Thursday, 31 July 2008

Contemplating VOICE

For some reason there are a lot of writing workshops happening on blogs this week. For the first few days I was oblivious, but then it was pointed out to me and as a result I've since been rather distracted!

I am working my way through them gradually. Just now I read a couple of interesting posts on 'voice' in writing. Here are a couple of links:
Julie Elizabeth Leto, 'Ditching the Book of my heart for book of my voice' (2003)
Sasha White, 'Voice workshop' (live this week)

The Leto article was a link from Sasha White's workshop, and had some really interesting stuff in it -- both on how to find and how to define voice. She in turn quoted an article entitled, "Finding Your Voice" by Laura Backes of the Children's Book Insider. The following really resonated with me:

One of your most powerful tools as a writer is not your vocabulary, your mastery of grammar or even your fancy computer -- it's your voice. Your unique blend of description, character and style allows you to talk to the reader through the printed word. Without a voice, a manuscript may have an exciting plot, interesting characters and a surprise ending, but it might not get published. The voice is what beckons the reader to curl up with a book and whispers, "Pay attention. I'm going to tell you a story."

Leto also quotes Rebecca Vinyard, from an article called "Have you found your voice?":

Once you find your voice and start writing without thinking about working with the net of perfect writing, it makes life a whole lot easier. You stop questioning every word you put on the page and simply get down to the business of telling your story. By writing without the internal editor on, you'll increase your productivity and be able to write more...and faster.

I really need to listen to that advice!

And Leto herself says:

You will not find your voice by writing and revising the same story over and over for years. You need to really practice--which means starting from scratch with new characters who have new goals. If you write the tone and story lines you enjoy, you are more likely to find your voice and be able to nurture it until it becomes more than intrinsic, but so natural, you need very little effort to bring it to the surface.

Oh dear!

Much food for thought here . . .

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Pass the matchsticks

So far, so good. More progress over the past couple of days. Another chapter revised. I'm afraid the old antisocial me-as-writer is back. The good times are ended. Must say I'd forgotten how draining all this is. Need matchsticks for my eyes just now. How swiftly one becomes used to evenings of leisure! But my tail is up and the muse is smiling and overall life is good.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Making a start

I don't think I've written very many words, per se, but I have certainly been immersed. There's been reading and note-taking and the odd epiphany and I've come up with a slightly revised first chapter. Not quite what I had in mind at the start of the weekend, but the opening has been bothering me, and when I looked at the story arc for one of the characters, I decided certain points needed to be changed/made clearer right from the beginning, before I could possibly write the next chapter. So I suspect the next week-ish will be spent making said adjustments, and in this way I re-immerse and get my groove back.

At least I have not embarked on a complete and utter re-conceptualisation and re-write of the first chapter, which is something I am prone to doing. I consider this weekend a minor victory. On to the next chapter!

Friday, 25 July 2008

It is time


It is time. This weekend. Nothing planned.

This weekend I will once more enter the imaginery world and re-engage with my characters. I've done sporadic re-reading over the past week or two. Delved into a passage here and there (picked up a few errors . . . acknowledged that the first chapter STILL needs work to make the hook stronger . . .) and started to reconnect with my story.

I feel a tightness in my chest. Excitement. Determination. Fear. (What if I've lost it?)

I will begin with a little editing . . . which may lead to a spot of re-writing . . . but the ultimate goal is to start the next chapter. It's been so long that I can't even recall what the chapter is to contain. Is it to be a rewritten version of an existing chapter? Or is it to be brand new? I guess I will sit down and read and immerse (and review notes) and find out!

This is the optimum opportunity. If I don't do it now I may arrive at my scheduled writing retreat facing a huge hurdle. I need to get into the zone now. I must have three weeks momentum going into the retreat (7 women, lots of chocolate, much chatter . . .).

Oh how excited I am! I dream of my characters (my sexy swordsman, my mixed up heroine) and can barely contain myself! Ahead of me is the scene when they meet, and as I contemplate this I feel the urge to write and write and write and make it all happen.

I glance at Neil Gaiman's peptalk in the sidebar to the right and make like a shark. Write write write.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

On point-of-view

Yesterday my writing group met for yet another all-day brunch. I love these meetings, look forward to them for weeks, especially this one since I missed the gathering in June.

Our mission yesterday was to provide a critique of the first three chapters from one of our group. One of the things that came up was a discussion on point-of-view. This is something that most writers have a strong opinion about, but many readers may not even be aware of.

Control of point of view is often considered a sign of control as a writer. Yet it's something that has changed in style over the years. Once upon a time, authors almost always used an 'omniscient' point-of-view -- a storyteller's view that conveyed the story to the reader from outside of the story. The storyteller, or omniscient voice, tells events as they happen, without being constrained by the individual characters in the story. It allows stories to be told in 'movie style', as though the reader is watching events unfold, able to dip into the thoughts of different characters at different times.

