Thursday, 31 December 2009

Dances With Blue Wolves

I went to see Avatar.

The short review: Wow. Just wow.

The longer review:

I’ve heard a lot of comments on the “predictability” of the movie. Often this is mentioned in a sad way, along the lines of “but he could have done so much more if the story wasn’t so predictable”. Sometimes it’s harsher, as in “pretty to look at, but such a hokey plot”.

But I’m thinking that “predictable” isn’t such a bad thing.

I’m thinking, for instance, every time I pick up a fantasy novel I know, in a larger sense, what’s going to happen. The protag will face many dangers and adventures but in the end good will triumph over evil, more or less, depending on the level of sophistication of the particular book. People who read crime novels know the crime will be solved and the criminal brought to justice by the end. In every romance novel the hero and heroine will overcome their differences and find love by the end.

I like knowing there’s a feelgood ending coming. Predictability in this sense is a good thing. There’s nothing worse than thinking you’re reading a romance and three-quarters of the way through the book the heroine kills the hero and goes off to become a nun to atone for the crime instead. (Not that I ever have read such a book, but you know what I mean. People have expectations they bring to the reading experience.)

Movies are no different. Nobody goes to see a romantic comedy expecting exploding cars and a high body count. Nobody thinks the characters in an animated movie are going to sit around drinking beer and moaning about property prices.

Occasionally there’ll be a “cheater” movie like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects which produces a twist ending that changes everything you thought you knew about the movie you just saw. Such movies are a delight but extremely rare. And I don’t think anyone was expecting such a stunt from Avatar.

If you saw the trailer you knew exactly what to expect. Big bad business wants to pillage and destroy natural beauty and resources, native greenies (blueys?) resist, led by soldier-with-a-conscience who changes sides. Soldier goes native, romance ensues. Plus there are all the characters and elements you’d expect – the power-mad warmonger, the “voice of reason” scientist, the ruthless businessman, the battles, the explosions, the “let’s humiliate the new guy” scenes as the hero tries to learn the native ways …

I suppose that’s the “predictability” people mean. Same old characters in the same old situations we’ve seen so many times before. It really is a lot like Dances With Wolves in many ways, though more upbeat. I can see why some are asking why it always has to be the white guy who has to become a better native than the natives themselves and save everybody. Why can’t the natives save themselves for a change?

I wonder if this is why they made the hero a paraplegic, to head off these accusations of white privilege. Yes he’s a white male, but he’s in a wheelchair, so he’s also a member of a minority.

So … predictable on a larger scale: yes, but that’s not a bad thing. Predictable on the smaller scale of the plot line: yes as well. Which may or may not be a problem, depending on your expectations. Me, I like a surprise as much as the next person, but I wasn’t going to see this movie for the storyline.

I was there for the magic, and I got that in spades.

People who know about such things have talked about the groundbreaking effects, the historical cinematic significance of this movie. What that means is that when the hero took a corner at dizzying speed through the treetops I felt the world tilt. Everything seemed so real I’m still thinking about it and feeling disappointed that it doesn’t really exist somewhere. There was no sense that you were watching actors dressed up in funny outfits, the way there is when you watch Star Wars. There was no feeling that the exotic beasts didn’t quite come together. I could never quite believe in the wargs from The Lord of the Rings movies, for instance, much as I loved those movies. They were a little jerky, somehow not quite “real” enough for me. Not so with the denizens of Pandora’s forests.

The thing that this movie pulled off better than any I’ve ever seen, and the reason I enjoyed it so much, was that elusive “sense of wonder”. Watching it is like being a child in fairyland, enveloped in a magical dream. Admittedly things in fairyland don’t eat you quite as much as things do on Pandora, but wow. Just wow. And so I’m back to the short version of my review.

It was such a visual treat. It’s an unashamedly pretty movie. The Lord of the Rings movies were beautiful, but in a grown-up grey and grungy way. Avatar can do majestic too, but in glorious colour, full of ultraviolet delights and gorgeous plants and creatures. Even the blue people are beautiful. And that Hollywood tape! Man, I wish I knew how the female lead kept her necklet arrangement plastered so cunningly to her breasts through every death-defying leap and battle scene.

So I was dazzled and delighted, but didn’t entirely lose my objective senses. Some minor plot holes annoyed me, though not enough to stop me loving the movie. Naming the McGuffin* “unobtainium” seriously irked me – come on, guys, if you can’t take yourselves seriously, no one else will – but again, not enough to stop me loving it. Having a McGuffin in the first place, ditto.

It had flaws, but none of them were that bad. And what it got right was so amazing that I’d go see it again tomorrow. In 3D. On the biggest screen possible.

There’s a scene late in the movie where we see the paraplegic hero in shorts for the first time. His legs are wasted, as you’d expect. I spent quite some time wondering how they’d managed to make the actor’s legs look like that. Were they someone else’s legs superimposed on his body? Eventually it occurred to me how stupid I was being. I’d never questioned the entire alien world or the 12-foot tall blue people, and here I was wondering how they could make a healthy guy’s legs look wasted.

It’s that real. You’re really in this incredible, beautiful place. You can’t believe it’s just a movie. And even though it was a long one, I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to stay immersed in this amazing world.

And that’s what every creator wants – to give their readers or viewers that total immersion in their creation. For others to believe, for a couple of hours, that what they have imagined is real, that big business doesn’t always win, that the guy will get his girl and that blue people have the best Hollywood tape in the business.

*McGuffin: some object that doesn’t do anything plot-wise other than motivate the characters

Thursday, 24 December 2009

'Twas the night before Christmas

… and all through the house, not a creature was sleeping. Except Baby Duck, who’s worn out from the elevated levels of anticipation. The other two ducklings are lying in bed talking and giggling, despite repeated warnings that Santa Will Not Come until they’re asleep.

It’s now 10:30 and looking like being a looooong night. A little while ago I even threatened to stop Santa on the doorstep and tell him to take all the presents away unless they go to sleep Right Now Dammit.

“Yes, Mummy,” they say through their lying little teeth, then start giggling again before I’ve even made it all the way back down the corridor.

I can’t believe it’s Christmas again already. It feels like only a few months since we did this all last time. Where did that year go?

We went to church tonight, to avoid the rush in the morning. Ha! Us and 57 billion other people. Still, it was a children’s mass and very sweet, with a real live baby – a very fresh one, judging by the size of it – playing the part of the baby Jesus. So cute, though I don’t think I could have done it if it were mine. I’d be busy picturing the 10-year-old Mary dropping my precious bundle.

However, no babies were harmed in the making of the pageant, so it all worked out. The Carnivore sang with his usual gusto and inaccuracy. In Hark the Herald Angels he sang “late in time behold Him come / offspring of the Virgin’s wum”.

