June 28, 2011

How To Edit Your Novel With (Something Like) Objectivity

After a year-long hiatus, I'm finally in full editing mode for Spellbound (soon to be called... something else). I did another novel Incident Report and figured out that (cue cringe) more than three-fourths of the novel needs to be rewritten or tossed. Big things need to happen: a villain needs to be added and a protagonist needs to go. I'm shocked that there was ever a time when I couldn't see these things, but I couldn't. I took a year-long editing course in 2010 and still couldn't. I've been wondering what it is that's given me the objectivity I needed to see all of my novel's flaws.

A beloved teacher and writer once told me that editing one's own work requires two things above all others: the ability to be Detached and Methodical. In editing my own work (and working as a professional editor where being methodical was practically a religion), I think I've pinpointed the things that help writers to be these two important things:

1. Create some distance. Most parents wills tell you that it's difficult to be objective when it comes to their kids. For writers, its the same way. They struggle to take criticism and to dole any out because, well, their characters and plot line are perfect JUST THE WAY THEY ARE. But you have no way of knowing that until you can look at them with some objectivity. I find the best way to create objectivity is giving it time. I put Spellbound away--didn't look at it, barely thought about it--for almost a year. That's a really long time, but it's enabled me to step away from the story and view it as someone else would, with fresh eyes. You don't have to wait a year to feel this effect: even a few days can help.

2. Create some distance by making it look 'real'. Get your book printed out and bound. Making it look all shiny and professional performs some kind of magic trick, making it easier to see the work as someone elses. Seeing it as someone elses helps you to rip into it without so much angst. Lately, I've also discovered the lovely effects of putting your book onto your Kindle. All you have to do is email the document as an attachment to your Kindle account and put 'convert' in the subject line, and bam: the thing looks like any other book you've got on there. Reading through my drafts this way really helps me get some objectivity.

3. Create an editing checklist. I learned this once the hard way when editing travel guides. Editing--no matter what it is you're editing--is hard. It's overwhelming and hard. But in order to be efficient at it, you need to break it down into manageable steps. When I proofed travel guides, I wrote out checklists for myself. If I was in the proofing stage, they would look something like this:

- check that page numbers are present/correct
- proof photo captions
- Make sure that photos are placed correctly
- make sure that all map icons and headings are correct
- check that photo credits are present and correctly spelled... etc.

I'd go through spread by spread, making sure to tackle every element I needed to check as part of an individual step. When you look through a manuscript for everything that could be wrong all at once, it's impossible to catch it all. But when you break it up you miss fewer mistakes, and the ones that are there are clearer to you. Try a checklist out. It's MAGIC.

4. Start from the end. I always used to read my stuff front to back, over and over. The problem is that once you get to the end, your editing eyes (and editing brain) are all sorts of tired out. Sometimes reading from back to front helps bring back some objectivity and lets you see your work in a whole new light.

5. Ask for help. Get someone you trust to read your work. I've got critique partners who will give it to me straight up, without any fruity syrup or dollops of whip cream. Critique can be painful, but it can help you more than anything else can.

I'm fixing to rewrite/fix up a scene a day of Spellbound until I've got an all-new-and-improved second draft. Hopefully in about a month's time I'll have something to show for it.

June 26, 2011

Grammar Girl: Active vs. Passive voice

This semester, if I wanted to get my students looking itchy and just a little bit scared, all I had to do was mention passive voice. Most of them just didn't get it - even after I made up a little passive/active man dance (you try keeping undergrads's attention for 90 minutes... it tends to make you kind of crazy).

I got frustrated by how many of them STILL didn't get it come exam time--what about the dance?? But I, too, remember struggling with passive voice when I was their age. It's not always an easy one to spot, and an even wilier one to try and really understand. So here, my attempt to explain the difference between active and passive voice (and why you should care).

So what do I mean by 'voice', anyway? We're talking about a grammatical category that indicates the relationship between the subject (agent) of your sentence and your verb (action). If you've got an agent carrying out an action in your sentence, then you're using active voice. Verbs are our language's 'doing' words: when an agent in performing what you're describing in your verb, then you're using active voice. If the action of the sentence is happening TO your subject, then you've got passive voice.

