Melbourne in one day: food, writers, art, music

Yesterday’s touch of summer, and spring, and winter, and oh, yes, well, autumn, fine, it IS Melbourne, but at least it didn’t rain, was just dandy for a day in the city.

First, there was lunch at Time Out in Federation Square — the staff there are amazingly efficient and efficiently friendly and the food is tasty and well-priced, though a wine will set you back the best part of $10 a glass — with a Brisbane contingent (including two of us expats and one wannabe). The sun was warm, the wind chill, the quesadillas suitably chilli, the friendship warm. This is what weekend afternoons are all about, hey?

vienna art and design at ngvFrom there, I wandered off to the Vienna: Art & Design exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. The exhibit showcases the Secessionist movement. Here, I again learnt that I do like Klimt (I never knew he drew erotica, so those drawings were educational), that I want to know more about Schiele and Kokoschka (awesome portraiture!), and have sadly little interest in tea pot design.

The exhibit kicked off with architecture (loved the Die Zeit facade re-creation in aluminium and glass, all very Metropolis*) and ran through visual art, including wicked posters and a couple of exquisitely processed photographs, furniture and cutlery n stuff. In those heady days, the architect was not just designing the building, but the entire fit-out. This was perhaps most strikingly presented by having two sets of furniture on either side of the same room, both products of the era but showcasing the two directions that design took: decorative and pragmatic (in my layman’s terms).

I also ducked upstairs to check out the Deep Water exhibition: a small collection of photographs ranging from creeks and waterfalls to icebergs and people swimming. Makes you appreciate the power of a black and white landscape, and indeed of nature itself (fingers crossed for those in the path of Hurricane Irene, who would, I’m sure, be happy just with photographs).

melbourne writers festival 2011

There followed a long coffee — there may also have been a beer, the day being turned to summer again — and scribbled notes (ink slashing akin to wrist slitting; infernal story, I hate you as much as you hate me) — and then, as the dial turned to a shady phase of winter, my first Melbourne Writers Festival event: Kim Scott, Marie Munkara, Arnold Zable (chair) and John Bradley talking about indigenous language and politics.

My summary: language is an important if not essential plank of cultural identity. So this move to herd folks from their country and teach them exclusively English: don’t. (What year is this again? Have we learnt nothing?)

Bradley made one of the most striking comments of the panel, when he described the Aboriginal language he’d learnt as ‘rising up from the country’, or words to that effect.

Powerful stuff, language; dangerous, too.

PEN International sponsored this panel, and an empty chair on the stage represented writers who have been killed or jailed for daring to not only have an opinion, but to air it.

To balance out this heavy topic, a short walk up Swanson St, the Toff in Town was hosting Stories Unbound. At the Toff, I’ve learnt, it pays to order two drinks at a time, especially when the house is packed. And it was, with punters turning up to hear Tishani Doshi, Brissie’s Nick Earls, Leslie Cannold, Anna Krien, Michael Robotham and MC David Astle share, without notes, an unpublished anecdote from their lives.

Doshi: her love for the woman who introduced her to dance and so freed her to pursue an artistic life; Earls: how the Pope helped him pass medicine — funny stuff, involving testicles and Gaviscon; Cannold: a Jewish mother having to decide whether to get her sons circumcised; Krien: a tonguey from a 90-year-old man in the name of journalism; Robotham: separate misadventures involving pornographers and a redneck. All with sign interpretation. So a good mix of serious and humorous in a convivial atmosphere.

Oh, the music: on the train, there was a guy strumming his guitar, but it was kind of dull so I plugged in my mp3 player. And then got home to the awesome announcement of friend Sarah’s solo album deal with ABC Classics. As Night Falls is the name of the album: can’t wait!

* speaking of Metropolis, it’s as good a throw as I could come up with with to preview the upcoming exhibition of Modernity in German Art 1910-37: it’s hip to be square!

Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2010

years best australian fantasy and horrorIt’s great to see that someone has risen to fill the gap (almost) left by Brimstone (horror and dark fantasy) and MirrorDanse (science fiction and fantasy) no longer compiling a year’s ‘best of’ of Australian spec fic. Awards listings have been the best guide to quality Aussie writing in their absence.