“What?” he said when I gave him a funny look. “Womb doesn’t rhyme with come. I always want to sing thumb – or something even worse …”

Is it a sin to laugh in church?

I hope you all have a lovely Christmas. And if you have children, I hope you get some sleep and that the sun is actually up when your little ones bound in full of excitement. Though I know it’s a pretty faint hope. Kids will get excited about Christmas, even if it only feels like three months since the last one to the rest of us!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Baby Duck and the Honking Big Trophy

Thank goodness the school holidays have started. Last week I watched about 400 children individually receive certificates at a series of interminable end-of-year assemblies. When the kids were younger I used to think Hell was being forced to watch Wiggles videos for all eternity, but now I know better. Hell is listening to 400+ scrambling attempts by the teachers to dream up something unique and congratulatory to say, and watching 400+ little people shaking hands with their teacher, when the only little people you care to watch are your own. And really, I’d give up seeing them get their certificates in a heartbeat if it meant I didn’t have to sit through the other 397.

Oh for the good ole days when only the kids who actually achieved something got a prize. Now no one must be left out. All well and good for the little ones, I suppose, but honestly, kids aren’t stupid. By the time they get to primary school they’re awake to the whole “if everyone’s special then no one is” thing.

Yes, I know I sound grumpy. Sorry! But I challenge you to sit through the hours of assemblies I have lately and not feel a trifle tetchy. Because the ducklings are all at different stages they received their certificates at three separate, though pretty much identical, assemblies. I heard all the speeches three times. Though it could have been worse – I felt sorry for the principal, who had to look happy and interested the whole time.

By the time I got to Baby Duck’s assembly, which was last, I was so over the whole thing I was like Scrooge sitting up going “bah, humbug!” at the cute little kindergarteners and their off-key singing. Fortunately Baby Duck made up for the lack of maternal excitement by skipping across the stage when he won an extra award as well as his certificate. He held his big blue trophy up above his head to show the world, beside himself with glee.

But oh! the irony! This is the boy who asked me every morning if it was the weekend yet. The boy who suggested nearly every day that it might be better to stay home in case he gave his classmates his (fictional) cough/sore throat/runny nose. (And then gave me looks that managed to be tragic and filthy at the same time when I told him he had to go anyway.) The boy who said school was boring because they made him work.

What was the trophy for? “Most creative attempts to get out of attending school”? “Best dramatic performance in the dying swan category”? No – “Outstanding Effort”.

He’s so proud of himself. It’s like none of that resistance and tears ever happened. He’s decided he’d quite like to win it again next year. I’ll have to remind him of that next time he sits on his bed in his pyjamas for half an hour when he’s supposed to be getting dressed for school. Can’t win any trophies if you don’t go.

Maybe they should give out awards at those assemblies to the parents instead. That would make things more interesting. “Most Patient Homework Supervisor”. “Most Creative School Lunches”. “Most Persistent in Dealing with Reluctant School-goers”.

I’d be a shoo-in for that last one.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Bunfight at the SF corral

There’s been much discussion on the internet over the past couple of weeks about pay rates for short stories. John Scalzi, author and respected member of the sff community, pointed out in this post that people who are serious about building a career as a writer shouldn’t virtually “give away” their work to low-paying or “for the love” markets unless they are getting some other advantage from the deal.

Some of the semi-pro magazines have experienced editors who can bring out the best in a story, for instance. Some of them get a lot of critical notice, leading to awards or inclusion in best-of anthologies. Some just cater to a particular niche that might fit a story that wouldn’t find a home elsewhere. All of these could be good reasons to forgo the big dollars – though with five cents a word counted as a professional pay rate, no one’s going to make their fortune on selling short stories.

Some leapt to hot defence of their beloved non-pro magazines, seeing slights where none were intended. The resulting debate has been enlightening.

Yes, I can see how people are happy to submit anywhere, just to get into print. I’ve done it myself, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It’s a great feeling to be able to say “I’ve been published”, even if it’s in a magazine that only the other contributors have heard of, like my ZineWest publication.

And yes, it may be good to experience the whole submission/working with the editors thing. It’s fun and it can be instructive, depending on the editor. And at least your work gets some readers rather than languishing in your drawer, though obviously not the wider exposure a big-name mag can bring.

But if you’re trying to build a career, people like Ann Leckie and Patrick Neilsen Hayden – people who ought to know – are saying not only are these minor credits not helping, they may actually be harming your efforts.

Obviously not all publication credits are created equal. Editors may be inclined to take a closer look if I can say I’ve been published in Asimov’s, whereas telling them I’ve been published in ZineWest means nothing. So much I knew. What I didn’t realise was that listing a string of unknown credits may actually put the editor off. Patrick Nielsen Hayden says in comments “speaking as a sometime short fiction editor, I find I’m much more encouraged by ‘Here’s a story, hope you like it’ than ‘Here’s a story, here are 25 mediocre small-press publications I’ve managed to eke out sales to over the last eight years thus making it highly unlikely that I am an undiscovered genius, hope you like the story.’ ”

Making it as a writer isn’t like climbing the ladder of promotion. You don’t get points for “serving your apprenticeship” in the smaller mags and working your way up. This from Ann Leckie: “I’m just telling you, if you’re submitting somewhere only because you think it’s necessary to have some credit, any credit! on a cover letter, that any credit at all that you can scrape up will make an editor pay more attention to your story, you’re absolutely dead wrong … Don't worry about credits. Just write better.”

Which leads to the point somebody raised (sorry, I can’t remember who, I’ve read a lot of comments all over the place) that getting published in the easier markets may lead to complacency. “Hey, they think I’m good enough to publish, so I’ll send more stuff to them”, rather than striving to improve enough to make it at the big end of town. Again, not a problem if your goal is the fun of seeing your work in print, but if you want to be published by the pros you have to learn to write at pro level.

So the take-home message is: if you want a writing career, submit to the pros first, and move on to the semi-pros if you get rejected by the pros (unless you have some particular reason for aiming at the semi-pros, as discussed earlier). Aim high and keep working to improve your writing. I’d heard this advice before, from Jay Lake, but I have to admit I haven’t been following it. I guess I hadn’t thought it through properly. I’ve just been sending things out rather randomly, without formulating a proper plan of attack.

That needs to change, and I’ve found some recommendations of good markets through all this discussion, as well as discovering the amazing website I’m ashamed to say I’d heard of it before but never got around to looking at it. It’s a fabulous tool for a writer looking for places to submit.

Time to get serious!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Reader/writer schizophrenia

Some months ago I read a review of the movie Disgrace, based on the book by JM Coetzee. The reviewer praised John Malcovich’s performance, saying “his Lurie is such a proudly unrepentant predator”.

No doubt it was a fine performance. It was probably even a thought-provoking and interesting movie. But I didn’t go to see it. “Proudly unrepentant predators” are not my idea of a good time, and I go to the movies to be entertained, pure and simple.

