Category Archives: this writing life

Miscellaneous Memoranda

– Here’s a good article by Anna Pitoniak, editor and debut author, on what her editing job has taught her about writing.

– And here’s an important lesson about the perils of ambiguous punctuation: ‘Lack of an Oxford comma could cost company millions in overtime dispute’.

– The Copyright Agency has funded research into teenagers’ reading habits and found that most Australian teenagers prefer to read print books rather than ebooks – although, worryingly, those who prefer ebooks tend to read ‘free’ (that is, pirated) versions.

– Here are the some sheep and here are the no sheep – but where is the green sheep? I loved this article about Australia’s quirky old maps, courtesy of the National Library’s Trove collection. (Have a closer look at Tasmania in the second map. Poor Tasmanians.)

– Still in Australia: ‘Massive spider claims six seats for itself on busy Melbourne train’. The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, has criticised the spider as being ‘that one passenger who puts their feet on the seat’. The situation is being blamed on passengers no longer reading paper newspapers and therefore being unable to put inconsiderate arachnid commuters in their place (on the floor).

– That’s not to say that people have stopped reading newspapers. They’re simply switching to the digital versions, especially in the United States, with a huge surge in subscriptions to The New York Times, The Washington Post and other ‘old fashioned’ newspapers (‘How Donald Trump, President of the Twitterverse, gave ‘old media’ new lease of life’).

– Finally, some sage observations from Wondermark on those social media commenters who are outraged by political correctness (“You can’t talk like you’d normally talk, full of all the invective and slurs you’d normally use, without the objects of that invective feeling belittled and dehumanized by it!”). And anyone who’s ever run a blog would recognise the Sea Lion.

‘The Book That Made Me’, edited by Judith Ridge

Disclaimer: I’m acquainted with several of the people involved with the creation of this book. But I wouldn’t be writing about it here if I didn’t like it – I’d just pretend I hadn’t read it.

'The Book That Made Me' edited by Judith RidgeThe Book That Made Me is an interesting collection of personal stories by thirty-one authors and artists (mostly Australian, mostly writers for children and teenagers) about the books that “made them” – made them think, feel, laugh, made them want to create their own books. As with most anthologies, there’s a wide variety of pieces and I found some more compelling than others. Shaun Tan contributes a thoughtful essay about books that disturbed him, starting at the age of seven or eight with his mother reading him Animal Farm as a bedtime story, under the mistaken impression that it would be a charming fairytale (he decided it was “no more disturbing than stuff I witnessed at school each day”). His charming, whimsical illustrations can also be found throughout the book.

Other favourite pieces were those which had something in common with my own experiences. Simmone Howell writes about how she tried (and failed) to become a proper teenager using the wisdom contained in the Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High series. Catherine Johnson explains how she “never expected to see [herself] in a book … everyone back then knew only white people lived in books and had adventures”. Jaclyn Moriarty discovered, aged six, how her secret rage at the injustices of life had been transformed into a book called The Magic Finger. I also enjoyed Fiona Wood’s discussion of the helpful life lessons contained in Anne of Green Gables; Emily Maguire’s description of how Edith in Grand Days encouraged her to take risks and celebrate her teenage mistakes; and Julia Lawrinson’s entertaining account of her obsessive identification with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Most of these writers were already familiar to me, but I’d never heard of Catherine Johnson and now I feel a pressing need to read some of her children’s books, in which she says she “made sure to put children like me [that is, mixed-race kids] right in there, riding horses, wearing those amazing frocks, and mostly having adventures, just like everyone else.”

There was plenty of book nostalgia for me to wallow in (Dr Seuss! Little Women! Trixie Belden!) and I’ve added some recommended books to my To Read list, including Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Displaced Person by Lee Harding. This book contains potted biographies of all the contributors and I was pleased to see a thorough index. The Book That Made Me is published in Australia by Walker Books and will be published in North America this year by Candlewick Press, with all royalties going to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

My Favourite Books of 2016

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2016 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I only read 46 new books this year (new to me, that is), fewer than I usually read. This was partly because I was studying for most of the year, plus I’d started a new job, both of which took up lots of mental energy. I also read a great deal of (mostly depressing) political news in newspapers, magazines and blogs. So when I wasn’t doing that, I escaped into the comfort of old favourites from my bookshelves, including a dozen of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s books and a re-read of all the Rivers of London novels in preparation for the release of Book Six in that series.

So, what type of new books did I read this year?

Type of books 2016

Author nationality for books read in 2016

It was the year of British literature, it seems.