Now, for my running man example (minus the dance): when I think of active voice, I think of a man out for a jog at 5AM. He's being ACTIVE - going out and actively carrying out an activity. In order for a sentence to use active voice, it has to do the same thing. Your agent (subject) has to be the one carrying out your verb. For example:

I (agent/subject) once created (action/verb) a fake wedding invitation marrying my brother to one of my friends. (true story - don't ask)

This is what the passive version of this sentence would look like with the subject of the sentence being acted upon.

A fake wedding invitation marrying my brother and one of my friends was created by me.

So we've got a difference in emphasis here. The active voice emphasizes the subject, and the passive voice emphasizes the object or receiver of the action. More examples:

Active: Hope bit her Dad in the leg.
Passive: Hope's Dad was bitten in the leg by Hope.

Active: Last night I dreamed about that hunky anesthesiologist from the show Offspring.
Passive: Last night the hunky doctor from the show Offpring was dreamed about by me.

So here's where my students' eyes start going fuzzy. Because, yes, these sentences are saying the same thing. But they are saying it in different ways, and that's why we care. The passive voice is more difficult fora reader to understand. It's wordier, more roundabout, and often puts space between the actor and action. Sometimes it puts the subject at the end of the sentence so that you don't know who is actually biting Dad's leg until just before the full stop, which can be really confusing. Sometimes the actor doesn't appear in the sentence at all. Passive voice makes for more garbled sentences and, 99% of the time, weaker prose. I mean look at the sentences above: which ones do you prefer? Which ones do you think are easier to read?

It's not that passive voice is always bad. Sometimes you don't want the emphasis to be put on the agent like, say, in a press release from a company that has spilled massive amounts of oil into the sea. They'll say something like "this oversight is regretted", instead of "we regret this oversight." They don't WANT their grammar to sharpen the obvious: that they've done something that people aren't going to be fans of. So it makes sense that they'd want to make themselves out as the object of the action rather than its agent: that's why you see passive voice in so many corporate and government documents. Sometimes the object is more important than the agent. This is the point in the lecture when I'd do my passive man dance, a creepy side-shuffle with jazz hands meant to symbolize someone who is side-stepping the action/blame.

When it comes to writing clearly, active voice is almost always the way you want to go. I've seen so many writers use passive voice without meaning to and then look distraught when they can't figure out how to make their sentence stronger. So when you're reading your work, ask yourself: is the subject of your sentence the one who is doing/has done/will do the action? If not, you're probably using passive voice. And you should probably revise for clarity.

An example from my work:

Passive: A step forward was taken, camera clutched between my hands.
Active: I took a step forward, camera clutched between my hands.

... better, right?

June 23, 2011

Put your money where your mouth is: would you pay to get into author events?

In an attempt to escape the pile of student papers waiting to be graded (they're staring at me judgmentally as I type), I stumbled upon an interesting book-related NY Times article. It's all about the fact that independent bookstores are starting to charge admission to author events. The article purports that indie bookstores are losing revenue to sites like Amazon as customers start to use their local bookseller as a glorified library: come in, put some titles on your iphone, then go home and get them cheaply on the web. Owners are worried that if they don't shift their business model and start thinking of new ways to bring in the cash, they'll be in (even more) serious trouble. I don't blame them.

And so, some bookstores are charging people to come to their many author events, and I can understand the logic. I went to a book launch the other night and enjoyed free wine and snacks, a series of readings by emerging authors, and a Q&A with an Australian writer. I didn't buy her book at the event and I felt pretty guilty about it. Why? Because one of my favorite bookstores just spent money to make sure I enjoyed myself and they got not a penny from me. Author events both large and small are a fun form of entertainment. I pay to go to live music gigs, outdoor concerts, comedy shows, etc., so I think that bookstores are perfectly within their rights to charge us.

A lot of bookstores are asking people to buy the featured book as a form of cover. I think this is the ideal solution, because it means that the store, the author, and the publisher are all winning out. But I don't think it's a practical solution, because a lot of people just can't afford to pay $32.00 to get into an event, even if it means walking away with a novel. Prices like that will turn away a lot of students, young professionals, single moms, pensioners, and tight asses the world over. It'll also discourage walk-ins who don't know the author but like the idea of sitting in for a read-along. Some would argue that won't make or break an event, but some of the artists I've come to love and loyally support are ones I discovered by accidentally walking in on one of their free events. As Anne Patchett points out, "those are your readers". Authors may not be able to afford scaring them away.

