Thursday, March 31, 2011

An interview by Lily Bragge and some nudists

Friday is blog day. (Never mind that it says Thursday at the top of this post. It's definitely Friday. I must get that sorted out.) But a deadline looms. So today's blog is an old interview. Lily Bragg, journalist and author, asked me a few questions about my books.

In the interests of attracting extra readers to this blog, and improving a fairly dry post, I have included some nudists at the end. 

When you write your books, do you have a particular aim in mind?

I do want to make people laugh. I remember the books I enjoyed when I was young, and many of them featured comedy. But you can't expect someone to keep reading 45,000 words or so unless the characters do more than just tell jokes. Both I'm Being Stalked by a Moonshadow and Siggy and Amber contain many characters and situations remembered from my own past. There is social commentary in both of those books, but I try not to be too obvious. If you lay on the message a little thickly, you're going to alienate teenagers who know when they are being preached to and, quite understandably, don't like it.

Given that you are writing for young adults/and or children, do you want to impart anything specific, or is it just about storytelling?

The slightly tongue-in-cheek list at the back of I'm Being Stalked by a Moonshadow pretty well sums up how I think people should behave. It's not terribly deep. Being open-minded, generous and sympathetic are all there. So is regular flossing.

What, if any difference is there for you writing comedy scripts and books?

I find it very difficult to write comedy scripts in isolation. I've almost always worked with other writers. Writing books is a more solitary pastime. It's something that I enjoy very much but that I doubt I will ever do exclusively, for the sake of my own mental health.

Do you employ the same techniques for both disciplines?

I used to think that TV script writing was easier than writing books. With TV scripts you have to be able to plot and write dialogue, but not necessarily worry about the descriptive stuff - just give the art department a few clear, simple notes. Then I started writing with Andrew Knight for SeaChange. All the SeaChange scripts I wrote with Andrew ended up going through around seven drafts. My lasting memory of my time on SeaChange is that I had some titanic headaches.

What is the best/most satisfying writing project you've undertaken and why?

Writing the novel Tumble Turn was satisfying because I had left a good regular job in television so that I could write books, and yet I'd never written a Young Adult novel before. My first draft was very, very bad indeed. But I did six further drafts, working closely with my editor Dmetri Kakmi at Penguin. It was the start of a beautiful friendship. Dmetri edited my subsequent five novels, and we only argued when it was absolutely necessary; no more than three times a week. If he reads this he'll probably quibble about that last semi-colon.

Thank you for your time.

Here are the nudists.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Free Book

In ten years now, sales of e-books will exceed sales of old fashioned hardbacks and paperbacks. It's an impressive statistic and would be even more so if I hadn't merely heard it in an interview with Jeffrey Archer. Okay, here's another one. In the month of July of last year, Amazon reported that, for the first time, its sales of e-books exceeded those of hardbacks. Most e-books on Amazon retail for ten dollars or less - which is quite a bargain when you consider that I paid thirty-three dollars for Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I could have saved twenty-three dollars if I'd bought it as an e-book. Although I'm not quite sure that I would have enjoyed reading it as much on an iPad. My colleague Scott Alexander is currently reading Moby Dick on his iPhone. I must have looked a little doubtful when he told me, because he scrolled to the first sentence of the book and there it was: Call me Ishmael.

But I didn't create my first e-book because I especially wanted to embrace this new technology. I did it because I couldn't bear for Tumble Turn, the first novel I wrote, to be out of print. That's what happened last year. Penguin were nice about it. They didn't just chuck it away. They did a reprint before, sadly, they told me that the book had been removed from their catalogue. It was a horrible feeling. The book isn't well known, but it seems to have made a connection with a few people who contact me via the site. And because the book is important to me (more than, say, Kevin the Troll, although I quite like that book too), I'm giving it away. Penguin reverted the rights to me, then I reset all 40,000 words so that it didn't resemble the Penguin edition in any way at all. They own the design copyright, you see. I like Penguin's design, especially Karen Trump's idea of having a dart that meanders its way through the whole book. It starts here on the dedication page (to someone called Dart Ricchiera, who is a pretty amazing person):

 And it ends here on page 155:
That dotted line indicating the wayward flightpath of the dart, appears on every page. It's a nice touch. I'm all for anything that makes a book look different or intriguing. But that was a Penguin idea, and even though the book is out of print, the dart belongs to them. So I wasn't allowed to use that in the e-book. I also wasn't allowed to use a Penguin cover. (And heaven knows there were enough of them. You can see them all on the website.) But Luke Harris and Vision Australia let me use their cover that they created for the talking book. It was nice of them.
And this is where you can download it for free. I'm doing this because I'm hoping people might like it enough to buy my other books. Hey, you might even like to buy this one, that was nominated for an Aurealis award this week. (The Aurealis Awards recognise the achievements of Australian science fiction, fantasy and horror writers.)
Here is the complete shortlist for my category:
Merrow, Ananda Braxton-Smith, black dog books
Guardian of the Dead, Karen Healey, Allen & Unwin
The Midnight Zoo, Sonya Hartnett, Penguin
The Life of a Teenage Body-Snatcher, Doug MacLeod, Penguin
Behemoth (Leviathan Trilogy Book Two), Scott Westerfeld, Penguin