Author gender for books read in 2016

And women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Slade House by David Mitchell and the latest installment of the Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

It was non-fiction that really captured my interest this year. Favourites included The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch, and two of Bill Bryson’s books, At Home: A Short History of Private Life and The Road to Little Dribbling. I’m only halfway through Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle, but I’m really enjoying it so far. However, my absolute favourite of the year was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a brilliantly incisive yet accessible discussion of neurocognitive research into sex differences, which I realise I didn’t actually review on this blog because I was too busy writing assignments at the time. I will try to remedy that at some stage in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a good review.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

I loved Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I was also beguiled by the first book in Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, Autumn Term.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

I was entertained (and occasionally enraged) by a collection of First Dog on the Moon’s political cartoons, A Treasury of Cartoons. I also enjoyed Night Witch, a graphic novel in the Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Lee Sullivan and others (although it wasn’t as good as the prose novels).

Thank you to everyone who contributed to Memoranda in 2016. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2017 brings you lots of inspiring, informative and entertaining books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014
Favourite Books of 2015

Miscellaneous Memoranda

John Banville provoked a lot of responses, most of them derisive, when he said in an interview about his new memoir, ‘I was not a good father. I don’t think any writer is.’ As Joanne Harris said, ‘Not only is Banville’s claim ludicrous, it reinforces the myth that women can’t be Proper Writers because of all the Caring they have to do.’ I especially liked Julian Gough’s response in The Irish Times, which discusses the ‘historical cultural catastrophe’ that bent many Irish men ‘brutally out of shape’ but expresses hope about the new generation of male writers.

I also enjoyed this article by Matthew Gallaway, in which six writers discuss book covers and blurbs in an very entertaining fashion, and this short piece by Christie Nieman on the joys of ‘quiet’ Young Adult novels.

In more depressing news, Stealing Books in the Age of Self-Publishing explains that “in the world of self-publishing, where anyone can put a document on Amazon and call it a book, many writers are seeing their work being appropriated without their permission”, with enterprising plagiarists getting rich and escaping punishment. And even if you don’t get plagiarised, there are plenty of other “spiky little soul-destroying aspects of the business” of literature, says Krissy Kneen, who is suffering from Mid-Career Malaise.

This is probably an appropriate place to quote NOT A WOLF, who is definitely not a wolf pretending to be a man:

@SICK OF WOLVES

However, there are hopes that the new Australian Senate will refuse to pass the government’s proposed legislation to abolish territorial copyright.

And if you’re in a French railway station, you now have easy access to stories via vending machines that ‘dispense short stories printed on paper — for free — with passengers able to choose a story of either one, three or five “minutes” in length’.

National Bookshop Day 2016

'Love your bookshop 2016' logo

Fellow Australians1, it’s National Bookshop Day this Saturday!

This celebration of our nation’s bookshops is especially important this year because the Australian Booksellers Association is one of the organisations campaigning against our government’s proposed changes to Australian copyright laws:

“That’s why this year the National Bookshop Day celebrations will coincide with the release of #SaveOzStories. Published by Melbourne University Press, #SaveOzStories is a collection of some of Australia’s finest authors writing about the threat the removal of PIRs poses to our local writing culture. #SaveOzStories will be available for free at all good bookshops on Saturday 13 August.”

That’s right, a free book, full of contributions from your favourite Australian writers. There’ll also be lots of cool events at bookshops around the country. For more information, see Love Your Bookshop on Facebook and NatBookshopDay on Twitter.

'Save Oz Stories'

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  1. If you’re not Australian, you are still allowed to visit a bookshop this Saturday. Especially if you’re planning to buy one of my books.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

– There’s a great interview with E.B. White in this 1969 edition of The Paris Review, which includes his thoughts on writing for children:

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In ‘Charlotte’s Web’, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.”

– I was also interested in this article at The Guardian about a new exhibition of Soviet-era children’s books. “The idea was to abolish fantasy literature and illustration because they were seen as bourgeois and unhelpful to the revolution,” says Olivia Ahmad, the curator of the exhibition:

“In one cautionary tale called ‘Ice Cream’, by writer Samuil Marshak and illustrator Vladimir Lebvedev, a bourgeois capitalist eats too much ice cream and freezes to death. In ‘Red Neck’, a poem by Nicolia Aseev, a faithful Young Pioneer (the Soviet youth group) refuses to take off his red neckerchief even when attacked by a raging bull, thus demonstrating doughty revolutionary commitment even in the face of an unpleasant goring.”

The Guardian is also running a series about recipes for fictional food, including strawberry and peanut butter ice cream from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and raspberry cordial from Anne of Green Gables. I also liked this blog post at Pop Goes The Page about a DIY Harry Potter party, complete with Hogwarts letters, house banners, snowy owl balloons, floating candles and of course, pumpkin pasties, chocolate frogs and butterbeer.

