Tag Archives: writing workshops

On wolves and March hares

The March hare and friends. Image from 1865 by John Tenniel, now in the public domain.
The March hare and friends. Image from 1865 by John Tenniel, now in the public domain.

This time last year I was recovering from surgery and nervously adjusting to life without permanent employment. The goals for the year were to regain full health (check), help develop my wife’s business (ongoing) and finish at least one other writing project.

The writing didn’t go entirely as planned. I did finish 2013 with two unpublished picture book manuscripts, a detailed plot for a junior fiction novel, a proposal for a multimedia documentary series and substantial inroads into the YA/crossover project I’ve been working on for a while. Hopefully at least one of these will find its way to publication in the near future.

Over the course of the year I also found myself teaching pre-schoolers how to read (very fertile minds!) and delivering one-on-one tutoring to a Year 12 English student. Now, while I regularly lead creative writing workshops in schools, I haven’t formally tutored anyone since my university days. I felt rusty and out of touch. Starting with a student in April and boosting her confidence by October seemed ridiculously ambitious.

Without breaching confidences, I can say this much. It was tough going. Assessments would come in and rarely meet my aspirations. Improvements seemed incremental at best. Practice exams in late September did not go well. We regrouped. Changed tactics. I encouraged, encouraged, encouraged.

Come VCE results day, I was almost as anxious as when I was 18. Much to my delight my student performed better than she had all year. She exceeded her stated goal. Most importantly, she qualified for a tertiary course she is happy about. Cue massive sigh of relief.

On to 2014. Being an author is a great gig but the income is, shall we say, piecemeal. The wolves are back at the door. Suddenly my former boss, who put up with my irregular hours and random authorly escapades, seems like a rare beast indeed.

Without actively seeking students I find myself with a couple already and the possibility of several more. I’m not a qualified teacher but after 20+ years of writing and storytelling I’m confident I can help most kids express their thoughts more clearly – enhancing their ability to perform in essays and exams. However I absolutely salute teachers who do this daily, searching for their students’ unique strengths and strategising how to coax the best out of each individual. If one child is a challenge, an entire classroom is a mountain.

Which brings me to the hare. March sees me preparing for the aforementioned students, booked for an intense writer’s residency, researching for the doco, hammering away at the YA WiP and ineptly attempting book-keeping and front-of-house duties for my wife’s venture. Unexpected approaches may see me leap vertically like a loopy Lepus. Forewarned is forearmed. 🙂

Practising vs preaching

Not many authors are lucky enough to work full time at their writing. Most of us need part time jobs or take every opportunity that arises to visit schools, lead workshops, judge writing competitions and so on. That’s the reality for any artist who hasn’t hit the big time.

In my case, I work four days a week editing a website, speak at schools and libraries thanks to the fantastic team at Booked Out and fit in writing in my ‘spare’ time.

Understandably, peak time for public speaking and writing workshops tends to be around the release of a new book. It helps marketing (and, hopefully, sales) and you’re more likely to have something fresh to talk about when there’s a sparkling new title in bookstores.

Five Parts Dead is nearly two years old now. Between this and my coming to grips with new management at the ‘real job’, I have been doing less public speaking than usual. Perhaps that’s why I had somewhat of an epiphany during a recent set of workshops with Year 8 students.

I keep things simple in my writing workshops. (Perhaps I let the students off too easy.) I tell stories, explain how my brain works when seeking inspiration and explore how to get inside characters’ heads. Lately I’ve also been focusing on writing with all your senses, not just being visual. Now that I think about it, the current workshop could be called Jump Start Your Imagination.

Time for a secret. In past workshops I’ve been the classic example of, ‘do what I say, not what I do’. While I preach, ‘plan, plan, plan’, my writing is often substantially organic and seat-of-the-pants-ish. When the muse is singing, I’ll sit down and write/rewrite until I have a first draft. The poor prose and plot potholes can be sorted out during subsequent drafts.

On my current project, I’m practising what I preach. I’m sketching characters, writing scenes and building the story piece by piece. It’s slow going. It will be fascinating to see if the end result is different in any noticeable way.

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Rust free

I’m embarrassed by how neglected this blog has been lately. Apologies to anyone who has tuned in and failed to find anything new.

The truth is that my work status has changed and, with new responsibilities and deadlines, I’ve had to cut back on non-essential tasks. Blogging and tweeting are among those. As for writing, sigh, let’s just say you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for Book 3. I have the ingredients, characters and a good chunk of the plot – but no time to knead and bake.

Indeed, this post is being tapped out in a lull between cooking dinner, doing dishes and wrangling the kids towards their beds. Storytime beckons and I’ll soon be plunged into fictional worlds of noisy new babies and lusty vampire ninjas.