Call me shallow, but I love me some happily ever after. I’m like this as a reader too. Occasionally I’ll try something challenging, but most of the time I like to lose myself in fantasy worlds where good conquers evil and all my favourite characters end up in a happy place. I blame my youthful obsession with fairy tales. If Once upon a time doesn’t lead to and they all lived happily ever after, I am not a happy camper.

But when I put on my writer’s hat that all changes. It’s such fun to kill, maim, destroy and generally blight your characters’ hopes. Not so much in novel-length works, because that would be too much depression, but in short stories I do dreadful things to my characters and love every minute. And then my poor writers’ group reads my stories and goes “well, that was a bit of a downer” – and I’m surprised. I’ve had such fun writing it that I haven’t even realised that it’s a miserable story that leaves the reader wallowing in depression.

The first time I did this one of my writers’ group said, “it was well written but I don’t like depressing stories. If it was a novel I would have been really annoyed to get all invested in the character only to have it end like that”. And the little light bulb in my head went off and I thought, hey, me too! So how come I wrote it? Obviously my writer self is looking for different things than is my reader self.

So now I understand better where all those authors who write depressing books come from. Why things never seem to end happily in “literary” novels. It’s fun to write like that – to explore sadness and realistic consequences and the kind of things you generally don’t find in fantasy novels. (Of course I’m generalising here, and there are fantasy novels that don’t follow the common pattern, but on the whole I think happily ever afters are one of the conventions of the fantasy genre, just as in the romance genre.) I could never see it before I started writing myself – why would people want to write something that leaves the reader miserable? Now I know.

It seems a bit perverse though, doesn’t it? To write something that I wouldn’t want to read if somebody else had written it. Not that I do it all the time, but often enough that I’ve started to notice it. Does anybody else find their writing preferences are different to their reading ones?

Or am I the only weirdo?

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Nano round-up

You may have wondered about the long silence here. No, I haven’t fallen into a hole. I have merely become incapable of stringing words together after my mammoth efforts in November.

I reached 50,000 words with three days to spare, which is a new record for me. Even better, I didn’t stop immediately, but managed to add another 3,000 words to the total, fulfilling my promise to myself not to miss a day of writing in the whole month. This despite Real Life throwing all manner of obstacles in my way towards the end.

The Carnivore needed me to edit the accounting training course he’s just written, which is painfully convoluted stuff for a non-accountant. Moreover I am now convinced that all accountants are complete whackjobs.

Drama Duck needed me to help her write her campaign speech for the elections for school captain next year, and design a poster for her as well. She finished Nano comfortably on the 22nd of November.

Demon Duck needed me to help her finish her Nano novel. She’d written 1500 words on her own but had given up. When she got home from school on the 30th of November I forced her to sit at the computer with me. She dictated and I typed and we got another 1500 words done, which was enough for her (revised) goal and finished the story off too. She kept saying how much fun it was to write this way – maybe I need a secretary too!

End result: I didn’t complete the first draft. One day I would love to finish the whole story in November, but this year it wasn’t to be. I have a broad outline of what needs to happen and I’m pretty close – less than 10,000 words probably. I’m a bit sad that I didn’t get there, but hey, that’s life. We have three happy, still more-or-less sane novelists in our house. We braved Nano and lived to tell the tale.

The worst thing about Nano being over is I now have no excuse to avoid The Christmas Conversation with my mother. She likes to start The Christmas Conversation about mid-October. Me, I’d rather chew my own arm off than spend two months fretting about what I’m going to get everyone for Christmas. Doing Nano gives me a convenient excuse to stick my fingers in my ears and go “la, la, la, not listening” every time she tries to have The Conversation.

Now, alas, my shield has been ripped away and the sound of the telephone strikes fear into my heart. But I must be brave.

And I really must start my Christmas shopping!

Monday, 23 November 2009

Should I be worried?

I think I’m in love with my kitchen appliances. Dearest Microwave, I never truly appreciated you till now.

I thought I loved you in the baby days, when you heated those bottles of milk so quickly, before the baby’s screams completely melted my brain. And the hours you saved me in sterilising the bottles! I adored you so!

But it is only now I realise your true beauty.

The other day I was making hot milk. But, with my mind deep in the throes of Nano, I mistakenly put the milk on for two minutes instead of one. I opened the door and the terrible stink of boiled milk assaulted my nostrils. And then I saw it …

Milk goobies!!

Eeeww. I haven’t thought about them in so many years because you don’t get them with microwaves. Back in the old days Mum used to boil the tripe out of the milk on the stove top to make hot chocolate. Although we didn’t even call it that, this was so long ago. We called it kai (not sure how you spell it). The milk got so overheated it formed a skin.

Can I just say again? EEEEWWW.

You’d take a sip and this hideous thing would cling to your lips and slime your mouth, like a slug sneaking into your hot chocolate. Oh, the horror! Just thinking about it makes me want to run around shrieking “ick! ick! ick! Get it off me!”

God, I love my microwave.

And then I find myself talking to my oven.

In my defence I have to say, it started it. It has a beautiful high-tech light-up display, my beloved new oven. It tells you the setting and temperature in spiffy glowing red letters. When the griller is on, instead of the temperature, it says LO or HI.

Small digression: I love having a griller again after years without one. The old oven died by degrees. First the light failed, then the griller would only work sometimes if you bashed the instrument panel just right, then it stopped working altogether and couldn’t be fixed because it was too old to get parts, so we did without a griller for years. Then the timer became temperamental and often jammed about five minutes before the end, so you only knew your cake or whatever was overcooked when a lovely smell of burning wafted through the house. When we still didn’t replace the oven, it finally decided to force our hand by having the element in the top oven catch on fire.

Aaanyway, it’s lovely to have a griller again. I was standing there admiring it … no, really just watching my pizza so it didn’t burn, and I looked at the display panel and the griller said HI. So I said “hi!” back.

Then I thought, hmmm, should I be worried that I’m talking to my kitchen appliances?

Maybe I only have to worry when they start talking back.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Three wells make a river

My grandmother used to say this all the time. Like clockwork, whenever anyone said “well, well, well”, she’d pipe up: “Three wells make a river!”

I introduced Baby Duck to this expression recently and he’s quite taken with it. But I’ve found something better than three wells: how about seven bongs?

No, not those sort of bongs.

Drama Duck has perfected the fine art of wordcount padding. I’m such a proud mother. So young! So gifted!

Her Nano novel is set in a high school. Every time the bell rings she writes “BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG!”

And it rings A LOT. I tell you, the child’s a genius.