But Ticonderoga Publications is releasing a best of: fantasy and horror published in 2010, edited by Talie Helene and Liz Grzyb. It’s the first of an ongoing annual snapshot. The contents have already been released, and now, the recommended reading list. What a superb springboard into an exploration of flights of fancy from Australian pens!

best australian fantasy and horror 2010 contents

RJ Astruc: “Johnny and Babushka”
Peter M Ball: “L’esprit de L’escalier”
Alan Baxter: “The King’s Accord”
Jenny Blackford: “Mirror”
Gitte Christensen: “A Sweet Story”
Matthew Chrulew: “Schubert By Candlelight”
Bill Congreve: “Ghia Likes Food”
Rjurik Davidson: “Lovers In Caeli-Amur”
Felicity Dowker: “After the Jump”
Dale Elvy: “Night Shift”
Jason Fischer: “The School Bus”
Dirk Flinthart: “Walker”
Bob Franklin: “Children’s Story”
Christopher Green: “Where We Go To Be Made Lighter”
Paul Haines: “High Tide At Hot Water Beach”
L.L. Hannett: “Soil From My Fingers”
Stephen Irwin: “Hive”
Gary Kemble: “Feast Or Famine”
Pete Kempshall: “Brave Face”
Tessa Kum: “Acception”
Martin Livings: “Home”
Maxine McArthur: “A Pearling Tale”
Kirstyn McDermott: “She Said”
Andrew McKiernan: “The Memory Of Water”
Ben Peek: “White Crocodile Jazz”
Simon Petrie: “Dark Rendezvous”
Lezli Robyn: “Anne-droid of Green Gables”
Angela Rega: “Slow Cookin’ “
Angela Slatter: “The Bone Mother”
Angela Slatter & LL Hannett: “The February Dragon”
Grant Stone: “Wood”
Kaaron Warren: “That Girl”
Janeen Webb: “Manifest Destiny”

recommended reading list, australian fantasy and horror 2010

Deborah Biancotti, ‘Home Turf’ Baggage
Jenny Blackford, ‘Adam’ Kaleidotrope #9
Simon Brown, ‘Sweep’ Sprawl
Mary Elizabeth Burroughs, ‘The Flinchfield Dance’ Black Static #17
Steve Cameron, ‘Ghost Of The Heart’ Festive Fear
Stephanie Campisi, ‘Seven’ Scenes From The Second Storey
Matthew Chrulew, ‘The Nullabor Wave’ World’s Next Door
Bill Congreve, ‘The Traps of Tumut’ Souls Along The Meridian
Rjurik Davidson, ‘The Cinema Of Coming Attractions’ The Library of Forgotten Books
Stephen Dedman, ‘For Those In Peril On The Sea’ Haunted Legends
Felicity Dowker, ‘From Little Things’ Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #43
——— ‘The House On Juniper Road’ Worlds Next Door
——— ‘Bread And Circuses’ Scary Kisses
Will Elliott, ‘Dhayban’ Macabre: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears
Mark Farrugia, ‘A Bag Full Of Arrows’ Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #48
Jason Fischer, ‘The House Of Nameless’ Writers of the Future Vol. xxvi
Bob Franklin, ‘Take The Free Tour’ Under Stones
Christopher Green, ‘Jumbuck’ Aurealis #44
Paul Haines, ‘Her Gallant Needs’ Sprawl
Lisa L Hannett, ‘Singing Breath Into The Dead’ Music For Another World
——— ‘Commonplace Sacrifices’ On Spec
——— Tiny Drops’ Midnight Echo #4
Richard Harland, ‘Shakti’ Tales of the Talisman
——— ‘The Fear’ Macabre: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears
Narrelle M Harris, ‘The Truth About Brains’ Best New Zombie Tales: Volume 2
Robert Hood, ‘Wasting Matilda’ The Mammoth Book Of The Zombie Apocalypse
George Ivanoff, ‘Trees’ Short & Scary
Trent Jamieson, ‘The Driver’s Assistant’ Ticon4
Pete Kempshall, ‘Dead Letter Drop’ Close Encounters of the Urban Kind
——— ‘Signature Walk’ Sprawl
Martin Livings, ‘Lollo’ Close Encounters of the Urban Kind
Penelope Love, ‘Border Crossing’ Belong
Geoffrey Maloney & Andrew Bakery, ‘Sleeping Dogs’ Midnight Echo #4
Tracie McBride, ‘Lest We Forget’ (audio) Spectrum Collection
Kirstyn McDermott, ‘Monsters Among Us’ Macabre: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears
Andrew J McKiernan, ‘All The Clowns In Clown Town'; Macabre: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears
Simon Petrie, ‘Running Lizard’ Rare Unsigned Copy: tales of Rocketry, Ineptitude, and Giant Mutant Vegetables
Michael Radburn, ‘They Own The Night’ Festive Fear
Janeen Samuel, ‘My Brother Quentin’ Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #44
Angela Slatter, ‘A Porcelain Soul’ Sourdough and other stories
——— ‘Gallowberries’ Sourdough and other stories
——— ‘The Dead Ones Don’t Hurt You’ The Girl With No Hands and other tales
Cat Sparks, ‘All the Love in the World’ Sprawl
Grant Stone, ‘Dead Air’ (poem) Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #46
Lucy Sussex, ‘Albert & Victoria/Slow Dreams’ Baggage
Anna Tambour, ‘Gnawer Of The Moon Seeks Summit Of Paradise’ Sprawl
Kaaron Warren, ‘Sins Of The Ancestors’ Dead Sea Fruit
——— ‘The Coral Gatherer’ Dead Sea Fruit
——— ‘Hive Of Glass’ Baggage
David Witteveen, ‘Perfect Skin’ Cthulhu’s Dark Cults

