the language was, how well every emotion was conveyed. Then after I finished it, and went back to get some one-sentence examples of beautiful language, I couldn't find any. By which, of course, I don't mean it wasn't well-written; it was written well enough that it flowed, with enough details to make it detailed and specific, but with few enough words that there was no purple prose.

I want to read novels with this kind of writing style so I can try and write how these authors write: language beautiful but concrete, evocative but un-purple-prosey.

But for now, regardless of writing style, I'm happy. I've finished my first draft — my wobbly, badly-written, poorly-plotted first draft of my favourite "novel" to date — and I'm happy. It may be that I never get this draft to a publishable grade, either, and I'm fine with that. But I want the experience of rewriting, of editing, of changing structures and scenes and tightening language and so forth — all of which I've done before, of course, but only for short stories. Oh, I can't wait to edit this one.