Not that she needs the padding. Tonight she’s up to 4648 words out of 5000, and the story’s just getting started. Demon Duck’s on about 1600 words (out of 3500) and starting to wonder if she can change her goal to something smaller. She’s discovered that making up stories is harder than it looks. And also that middles suck.

I thought I wasn’t going to write a word today. Me and my new mate Phil are doing great as far as speed of transcribing goes. The problem is thinking of the damn words in the first place. I was completely dry this morning. Couldn’t think of a single place to take my story, and thrashed around most of the day trying all my usual tricks to jumpstart my creativity. I barely managed the minimum wordcount by introducing a new monster to attack the heroine’s party. When in doubt, bring on the monsters! Now the best friend’s been poisoned by a star spider and they’re stranded in the middle of the Sea of Stars with no ride home. How am I going to get them out of that?

That’s tomorrow’s problem. And, yeah, middles suck.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Delight, despair, delight, despair: lather, rinse, repeat

Or: when it’s good, it’s very very good, and when it’s bad it’s the most torturous way to spend your time ever invented. That’s Nano for you. A real rollercoaster ride.

Things I have learned on this year’s Nanoing adventure:

-- I use the word “stuff” waaaaay too often, even for a novel featuring a pair of thirteen-year-olds. And “that”. My God, if I had a dollar for every “that” in this manuscript, I would be writing this post from a beach in the Bahamas. Or possibly the deck of my new yacht.

-- If Nano isn’t challenging enough, new levels of difficulty can be created by inserting a character into your work who only speaks in rhyme. All I can say is, thank God for online rhyming dictionaries. Sometimes my brain is just too overwhelmed to come up with a decent rhyme.

-- It’s a lot of fun to read each completed chapter to an appreciative eleven-year-old audience. She’s following the story with great interest, and I enjoy listening to her speculate on what’s going to happen next. (By the way, said eleven-year-old has passed 3500 words out of her 5000. Demon Duck is languishing on about 1000 out of 4000.)

-- I’m beginning to suspect I don’t have a good enough imagination to be a fantasy writer. This in spite of apparent evidence to the contrary: I have space-going whales, a tree as big as a planet and flesh-eating pirates whose ship is made of organic balloons. Sounds like a good imagination, doesn’t it?

The trouble is, I find those parts difficult to write, and it seems to me they come out kind of flat. Whereas the “real world” sections have voice and personality and I zip through them with (comparative) ease.

The writers among you are now probably chanting “that’s what revision’s for!” and sure, I know this stuff is fixable (ten points if you spotted that “stuff” – I swear that word is following me around). But surely a fantasy writer shouldn’t have so much trouble with the “making stuf things up” part?

But still, in spite of these quibbles, things are going well (touch wood). Wordcount today is up to 29,528 words, which means I’m a little ahead of schedule for the month. Story-wise I think I’m about halfway through, though it’s hard to tell when you’re writing by the seat of your pants. My attitude to outlining is a little like my attitude to dieting. I can see it’s a good idea, but I never quite get around to doing it.

But probably the biggest news is my new technological best friend – a Philips Voice Tracer, purchased for me at great expense by the Carnivore, bless his little cotton socks. In the old days this would have been called a dictaphone; I’m not sure what the proper terminology is these days.

Regardless of its name, it’s made a big difference. I’m a very slow writer. It can take me five or six hours (or even more with bouts of procrastinating thrown in) to write the required number of words every day. I’m not sure why, but even trying as hard as I can I can’t write much more than 500 words in an hour.

Desperate for a way to reduce the hours I spend slogging away at the computer, I decided to try speaking the story and typing it later. I tried this once before, years ago, and found it unsatisfactory – I was too selfconscious. But, longing for some free time and a bedtime before midnight, I decided to give it another go. We only bought it on Saturday, so the jury’s still out on it as a long-term strategy, but so far I’m very pleased.

Last night, for instance, I couldn’t start writing till 9:30 – kind of late if it’s going to take five hours to get the wordcount. But with my new mate Phil’s help I knocked out 2000 words in two hours. True, the prose is a little uninspiring – a lot more “she went here, he said this” than when I’m typing directly, but that can be fixed, and if it gets the story out quicker I’m all for it.

Because after you’ve found out what the story is, you get the fun of revising it till it gleams. Maybe with Phil’s help I can finish the whole story, not just the first 50,000 words, by the end of November. That would really be something to celebrate. I could face Christmas with a clear conscience.

Aaarrgh! The dreaded C word! Just don’t ask me if I’ve started my shopping yet …

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The travelling drought-breakers, Part 2

Bendigo welcomed us with open arms.

“We haven’t had rain like this in three years. Stay longer!” they begged.

“No, no, Bendigo,” we chided. “You mustn’t be selfish. We only have one day to spend here. We are on a tight schedule and must take our rain-making circus to Ballarat post-haste. You wouldn’t want to deny Ballarat its rain, would you?”

Bendigo conceded, rather sulkily, that we had a point, so we threw ourselves into enjoying the day. And what a full day it was!

We spent a couple of (dry) hours underground, enjoying a fine tour of the Central Deborah Gold Mine. I highly recommend it if you are ever in Bendigo. Four of us enjoyed it immensely and learned lots of interesting and amazing facts. The fifth member of our party spent most of his time sobbing. When will we ever learn about dark places?

We all had to wear miners’ hats with lamps on the front. Very cool, except they were powered by an extremely heavy battery you had to strap around your waist. I tried to pick Baby Duck up to comfort him at one point and found it almost impossible to get him off the ground. So the poor old Carnivore had to lump his extremely heavy, extremely miserable son around instead.

When we resurfaced we panned for gold (no luck) and climbed the poppet head (the big tower thing above the shaft with all the winches and pulleys and stuff – yeah, I’m good at this technical talk). Not sure why we did that, actually, since all of us are afraid of heights, and there were predictable results.

Then it was off on the historic Talking Tram for a tour of Bendigo’s wide streets full of lovely old buildings, trees and gardens. It’s a really pretty city. Probably even more so when it’s not raining.

After lunch we visited the Discovery Museum, where there was a very interesting presentation at the planetarium. We were the only people there, so Demon Duck enjoyed showing off her knowledge (they’ve just been studying the planets at school). In brief gaps between the rain we saw the Chinese Gardens and temple and visited the Dragon Museum, which houses both the longest and the oldest Chinese dragons in Australia.

Then it was on to Ballarat. We stayed at the lodge attached to Sovereign Hill. Our accommodation had a queen-sized bed in the main room, with a double bunk on each side, plus two more double bunks in a separate bedroom. Very handy for all those families with eight children, I’m sure, but it seemed a bit of overkill on the beds to me! Plus they took up so much space there was nowhere really to put the small breakfast table (which only seated four – were the eight children supposed to eat in shifts?). When you wanted to use it you had to pull it out from the wall and block access to the bathroom. Very strange.