Writing round-up

Writing: it’s easy, right? Take a couple of weeks, knock out that yarn that’s been banging around in your noggin’ ever since you read that thriller on your Gold Coast holiday back in whenever and reckoned, hell yes, once I’ve done the important stuff in my life, I’ll write a book and that’ll be luvly.

Here’s a Facebook post from Ian Irvine about his new yarn:

I’ve done 10 hard drafts of Vengeance, plus written more than 80 background docs on story planning, character creation and analysis, world-building and story analysis documents. And spent something like 2,800 hours on it thus far.

Ian also has a handy bunch of info on his website: the truth about publishing, writing tips, marketing tips … well worth a long, slow read, possibly with note-taking.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a ‘yes indeedy’ with a solid chuckle thanks to Patrick O’Duffy’s post about, mostly, punctuation that riles him. E.g.,

(The Oxford comma) bleeds energy from the sentence like a speedbump on a suburban street, and dribbles into the eye like birdshit

After the rain

And finally, but most definitely not least, a minor crow moment. As you might have gathered from Ian’s post, sometimes, the yarns take time. They take iterations. They take hair-pulling and wailing and gnashing of teeth. This one here (well, you can’t see it, but trust me, it’s here, the recalcitrant bugger) has been a burr under my saddle for more than a week now, little more than a page or six of incoherent, barely related scenes, ideas, descriptions, dialogue lines … Damn it, just write yourself, why don’t you? Who are you and what do you want? It’s still not telling me. But it’s all very worthwhile when you get a mention in dispatches such as at this review of After the Rain* over at ASiF (where I have been known to drop the occasional review, myself).

Also pleasing is the mention of Robert Hoge’s ‘The Shadow on the City of My Sky’, a gorgeous story that I saw when we were critique buddies way back when, and am very pleased to see in print and being deservedly praised. Peter Ball’s ‘Visitors’ was another of my favourites from that anthology; I’m glad it got tapped here, too. Peter’s work is awesome: check it out.

So, the lesson from today’s internet surfing/procrastination is this: work hard, mind the punctuation, do your best and hope someone appreciates the end result.

* I’m judging collections and anthologies for the Aurealis Awards this year, but After the Rain is not up for consideration due to its publisher being involved in the awards. So I can say with a clear conscience that the antho, regardless of my story being in it, is very solid indeed.

Up the critique without a paddle

texas chainsaw massacreTo be critiqued or not to be critiqued: that is the question.

Or at least, it has been lately: two of my crit group have blogged on the subject. Lamellae offers a five-post selection of pros and cons; Ellen Gregory ponders the ramifications of a recent going-over of the first chapter of a new work in progress.

