Mar 312014
by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Spring break is nearly upon us so forgive my rather brief blog post (we are preparing to take my 9 year old twin up for a spot of skiing in the beautiful mountains near us - so things are a little crazy).  Luckily, both my boys are great readers (so we get to take lots of books with us!) and I love how we can now discuss books we've all read and how I can give them recommendations now that don't (usually) provoke a whole lot of eye-rolling.  I also still read to them every night and have recently started introducing them to Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. 

A few pages into the Hound of the Baskervilles, however, and my boys were already terrified (not a good idea just before bed!) so we started instead with A Study in Scarlet and have just recently moved on to The Sign of Four. What is amazing to me is how, despite the old-fashioned language and pace, both my boys are already totally hooked - and I think it's not really the mystery that draws them in but the character of Holmes himself. It really is amazing to think that a character which in many ways is such a product of his times can be still so intriguing over a hundred years later. As a mum of course, I do have to explain his drug use and the smoking...but, hey, I think of these'teachable' moments!

I came to Sherlock Holmes quite late  (I was well into my twenties before I read my first Holmes' story) - compared to my husband who devoured all the stories when he was in the 5th and 6th grade at school in Australia. Though I enjoyed the stories, I don't think I appreciated the mesmerising qualities of Sherlock Holmes as a character until I started reading the stories aloud to my boys. I've been interrogated by them on every aspect of his character - from whether he was based on a real person, to why he knows so much, to how, on earth, he can make such amazing deductions...He's like a super-hero in many ways but also an enigmatic and  flawed hero - which is what, I suspect, makes him so intriguing. 

I'm looking forward to continuing to read these stories to my boys and then, I hope, handing the books over to them to read for themselves. To me, one of the great pleasures of being a parent, is passing on a love of reading. I already see each of my twins developing their own reading preferences and am glad that, at least in so far as Sherlock Holmes is concerned, they are gaining an appreciation for mysteries:)

So - tell me, are you are Sherlock Holmes fan? Do you have a particular favourite story? What do you think makes both him (as a character) and Conan Doyle's stories endure? 
 Posted by at 4:00 am
Mar 172014
by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I've been thinking about my favourite Irish writer, Edna O'Brien, and just how influential she was to me when I was a 'formative' (i.e.: terribly young and earnest) writer. I was first introduced to her as a teenager and fell in love with her lyrical, stream-of-consciousness approach to writing. Much of her work inspired my own (far less stellar) writing attempts. She was also so  quintessentially Irish, that her work resonated with me at a time when I was particularly fascinated with Irish history (my family has Irish blood and I do believe in a kind of genetic memory that draws me to the places and stories of my ancestors).

In recent years I've not read as much of O'Brien's work and I wonder if that's partly due to the fact that her books were inextricably tied up with a particular period of my life. I was also
worried that if I re-read her old books now, their impact and beauty would have somehow diminished over the years. I've often found that when I go back to a novel which had a huge impact on me at one time in my life, I'm disappointed that it no longer has any such impact at all. 

But in anticipation of the day that celebrates all things Irish, I sought out my Edna O'Brien novels on my bookshelves and started leafing once more through their pages. I was relieved to find the lyricism of her writing still drew me in and was delighted to feel the same sense of anticipation, wonder and sadness I used to feel when I read her work. I thought I'd share a short passage - from the opening to her 1994 novel, House of Splendid Isolation:

It's like no place else in the world. Wild. Wildness. Things find me. I study them. Chards caked with clay. Dark things. Bright things. Stones. Stones with a density and with a transparency. I hear messages. In the wind and in the passing of the wind. Music, not always rousing, not always sad, sonorous at times. Then it dies down. A silence. I say to it, have you gone, have you gone. I hear stories. It could be myself telling them to myself or it could be these murmurs that come out of the earth. The earth so old and haunted, so hungry and replete. It talks. Things past and things yet to be. Battles, more battles, bloodshed, soft mornings, the saunter of beasts and their young. What I want is for all the battles to have been fought and done with. That's what I pray for when I pray. At times the grass is like a person breathing, a gentle breath, it hushes things.

As O'Brien writes at the very start of this book: History is everywhere. It seeps into the soil, the sub-soil. Like rain, or hail, or snow, or blood. As a writer of historical fiction, I love being reminded of this from a wonderful writer who captures the essence of place, history, and emotion, so beautifully.

So do you have a favorite Irish writer, and if so, what is it about their work you find so compelling? Or, if you aren't as into Irish history as I am, which writer captures for you the stories of your ancestors?

