Robyn Stacey: Cloud Land and youth writing competition

Last Friday I taught short story writing to some super talented Brisbane State High School students as part of their experience at the Museum of Brisbane’s Robyn Stacey: Cloud Land exhibition.

Using the artwork to inspire us, we worked through developing the structure, characters and setting needed to write our own short stories. My favourite part of teaching writing is seeing people open up and share their creativity and to listen to the range of stories they create from the same exhibition.

room1817-sofitel_jade

Robyn Stacey: Cloud Land exhibition, Room 1817 Sofitel Jade

To me, so many of the artworks are full of displacement and yearning. They are those fragile little moments when you collect yourself before heading back out in to the world. Perfect for that moment in time (or is it moment of truth?) that short stories capture so well.

I can’t tell you what stories the students saw in the artwork because the Museum of Brisbane is also running a short story competition for 12-18 year olds based on Robyn Stacey’s artwork.

If you’re a young writer make sure you get to the museum and start writing. I’ve pitched in a few short story writing tips on the website but you need to get writing – entries close on 13 March.

Here’s what I would do before submitting:

  1. Stay true to the artwork. If there’s stimulus or a theme to a competition, then the readers (ahem…and judging panel) want to easily connect the dots between the artwork and the story.
  2. Write a full first draft before editing. It’s impossible to edit something you haven’t written yet.
  3. Ask a trusted writing buddy for feedback. Ask them what they liked and what they found odd or confusing to help you edit.
  4. Submit early. Technology can get the hiccups when a ton of writers are trying to submit their entries on the same website and at the same time. Save yourself the stress and get in earlier.

Good luck!

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Meeting editors and publishers

Recently, I booked myself in for three editor/publisher appointments. One was a critique with an editor from HarperCollins Children’s Books in New York through the 20 pages in 20 minutes masterclass at the Brisbane Writers Festival, while the other two appointments were through the CYA Conference.

Before this, I had heaps of questions that I couldn’t find answers to. What kind of questions were they going to ask? Should I bring other examples with me? So, I thought I could tell you about my experiences in hope that it helps you along the way.

Every meeting will be different, so prepare as if you are going to run your fifteen minute appointment. Know how you would pitch your story. Consider how you would pitch yourself and your background. Think of the relationship that ties you to your story, like how did you discovered the idea or how your day job lends authority to the story.

You might want to write notes down and practise talking them through. Or maybe you want to go for a walk with your writing buddy and talk out your pitch. Pitching your story to a publisher isn’t that much different to how you would have first described the project to your writing buddy. If you’re like me, then you’re better just knowing your work inside out so you can ad-lib. I think it’s more honest and personable, which is what you want to aim for.

As for written preparation, I was guided by my wonderful friend (and CYA co-ordinator) Tina Marie Clark who suggested to bring in a page of short pitches for other w-i-p’s. I prepared what ended up being a two-page document with my photo and contact details, a bulleted list of my projects and their blurbs (approx 150w each) in case they sparked any interest.

This was a great idea and something I will continue to do. If a publisher is interested in your story, then they’ll definitely be interested in knowing you’re working on others. Conversely, if the publisher likes your writing but not your w-i-p, they have the opportunity to see if you’re working on something that catches their attention. Obviously, don’t shove this in their face. Ask them if they’re interested and they’ll tell you.

I could go on forever, but I’ll finish with this. Don’t go into it thinking, ‘Will they sign me up on the spot because I am so damn fabulous?’. It’s about relationship building and gaining direction. If you come out of your meeting with a little more insight than before, then you’ve won.

Making time to write

There has been a lot of change in my little world recently and I’ve had to pull back from a few commitments to adjust to my new routine.

Last month I changed jobs, saying farewell to part-time hours and moving back to full-time work. It felt like the right time to return to the Monday to Friday routine and I have a few goals that require better finances to turn them into a reality. My new job is a great opportunity where I get to interact with creative and passionate people and develop my writing skills. I draft newsletters and update web content for various clients, proofread marketing materials and write communications plans for using social media.

Of course, all this change has also meant an overhaul in my writing habits and routine. Even after a month, I’m still learning how to kick-start my brain after doing my corporate writing all day and some nights I struggle to ‘switch off’ so that I can sleep and recharge. I’m learning though and I’m starting to gain momentum again.

If anyone else is in a similar situation, these are a few ideas to re-create your writing routine:

1. Submit your writing (but only if you have something ready). Sometimes just dropping your manuscript in the post will give you the momentum to get back to a daily routine. It’s a really positive action and a good reminder that you’ve written a short story or manuscript before and you can do it again.