– From the world of publishing, here’s a depressingly accurate article about how authors who are “hard to look at” (that is, not conventionally attractive) are less likely to find a publisher for their work. This only applies to women writers, of course (as one commenter notes, “Only one name is needed to mention here: George R. R. Martin”). And here’s an essay by a New Zealand editor, Stephen Stratford, entitled “The book didn’t sell and yes, I was mean-spirited enough to rejoice”: An essay on the dark arts of book editing.

Copyright protection for creators has been in my thoughts lately, so I was interested to read this discussion of the “Monkey Selfie” case, in which a US judge eventually ruled that “a non-human was not capable of owning copyright under current US law”. (It is a great photo, though.)

– Finally, for those students feeling stressed about school and exams, “one Canberra school has invited a local kitten rescue to bring cats into the classroom in a unique bid to mitigate pre-exam anxiety”.

'The Globe kittens' by Ernest J Rowley (1902)

‘Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life’ by Anne Lamott

Although I’d seen many recommendations for Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird1, I put off reading it because it sounded a bit too mystical for my tastes. In fact, this book is fairly big on spirituality, with the author frequently referring to God or her church or her pastor’s advice, but it’s balanced with a healthy sense of humour. For example, she explains that she begins each day of writing with a prayer and recommends that all writers use some form of ritual:

“Try it. Any number of things may work for you – an altar, for instance, or votive candles, sage smudges, small animal sacrifices, especially now that the Supreme Court has legalized them. (I cut out the headline the day this news came out and taped it above the kitty’s water dish.)”

'Bird by Bird' by Anne LamottHowever, most of the book consists of sensible advice about various aspects of fiction-writing, including plotting, creating a setting, developing characters and writing plausible dialogue. She advises writers who feel overwhelmed by the thought of writing an entire novel to begin with “short assignments” and to visualise scenes through a “one-inch picture frame”, because as E. L. Doctorow noted, “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

She also explains that “perfectionism will ruin your writing” and emphasises that all first drafts are terrible:

“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.”

I especially liked Lamott’s description of how to know when you’re finally “done” with writing your final draft, the process of which is like “putting an octopus to bed”:

“You get a bunch of the octopus’s arms neatly tucked under the covers – that is, you’ve come up with a plot, resolved the conflict between the two main characters, gotten the tone down pat – but two arms are still flailing around . Maybe the dialogue in the first half and the second half don’t match, or there is that one character who still seems one-dimensional. But you finally get those arms under the sheets, too, and are about to turn out the lights when another long sucking arm breaks free.

This will probably happen when you are sitting at your desk, kneading your face, feeling burned out and rubberized. Then, even though all the sucking disks on that one tentacle are puckering open and closed, and the slit-shaped pupils of the octopus are looking derisively at you, as if it might suck you to death just because it’s bored, and even though you know your manuscript is not perfect and you’d hoped for so much more, but you also know that there is simply no more steam in the pressure cooker and that it’s the very best you can do for now – well? I think this means that you are done.”

I didn’t agree with everything Lamott had to say about writing (for example, she is opposed to planning and dislikes “the rational mind”), but she discusses it all with such warmth and charm that I enjoyed reading and considering her thoughts. This book is highly recommended for both beginning writers looking for practical advice and encouragement, and more experienced writers seeking inspiration.

You might also be interested in reading:

‘On Writing’ by Stephen King

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  1. By the way, the book’s title comes from advice her writer father gave to her ten-year-old brother, who was overwhelmed by the task of writing a huge school report on birds that was due the next day: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Copy (Not) Right

Last year, the Australian government asked the Productivity Commission to review intellectual property rights in Australia. The Commission’s draft report was recently released, and although I haven’t read all 587 pages of it, I have read the sections that concern the book publishing industry. The title, Copy (Not) Right, pretty much sums up the Commission’s attitude towards copyright. As the Australian Society of Authors reports:

“They believe copyright law is an impediment to the consumer and should be curtailed. They have gone about their task with dedication, cynicism and resentment towards the arts across the board, but none more so than towards books and authors.”

The Commission makes three main recommendations about books. Firstly, the length of time that copyright exists should be drastically reduced. Secondly, Australian territorial copyright should be abolished and parallel importation of books introduced. Thirdly, the current system of ‘fair dealing’ should be replaced with the US system of ‘fair use’.

I’ve previously written about how destructive the introduction of parallel importation would be for the Australian book industry. The implementation of a ‘fair use’ system would also cause significant problems for copyright holders. The current system of ‘fair dealing’ means that Australian copyright owners are paid if their work is used, with a number of sensible exceptions (for example, people are free to use copyrighted material for reviews, research, study, satire or parody, news reporting and legal advice). A ‘fair use’ system would mean that anyone could use any copyrighted material for free, without permission, provided the use was ‘fair’ – with the definition of ‘fair’ in each case decided by the courts. This would be great news for lawyers, but not so great for impoverished authors trying to stop unauthorised and unpaid use of their work.

