Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Writing routines

I haven’t done a post about writing in a while.

Don’t get excited. This isn’t going to be one either. More of a thinking-about-getting-ready-for-writing one. And if you think that sounds like procrastination, it’s juuuust possible you’re on to something there. Nevertheless …

With Baby Duck starting school in a month, I’ve been contemplating the vast amounts of time that are about to open up for me. Well, maybe not that vast, but life will certainly be different. It will be strange and wonderful to have several hours to myself every day. Just thinking about it makes me excited, like Christmas all over again – only without all the shopping. Much better.

I want to establish a routine of writing every day. There’ve been some interesting posts on routines and organisation lately, such as Jeff Abott’s series on the organised writer, starting with this one: The Creative Habit and the Organized Writer. Over at Murderati JT Ellison has written three posts on The Writer’s Life, starting with this one. Both of them enthuse over the Getting Things Done system created by time management guru David Allen, so I bought his book (and a couple of others on time management and decluttering, which for me go hand in hand).

Yes, I'm conscious of the irony in adding to the clutter of my house with more books on decluttering. Still, I figure there are worse things to spend your money on, and they make me keen to get started. Not that getting started on new projects is usually a problem for me. It’s more the finishing I find tricky.

The idea I like best from it all so far is to have one central place to keep all your mental notes to yourself, all the flotsam of daily life – be it work, social, school or writing-related. Getting it all out of your head gets rid of the nagging worry that you’ll forget to send the money to school on the right day, or pay the Visa bill or buy flowers for Great Aunt Desdemona or whatever. And if it’s all written in the same place, whether it’s electronic or paper, you know you’re on top of it all and you can free your mind from the stress of trying to remember all these bits and pieces, and focus on whatever your real tasks are.

I’ve certainly missed my share of deadlines, only to discover the relevant piece of paper at the bottom of a pile on the kitchen bench a week later, so I’m familiar with this vague feeling of unease that I’ve forgotten something. Some things I write on the calendar, but not all, so starting tomorrow my new diary will be getting a workout. Onward and upward and all that. I’ll let you know how it goes.

If anyone else has some good organisational tips, particularly writing-related ones, I’d love to hear them.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

I lost three kilos today

Otherwise known as having a haircut. My head, which used to look like a beachball, is now only the size of a tennis ball by comparison. You could have stuffed a serious cushion with the hair that was left behind on the hairdresser’s floor. My hair is ultra short again and I feel so much lighter.

Drama Duck says I look just like her father now. Scary thought. They say that married couples start to resemble each other after a while. (Or is it that people start to look like their dogs? I can never remember.)

Worse still, it’s not just a physical resemblance. I’m even starting to think like him. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

I walked past his car in the carpark on the way to the hairdresser’s. I was seized with the urge to move it – just by a couple of spots. He might not even notice, or he might come back to the car and go “what the??”. I don’t usually think like that, but it’s the kind of thing that occurs to him all the time. I was strong, however, and squashed the evil impulse.

Ten minutes later I’m sitting in the hairdresser’s and he wanders in with a silly grin on his face.

“I thought I’d better tell you in case you panicked,” he says. “I moved your car.”

I tell you, it's a match made in heaven.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Painted Man

I mentioned in a recent post that I’d stolen time away from my Nano novel to read The Painted Man by Peter V Brett. If you like fantasy you have to read this. Especially if, like me, you’re sick to death of the run-of-the-mill garden-variety fantasy. As in: farm boy discovers he’s actually the lost heir to the throne/the world’s most powerful magician/saviour of the universe/(d) all of the above, goes on a quest and jaunts around the countryside meeting elves and dwarves, often with a mismatched crew of companions, till the book has been dragged out to sufficiently humungous length. May or may not involve dragons. Or – God forbid! – prophecies.

Or else it’s all kings and princes and constant battles. Sieges galore, political machinations, rise and fall of empires, yada yada yada.

Well, I’ve read a million of ’em, so I’m always desperately searching for something different. I might have missed this one, because a cursory glance had me thinking it was horror and not my cup of tea. I kept seeing the blurb on the Voyager site that begins: “Mankind has ceded the night to the corelings: demons that rise up out of the ground each day at dusk, killing and destroying at will until dawn, when the sun banishes them back to the Core. As darkness falls, the world's few surviving humans hide behind magical wards, praying that the magic will see them through another night.”

But then I stumbled on Brett’s blog, and found he was a debut author. Reading back through his entries I followed his journey to publication, the bidding wars and overseas sales, and became intrigued. If everyone who read the manuscript wanted to publish it, it must be something special, right? (And besides, he seems like such a nice, regular guy and his baby’s really cute.)

So I read it, and okay, there was a farmboy. But he too, was such a regular guy -- so real -- that I became engrossed in his story and didn’t even consider till I’d finished the book that it had started with the dreaded farmboy motif. Because this one didn’t have any magnificent lost heritage or amazing hidden powers to make him “special”. He was an ordinary person doing the best he could to face and overcome his fears and by doing so became a true hero. He earned it, instead of having it handed to him on a plate (no “we know you thought you were a lowly scullery lad/farm boy/whatever, but actually you’re the long-lost king’s son – here, have a sword and the hand of the princess”).

The book spends a lot of time developing its main characters, so you feel you really know them. They’re real, not just fantasy stereotypes. They have real problems, involving complex relationships, which build and snowball into bigger problems till they achieve “saving the world” size.

And then there’s the demons. Loved the demons! The whole worldbuilding, with scattered remnants of civilisation, the nightly assaults of the corelings and the wards that hold them at bay, was brilliant. So fresh and original. Not a dragon, elf or dwarf in sight. No magic swords, magicians, embittered mercenaries or royalty, deposed or otherwise. Just the grinding menace night after night, ordinary lives lived in constant fear and the effect that has on individuals and society as a whole.

Great storytelling. It’s one of those books you want to stay up all night to finish because you can’t bear to put it down. Probably not the best choice of reading material when you’re in the middle of Nano. Comparing my ugly first draft to this made me feel even more inadequate than usual. But I can’t wait to see where he takes the story. There were some intriguing developments towards the end that have me hanging out for the next instalment, The Desert Spear. I really hope it lives up to the promise of the first volume. It’s so good to see someone breaking new ground in fantasy.

Now I’ve just got to figure out a way to do it myself!

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Life unplugged

I’ve been enjoying time away from the computer since Nano ended. Done a little sewing, some reading, nowhere near enough Christmas shopping – but mainly spent time just hanging with the family. Depending on how desperate the Christmas shopping situation becomes I may go back to my Nano novel tomorrow. Or … I may be completely slack and leave it till January. (Anyone who knows my capacity for slackness will now be putting their money on the January option.) I still have at least another 50,000 words, probably more, to write before the first draft is finished.

I made it to 50,000 words on Friday the 28th and promptly collapsed in a heap. Heroic notions of continuing on till the stroke of midnight on the 30th to see how many words I could get done were left by the wayside. It just felt so good to stop! And it’s so much more fun to gorge on other people’s finished beautiful stories than wrestle with your own ugly uncooperative creation.

So I’ve been vegetating. And speaking of vegetation, this is what I see every week as I sit waiting while Baby Duck has his swimming lesson. It was even prettier a few weeks ago when the jacaranda was in full bloom, but I didn’t have the camera with me.

It feels like summer when the flame trees flower.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

The grass is always greener ...

Whenever I’m writing I feel an almost overwhelming urge to quilt instead. When I finally get around to quilting all I can think of is the books I’m longing to read. In the middle of reading I’ll be wishing I wasn’t so tired so I could get off the couch and do some scrapbooking, and when I’m scrapbooking …

You get the idea. Whatever I’m doing, something else always looks more inviting. When God was handing out attention spans I must have been in the nose line.

About a week ago, it was nearly killing me that I hadn’t read a book since the beginning of November. The only book I wanted in my head was my own and besides, I know how weak I am. If I started to read a book, I’d just read till I was finished and let the writing fall by the wayside. So I was being strong, despite there being several books I was itching to get my hands on.