That said, I'd be happy to pay five or ten dollars for a few hours of books and conversation, especially if I'm not going to buy the featured book. It's a way to show my support for the event and for the indie that runs them. Don't get me wrong, I'd love author events to stay free. Wouldn't we all? But it irritates me to hear people bemoaning the fact that indie bookstores are a 'cultural center' and that it's bordering on blasphemous for them to slap a price tag on what are supposed to be community events. Well guess what? Bookstores are also a business. Sometimes, when we wax on about the book as cultural lifeboat, we forget about that.

I'm a big fan of having my cake and eating it, too (and making it myself so I can lick the bowl and spoon), but the reality here is pretty simple: if we don't find ways to support our local indies, then they are going to go away.

So what do you think? Would you pay admission to get into an author event?

June 13, 2011

Parallel Importation (Or: Why Are Books in Australia So Expensive?)

The high price of Australian books has baffled me since I first landed here. I can still remember my popped-eyed, open-mouthed dismay when I realized that the average price of a new, good quality paperback hovered around $32AUD. An A5-size, "cheap" trade paperback that would have cost me $14.95 in the U.S. cost me $23AUD. If you ask me, that seems a little bit outrageous. It's not that I don't think literature is worth a little extra. But when I had to say no to Tony Horwitz's new book ($60 in hardback), hop onto Amazon and order it from America (even with the shipping, it cost me less), I started getting a little angry. WHY in the world are books so expensive here?

You'd think after several Writing & Editing Masters-level courses and a lot of conversations with bookish friends, I'd get it. But it wasn't until I did some sleuthing on parallel import restriction (PIRs) that it all started falling into place. Parallel importation, as I understand it, is when a 'non-counterfeit' product is bought and brought into another country without the permission of the intellectual property owner. For example, most big magazines - for example, National Geographic - have individual branches in different countries that publish their own version of the mother product. For example, the U.S. publishes National Geographic, whereas Australia publishes its own version: National Geographic Australia. But some retailers will still import copies of the U.S. version and sell them, as well. Parallel import restrictions mean that Australian distributors can't buy a foreign (mother) version of a book if an Australian company has bought copyright and is already producing the book in Australia.

To look into the implications of PIRs I'll follow a particular book through the distribution process. Let's pretend that I just had a book published in the U.S. (Torn, let's say; it's good to be prepared). Foreign publishers will buy the rights to publish my book and will proceed to print and distribute it in their own country. In order for my book to be protected by PIRs, the Australian publisher who buys the rights needs to publish the 'Australian' copy of Torn within 30 days of its release in the U.S. and must have the capacity to reprint it within 90 days. If they don't, then Aussie retailers can buy Torn from an overseas market at a more competitive price and have it shipped in. These restrictions are meant to protect the Australian publishing industry, but a debate continues to rage about whether PIRs really do that, or whether they simply make book prices higher.

PIRs seem to mean a couple of things. First, it means that the Australian publishing industry is being protected. A free market without PIRs would mean that retailers could source books from overseas, which would inevitably undercut the industry at a local level. A lot of the profit from PIRs goes back to Australian authors and publishers, which is, of course, a wonderful thing. But it also means that PIRs help keep book prices in Australia high because they create a less competitive market. A recent study suggests that consumers in Australia are paying around 30% more for books than the rest of the world. Yikes. If Australia didn't have PIRs, then distributors could buy a shipment of books from another country on the cheap, bring them into Australia and sell them at a retail price somewhere between price A (the price they bought it for) and price B (standard Aussie pricing, including the GST). That kind of competition could mean lower prices for consumers - if local chains *ahemDymocks* could be persuaded to sell their books for less. But it could also devastate the Australian publishing industry.

I've heard a lot of Aussie authors get fairly upset about doing away with PIRs, and I can understand their worry. Many authors argue that chucking PIRs will silence Aussie voices both old and new. Because PIRs help ensure that Aussie publishers see the same kinds of profits from printing international favorites like Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series as they do from Aussie up-and-comers, they're still willing to take chances on local talent. Local author Kim Wilkins makes great points about the many potential pitfalls that might come of axing PIRs, including the 'Americanization' of the Aussie industry: cheap books imported (well, because they're cheap) from the U.S., with an American cover and American spelling, that means a lesser product for the consumer, a smaller royalty for the author, and a lot less business for Aussie publishing.

