Sunday, August 28, 2011

Plotting the Perfect Crime (Novel)

The Melbourne Writers' Festival is on right now, and I always try to go to at least a couple of sessions, mainly because it sends me home feeling re-inspired. Of course, it depends on who the speakers are, but I headed for the crime fiction session yesterday morning, with Michael Robotham and Tess Gerritsen. I've heard Michael talk before, and he's always good value, but I wondered what Tess would be like.

It was a great session, full of information, insights and laughs (yes, laughs, about things like dead people waking up in the morgue and fake Egyptian mummies - that's crime fiction readers and writers for you!). As the topic was plot, Michael talked about how much he hated plotting - he likes backstory and dialogue, but mostly he likes writing about his characters. Strong characters make strong plots, and he focuses on their motivations and who they are inside. He also said the most interesting crimes are the imperfect ones - there is more to write about.

Tess Gerritsen told the audience that she believes women read crime fiction because they identify with the victims in the stories - readers want to experience danger and feel vulnerable. I'm not sure I agree with that. I think I identify with the detective and want to see justice! She also talked about loving her characters and said she keeps writing about Rizzoli and Isles because she wants to find out what else is happening in their lives.

She doesn't outline, she just writes. The idea that will start a novel is one that feels like a "punch in the guts" - when she finds that idea, and often it's something in real life, she knows from that feeling that it will start a great novel. In every scene, she asks herself, "What is the worst that could happen now?" and then makes it happen. She does get what she calls "plot block" and then she goes for long drives until the solution comes to her. She said she is a plunger, not a planner, but everyone has to find the process that works for them.

They both said that they do plenty of research but only enough to get the details right. It can be a danger when the research takes over the project. Someone in the audience asked Tess about whether the publisher's deadlines affect her creativity, and she said that the creativity is always there for her, but it's the discipline that's lacking! Deadlines help the discipline.

I did also go to the session with Jane Smiley in conversation, but a lot of it was focused on her latest book rather than her writing processes. As I haven't read the book, my mind kept drifting off - to my own novel! I often wonder why the interviewer does this - don't they realise that if you haven't read the latest book, you're kind of left out of the conversation?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Season of School Visits

Around this time of year in Australia, school visits go berserk. It's because of Children's Book Week, which starts on Sunday. It's great that schools want to make a whole week of book activities and have authors in, but it does mean things get very hectic! I'm going to be travelling far and wide, from Kallista in the east (just on the other side of the Dandenong Ranges) to Simpson in the west, which is about 2-1/2 hours drive from Melbourne. But I do love small country schools and meeting kids who are (I guess) a lot like I was at that age, i.e. brought up on a farm.

It's easy for authors to assume that schools are used to author visits, but this is often not so. Some city schools have authors in on a regular basis, and know how to explain what they want - either a talk about writing and books, or a writing workshop. Many children's authors can offer a range of topics to talk about but the burning question is always - what does the school (and the teachers) think is valuable for their students?

I have one talk about how a book is published, with lots of rough drafts, typeset pages and galley proofs. Another talk is about research, using all my photos and collectibles that help me write. Another is about my writing life - a general talk that covers lots of stuff. Writing workshops can be a bit of a minefield. A school that wants an author to teach writing in order to assist with NAPLAN testing is a worry. I'd say most authors don't write anything like Naplan requires kids to write, which is why I think it's stupid, and a poor indication of writing ability.

I've recently discovered (thanks to a fellow Hamline student) some books by Katie Wood Ray, who has a wealth of experience in working with children and encouraging them to write. She has given me, in turn, a whole new way to approach writing in the classroom that is close to how I write myself. I know it works, so I feel confident in talking about these methods and passing them on to young writers.

But any room full of young people who've been told "You're going to do some writing" can be scary! Some will be keen, some will be so-so, some will think At least it's better than maths and some will believe that writing is the most boring thing in the whole world. When you come into a classroom "cold", knowing that this is who you will be working with, a good toolbox of writing ideas and strategies are worth their weight in gold! All the authors out there in the next few weeks - travel well and enjoy it!

Friday, August 05, 2011

Picture Books That Make Me Laugh

Years ago, when my daughter was little, I loved the Babette Cole picture books. The Trouble With Mum was a favourite. I also liked The Paperbag Princess, which was reprinted not so long ago. I guess my daughter liked them, too, but I think there's definitely a category of picture books that appeal more to parents than children. I'm not thinking nostalgia here, just stories that have elements that adults appreciate more.

But when I opened The Tiger-Skin Rug by Gerald Rose, I wasn't expecting anything out of the ordinary, and I'm still not sure if this wasn't just me. (Humour is so subjective.) But as I sat at the kitchen table reading this story, I literally laughed so much I had tears running down my face! The pictures help, too. It's designed to look a little old-fashioned, with the illustrations in yellow-framed boxes, and it has the feel of an old folk tale.

The story is basically about an old, skinny tiger that's fallen on hard times in the jungle. He watches the Rajah's palace and sees them all warm and eating lots of good food. Then one day a servant is outside beating rugs, including a tiger skin rug, and the tiger decides to hop on the line and pretend he's a rug in order to get inside. He does succeed, and the trials and tribulations of pretending to be a rug on the floor, especially when he gets fatter from eating leftovers, is hilarious. I have no idea why this picture book appeals to me so much! But it's on my Top Ten list now.

The opposite end of the picture book spectrum from a story is the concept. It can be tricky, depending on what your aim is, to stay away from preachiness. Malachy Doyle's book, The Happy Book, is very simple - less than 100 words. Each double-page spread has two alternatives, e.g. Snivel less. Snuggle more. Or Grab less. Give more! This one does edge into feeling a bit preachy, but it's for the very small, maybe two or three year olds, so no doubt would be a good book for talking about with them.

I was interested to see that Babette Cole has been writing and publishing short novels for children - the ones I have are from the Fetlocks Hall series. She's combined horses and magic - surefire ingredients for 7-10 year old girls. But I do miss her comical illustrations here!
(Books provided for review by Bloomsbury. Links are via Amazon associates.)