Monday, August 30, 2010

Michael Robotham: Ghostwriting

Melbourne Writers' Festival - Session 1
The first session I attended was on ghostwriting, and one of the speakers (Tom Noble, who wrote Mick Gatto's life story) was unable to be there, so Michael Robotham went it alone. As always, he was a very entertaining speaker with plenty of stories to tell! He worked as a ghostwriter for many years, after being a journalist, and has written the life stories of Geri Halliwell, Rolf Harris, Tony Bullimore, Lulu and a couple of SAS soldiers, among others. He actually got his first job after the original writer had a falling-out with the subject, and went on to write 15 in all. He now writes great crime fiction.

It was fascinating to hear what goes into ghostwriting someone's life. I've done a couple of oral history collections, and many of the skills are similar - interviewing, drawing the person out, getting them to remember things they thought they'd forgotten, and then endless hours of transcribing the tapes. Michael said he can do up to 60 hours of tapes and transcribe more than a million words before he gets to the point of choosing what to include and how to put it all together so it flows.

As with oral history, it's also vital to find the right "voice". You can't use a child's voice at the beginning and then change it later - it has to recreate the person's way of speaking so that, for the reader, it's as if they can hear the story being told. You get very close to the person, and as well as drawing out those forgotten memories, you're also drawing out old pains and regrets. He said you can end up being like the person's therapist, and sometimes they don't want to let you go! Whereas others forget you after a week and convince themselves they wrote the book.

The ghostwriter should bring two things to the project - ignorance (a blank canvas, ready to take it all in with no preconceived ideas or bias) and a knowledge of what readers will find interesting. Often subjects will think their childhood is irrelevant or boring, for example, but for many readers, this is the most interesting period. We love to see how people are formed or influenced in their early years, and how that affected them later. It's also about showing the growing wisdom and experience of the person, and how they came to it.

When asked about the movie out at the moment - The Ghostwriter - Michael laughed as in this story the writer is expected to write the book in three weeks. To do a really good job takes 12 months, and you could maybe manage it in 3 at the least. Before a ghostwriter gets the job, they need to meet the subject. It sounded like an audition process! You need to get on together to make it work. And is an autobiography, ghostwritten or not, all true? He says what comes out is "their truth", and no two people see or experience the same event the same way anyway. All in all, a really interesting session!

Friday, August 27, 2010

It's All Hard Work!

On Wednesday I attended a seminar on ebook publishing - it was a full house, about 30 people who all, for various reasons, wanted to know more about ebooks and their potential. Note I say 'potential' - this wasn't a doom-and-gloom session about how ebooks will be the death knell of authors. Instead the speaker, Madisen Harper, spent six hours telling us everything we needed to know about how to research, write, publish and sell an ebook.

Of course, the marketing part took up a large amount of the afternoon. There's no point producing a great book of any kind unless you can sell it to lots of people. It's the same problem that traditional publishers face. But the internet, being another electronic resource, is on our side! Madisen is a very energetic speaker and I doubt anyone there could possibly have nodded off, even if they'd wanted to. I came home with a head full of ideas. But more importantly, a huge amount of information that I kind of knew or had read about suddenly had all been organised and presented in a way that I "got".

I think some people went home overwhelmed. Epublishing isn't going to make most things any easier. The book still has to be a good or great book. The cover still counts. But you don't have to pay for printing (with boxes of books in the garage). However, the marketing side of things tends to take centre stage. Nearly half of all books sold on Amazon now are ebooks, so you are competing with a fast-growing market. Yes, a lot of the dross will fall away, just like it does in self-publishing. There are opportunities and cost savings that will tempt many writers to try it out. But overnight fame is the exception, not the rule.

I loved this quote from a Guardian article about David Almond. "I used to look at my output before Skellig and sigh," he says. "People say to me, you're so prolific, and I think, now I am! It's the payoff for all the time I spent getting sentences to work properly. Like anything, you develop a skill through hard work."
Same with self-publishing fiction. You shouldn't do it until your writing can stand up against what's selling in the marketplace!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What Do ebooks Mean to Me?

Tomorrow I'm off to a one-day seminar (put on by the Australian Society of Authors) about ebooks and epublishing. While I've been reading a lot of blogs and commentaries and opinions about ebooks, and listened to publishers talk about where they're at and what's coming, and read news items about things like agents setting themselves up as epublishers for their clients ... what does it mean for me?

I'm not an author who's been around since the 60s and has contracts that don't even mention epublishing, or electronic anything. If I have anything still in print, the eclause in my contract usually specifies something vague like "all electronic mediums not yet thought of". That kind of covers everything, doesn't it?