I guess you'd have to call me an outside chance. But it feels awfully good to know that someone has read the book. I wish more people would read Tumble Turn. Now is your chance! For free!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Thief

I went to a party last week. It was held by Penguin in their Camberwell offices. They have these little parties twice a year, and invite all their authors whose books have been published recently. I scored a flag, because of The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher. I knew most of the people there. I'm not big-noting, I'm just old. Jane Tanner, Sofie Laguna, Marc McBride, Terry Denton, Sherryl Clark, Margaret Clark, Graeme Base, Felice Arena, Gabrielle Wang and Craig Smith were all present and looking dandy. Especially Craig, who had ridden his bike all the way from Brunswick. Penguin editor and writer Jane Godwin gave a brief speech about what good books we'd all written, and I heckled only a little bit and everything was just fine. Except ... they didn't give us any free books this time. They did once. There used to be a lucky dip where you reached into a box of shredded newsprint and took out a mystery book, wrapped in brown paper, that was yours to keep. Since these books were always by other guests at the party, it was sometimes possible to pick out which packages might be more enticing than others. Graeme Base books were big and hard and highly desirable. At one of these lucky dips, writer and illustrator Alison Lester wanted a copy of my book, Siggy and Amber. This was very nice of her. I'd read her book, The Quicksand Pony, and enjoyed it.
But since Siggy and Amber was an average-sized book, B5 format with about 220 pages, Alison didn't want to risk picking the wrong book out of the lucky dip. So, she went up to the Penguin stand where my book was displayed, then she looked both ways and nicked it. After all, Alison reassured me, since it was a display book, it would undoubtedly be given away anyway. And it wasn't really stealing. There would be a spare book left in the lucky dip box that Penguin could keep. It was more of an exchange - and any bookstore lets you do that. Unless of course it's Borders, where you have to pay twice for the privilege. Anyway, Alison's minor act of civil disobedience is one of the sweetest things that anyone has ever done for me. I signed the book for Alison then went back to the queue for the lucky dip. But it occurred to me, did I really want an Aussie Nibble? There were at least three of them left in the lucky dip box and I just didn't want to ruin my chance of getting something really good, especially as one of Sonya Hartnett's books was in there. And so, emboldened by Alison, I stole - or preemptively exchanged - the Sonya Hartnett book I wanted from the display shelf and pretended I had been lucky enough to find it in the lucky dip. I asked Sonya if she would sign it for me. Ah, but Sonya had already signed a copy of The Ghost's Child that someone else had plucked from the lucky dip. She knew that something was amiss. And so, this is what she wrote:
It's my favourite inscription of all time. It's also one of my favourite books. But I think that Alison Lester and I might be the reason why we didn't get a lucky dip this time. We nobbled it, and I do apologise. Especially to Craig, who rode all the way from Brunswick.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Man in the Supermarket

Did you know there is aluminium in underarm deodorant? Well there is, and apparently I'm allergic. It makes me break out in big red spots all over my body (not just under the arms) and I really don't understand it. I've been in aluminium boats before and I've never broken out in spots. As an interesting experiment I once made a death mask by covering my face in layers of aluminium foil. (I was at a very under-resourced beach house and it was wet.) Sure enough, I produced a frighteningly accurate silver mask of my face - and suffered not a single blemish. But for some reason, the aluminium in deodorants turns me into a spotty, itching mess. I don't make a big deal about it, though I do feel I have to explain myself if I am out in public and break out in nasty blotches because I have carelessly used a deodorant that contains aluminium. People get annoyed. Why don't I buy non-allergenic deodorant? Am I some sort of imbecile? And this is the problem. You see, I'm actually allergic to some of those non-allergenic deodorants too. A few of them contain aluminium, but they hide the fact. I think they call it a different name, like 'fragrance'. Or they tuck it away in the list of ingredients between Steareth-2 and trygliceride. So I have to read those ingredients very carefully and not just accept the product's guarantee that it won't make me blotchy. But despite my best efforts, mistakes happen. And when they do, I stay away from people, afraid of their scorn. What kind of aluminium-intolerant moron uses the wrong deodorant? Does a person who's allergic to peanuts eat trail mix? Don't I even bother to look at the label? Can't I be more careful?