Sovereign Hill is a fascinating place. It’s a historically accurate gold-rush town, complete with goldfields, a mine and a river to pan for gold in. The main street has all the businesses such a town would have had, all working, plus schools, churches, soldiers’ quarters and government houses. There’s a working foundry, a wheelwright, clothes and sweet shops. People in costume are everywhere, going about their daily business.

More on that in another post. It was shut by the time we arrived, but they have an outdoor sound and light show there at night, which retells the story of the Eureka Stockade (an uprising by miners protesting the burden of miners’ licences, which ended in a brief battle with government soldiers in which several people were killed). We decided to brave the weather and got away with it. It didn’t rain, but we nearly froze our buns off. Man, it was cold! I had my warmest clothes on, plus a blanket from our room wrapped around me, and I was still cold.

Thankfully this time the dark was somehow not scary, and Baby Duck enjoyed the show, though all the ducklings were pretty pooped by the time we got back to our abundance of beds.

Holiday statistics for our second day in Victoria:

Rainfall: drought-breaking.
Other waterworks: one child reduced to sobbing wreck, others scared witless by extreme height.
Accommodation and food: average.
Are we having fun yet? yes, but we’re f-f-f-freezing.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

The universe conspires

Whenever I start a new book I find the universe starts throwing all sorts of useful things my way. Sceptics would suggest that it’s just that I’m more receptive to noticing related things when my mind is working on a subject, but I prefer to believe in the beauty of serendipity.

For instance: remember there was a lighthouse in my story? Guess what we visited on our holiday. There’s nothing like a location visit to get you in the mood. Then last Saturday there was a feature article about a very similar lighthouse with a gorgeous photo, so that got torn out and pasted into my novel notebook.

In my story the characters travel to other worlds on the sea of stars through a magical gate. I knew it was all dependent on tides and moon phases, so I had a great time researching those. I discovered tide clocks – too cool! Who knew such things existed? I know, probably everyone else but me.

Then I found a photo of a really beautiful tide clock and a few more pieces of story clicked into place.

I decided to use Fingal Bay, which I know well, as a basis for my imaginary setting. In looking up information about the lighthouse there I discovered that the present day sandspit used to be a permanent part of the headland till a big storm destroyed it.

Click click click. More ideas.

A photo of an actor in the paper – perfect for my villain.

In the travel section, a photo of a Japanese torii gate standing alone in the middle of the sea – wow. Gates, sea, lighthouses everywhere I turn.

On Tuesday I attended an author visit at the local children’s bookshop. The author was Martin Chatterton, who was very entertaining. No gates or lighthouses, but a very useful piece of advice – when he’s thinking about what he will write he likes to imagine scenes he’d like to see in a movie.

I don’t know why that struck me so much; it’s not a new thought. Lots of authors, including me, say that writing is like watching their characters act out a movie in their heads. I think it was more the “imagining what he’d like” angle, as if he were encouraging me to dream up the most colourful fantastical thing I could – and then stick it in my novel.

Which is what fantasy authors are supposed to do, I suppose, but I’d never thought of it quite like that. Maybe I get too bogged down in plot and motivation and mechanical-type things, and forget the whole “sense of wonder” part.

Whatever. My mind is open to all and any delights the universe wishes to throw my way. Bring it on, universe. I’ve written 10,000 words and I’m ready. At this stage of the game anything can happen.

And probably will.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

3 ... 2 ... 1 ... Nano!

And they’re off and writing! I achieved a respectable 2401 for the first day of Nano. Drama Duck managed a whopping 1010 (she’s only committed to writing 5000) and Demon Duck also did well with 300 (for a target of 3500).

Elsewhere in the household, the Carnivore did some actual paying work and cooked a lovely baked dinner, bless his little cotton socks. Baby Duck mooched around complaining he was bored. To which my reply was “well, go and be bored somewhere else – I’m writing!”.

He also explained to his father this morning how chocolate milk is made. His theory is that you take a bowl of Coco Pops and add milk. You then end up with chocolate milk plus a by-product of Rice Bubbles. Thinking all the time, that boy.

I’m reasonably happy with what I’ve written so far. You can read the first scene over on my page at Nano (under "Novel Info"), if you’re interested. I read the first chapter to Drama Duck tonight and she was eager to hear more – a good sign, I hope.

Anyway, I’m off to bed. I have a big day ahead, with plots to thicken and cryptic utterances to … um … utter. Wish me luck!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Easy as falling off a log

I was prowling the secondhand book stall at a local fete on Sunday. I was very strong and didn’t buy anything, but I couldn’t very well go past without even looking, could I?

So I’m cruising along checking spines and the two ladies cruising the other side of the table start discussing Matthew Reilly.

“You read any of his?” asks one, gesturing at Ice Station.

“Yeah, I read that one set in North America.”

“I’ve read a few, but they’re pretty bad.”

The second lady laughs. “I’d like to be that bad, if I could have his money.”

I’m not sure if people outside of Australia are familiar with Matthew Reilly but he’s a young guy who self-published his first book, sold enough to get noticed and has gone from strength to strength. He’s not “literary” but he sells like hot cakes, and good luck to him.

The first lady didn’t seem to understand the point her friend was making.

“Well, it’s easy, isn’t it?” she said dismissively. “Anyone could write them. I could write a better book myself. It’s just a matter of finding the time.”

Wow, I thought. My first real-life experience of what so many authors have talked about – this popular perception that writing is so easy anyone can do it. As long as you’ve got the time to “waste” on it, anyone can sit down at their computer and knock out a bestseller.

I’m still gobsmacked thinking about it. How can people take so much hard work for granted? Just because reading a book is easy doesn’t mean writing one is.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The travelling drought-breakers, Part 1

Hi, Sydney, I’m home! I brought you a little souvenir from my holiday – bucketloads of rain. No, really, I insist.

Apparently there was so much rain in some parts of Sydney last night that shopkeepers were sweeping it out of their shops this morning.

Yes, the drought-breaking duck family has arrived. No, no, don’t thank me. I’m happy to provide this public service. They were begging us to stay in Bendigo. They had the best rain for three years while we were there.

But I should start at the beginning.

Did I mention the heavenly firehose that dumped on our car all the way to our friends’ farm? Yes? Think of it like those bottomless cups of coffee you can get, where every time your cup looks like it might just be thinking about being empty, the waitress comes and fills it up again. We had our own personal stormcloud, just like that. Continually topped up and stuck to us like glue.

Whenever there was the tiniest break in the weather the kids would venture out. Go around the corner to herd cows? The heavens would open. Squelch through the boggy paddocks just 100 metres to look at the creek? Downpour plus hail. And so cold it’s a wonder nobody lost their extremities to frostbite.