But then my husband suggested a trip to our favourite book store, Infinitas. Did I say, “no, I couldn’t possibly, I’m too busy writing”? Did I say “get thee behind me, Satan Husband”?

Of course not. I leapt in the car like a golden retriever being offered a ride to the park (although I didn’t stick my head out the window or pant and get drool all over the seat).

My husband promised to hide the books when we got home so I wouldn’t be able to read them till Nano was over, but unfortunately he had to go out straight away and forgot. So there went a large chunk of the next two days, while I devoured The Painted Man by Peter V Brett. (A brilliant read, but more on that in another post.)

But at least it got the reading bug out of my system for a while. I picked myself up, promised to do better, and got back into writing. Only … I started to have lustful thoughts about fabric. Buying it, cutting it into little pieces and sewing it back together. I bought half a dozen patchwork magazines in an effort to get my cravings under control. But by 45,000 words the urge to sew was so strong I could hardly bear to sit down to write. My story was crap, the writing was wooden, my characters bored me senseless. I couldn’t stand it.

The loathing was so strong it took me till about 4 o’clock this afternoon to actually start writing today. It even crossed my mind to give up the whole thing, which would be pretty ridiculous this close to the finishing line. But why was I was doing it, if I hated writing this much? I know plenty of writers say that they go through stages in every novel where they hate the whole thing, but is it really as bad as this?

After it took a couple of hours to write the first 200 words today I gave up on writing full scenes. I just wanted to get it over with, so I started writing down whatever disconnected junk came into my head for the next scene, thinking, I can always come back later and fill it out properly. Just get “the good bits” down. And after I’d done that for a couple of scenes it started to flow again, thank goodness, and I got over my whole I-hate-writing tantrum.

So now I’m at 48,000 words. Hallelujah! By this time tomorrow I should have my life back. On the weekend I can sew!

And by Monday I’ll be saying “I hate sewing! I am never going to finish this quilt!”


Monday, 17 November 2008

Nano progress

What do maps, water sprites, miners’ tokens, flamestones and the tides between worlds have in common?

You don’t know? Well, that makes two of us. But I think they’re important – even connected – in my story. I just have to figure out how.

They’re what Holly Lisle calls “muse bombs” in her How to Think Sideways course: those little details that fall on to the page direct from the subconscious. You didn’t intend to put them in your story, they just appear, and then they catch your attention and insist on meaning something, making the story richer in the process than you consciously planned.

I’m having a lot of fun, though still regularly stricken by those panicked “but what comes next??” moments (just about every time I have to start a new scene, in fact). I realised today that I have about 6,000 more words written than I did this time last year, which pleases me. Still slightly ahead of the game at just over 31,000 words today. Once you make it into the 30,000s you start to feel you’ve broken the back of it, though in fact I know that story-wise I’m only about a quarter of the way through.

So I’ll end up having to do what I did last year, and write the end of the book as scene outlines instead of fully fleshed scenes. Chris Baty, the founder of Nano, recommends this approach, saying that it’s easier to come back later and fill out notes than have to dream up what happens next once you’ve lost touch with the characters and the narrative impetus. It certainly sounded logical to me and I was close enough to the end at 50,000 words last year that there were only about half a dozen scenes to outline.

The funny thing was that, by the time I got back to the novel to finish the first draft, I took one look at the notes I’d written and thought, “well, that’s not going to work!” and chucked it all. So it’s true what they say: you should put your manuscript away for a few months after you finish it and come back to it later with fresh eyes. You can view it a lot more objectively that way. I’ll be going back to that revision when I finish the current Nano project. Hopefully I don’t see by then that the whole thing needs to go!

Drama Duck’s caught the Nano bug and is trying to work out how she can do it too next year. Even Baby Duck is into novelling at the moment. His latest magnum opus is entitled Chickens From Space. He draws the pictures, we staple them together, then he dictates the text to me. In a world first, I give you a thrilling excerpt from this literary masterpiece:

Flapsy [one of the space chickens] laid an egg. POP! Out of the egg came a little chicken head and Stretchy [name-obsessed space chicken] asked what his name was too.

The chicken replied, “Bork!”

Stretchy said to Flapsy, “Is that his name? ‘Bork’?”

Flapsy said, “No, his name is John.”
Deathless prose! And he’s only five. Just think what he’ll be doing in another twenty years. Look out, Christopher Paolini!

Good luck to all the other Nanoers out there. Only thirteen more days till you can have your life back!

Monday, 10 November 2008

You know you're doing Nano when ...

1. … you’re at school listening to your child’s classmates read and you can hardly concentrate because one of the characters in the book is called “Great Aunt Desdemona” and all you can think is hey, that’d be great for Nano – that’s three whole words every time you mention the character’s name.

2. … you hardly hear the kids’ chatter on the way home from school because you left your heroine literally hanging off a cliff with a venom-spitting dragon just above her head and you need to get home and save her.

3. … your husband wanders past about 5:30, sees you still pounding away on the keyboard and says “So, I guess it’s takeaway again tonight?”

This last was a base and unjust accusation, I might add. In fact I made him his favourite dinner tonight, just to prove I can do Domestic Goddess and Creative Genius simultaneously.

Not that I’m getting cocky. As usual, I no sooner started crowing about how well the words were flowing the other day than it all came unstuck. I struggled through a couple of horrible days where getting the words to come at all was like pulling teeth. Yesterday I decided to have a life. Nice day, but unproductive wordcount-wise.

It was about this time last year that things got ugly. The first enthusiasm peters out and you’re left staring down the barrel of this huge dog’s breakfast, full of half-baked ideas and mind-numbing dialogue (and hideous mixed metaphors like that one). I wrote very little a couple of days, and even missed altogether on another couple, and before I knew it 50,000 words was receding into the distance faster than you could say “holy diabolical plot twist, Batman”.

So this year I’ve resolved not to miss any days, even if I only write a little. Now I’m closing in on 20,000, which is a good feeling. Finished on 19,390 today – before dinner even! So I get to watch a DVD and relax tonight, for the first time since October. And no, it won’t be Harry and the Honey. I’ll be laughing my head off at Pierce Brosnan all over again in the wonderful Mamma Mia.

One of my Nano buddies, the fleet-fingered Jaye Patrick, has already passed 50,000. Last Friday, in fact, which is a truly astonishing effort. It’s so far beyond my abilities I can’t even be jealous. I’m just awed. She’s now streaking off into the distance, and will probably arrive at the finish line with around 200,000 words under her belt.

I definitely need to find some one-fingered typists to buddy up with next year.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Harry and the Honey

Baby Duck and I were discussing a treat for him yesterday. The girls are doing something on the weekend without him, so a consolation prize seemed in order. He’s always asking to hire a DVD from the shop, and the DVD shop is right next to school so we walk past it all the time, but we don’t often say yes. The kid would be a complete zombie if we let him watch as much TV as he would like.

He was pleased with the idea and announced that he wanted to see “Harry and the Honey”. Now, it might not be obvious to everyone, but I speak fluent Baby Babble, so I knew he meant the Bee Movie. (If you haven’t seen it, the main character’s name is Barry, so he was reasonably close.) I agreed to get it for him and put it on my mental “to do” list for today some time.

This morning my darling husband offered to take the kids to school and preschool so I could get an earlier start on the day’s Nano wordcount. He’s thoughtful like that. I think I’ll keep him.

So here I am, typing away merrily, when the phone rings.

Confused husband: “Do you have any idea what this movie “Harry and the Honey” is? The guy at the DVD shop’s never heard of it.”

I could hardly stop laughing. Baby Duck had propped at the door to the shop and announced that “Mum said you have to get me a movie”. The kid has a mind like a steel trap when it comes to remembering promises. My poor husband. Luckily he doesn’t embarrass easily.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Emergency: Send more chocolate!

That munching sound you hear? That’s the sound of my brain being eaten alive by the Nanomonster living inside my skull.

