I read Call My Agent all the time. It's clever, witty, entertaining and full of useful information. Can't ask for more than that! Some of the information might be obvious to more experienced writers - but then again how easy is it to forget or overlook the obvious. I regularly learn something I never knew or had forgotten.
This is a site I found particularly useful in the early stages of my writing when I wanted to get a physical feel for word counts. I wanted to know what 85,000 words looked and felt like. I wanted to know how many words were in specific titles like Tamar by Mal Peet. You can find out here at Renaissance Learning (an on-line store) by doing a search on author or title. Included in the information returned is the word count.
It's not an Australian site so you won't find any titles only available locally. None of my titles were there so I can't do a spot check on the accuracy of the words counts. But just considering titles comparatively, they seem to be in the ball park.
Every now and then I still call in to check the word count on a book I've just read.
I'm very excited to be part of Wollongong City Gallery's Just Imagine 2010 project. I'm a sort-of author in residence - opening the exhibition and running writing workshops for students and teachers. The program "encourages children’s creative writing skills by the exploration of real and imagined worlds experienced through close engagement with art" to plagiarise the Gallery website. I couldn't have put it better myself and I'm the writer!
It's exciting stuff. Twelve exhibits - paintings, sculpture and even a marvellous contraption called a Windmobile are on display until 6 June. Primary (Years 5 -6) and secondary students and teachers are encouraged to attend workshops to learn creative inspired from visual stimuli. Students can enter a competition with winning entries published in an anthology.
Here is my favourite piece. I want to write about that one. Very, Very Important by Michael Zavros. I would do what I call "looking with my other glasses on" and extract my story from what is unusual in the picture. I would use lots of dialogue because I can see an opportunity to be quirky and funny. There's a conversation happening here. The shoes are talking!
Today was the teacher's workshop. I was a little nervous. I am a overawed by teachers. When my first child started school it took me six months before I could stop addressing his teacher as Mrs... no matter how many times she told me not to! I have so much respect for the work teachers do and committed teachers like today's attendees are wonderful people.
While I was there I heard the most amazing story. I apologise if some of the details are not 100% as I heard this second-hand from a Gallery volunteer- it was discussed at an earlier session before I arrived. But the concept is the important thing. I was admiring a display of stories and images and asked what it was about. In a previous year, a primary school and high school had written their stories and exchanged them for the other to draw pictures from. The story and subsequent picture were placed alongside the original artwork stimuli. There were some interesting differences and amazing similarities as the circle turned. But what I like best was how the community of schools worked together.
And that's what the whole program is about, interaction. Between image and word. Between Gallery and schools. Between artists, writers, student and teachers. Just imagine that!
Today I am talking with Dee White as part of her Tuesday Writing Tips Blog Tour. Dee is the author of the excellent YA novel Letters to Leonardo and blogs a weekly writing tip every Tuesday at Dee Scribe Writing.
Dee: Hi Sandy, it’s great to be here. I’m wondering if you can tell me what you like to read and why? I’m an avid reader – anything with words on it attracts my attention. I am that awful person who reads over your shoulder on the train. I can’t help it but I know it’s annoying (and rude!) so I always close my eyes to break the connection. I love words – words that tell a great story or simply sound wonderful tripping off the tongue.
My genre of choice as a reader is fantasy – of all kinds. I have a particular interest in ancient cultures. My personal favourite books are generally where fantasy and ancient cultures collide.
Dee: When you were writing the Samurai Kids books, were there any particular books you read that helped you decide what sort of stories you wanted to write? Not so much in terms of what sorts of stories I wanted to write. The book that did influence me however was Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings. It give me a personal insight into the life and beliefs of a master samurai swordsman and inspired the character of Mitsuka Minayoto, who appears in Samurai Kids 2: Owl Ninja. But the most important thing The Book of Five Rings gave me was a feeling of being in 17th century Japan. I was there with Musashi.
Similarly while I wrote Jaguar Warrior, my constant companion was The Broken Spears by Miguel Leon-Portilla containing translations of native accounts of the Spanish uprising. Some of the stories are beautiful poetry and others part myth, but they are all sad. The Aztec world was coming to an end.