The Australia Library & Information Association (ALIA), not a favorite with Aussie authors these days, found that local writers WOULD miss out on a certain amount of money if PIRs were done away with. But they also maintain that the people making the most out of PIRs are international authors, who reap much higher returns than local talent. That means that much of the book buyer's money flows right through the fingers of the Australian economy and straight overseas into other markets. But not as much as they might if PIRs were axed. Because in order for their to be an Australian publishing industry, there has to be money to support it. Otherwise everyone suffers, from writers to publishers to consumers.

I'm not sure where all this sits with me. One point rings out as clear as coins hitting the bottom of an empty jar, and that's the 'propositions' that the productivity commission proposed to help support the industry if PIRs are abolished. Most of their recommendations circle around 'providing grant funding' for writers. Okay, grants are all well and good, but that's a pretty vague and frustrating solution. And why oh WHY is it that writers have to fight that hard to make a living? Writers should be allowed to make money for their craft, just like any other job. They shouldn't have to beg and plead for the funding to be able to do what they do, especially if the demand for their stories is there.

One thing seems certain: book prices are too high. I'm sorry, but $60 for a hardback? No wonder we can't get people to read. I can only imagine how many people (myself included) are using Amazon and Book Depo to get books at a better rate, which can't be all that great for local industry. It sounds to me like PIRs aren't working as well as they could for both consumer and author. That said, I think protecting the industry is incredibly important. I'd hate to see the U.S. and U.K. market, rubbing their hands together and cackling, waiting to eat the little Aussie publishing world alive if there was nothing in place to protect it - because that's exactly what would happen. Protecting and serving authors and publishers means placing a value on cultural integrity, which inevitably means better quality for consumers and more opportunities for people like me.

June 5, 2011

Book Review: Dark Matter

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver (2010)
Genre: Mystery/Horror

Dark Matter is a work of fiction based on a real-life expedition to the Arctic undertaken by four young Englishmen in the 1930s. The main character, Jack, is desperate to scramble out of near-poverty in London, so he joins in with three guys who are planning to 'overwinter' for a year at a desolate place called Gruhuken. At first, Jack is amazed and delighted by the isolation and strangeness of the Arctic. But as mysterious circumstances pull his pals back to the mainland, Jack is forced to survive alone in their cabin and endure the endless winter night. But Jack isn't really alone. Something walks the black, snowy hills, an angry echo looking for vengeance...

This books is fantastic on two fronts. First, it's delightfully creepy. It's just scary enough that it makes you cringe, but not so much that you can't sleep for a week afterwards. It's not often that I come across a truly surprising and affecting ghost story, one that makes me smile and cringe in the same chapter. There's very little dialogue, but the epistolary narration gives the whole thing an intimate, haunted feel. Jack's a great character, both pragmatic and sensitive, and he makes a compelling narrator from start to finish.

The other thing I loved was all the detailed research. You can tell Paver's done her homework when it comes to life in the Arctic, and the result is a brilliantly-realized story that feels like a true window into what it would be like to endure weeks on end of never-ending darkness. Paver's writing is poetic and well-paced and she's crafted interesting, complex characters.

Well worth a read, even if you're a wimp like me.

Added 12/4/2011: I've just listened to the audiobook version, read by Jeremy Northam. Twice. It's good. SO SO GOOD. It enhanced my enjoyment of this story tenfold.

The End of an Era

The giant, three-story Borders in Brisbane city finally closed. I went to visit it several times in its final weeks in order to say goodbye--and to be one of the swooping vultures taking advantage of sale prices. It was sad seeing the shelves cleared off and barren, the books stacked up in crooked Sale bins.

It's not that I'm a huge lover of chain stores. I'm really more of a local indie girl (Avid Reader and Riverbend are my favorites in Brisbane). But as far as chains go, I've always appreciated Borders. I loved this Borders in particular, because it had a massive selection, a lot of nooks in which to sit and read, and because I made a lot of memories in it.