 Posted by at 4:00 am
Mar 032014
by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last weekend I went to the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in New York City and one of the key note talks was on the issue of author responsibility. I have to admit it isn't something I've thought much about - beyond my responsibility to readers to write the very best books I can. My books don't tend to contain graphic violence or sex and I don't write with any particular agenda or controversy in mind, so it was interesting to hear what one writer thought was her responsibility as an author. 

Obviously, the issue was of particular concern to her (and to most SCBWI members, I suspect) because she wrote for children and teenagers. What I didn't expect was that she would feel so strongly about her responsibilities, beyond that of 'professional grace', to instances where readers were indirectly affected by the book she had written. One example she gave was of a family who were listening to her audio book in the car and who were so overcome by emotion by the story that they were pulled over for speeding - she felt that she, as the author, was responsible for that occurring. Now in that instance, I disagree. I think there are many indirect consequences of reading/listening to a story which are not the author's responsibly because readers have a choice as to where and when they read/listen and for their own behaviour as a result. 

Still, the concept of 'author responsibility' is an intriguing (and often fraught) concept...and I'm not even sure I'm totally clear on what that concept means to me. At the very least I think author should take responsibility for striving for excellence in their writing and that they should behave as a professional in all aspects of their career. At a minimum they should be held responsible for plagiarism and copyright infringement of other people's work. As an author I also wouldn't want to incite anyone to hatred or violence - but when I think about other authors' work I can see the concept of 'responsibility' could be a slippery slope indeed.

As a strong supporter of intellectual freedom, I certainly don't believe in author censorship but as a mother I'm also aware of the responsibilities involved when caring for young minds. I think it's important that writers (including writers of children and YA books) tackle weighty issues such as drug abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, racial discrimination, persecution and bullying. Adults, children, and teenagers can only benefit, in my opinion, from being exposed to a variety of books dealing with a broad range of issues and perspectives (even those that make me personally uncomfortable).

Though I am often 'caretaker' when it comes to what my children read, I never feel that I have any right to advise others as to what their children should or should not be reading (ditto for adults!). So what do I feel, as a reader/mother, is an 'author's responsibility'? Do these standards differ to what I feel I'm responsible for as a writer? I'm not sure. But the talk at SCWBI certainly made me think about what I expect from both myself and other writers. 

So what do you think is your responsibility as an author? What standards to you hold yourself up to and do these standards differ when it comes to other authors?

 Posted by at 5:00 am
Jan 202014
by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I've been reading a great book on writing for children and YA called 'Writing Irresistible KidLit' by Mary Kole and, apart from wishing I'd read it a little earlier (for it encapsulates all the elements that make any novel great), I was particularly interested in the comments surrounding the need for emotional resonance. Kole writes that when she puts down most manuscripts or submissions she's left wondering "And? So what?" She notes that all too often a book fails to create sufficient emotional resonance to make the reader care - and all too often this is because the writer hasn't built in enough conflict.

Just a few weeks ago I experienced the exact thing Kole was writing about. I was only a couple of chapters into the final instalment in a very popular YA trilogy when I put down the book and thought "So what?" The story had totally lost any kind of emotional resonance for me.There was no longer any conflict that I cared about between the characters, and (as a result) I couldn't be bothered continuing to read. To be fair, I did keep reading but I found myself skimming the pages until the end hoping that there would be a point at which I became reinvested in the story. 
There wasn't.

Often when we talk about the craft of writing we focus on elements such as characterisation, setting, style, plot and structure. Embedded within all of these are the need to establish a strong voice and the need to make a reader care enough to keep turning the pages. However the issue of emotional resonance can be just as tricky to explain as the concept of 'voice' in some one's writing. You know it when you see it, just as you know when it's not there - but it can be a pretty difficult concept to wrangle to the ground.

So, mulling over this rather slippery concept of emotional resonance, I thought of a few key elements, namely:

  • High stakes for characters that have believable motivations and emotions;
  • High conflict between these characters, who face life changing events that a reader cannot help but become invested in; and
  • A greater ('bigger') question that touches upon core emotional needs that readers identify can with...

Central to all of these is conflict (both between and within the characters) - which is exactly what was missing from the book I just tried to finish. As I grapple with final edits to a current WIP, I have the issue of emotional resonance now firmly in my mind. I don't want my agent or an editor finishing it, putting it down, and saying "And? So what?"(!)

So fellow TKZers, how would you characterise emotional resonance? How do you try to achieve it in your own writing? And have you ever put down a book because (like me) you found yourself saying "So what?"...

 Posted by at 5:00 am
Jan 062014
by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Happy New Year from all of us at TKZ and welcome to 2014! 