But there were friends and games and good conversations. Not to mention puppies:

Demon Duck spent most of her time sitting out on the verandah in the freezing cold loving on those puppies. When we left she cried for the first half-hour because she missed them so.

And then we were across the border into Victoria, first stop Glenrowan, the place where Ned Kelly, a famous bushranger, was finally caught after being besieged at the local inn. Glenrowan is a small place, and it seems to me that the only reason it still exists is to service the tourist industry. There’s a ginormous statue of Ned Kelly in the main street and a rather peculiar “show” that recreates the showdown at the inn. You move through a succession of rooms peopled with somewhat creepy dummies, some of which move a little, while the events are narrated.

What an interesting experience for the children! we think. Bringing history alive! So we fork over an exorbitant sum of money and lead the ducklings into the first room.

Fortunately we are the only ones enjoying this educational experience at the time, since as soon as the lights go out Baby Duck starts to howl. Darkness + ominous music = total meltdown. I know the next room is well-lit, and I’m still smarting from the tourist-gouging admission price, so I refuse to give in to his pleas to leave.

The next room is better – a bar scene, where Ned and the rest of the gang are discussing their woes and planning the next move. There are even cute dogs, and pretend mice “running” along the bar. He is reasonably calm by the time we move outside for the shootout.

Unfortunately – this is starting to sound like a game of Fortunately/Unfortunately, isn’t it? – unfortunately we are then ushered into a tin shed and “shot” at. It’s dark and the sound of gunfire is loud, the smell of gunsmoke strong. Cue more sobs.

Then it’s on to a dark room containing an open coffin with Ned’s body in it. By this time I am wanting to shake the man who sold us the tickets for not warning us that the show might not be suitable for small people. I’ve seen it before, but that was seventeen years ago and my recollections are very hazy.

We finally make it out, but not before the body in the coffin has moved and another body has dropped down through a trapdoor in the roof as Ned is hanged. “Such is life,” were Ned’s famous last words, but I doubt Baby Duck will take anything educational away from this experience. As a public service, I give you the warning the man should have given us: overpriced but educational for older kids, too scary for more sensitive little souls.

We troop off through the rain and check out the museum, then pile back into the car and shake the mud of Glenrowan from our feet, en route to Bendigo, where we find a very comfortable family room at a motel and eat a yummy Chinese dinner.

Holiday statistics for our first day in Victoria:

Rainfall: epic – did anybody bring an ark?
Other waterworks: two out of three children reduced to sobbing wrecks.
Accommodation and food: good.
Are we having fun yet: the day is redeemed by a stop at a marvellous adventure playground on the way to Bendigo.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The long and winding road

… still hasn’t led back home, though we’re starting the trek back to Sydney tomorrow. We’re in Melbourne now. Great place, but we’re freezing our butts off.

We’ve seen some interesting places, and I’ll do detailed posts with photos when I get back. In the meantime, here’s some fascinating things I’ve learned:

-- Captain Cook (who claimed the east coast of Australia for Britain in 1770) was married for 16 years, but only spent a total of four of them at home with his wife. Makes the Carnivore’s business travel look good! He was also 6 foot 3 (the good captain, that is, not the Carnivore, who is the runt of his litter). He must have been a giant in those days.

-- Ballarat must have looked like a wasteland during the gold rush of the 1850s, with poppet heads everywhere and every tree cut down to line the tunnels and shafts of the mines. “At great labour and expense a forest was taken underground” said one historian. There’s a phrase to spark a story! “The Underground Forest” would make a great fantasy title too.

-- The most amazing fact? The ducklings can actually live without TV for a whole week. Who would have thought???

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Boat trip

The animals went in two by two, hurrah! hurrah! Sing along, everyone! The animals went in two by two, the elephant and the kangaroo …

Our road trip is turning into a boating holiday. Yesterday the heavens opened and bucketloads of water fell on us. No, not bucketloads. Truckloads. Especially when it was my turn to drive. And I just looove driving in the rain. The equivalent of Sydney Harbour dumped on our car. It rained so hard we could hardly see and other cars were pulling off the road all around.

But at last the flood washed us up on our friends’ farm, safe and sound, if a trifle waterlogged. And they have puppies! All is right with the world. We are sitting inside watching the rain fall, while the ducklings play with their friends and we drink lots of cups of tea and veg out.

I checked the internet before we left for ideas for games we could play in the car. Oh frabjous internet! We had Car Bingo and Who Am I? and a very amusing game called Virtual Hide and Seek.

“We’re going to play virtual hide and seek,” I said.

Drama Duck touched my shoulder. “Found you!”

It was fun. You have to “hide” somewhere in your house, and the others “find” you by asking questions with yes/no answers. Your hiding place doesn’t have to be somewhere you could actually fit, so you can hide in the cutlery drawer or the toilet or inside your brother’s money box.

Another game that went on for a long time was Fortunately/Unfortunately, where everyone takes turns to say a sentence starting alternately with “fortunately” and “unfortunately”.

“Unfortunately Mum fell down a giant hole and there was a cannibal at the bottom.”

“Fortunately he wasn’t hungry at the time.”

“Unfortunately Demon Duck fell in too and there was an axe murderer after her.”

“Fortunately he’d forgotten to bring his axe.”

During the course of the game most of us got turned into zombies, several people died and got brought back to life, I had my brain replaced by a sock – but “fortunately the sock was full of amazing circuitry so I became the smartest person in the world” – volcanoes erupted and there were several earthquakes. In short, a good time was had by all.

Also we listened to Roald Dahl read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Enormous Crocodile, so the hours passed quite quickly.

Tomorrow we’ll hit the road again, heading into the wilds of Victoria. We’ll decide in the morning whether to take the car or a canoe.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Not on the same day

“I believe you can have whatever you really want in this life, in one form or another, sooner or later. But you can’t have it all at once and you can’t have it forever. No life has the room for everything in it, not on the same day.” -- Barbara Sher
I would love to be able to tell you that I found this quote through my reading because I’m just such an intellectual, but in fact it was one of many wise sayings on my desk calendar this year. It really resonated with me. It’s practically an anthem for modern womanhood. Can we have a career? And children? And still find time for meaningful intimate relationships and keep fit and be fulfilled as a person all while keeping the house spotless and eating nothing but healthy home-cooked meals?

I was thinking about it again the other day. I did end up taking my courage in both hands and dragging my offspring into the wilds of seedy Kings Cross, Sydney’s red light district, to see the Linde Ivimey exhibition. It was a four-hour round trip, of which 15 minutes were spent in the actual gallery looking at the exhibition. The rest was train travel (hugely exciting!), walking (not so popular) and waiting for trains (involved trains so still good – even potential trains are apparently exciting). Not the ideal ratio of travel to exhibition-viewing from an adult’s point of view, but just about perfect as far as the ducklings were concerned. Maybe a little long on the exhibition viewing. Luckily the boredom of the 15 minutes was alleviated by the existence of a large fishpond in the centre of the gallery and – the real clincher – a ten-week-old puppy lurking in the gallery office, which they sniffed out within seconds of stepping through the door.

