Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Two for Tuesday featuring Poetry Surprise

The name of this blog post sounds like some random late night music video with two artists collaborating. Two for Tuesday can be the rappers. Poetry Surprise can be the soulful female vocalist.

The idea of Two for Tuesday is to post two things, things of any kind, and then connect them somehow.

So, without further ado, I give you Thing One:

Things With Extremely Optimistic Names.

Ok. Thing One is actually a bunch of things. Technically.

I have a weird affection for things with optimistic names. To start with, Auckland has a suburb called Meadowbank. Meadowbank in name? Happy shiny frolicking in sparkling meadows, like a stray Meyer vampire! Meadowbank in reality? A middle class suburb tucked in tidily next to a very posh one (Remuera), with nondescript but pleasant enough houses, and a nice bakery. Meadowbank in reality is absolutely fine, but oh, Meadowbank in name! The frolicking! The frolicking! There's also a suburb called Beachhaven, which has some beach, if you live on the right side of it. The rest, I guess, is the haven. But it looks like a normal bunch of houses built, I don't know, about thirty years ago. I've been there many times and I haven't noticed the haven. Criminal! And then there's Sunnynook. Can you believe there's a suburb called Sunnynook? Do you know I sometimes want to move there for the name alone, even though all I really know about it is that it has a bus station?

Also, old fashioned recipes often have extremely optimistic names. You know, the sort of thing you read about people eating for dessert in a picture book you used to have when you were a kid. Lucky berry Supreme! Peach Surprise! Don't you love how someone thought that the peach would still be a surprise? Shouldn't it be renamed 'Spongy Thing with Peach in the Middle'? No. It shouldn't. Because of the optimism.

Therefore, I am inventing a new blog feature with an extremely optimistic name. And this new blog feature will also be Thing Two:

Poetry Surprise!

I blogged on Sunday at YA Highway with a whole heap of random writing advice. One thing I advised was reading poetry. Poetry is an excellent thing. I would like this blog to contain more of it. So, whenever I feel like it, I'm going to spring Poetry Surprise on you. Poetry Surprise will occasionally be a poem I've written, but it's much more likely to be a poem that a vastly better poet has written that I want to share with everyone, so we can all bask in its loveliness. My poems are ok, but they don't have all that much loveliness to bask in, because I'm not much of a poet.

The first poem I'm sharing with you is this one:


Sonnet XXII

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvèd point,--what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovèd,--where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

- Elizabeth Barret Browning 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Road Trip Wednesday: when and why did you start writing?

AKA the post that somehow turned into Leila's life story.

It started with self publishing when I was about four. I didn’t have a printing press, so each book was a one off limited edition, handmade with scrap paper, felt tip pens, and the stapler*. Most of the stories were about little girls named Celia or Delia, witches named Celia or Delia or dinosaurs named Celia or Delia**. And also about magic. Later, I extended my subject matter to include mermaids named Celia and Delia and princesses named Celia and Delia.

I don’t think anything really beats that discovery you make as a kid, when you realise that if you write a story, it’s there as long as the paper is there and you can read it over and over again. Or someone else can read it and know exactly what you said word for word, even if they weren’t in the room when you came up with it.

Originally I didn’t want to be a writer. I had other plans. First I wanted to be a professional witch. Then I wanted to be a teacher. Then, when I was seven, I wrote an unbelievably long play about two princesses and a dungeon, and also a poem about putting syrup on porridge, how the syrup runs slowly off the spoon and makes little golden corridors through the porridge. And for some reason my teacher was absolutely delighted with them, and then my parents were absolutely delighted with them, even though the play was full of nonsensical rambling dialogue and the syrup poem was, well, syrupy.

That’s when I realised that writing was not only magical. It also impressed grownups. And because of that, it would make me rich and famous. I was a vain kid, and also one of those notoriously weird kids. You knew one of those kids. The sort of kid who cries if her new book falls on the ground, and disappears to the edge of the playground for hours on end to play intensive make believe about orphan girls from large families during Victorian times. I have never ever in my whole entire life been cool. So the prospect of being rich and famous made me happy, if only so that it would make the mean kids regret being mean.

Someone gave me a second hand typewriter. A manual one. I bashed out page after page of description of characters and their whole families and their whole families’ families, including middle names and eye colour. I didn’t include star signs, but I probably would have, if I had known about them.

Then I got sick of the typewriter, and wrote stories and songs and in large spiral bound exercise books which always fell apart before I’d filled them. I’d grown out of dinosaurs and I’d grown out of naming characters Celia and Delia by then***. But I couldn’t stop writing about magic. Magic and transformation and people dealing with dark stuff. Being a twelve year old girl is one of the hardest things in the world. I knew dark stuff.