However, it’s the Commission’s recommendation about term of copyright that’s really mind-boggling. Currently, copyright exists for seventy years after the death of the creator. (Personally, I think that’s too long, but I didn’t make that decision – it was made by US legislators, supposedly because Disney wanted to keep control of Mickey Mouse, and it was then agreed to by Australian legislators as part of a US-Australian trade agreement.) The Commission wants copyright to be fifteen to twenty-five years from creation. That’s right, fifteen years. That means that in a few years, I’ll have to give up all my rights to the novels I’ve written so far. I won’t be able to earn any money from them or control who publishes them. Not surprisingly, Australian authors are a bit upset about this. Jackie French has written:

“For 25 years I have worked as an author, supporting my family.
Innocently, I had assumed that the royalties from these books would continue to support my husband and myself in our old age.
Now, in my sixties, I have been told by the ill-named ‘Productivity Commission’ that ‘Writers rarely write for financial reasons,’ and I may only own my work for 15 years.
If I had spent my time renovating houses, or investing in shares, I’d own them. So would my heirs. If you built a bicycle or a house, would you give it to anyone who cares to grab it, in 15 years’ time?
Does Thomas Keneally have no moral right to ‘Bring Larks and Heroes’? Does Mem Fox no longer have a right to ‘Possum Magic’ nor I to ‘Diary of a Wombat’?
Will Malcolm Turnbull give away his investments when he has owned them for 15 years?”

As Richard Flanagan said in his keynote speech at the Australian Book Industry Awards last week:

“So Mem Fox has no rights in ‘Possum Magic’. Stephanie Alexander has no rights in ‘A Cook’s Companion’. Elizabeth Harrower has no rights in ‘The Watch Tower’. John Coetzee has no rights in his Booker winning ‘Life and Times of Michael K’. Nor Peter Carey to ‘The Kelly Gang’, nor Tim Winton to ‘Cloudstreet’. Anyone can make money from these books except the one who wrote it.”

How can the Commission possibly think that this will improve “productivity” in the book industry? Why would an author or publisher want to continue to produce books under these conditions? What about an author writing a long-running series? By the time she’d written the fifth book, the first could be out of copyright. And too bad for an author whose book is made into a film fifteen years after initial publication – the author won’t see a cent of the profits from the film sales, nor would she earn any royalties when the film tie-in book hits the bestseller lists.

I re-read this section of the report in an attempt to understand the Commission’s reasoning, but my most generous interpretation is that they simply don’t understand how the book industry works. For instance, they claim on page 114 that for books, “by 2 years [after initial publication], 90 per cent of originals are out of print”. Really? My first Australian novel was far from a bestseller, but it’s still in print nine years later, available in both paperback and as an e-book, and that’s hardly unusual.

The Commission also blithely suggests that any negative impact on the Australian publishing industry as a result of these changes “would be addressed by ensuring that direct subsidies aimed at encouraging Australian writing — literary prizes, support from the Australia Council, and funding from the Education and Public Lending Rights schemes — continue to target the cultural value of Australian books”. All those Australian literary organisations and writers reeling from Black Friday’s funding cuts may manage a hollow laugh at that.

There is still some hope for Australians who love books. Just remember, there’s a federal election in July.

Some Thoughts On Creative Work

“As a creative person, you must always look for what is not commonplace, what strikes a chord. You feel an intuition about what’s essential. The vital point is that you must trust your own instincts … It never gets any easier … The important thing you learn with creativity is that the tide comes in and the tide goes out. There will be fallow periods when the work is not going well, so it’s best to put that painting aside, just turn its face to the wall. And often, months later when you look at it again, you can see possibilities in it that you couldn’t see when you were struggling with it previously.”

John Olsen

“[My books are] very, very complex in their structure, but, in the end, if anyone can see that they’re difficult, then I’ve failed. If you see the sweat and blood on the page, it’s a disaster. It’s got to seem seamless.”

Nick Bantock

“I am an ambitious person, which has often been pointed out to me, usually critically, because it is not seen as something pure. But surely there’s a nobility in trying to make something beautiful that will last a long time? … I had a teacher who was very good at prompting class debate. One day he asked, is it a good thing for human beings to have huge ambitions that possibly lead to disappointment and disillusion? It was an interesting topic to throw at teenagers. Some felt it was better to have practical aims in life, but I remember strongly coming out for the idea of dreaming big. And in the ensuing years I have often thought about it, because I have seen people go south, people with really great talent and big, wonderful dreams get to a point where it all went horribly wrong and they either fell off the edge or became bitter. I came to realise there is a lot of risk attached to ambition. You could argue that there are other noble human virtues that are better to follow. But I can’t help but be addicted to trying to climb the mountain.”

Neil Finn