I was describing the experience later to a dear (childless) friend who often visits art shows and does other adult-type cultural things which are only a distant memory for me. She asked if I ever went to the Archibald show any more, which we used to do together sometimes BC (Before Children) and I thought of the Barbara Sher quote. You can have what you want in one form or another. I can still go to art shows – just not the way I used to. No more taking my time contemplating each piece, but it’s surprising how much you can cover in 15 minutes, even with small people demanding you admire the bug-eyed goldfish and trying to sneak off into the restricted areas of the gallery.

But it felt so good just to go. Look at me! I’m a real person, doing real-person things! And it certainly doesn’t hurt to expose the ducklings to elements of culture that aren’t tailored for kids now and then. Though the response was unanimous: the sculptures were "weird". But the puppy was cute.

Oh, and the train ride was fun, too. Did I mention how very exciting train travel is? You can sit upstairs! And you can sit downstairs! Then upstairs again! All while talking at the top of your piping six-year-old voice for the edification of the entire carriage.

So maybe I can’t have everything I want, just the way I want it. But the fun part comes in discovering new ways to enjoy things. “No life has the room for everything in it, not on the same day.” But any day that includes some art, a puppy and three happy children is a good day in my book.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Floating round the net

School holidays here. Brain is broken.

Can’t come up with a coherent post, so here’s a few things that have caught my attention recently:

Natalie Hatch with a great intro to hula hooping. Have fun! Lose weight! Embarrass yourself in public! (Oh, wait, that was just me, hula hooping in the park today …)

Carrie Ryan with a thoughtful post on book banning (thanks to writerjenn for the link). My favourite quote: “if the only way you can keep people believing what you want them to is to deny them access to other points of view, then not only do you not trust those people but you certainly don't trust the strength of your own message".

Amazing art from Linde Ivimey. On show in Sydney at the moment – hoping to get there to see it in real life. I first read about these sculptures made of bones just before I started Man Bites Dog. I was so intrigued I had my heroine creating similar sculptures. Looking at them makes me want to get back to work on that novel.

My Best Kite. Cool website with easy-to-follow instructions on how to make a range of kites out of stuff you probably have lying around at home. Very handy for school projects and amusing kids in the holidays!

Peadar O’Guilin, sff author. Stumbled across this blog last week. He has links to some short stories and sample chapters of his novel The Inferior in his sidebar. Enjoyed the stories very much and was so intrigued by the sample chapters I’ve ordered the book and can’t wait for it to arrive so I can continue reading!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Bad decisions make good stories

Agent Rachelle Gardner had a good post recently on the importance of proactive protagonists. A good protagonist doesn’t just wander along, reacting to events, they make the events of the story happen. They take action, make decisions.

They can make mistakes, but what they cannot do is sit passively waiting for the story to happen to them.

This ties in with another well-known truth of writing – that in fact, mistakes are where the story happens. If everything goes smoothly, it’s not much of a story. But if every time the protagonist tries to solve their initial problem, they just dig themselves deeper into a hole, the story gets interesting.

Bad decisions make good stories.

It amazes me how I can know all this in theory, yet in practice, I not only make all these writing mistakes I’ve read about, but I don’t even see that I’ve made them.

I’m 90,000 words into Dragonheart, and not till my heroine hurls an accusation at her long-lost love do I look at what I’ve just typed and go hang on … She’s right! She did devote the whole first part of the story to doing X to try to be reunited with him. So how come as soon as she met up with some other characters who wanted to do the exact opposite of X she meekly fell in with their plans? How the hell does that work?

There’s a gaping hole in her motivation you could drive a truck through and I didn’t even realise. She was just floating along, letting other characters drive the action. And look what a cool conflict I missed! She wants X, her allies want the exact opposite – sparks should be flying. She should be up to her armpits in alligators, as everything she does makes the situation worse, not cheerfully letting these other characters run her life for her.

Sometimes I can’t see the wood for the trees. I get so tangled up in the intricacies of the subplots I forget about the big things.

I guess that’s why they invented revision.

Monday, 28 September 2009

I'm not eating THAT!

“What’s for dinner, Mama?” asks Baby Duck.

“Peanut veal,” I say.

He gives me a doubtful look. “I don’t think I like peanut beetles.”

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Dave Allen lives!

Does anyone remember Dave Allen? He was a marvellous Irish comedian whose Friday night show was staple viewing in our house when I was growing up. He loved to poke fun at religious rituals and many of his skits and routines have passed into family lore.

A favourite was the one where the bishop took off his tall, pointy hat – to reveal a tall, pointy head underneath.

Dave Allen has been dead since 2005, but his memory well and truly lives on.

Today I was sitting next to my sister in church. My sister who is a grandmother. Supposedly mature. Dave Allen was the furthest thing from my mind as I watched a sweet crowd of little children receiving the bishop’s blessing. And then …

The bishop took off his tall, pointy hat. Dear Reader, it pains me to tell you, but my sister, who is a good Catholic and absolutely old enough to know better – my sister sniggered.

I didn’t even have to look at her. I knew at once the picture in her head, and I was undone. My shoulders shook so hard from holding it in that Drama Duck demanded to know what I was laughing at.

So much for setting a good example. At least Dave Allen would be proud.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The soul of an accountant

I was amusing myself trying to write haiku yesterday. There’s a local haiku competition coming up and I thought, why not? I’ll give it a whirl.

I remember writing haiku at school when I was about Drama Duck’s age. Back then, of course, it was all about the physical structure: the three lines of five syllables, then seven, then five again. I doubt my teacher even mentioned the finer points of nature/seasonal imagery or the way a haiku captures the essence of a moment, gives an unexpected insight. If she did, I certainly wasn't listening!

I found a gorgeous definition of haiku, itself a haiku, on the haikuoz website, by a bloke from Perth called Andrew Lansdown:

"Haiku are pebbles
poets lob into the pond
of our emotions."

So I was sitting there, scribbling away, counting syllables on my fingers, when Demon Duck asked me what I was doing.

“Writing haiku,” I said.

“Oh, we’ve done that at school,” she says, with all the lofty confidence of a nine-year-old. “I’ve written 16.”

Then she looked over what I’d written, counted the syllables and said, “That’s good, Mum, you’ve got it right.”

Next up was Mr I-don’t-have-a-poetic-bone-in-my-body, aka the Carnivore.

“What are you doing?”

“Writing haiku.”

“What’s that?”

Maybe that nine-year-old confidence wasn’t misplaced after all. At least she knows more than her father about haiku.

After I’d explained haiku, including how they’re usually about nature, he said:

“But you could write them about anything, right? Important things, like tax?”

