GenreCon for Sydney in November

From the Queensland Writers Centre bulletin, a great event for genre writers:

The Australian Writer’s Marketplace is proud to announce GenreCon!

Rydges Paramatta, November 2-4th 2012

GenreCon is a three-day convention for Australian fans and professionals working within the fields of romance, mystery, science fiction, crime, fantasy, horror, thrillers, and more. One part party, one part celebration, one part professional development: GenreCon is the place to be if you’re an aspiring or established writer with a penchant for the types of fiction that get relegated to their own corner of the bookstore. Featuring international guests Joe Abercrombie (Writer, The First Law Trilogy, Best Served Cold, The Heroes), Sarah Wendell (co-founder, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books), and Ginger Clark (Literary Agent, Curtis Brown).

For more information, visit Early bird rates available to the first 50 registrations.

The event looks to have a strong industry and networking focus, and the ticketing system includes mention of pitching opportunities.

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.

Looking for words in the rabbit hole

Queensland Writers Centre CEO Kate Eltham played the white rabbit, and a bunch of we Alices gave chase: the goal, 30,000 words in three days. Some gathered in Brisbane while others of us, the diaspora of Queensland writers and other interested parties, joined in online, sharing totals and motivational mentions of caffeine.

How liberating to be given permission to abandon all but the most major of priorities in order to devote three solid days to wordage. For wordage was the goal; quality could come later. The aim was to get that story down, or at least a solid chunk of it.

My goal was a little different, though. I’d already hammered out a bit over 90K of a novel, but I had to write and insert a second point of view character to help fill in some gaps, add some suspense and provide some contrast. It’s a fairly brutal story, this one; moments of levity are to be grabbed wherever they can be had!

ms pages on a kitchen table

There's a story in there somewhere: grappling with scene progression.

I thought I had eight scenes to write, expecting no more than 1000 to 2000 words for each, and it turned out I had 10 to write, and they amounted to about 11,000 words. It took two days, averaging maybe 500 words an hour. Some of the other rabbit holers did meet their 10,000 words a day quota — w00t!

The third day of the rabbit hole was devoted to smoothing out those new scenes, reconfiguring the existing text to accommodate the new material and ensuring continuity. As is the way of things, a whole new character emerged, with enough legs to play a bigger role in a follow-up should such a thing occur. I’m tempted to call her Alice, in honour of the rabbit hole, but I’ve already got a character with that name tucked away waiting for her chance in the spotlight, so for the moment she’s Felicity because A. she’s felicitous and a felicitator but, ironically, not particularly happy, and B. I still owe two sisters a character named after them after inadvertently slipping an Amanda cameo into The Darkness Within. I have managed to slip in an Alice nod to the rabbit hole, though; I hope it survives to the final cut.

In tribute, here’s a cool clip of the Sisters of Mercy performing Alice, one of my favourite SoM songs and the inspiration for the aforementioned character in waiting. Note: The Sisters are touring with Soundwave Revolution: this is very exciting.

So, three days of fairly solid wordsmithing later, what have I got other than square eyes and a slight case of jetlag?

About 108,000 words of first draft manuscript littered with notes and sporting a most satisfying cross-hatch at the end (the mystical The End only comes when the draft is ready to be subbed — that is truly The End). And the possible beginning for a short story: what could be the second to come out of this universe.

Will the MS go anywhere? Well, that’s always the question, isn’t it? But the story feels good — rough but good — and, regardless, I enjoyed myself in my plunge down the rabbit hole, bumped into some new writers online and learnt some stuff along the way. Would I do another rabbit hole? Most definitely. It’s a three-day trip, man. Just ask Alice.

Writers on Rafts — help for flooded Queensland

writers on rafts by QWC

The Writers on Rafts site is now live. You can buy a ticket for books, services from writers such as story assessments, and other stuff, such as having a character named after you in a book. It’s a raffle, not an auction. The initiative is being run by the Queensland Writers Centre, who still have not been able to return to their offices since floods devastated South East Queensland earlier this month. The floods meant that, in the past month, three quarters of the state has been declared a disaster area — Queensland is more than twice the size of Texas or France.

Other initiatives by writers to help flood victims are running, too. Check them out!

Writing space – a QWC blog tour

I consider myself to be a full-time Melburnian since November, when the move into my fiancee’s rental had been accomplished and my car was parked in the driveway.

At the end of November, we were given notice that our house was to be sold and we’d need a new abode. The nest, so recently feathered, was to be torn down, figuratively if not literally.