The opposite to omniscient point-of-view is probably 'first person', where the author is strictly limited to the experiences of a single character in the story. Everything -- every sight, smell, thought, sound -- must be experienced by that character. For the reader it forges an intimate relationship with the narrator (or point-of-view character) that is a completely different experience from an omniscient viewpoint. An early example of this is Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. We see everything though Jane's eyes, and though we may feel we may like to know what other characters are thinking and feeling, are sympathies lie with Jane and are stronger because of it.

I'm pondering this, because the contemporary trend in fiction is to use omniscient less and less -- although it is still used fairly widely -- and to use first person, or 'third-person intimate' more and more. ('Third person intimate' allows the author to use one or more different viewpoint characters, written in third person, but using the same 'rules' as for first person.) It follows that reader preferences reflect these trends.

How do we consider omniscient these days? Outdated? Completely acceptable? Certainly authors like Matthew Reilly are making a killing using an omniscient viewpoints. But I would hazard to guess they are in the minority. Even JK Rowling and Dan Brown use intimate viewpoints (or relatively so). From my perspective as both a reader and a writer, I much prefer the more intimate viewpoints, where my experience resonates with the characters' experiences.

Which brings me to the manuscript under review/discussion. What viewpoint did it use? Some of us felt it used an omniscient viewpoint, with frequent forays into the heads of various characters, and two in particular. Undoubtedly, certain scenes unfolded like a movie, and many characters were used as viewpoint characters without obvious limitation. But perhaps, as others in the group opined, it was a limited point-of-view with some omniscient bits thrown in?

Whatever the answer, we all felt the need to express our opinion -- qualified or otherwise -- as to whether or not the viewpoint was working. Did we compare it with what we preferred as readers or writers? Or maybe with what we read in textbooks or learnt in class? How does the viewpoint chosen affect our understanding, or our experience of the story?

At the end of the day, it probably doesn't matter if it's overly intimate omniscient or intimate with some omniscient sections -- or a hybrid of the two. At the end of the day, what matters is whether or not it works for the reader. Writer control and point-of-view are issues mulled over by writers, while readers get on with appreciating the story for itself.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

On a lighter note . . .

Just received this via e-mail and it's brilliant. Not sure where it came from, and hopefully I won't get sued for posting it here. It's worth the risk to share it with you all!

Never Argue with a Woman
One morning the husband returns after several hours of fishing and decides to take a nap. Although not familiar with the lake, the wife decides to take the boat out. She motors out a short distance, anchors, and reads her book.
Along comes a Game Warden in his boat. He pulls up alongside the woman and says, 'Good morning, Ma'am. What are you doing?'
'Reading a book,' she replies, (thinking, 'Isn't that obvious?').
'You're in a Restricted Fishing Area,' he informs her.
'I'm sorry, officer, but I'm not fishing. I'm reading.'
'Yes, but you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment. I'll have to take you in and write you up.'
'For reading a book,' she replies.
'You're in a Restricted Fishing Area,' he informs her again.
'I'm sorry, officer, but I'm not fishing. I'm reading.'
'Yes, but you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment. I'll have to take you in and write you up.'
'If you do that, I'll have to charge you with Sexual assault,' says the woman.
'But I haven't even touched you,' says the game warden.
'That's true, but you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment.'
'Have a nice day ma'am,' and he left.

MORAL: Never argue with a woman who reads. It's likely she can also think.

Contemplating 'old Chenna one-eye'

I'm in shock right now. I've just been to the animal opthamologist to have Chenna's eye looked at -- the one that has mysteriously changed colour. Turns out that it's possibly/probably a pre-cancerous iris melanoma. The fact that it's light brown, and not dark brown or black means that it's OK at the moment. But if it starts changing colour, going darker, then . . .

Apparently feline iris melanomas are just about always fatal. The cancer spreads to the other organs and that's it. The moment, the very moment, that her iris shows the merest hint of dark brown or black, it's time to make a decision.

She might have to have her eye out. And even then it might be too late. They would remove her eye and then do pathology tests to establish whether the growth is cancerous, and whether it's had the chance to spread. If not, great. She'll live out her life as 'old Chenna one-eye'. Evidently cats can adjust to being blind, or having just one eye.

The eye-vet didn't sound too perturbed when she first suggested taking the eye out. I'd only been there 5 minutes too. Perhaps it's standard to take no risks and carry out preventative amputation. Because it sounds as though it's quite probable that the growth will turn cancerous. But not certain. How do you make a call on that?

The vet was sufficiently intrigued to call another specialist in for a second opinion, and they seemed confident that it was safe for the moment. We'll revisit in four months and they'll reassess. Meanwhile, I'll be scrutinising that eye on a daily basis!

