28.11.11

Outraged of Preston

I was dismayed to read in the paper on Saturday that the northern metropolitan region (our region) of the Education Department has decided that it can no longer "afford" to fund Reading Recovery tutors. Without these specialist tutors, the whole Reading Recovery program is in jeopardy.

As far as I'm concerned, teaching children to read is the MAIN JOB of primary schools. Everything else is optional. And the kids who struggle need extra help, the kind of help they get from Reading Recovery. Alice benefited immensely from this extra attention. I only wish she could still get it, but even before these funding cuts, the program only helps kids up to Grade 2. If anything, they should be extending Reading Recovery, not cutting it back.

If they don't get decent literacy skills in primary school, these kids are going to struggle to catch up. They will struggle for the rest of their lives.

The state government has posted a substantial budget surplus. Of course it can "afford" to fund this program. State government is there to run schools and hospitals. Schools are there to teach reading. Please tell me, what could be more important than paying for that?*

*And while you're at it, do the right thing by the nurses, too.

21.11.11

Thank You

Yesterday I found this lovely review of Winter of Grace. My favourite part:
Winter of Grace is something that I've searched for a long while: a realistic novel with a sense of the divine, of a layer deeper than this material world. That was something I'd expected to find only in either mediocre realistic fiction (from "Christian" publishers), or in genre fiction.

Bridie's story feels true to my own life, as it acknowledges a desire for God and a search for belief without chaining it down to the censored words and content of so-called "Christian" publishing. It's real, but not the sort of reality that the mainstream problem novels show me: the bleak landscape of modern life, a world gone wrong with little to restore it.

Winter of Grace is presented as a friendship story, as the tale of two girls whose friendship begins to fracture under adolescent searches for love and belief and values. And it is that, but it's also much more. This is a simple book that is not simple at all; that is honest about good and bad alike; that talks about searching but gives no easy answers.
Winter of Grace is the lowest selling and least-reviewed of my books, but every review of it that I've come across has been so thoughtful and heartfelt that it makes me want to cry. A non-partisan book about a teenager's experience of religion was always going to be a tough sell, and I'm so grateful that the Girlfriend Fiction series provided me with a place to talk about spirituality and young adulthood in a way that wasn't going to scare the horses.

Winter of Grace will be available in the US next year (I think!) as part of the repackaged series (Always Mackenzie is already out). It will be interesting to see if there's a stronger response to it in a more religiously-inclined country; though, as pointed out above, it's probably not what a 'Christian' market is looking for, either.

It's never going to be a bestseller (to put it mildly) but I am very, very glad to have written it, and to know that it's finding readers who appreciate it.

16.11.11

Anything To Avoid Actual, You Know, Writing

This might all sound crazy, but bear with me.

For a few years now I've been a fan of Randy Ingermanson's snowflake method -- it's a good one to use when you have a mass of material swirling in your head and on the page, but the structure of your story is stubbornly refusing to emerge. A lot of meat, but no bones, if you will.

I've now started playing with my own variation on this technique and so far it's proving quite useful. One big advantage (at least for me) is that at every stage, right up until the end, I can tell myself that I'm just playing, planning, roughing stuff out -- and by the time I get to the final stage, I can swing almost seamlessly into polishing, tweaking, editing and revising. Because I really love the planning stage just before I start writing, and the revising stage, just after I finish writing, but the actual writing itself kind of freaks me out.

So. I begin with my old mate Randy's single sentence summary. Try to sum up your whole novel in 20 words or less. When I was working on Crow Country, I came up with:
An ancient stone circle and talking crows lead a lonely girl to old crimes, new friends and a sense of belonging.
Which is 21 words, but hey, it doesn't have to be perfect. This is a great way of cutting to the very heart of what your story is about, a bit like a tag-line for the back cover. Basically from here, it's all about doubling, and doubling, and doubling.

The next step is to expand that single sentence into a paragraph -- about three or four sentences long. One line to describe the set-up, and a sentence for each major plot development. This usually takes about a hundred words. Something like:
Sadie, newly arrived in town, finds a mysterious stone circle that enables her to understand the language of the crows. The crows take her back in time to witness a tragedy in which her family played a central role. Meanwhile, Sadie and her mother Ellie struggle to fit into the new town, where Ellie and her boyfriend have a difficult history of their own. Only by attempting to right the wrongs of the past can Sadie find a sense of belonging.
Next I'll expand this paragraph into a longer summary of 250 words, fleshing out a bit more detail of the plot, but still keeping it to broad brushstrokes. And then I'll double that into a page-long summary of about 500 words. Now the secondary characters and subplots get a mention.

Then I'll double that again into a more detailed 1000 word synopsis, and then again, into 2000 words. By the time I get to the 2000 word summary, I can break it up into 'chapter chunks' of about 100 words each, describing what will happen in each stage of the story. Now I can get a sense of what needs filling out, what incidents might not carry the weight of a chapter, and what elements might need to be broken up into smaller pieces. This outline is usually jotted down very roughly in point form -- because I'm only playing, right?
7. Card party at A & T's; conversation between J and T about love and smoking; J feels simultaneously very grown up and out of her depth; T encouraging her to flirt with DS who she finds repellent; there is another power cut and they sit in candlelight playing cards; J overhears a few of the men (including A -- perhaps jokingly?) planning to go out to fetch more beer and pick up a local girl; she reports this to T who reacts hysterically, rushes after them, brings J to do the driving (R taught J to drive last year)*
Something like that - a kind of scene by scene breakdown. Now I can take each those rough chapter summaries and double them to 250 words or so, which might include snatches of dialogue, and a bit of shorthand description. And by the time I've done that, I've got a seven or eight thousand word thing which is looking pretty close to a very, very rough first draft. And all without actually writing anything!!