I was sitting in that Borders when I first realized I was actually writing a novel. It was the same place I had some long, memorable chats with my favorite Brisbane friends. It was the place where I first heard some Brisbane musicians that have gone on to feature as a major addition to my music library. It was just sad to see it coming to the end of its life. Especially so because the store looks the way feel--a little forlorn.

But it seems fitting, in a way, that Borders is shutting its doors when my own time in Australia is coming to a close. It reminds me that life is about change, and that change is not always a horrible thing. Most good things do come to an end. I believe in celebrating endings and milking them for all they're worth, and in these next two months, that's exactly what I'll be doing.

June 2, 2011


I don't do a lot of non-writing related ranting here, but today, I feel compelled. Bear with me.

I went up to the bus stop the other day and saw this poster on the side of the shelter:

It's an ad done by a company called ADSHEL promoting safe sex for men. I was struck by the poster because, well, it's not something you see on the side of bus stops every day. And there was something so intimate about the way the couple were holding each other. It felt like I was being let into a private, emotional moment in these people's lives. Also not something you see on the side of many bus stops. As I was pondering the poster, a five-year-old boy came up beside me. The following interaction ensued:

Boy: "Look Dad, look at the boys."
Dad (who had not yet noticed the poster): "Oh. Yes."

At this point, I was holding my breath, wondering if I was about to be made very, very sad. But then:

Dad (smiling jovially): "What're they doing, James?"
Boy: "The one boy's giving the other boy cuddles."
Dad: "They are, aren't they?"
Boy: "Are they boyfriends?"
Mom (also smiling): "They are boyfriends. Just like Uncle Tony."
Dad (smiling over at me): "Do you think I could have a boyfriend, James?"
Boy: "Sure, Daddy."

It was the highlight of my day, because it was lovely. It wasn't awkward or 'controversial'. It made me happy to feel like maybe attitudes ARE changing.

And then I heard a story on the news about ADSHEL taking the posters down. They did so because, apparently, the Advertising Commission had gotten a number of complaints (most of them from a Christian lobby group) about the fact that the 'explicit sexuality' of the campaign insulted them. I listened to a representative from that group (on Triple J's excellent HACK program) go on about how no, she doesn't have a problem with same-sex relationships, but with the fact that an ad containing the words 'condom' and 'sex' were being put up in public places. She said she was sick of not being able to walk her children to school without running into 'explicit' and inappropriate images.

This argument made me mad on a couple of fronts. First, because she was lying. Look at that poster. The men are fully clothed, and they are standing in an intimate but very appropriate way. The only thing that strikes me as 'explicit' is how very intimate the couple looks on an emotional level (they are, in fact, a real life de facto couple). If that ad had pictured a man hugging a woman, I really don't think she'd have complained. In fact, most of the people that did complain did so because the ad pictured two men. If you're going to have an opinion, lady, at least be honest about it. The fact that most of the complaints came from members of a Christian lobby group also made me frustrated. Because some of the most accepting, loving, open-minded people I've ever known have been devout, church-going Christians. Stories like these cement in the minds of many that the religious-minded are also our society's most narrow-minded, a belief that I have seen defied many times.

The other thing that bothered me was her belief that we should shield our children from anything that might be deemed 'explicit'. Let's put blinkers on our children so that they grow up believing that the world is always fair, that there are only certain ways to live, and that people aren't capable of doing ugly things. Because we're doing them all SORTS of favors by hiding the world away from them. I think that this issue a lot when I'm writing. I put swear words and fighting and sex into my Young Adult material because, guess what: teenagers swear and fight and have sex. Not all of them, but a lot of them; those that don't are thinking about it, so how are we 'protecting' our kids by pretending that they don't?

You want to complain about egregiously violent ad posters and public promotions of alcohol? Be my guest. I think it must be hard as a parent to see your young children exposed to difficult and potentially hurtful material, and it's your right to complain about that. But don't tell me that a poster of two men hugging and promoting safe, healthy sex is going to 'corrupt' our youth. Because I think you're full of it.

Posters like this Rip&Roll ad can actually promote healthy, safe, constructive interactions like the one I heard with that five year-old-boy. Conversations that help promote things like love and openness and acceptance. I think there's something wonderful about that. Which is why I was very happy to participate in the very swift and public outcry when the posters were taken down. They've all been put back up now, and my faith in progress has survived another week.