Ye gods! Send more chocolate. I don’t know if I can keep this up. I’ve been writing with a splitting headache all afternoon. It wasn’t until I’d nearly finished that I realised I’d been writing all about my heroine’s splitting headache. Is it just me, or is that a bit Twilight Zone? Is art imitating life or vice versa? I’d better be careful I don’t make her pregnant or something. Maybe she should win the lottery?

My brain is in total meltdown. This novel-writing caper is taking up all the room in my head. You wouldn’t believe what I did tonight.

I was making a cheese sauce. Usual procedure: melt butter in microwave, add flour, mix, add milk and microwave till sauce thickens then add cheese. Easy. So I get a full tub of butter out of the fridge, scoop a bit into the microwave jug and put the jug in the microwave for a minute on high. Only when the microwave beeps and I go to remove the jug, I discover that the jug’s still sitting on the bench. It’s the brand-new tub of butter that’s just turned to goop in the microwave.

Someone please remind me why I thought doing Nano again would be a good idea?!

My head feels like the tardis – bigger on the inside than the outside. The pressure of all those words in there fighting to get out is killing me. Or maybe it’s just the headache. I’m too stuffed to be able to tell. I’ve done 11,000-odd words in the last five days, which is a new record for me. Sadly most of it is probably crap. I know at least half what I wrote today was. It was even boring me to write it, so I don’t think I’ll be letting anyone read it any time soon. Fortunately for my sanity I eventually wrote my way through this suckfest and once or twice even achieved a zen-like state where words seemed to tumble out almost, well – easily. And they were good.

Maybe that’s why I wanted to do it.

Sunday, 2 November 2008


That’s how many words I’ve written on my Nano novel this weekend. Not a bad start, though as usual it took me much longer than I would like, plus a fair bit of snarling at children to go away and leave me alone. I wish I could write faster. I suspect if I were better prepared it might not take as long. A distressing amount of time is spent staring into space wondering what on earth is going to happen next.

There’s also the issue of the computer I am using this year. I love my computer. It has many wonderful features, including a large monitor, a lovely soft keyboard, lots of memory, cordless mouse and an internet connection. Its bad points are that it is located in the family room and it has an internet connection. Last year I was mainly working on an old machine with a clunky keyboard, tucked away downstairs – and no internet connection. Amazing how much easier it was to concentrate when the internet was not available as a distraction.

Still, I am such a master of the noble art of procrastination I’m sure I could come up with something even without the internet. Yesterday was comical. It took all the self-discipline I possess (yes, all two drops) to sit down at the computer and start. “But it’s so big and scary!” said my inner panicker. “50,000 words. I can’t do it! And there’s so many other things I could be doing. How about scrubbing the shower recess with a toothbrush instead? That should kill a few hours.”

It took me over an hour, but after making cups of tea, getting (and drinking) several glasses of water, visiting the bathroom because of all the water, finding my favourite pen (because, you know, when you’re typing your novel on a computer you really need a pen), gathering all my notes, rereading them, re-rereading them in case I missed something the first time that was so crucial to the (as-yet-miniscule) plot that I couldn’t possibly start without it – after all that, I managed to get started.

So far so good. How is everybody else going?

Friday, 31 October 2008

Happy Halloween!

Halloween’s not big in Australia. Ten years ago it slipped completely under the radar. These days you might get a handful of kids knocking on your door, but no one takes much notice.

The ducklings love the whole dressing up and begging for chocolate idea, but I haven’t let them do it up till now. When you spend all your time trying to bring your kids up to be well-behaved, it seems odd to tell them that on this night it’s okay to demand chocolate and threaten to be mean to people who don’t provide it. I love the idea of dressing up, but the “trick or treat” bit bothers me. But maybe countries that do the whole Halloween thing don’t take it that literally? I don’t know.

Anyway, tonight I was supposed to be away, and Daddy was going to take them to hit on the neighbours. As it turned out, my weekend away was cancelled, but I didn’t have the heart to cancel their Halloween plans as well. And they did look good in their outfits. Baby Duck was the world’s cutest vampire. They only visited the neighbours on each side, but still managed a good haul, so they were happy.

The pumpkin photo above is a birthday cake I made a couple of years ago for a scary-themed birthday party. At the same party we had severed fingers, bloodbaths, bats and gingerbread men with stakes through the heart. If you’re celebrating Halloween, I hope you have a good time. I’m sending you virtual Halloween treats:

And if you can explain how the trick-or-treat thing really works, you’d be helping a confused Aussie.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Plotless and panicking

Well, not entirely plotless. But definitely panicking. Nano starts in three days and I don’t feel at all ready. In fact I have more of an idea than I did last year, and that turned out all right, so I suppose I should have a little faith. I know perfectly well that panic and deadlines are powerful motivators for me.

Cool ideas keep occurring to me, but they’re more of a worldbuilding nature when what I need is actual plot details. When I sit down to write on Saturday, knowing all about the political situation or what magic users can and can’t do is not going to help me get words on paper. What are my characters actually going to do? I have an initial situation but no real idea of what happens after that. I hated that last year – desperate brainstorming squeezed into every spare moment so I would have something to write the next day. I got a reasonably coherent plot out of it, so it worked, but man, it was painful. I fondly imagined that I would be better prepared this year and avoid the mad scramble but it’s not looking good. Some serious rabbit-pulling-out-of-hat required.

The other thing that’s making me nervous is that I foolishly agreed to go away for the weekend with some girlfriends. When we planned it Nano never even crossed my mind. Now I’m going to have to be antisocial and lock myself in my room with my laptop for a couple of hours each day or risk falling so far behind I’ll never catch up. I missed two days last year (though not consecutive) and it nearly killed me trying to make up for them. Yet I don’t want to miss any of the fun with the girls either. I know, can’t have my cake and eat it too – but I wish I’d had my brain switched on when we were planning. “No, no, I can’t possibly do November 1st and 2nd. I’ll be busy creating world’s greatest fantasy novel that weekend.”

And speaking of creating: there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that I didn’t make my goal of writing one short story a week these last four weeks. The good news is that I did get two done, which is two more than I would have otherwise, so I’m reasonably happy. Though one is pretty crapulent. Not sure if I can save it, but I’ll perform first aid when Nano’s over. Still, it was a useful exercise and definitely worth repeating. Even if you miss, having something to aim for makes you more productive.

Better get back to that novel planning. I’ve got a lot of panicking to fit into the next three days.

Friday, 17 October 2008

In which the dreaded green wall makes another appearance

The two elder ducklings helped me paint a picture last week for our green feature wall. See? I knew I’d find a use for all those green sample pots.

Baby Duck was all keen to help paint circles too until it was made plain to him that he couldn’t just paint one giant circle on the canvas. He couldn’t even have one little corner to paint whatever he liked. The Pout made its appearance, quickly followed by the Venomous Look. Some people have such dreadful mothers.

Drama Duck pointed out when we were finished that it looked rather Aboriginal. Not sure how that happened, since the piece that inspired us looked nothing like an Aboriginal painting. It was pink and gorgeous but I can’t tell you any more than that because it was just in the background of a photo I ripped out of a magazine when the painting caught my eye.

Still, I’m happy. It's quite big, about 3' x 3'. It combines the greens and apricots I needed to tie the colours of the room together, and it was a fun way to spend an afternoon. Demon Duck took particular joy in accidentally-on-purpose wiping a great deal of paint over the white pants she was wearing (they were old). I think it made her feel more artistic. And it beats letting them watch TV.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Keeping secrets

Some women keep secrets from their husbands. Big ones, like lovers or the truth about the kids’ paternity. Small ones, like shoes or bags paid for in cash so they don’t appear on the credit card statement.

I’m not much of a secret keeper. I enjoy talking to him too much, I guess. But it occurred to me today that there may be a couple of writing-related things that, while not secret per se, I may not have quite got around to mentioning yet.

The first is Nanowrimo. I foresee much eye-rolling when I break the news that his wife is disappearing for the month of November again. I wish I was one of those people who can power through the necessary wordcount in an hour or so but, sadly, it takes me more like three hours a day to keep up. Takeaway dinners, here we come.