It’s a bold move, submitting such raw copy to a crit group. After all, the group is looking for problems, and damn but they will find them! The question is, how relevant are they for a still unformed work? The issue for the writer is, what are they looking for from the critique — world building and character weaknesses, perhaps? Does this feel like the right place to start this story? The worst thing is to allow the feedback to derail the work (unless, of course, it’s really that dire; sometimes, you need someone to tell you to ditch stuff, even stuff you love, because it just doesn’t fit — ah, my darlings, dead on the cutting room floor). All those drops of red blood, I mean ink, coming from the marked-up pages aren’t necessarily a death sentence. But yeah, watch your adverbs as you progress, sort out that character’s motivations, make the magic system a bit more transparent … take those informed opinions on board and you might save yourself a bucket-load of rewriting later.

A crit group is invaluable, to my mind, as long as it is a group of peers who will, constructively and respectfully, push you to be the best storyteller you can be. It’s easier if that respect extends to the genres in which you work; my experience in workshops with mixed genres has not been as fruitful as those where everyone came in with a base understanding of how the supernatural ‘works’, or at least were open to the concept. In much the same way that I struggled to care about the minutiae of X and Y’s relationship: when does something happen? Mind you, the uninitiated can be great for spotting logic holes and areas that have been glossed over because of an assumption of what the reader will already know the tropes.

There’s a skill in not only giving critique but receiving it. Thick skin helps. A preparedness to take on board the advice, in hand with an instinct to know what is relevant and what isn’t. Different critiquers have different strengths: some are great at logic and story, others at character and motivation, others again at grammar. A group with a mix of strengths is very handy for getting that story as tight as it can be.

The simple fact is, that the author is, more often than not, a terrible editor of their own work. They know the story, but not necessarily the one that’s on the page. They have blind spots, to both story and to prose. There are two tricks for better self-editing: one is to read the work aloud, the other is to print it out in different fonts for each edit. Both help to highlight poor construction and break down the haze of familiarity. I always edit on paper, once I’m at that stage.

And I rely on my crit group to save me from myself. And hope that, in return, I can also offer some useful advice. Politely, constructively and respectfully.

A sad day for the Fourth Estate

death of  ABC news team in helicopter crashIt’s hard not to be cynical, isn’t it? Phone taps. Intrusions. The sheer puerile nature of the front page coverage of nobodies doing nothing, elevated to the status of somebodies by some sense of community interest. How askew have our priorities become? Jaded by the misery, we elevate false idols and then wail when they let us down. And the media, hungry for hits, desperate for circulation, plays the game and delivers poorly constructed, poorly edited superficiality and wonders why they lose market share. By sacrificing the high ground, they lose the only ground they ever had, becoming just another blog of bluster and blame rather than a source of information and understanding. Regurgitation without questioning. Hyperbole is not the journalist’s friend.

And then you get the news that arrived today, and you wonder how the hell it came to this, that it takes the death of three good men to make you realise that it isn’t all bad. That buried under the dire vile of the commentators and the sensationalists, there are honest journos out there delivering the goods. That the Fourth Estate still means something.

The loss of journalist Paul Lockyer, cameraman John Bean and pilot Gary Ticehurst in a helicopter crash is a sad day indeed for the ABC, the trio’s families and friends, their peers. Despite the economic rationalisation continuing to change the face of the media workplace, despite the Federal Government’s push to make service subservient to budget surplus, despite the erosion of the code of ethics tarring all with the same unseemly brush, the good guys still try to make sure the truth gets out. Whether anyone wants to hear it is anyone’s guess.

I remember my first editor, more than 20 years ago, lamenting how the journalist was no longer welcome at the door. How once you’d be invited in for tea and scones; now you were viewed with suspicion, antagonism or an eye to manipulation. It’s the professionals like Lockyer who defy that prejudice, who keep our trust in the Fourth Estate alive. Read this article about Lockyer’s impact in Grantham and you’ll get an inkling of why I still believe; of why I feel the touch of sadness for the loss of people I’ve never met; and the disappointment that it can take a tragedy to expose the good work done by a maligned profession. Vale.

On commentary writerly

typewriter keys

Blogs, blogs, blogs. Who can keep up with them? Nicole Murphy has some of the sting out of the Google Reader task by assembling a fine collection of recent blog posts about the craft and recent headlining happenings, both with a focus on spec fic.