My interest in epublishing comes from two things - one of which is books of mine that are out of print and may benefit from being available in an electronic format. For instance, I have the rights back for my verse novel, Farm Kid, and several teachers have already asked me for an electronic version that includes classroom materials. Note that additional request - not just the book, but lots of added extras that will give them a range of stuff to use with their students. My other interest is a novel or two that I personally have faith in but that publishers have said No to.

I suspect that the move to ebooks in children's publishing might lag behind adult novels and nonfiction, simply because of the way kids view computers and anything that looks like "work". I know a few who have laptops for school. These laptops are not for fun (you get that on the internet by hogging the family computer) - they're for school work. Thus reading on screen equals school work. Would that make you want to launch into ereaders?

I also suspect that if there is a move into picture books on the iPad, it will come from parents. Guess what - little kids like parents to read to them, from books they can touch and grab and flick pages over and then sit on, or take to bed. While parents are madly grabbing their iPad back and wiping off the grubby fingerprints! Parents will be the ones who gasp over the little app that shows the illustrator colouring in the dog or talking about ideas. Little kids will want the story - again and again, and then they'll want to take it to bed, while Dad wants the iPad so he can read the newspaper...

But I'm going along tomorrow, hoping the person running the seminar will be able to ask all those thorny questions about formats and marketing and covers and Kindle and different ISBNs. If I epublish one of my novels that no one in traditional publishing wants, can I get it out there? How? I'll report back!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What Other People Think Writers Do

With the online class I teach in writing for children, the topic came up this week about family expectations. Several students commented on how, since they'd started the course, their families seemed to expect that any minute they'd be churning out a best seller. As our focus this semester is chapter books, that's not very likely! But then again, I doubt any writer's family (apart from the kids, perhaps) would even know what a chapter book was, and how it was different from a picture book or a novel!

The Too-Tight Tutu (Aussie Bites) My very first published children's book was The Too-Tight Tutu (Aussie Bites). It's a chapter book in the Puffin series and came out in 1997. Thirteen years later, it's still in print, and has been published in the US and the UK, and about to be published in China. In Australia it's sold around 46,000 copies, which sounds like a best seller! But when you spread that over 13 years ... hmmm, not so much. And the illustrator gets a good part of the royalties, too.

My own family often hints at the idea of a best seller, possibly imagining us all swanning off to a tropical island somewhere where I'll continue writing while they lie around in the sun, drinking tropical-type drinks. Or maybe that's my version of it! After many years of writing and publishing, and a great deal of reading, plus a lot of market research and industry knowledge, I doubt anyone knows in advance what might become a best seller. Certainly Stephanie Meyer's publisher didn't, nor did JK Rowling's. It's an educated guess, at best, and a lot of hope.

That's what keeps a lot of us writers going. Hope. Hope we'll get that story published, the one we've reworked ten times. Hope we'll get good reviews. Hope that it sells well enough that it earns out its advance and the publisher won't frown at us. And faint hopes/dreams that the book might even win an award. Families and spouses don't understand the importance of hope. They want to see a book in print, and a cheque in your hand. That's what writing means to them.

And until you come up with both, your writing has no substance or meaning to them. They usually don't "get" why you persevere, why you keep secreting yourself away, turning down social events, hiding a stash of chocolate for the depressing days. They think publishing happens overnight, and are astonished when you tell them a book might take up to two years to arrive in the bookshop. They also wonder why you have a website and a blog and do all that marketing stuff - "isn't the publisher supposed to do all that?"

The Rowlings and Meyers of the world don't help! In the end, we all have to find a way to deflect the family expectations, either with some doses of "the cold, hard truth of publishing" or by simply keeping it all to yourself and being adamant about why your writing time cannot be subsumed by whatever frippery they're into right now. It's not easy. But sometimes building those walls around yourself, the ones that keep out the expectations, the tantrums, the sulks and the stupid, uninformed questions and criticisms, is what is going to get your writing done.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Two Good Books

A Writer's Space: Make Room to Dream, to Work, to Write Over the past three weeks, I've been reading A Writer's Space: Make Room to Dream, to Work, to Write by Eric Maisel. I've mentioned another book of his on this blog - The Van Gogh Blues - but this one had been sitting on my shelf for months, and I'd kind of forgotten I owned it.

Until the time arrived when suddenly I no longer had the house to myself every day for writing (retired husband syndrome), and found I was really struggling. One day, I walked past my bookshelf, put out my hand and grabbed this book and thought - How come I've never got around to reading this? Well, because I wasn't in a place where I needed it. Now I am. And I've been reading and thinking and reading some more, and answering some of the questions Maisel poses at the end of each chapter. It's been incredibly useful, and given me plenty to consider, along with some hope!