Sunday, 13 July 2008

a breath of fresh air

Spent half the weekend at Lightfingers' farm. Inhaled the fresh country air, hauled a few branches and threw them on the bonfire, ate and drank far too much, lounged around the bonfire until the wee hours, helped feed the horses, visited a riding competition and admired the horses, admired the views (rolling green hills), enjoyed the company of good friends . . . I had a lovely time.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Movie: Mamma Mia!


Ever since I saw the musical of Mamma Mia!, I've been waiting for this movie to come out. The musical is so very clever and witty; it's astounding how well they managed to integrate so many fabulous ABBA songs into a coherent story.

The movie, although entertaining, doesn't live up to the musical, however. There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, the singing doesn't quite hit the right note (ha ha). Most of the singers are competent without being brilliant, and Pierce Brosnan is woeful. In discussions after the movie, we speculated that having a cast of 'real people' singing might have been intentional. The muscial numbers were certainly well integrated with the narrative. However, I'm certainly not rushing out to buy the sound-track.

Also, the movie, largely a comedy, lurches uncomfortably from farce to melodrama to romance. I don't think it could quite decide what it wanted to be. There were parts that made me grin and tap my foot (notably the dancing queen scene, where Donna leads all the women on the island down to the water like the pied piper of Hamlin), and other scenes where I cringed (any scene in which Pierce Brosnan tried to sing). I did like much of the sponteneity experienced by many of the characters -- particularly Donna, played by Merryl Streep. But sometimes it all went a bit far. Donna's two friends, played by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, were great and seemed to sing OK as well.

As I watched the film, I found myself wondering how much digital enhancement of the singing had been done. Some of the songs were very raw, others seemed very slick indeed. Merryl Streep's songs felt very natural though.

Overall I did enjoy the film -- the music is still fantastic and the story still works. Best of all is the setting: a gorgeous Greek island with shimmering water and rustic cobbled paths and steps leading everywhere. Oh how it makes me want to go back to Greece!

Sunday, 6 July 2008

No speakers to speak of

Whatever happened to "the customer is always right"? I stormed out of a RetraVision store this afternoon in a steaming frenzy, swearing never to set foot inside that particular store again. I've calmed down now of course, but I need to share this particular debacle.

Back on Boxing day (26 Dec) I went shopping and purchased a new LCD TV, amplifier and a fully paid-for pair of speakers on order. The speakers were supposed to arrive within a fortnight. I would have been irritated at having to wait, had I not already had my existing speakers, which I cheerily hooked up to the new system. Hooray! Now I could finally play CDs after some months. It didn't matter that the fancy $50 cable I bought to connect the DVD player and amplifier had the wrong connections. I would change that when I went down to collect the new $460 pair of speakers, and use a cheap cable in the meantime.

Only, the speakers never came.

They said a fortnight. I gave them a month before I decided to ring -- only, by the time I got around to remembering to ring it was 2 months. I spoke to someone who said the speakers weren't in yet, but that they wouldn't be too much longer. Someone would call if they were going to be too much longer. I confirmed they had the correct phone number. Yes.

What constitutes 'too much longer'?

After another month had passed, I knew there was something wrong. By that time I had also decided I didn't want the speakers. My old ones were fine for my ear and since it had been so long there was a small matter of principle. So I resolved I would ask for my money back.

Problem was, so much time had passed that I had trouble keeping it at the forefront of my mind. And then there was the wavering -- maybe I really did want the speakers? And the dread of confrontation if I didn't. And the hassle of going down the store in person . . . Many things caused me to postpone any action.

Until last weekend.

Last weekend I decided that enough was enough and I went into the store and, being extremely nice about it, explained that it had been six months and that I would like my money back please. The first guy I spoke to couldn't make head or tail of their computer system, which was obviously missing some information. According to it, I didn't have ANY of my goods! So he grabbed a manager, who said he needed to speak to the sales guy from Boxing Day. He would call me the next day. I left the incorrect $50 cable as well, and they marked the receipt.

So I left with no refund, but all was looking positive. Nevertheless, I wasn't too happy that I was going to have to go back to the store again, once he'd spoken to the sales guy. When he called, explaining that all was fine and I could go in for my refund, I said I would go the following weekend. He said, fine, but I should speak to 'Aaron'.

Which brings me to today.

I went into the store and asked for Aaron. He nodded and took me away to a service desk. So far so good. I mentioned that I needed a refund for the cable as well and he looked at the marked receipt and entered something into the computer.

Wait a moment, I say, that's not the right cable. The cable I returned last week wasn't a $15 cable, it was a $50 cable. Turns out, though, that the wrong cable on the receipt has been marked.

