Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Writers and Readers event for the victims of the CHCH earthquake

I'm an organizer for a Writers and Readers event to be held in March with proceeds to go to the victims of the Christchurch earthquake.

The event will have:

  • a set list of writers reading from their work
  • poetry readings
  • refreshments available
  • an open mic session for anyone who wishes to read

We're looking for:

volunteers to help with set up
volunteers to help on the day, prepare and sell refreshments
writers to read
writers to have a go at the open mike
volunteers to help with transport on the day

Depending on the venue we may need access to sound gear and techies.I've set up a Facebook page to gather attendee notifications and put out information. Here's the web address for the page:

Writers and Readers event for CHCH earthquake victims

Please circulate over your networks and let us know if you can help.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Story Bridge Forum

Remember the Story Bridge Forum is available as a place for you to post comments on what we're covering, on the posts, on any subject related to writing. It's your place for discussion or just hanging out. Feel free.


With the academic teaching year about to start again I'm reminded of how much student work I've seen and how I'm constantly amazed by the amount of work out there. By the amount of story out there. From projects carefully aimed at a market to pieces that signposted a cathartic journey of discovery or getting through the process of grief. Non-fiction memoirs of refugees from wars on the grand scale, and within the four walls of a home or a family. I've shared laughs, I've seen narratives so harrowing I felt like I was turning to ice with each turn of the page.

People often share in story what they may never in conversation.

Sometimes when watching television and its endless reality shows and advertorials disguised as documentaries or pseudo-dramas you wonder where all the stories have gone, the stories with bite and poignancy or humour and individuality of vision. But they're out there waiting to be discovered, waiting for a writer to be their conduit. Their guide.

A writer works to carve those stories out of their surrounding stone, bring them into the light. Often in subtle gestures that speak of not just the characters' struggles but our own. I recall reading an instructional book that gave an example of this. A woman is at the counter of a crowded fish and chip shop, ordering a large portion of pretty much everything, and as she reaches into her wallet her Weight Watchers membership card falls out onto the floor. It's sharp observation like that that brings us all into a story, flips the characters over to expose their underbelly or their heart. As writers we gain from scratching away at the things that hurt us as much as they hurt the characters we create.

The act of writing with honesty gains us a certain amount of wisdom, not in a guru on a mountaintop sense but in the everyday sense of a farmer (or a cat, for that matter) who sniffs the air for rain and knows the implications of that, whether it will or won't. I was in a pub in rural Australia once in the middle of a drought, and being a tourist I wanted a fine day for the next day's travelling. The weather report came on the news being played on the pub TV and said rain was likely and the place went into an uproar, hats being tossed in the air. I was disappointed that my trip might get rained on, until I saw the excitement on their faces. I was thinking holiday, they were thinking their family's survival. That was a writerly moment.

When those moments come, you hold on to them, develop them, with clarity of detail, with empathy, with care and respect. You smile momentarily at the woman in the fish and chip shop and the Weight Watchers card, but not for long. Because you know that story, the promise to self broken. Those moments of vulnerability and communal understanding are what makes great literature, not fancy language or fashion.

A good word on The Good Word

March 1st sees the beginning of the third series of TVNZ's books programme The Good Word. I'm not much of a television watcher myself but this is worth catching as an opportunity to hear NZ authors talk.

I did a segment a couple of years ago where Emily Perkins asked me to talk about a book that had made an impact on me. It was an interesting exercise to do. In considering how we writer and how we should approach the process of writing it's also important to think about how we read. And what we're doing when we read. Are we creating our own story as a story-within-a-story of the author's story we're reading? In my case the answer would be yes, though not in a determined sense, it's just the way my creative self works within other narratives to find relevance to resonance for me. I can't stop storytelling, basically. I'm incapable to sticking to the bare facts. So I had to become a used car salesman, a politician or a writer. Simple choice in the end. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

New Zealand Book Month

The annual New Zealand Book month is almost upon us. Starting March 1st and running until the end of the month. It's a non-profit initiative begun in 2006 to acquaint NZ readers, books and authors and has included different elements over the years. The Six Pack collections of short stories, effectively a competition open to all writers, were a great idea and showcased some new (and established) writers in a blaze of publicity. It seems not to be part of the current programme.

The month of events is a good opportunity to hear writers talk about their work and the writing process. Some of the events are community driven, featuring local authors. Some are more of the type you'd get at the Auckland Writers Festival where published authors are brought in from various centres to talk.