A Writer's Space is not just physical. It's not just about having someone in the house every day. It's also about needing to be silent, alone, and to have constant headspace in which to stay in the world of the story you are writing. Having another person constantly talking, or being around, when you aren't used to it, is very hard to come to terms with. Maisel talks about other kinds of space too - reflective, emotional, imaginative and existential! I particularly liked his chapters on mindfulness, something that relates to more than just your writing life.

Bad Boy These days I am, shall I say, judicious about where I spend my book dollars. Quite a few writers who I would once have gaily bought without a second thought are now on my library borrowing list. When trade paperbacks are $32-38 full price, you think twice about what you buy! But some writers still remain on my "Yes, buy" list and Peter Robinson is one of them. Bad Boy starts without the usual hero, Alan Banks, front and centre, leaving the first half of the story to Annie Cabot, his sergeant.

This new story is satisfyingly multi-layered, and it was interesting to see Banks return to the fray without being an instant hero. He has more problems to solve than just his daughter being in trouble. One of the layers in the story deals with what our children do when they believe we aren't looking or don't care - the mistakes they make, and the long-reaching consequences. Like many well-written crime novels, I enjoy the setting of Robinson's books: the East Dales in northern England that, unlike Stuart MacBride's dismal Aberdeen, actually makes me want to visit there one day!

Friday, August 13, 2010

10 Things I Learned About Writing from Tenpin Bowling

Years ago, I used to be a tenpin bowler. Hard to believe, I know. Harder still if you'd seen my pathetic sporting efforts at high school. I hated hockey, loathed netball, despised running, and although I could play tennis, I found it boring after a while. Basically, I disliked sports because I was no good at any of them. And I was no good at sport because I didn't like it. Didn't even like watching it.

But when I gave tenpin bowling a go (because I was living in a remote town where there was nothing to do except play a variety of sports, and women's touch rugby and soccer weren't going to see me turn up for training!), I finally discovered a sport that I liked, and that I was good at. Don't ask me why - I suspect liking and being good were connected. Sound familiar?

I don't bowl anymore. For a variety of reasons, but partly because it got too expensive, and I had to choose where I was going to put my time and energy - so I chose writing. But over the years, I've thought about the solitariness of being a writer, and how similar it is to those sports where, in the end, you're really playing against yourself. Bowling, golf, marathon running ... So here are my thoughts on how they connect.

1. It takes practice. Lots of it, if you want to improve and win. I used to have coaching once a week, play four times a week and try to add at least one more practice session on my own. That's a total of about 7 hours - do I spend that much time on my writing? The theory is that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of something. I never got close with bowling, but I am pretty sure I've passed that with writing.

2. Most of it is inside your head. You can be technically brilliant, have perfect technique and style, and know all the 'rules', but that's still only 5% of being good at it. The other 95% is about what's going on inside your head - a strange combination of being totally in control which then allows you to enter the zone and do amazing things, on a regular basis. Not once a year.

3. It takes focus. It means you don't take any notice of what anyone else is doing, whether they're winning or doing badly. If you take time to feel envious or gloat, you're taking time and energy away from your own practice and work. You ignore their tantrums (boy, I saw plenty of those on the bowling lanes, especially the guys!) and you ignore their amazing scores. Your own are all that matter.

4. In the end, your score doesn't matter. It can't. Everything that comes before your score - practice, training, focus, commitment, engagement, determination, technique - will make your score better (or get your books published), but you have to work at all those things first. A great score doesn't happen like magic, even if other people make it look that way.

5. Some people (a very, very few) are naturally brilliant. You can't do anything about that. Jealousy is a waste of time. Being mad at them for achieving something easily that you have to work really hard at is a waste of energy.

6. Perseverance, despite everything, is what counts. Even those naturally brilliant bowlers/writers might not last (being great at something can turn out to be boring). When you work hard, for a long time, improving your skills and growing in your practice, you will appreciate the success more, value it more. And feel really proud that you achieved it.

7. There's always more to learn. More training. More skills. New tricks. New ideas. New equipment, even! A new coach can give you a lift into a whole new level of achievement and technique. You can't ever stay in one place. It's not good for you, and in fact you will slide backwards. The challenge of constantly learning and improving is exciting, the prospect of getting better is exciting. And one day you might score the perfect 300 (the million-seller), but the next day you'll want to do it again, and this time, do it better.

8. What it comes down to is you. You alone. Alone inside your head. Shutting everyone else out so you can focus and do your absolute best every time you set foot on the lane/sit at the computer. Of course Tiger Woods (I'm onto golf for a moment) has a bad day now and then on the golf course. But if he went home and thought about how everyone must have been laughing at him, or criticising him, he'd never get out of bed the next morning. I bet he goes home and thinks about how he can improve his swing, or what little adjustment he can make to his putting, or, more likely, how he can stay inside his own head and focus totally on his craft.