The other revolves around what I’m working on for the rest of October. What I’m supposed to be working on is the second draft of my novel. What I’m actually working on is a series of short stories. Inspired by Jay Lake, among others, I’ve made a pact with myself to write one short story a week this month – just to see if I can do it. Heaven knows, I need to up my output if I’m ever going to get anywhere, and a few more pieces to start getting out there and submitting would come in handy.

But I know what he’ll say. “Why don’t you just finish one thing before you start something else?” And it’s a reasonable question. “Because I have the attention span of a cardboard box” is not the best anwer. Nor is “because these ideas are New! Shiny! I love shiny!”. I know I’m the queen of unfinished projects, but I promise I will get back to the revision. Eventually. I just have this Nano novel to plan first …

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Guess what?!

Okay, don’t strain yourselves, you’ll never guess. Besides, I’m dying to tell you.

Got an email today with the news every aspiring writer wants to hear:

“We are happy to advise you that your story ‘Pre-Dinner Drinks’ has been selected for publication in ZineWest 2008 and is eligible for the competition prizes.”

I’m going to be in print! Admittedly, only in a small regional magazine, and payment is a free copy, but still. My first published story. Thirty-two entries were chosen for publication from 108, and all those are now eligible for the grand prize of $400.

I have no expectation of winning that. In fact, I was sure they wouldn’t take the story. After I’d submitted it I showed it to my writing group, and they convinced me it was unfinished. So I dreamed up a new ending and was just waiting for the rejection before I revised it and submitted elsewhere. It’s funny how these things work out, isn’t it? I think the writing group was right, but somebody else thought the story was good enough as it stood. I guess it shows you shouldn’t try to secondguess these things. Some people will like your work and some people won’t, and you’ll never know which is which till you send it out.

I tell you what, though, there’s nothing like an acceptance to give you a confidence boost! Look out, world. This is but the first step in my fiendish plan. Today, ZineWest. Tomorrow, NYT bestseller list.

No harm in dreaming, is there?

Friday, 3 October 2008

Seven telltale signs that it's school holidays

There are a few surefire ways to tell that it’s school holidays around here.

1. Children who are unable to get up on time for school miraculously leap out of bed at crack of dawn to watch TV.

2. Everyone is so pleased to be able to stay home and do nothing for a change that a million playdates and excursions have to be planned to alleviate the boredom.

3. We mortgage our house to pay for movie tickets for five people to the latest kids’ movie.

4. The ducklings’ love/hate relationship with each other escalates to new heights/depths.

5. Their mother starts looking around for a cardboard box big enough to ship at least one child overseas.

6. Maternal patience starts to wear veeeery thin. As in “Muuum, the dog hurt me – she dug her nails into my foot.” Me: “I don’t care if the dog disembowelled you, I don’t want to listen to any more of your whining.”

7. Dinner conversation devolves into a succession of slightly off jokes. You try eating pizza with broccoli on it with someone saying: What’s green and hangs from tall trees? Giraffe snot!

Monday, 29 September 2008

On your marks ...

The Nanowrimo site has been cleaned out, all sparkling and ready for this year’s extravaganza. I feel excited already and it’s still only September.

If you haven’t heard of Nano, it stands for National Novel Writing Month. If you join in you agree to start a new novel on November 1st and “complete” it by November 30th. To be complete it must have a beginning, middle and end, though not necessarily fully fleshed out, and must be at least 50,000 words. If you make it you’re a winner, though the thrill of accomplishment is the only prize.

The website has lots of tips and a great forum where you can find encouragement and inspiration (or someone to commiserate with when things aren’t going well). Pep talks from famous authors are emailed every week. You can also find writing buddies to compare wordcounts with and egg each other on.

Last year was my first attempt. I was about 98% certain that I wouldn’t make it, yet I managed it. I was so pleased with myself I took a photo of my screen, showing the wordcount over 50,000. I know, I’m tragic.

My only regret last year was that I didn’t write a fantasy novel. I had this “real world” idea that just wouldn’t go away and, since I never really expected to make it, I thought I’d just spend the month on it and get it out of my system. That would be the novel that I’m still revising, so that plan didn’t quite work out.

So this year it’s all-singing, all-dancing fantasy all the way. Magic – yes! People turned into animals – yes! Fairies and dragons and warriors with bad attitudes – yes! Quests with no toilet stops – yes, yes, yes!!! In short, all the great cliches of fantasy. I can hardly wait.

I’ve started planning my novel already (who said I couldn’t learn from my mistakes?). Haven’t broken it yet to the other half that I’m doing it again. He was very supportive last year – even made the ultimate sacrifice and took the kids to a teenage mutant ninja turtles movie while we were on a weekend away so I could have time to write. I think he will be quietly horrified to find that he has to live through it all again this year.

Anybody else planning to take it on?

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Canine reproduction: which comes first, the dog or the egg?

Baby Duck and I were cuddling in bed this morning. At least, I was trying to cuddle, hoping that the day might go away if I could just keep my eyes closed a little longer, but Baby Duck was full of beans and it was like trying to wrestle an octopus.

“Mum?” he says.

“Mmm?” Go back to sleep, pleeeease.

“Does a girl dog have to marry a boy dog so she can lay eggs?”

Well, no, son. A girl dog has to have a complete biological redesign in order to lay eggs.

After we get that part straightened out he tries again.

“Well, does a girl dog have to marry a boy dog so she can lay puppies?”

“She doesn’t have to marry him, but she has to be with him. She can’t have puppies on her own.”

“Then why did Summer have to have her bits taken out? She’s always on her own.”

I wonder about this kid sometimes. The dog was desexed nearly two years ago. I’m surprised he even remembers it. He thinks about the strangest things.

Must be his father’s genes.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Tag, you're it

Jenn Hubbard tagged me a couple of weeks ago. I’ve never been tagged before. You’re supposed to answer some questions then tag someone else to answer in turn, but since this blog has a readership of roughly two people (hi, Mum!), I won’t bother with that part.

Jenn was very clever and answered in character as one of the characters from her books, but it’s late and that would make my brain hurt, so you’ll just have to put up with me. Feel free to go watch reruns of Gilligan’s Island or wash your hair or whatever instead.

1. What are your nicknames? They’re mostly private, often unflattering. One I can own up to is “Pup”, which my family have been calling me since I was tiny. “Pup” was one of the first words I learned to say (I’ve always been a dog-lover!) and I liked it so much I used it for everything.

2. What do you do before bedtime? Usually put off going to bed until I’m so exhausted the next day is a wipe-out.

3. What was the first movie you bought in VHS or DVD form? Seriously, people remember this stuff? I can hardly remember my children's names some days.

4. What is your favorite scent? That’s a hard one as I have an excellent sense of smell and am very conscious of scents. Maybe frangipanis or the ocean. I don’t like perfume because it’s too strong.

5. If you had a million dollars that you could only spend on yourself, what would you do with it? You mean after I stopped rolling in it and squealing?

6. What one place have you visited that you can't forget and want to go back to? My mind’s gone completely blank. I know a few places that I haven’t been that I’d love to go, though, like Venice, Japan, Canada.

7. Do you trust easily? Afraid so. They invented the word gullible for me, you know.

8. Do you generally think before you act, or act before you think? Definitely think – often so much that I never get to the acting part.

9. Is there anything that has made you unhappy these days? Just the usual – not winning the lottery yet.

10. Do you have a good body-image? Are you kidding? So many billion women in the world and only a dozen supermodels. The odds are not good.

11. What is your favorite fruit? Mangoes.

12. What websites do you visit daily? Mainly writers’ blogs, like the ones on my sidebar. Also my writers’ group.

13. What have you been seriously addicted to lately? Peppermint chocolate. My obsession has reached such tragic proportions I’ve even done a scrapbook page about it.

14. What kind of person do you think the person who tagged you is? Jenn seems to be a very deep thinker. Her posts on writing are very insightful. She’s also friendly and welcoming to visitors.

