Sunday, August 13, 2017

Interviewing - Bren MacDibble

9781760294335.jpgPeony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand. All Peony really wants is to be a bee. Life on the farm is a scrabble, but there is enough to eat and a place to sleep, and there is love. Then Peony's mother arrives to take her away from everything she has ever known, and all Peony's grit and quick thinking might not be enough to keep her safe.


Where did the idea come from for How to Bee? Can you describe the writing process? What was the most important element for you?

Lots of ideas went into How to Bee. I’d been wanting to write a children’s book showing childhood poverty in a farming situation for a while, and when I saw images of people in the Sichuan hand-pollinating pear trees, I knew I’d stumbled on a perfect and worthy scenario. I could see that this is something we could also be doing in Australia in the future. We also truck bees to crops and if farmers can’t afford that, like the farmers in the Sichuan, then what option do farmers have in a country that doesn’t value its farmers or food security.

Also I didn’t want to show a disaster. I wanted to show life going on after a disaster. I don’t think it’s fair to terrify children with possible disasters when they can’t do anything about it at their age, but I wanted them to talk about bee loss, and for that reason it couldn't be overwhelming.

I think ultimately I really wanted to explore values. Peony has a good life and everything she needs even though she’s desperately poor. The rich people in the story are completely insulated from the disaster, but their daughter is miserable and terrified of the world. The reader gets to see the world through the eyes of a determined young character who clings to her simple values no matter what.

The voice dictated the mood of the character and it all flowed really nicely. It’s a very simple style. I edited it again and again to keep it on track basically, because it’s difficult to work a lot of hours elsewhere and try to fit writing in around the edges and keep the flow.

How did you get it accepted for publication? Describe the process for us.

I wanted to send How to Bee into the Ampersand Prize but it was too short at the time, so sent it off to Allen & Unwin's Friday Pitch. Their reader liked it, said they’d be reading for a while, and sometime around five months later they asked for me to write more in the middle, because it was too short. By then I’d had a great idea for the middle, wrote it over a couple of months, and they liked it so much they sent a contract at that point to lock it down. After that it went fairly smoothly. I added a couple of scenes, agreed with all the edits, fell in love with the cover art immediately, and now it’s a real thing. It was lucky it went so smoothly as I had signed a contract for In The Dark Spaces with Hardie Grant Egmont just before How to Bee, and In The Dark Spaces was full of rewrites, so to pull myself out of the Dark Spaces occasionally and see How to Bee actually coming together so quickly was rejuvenating for the soul.

In the Dark Spaces is also speculative fiction – tell us about how you wrote this one.

I was learning some new stuff about voice and pacing and textures of information and I had some ideas of my own I wanted to play with, and I was getting bogged down by 'the market wants this, the market wants that', you have to do it this way to be acceptable to this age group, so I wrote this just for myself. Just to play. Just to entertain me. If I didn’t have to show anyone, I could try anything. And I did. And it was wild and crazy and I rewrote it a few times to get it right for me and put it in the bottom drawer. But I loved it too much so got it out and sent it off to about eight agents and got rejected by them all. I only hauled it out again and sent it to the Ampersand Prize because How to Bee was too short.

I always think in the future the poor people are left behind. So I like to show what it’s like for the weakest of them. In this case, poor people are being exploited by space shipping companies, and are quickly caught in a poverty cycle that keeps them working on freighters going further and further from Earth with no hope of ever leaving.

It won the Ampersand Prize – what happened then?

So it won the Ampersand Prize after some discussion as to whether I already had a career or not (this was before How to Bee, when I only had short stories and educational fiction). I convinced Marisa Pintado that I didn’t want to limp along, I needed a break-out opportunity and she agreed. And so work began on overhauling it to give it hope and heart and to not terrorise Young Adults. I added a whole new character and new thread, and chopped a couple of other characters and threads out. Scene by scene Marisa Pintado and I picked through the wreckage, keeping the gems and remodelling the rest. Luna Soo came on board later and we went through it again, adjusting the ending, paring it back, making every scene and word worthy. It was a long process of more than 18 months work. During which time How to Bee passed In the Dark Spaces in production. (Ed note - In the Dark Spaces is published under Bren's pseudonymn, Cally Black).