A new year for me means establishing new goals and, after two international moves in three years, I'm looking forward to setting goals that do not include packing or unpacking a house…Although, our renovations are nearly complete and in the next few weeks my family and I will be decamping from the basement and putting back all the living and kitchen room items, so my packing/unpacking days are not quite over yet... 

I am looking forward to regaining some lost productivity that arose, inevitably, from moves and renovations, and I have some reasonably ambitious plans for 2014. These include:

  • Completion of two new projects: I currently have one out on submission, and one in progress, but still, I feel I need to play catch up after a few slow years, so two additional new projects are in the hopper….ambitious…but, hopefully, achievable. As a birthday present to myself last year I purchased Scrivener and I'm enjoying using this software, especially as it now enables me to set clearer word count goals. Which brings me to my next goal….
  • Setting daily and weekly word count goals: I've never approached writing this way but I started toying with word count goals on Scrivener late last year (not that over the holidays I paid any attention to them:)). I'm thinking of using these goals as a means of keeping me more accountable to my writing. But more exciting than this is the….
  • Release of my third Ursula Marlow mystery: I'll be blogging more about this in the coming weeks, but I'm excited to see this come out - and I can't wait to show the new cover art for the book as it's beautiful. 
  • Reworking my website: This is my final goal for 2014. I've neglected my website for far too long (ditto for much of my social networking and marketing) so I'm planning on using the release of the new Ursula book as a jumping off point for revitalizing my website and as an opportunity to expand my marketing/networking opportunities. 

So, TKZers, these are my top level writing goals for 2014. I'll keep you posted on my progress but I'm excited to start off the year with these goals clearly in mind, and, thanks to my husband, a new fountain pen to use to get it all started (my collie, Hamish, ate my last one).

What have you resolved or planned for your writing this year???

 Posted by at 5:00 am
Sep 232013
by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

When I lived in California I was a member of a book club that had been running for well over a decade. Now I'm in Colorado I'm seriously considering establishing one myself as I loved being exposed to books that I wouldn't otherwise have read, and I enjoyed the discussion and sense of camaraderie that came with being with a group of like-minded book lovers.

The only thing is - I'm not sure I want to be responsible for actually setting up a book group. In California, the group had evolved and changed composition over time but the balance seemed to be just right. There were enough strong opinions to go around but no obnoxious personalities to derail the discussion. There was also enough food and drink available to help the 'discussion' flourish. The thing is, I'm not sure I can ever recreate this and, to be honest, I'm not sure I should even try.

Successful book groups seem to involve an almost serendipitous arrangement of personalities, opinions and characters. Get the balance right and it's terrific - get the balance wrong and it's a horrible endurance test for all concerned. I've had offers to join other book groups too - but again, I'm wary about joining. I've also been reading about the emergence of online book groups which sound pretty cool - only I think I'd miss the personal interaction (not to mention the accountability - much easier to lie online about having read a book!).

So - some input from TKZers is required. Specifically I'm wondering:

  • Are you a member of a great book group?
  • If so, what do you think makes it great? (or if you've been a member of a dysfunctional group - what was the main problem or issue?)
  • What do you think makes a successful book group? 
  • And finally...with all the social media/online options do you think the 'in-person' book group is becoming (sadly!) redundant?

I'm also interested in whether you tend to favor a single sex book group (the one I was in was all-women) or a mixed group and whether you think focusing on a specific genre is helpful (we could chose basically anything, which I think made it much more interesting as I had to read books I wouldn't otherwise have read). All in all, it would be great to start up a new book group - but I know, after some 'interesting' experiences with writing group dynamics, just how carefully I need to tread... 

 Posted by at 4:00 am
Sep 092013
by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was at a presentation recently on ways authors can use social media and the dreaded issue of 'reviews' came up - with the presenter advising many would-be authors that a great way to engage future readers is to use social media to review other people's books that occupy the same 'space' as your own. 

Fair enough...perfectly reasonable...why not...except I always feel a panic attack coming on when it comes to the whole issue of reviews. Perhaps it's my English heritage but I'm very, very wary of offering any kind of on-line commentary on books that have been published that are of a similar genre to mine (and even those that are not) because:

  • What if I hate the book but I've met the author and he/she seem very nice...
  • What if I think the book was so-so but it's a major bestseller and so my opinion might look like nothing more than sour grapes...
  • What if I love the book but my review seems like little more than vanity or pandering...
  • What if an on-line opinion starts a flame-war? 

Now in person I am more than happy to air my opinion on almost any topic:) My concern is always that once out there on the internet (via social media, blog posts or other review forums) it's out there forever and it has an unlimited potential to come back and bite me. 