15. What’s the last song that got stuck in your head? Ants in the apple, a-a-a. What, you don’t know this one? My dear, you haven’t lived! There’s a whole alphabet full of them, all the way up to “zippy zebra, z-z-z – and that’s the sound that z makes”. It takes six minutes and forty-something seconds to sing the whole thing, and as soon as you finish, Baby Duck says, “Let’s do it again, Mum!”. Yee-hah.

16. What’s your favorite item of clothing? My new green top.

17. Do you think Rice Krispies are yummy? Not sure what these are. Must be an American thing. Assuming they’re some kind of breakfast cereal, I would probably prefer my homemade muesli, which is so scrummy I hunted down a hospital dietician and begged her for the recipe.

18. What would you do if you saw $100 lying on the ground? Assume it was a trick.

19. What items could you not go without during the day? Did I mention the thing with the peppermint chocolate?

20. What should you be doing right now? Sleeping. See answer to Question 2.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Are we there yet?

The ducklings have a fabulous picture book called Are We There Yet? by Alison Lester, about a family that goes on a road trip around Australia. It’s one of those rare books that manages to be beautiful and a lot of fun as well as educational. Every second page, after lots of detailed illustrations and interesting info about the family’s current stop, the refrain goes: “And Billy said, ‘Are we there yet?’”
Anyone with kids is all too familiar with that particular chorus. I’m starting to feel like Billy myself as I work through this revision. Are we there yet?

The problem is that I’m having to put a lot of new material into the first part of the novel. This is a good thing, since it needed it, but also a bad thing because it makes me feel that I’m not making any progress. I’m writing and writing and writing yet I never move on through the pages of the first draft cause I keep thinking up more stuff that I need to add before I can continue.

The other problem is that I’ve had to redo some of these new scenes because I don’t think sufficiently about them before I write them. Just when I think they’re done and I can move on, some humiliatingly obvious thing occurs to me and I think, well der! why didn’t you write it like that instead? So back on the little mousey wheel I go, running and a-running. Are we there yet?

Jen Hubbard had a great post a couple of weeks ago on the stages of writing. Some of the stages of rewriting had me laughing even as I winced, like “Oh, that's perfect! No, wait, it doesn't fit”. Or “We're on the right track now! We're off the right track. We are in the fields beyond the track.”

When you read a good book, one thing flows from another in such a way that it seems inevitable. Yes, of course that character did X when Y happened. Naturally they broke up at the end – it was the only possible outcome after what happened at the party. And so on. Everything fits together so well it looks easy. I guess I never really believed it truly was easy, but I’m discovering exactly how hard it is now, and I’m here to tell you it ain’t pretty. Think jelly wrestling with crocodiles.

If I want to produce that seamless inevitability, I’ve got to do some more planning, sit down and really pinpoint what the focus of each scene is. Otherwise I’ll be re-re-re-re-re-rewriting these suckers till I go grey. Oh, wait, that already happened. Well, till I become that demented woman yelling at her computer, “Are we there YET???”

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Swimming for aetheists only?

Drama Duck was reading a book about sharks1 to Baby Duck last night for his bedtime story. She’s an advanced reader for her age but she tends to slide over unfamiliar words instead of stopping and trying to figure them out.

I could hear her from the next room, her voice full of expression:

“The average hammerhead shark is about eleven feet long. It is easily identified by its superwide head. The hammerhead’s eyes are at either end of its head, giving it great binocular vision. Hammerheads eat fish, squid, octopuses, cri-Christians and other sharks.”

Christians? Seems a tad exclusive of them. Shame the ancient Romans didn’t know about this dietary quirk. When they got tired of throwing Christians to the lions, they could have thrown them to the hammerheads instead. Although “Christians to the hammerheads!” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

After a moment’s thought I realised that the word she’d stumbled on must be “crustaceans”. I suppose it is a tricky one. Christians of the world can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that they’re no more likely to become a shark’s lunch than the Buddhists, Muslims, aetheists and everybody else after all.

1. The Magic School Bus: The Great Shark Escape by Jennifer Johnston

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Once upon a time -- you were saying?

I posted a while ago about beginnings and how important it is to hook the reader right from the start. I said that “Once upon a time” just didn’t cut it any more.

Would you believe I’ve found the most brilliant beginning – and it starts with “Once upon a time”? Just goes to show that if you’re good you can make anything work. And also that I have no idea what I’m talking about – not that that comes as a great surprise!

It’s from Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler. I read her Digging to America when it came out (a couple of years ago?) and was awed by her skill. I went looking for another, but didn’t like it as much. Last week I picked up Back When We Were Grownups while browsing the secondhand bookshop and I’m back to awe again. She is a master of understatement. Her characters are brilliant; so real, so ordinary but so engrossing. Yet they are brought to life so obliquely. She could have written the textbook on “show, don’t tell”. It made me realise how much I have to learn.

It was a quiet little story, like the others of hers I’ve read. Everyday, domestic problems – but do you think I could put it down? The first line sucked me in and I was gone.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”

How cool is that? I want to be Anne Tyler when I grow up.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Why stories shouldn't have necks

Baby Duck has discovered a sudden passion for drawing. Looking at one of the many masterpieces littering the house today it struck me that children’s drawings are a lot like good writing.

This is me. Clearly I need to lose weight.

Apart from that lowering thought, it’s fascinating to see what my little artist has put in his drawing and what he hasn’t. You can see I have five fingers on each hand, since the little monkey has realised what important tools these are, whereas I have no toes. There’s no detail on the body as that’s just the big lump in the middle that all the interesting bits hang off. I have short hair, which is an accurate observation. My face is the most detailed part of the drawing because of its importance. It shows ears (with holes for hearing), eyes with irises and pupils (even at five he senses that the eyes are the key to the whole person) and a big happy smile.

What he doesn’t show is a nose. After all, noses just sit there and breathe which, while essential, is kind of boring. I also have no neck – another dull piece of anatomy that merely connects two more interesting pieces.

In their early drawings, kids only put in the features that have meaning for them. All the good bits. Writing should be like this too. As I revise my novel I’ve been hitting the delete key a lot, nuking all those passages where characters are travelling from one place to another, or making breakfast, or exchanging pleasantries.

Holly Lisle put it well in her One-Pass Revision article (which is one of many useful free writing resources on her site). Writers should “give the impression of reality” without all of the boring detail. “All the sex and violence, passion and struggle. None of the teeth-brushing.”

Down with teeth-brushing, I say. My five-year-old has it right. My story doesn’t need any necks. It can jump straight from the body to the face if it wants to, because that’s where all the good stuff is happening.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Slippery little suckers

Words can be such slippery little suckers. Tonight at dinner we were talking about the game MindTrap, which is an old favourite of ours. You play by answering questions using logic and deductive reasoning. I love the “lateral thinking” type ones, where you can ask questions to work out the answer to the puzzle. (You know, like the classic “Joe and Fred are lying dead on the floor, which is covered in broken glass and water. How did they die?” The answer: Joe and Fred are goldfish and their bowl has been smashed.) My beloved, not surprisingly for an accountant, likes the maths-based ones, most of which make my brain hurt.

The ducklings were curious so we got it out and read them some questions. One was:

“There are six ears of corn in a hollow tree. If a squirrel can take out three ears per day, how many days will it take to remove all the corn?”

Easy, huh?

Did you say “two days”? Yeah, me too. I knew there had to be a catch, but I never saw it coming. The correct answer is “six days”. The squirrel can only carry out “three ears” per day – but he already has two ears stuck on his head.

Slippery, all right.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Hack and slash

I’ve finally done it! After a medal-worthy marathon of procrastination, I finally sat down last night and started editing my novel. And it was fun. Take that, hideous opening sentence! In fact, goodbye whole boring first two pages. The first scene, which wasn’t particularly long, lost 1,000 words in a frenzy of hack and slash. Could be a problem if I keep that up, since I need to add about 20,000 words to the total length. I could end up with a short story instead of a novel.

Still, I’m pleased that I’m moving again. I finished the first draft two months ago and have been stalling ever since. My new goal is to finish the book before November rolls around and I start NaNoWriMo and do it all again. In fact, I’d better finish a couple of weeks before, to give me time to think about my NaNo project …

Guess I’d better go do some revising.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Mirror, mirror, on the wall ...