2. Set a timeframe (even if it doesn’t feel right at first). Over the last few weeks, I’ve made 8.30 – 10.30pm my writing time. It’s not my most productive time to write and I might eventually try writing in the early mornings (Ugh. Early mornings.) but it’s helping me make writing a daily activity again and keeps my projects fresh in my mind.

3. Have a plan B in case your brain cells won’t kick in. I have two projects on-the-go at the moment. One is in the editing stages and the other is in the early research and planning stages. Some nights I’ve wanted to edit but my brain can’t handle more than googling interesting and gruesome facts about Ancient Egypt and Rome. It’s my plan B. While I’m adjusting to my new routine, I’m trying to be flexible with my writing goals and be willing to make progress any way I can.

4. Exercise. I haven’t been exercising lately and I’m regretting it now.  Regular exercise will keep your ‘computer posture’ in check and is the best stress relief while you’re adjusting to your busier life.

So to all my poor friends that I’ve been neglecting lately, I’ve almost got my routine sorted out and I hope to be catching-up with you soon. To those writers who are re-assessing their writing habits, I wish you the best of luck with your new routine.

WRITING ROUTINES FOR FULL-TIME SUCKERS

A little while ago someone found my blog by trying to look for writing routines for full-time workers. I’m going to assume they were bummed out by my post on day jobs and how a full time one isn’t such a great idea.

I still have the same opinion about writers and day jobs, however, I’ve had to return to the dreaded day job for a little while (oh, the thrill of temping!) and I’m feeling your pain. I thought I could share a few little tricks that I’m trying during my current contract that might help others that work full-time and write on the side.

1. Set up a routine and guard it with your life

I loathe early mornings. So when I’m working, I write in my lunch break or after work. My current contract is insanely busy and exhausting, so I have to write after work. I’ve set up a little routine for myself. I do some exercise, have a hot shower, drink two coffees, eat dinner and write until my eyes feel like they’re falling out of their sockets (which is about one to two hours).

So, when can you block out half an hour or more? Can you handwrite at a coffee shop in your lunch break? Or could you stay back at work and write for an hour before you leave the office? Or are you one of these disturbingly-happy morning people than can get up at five in the morning to write before work?

Figure out when and where you are going to write and stick to it. If you let people disrupt that small window of writing time there better be a good reason, like the sky falling or circus lions have entered the building and are mauling your work mates. I know you can’t totally ignore people and you shouldn’t, but surely you can afford at least twenty minutes a day to work on your novel?

2. Do something everyday

I feel more myself when I can write for a few hours a day but when I’m working, this just doesn’t happen. My brain is crammed with work politics and to-do lists that I don’t even care about and I’m exhausted from sitting at a computer all day. I’d love to write two-thousand words or so a night but it’s a tough ask.

I have to do something though, no matter how small so I’m making progress everyday. If you’re working full-time, there is only one way to keep your story fresh in your mind and that’s to work on it everyday. Even if you only re-read a chapter that you wanted to edit and make notes, or write four hundred words, or dot point what happens in the next chapter, you are still working on your story. You’re still making progress.

3. Have a goal to work towards

When I take on a contract, I set out a writing goal according to how long I am working for. I’ve already talked about how ambitious (and perhaps, stupid) my goals are but at least I know where I’m going. My current contract is long enough that I’ve planned to finish a spew-draft of my sequel to Blood Sun. I wouldn’t be able to edit while working in this position, but I believe I can churn out a disfigured and holey first draft to work from later in the year.

Failing all of this, you might want to read Margo Lanagan’s post over on Justine Larbalestier’s blog about time off from writing and day jobs. It made me feel so much better. If anyone has a tip they could add, please leave a comment and help the poor, time-starved writers.

AUTHOR LABELS

I’ve noticed there are a lot of things that unpublished writers get distracted by that really don’t matter. Lately, the notion of labelling or branding yourself as a ‘type’ of writer keeps popping up.

At the Somerset Celebration of Literature I attended a session called Grown Ups or Growing Up? which discussed YA fiction in comparison to Adult and Children’s literature and how the authors perceived their work.

From the audience, I found that people had very passionate views about how books should be categorised. Marcus Zusak was part of this panel and many people were upset that his novel, The Book Thief, was shelved in Australia as a YA book. What I got from the authors was that the labelling and shelving was for their agent, publisher and the bookseller to decide. That wasn’t their job. Their job was to write a good story, rather than worry about how to market it.

