Saturday, May 26, 2012

I'll Tell You Mine - Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

In a response to the debates about gender bias in writing which flared up in 2011 after yet another all male Miles Franklin shortlist, Elizabeth Lhuede set readers and authors a bit of a challenge. It was the Australian Women Writers Reading and Reviewing Challenge. Elizabeth asked for people to read and review fiction written by Australian women writers. At last count 354 had signed up for the challenge and 776 reviews have been linked. Elizabeth suggested that writers review books from a outside their own genre.

So, it's taken me sometime but it was worth the wait, because reading I'll Tell You Mine and writing a review for the Challenge has been a delight.

As book reviews go, this one is perhaps a little odd. It focuses (perhaps obsesses?) over some rather arcane writer geek-nerd-trainspottery stuff. But hey, I write, therefore I look at how other writers write, and at how they make things work. I'm especially interested when they make things work that I think are really very difficult.

So, let me set the scene.

I was a goodly way into I’ll Tell You Mine before I noticed something. It was something I’m often aware of straight up in a book, and generally I notice it because it irritates me.

The narrator of the tale, Kate, an angry 15 year old Goth, was telling me her story, in the first person and in the present tense. That’s quite a tricky combination to pull off. In fact it often doesn’t work, because as the novel unfolds and tries to sustain an “in-the-momentness” it can all end up being less than Buddhist and more than a little bit laboured. In I’ll Show You Mine, not only does Pip Harry use both voice and tense with total control, she uses them to pitch-perfect affect.

I first met Pip in a writing course at UTS, we reconnected again through our marvelous agent, Sophie Hamley. There's a lot of excitement in finally holding in your hands the book of someone who was sitting in the same night class at uni, workshopping our pieces and dreaming our dreams.  When that book is a rip-roaring read and a skillful piece of writing - it's even more exciting.

The first person point of view puts a lot of pressure on the writer to maintain our interest and engagement as we set up camp inside the brain of a fictional character. We are trapped there for the duration, so if this relationship doesn’t work out, if we are not interested, if our empathy is not engaged, then the reader will probably bail. This is not to say we have to love, or even like, the head we are in, but we better be interested enough to want to stay there.

Coupling that kind of an intense voice with a present tense telling, where everything is happening now, where there is no distance from the moment we are in, or the voice of the character who has put us in it – well, I’ve sometimes found that particular combination to be wearing. Eventually the writer gives in and resorts to lengthy recounts in the past tense to fill us in on all that has happened in a life up till now, and I’m often left wondering why a more conventional narrative choice of past tense storytelling wasn’t chosen from the outset. But for a story told by a teenager, where small moments are of monumental importance, where the world is seen in absolute single focused, zoom-to-close-up clarity – it’s a compelling storytelling technique.

In fact, I’d venture to say, what better way to tell the tale of a teenager than in the most immediate way. When you’re in your teens you honestly don’t have a huge life experience to look back on. It all lies ahead but more importantly it’s all happening NOW!

As I read, I’ll Tell You Mine, I was swept up by the story. This is not just a technically clever book. As angry Kate does her best to burn every bridge, break every rule and jeopardize every friendship, I was consumed, caught up in the world of the boarding house of a girl’s school, the like of which would have had Enid Blyton reaching for a stiff drink.

The book reminded me that I haven’t read a lot of Young Adult literature for a long time. I guess like a lot of "no longer young" readers I’ve tended to leave it all behind, thinking it had nothing to say to me. Reading I’ll Tell You Mine reminded me what a wealth of story and emotion lies within the tales that a talented author can tell young adults.

As Kate makes poor choices, subsumes into a sea of hurt, obsesses over the wrong boy, fights  the wrong battles for the right reasons, it all came flooding back. The memories. The way as a teenager you really did feel stripped of your skin, nerves exposed, each slight, each setback capable of detonating your world and sending you into an abyss of misery. I confess I was somewhat relieved that I didn't live in that world anymore, but I'll tell you mine, I had an absolute ball re-visiting it.

Congratulations, Pip on a fabulous debut novel. May it be the first of many.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Doin' Crime with the Sydney Writers' Festival

This Sunday I'm spending Mother's Day at the beautiful NSW State Library giving a workshop as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival. The workshop is entitled - Doin' Crime.

For many writers getting the crime right is an intimidating prospect. How much insider knowledge will you need to make it authentic?  Should you plot and plan, or make it up as you go along?

My approach is that crime works as both a framing device that can help to give you the spine of the plot but more importantly the crime is an opportunity to develop character and setting.

Although a crime might lend itself well to the plotting of a novel, it is not a substitute for story.

In my reading and writing of crime it has always been the why of the crime that  has been intrinsically more interesting and has offered more emotional depth than the who dunnit, or even the how dunnit.

So, in putting together this workshop I came up with some questions to work through which will allow us to look at using crime to give us plot and structure and more:

What is needed to solve this crime? 
This involves thinking about the elements or legal proofs of the crime, clues, evidence, witnesses, physical material, alibis, motives, means etc?

How will my characters solve this crime? 
This involves making decisions about who knows what, who did what, who will discover what, and how they will discover it? It involves considering what obstacles the characters will face in solving the crime and how to weave the crime into a story and a plot. 

Whilst those questions involve using the crime as a way to frame plot and structure, the last question is the one that will provide the layers and depth to the tale.

Why tell the story of this crime? 
What does the choice of crime tell you about the characters, about the setting of the story? This involves thinking about the crime as more than just a plot device that pushes your characters around a chessboard. The crime should arise out of the characters and the place and be intrinsic to them.

I've spent the last few days assembling some teaching aids - such as the opening sequence of The Wire:

I think there's a lot that crime writers can learn from The Wire - something I've blogged about previously here at The Concrete Midden.

Closer to home we'll be having a look at some of the best bits of Blue Murder for that authentically Australian feel:

And in order to show how things change on the writing, rewriting, drafting, redrafting of a book I've been looking back over the very early notes I made on the idea that became The Old School.

It was amazing to see how much changed along the way and how much stayed the same.

There were still a few tickets available at the time of writing, so if you fancy spending Sunday talking crime at the State Library then you can book through the Sydney Writers' Festival pages.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

It's time to #PhrockUp for #Phryne

If you've been watching the wonderful Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on ABC on Friday nights then you'll know that the fabulous Phryne Fisher really knows how to frock up.

 See what I mean?

I'm absolutely delighted to be speaking with Miss Fisher's creator, Kerry Greenwood at the Sydney Writers' Festival on Sunday 20 May. I was a frustrated fan last year at the gathering of the clans, aka The She Kilda Sisters in Crime Festival, when my panels clashed with Kerry's talks about the upcoming TV series.

This year ABC are really giving Australian crime writing a red hot go - Miss Fisher is a rich, lush romp that remains true to the novels' subversive take on cosy crime. Later in the year we can look forward to Peter Temple's Jack Irish taking to the screen in the guise of the perfectly cast Guy Pearce. It's great to see the national broadcaster seeking out and investing in local stories and doing them with flair.

So if you're in Sydney in May I'd encourage you to find something fabulous in the wardrobe, fire up the Hispano-Suiza, and come along to the Sydney Writers' Festival and #Phrockup for #Phryne.

PS: If you're a writer with a crime inside then you might want to pop along to a workshop I'm running for the SWF - Doin' Crime on Sunday May 13. Many potential crime writers often see doing the crime as the most difficult part of the book. In the workshop we're going to look at how the crime element of your work can inform character and plot and place.