Dee: Do you read outside your comfort zone? Absolutely. It the biggest horizon expander I know. I make a conscious effort to do so to the point where I will often purposely choose a book that is not to my reading or writing taste. Dee: Why do you think it’s important for writers to read/ read widely? Market research, inspiration, awareness of techniques, expansion of horizons, remove personal boundaries, see through other eyes, improve writing basics, improve writing style… It’s a long list. And while reading widely is a learning process, it is also fun.
Dee: Can you tell me about a book you have read that has had a great impact on something you have written? Something along those lines is happening to me right now. It began with The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and continued on to his Coraline and Other Stories. After that I took a jump to Edgar Allan Poe and that’s what I am reading at the moment. I have always been drawn to stories of darkness. I couldn’t write horror genre – I am too much of a scaredy-cat for that. But like Luke Skywalker, I can feel the dark side calling although I never quite worked that fascination into my writing. Until now. Inspired by Gaiman and Poe, I have an exciting new idea that I am keen to begin writing.
Dee: As a writer and thoroughly busy person, how do you find time to read? I read very, very fast. As a teen, I read War and Peace in a weekend when my sister dared me to - so I've been in speed-read training since then. I can finish an average YA novel in an hour. But when a book really hooks me, I slow down quite a lot.
Thank you for dropping by Dee. I’ll be following closely along the blog tour to learn a few more tips. For anyone else interested, here is the schedule:
Dee: Do you have a tip for writers about what they should be reading to enhance their own writing skills? I call it free range reading. Writers need to read all over the place. It's a bit messy and unstructured but it's fun and it will help improve not only your writing technique but the scope of your ideas. Read within your own writing genre, read what appeals to you as a reader, read what your target readers are reading, read non-fiction that catches your eye. Anything and everything. Perhaps the most important point is to read outside your comfort zone.
I'll never be a romance writer. When kids ask me 'what's the deal between Kyoko and Niya?' (two of the chracters in Samurai Kids) and 'are you ever going to write the romantic bits?' I always answer 'yuk' and the room erupts in giggles and guffaws.
So today, on Valentine's Day, I'm celebrating fish. Seems appropriate to me, after all I do love sushi. But specifically I'm celebrating the launch of Claire Saxby's beautiful new picture book, There Was an Old Sailor. The illustrations are glorious (yes, I just said glorious!) and the text is a rollicking-read-aloud.
Here's what Claire had to tell me:
How did you choose which sea creatures to include? Was it primarily about the creature or the rhyme?
Caught out! I knew I wanted to start small and end with a whale, but the in betweens were trial and error. All, except for the jelly, are single syllable. That was necessary for the rhythm as well as the rhyme. Along the way, I discovered that jellies are not fish, and not all rays have stingers. That certainly helped! Have you ever tried to rhyme anything with ‘zoo plankton’? Not easy.
Were there creatures you thought of but discarded for a reason? My under-5 co-reviewer wants to know why there aren’t any eels!
I had a huge long list of sea creatures that I compiled at the beginning. Eels were there. But I REALLY wanted seals in there and I couldn’t have two that had the same rhyme. I do use the story as a base for a writing workshop and get to use some of the other animals on my list. It includes star (not a fish) crab, snake (as in banded sea snake like the one I nearly sat on when I was a child), and cow (dugong). But no eels. I do like eels though. Perhaps I’ll adjust my workshop.
Which is your favourite illustration?
I love the page where Old Sailor is eating the ray. The ray looks only mildly surprised, and very much like a wrong-coloured pizza. I also like that Old Sailor has to open wide and show all his teeth!
Were the fishy facts at the end part of your original manuscript proposal?
No, they weren’t. And my first attempt at the information was too ‘factual’ if that makes sense. Virginia, my editor, suggested I try to echo the humour of the text and these fishy facts emerged.
Do you have an aquarium at home?
No. We have had fish in the past. And chooks. And ferrets. And guinea pigs. And hermit crabs. And now we have a dog. I grew up in Papua New Guinea watching the most gorgeous tropical fish and other reef dwellers. I like free range fish much more than aquarium ones and will happily visit water anywhere to see them. I like watching other people’s aquariums too.
Do you have a favourite ‘fishy’ dinner?
Ooh, that’s too cruel – I love all my fishy creatures and couldn’t talk about them and about eating on the same page! Shhh! They might hear.
I've heard it said a million times: You can't judge a book by its cover. But we do. Myself included. And right now, I'm glad we sometimes do - because I've seen the cover for Jaguar Warriorand it's wonderful.