My next step is to make a rough draft of each chapter -- say, 1000 words -- still not the real thing, still not actually writing -- and then expand each of those out again. And okay, I have to admit, that is pretty much a draft. But a rough one! A draft that will need tweaking, and polishing, and adjustment, and revision -- but that's not actual writing, is it? That's re-writing. A completely different, and much less arduous task, because most of the hard work is already done. See how brilliant this is?? And it's never too scary, because you're always building on something you've already done.

All I need now is a snappy name. The Pizza Dough Method -- because it keeps doubling in size? The Lego Technique -- because it's about breaking everything down to basics, then building it up again?

I'll work on it. Anything to avoid actual, you know, writing.


* In case you hadn't realised, this is not from Crow Country!

11.11.11

A Very Melbourne Life
More on wot I'm reading! For the last few days I've been happily immersed in Sophie Cunningham's beautiful Melbourne, which is part history, part travel guide, part memoir. It's been particularly eerie to read because, although we have never met, to some extent our lives seem to have followed parallel tracks, though Sophie is much cleverer and more confident than me and slightly older.

For instance, I realised that at the exact same time she was working at McPhee Gribble and also living in Cecil St, where the publishers were based, I was an impoverished student living in the much noisier and less picturesque Alexandra Parade, where my bedroom looked out over Cecil St, directly onto the McPhee Gribble building. Did I ever see her come and go? Did she ever look up and see us, drinking beer on the roof? Probably.

Later, she ventures south of the river to St Kilda East for a couple of years, and Wall 280 is her local cafe. Snap, though I may have been there a little earlier.

Names of people I know crop up throughout. An author I went to uni with, my current editor, a woman who was once my House Captain at school. And of course, I know most of the places - the bookshops, the bike paths, the parks, the pubs, the footy grounds.

It makes for a slightly spooky reading experience. Or perhaps that's just Melbourne.

PS And now I see that my good and gifted friend Christine, a frequent visitor to that house in Alexandra Pde, is splashed all over the back page of today's Age. Sigh. We really do belong here.

7.11.11

What Else We've Been Reading

I picked up a few Ramona books years ago at the library sale but never thought of reading them to Evie until now. I missed out on them myself as a child so I didn't have that tide of nostalgia to sweep me along. But after we'd read all the Winnie-the-Pooh we had in the house, I needed something to fill the gap and spied these on the shelf.

I was partway through the first chapter when I noticed that Alice had crept in to listen as well, and since then (we're now halfway through Ramona the Pest) I have been reading mostly to an audience of two. There aren't many books that can hold both Alice and Evie equally enthralled, so Beverly Cleary is clearly onto something special.

It's hard to believe that these books are over fifty years old. Though they have dated in small ways, little sisters still annoy the hell out of big sisters, and big sisters still boss little sisters around. Sisters struggle to love each other all the time (or even some of the time!) Mothers still say, 'Don't make me count to ten...' and fathers still ask, 'Did anything come in the mail?' as soon as they walk in the door (at least they do at our house. But then, we do have a very fifties family...)

I see there was a movie made last year. We won't be watching it. I would hate to spoil the lovely straightforward charm of the stories with dollops of contrived Hollywood saccharine, which I'm sure the film-makers couldn't resist. Anyway, long live Ramona!


Meanwhile, I've also been reading A Stranger At Green Knowe to Alice. I dimly remembered reading this as a child and dismissing it as 'weird' and somehow not in keeping with the other Green Knowe books which I adored, so I'd never reread it. But this time around, it has kept us both absolutely spellbound. This is the book in which an escaped gorilla comes to Green Knowe (I know, it does sound bizarre). Ping, the refugee boy, manages to keep him hidden in the thicket for several days before Hanno's brief taste of freedom is inevitably, and tragically, cut short.

I'd forgotten that Alice feels such a strong affinity with our primate cousins. She fell in love with Iwani, the baby siamang, whose upbringing was chronicled in The Zoo, and she is fascinated by all the apes and gibbons. The descriptions of Hanno, as a baby gorilla in the wild before his capture, mutely raging against his captivity in the zoo, and savouring his taste of liberty in Toseland Thicket, are powerful and moving.

Hanno and Ping are both exiles, both displaced persons, and both find a refuge in the particular sheltered sanctuary of Green Knowe. There is no time-travel in this book, no ghostly encounters, but Ping and Hanno's doomed relationship has its own magic.

Because we've read the book that follows this one, we knew what was going to happen. Alice made me stop reading a few pages before the end, 'so that in my mind, Hanno stays there forever.' She said, 'Stop now!' and slipped away. And I read the ending, and I cried.

2.11.11

We Love Pooh

I've been reading Winnie-the-Pooh to Evie. She likes gentle, non-threatening stories, and these have proved to be perfect: 'Not funny funny,' she says, 'But they're happy funny.' Exactly. She especially loves Baby Roo, who is excited about everything. 'He's adorable!'

As a child, my own favourite character was Piglet, who is a Very Small Animal and not very brave. As I got older, I identified more with Eeyore's melancholic musings. But now I find myself becoming impatient with Eeyore's interminable gloomy self-absorption. I want to give him a shake, and tell him to get some exercise and some cognitive behavioural therapy!

These days I find myself more drawn to busy, bossy Rabbit, always rushing about and trying to keep track of all his Friends and Relations. So much to do! Notices to write, instructions to give, Expoditions to plan, meetings to write up!

But I hope I'm never too busy to sit in a quiet corner with Evie, and visit the Hundred Acre Wood.