Everyone’s image of themselves is just a little different to the reality. Mine’s a little thinner, a lot less grey. Baby Duck, however, has self-delusion honed to an artform. Yesterday someone asked him what colour he would make his hair in his self-portrait.

“Like yours,” he said to the nice blonde lady.

Vanity, thy name is Baby Duck. Wishing doesn’t make it so. Only a large amount of peroxide could help him there. His hair is light brown – quite an attractive heading-towards-dark-blonde shade, but still undeniably brown.

It reminded me of a classic exchange at the supermarket checkout last year. The woman behind us in the queue was chatting to Baby Duck.

“You look like your mummy, don’t you!” she says.

“No,” says Baby Duck, looking at her as if she’d suggested he had two heads.

“No? Who do you look like then? Your daddy?”

“Nobody. I look like me.”

“Oh. Well, I think you look like your mummy.”

(Mummy finds this type of talk very gratifying. Ha ha! I’ve left my genetic mark on this poor unfortunate child.)

“No, I don’t,” he insists. He prepares to bring out supporting evidence, and I imagine it will be along the lines of “she’s a grown-up and I’m a kid” or “I’m a boy and she’s a girl”, but what he says is: “She’s got brown hair.”

“And what colour is your hair?” asks the lady, because, well, it’s brown too. Lighter than mine, but brown all the same.

“It’s gold,” he says firmly, “and all sparkly.”

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Evil brain sloths

“Where do you get your ideas from?” is a question that published authors get asked a lot. I only hope someday people will be asking me. Karen Miller thinks the question should be “where don’t you get ideas?”. Glenda Larke agrees, and thinks that if you have to ask the question, you don’t understand how writers’ minds work. Justine Larbalestier gets hers from evil brain monkeys. The common theme is that getting the ideas isn’t the problem – it’s the actual turning them into stories that’s hard.

I had an interesting encounter with my brain monkeys this week. They’ve always given me plenty of ideas, but only little bits and pieces. Once they’ve given me the first glimmering of a story they just roll over and go back to sleep, leaving me to figure out all the rest of it alone. I think I actually have brain sloths. Perhaps the monkeys were all gone by the time I got to the head of the queue.

Only this week I tried something different at Holly Lisle’s suggestion (I’m doing her How to Think Sideways writing course). Instead of leaping all over an idea the minute the poor thing poked its head up out of the subconscious and trying to force it into a story, I waited. Boy, that was hard. But it was worth it, because when that idea saw that the coast was clear it called all its mates out to join it and bang! the whole story fell into my head. Obviously I still have to write it, and no matter how complete the idea is, the writing is still where the hard work comes in. But it’s going to be really interesting to start writing a story without that sinking “I wonder what the hell comes next” feeling.

So now I’m thinking I may have maligned my brain sloths. Maybe they’re not a bunch of lazy no-good slackers after all. Maybe they’re just shy and I was scaring them away. Come out and play, little brain sloths! All is forgiven.

So. Where do you get your ideas from?

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Calling his bluff

Demon Duck is only seven, but sometimes she seems much older. The other day her daddy was teasing her by suggesting that he should come to her netball break-up party.

“You can’t,” she says. “It’s only for the girls.”

“I could wear a skirt.”

She eyes him consideringly. “Yeah, that would be worth it.”

And where did she get that evil sense of humour? He only has himself to blame.

Monday, 28 July 2008

The Life of Mammals

“If we’re very quiet we can observe a family grouping here. The mother is in the middle, with her three offspring piled around and on top of her for warmth. We see them in a typical bonding ritual, their attention fixed firmly on the TV.”

Thanks, Sir David, I’ll take it from here.

As a special treat the ducklings get to stay up to watch David Attenborough’s The Life of Mammals on Monday nights. I get almost as much fun out of watching them as I do from the show. They’re such different personalities.

Baby Duck: He’s not as interested in the show as the girls, but won’t miss a chance to stay up. Comments on odd things. Tonight, for example, an ad came on for the Good Guys (a local electrical appliance retailer). The ad is a deliberately corny song-and-dance extravaganza to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations.

“They’re not really good guys, are they, Mum?” says Baby Duck.

“Why not?”

“That man was throwing a TV. That’s naughty. And they climbed up on top of that bench. They shouldn’t do that, should they?”

Drama Duck: Keeps up a running commentary throughout the show. “Don’t chase me, don’t kill me,” as antelope flees lion “ouch, that’s my stomach, ooh, get off, bad lion, don’t bite me, oh that hurts” etc. One of her nicknames is “Little Miss Talk Underwater”.

Demon Duck: This one has a wicked sense of humour. After the umpteenth time of me shushing Drama Duck, she says matter-of-factly, “shall I get the stickytape, Mum?”

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Driving me crazy

School’s gone back so Baby Duck has me to himself again. He’s enjoying the chance to get a word in without the girls interrupting him. He particularly likes to chat when we’re in the car -- no TV to watch, I suppose – so every car trip becomes an exhausting ordeal-by-question. I tell you, the Spanish Inquisition would be proud.

Generally I’m very patient but when the 200th question in a 5 km trip is something like “do dinosaurs fight better than robots?” I’ve been known to get a little tetchy. There’s no point saying “I don’t know” (believe me, I’ve tried) because it only leads to insane five-year-old speculation being interspersed with the shot-gun spray of questions. Resorting to logic and pointing out that dinosaurs and robots never co-existed only elicits the dreaded “but why?”

Then there’s the times he decides to play guessing games:

“Look, Mummy, I made a shadow with my hands.”

“I can’t look, darling, I have to watch where I’m going.”

“Guess what it is,” he says, undeterred by this minor technical hitch. “It’s something that lives in the sea.”

Well, that narrows it down since he only knows about three things that live in the sea. “Octopus” seems the most likely thing to be formed by little hands, so I try that but I’m wrong.

“No, it’s something that lives very deep down,” he says, so I try whale. No. Shark? No. By now I’m out of options so I give up.

“It’s a five-legged octopus,” he says. Should have seen that one coming.

He obviously feels sorry for his mentally deficient mother because for the next one he tells me he will give me a clue.

“It’s something from Ice Age 2 and it lives in the sea and it’s not the two monsters.”

I get that one right since there’s only one other thing in the movie that fits that description.

“Good, Mum,” he says approvingly, then throws another hard one at me.

“This one is a plant that lives in the sea.”

“Seaweed?” I try, fairly confident this time. I mean, how many plants are there that live in the sea? But I’m wrong again.

“I’ll give you a clue,” he says. “It’s got a mouth.”

Okay, maybe he thinks sea anemones are plants. He’s only little after all. So I try that.

“No, it’s got teeth. And it eats sharks.”

What?! “I don’t know any plants that live in the sea and eat sharks,” I say. “You’ll have to tell me.”

Clearly he doesn’t know any either, and there is a short silence in the back seat while he tries to come up with something. At last, triumphant, he announces:

“It’s a shark-eating plant!”

Saturday, 19 July 2008

"Once upon a time ..."

I’ve just finished the first draft of my novel and am feeling very pleased with myself. There are several reasons for this, other than the obvious one that I won the race with Drama Duck after all (take that, nine-year-old!).

One is having proved that I can actually finish a whole novel. I am a notorious starter but a very bad finisher, in all aspects of life. Even my children are aware of this and roll their eyes whenever I start a new quilt, suggesting that I should instead finish one of the gazillions of UFOs (UnFinished Objects) in the quilting cupboard.

A less obvious reason is that now I can finally allow myself to start revising that sucker. The only way I could finish was to start at the beginning, not do any editing and just keep writing till I got to the end. In the past I’ve always been lured down the editing cul de sac, never to return to the story highway.