Further afield, The Creative Penn and Jay Kristoff both target steampunk in all its dubious glory but undoubtable fun, with Penn featuring Phoenix Rising, which sits on my to-read shelf, and Jay offering an ongoing history and commentary of the movement.

Terribleminds offers irreverently good ways to make your characters interesting — pain is the primary method — and Patrick O’Duffy (who shares my love of Batman, bless) also puts characters through their paces. Make’em work, make’em hurt could be a motto.

It’s great fun going through these blogs — am I hurting my characters enough has been at the forefront of my mind — because anything that makes you reassess your work has got be to be beneficial. A fresh approach, a new understanding of process, a way to break out of the comfort zone: all helpful and, indeed, necessary for the writer looking to develop. But at the end of the day, all the reading (blogs AND raw material — you know, actual books ‘n’ stuff) in the world ain’t gonna amount to more than interesting conversation at the bar if you ain’t writing.

The winter’s day of our discontent

flowers in sunshine

It was one of those glorious winter days when it actually feels like spring: cherry blossoms beside the path, birds all a’flitter, wattle in bloom, sun just a touch too warm and bright coming through the leaves … It was a joy to be outside.

It was the kind of day that makes it all the harder to turn one’s back to the window and take up, yet again, the keyboard. Not for the first time, I found myself asking, why am I doing this? Shouldn’t I be driving to Dromana for lunch or picnicking in the park or trying to find someone’s dog to take for a walk? A simple beer garden would do justice to a day like this. Some rhythm n blues by the bay, hell yes.

But here I am in my imaginary world, a world that no one else might ever get to see.

Why writers write is one of those topics that surfaces every so often, often followed closely by the observation that most folks believe that they can write: I’d like to write a book one day. Or, as Dmetri Kakmi confronted in a recent blog post, ‘I might be a bit of a writer myself’.

jack nicholson in the shining

All work and no play . . .

The post was an eloquent and passionate defence of writing as art, or at the very least, vocation. In it, he posits that writers write because if they don’t, they’ll die. I get that. I tried to stop. I couldn’t. The voices just wouldn’t leave me alone, and my ego wouldn’t let them lie still on the page: I just wanted to share. Sorry about that. But hey, there’s always room for one more outback vampire story, right? RIGHT?

Louise Cusack has offered some insight into what drives writers: why they use this medium to express themselves, to find a sense of belonging, to explore their world . . .

Which leads to, why do we write what we write? These days, there is a real sense that writing can be a business: churn out the product, score big with throughput. McDonald’s for the literarily inclined. Hey, it’s a market: go for it. Not many jobs allow you to indulge your super spy / princess bride / secret life from home in your pyjamas and get paid for it.

My only caveat there: at least learn the trade craft. I expect my plumber to know his tools; I expect my authors to know theirs. The art / industry grey area does not excuse ignorance: take a grammar course FFS.

So, do we write the stories that so attracted us to reading in the first place? I know that a large part of what motivated me to seek publication of my writing was my perception of an absence of the stories I liked to read, set in my own country. Why did all these wonderful adventures have to happen in England or America? Why didn’t these people speak my language? Why did I have to translate their idiom to enjoy stories such as these? Snow at Christmas: WTF? Snow: WTF? (I have since experienced snow. I can see the attraction, but still: WTF?)

dr frankenstein and his monster

It's alive! Mouhahaha!

I suspect many writers — the ones who see the craft as art or vocation, not just a money-spinner (and good luck with that) — get over that, grow bored with that little pond and go diving out into the wider ocean of possibilities. New genres, cross-genres; new platforms. New voice, new style, new terrain.

They choose challenge over comfort, for both themselves and their readers. They’ve probably got something to say, and are seeking new ways to say it.

Of course, finding a publisher who will want to take the risk on their talent spreading their wings, threatening to erode that almost mythical beast known as ‘the readership’ (you know it; it demands on pain of excommunication from its hip pocket the next book right now damnit!) … economic rationalism vs art. E-publishing to the rescue?

There’s also a certain masochism in the writing game: parties missed, friends and family neglected, sunshine lost. All for the sake of the art. Or the job, if you think of it like that. The two probably aren’t mutually exclusive, but there might be some compromise in there. I don’t think anyone should be neglecting friends and family, not for art and not for job. Life’s too short. That’s the discipline, to not only write the work, but to not write the work. To make time for the important people who also deserve our attention.

flagellants

Not tonight, darling. I have to, um, write.