Yesterday, I attended a QWC workshop on publishing proposals with Sally Collings, and the same notion of labelling and marketing came up in a discussion on query letters. While there is no right or wrong, the agent or publisher should discover what ‘type’ of book you’ve written from your snappy pitch. (Think along the lines of a show, don’t tell for your query.)

Basically, you could begin your letter stating that you have completed a 40,000 word children’s urban fantasy or that you’ve written about a twelve-year-old girl who discovers an enchanted lake behind her grandmother’s house and becomes too attached to the dangerous creatures that live there.

Perhaps we can’t always do away with ‘labels’, but they’re not as important as some people believe and are such a grey area. What one person believes is Literary fiction, another might shelve under Young Adult. If you’re thinking too much about the ‘type’ of writer you are, chances are you’re dreaming of a marketing campaign for a book that hasn’t been sold when you could be doing something else. Like writing.

THOUGHTS ON GRANT WRITING

Earlier this month I ticked off one of my 2010 goals: to apply for my first writing grant. As a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I’m entitled to apply for one of the annual Work-in-Progress grants that are judged in Los Angeles. It’s a huge application pool as any SCBWI member from around the world is eligible to apply. While I won’t know the outcome until September, I wanted to share a few thoughts on my application process that might help you.

  • Have a clear purpose for seeking a grant. You don’t apply for grant money because you think you deserve to be paid to write. Heaps of people believe that. You need a clear purpose for the money and a well-researched plan on what that grant would be spent on and how it furthers your career. You need to check the past winners and the guidelines to see what is appropriate use of the money and what is preferred.

  • Know what sets you apart from the others. I’m sure you’ve been introduced as ‘the writer’ at dinner parties and revelled in the attention that one statement caused. The bad news is that every single person applying for the grant is ‘the writer’ as well and suddenly that angle isn’t so memorable. You’ll need to write a bio and if you have little or no credits, this can be really daunting. However, lines like, ‘I was a bookworm as a child’ or ‘I live for a good story’ are really just you introducing yourself as ‘the writer’ to a roomful of creative writing students. You need to delve deeper. Maybe you lived in the Middle East for five years or you care for injured wildlife on weekends. I don’t know what sets you apart, but you should.

  • Read every single guideline. Then read them again. Then another thirteen times. The rules might be different to what you have been taught as correct formatting or submission procedure but follow them anyway. Nothing more, nothing less. You don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons.

Just in case you were wondering, I applied to help cover research costs for my YA fantasy (yes, the mermaid book).

GET OUT THERE AND DO IT

I just had to post Michael Giacchino’s acceptance speech from the Academy Awards.

When I was… when I was nine and I asked my dad, “Can I have your movie camera? That old wind-up 8 millimetre camera that was in your drawer.” And he goes, “Sure take it.” And I took it and I started making movies with it and I started being as creative as I could, and never once in my life did my parents ever say, “What you’re doing is a waste of time.” Never. And I grew up, I had teachers, I had colleagues, I had people that I worked with all my life who always told me what you’re doing is not a waste of time. So that was normal to me, that it was OK to do that. I know there are kids out there who don’t have that support system so if you’re out there and you’re listening, listen to me: If you want to be creative, get out there and do it. It’s not a waste of time. OK.

Usually, I watch the Oscars and come away with a favourite dress, but this year I fell in love with Michael’s beautiful speech. Years ago, I taught acting to teenagers after-school and this speech summed up everything I wanted to say to those kids but didn’t quite know how. So many misfits turn to the creative arts and while they’re being pressured in to planning their entire futures at the age of fifteen, they decide to do something they love for a living – something that makes them feel like they belong.

It’s not so crazy when you hear it from their perspective, but students would come to me in tears after learning that their parents didn’t support their dreams. They wanted to be an artist and they wanted to make a living of it, but most of all, they wanted their parents to believe in them.

I’m sure it must be frightening to hear that your child wants a career that’s not straightforward and reliable but don’t knock down their dreams. Just wait and trust their decisions. They might change their mind a hundred times or they might always be driven on the same path. Either way, you can’t guess the future and you won’t know what’s possible until they’re out there and doing it.

I don’t think it’s much too ask, but that’s because I was one of those fifteen-year-old misfits at acting class too. (I’m probably still a misfit, I just don’t take much notice anymore.) If I never said it clearly enough when I was teaching, then I hope my past students were living by Michael Giacchino’s principles. If not, well you heard him: He said it’s OK.