Of course, good reviews are rarely the problem, but I think your credibility gets called into question if the only reviews you ever write are of the gushing, over the top 'I love it!!!!!' variety. If I'm going to present my opinion on-line I want it to be authentic, informative and interesting...which isn't going to happen if I only report on the books I totally loved. 

So I'm wondering what other writers do when they approach the issue of reviews in the online world. Do you:

  • Only review books you love?
  • Be honest, and just put your opinion out there? or
  • Avoiding reviews all together? 

I'm not sure how many TKZers post reviews on sites like Goodreads or Amazon (again I'm pretty reluctant to do either) or whether you express your opinions on social media like Google+, Facebook etc. On the one hand I think writing reviews can establish an authors credibility in terms of knowing their genre and being enthusiastic and involved in the writing world. On the other hand  I think reviewing other people's work can open up a whole can of worms (especially if it's not a glowing endorsement) and so I still hesitate...

So what do you do when it comes to reviews?

 Posted by at 4:00 am

Literary Heritage or Irrelevancy?

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May 212012
by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

A couple of weeks ago there was what you might call a mini literary dust-up here in Australia following the revelation that over a third of the winners of Australia's most prestigious literary prize (the Miles Franklin Award) are now out of print. 

This prize was only awarded as of 1957 so we're not talking about ancient tomes, but rather a body of literature that some people at least regard as critical. In lamenting this situation, the director of the Melbourne Writers Festival said (and I quote) "the best writing is timeless, and without some recognition and understanding of our literary history, we're forever focused on the new - as if history, knowledge and culture don't play a part in our understanding of ourselves."

In recent months there has been a lot of finger pointing about how people are losing touch with their literary heritage. This includes a lengthy debate over the failure of Australian universities to teach Australian literature and the generally shabby way in which our so-called literary darlings have been treated. 

I recently attended a lecture intent on helping revive interest in some of the so-called Australian classics and I have to admit I did start to wonder - should we really be worried about such dire pronouncements about our so called literary heritage? Or does the fact that no-one is reading these novels only point to the fact that they aren't really classics that have withstood the passage of time. Maybe (dare I say it) they are just too dull to survive?

Now don't get me wrong, there are plenty of amazing books out there that are no longer in print. There are also classics, however, that continue to be as popular as ever (people are still reading Dickens and Jane Austen after all). 

Should we really be force-feeding kids with books simply in the name of preserving 'literary heritage' (and to be honest I'm not sure I even know what this even means!) 

Likewise I feel passionate that we shouldn't neglect our literary past or ignore well-written books in order to merely pander to popular taste but the study of literature is (I hope) about much more than either of these things....

And yet...

What does this say about the relevance of so-called 'classics' to readers today? Should we be forced to feel some collective guilt over what may just be a natural evolutionary process (whereby the torpid and the dull don't survive?)

What do you think? No matter whether you live (and I'm assuming Australia isn't alone in it's predicament - although if it is, that might be even more telling!) do you think we should be concerned about our so-called literary heritage? Should we be worried about keeping the winners of prestigious writing awards in print - or should we just let history (and the readers) decide?

 Posted by at 5:04 am

Responding to Feedback/Criticism

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May 142012
by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

We have done a number of first-page critiques in recent weeks and I thought it might be a good time to think about how writers should respond to feedback and/or criticism. I think I speak for many when I say that dealing with criticism is one of the hardest things you have to do as a writer, especially when you get a myriad of comments, some of which are contradictory! 

Even some of our recent critiques show that feedback can be a very subjective thing - what might be a really compelling first page for one person may be a complete let down for how should writers handle criticism?

I think first and foremost, you need to take note of consistent feedback about a particular aspect of your writing. With many of our first page critiques there was a commonality of responses - often that the page involved too much 'telling' and not enough 'showing', or that it failed to have sufficient dramatic weight to tug a reader into the story. This kind of consistent feedback is useful stuff and, though sometimes a writer has to suck it up, it's worth listening to. 

It becomes more problematic when there are contradictory comments, especially if the feedback is 'this really worked for me' versus 'this didn't work at all for me'. Such contrasting responses are harder to deal with - not merely because you can never satisfy everyone (if you did it would be way too dull a world!).  

Here is my rule of thumb: If it speaks to me as a valid criticism (deep inside, once I get past pride and ego...), then I take it on board. If not, I seek additional validation from others that I trust, to see if they agree that the criticism has merit. Many times, especially in a writing class, some criticism is more about the  reviewer's own issues that the work itself.