So why write? It’s a largely anti-social and self-absorbed way to make a crust — if you’re lucky. It is, contrary to popular supermarket aisle opinion, not easy to deliver a well-crafted read: writing, editing, publishing, marketing.

Bottom line: writing is fun. Taking that intangible inner life and transferring it onto the page for others to share and transfer into their own inner life (the creation of multiverses). Arranging and rearranging the words into the ideal form, so that the form itself is pleasing as well as the world so created. Playing god with the benefit of a backspace key. And all the richness of language, a global pool of knowledge and culture, to draw from. And I mentioned the pyjamas, right? Right.

It’s worth missing a few days of sunshine. The question remains, though: how many? Maybe until it ceases to be fun. Maybe, that depends on some personal formula of discipline, external commitments, expectation and pragmatism.

And maybe that comes down to who we write for. To what we want to receive from our writing: a few hours of distraction or escape; a pat on the back — from anyone; a pat on the back from someone we admire; filthy lucre; a warm inner glow. All of the above. Louise says,

Many writers have gone to their graves without ever having published a book, perhaps never having shown their work to another soul, which sounds terrible and tragic, and it would be if they’d tortured themselves about that. But that only matters if the showboat part of us is the important part. What if the thing that counts most is the creation of the story, the liberation of the characters from whatever pocket of imagination they’ve been hiding in, out onto the page or the screen?

There’s probably some analogy about trees falling in forests and stories unread in there somewhere, but it’s a nice day. The kind that provokes rambling, not just in the outdoors but on the page as well (so it seems). So I might go smell the roses. I’ll call it research, or recuperation, or downtime or somesuch.

Hot act to follow: Fever Ray

Is this an awesome cover or what? Actually, if you said or what, you can go away and write your own blog post.

Fever Ray had a song, The Wolf, on the soundtrack for the Red Riding Hood movie which was, arguably, the best thing about the movie. Well, the eponymous Fever Ray album (2009) is just as awesome.

This band — the solo project of Swedish musician Karin Dreijer Andersson — was made to make soundtracks.

Such atmospheric electronica, and then Dreijer Andersson’s voice beaming out from the very low to the almost childish high. It’s compelling stuff.

It’s grand, too, to hear the accent in her voice; a little like Bjork, not afraid to show her roots. Apparently, the male-sounding vocals are also hers, run through a transformer.

fever ray solo debut album

The debut album (she and her studio collaborators have been around; Karin and brother Olof form The Knife) opens with a monkish ‘If I Had A Heart’ and builds from there. The electronica underpins the tunes but leaves plenty of space; ’80s sounds feel thoroughly modern with great use of stereo effects. And the whole thing feels like a movie waiting to be written.

Some of the lyrics can be obtuse, but there are delightful vignettes of life — suburban, urban, defiance, the unity and despair of love.

There’s a little bit of slink on ‘I’m Not Done'; catchy ebb and flow on the haunting ‘Keep the Streets Empty for Me'; a Celtic dirge feel on closer, ‘Coconut’. A consistent, cohesive, captivating album.

‘Stranger Than Kindness’ is one of two bonus tracks on the deluxe release, which includes a DVD. ‘Wolf’ was released as a single in March.

McKee on Story, and the nature vs nurture argument about writing courses

Robert McKee Story seminarI attended Robert McKee’s seminar on thriller writing recently. It was a revealing event: an entire cinema packed with writers chasing insight into how to write a thriller. It was a microcosm of just how booming the writing industry is, fuelled in part by the opening of the self-publishing market due to affordable and relatively easy ebook and POD technologies. I don’t really think of the other bodies in the room as competitors, just contemporaries: I’m a big believer in the phenomenon in the writing industry perhaps best epitomised by the Amazon button that says if you liked this book, you might also like …

But there I was, me and my contemporaries, for a very long day, receiving a summary of the various styles of thriller, the identifying qualities of same, and then the nitty gritty: component parts, structure, conflict and, perhaps most usefully, the idea of switching positive-negative valencies within each scene, sequence and act.