So it’s apt that the Queensland Writers Centre has asked me to profile my writing space as part of a blog tour: a little slice of space and time, recorded on the interwebs. This is the workroom. It’s a shared office, poor Kirstyn having surrendered her haven in my favour, so that I could set up the desktop. The result is a gloriously messy meld of her stuff and mine.

jason nahrung's writing desk

Some of the features:

The desktop PC. I don’t mind writing on a laptop, but I prefer the solidity of the PC, especially for editing. It’s got everything on it — email and old files and a bunch of RAM — and a full-size keyboard with all the keys in the right place. Stuck to its side is a picture I took of a sunset over the farm on which I grew up — my heart’s home.

The CD player. I love writing with music playing. It’s part mood-maker, part white noise generator. The caveat is that it must, for the most part, be familiar, so it can indeed fade into the background once I’ve got the groove.

Sekhmet and friends. One of the things Kirstyn didn’t have to move in the office when I merged in was her Egyptian stuff. I’ve always been interested in the ancient place, with a special affinity for Sekhmet (especially since a visit to Karnak). I’ve got a couple of figurines of her and the great scribe Thoth watching over the keyboard.

The screen saver. This changes, but this one is a picture of New Orleans’ French Quarter, taken from the Algiers ferry. If the farm is my heart’s home, the Vieux Carre could well be my soul’s home. It’s my most favourite of cities.

So that’s the den. But there’s more to writing space than where the words hit the page.

park gates

Our abode, about to be vacated, is near several small parks that have provided much-needed respite from the four walls and screen. One has these amazing gateposts and a leafy path, the other is an ‘urban forest’: an overly sculpted strip of scrub flanked by houses on both sides, with a couple of muddy ponds supporting ducks and a bunch of other birdlife. To stretch the knees, feel the breeze and the sun or, occasionally, the coming rain wet on the wind, and allow the ideas and characters to jumble around in free-thought has become one of my favourite parts of the process.

duck pond

Now there’s a new park to be explored and a new desk waiting bound in cardboard in the garage. We’re hoping to have room enough for both of us to have our own dedicated writing space in the new house. For now, though, I’d better go make use of this one while I can.

This post is part of the Queensland Writers Centre blog tour, happening February to April 2010. To follow the tour, visit Queensland Writers Centre’s blog.

QWC blog tour

I’m now living in Melbourne, but I’m continuing my membership with the Queensland Writers Centre because it’s a damn fine organisation with plenty to offer, even for an ‘outpost’ member such as myself (a writer who wouldn’t have a book on the shelf were it not for the QWC). The centre has been kind enough to include me in their blog tour, offering a Cook’s tour of writers’ blogs. You can find out more about the blog tour at the end of this post. Meantime, here are the requisite questions answered:

Where do your words come from?
The words themselves probably swim up from a lifetime of reading and study and movie-watching. But of the origin of the ideas that drive them, I’m not sure. Perhaps also in the words that have gone before, adapted by experience and observation, daydreaming and nightmares. I tend to download my stories from the ether of the subconcious, then set about shaping them, making sure the words are the best possible ones to tell the story. And then there’s Roget’s 😉

Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I grew up on a Queensland cattle property about half way between Maryborough and Gympie, an hour’s drive to either. It was a fertile place for the imagination, fuelled by books of all sorts. I’ve been leap-frogging my way through gradually larger cities since, most recently to Melbourne where I’m still waiting for my blood to thicken and save me from the embarrassment of being the only person on the street wearing gloves.

What’s the first sentence/line of your latest work?
My most recently published story, “Smoking, Waiting for the Dawn” (Dreaming Again, 2008) opens with, “George stood by the bleached skeleton of the Wyandra stockyards, breathing in dust and sun-baked silence.”
The first sentence of the story I’m meant to be working on at the moment is still a work in progress…

What piece of writing do you wish you had written?
Macbeth’s Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech. It’s stuck with me ever since I had to recite it in high school.

What are you currently working towards?
I’m planning a new novel, probably a follow-up to The Darkness Within, or yet another iteration of a linked story that just won’t behave. Or maybe something else again. November is my self-appointed crunch time.

Complete this sentence… the future of the book is…
… assured, though its delivery method will expand into the electronic realm with much wailing and gnashing of copyright regions.

This post is part of the Queensland Writers Centre blog tour, happening October to December 2009. To follow the tour, visit Queensland Writers Centre’s blog The Empty Page.