As a writer you have to get used to all forms of criticism, because you'll get it from fellow writers, readers, agents, editors and reviewers.  How you respond can be indicative of how seriously you take your art. Here at TKZ, I have been very impressed by how the people who have fessed up to their submissions have taken the critiques and comments provided. Everyone has behaved professionally and has been gracious and respectful of the feedback offered. Thankfully, we have seen for the most part only insightful and helpful commentary...but for many of us, there will come a time when it won't be, and we will have to work out how to respond (or if to respond at all, as sometimes it is better to remain silent!). It could be the crazed one-star Amazon reviewer, or the snarky anonymous commentator...or it could even be a scathing review in a prestigious book review (we can dream, can't we!)

So, how have you all found the first page critiques so far? Are they helpful in a wider sense or limited to the author who submitted them?

Have you ever had a really wrenching 'criticism' moment  - and, if so, how did you deal with it? Were you tempted to get into an all out flame war with someone who dissed your work or did you just take a deep breath and hoped to disappear into the floor?

 Posted by at 5:01 am

Grounding the Reader – First Page Critique

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May 072012

 Today's first page critique is for a piece entitled Eyes in the Ashes. By now, you all know the drill, and my comments follow:
    Layla blinked, unable to see.  She strained trying to see something, anything in the pitch-black darkness.  She groaned. Her head hurt, much worse than a hangover ever had and the pain throbbed in time with her heartbeat.  She ran her fingers over her face, her eyes.  Her eyelashes fluttered against her fingertips.  They were open, nothing covered her face, but something sticky was all over it.  She tried to think. The last thing she remembered - walking out of the back room of the art studio. She’d heard someone in the outer room and when she walked out caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, someone grabbed her and then…. Nothing. 
She couldn’t remember. She must have blacked out.  She waved her hand in front of her face.  Why can’t I see?  I can’t be blind. She tried to sit up but something tangled around her body, some sort of soft, smooth material. A sheet?   She struggled to loosen it and sat up.  The movement sent her head  spinning. She groaned, pulled her legs up and dropped her head to her knees.  “Oh God” she whimpered and the sound echoed all around her.  
“h h h hello”  she whispered.
    Her voice echoed back to her.  Something rustled behind her and from nearby came a high pitched squeak.  She drew in a startled breath and shuddered. A horrible stench stung her nose and throat. She grabbed the cloth and covered her mouth, trying not to gag. Noises all around her now, squeaking, fluttering , scratching.  She struggled to her feet, swayed when they sank into the mushy ground. Something cold and wet crept between her toes.   
    She grimaced and stumbled forward, one foot at time, dragging the sheet with her like a security blanket.  She held one hand out in front of her, groping, searching, hoping to find something solid to touch.   Her throat stung and she took shallow breaths as she shuffled forward.           
    “Don’t pass out, don’t pass out”.

My comments:

I liked the visceral sense of foreboding that this first page evoked, and the author has created a situation that is both compelling and scary. I must confess, however, to finding myself a little 'ungrounded' at times in the scene. 

First off, I found the phrase that her eyes "were open, nothing covered her face, but something sticky was all over it", awkward. I started thinking about how her eyelashes could flutter if they were sticky which made me question whether her eyes had sticky stuff over them or not (which is making the reader work too hard!).  Then, having discovered this stuff all over her face, why didn't she try and work out what it was? (I was imaging all sorts of horrible stuff...) But instead she immediately starts thinking back to what had happened at the art studio. As a reader, I confess I wanted to get a stronger sense of the horror and panic she must be feeling. 

Two paragraphs later, when the horrible stench 'stung her nose and throat',  I wondered how she hadn't noticed this immediately (had there not been a stench before then?) When the cold and wet seeped between her toes, I realized I had no idea whether she was clothed or not and, given I assumed she was clothed when she was attacked, wondered how she could notice the softness of the sheet around her but not the state of her undress  (or at least the fact that she didn't have any shoes and socks on)?  This is when I think the author needed to think through the sensory experiences depicted and make sure they were consistent and well-grounded so that, even though the reader is as unsure as the protagonist about what has happened, we feel like we have enough information to keep reading without getting confused. 

I would also have expected her to scream or yell rather than whisper 'hello' (I certainly would panic in this situation!) but I was willing to go along with this reaction until I learned more about her as a character. On a more pedantic note, the sentence at the end of the first paragraph: "She’d heard someone in the outer room and when she walked out caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, someone grabbed her and then…. Nothing."  is awkwardly phrased (and grammatically incorrect - is something missing perhaps?).  I think the author needed to proof read this page a little more closely. (For another example, the word 'stung' is used twice which is repetitive for one page).

Otherwise, I was intrigued. I would probably keep reading but I would want to be a little more firmly grounded, in terms of her sensory experiences and location, to feel fully engaged in the story.

What do you think? 
 Posted by at 7:18 am