I recall being told many years ago that for NZ authors to be read, they should make sure they themselves read NZ authors. I think that's sage advice. And I'd add that we should support local writers at events, just by being there. We sometimes get told how to define ourselves as NZers, (the America's Cup, the All Blacks, Anzac Day) but there's often not enough emphasis on our books and our stories. Each individual writer has their own voice but there's also the collective voice of this nation and its peoples, forged in history and struggle and laughter. It makes our work different from California or Sweden. Our voice informs our stories in the way our accent informs our speech, and it's an ongoing process, the building of our voice as a people.

So I recommend you make plans to get out amongst it in your area. Here's a link to the events calendar to check out what's happening near you.

Events Calendar NZ book month

NZ Book month has a Facebook page here so have a look at it and hit the 'like' button to be kept informed of developments.   

Changing landscapes...

I see that Borders bookstore chain in the USA is in serious financial difficulty. Some commentators are blaming this on the economic times and some on the rise of the e-book. Both elements have probably played a part, and we don't after all know also how well managed Borders is/was.

For our purposes though, if the second contributing factor - the rise of e-books and their associated viewing platforms, e-readers - have played a part in this then this is a change than is unlikely to be rolled back. But... what does this mean for writers. Well, it would be very difficult to say that the last few years under the current model of major corporate publishers has been good for writers in general. It likely has for those at the top, but not for grassroots writers, or certainly writers looking to get a start in publishing, which is after all where most of the readers of this blogsite will fit. It certainly hasn't worked for niche writers (life writing, histories (not on the grand scale), poetry, speculative fiction).

In Jocelyn's interview snippet below she talks about self publishing. One of the most interesting developments I've witnessed since beginning writing with the intention of being published is the change in public perception towards the self-published book. Self-published books have always been around in specific fields (philosophy, mathematics, local histories etc) and to a degree in fiction, but there was a perception that the self-published book was a lesser choice, that it had failed to gain commercial publication. This may once have had a certain amount of truth in cases, and there was certainly often an issue with the quality of the production (outside of the quality of the storytelling itself.) But it has become so hard to have works commercially published in the last decade or so and the commercial publishing conduit become so skinny that writers began to see self-publishing as their only hope. This is not always a reflection on their fear of being commercially accepted. That is a very important distinction. If publishers are opting out of publishing fiction, then self-publishing becomes not an exception or option but a necessity. As an example one major NZ publisher (the NZ arm of a multi-national) said at a seminar I attended late last year that they'd chosen their ONE NZ fiction book by a new author, for publication in 2011. That's right - one. That skinny conduit has to burst some time, though not, it would seem, via the traditional channel.

That's where self-publishing comes in. That too is changing dramatically. In the past the self-published author developed an intimate relationship with their car boot and the NZ Road Atlas. One of the major issues and roadblocks for the author has always been 'I'm a writer, not a salesperson.' True, but there's a new atlas out now, it's called the internet. Well it's not that new, but the ways the writer can use it are. One problem I struck when my first novel came out was pretty obvious - 'Who are you?' Legitimate and appropriate question. One thing I hadn't done was build up a profile first, so I had some currency when it came out. In those days that was done by submitting short stories to literary magazines and entering competitions. I didn't really do either. But now the internet, and specifically the Blogosphere, yes I know that word takes some getting used to, are revolutionary tools to get yourself about. Listen to Jocelyn talk about pre-selling her financial advice books by building up a profile blogging. Blogging is also good practice for writing and learning how to promote your work, even if you're not a natural salesperson.

So the changes currently happening are:
  • traditional publishers are cutting down the number of titles they sell
  • bookstores are squeezing publishers for work about celebrities, famous names that already have market visibility
  • major bookstore chains themselves are in trouble
  • your chances of getting a fair hearing for your work via traditional publishers in NZ is decreasing 
That's mostly negative news.
Here's the positive news

  • people haven't stopped reading
  • print on demand publication has halved the cost of self-publishing hard copy books and the difference in quality between house publishing books and the best self-published books is minimal
  • e-books are taking off, as the readers become far more user friendly
  • e-publishers (or e-distributors as some of them are now calling themselves, as the writer of an e-book is in fact now the publisher) are becoming more numerous and getting smarter
  • there are tools out there, such as blogging and social media that are great platforms to get you readers while you're writing your opus
It's asking much of the writer to be so much more than a writer, but to get your work out there, it's time and effort well spent. Jocelyn and I will be covering both blogging and self-publishing in the workshop 26th February in Auckland

All the changes now happening in the chain of writer to reader have already happened in the music business, which has changed beyond recognition in the last 15 years. It's the new world.

One thing that hasn't changed...
  • write a well conceived, controlled, character driven story with tension, stakes that matter, development, insight, pace and a satisfying conclusion - and there will be an audience. Work at that first, but keep a wise eye on the new methods of marketing, so your work can find that audience.