You have been writing for quite a few years and have had a lot of chapter books and stories published, but these are your first novels. That takes a lot of perseverance! What has kept you going?

I like to write. I like creating stories. Something from nothing. I regularly stopped submitting and went off to learn something new. It’s never the writing that’s not fun, it’s being told that what you’ve created is mediocre. I turn inwards sometimes, and read. I read a whole lot of work I admire and think about why, what technique the author is using, and why it speaks to me. I try a few techniques. I try to combine all my favourite techniques. That takes time and space and that's why sometimes I just play at writing. You can’t call play persevering!
 
We hear a lot about authors having to promote their books now. How do you approach this? Any tips to share?

I have no idea. An author can only reach so many people via social media, and there’s no point banging on and on about how wonderful your own book is. I rely on book bloggers and reviewers to say nice things which I share on social media. As well as just being a decent person and championing other people’s successes. Have lots of writer friends. Be generous, get some karma back. Sometimes I repost items about bee loss, to keep the discussion going. It’s only through people knowing I have a book that has value in aiding understanding of the effects of bee loss in a simple and entertaining way, that they will see it as worth reading. I had little book cards and little silicone bracelets with bees on made to hand out to kids and they seem to like that. It’s something they can take away to remind them about the book, or show a friend. I look for cons to go to, and I visit book clubs. I’m not a great marketer, so I just hope it gains some momentum and readers tell other readers about it.
 
What are you reading at the moment? What are a few of your favourite books?

Still Life as a Tornado, by AS King. She’s such a great writer. Favourite Books? I read widely, really widely. I love science fiction ideas and worlds but sometimes the delivery of contemporary stories is easier and more immediate. I really like Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson, packed full of great ideas. Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan is amazing, the atmosphere, the world building, so beautiful. I love the patchwork plotting and great storytelling of Chuck Palahnuik in Invisible Monsters. I love Kaufman's and Kristoff’s Illuminae and Gemina, also patchwork plotting but told through reportage. The varying textures of the delivery of the story in Illuminae and Gemina keep me actively engaged in the plot, and keep the me refocussing on new information. So brilliant. And I really love the ideas and viewpoints in Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie. The idea that artificial intelligence cannot recognise sexual orientation, basically calling everyone female even though the reader guesses some aren’t, is just one more refreshing idea in that book. I love the language and mood of NoViolet Bulawayo’s book, We Need New Names. I love how the kids talk to each other in that book, and the matter of factness about the poverty of their lives, and how they cope. They remind me of kids I met in Malawi.

In the Dark Spaces -
a genre-smashing hostage drama about 14-year-old Tamara, who's faced with an impossible choice when she falls for her kidnappers.
Yet this is no ordinary kidnapping. Tamara has been living on a star freighter in deep space, and her kidnappers are terrifying Crowpeople – the only aliens humanity has ever encountered. No-one has ever survived a Crowpeople attack, until now – and Tamara must use everything she has just to stay alive. 
But survival always comes at a price, and there’s no handbook for this hostage crisis. As Tamara comes to know the Crowpeople's way of life, and the threats.

Thanks, Bren!

Monday, March 06, 2017

Deadline = motivation + discipline



I can’t say I love deadlines. There’s a famous quote about loving the sound of deadlines as they fly past! But if they do nothing else, deadlines draw a line in the sand, one that your conscious and unconscious brains recognize. By this date, or else. Or else you get fired. Or else you lose marks. Or else you never get work from that company again. Or else your editor has conniptions and starts talking to you in a very strained tone.

We all know what a deadline means. It’s how you approach a deadline, how you think about, or feel about it, that makes the difference. If you’re like me, you plan ahead, you get started early, you probably finish the work before the due date and that gives you time to revise one more time. Why am I like that? Not because I’m super-writer. Because I’ve never been able to pull an all-nighter to get something in. Never. I love my sleep too much, and I can’t function without it. Just the idea of having to stay up all night to complete something on time makes my brain feel fuzzy.