Going out on a limb, I'll even say it's the sort of cover that boys would walk from one side of the library to the other, just to look at. There's lots of embossing and gold bling but the real focus is the eyes. They seem to glow.
So I started to think about covers I've particularly liked and how I wished I had a book with them all in it. I found this one on the Internet - Children's Book Covers: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design by Alan Powers. It covers 100 years of book covers - featuring authors and illustrators predominantly working in the UK and the USA including Edward Lear, Randolph Caldecott, Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, Arthur Ransome, Jean de Brunhoff, Maurice Sendak and Raymond Briggs - over 400 works through to Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket.
So what I want to know now is : where is the Australian version? and what's your favourite book cover?
One of my New Year resolutions was to put something back into the writing community. I feel as if I have taken my fair share of late. But what can I do? Some people might laugh but despite having had six books published, I don't know anything about writing.
I don't even write by the seat of my pants. It's more primal than that. Recently I read a wonderful article by Margo Lanargan in Newswrite (the magazine of the NSW Writer's Centre) about writing from the gut. Everything fell into place for me then. Aha... that's how I do it. I write what feels right in the bottom-most pit of my stomach. There's a pile of words down deep under the mush and that's where I find my stories.
Unfortunately that doesn't make me very good at passing on my tips and methods to others. Nor does it promote personal writing growth. So I have designated this my Year of Spit and Polish. I am going to learn to become a much better writer. I'm going to do this by soaking up absolutely everything I can find on the subject and reading widely outside my comfort zone. Strangely enough, I started this with a tentative step from Neil Gaiman to Edgar Allan Poe (okay, it was a desperate leap with my eyes closed) only to find my comfort zone is moving with me. Already my writing has expanded its horizons and perhaps I even found a tip Tip #1 Read outside your comfort zone. Immediately.
So I thought as I charge through the year spitting and polishing, I would spend Friday sharing where I had been and what I found. Today I downloaded Richard Harland's Writing Tips. This is an extensive free resource. Yes, free. 170 pages packed with advice, information and anecdotes from the author of Worldshaker and a long-timefavourite of mine, the Ferrin trilogy. Richard is a survivor of 25 years of writer's block! More about Richard here. Download the document here. I love the wonderful sit-across-the-kitchen-table-from-me style. Writing Tips is definitely a writer's manual - all the good stuff is in there - but it is obviously wrtten by an excellent writer who's been down the road he's talking about. It's both interesting and educating to read.
And when I found Edgar Allan Poe on p7... I had to smile.
Last month the NSW Writer's Centre asked a few authors, myself included, what we thought the next big thing might be for YA and children's books. At the time I hazarded a guess that maybe it would be ghosts, as vampires had already had their moment in the sun and zombies had been finally laid to rest. Awful puns I know but I'm keeping them because that's about as good as it gets for me!
I wish someone would ask me again because my future-telling skills have surged and I think I am a lot closer to the mark now. It struck me recently that somewhere along the line I had stopped thinking 'this book would make a great movie' and moved on to 'this book would make a great game.' I think we are going to see a spike in books with gaming plots. After all, Assassin's Creed, the game, has already spawned a book. The flip side is the obvious move. I'm not talking about Zac Power style action (although they are still excellent reads), I'm talking about the harder stuff. First person shooter. Mutants. Lots of weapons. Etc. Etc. The violence would need to be adjusted for the audience age.
During the recent debate about the Australian censorship of Left for Dead 2, a fact emerged that suprised me. The average gamer is in his twenties - not a teenage boy! So there's an enormous market out there - for both YA and middle grade - of readers who would prefer to play games first and read second. No points for guessing what they would like to read.
Just after this epiphany hit me, Monster Republic arrived on my desk. It's a sci-fantasy for upper primary to younger teens and it's almost what I was thinking of. Not quite - the gaming plotline isn't strong enough to qualify (it is however an excellent book for boys in that age range). The cover however is a bullseye. It could be a game disk.
So am I going to write the gamer book? Probably not - it's not where I want to be. I could do it though. I have spent the last ten years watching all manner of games evolving, reading instructions for #2 son, installing programs and marvelling at the DVD cover work.
And that's another thing, the gamer book covers are going to be something spectacular.