Then high school. I wrote epic fantasy in maths class when I was meant to be doing algebra. I wrote poetry in my study period when I was meant to be doing homework. I never finished anything unless it was a class assignment. But I made up for that by starting approximately one million novels. I had one particular story that turned up when I was meant to be doing French homework and tangled with me and wouldn’t go away.

My French is still terrible.

In university, I was still writing that story, and it was still tangled. I went to cafes and drank enormous lattes and wrote and wrote and wrote. Over the years I changed almost everything about it except for some of the characters’ names****. Then, in a year of turmoil, I decided the story was a lost cause and abandoned it. Even so, that story still calls to me sometimes. One day I might go back to it, when I'm less bothered about whether it's publishable or not.

Abandoning my novel was one of the ugliest things I've ever done. It took me two and a half agonising years before I could work on anything novel length again. Then Aven and Elias turned up, and I spent most of 2009 working on their story. Then some different people turned up, and I’ve spent 2010 so far working on their story.

I see things through to completion these days, and it’s slow. Slow like a sleeping snail is slow. I want to get everything pretty and polished and perfect, and that takes a long time. In fact, when you’re in the middle of working on things, it feels like the longest time in the world. So I go to my favourite cafe, I buy a large latte and cake, because cake makes everything better, and I pull out my notebook and write for hours on end. And I enjoy every moment of it as much as I can.

Writing is like many things in that after a while, it becomes part of living. You don’t know your own breath without it. Stories wait in dark corners, and under beds, and inside the linen cupboard, and sometimes the cats bring them in and leave them on the rug. And every time the stories leap out at you and insist on being written. They bring out their most intriguing people, and their most beautiful events. And you know that they’re absolutely right. They absolutely must be told. And if you don’t write them, there is no one else who will.

Honestly? I write because I no longer know how not to write.

You want to hear about how my fellow highwayers started writing as well, don't you? Head this way straight away!

*This was before I entered the bookselling world and realised that stapling is probably not the greatest form of binding in the world.

**I also named my guinea pigs Celia and Delia. I was obsessed.

***Mostly. I think a few Celias and Delias still snuck in occasionally.

****Incidentally, none of them were called Celia or Delia.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Road Trip Wednesday: How do you know when a project is going to work and when it's not?

I know when things glow. Some stories have this buzzing electric current, which runs all the way through them, this bright sharp line joining up the characters. It’s the thing that makes me know that out of all my hundred thousand random floating ideas, this one is worth writing. This one has people who are fascinating, who are going to collide and leave a trail of sparks from their collision. It’s often a romance, because I have this whole endless obsession with love stories, but it doesn’t have to be.

Anyway. If I find something that glows, I know that I could have a story of pure wondrousness on my hands, if I could just write it well enough. Or sometimes I have a whole bunch of beautiful lines all through my head, and I keep coming across them at inappropriate times and having to sneak into the back room at work to write them down. And then I know it could be great, if I could just get the story behind them to make sense.

But that’s not whether a project will work. That’s whether a project can work. Most people have projects that can work floating around, whether or not they choose to do anything with them.

But in the end, whether it will work actually comes down to me. And that’s scary. It comes down to whether I manage to dislodge enough time for the damn thing from all the stuff time usually gets itself stuck in*, whether I revise and edit well enough and follow people’s advice on things that need fixing. And whether I keep going when everything about the project is making me outraged, or bored, or paranoid, or headachy, or all at once. And also, whether I do the idea justice. A good idea is all very well, but I could unwittingly write it so badly that you can almost hear the trees which fell for my notebooks groaning**, write it so badly that it turns into a Humpty Dumpty sort of thing where not even all the best beta readers in the world can put it back together again. Not to mention whether my judgement was right in the first place, whether my idea genuinely does work, or whether it was a waste of time. What glows for me might not glow for you. Or for an agent. Or for anyone. Except my mother. It will probably glow for my mother. But she likes everything I write, so that doesn’t count***.

So, in one respect, I know the answer before I ever start anything. I only start novels that I am absolutely certain could work. In another, it’s murky. Because whether something does work beyond the inside of my head is another matter.

I write. I revise. I hope.

That’s all.

How do you know when a project will work? And how about other writers? You should go see what my fellow highwayers have to say. And while you’re heading in that direction, you might also want to check out my Sunday post on being a New Zealand writer.

*Work, loved ones, cooking, insect warfare, Grey’s Anatomy.

**I’m actually quite sure they do this. But I try not to listen.

***The 987234th thing that I should maybe leave out of query letters: “My mother rather liked this novel.”