Friday, July 20, 2012

The story is alive ...

I'm a big fan of Sci-fi or SFF or Speculative Fiction or whatever you want to call stories that have spaceships, and travel between the stars, or between time, and aliens, or not ....

And I've had the chance to go a see Supanova in Sydney a couple of times, and once even went to a Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas.

And it's always struck me, how engaged the fans of that genre are. They love their stories. They love their worlds. They love their characters.

They'll cosplay at conventions

Batman Cosplay at Supanova Sydney 2011,  via The Bat Blog

They'll write fan fiction or original fiction, set within the universes created.

They are not passive consumers.

If studio executives try and stop their stories, they'll agitate to get them back.

And even when the stories end, they'll remember them, returning to them again and again, and keep writing them, building on the mythology, adding layers to characters.

This particular quality of active engagement was summed up - beautifully - by Joss Whedon at ComiCon when he was reunited with many of the cast members of Firefly. They were in a room packed with fans of the show - a show that has been off air for ten years.

When asked what the fans of the show mean to the creator of the show Whedon became emotional, the cast and audience became emotional, and there was a standing ovation before a word could be said.

What Whedon then said was this:

“When you come out of a great movie, you feel like you’re in that world. When you’re telling a story, you’re trying to connect to people in a particular way. It’s about inviting them into a world. The way you’ve inhabited this world, this universe, you have become part of it. When I see you guys, I don’t think the show is off the air. I think there’s spaceships and horses — the story is alive.”
It's that element of the story being "alive" that is the key.

When you're writing, it's not until that moment that the story feels alive, that the characters start to live and begin to say and do things that feel autonomous, rather than obeying the demands of some vague plot you've got knocking around in your skull, but when they suddenly start creating plot by actually being alive - yeah, that! That's when the writing starts to click, when the excitement starts to bubble, when the world you've created and the imaginary friends you've peopled it with, all start to live inside you.

That's when you start to carry the world of the book with you wherever you go, whatever you're doing.

It's what you hope you're creating for anyone who reads your words.

As a reader the same thing happens when I close a book, and the characters follow me, and I can imagine them acting and thinking and behaving and responding to events - when that happens I know that I have been captured by the writer and their world.

For those moments we cross over. As a reader we inhabit the world of the writer. As a writer we inhabit the world of imagination. And we connect with each other through worlds made of words.

David Lodge, in Consciousness and The Novel put it well:

"The novel is arguably man's most successful effort to describe the experience of individual human beings moving through space and time."
It's an intimate miracle really.

Here's a video of the whole panel ComiCon Firefly panel.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Planning, plotting and preparation.

Just back from a wonderful panel at the ALIA 2012 conference. I had the absolute pleasure of listening to Anita Heiss, Melina Marchetta, Richard Glover and Matthew Reilly, as we fielded questions from the audience on writing discipline, using libraries, eBooks and copyright.

It's always fun listening to other writers talking about how they wrangle out the words: Melina made herself a promise never to turn the TV on during the day, Richard wrestles his partner, the writer Debra Oswald, for the right to take the washing out to the line as an excuse to escape from the computer screen; Anita works from an office (and knowing her and her work schedule, she has a work ethic that would terrify most mortals).

I was intrigued when Matthew Reilly spoke about his process as being less angst -filled and more like "being allowed to eat chocolate ice cream everyday." He had a ball writing. I asked him if he planned a lot in advance, or like Indiana Jones "made it up as he went along." He came down on the side of extensive research and planning in advance.

After the panel he showed me an image on his phone of the "map" of his next book. It was a large piece of paper stuck up on the wall of his study. And it was fascinating.

He warned us that it would be meaningless to us - and it was, it looked like a magical piece of abstract art - but to him it was the landscape of the book. It was the path his characters would travel through this landscape and the events that would happen to them along the way. It spiraled ever inwards.

"How much do you plan?" Is a question that comes up a lot at writers festivals and amongst writers. I like to plan a bit, but I invariably find that things change along the way as I get to know my characters better. I know some writers plan extensively, with detailed chapter by chapter breakdowns before they sit down to write. I heard China MiƩville say he relies on wall charts - vertical axis is character, horizontal axis is time.

I've always been a bit leery of writing too detailed a plan. I've felt that I'd have sort of sucked the life out of the story before I even began. It's bad enough writing a synopsis when you finish.

As I looked at Matthew's fantastically visual map I realised it was an incredible example of planning that nailed the difference between plot and story: story is like a map of a landscape and plot is the way through it. There are numerous ways through a landscape, just as there are a variety of potential plots by which you could tell your story. Matthew's pre-planning is this maxim brought to life. It's a non-verbal image driven trail map. It struck me that this is a brilliant way to plan, because by planning in such a visual way when Matthew sits down to write he switches on the "wordy" side of his brain, so even though the story is well and truly planned and plotted, it still feels fresh.

Thanks for the invitation to come along ALIA. I had a ball and I learned things. A good day.

Friday, July 6, 2012

How not to workshop

The wonderful Charlotte Wood tweeted this beauty today.

I love it so much that I'm going to use it - in my workshops!

Workshopping in writing classes is a bit of a contested area. Some writers, teachers and students swear by it, and equal numbers loathe it with a passion. 

My personal experience was that I gained confidence from the process. I went to university with an 80,000 word manuscript that wanted to be a novel but which for the life of me I couldn't see how to finish, or if in fact it was worth finishing. Friends and family had said nice things - but that's kind of what friends and family do. I went along to writing class because I *wanted* strangers to read my words and tell me, was it working? Did they care about the people, the story, the words? I wanted to replicate the experience of writing something for publication, sending the words off into the world where they would be read by people who weren't related to me and felt no compulsion to love me - or be kind.

I was fortunate to be in a class where most of the students took their role as workshop participants very seriously. They read in advance. They were thoughtful. They considered what the work was trying to do, rather than what they personally "liked" or "disliked," and provided feedback that was constructive.

I've since been in workshops, and taught workshops, where for the most part people have tried to do this. But the thing that I loved about this "workshopped" poem is that is a great example of everything that can go wrong in a workshop. 

Over critiquing work, critique for the sake of it, doing a line edit of a small piece rather than thinking about the big and basic questions is a common failing in workshops. This often goes hand-in-hand with lack of preparation.

In each semester I found there were always a (mercifully) few participants who - without fail - never prepared responses to other people's work. Excuses would range from "didn't get the email," "couldn't print it out," "thought you were bringing it." They would then make up for their lack of preparation by being overly-critical, critiquing on the fly, obsessing over full stops and commas. 

I can still hear their voices as I look at the comments on poor Emily's work here. 

The image comes from this blog  if you want more literary goodies.