I’ve had to accept that some people thrive on this kind of work method (or think they do). They wait until the last minute and then throw themselves into the work, totally energized and working at the top of their game. Not. I actually don’t believe it. I believe that they can stay up all night, that they can work really hard and get some good stuff done. I guess what I don’t believe is that it’s their best work. If they’d started earlier and given themselves more time to rework and revise, surely then what they produced would have been even better?

Maybe that doesn’t count anymore. Maybe it’s ‘pretty good’ work that gets the job done is all people want. I don’t know … I love the euphoria of the first draft as much as anyone. But I also love the feeling of growing, building, developing, stretching, imagining more – all the things that happen when you have plenty of time.

So is a deadline only about motivation + discipline? Can it also be about allowing time to stretch? A good deadline gives you dreaming time when you use it well. It can help you establish a routine of a little every day, which keeps the project in your head where your brain can quietly keep working on it for you, even when you’re off doing something else. Yes, it’s not that I love a deadline as it swishes past me. It’s that I love a deadline as it waits patiently under those trees in the distance while I meander along, picking flowers, day dreaming, doing a little work at a nice pace, but edging ever closer to meeting it.

PS Last year I had four deadlines to write the Ellyse Perry series. I spent more time on Book 1 than the others because I was also setting up the series concepts, four plotlines and introducing all the stuff that has to be in the first book. But it was worth it. "Pocket Rocket" has just been named a CBCA Notable!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Writing appointments

Right now, I'm sitting in the silent study room at my public library. No phones allowed (unless on silent), no music, just those of us in here at our desks, writing and studying. I've been here for three and a half hours and it feels like half an hour. Next to me my writer friend is tapping away on her laptop, working on her novel. Today for me academic writing is my goal, and I have managed about four pages.

Given that in the past week, writing at home every day has garnered me less than that in total, I'm figuring that this writing in the library thing is working. (You might ask why I'm writing a blog post now instead of my 'real work' but I'm having a lunch break!)

I've often thought about writing in the library, making a regular time for it every week. But it wasn't until I suggested it to my friend that it happened. Accountability. I will if you will. I love writing at my kitchen table where I can look out the window (no window here), but I have to admit that there are lots of distractions at home. And like many writers, distractions are easily seized as an avoidance tactic, even while we tell ourselves the cat really did need feeding, we really did need that cup of coffee, and has the postman been yet?

This is the third week we have met and worked in the silent room. We don't sit and talk about what we're writing (not allowed). We have coffee beforehand and chat then. I bring a bagload of books and papers and laptop, she just brings her laptop and her imagination. We keep each other on the straight and narrow.

I know some people write in cafes. I do, too. It's enjoyable and the noise doesn't affect me, but I feel bad about taking up a table for more than hour if I've just had one coffee. Here I can write for as long as I want.

If you're currently not writing and want to be, it's something to consider. You may not have a friend to hold you accountable, but you can use your diary and block out 3-4 hours and stick to it. You can tell other writers about it and ask them to make you accountable. Being in a silent room with others who are working really helps, I find. There's an atmosphere of focus and concentration. And yes, there's the silence! Try it and see.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Writing from failure



To paraphrase a famous quote (I think about light bulb invention), “Every failure teaches you a little more about what doesn’t work, and gets you a little closer to discovering what does.” In other words, you probably have to fail a few times to work out what success is or how to succeed.

How does this work with writing? It’s not quite so simple, I suspect. It’s why teaching creative writing is a lot different from teaching, say, plumbing. In plumbing a teacher can tell a student to join two pipes together, and if the join leaks, it can easily be pointed out why it failed. Then the student tries again (and maybe again) until they know how to do it successfully.

In teaching a student about writing a short story, there are a number of skills that can be learned. How a story works, structure, characterization, good dialogue, setting and description etc. The student can write a competent (or not so competent) story. But if the story isn’t really good, if readers don’t enjoy it or engage with it, that’s where the real work begins. You could say the story “failed”. Or you could say the story didn’t “fail” in some ways, but overall it didn’t “work”. Then other people, like family, might read it and love it, simply because they love the person who wrote it.

See how “failing” at writing starts to get really muddy?