Pleased as I am with the result, one consequence of this new way of working was that every time I called up my file I had to stare at the first page of the novel. At first this was a bright shiny experience. Look at that beautiful beginning! See how cleverly it hooks the interest! But after a while the effects of first love wore off and I began to notice (gasp!) that there were flaws in the previously beloved opening. That first sentence that I’d thought was so cute was in fact in a different point of view to the rest of the scene. And then came the dreadful day when I realised that a lot of what came after it was, well, a bit boring. Back story. Told instead of shown. How could I ever have thought this crap was any good? The romance was over! But I wasn’t allowed to fix it till the first draft was finished – that was the deal.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings. What makes a good one? “Once upon a time” works pretty well for fairy tale writers, but the rest of us have to make more of an effort. There’s lots of good advice out there: start with a hook, jump straight into the action, pose a question that the reader wants answered (Tabitha Olson has a good post about this). Simon Haynes has been pondering beginnings recently too, wondering whether to stick with the slow-burning fuse start his books usually have or jump straight into the bomb blast.

Beginnings that I love include this one from Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie:

“Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her ’86 Civic, broke her sister’s sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs.”

This tells you so much without being an infodump. It gives you a lot of facts about the story plus a feel for the personality and background of the main character, all in such an amusing way that you can’t help wanting to read more. Why is Sophie in Temptation, a place she clearly doesn’t want to be? What other disasters are in store?

One that made me laugh out loud was Montana Sky by Nora Roberts:

“Being dead didn’t make Jack Mercy less of a son of a bitch. One week of dead didn’t offset sixty-eight years of living mean.”

What a great opener! The voice is so down-to-earth, so full of personality, I couldn’t wait to read more. So why are all these people at his funeral if he was such a bastard? You have to keep reading to find out. And that’s why it works. No bombs, just a dead guy in a box, but I’m hooked.

So now I have to find my story’s equivalent to dead guy in a box. Doesn’t have to be funny, though funny is good; just memorable. Gotta give those readers a reason to keep turning the pages. Assuming that there ever are any readers, of course. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Would you like cliches with that?

I was reading the monthly newsletter from my favourite bookshop, Infinitas, today. It lists all the new books out and reproduces the blurb for each to whet your book-buying appetite.

When you read a whole lot of blurbs in one sitting like that it’s like getting a big shiny needle to vaccinate you against the dreaded cliche disease. After a while you just don’t notice them any more. Everything is “epic”, all the evil villains are “hell-bent on destroying everything that [insert name of protagonist] holds dear”, etc, etc. It all starts to sound the same after a while.

So there I was, scrolling half brain-dead through a tide of “mismatched bands of saviours” and heroes who had to save the world “but could he save himself?” when one sentence leapt out at me.

“Hidden hands pluck the strings of tyranny like a fell chorus.”

I boggled at that one for a moment while I tried to picture hands, hidden or otherwise, singing like a chorus. Where are their mouths? Exactly how many hands are we talking here? More than a pair, clearly. Where does one find all these disembodied singing hands? And they can pluck too, not just sing. Such multi-talented little hands.

I stopped skimming then and went back to look at the rest of this blurb more carefully. There were “dire portents” plaguing people’s nights and assassins skulking. “The hunters have become the hunted.” (But what are they hunting? Talent scouting for performing hands perhaps?) Then there were strangers arriving, bards singing “their tragic tales” and “somewhere in the distance … the baying of hounds”.

But wait, there’s more! “All is palpably not well.” No – really? What gave it away?

By this time I was feeling very sorry for the author. I know nothing about him, but I’m assuming he can write better than this. Most likely the marketing department came up with this deathless prose, and now the poor guy has to cringe every time he sees his own book. Apparently there are also “ancient crimes … clamouring for revenge”. I think I’d be clamouring for revenge myself if I were him, for crimes against the book-buying public.

The blurb concludes with the assurance that “this is epic fantasy at its most imaginative”. Quite possibly. Pity you can’t tell that from reading the blurb. Though that bit about the hands takes a special kind of imagination, I guess.

It makes me wonder about blurbs, though. Yes, they often draw on archetypes or tropes as a way of packing a lot of information into a short hook. But how much is too much? How many cliches can you pile on before it becomes unintentional parody? If I read that on the back of a book I was browsing, it would be back on the shelf as fast as my non-singing little hand could manage. Hardly the desired effect. Am I expecting too much?

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Mamma mia! He can't sing!

The whole family went to see Mamma Mia today. Such fun! I could happily see it again tomorrow.

I wouldn’t take Baby Duck again though. He likes his movies animated and got pretty bored. He spent a lot of time climbing all over me and making very loud comments in all the quiet bits, like “that lady looks like a naked chicken!”. The girls loved all the singing and dancing, though Drama Duck got a bit frustrated because we kept laughing at jokes she didn’t get. She is so desperate to be grown up.

My husband had hysterics every time Pierce Brosnan started to sing – and I use the term loosely. The first time he did it I was terrified he was going to have a stroke right there on the screen. His face went bright red and he looked as if he was going to burst a blood vessel. It’s not that his voice was bad – he could carry a tune all right – but it sounded forced and unnatural. His second song was in front of a huge crowd of extras and I just felt embarrassed for him.

Not that it spoiled my enjoyment of the movie. It was even kind of a relief to find that he wasn’t perfect after all. I mean, how can any man be that pretty? It’s not right. But it makes you wonder why they cast someone who can’t sing in a musical. Still, I’m not complaining. Between him and Colin Firth (who can sing) there was plenty of eye candy. And the songs are so good it’s hard to go wrong.

I’ve been an ABBA fan for more than 30 years, though for much of that time it was too daggy to admit. Even my beloved likes to belt out a chorus of “Waterloo”, though he’s usually so lyrically challenged that “Happy Birthday” is the only song he can remember all the words to. Now we get to indoctrinate our children. (Ah, the joys of parenthood.) Though we might have to wait a couple of years before Baby Duck’s little mind is ready to absorb their greatness. Those naked chickens can be so distracting.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

On the merits of healthy competition

Today I face the lowering realisation that Drama Duck will probably finish writing her first book before I will. Her opus is a teenage mutant ninja turtles story and Baby Duck is her Number One fan. She has written two or three chapters today alone. Each chapter is read with great expression to her little audience, who greets each new instalment with as much enthusiasm as the crowds on the wharf clamouring to hear the end of one of Dickens’ serial novels when the ship from England arrived.

Her output is certainly better than mine lately. I only have two scenes to write to finish the first draft, but I’m in that slack “what the hell, it’s school holidays” mood. Much more fun to shoot hoops with the girls, or take the kids to the movies, or shop, or – or anything, really. Anything rather than write.

Hang on, why am I writing this novel again? Because I love to write? Hmmm. So how come I have to force myself to sit down and do it?

I always thought it was just me being lazy, but my travels on the internet show that many writers are masters of the noble art of procrastination. So maybe I’m not a freak of nature after all (or yes, maybe I am, but it’s nothing to do with the writing; thank you so much for that kind suggestion).

Anyhow, the race is on. See the motivating power of competition? Almost as good as watching a deadline go whooshing past. Am I going to let myself be defeated by a nine-year-old? No! I spit on nine-year-olds! (Sorry, Drama Duck, that’s just one of those writerly metaphor-type thingies. I wouldn’t really spit on you.) I eat nine-year-olds for breakfast! (That’s another one.)

And anyway, I already have finished a novel – when I was 13. And it filled three whole exercise books. So there.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

The Art of Racing in the Rain

I am not the slightest bit interested in car racing. Would I willingly read a book featuring car racing? Not in a million years. Yet I have just read such a book and I absolutely LOVED it. I gulped it down in one sitting then sat there going “wow!” for a while. Then I wanted to read it all over again, more slowly, so I could savour it. I wanted to run out and buy a copy for everyone I know so they could all share in its brilliance. And I really, really wanted to have written it!

The book is The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. I heard about it on the internet – that it was good, and that it was narrated by a dog, which was intriguing enough to make me buy it. Luckily no one mentioned the car racing, or I might not have.