9. It's great at the end of the season when you take home a trophy, or win an award, or get a lovely big royalty cheque. Or simply get that phone call that says 'We're going to publish your book.' But after the celebration, are you back on the lanes, bowling ball in hand, ready to train again? Are you back at your desk, writing?

10. When someone says, 'You play tenpin bowling? Isn't that kind of ... (insert insult of choice)?', what do you say? When someone says, 'You write novels? Yeah, I'm going to write a novel one day', what do you say? I've learned to be more polite these days, and have some handy answers ready. But for some people, unless you're JK Rowling, whatever you say will never be enough. So you have to know inside yourself that what you do, you do because you love it and you can't imagine doing anything else. You only have to answer to yourself.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Our Australian Girl (TM)

Over the past few months, a few people have asked me what I've been working on - and probably regretted the question! Because my answer was to launch into a description of the series I have been writing - four books in Penguin Australia's Our Australian Girl (TM).* It's quite a job taking on a series - there are lots of things that you might not think about in the beginning, or if you do, might assume it would be a breeze. Like keeping a book under a certain word limit. If you're a big blabbermouth writer like me, that can be a problem!

I didn't used to be. I used to think a word limit was an excuse to stretch a bit. Not any more. But writing this series has been more than just word limits. It's been an incredible amount of research. When the series was first proposed, and I was given the opportunity to throw my hat in the ring, I thought about the various periods in Australian history that I knew something about. What I didn't know anything about was Federation - and wouldn't you know, that's what I was given! Good grief, I thought. So the states all got together and became one country. So?

But along the way, I've discovered many fascinating things - that's the nature of research. The deeper you delve, the more you see and the more stories you read and the more snippets and anecdotes you discover. For instance, before Federation every state in Australia "did its own thing". Which meant if you wanted to travel by train from one city to another, odds were you'd have to change
trains at the state border because most states had built rail lines of different gauges (widths). And there were referendums to see if everyone thought Federation was a good idea, and NSW didn't because they thought Victoria would demand that the capital city be Melbourne (the insults flying around at the time are hilarious).

In the end, of course, the compromise was that an entirely new capital city would be built, which became Canberra. Despite finding out all of these interesting facts, I was writing a series that was historical fiction, so my job went a lot further than research. I created a character, Rose, who features in the four books, along with her family and friends. Rose turns eleven as the first book opens, and her birthday on 9th May 1901, closes the fourth book as this is the date of the first sitting of Federal parliament. There were amazing celebrations in Melbourne, with huge ornate arches in the city streets and light shows (for a city that had just started moving from gas to electricity, the lights were fabulous to the people there).

My main question as I planned out the books was: how on earth could I make Federation an interesting background? The answer came from more research. This was also the time of the suffragette movement in Australia, with Vida Goldstein leading the charge in Melbourne. How perfect! Rose has a 'spinster' aunt, Alice, who is a suffragette and goes to protest meetings and debates, and sh
ows Rose what having a say in her country's future is all about. What would I do without a feisty aunt who causes trouble in the family?

But really the story is about Rose, who has her own battles against a corset (yes, at her age!), a horrible governess, and her overbearing, social-climbing mother. It all feeds her keen desire to learn and go to school and, eventually one day, to university. I'm still working away on these four books - they are all in different stages. It's exciting to see what the Penguin team are doing with covers, extra materials, page illustrations and the iconic charm bracelets. I'm devastated that I cannot find the silver charm bracelet I had as a child, but on the other hand, now I get to create a new one with the charms that are most meaningful to Rose.

There are several things that are significant in Rose's story - cricket, for a start. At that time, women's cricket was laughed at by most men, which is not surprising considering most games were played in long skirts and hats! Bicycles were ridden mostly by men, and women who did ride them often wore pantaloons (scandalous!). Rose gets to ride on her first cable tram and watch the grip man operate it, and she also has a hankering to ride in an automobile. A visit to St Kilda beach means a paddle with skirts held up - no full-length swimsuit just yet. And Rose also visits Coles Arcade in the city, with books, monkeys, parrots and toy machines.

I have a fascination with the food of the time. There was plenty of game on the table (Rose's family is well-off) but like most kids, Rose has food hates, especially sardines and tongue. You can probably see why I'm having trouble with the word limits - there's so much I want to include! But I spend a lot of time with the hatchet out, trimming and hacking as needed. If I can get young readers to enjoy the era as much as I do, I'll be happy.
* That's a trademark sign, because it's the way series go these days. You might be interested to look at the American Girl books and website as a comparison.