I think the issue is in relying only on the audience or reader/s to determine failure. In a class, the teacher should be experienced enough to be able to tell the student where the story fails, why, and – most importantly – give suggestions on how to improve it. To get it closer to “not failing”, closer to publication perhaps.

But really failure begins with the writer. Acknowledging that we begin from a place of failure. As long as the story is just in our heads, we avoid failing. As soon as we put it on the page, we have to understand that we have very likely “failed” to write it as we imagined it. That’s where a lot of other writing skills have to come into play.

The first is reading as a writer. If you read critically, you learn how and why other writers’ stories succeed or fail (or partially fail). It might be plot holes, shallow characters, poor dialogue. The more you can pinpoint these through your analysis, the more you learn. I can’t tell you how many writing students either don’t read enough or don’t read widely and critically. We see examples of critical analysis in other areas, such as coaches who analyse how other players and teams work, and writing is the same, if not more so.

Then you have to learn to read your own work critically, and work out what is wrong and how to fix it. This is incredibly hard. Being in a good workshop group can help. But mostly it is about understanding that your first draft will have “failed” in some way, if not many ways, and then tackling revision from that starting point. It requires faith that you can do it, faith that despite the time it will take, you’ll eventually succeed, or at least get closer to success. And belief that every revision will teach you to see what wasn’t working. 

That’s why writing is a craft, more than a special gift or talent. I’ve seen many talented writers in my classes over the years. I can count on one hand those who have persevered, learned from their failures and reached a level of major success. And many more who have succeeded and been published because they kept going, kept learning and kept moving forward.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Wrestling with the one-line premise



Since one of my goals for this year is to write more blog posts more regularly, here is the first one! (Yes, I’m one of those tedious people who do goal setting every year but I’ll write about that another time).

If you have read any books on screenwriting, you’ll be familiar with the ‘log line’ or the one-line premise. What is this movie about? Sum it up in one pithy sentence that not only gives us the heart of the story but that will entice people to go and see it (and publicists to use it). I’ve been reading Save The Cat recently, after having it on my shelf for about four years, and the one-sentence premise is in there, too.

I often set this as an exercise in novel writing classes. I often set it for myself, especially if I’m struggling to nail the answer down. Yeah, what the heck is this stupid novel about? Why can’t I sum it up the way other people can? The answer I tell myself is: if I can’t sum up the heart of my story clearly, it will show in the work. I end up with something that feels either slightly or majorly unfocused. The narrative drive is not strong enough. I feel like I can’t convince even myself what question I’m trying to answer.

It would be a lot easier to say I could leave this premise thing until the end of the draft. Until the third draft maybe. I could even leave it to the publicist, if it got published. Except … it niggles at me. I need to know the heart of my story, or else how can I find it in the writing?

I was reminded of this today while reading the Sunday Age. In there was an article about a Swedish writer, Fredrik Backman, and his debut novel, A Man Called Ove. It talked about his rejections, about how he worked as a forklift driver, but also that he was writing as a freelancer. Now that first novel has sold 2.8 million copies around the world, etc etc. Ordinary man into Swedish superstar writer. Yawn.

Except … I read the summaries of his novels (three of them were just one line each) and I wanted to read them all. One is My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You, about a girl named Elsa whose grandmother dies, leaving her with a batch of letters to deliver to people her grandmother had wronged in her life. Britt-Marie Was Here is about a passive-aggressive woman who leaves her cheating husband and ends up coaching a children’s soccer team in a backwater town.

I was dying to ask Fredrik if he came up with these one-liners before he wrote, after he wrote, or if somebody else did it for him. Within every one of the one-liners are more questions that only reading the book can answer. What’s in those letters? What did the grandmother do? What do the people who receive the letters do? How did that woman end up coaching a kids’ soccer team? What happened then?

I think the key to the one-liner is how many questions it makes you ask – how intriguing is it? It also, to me, includes theme like a refrain underneath. Redemption. Betrayal. Humanity (Ove). Creating a one-liner for your novel might take you a day or even a week. I know it’s taken me that long sometimes when I’ve tried to do it. But what I also have learned is that if I can’t do it after a week of trying, there is something wrong with my novel that I need to work out before I go any further.