Aaron rings the guy from last week, who says the cable I returned is in a particular drawer. Aaron goes away and comes back with a $15 cable that is NOT the cable I returned. I explain this as patiently as I can, thinking OMG what's going on here. Aaron is now regarding me suspiciously as though wondering how the hell I know one cable from another anyway. This is the cable that was in the drawer, he says again. And again. But the cable I returned, I say, was an optical cable with optical connections that were the wrong type for my DVD player. This is a normal RCA cable.

We're at an impass. I have no proof, because I foolishly left the cable in the store last week and didn't confirm which one had been marked on the receipt. Aaron says he doesn't want me to be unhappy. I tell him that I am CLEARLY unhappy, as this whole thing has been a great debacle. Clearly there are some chaotic goings-on in this store.

Aaron does not like me saying this.

He says a few things, including 'possibly' this is our fault. I look at him agape. Well, it's certainly not my fault, I say. But why did you wait six months to sort this out? he says. Most normal customers would ring after two weeks. I say it's not my responsibility to keep chasing them up, and that when I rang after two MONTHS, the speakers weren't in anyway. He says these are speakers they always have in stock and they probably only took days to come in. I have no response to that, except to reiterate my accusation: whoever I spoke to at the two-month mark rather proves my point. He asks me if I have the name of who I spoke to. I say, no!

In the end I do get my full refund, including that for the $50 cable. I apologise (a little) for losing it, but explain this has been very frustrating. He says he doesn't mean to imply that it's my fault but reiterates that I shouldn't have left it for so long. My last words to him are, 'You're quite unbelievable!" and I storm out of the store.

Once I get out of the store I double-check that the receipt says "refund".

RetraVision Brighton lost me as a customer today, and it was the fault of no-one but Aaron. I completely understand that mistakes can happen, particularly with computer systems. If I had been truly inconvenienced, I would have been ringing every week, not leaving it the six months I did. I hold no animosity towards Richard the sales guy, or either of the two sales people I spoke to last week, despite the inconvenience of having to make another visit. They were polite and courteous and I am not unreasonable.

But I was seriously annoyed with Aaron's attitude, along with the fact that he was so obviously sceptical about the cable. (OK, yes, I'm mad that they mixed up the cables, which might have been the fault of last week's manager. Who knows?) But surely when a customer has been messed around like this you don't go around implying that it's their fault? Certainly it would have inconvenienced me less if I'd followed up earlier, but that is so not the point!

Page Turners: The Drowned World


Our Page Turners book for July was The Drowned World, by JG Ballard. It's a 1963 Science Fiction novel set in a world where solar flares/radiation have caused dramatic climate change leading to the melting of the polar ice caps. The seas have risen, coastlines have changed owing to massive silt deposits, and tropical jungles have encroached further and further north/south.

Dr Robert Kerans is a scientist attached to a military team based in one of the abandoned 'drowned' cities. He is living in the penthouse suite of the Ritz hotel -- it and all other buildings are sunk into the jungle up to around the 7th floor. He's having a relationship with a woman, Beatrice Dahl, who didn't evacuate, and despite a military order for the whole entourage to leave for the north, he decides to remain behind with her (although not for romantic reasons) and his fellow scientist, Dr Bodkin. Before the military leave, one of their pilots, Hardman, goes crazy and escapes south to where the radiation is dangerously high, and Kerans find himself empathising with this. Some weeks later, a group of scavengers led by the unpredictable Strangman, who keeps a flock of sentinel crocodiles, arrives to shake everything up. In the very end, Kerans finds himself on his own crazy journey south, seeking paradise.

In truth, the storyline is very difficult to describe. Just about every character has 'gone troppo', owing to the searing temperatures they're experiencing. The writing is extremely circular, making it difficult to make sense of anything, a feature we decided was intentional. This was not a book to rush through. There are many layers of meaning, although I confess not all of them were apparent to me!

One key theme of the book was the idea of regression of civilisation. This was not limited to social aspects, although these were rife. The Drowned World, being Sci-Fi, actually played with the idea of physical regression/transmutation/evolution, to the point that flora and fauna reminiscent of the Triassic period had emerged as dominant, plus (possibly) the devolution of humans with the formation of gills etc. Part of this involved the idea of cellular memory and a collective consciousness -- as the characters went crazy, they all started having the same dream.

We had an animated discussion about this book, because there is an awful lot to interpret and different people saw different things in it.From my personal point of view, I respect the book more having had our discussion. I finished the book frustrated, having just 'not got it'. I didn't understand any of the character motivations, felt no emotion from any of them, and found the writing style pretentious to the max. It just didn't hit any of my buttons and I didn't care what happened.

This made me ponder the well-coined phrase: "Science Fiction is literature of the mind; Fantasy is literature of the heart".

This is most definitely a 'mind' novel, which is not where I usually choose to read. However, after hearing what other people got out of it, and being exposed to different interpretations, I get more out of it as well. It's a classic case of feeling enriched after a group discussion. There is a lot in this book if one chooses to take the slightly mad journey!