Anyway, at the Fitzroy Street supermarket this week, I was taking great care to select the brand of deodorant that would be least likely to make me look like a plague victim. I realised that the man alongside me was also taking considerable time to select his toiletries, so I presumed he must be a fellow sufferer. He was dressed like me, in baggy St Kilda black. Having finally made his choice, he took an aerosol deodorant from the shelf, uncapped it and proceeded to spray the contents over himself, starting at the head. He was at it for almost a minute, and looked perfectly at ease, having his deodorant bath while fully clothed. The air was so thick with the stuff that I had to retreat to the deli counter. Backpackers nearby were coughing in a variety of languages. When he'd finished his grooming ritual, the man replaced the aerosol then continued to shop, as if nothing untoward had happened. Maybe it hadn't? After all, it was St Kilda.

And guess what? By the time I got home, I was covered in spots. It was a deodorant allergy, I later explained to our lunch guests. They weren't entirely sympathetic. They told me to be more careful about which brand I select. I wanted to explain about the man in the supermarket, and that I was allergic to his deodorant, not the product I had so painstakingly chosen - but our visitors weren't from St Kilda, so I decided not to bother. They wouldn't have understood.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Dogstar Series Two is complete

Twenty-six half-hour episodes of Dogstar series two were delivered to my door this week. They look fantastic. The animation is Flash, but it's extremely classy. Scripting commenced in early 2009, so it's taken two whole years to make the sequel to series one. Philip Dalkin and I are the two writers responsible for the scripts.
I write all the odd-numbered episodes and Philip writes the even ones. Then we swap them, make suggestions about how to improve them, argue, give them back, then write a second draft. Each script goes through four stages. We write a scene breakdown to give people a rough idea of what the story will be like. If everyone is completely happy with it - and they rarely are - we go to first, then second draft. After second draft, there is still a chance to fix up some of the stuff that isn't quite right. It's called a script polish. This is the version of the script that the designers and director will use to do their storyboards for the episode.
It all happens here in Australia, which is unusual for large animation projects. For the last two years there have been studios in Melbourne and Perth, magically turning our words into animation. The director and designer for series two is Scott Van Den Bosch. Somebody really should give him an award. And probably some money.
Writing all the odd-numbered episodes means that I'm the one who writes the first episode of the series. Writing all the even ones means that Philip Dalkin has to write the endings. Episode 26 of the first series was about as final as you can get, thanks to Philip. The missing Dogstar, full of all the world's dogs, was returned safely to earth. Evil mastermind Bob Santino was locked up. The Clarks (the brave crewmembers of the Valiant) became heroes, and people started to take more care of the earth. The end. Or so we thought.
Somebody ordered another twenty-six episodes, which of course made us very happy. Except I had to write episode 27. Somehow, I had to relaunch the Dogstar, full of dogs, back into space. Bob Santino needed to be released from prison. The Clarks had to seek the Dogstar which, of course, had become tragically lost again. Oh, and because Santino's son Dino had somehow landed on a different planet at the end of series one, where he was a superhero, I had to return him to earth, where he wasn't. This all had to happen in 28 minutes, the length of an average Dogstar episode. I insisted that we all needed to go to a nice hotel to talk over the problem.
So, producer Colin South organised a script conference for Scott V and the writers. We all contributed ideas. (Not money. Colin did that.) Gradually we worked out how to get the series up and running again. We were staying at a very nice hotel in the spa district of the central highlands of Victoria, so we were keen to make the conference last as long as possible, but Colin said we weren't allowed to stay there for longer than two days.
My first draft of the script was ten minutes too long. I thought that if everyone spoke very quickly it might work. But the thing with animation is, you really don't want too many lines of dialogue, or viewers get bored and start throwing stuff. So I cut a lot of speeches and two of the best jokes I have ever written for the series. Thanks to some dog-evolved aliens called Canoids, which were featured in series one, the Dogstar ended up hopelessly lost again. We were all very grateful to the Canoids. In fact we liked the Canoids so much that we used them a lot more than we intended.
I don't know if the voice actors for the Canoids charged higher fees when they realised that they had become semi-regular characters. The writers never had much to do with the actors, although when Shaun Micallef (go on, click on that link and play the movie) came in to provide the voice of Boombah the genetically modified cat, I made sure I was in the recording studio. Philip wrote the last episode of series two. This is even more final than his last final episode. If there is a series three, it's going to take more than a bunch of Canoids to relaunch the series.
That's my first big blog post and I was determined not to make it too self-indulgent, but I don't think it's possible when you blog. Some writers do go a bit far. I read a blog where the author included a photo of the cool boots he had bought that week. I promise not to do this. Unless, of course, I buy some especially cool boots.
Dogstar series two will be playing soon on The Nine Network in Australia, then all over the world, because it's been sold to more than twenty countries. (Okay, twenty-one.)