Enzo, the narrator, believes that when a dog dies, if it has perfected life as a dog, it will come back as a human. As a result, he makes a very careful study of the humans in his life so that he can learn to be one. He is chatty, funny, philosophical and very observant in an innocent way. His voice is distinctive and endearing. Seeing the human experience filtered through his eyes is fascinating. Even though some dreadful things happen to his family, his native optimism and faith in his owner mean that the book is always hopeful and leaves you feeling uplifted. If that sounds corny, that’s my fault, not the book’s. I find it hard to explain why I loved it so much.

It even made me look at Two Planks with new eyes. Could there be a philosopher hidden in that furry blonde head? Then I came to my senses and thought: "Nah!"

Part of it was the brilliance of the writing. It was so tight – nothing was in the book without a reason. Everything had significance – especially the car racing, which formed a beautiful metaphor as well as its practical function in the plot. And he made it sound interesting – even fun! If Stein isn’t a fan I’m in even more awe of his skill.

Now I have to get my hands on his other two books. I’ve decided to read less fantasy and try to branch out a bit more. This was certainly a flying start for that resolution. Anyone got any recommendations of books they’ve enjoyed lately?

Saturday, 5 July 2008

A rose by any other name

Today I bought a netball ring on a stand for the girls to practise their shooting. At least, it said it was a netball ring, but in fact it’s the size of a basketball hoop. It also came with a net to attach to the ring, a la basketball. I asked my husband not to put the net on when he was assembling it, since netball doesn’t use a net and I figured the girls would be better off practising the way they would be playing.

But he put it on. When I asked why, he explained that Baby Duck had insisted.

“You have to have a net,” Baby Duck said, “because it’s netball. If you don’t it would just be ringball.”

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Ode to lost sleep

Look at these cute feet -- Baby Duck at two months old. Who would have thought that five years later they'd have turned into instruments of torture?

I’ve noticed a funny thing about small children. In daylight they seem so soft and cuddly, all plump little legs and sweet rounded faces. But in the middle of the night they sneak into your bed and they’re suddenly all hard angles and nasty pointy bits. There’s nothing quite like being woken from a sound sleep by a vicious elbow jab to the kidneys.

And then they do the starfish thing, arms and legs sprawled across the bed, so that mum and dad are crammed into 10% of the space while the small pointy thing luxuriates in the other 90%.

Baby Duck is a master of the art. I’m pretty sure he grows extra legs at night too. There seem to be a lot more than two knees jammed into me. I feel like the meat in the sandwich crammed between him and his father. Sometimes he doesn’t even leave me enough room to lay my head flat on the pillow.

I suppose I’ll miss it when he grows out of this stage, but then again – maybe not. When you’re expecting your first baby you know you’re in for some disturbed nights. What nobody tells you is that it can go on for years. You go through the baby thing, the weaning thing, the waking up in the night (every night!) crying for water/cuddles/toilet/whatever-they-damn-well-please thing, the coming-into-your-bed-every-night-thing, then just as you think you might finally be getting it under control, along comes Number 2 and it starts all over again. Repeat as many times as your sanity allows.

In our case, Drama Duck is nearly 10, and we’re still woken up every night by Baby Duck, so a night of unbroken sleep is only a fading memory. I figure once he grows out of it we might have as much as five years of good sleeping before we get to the dreaded “waiting up for teenagers to come home” stage. Can’t wait! For the sleeping bit, that is. I can definitely wait for the teenager bit. Everyone who’s been there assures me that part is much worse than the original sleep-loss stage.

That’s another thing they don’t mention at antenatal classes. It’s all “how exciting, your first baby!”, when they really should be saying “are you mad? you’re creating a teenager!” At least I get to practise on Drama Duck first. Heaven help us all when it’s Demon Duck’s turn.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Living in Fantasy Land

Dymocks’ latest Booklover catalogue includes a fantasy-style map titled “Journey through the magical lands of fantasy”. Five lands are marked on the map, with a list of authors assigned to each land, grouped according to what type of fantasy they write. The groupings are “High magic & epic quest”, “History & myth”, “Sorcery & intrigue”, “All ages” and “Urban”. (Clearly I need to read more urban fantasy, as I’ve only read two of the authors on the list.)

Dymocks have done this before, and it’s a handy way to discover new authors. They’ve included quite a few Aussies but, as an Australian bookshop, I would have liked them to make a bigger effort to push Australian authors. I realise such lists can’t be exhaustive, but where, for instance, is Sara Douglass? She sells ’em by the truckload. Why not mention Justine Larbalestier under the “All ages” category? And what about Glenda Larke? I must have read a gazillion fantasy trilogies, but I’d never read one where the showdown with the ultimate bad guy comes at the end of book 2 instead of book 3 until I read her Isles of Glory trilogy. It was so refreshing to find a different take on the usual format.

The other thing that struck me was: why is JRR Tolkien the first name on the “High magic & epic quest” list? Don’t get me wrong, I adore The Lord of the Rings. It’s still my favourite book after all these years, he’s the father of modern fantasy, I know, I know, but come on! If there’s a single person out there in reader land who hasn’t heard of him by now, they must have been living under a rock. Is it really necessary to put him on the list? It’s like saying to someone, “Oh, you like religious stories? Have we got the book for you! It’s called the bible – you’ll love it.”

Another interesting thing I noticed – the majority of the names on the “High magic & epic quest” list are male, whereas all but two on the “Urban” list are female. Any theories about that? I have a few but since I haven’t actually read much urban fantasy I’d probably be talking through my hat.

And yes, I do spend quite a lot of time poring over the pages of book catalogues. No, I don’t need any help getting over my addiction, but thank you for asking.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

In which I apologise for cornering the world market in green paint

If you’ve had trouble finding green paint at your local hardware store recently, sorry. That was me. Who would have thought it could be so hard to pick a colour for one piddling little feature wall? With all that practice at combining colours for quilts and scrapbook pages it ought to be easy, but the green sample pots continue to mount up. My beloved reckons we’d have enough to paint the whole house green if we just combined them all. Such a helpful man. This is why I make the decorating decisions at our house.

When I can decide, that is. So far we’ve had greens that belonged in a lolly shop, greens that were too dark, greens with too much yellow, greens with too much blue and the dreaded green-that-looks-like-something-the-cat-sicked-up. The perfect Goldilocks “just right” green remains elusive.

On top of that, I don’t think the young guy at the paint counter is talking to me any more. Admittedly he’s not exactly on my Christmas card list either after stuffing up a previous paint order, but still. On yet another trip to the paint department recently Drama Duck was with me. He was in the middle of helping us and had just turned away to find some more colour samples when she said in one of those thunderous stage whispers kids use:

“Mum! Don’t trust him – he’s the one who gave us the wrong paint before!”

“Do you want to get us thrown out of Bunnings?” I hissed back.

Then, last weekend, the whole family went along (yes, we have a very exciting social life). The five of us walked up to the paint counter, saw he was the only assistant free, wheeled in unison and walked straight back out again. Plaintive cries of “but why are we going?” from Baby Duck floated in the air as we disappeared. With moves like that we could join a marching band.

But I think I’ll have to start going to another Bunnings.

Monday, 30 June 2008


Baby Duck was giving me a cuddle the other day when he looked at me lovingly. “Mum, we bought you a DVD for your birthday.”

I managed not to laugh. “Really? Don’t tell me what it is – it’s supposed to be a surprise.”

“It had a dragon on the front,” he said. “But I can’t remember what it’s called.”

What kid hasn’t done this? My mum still tells the story of my brother announcing, “Daddy! We bought you some slippers!” the minute Dad walked in the door, despite many promises to keep it a secret. And that was more than 50 years ago.

Or there was Drama Duck’s classic effort when she was about 6, and we’d bought an umbrella for her daddy’s birthday. Having heard the story of my brother’s slip-up so many times, I was very careful to impress upon her the need to keep the purchase secret. I didn’t have a great deal of hope, but I figured it was worth trying. I also warned my husband on the phone that we’d been shopping, and he should try to discourage any attempts to reveal all.

Sure enough, he came home from work and I heard her run to him. “Daddy, daddy! I’ve got a surprise!”

“Remember you can’t tell me what it is,” he warned.

“Oh, it’s not about the umbrella,” she assured him. “This is a different surprise.”