So, please find below a bulleted list of things that have consumed the first quarter of 2011:

  • I’ve had a week’s residence at a secondary school where the Yr 10 English students studied Five Parts Dead. That was impressive on several levels. 5PD is a novel that’s less than a year old but the staff found it somehow and felt it would connect with their students, including reluctant readers. The feedback has been incredibly positive and the college is looking at studying the book in 2012 with a fresh batch of Yr 10s. I’m indebted to a group of teachers and teacher-librarians who were willing to think outside the usual bunch of school texts. As for the students, they certainly came up with probing questions about character and plot. I reckon I understand my own work better, thanks to their dissection.
  • I have sold three short stories, two of which will be used in literacy tests. The third will feature in a school textbook for Grade 5 to Year 8 students. I haven’t had any junior fiction published before so I’m quietly chuffed about this.
  • I attended my first interstate speaking engagement, joining the smorgasbord of storytellers at the Newington College Literature Festival in Sydney. I applaud Newington for generating so much enthusiasm and interest in words and writing from their students and staff. And it really was fun to meet and spend time with other speakers.
  • My family booked tickets for Japan – and then watched in horror at the devastation wrought by the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear contamination. Our holiday plans are on ice but this is inconsequential. My heart goes out to the generous people of Japan as they grapple with a social, environmental and economic toll we Australians can’t possibly comprehend. I heard a father interviewed last week who lost two children to the tsunami. Every day after work he returns to the wreckage to search for even the smallest sign of their bodies. There must be thousands of other heart-breaking stories like this.
  • I spoke to a group of 250 Yr 12 students just off the buses at their first day of study camp, in Week 1 of term. Chances of them remembering my words? Slim if not nil. Apologies to the student that asked for tips on writing short stories that I haven’t posted yet. (I haven’t forgotten though – and will do so ASAP.)
  • I’ve spoken to Yr 7 and Yr 8 students about finding and reading great books – and launched the Premiers’ Reading Challenge at two schools.
  • I spoke to a large group of fathers and their Yr 7 sons about Books for Boys and how to get their sons reading.
  • At my editing job, which is basically full time now, I’ve hired four new staff and begun an intense six-month project.
  • I’m now booked to speak at (in chronological order) the Emerging Writers’ Festival, an exciting Booktalkers event, the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, the Ballarat Writers’ Festival and the 1000 Words Festival. There’s also a guest lecture at RMIT, another at NMIT and sundry other luncheons and chats. Please come along to one or several of the public events and say g’day.
  • While work on Book 3 has been rare or non-existant, I started a short story that seems to be begging to be something bigger. That’s kind of exciting.
  • I’ve cycled in excess of 850 km and have actually come to appreciate the beauty of dawn, dammit.
  • And I’m slowly rebuilding our front fence in my “spare” time.

As my grandmother used to say, it’s better to wear out than rust out.

Book Week questions

Here’s a belated sample of the questions I answered during Book Week – and my answers, as best as I can recall.

Q: Who are my heroes?
A: Corny as it will sound, my heroes are the folks out there helping people, not for fame or money, but because they can and want to.

There are many authors I admire (generally influenced by what I’m reading) but a stand-out in recent years is Markus Zusak who uses words and tells stories in such unexpected ways (and sells oodles of books doing so).

I also admire His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, who embraced the role assigned to him as an infant and became a true world leader, emphasising the importance of tolerance, empathy, compassion and arguing for the independence of the Tibetan people.

My Dad deserves a shout-out here, too. He’s a selfless man of peace who has followed his beliefs for a lifetime.

Q: Which superhero do you think would be funniest to write a spoof story about?
A: Now that’s my kind of question. I’d have to say the Hulk because he’s green and only has superpowers when he’s chucking a tantrum.

Q: How can I improve my vocabulary?
A: Wow. Read widely, then read some more. Use a dictionary when you find a word you don’t recognise or understand. And listen to people, too. Listening to how people speak is a great way of learning A) new words* and B) how to write dialogue. (*You probably won’t need everything you hear.)

Q: How do I make a short story longer?
A: For starters, short isn’t necessarily bad. I don’t believe in ‘padding’ – writing extra words just to meet a word count. Your story should determine the number of words you require. If you’ve written something that isn’t important to the story, define and delete it. If in doubt, cut it out.

However, if you want to enhance your story, rather than pad it, think about the characters? What do they want? What’s stopping them getting what they want? This should open up new ideas to explore.

Q: Do I ever feel embarrassed writing about myself/putting my own life into stories?
A: (Smiling) I’ve never deliberately set out to write about myself although bits of me and my life do creep into stories. In Game as Ned the story settings were based on places I had lived, worked or visited on holiday.

In Five Parts Dead the lighthouse setting was inspired by a family holiday and the five near-death experiences were built from things that actually happened to me. I think authors are like bowerbirds. We shamelessly take/borrow/pilfer bright and shiny ideas from all around us and use them in stories. Some of those things might just be from our own lives.

Q: Do I believe in ghosts?
A: I’m not entirely sure. I do believe in places where a sense of history lingers close to the present, so we can almost feel the people that lived before us. I’ve also had people tell me ghostly tales of things they have seen, things I can’t explain. I used a couple of these spooky stories in Five Parts Dead.

Pretty good questions, all of them. Thanks to the students who were brave enough to pick my brain or approach me for a chat.