McKee is famed for his book Story and the seminar industry he’s spun out of it, and I got a lot out of the day (Ellen Gregory provides a handy summary in a series of blog posts). The physical seminar was easier to digest than the written work, I found; McKee’s focus is on screenwriting, but the basics apply equally as well to literature. I was mentally checking off, and occasionally wincing, as McKee unfolded his theories (Se7en was his case study). Anything that makes you look at your process, at the components of your craft, that helps you hone your skills, is valuable: up to a point. You still have to write the damn story. And you still have to have a story worth writing. Ah, now there’s the rub.

Cameron Rogers gives the McKee school of writing class a serve, while finding useful insight in the simple three-act scenario of Lennon and Garant: put a likeable person up a tree; throw rocks at them; get them down from the tree. I like that.

(I’ve only recently discovered Cam’s blog: it’s a time-killer, both erudite and fun with far too many interesting YouTube clips. And, god, Music of Razors is still on the Shelf of Woe, waiting for that heady day when I get to that to-read pile.)

Which suggests, courses for horses. But can ‘writing’ be taught?

As Dmetri Kakmi wrote in a recent defence of writing as vocation, there’s a school of thought that says everyone has a novel in them — which is probably true in terms of content. But perhaps not everyone, even with a McKee seminar and a couple of handy books (I favour Stephen King’s On Writing as an inspirational text) on the desk, is capable of delivering that story in an effective and engaging way.

While I’ve learnt a lot from writing courses — I wish I’d done my Year of the Novel with Kim Wilkins a decade earlier, when I first seriously turned my hand to getting a novel written and having it published (and being paid for it, damn it!) — I like to think, in line with Dmetri’s ‘rant’, that there is a talent as well as a skill. I think the skill can be honed; I think the talent comes from prolific reading, exercising of imagination and curiosity about the human condition. If talent is a pool of creative lava, then a writing course — the right writing course — might help channel that lava into a fruitful channel. No burnt fingers, no gelatinous puddle. There are plenty of good ideas out there, but good ideas well crafted, well, that’s another story.

I’ve read a bunch of yarns that have plenty of spirit, but are let down by deficient craft. I’ve read even more than have a modicum of craft, but little spirit. It’s where craft and spirit combine that we get that story that sticks: the one we have to tell all our friends about.

Dmetri says if you have to ask if you’ve got what it takes, you don’t; I think we prove it to ourselves every time we choose the keyboard over the sunshine, or at least, we test ourselves along those lines. Writers are, by nature, by and large, insecure creatures: as with any artist, their passion is placed in the public arena and invites both the brickbats and bouquets. Do I have what it takes — to get to the end? To sell this story? To make a reader give a damn?

At the end of the day, we’re writing to our own standard. Some folks will be happy to just sell a story to any market, paying or otherwise. The byline is enough. Others want cash up front as recompense for all the days of sunshine they’ve missed out on. Some churn out plastic, others are artists; sometimes, both might make a living out of it. Some have quantitative goals: units sold, cash earned. Others, a qualitative goal: to write as well as their hero, or to write an award-winning work.

We set our own benchmarks and I’m in no position to rank them, but I do set a base level of competence for someone calling themselves a writer: respect for the words, respect for the language. You don’t have to be an uber stylist but at least know where to put the full points. At least know what the words mean. And readers should be discerning on this. A 99c price tag, not even a free download, should excuse abuse of language. Incompetence and willful ignorance should never be excused.

King talks about his ideal reader, and I think that’s part of the benchmark. Who do we want to impress with this story? Who will we hold our breath for, while we wait for the shake or the nod?

I’m glad I did the McKee seminar; I enjoyed the lens his observations brought to my appreciation of my work. But I still have to apply the lessons learnt. And I still have to answer the question: do I have what it takes? No amount of courses is going to solve that riddle; that one is answered only in the doing.

Manuscript Monday joins the Friday Pitch

typewriter keys

Worth checking out if you’ve got a manuscript in your pocket: Pan Macmillan has opened its doors to submissions with Manuscript Monday, an initiative very similar to Allen and Unwin’s long-running Friday Pitch.

Both invite writers across a variety of genres within fiction and non-fiction to submit a synopsis and first chapter, and both promise quick replies, so if you haven’t heard within a month (Pan Mac) or a fortnight (A&U), you know you can hunt elsewhere.