Later in the evening he came to tell me he’d written one, grinning from ear to ear. I present it here for your edification.

“Transfer pricing,
Thin capitalisation,
Tax office pressure.”

He is such an accountant.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Memory is a funny beast

Memory is a funny thing. If you want a phone number, the date of a friend’s wedding anniversary, the details of a long-ago conversation, I’m your woman. The Carnivore, on the other hand, like many men, can’t remember his own children’s birthdays. Some days he’s not even too sure how old they are.

You’d think, being an accountant, he’d have a bit of an edge in remembering such number-related things, but no. His memory appears to be jammed full of the plot of every novel and B-grade movie he’s ever read/seen. He can even recite dialogue from some of them.

Whereas I, the more word-focused person, can reread novels without remembering anything of the plot. Sometimes I can recall one scene, or a character I liked, maybe a hazy recollection of the initial set-up, but the ending comes as a complete surprise.

It’s a little alarming to realise how fast my brain empties, but quite handy too. I never run out of new stories to read!

I was reading today and a new application of this anti-skill occurred to me. My eyes filled with tears at a moving bit, and the writer part of my brain stopped to analyse the effect. I wondered if the author felt moved when she wrote it. Maybe she was deliberately trying to engender this effect. If so, how would she know if she’d succeeded? Since she knew what she was aiming for, since she’d constructed the sadness, she couldn’t very well come at it as a new reader would, and experience the sadness.

Then I realised, due to the black hole in my memory where plots go to die, I can have my writerly cake and eat it too. (Which has always struck me as an odd expression. “You want to have your cake and eat it too!” people say, as if that’s a bad thing. But what else are you going to do with cake? Who are these weirdos who just want to look at their cake?)

I only have to leave anything I write a few months and I forget so much of it it’s like reading something somebody else wrote. Very handy for assessing what effect the story might have on a reader, though a little awkward if I ever do get published and people want to discuss my novels with me. “So Marina, why did you have So-and-so do X in your story?” “Er … remind me who So-and-so is again?”

Yesterday I reread a short story I finished back in June. That’s only three months ago. Couldn’t wait to get to the end to see what happened.

How could I forget so quickly?

At least I still liked it. Old Whatsername writes a pretty mean story when they let her out of the padded room.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Recurring themes

Like many great writers, Baby Duck has a favourite theme he returns to over and over again. His backlist would be the envy of many a writer, and all except one of his works – the classic Chickens in Space – features monsters. But even Chickens in Space is generously supplied with aliens, which is nearly the same thing.

He spends hours sometimes, drawing page after page, then he brings them to me to staple together and he dictates the text to me. If I’m really lucky I get to palm this job off on to Drama Duck, though then I worry that he’ll show it to someone and they’ll think I made all those spelling mistakes, so usually I do it. It can take an awfully long time sometimes, but its kinda fun too. His monsters are endlessly inventive, though the story usually follows a well-worn track, featuring a portal that opens into our world to let the monsters in, followed by lots of fights and explosions. Not too dissimilar to your average box-office smash, in other words.

The latest effort features a new twist – meta-text. After a dozen pages of the usual monster mayhem, I find something puzzling.

“Why is this monster being attacked by a giant pencil?” I ask.

The look he gives me says he’s wondering how someone can be that stupid and still tie their own shoelaces.

“He’s not being attacked by a giant pencil, Mum. That’s just showing people how to draw him.”

It’s so hard to get good mothers these days.

I find recurring themes in my own work too. Some are conscious. I’m fascinated by transformations, for instance. One of my favourite fairytales is Beauty and the Beast. The Little Mermaid is another. I love a good makeover story, like Cinderella, or Grease. Shapeshifters and werewolves are great. (As long as they’re not too scary. I still have nasty memories of some werewolf movies I saw about 25 years ago, back when werewolves were still beasts and not just extra-hairy toyboys, a la the current paranormal craze.)

Some recurring motifs seem to sneak in there without me realising. I was thinking about my next Nano novel the other day and a lighthouse appeared in it. That’s funny, I wrote that other story about a lighthouse Why do lighthouses keep popping up? Which led to some sniggering about phallic symbols from the more juvenile aspects of my personality, but no enlightenment. As far as I’m aware, lighthouses mean nothing to me, so why do I keep wanting to write about them? The mind is a very weird place.

What are the themes and motifs that you keep returning to? Or what themes are you drawn to in the work of others? Weird enquiring minds want to know.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Ad fail

Dear advertising agency,

You know that radio ad you produced where the smart alec voice-over lady begins, “You wouldn’t read the end of a book first, so why make a decision without seeing our beautiful range blah blah blah”?

That ad doesn’t have the effect you think it does.

Every time I hear Smartypants Lady say “You wouldn’t read the end of a book first” in that ho ho ho, we’re all adults here way, I want to shout at the radio, “HA!! Shows how much you know, lady!”. I’m too busy arguing with her to take in the rest of the sentence, or even notice what the ad is for. And I don’t think that’s what “talkback radio” is supposed to mean.

What kind of a boring universe do you come from, ad people? I thought you were meant to be creative types. Do you really think nobody ever peeks? Have you never been so caught up in a character’s dramas that you are simply compelled to flip ahead to make sure he or she makes it to the end of the book alive?

Those numbers at the bottom of each page? Some of us take those as a suggested reading order only. And those of us with freakishly tiny attention spans develop evil habits of turning big chunks of pages at a time, reading a bit, then skipping another big chunk in our efforts to get to the end and find out what happens. Later, when our curiosity is not so urgent, we go back and read the bits we skipped. Or not.

Of course, people who do that tend to end up with tottering piles of books around the house that never seem to get finished, as discussed in my post about the bookmark that had been there so long it changed colour. Which is a whole ’nother problem. Certainly not something I would recommend. Ahem.

Nevertheless, your insistence that reasonable people would never contemplate reading out of order makes me want to rush out and commit reckless acts of non-sequential reading just to spite you. I know, I’m mature like that. But come on, I can’t be the only person who gets so caught up in a book they can’t resist leaping ahead. Maybe you’re just reading the wrong kind of books.

And you know what else? I’ve even heard there are people who read the last page before they buy the book. Just to make sure there’s a Happily Ever After before they waste their money and emotional investment. Shocking, isn’t it? Can you believe that?

Oh, right. I guess not.

But you might want to rethink that ad. It sure ain’t working for this little black duck. And who knows how many other people are driving around Sydney yelling at their radios?

Yours sincerely,
Crazy Lady Who Yells At Radios

Thursday, 3 September 2009

This is going to get ugly

This year’s Nano just got a whole lot harder. Demon Duck announced tonight that she is going to do Nano too. Holy shrieking tantrums, Batman.

Demon Duck is – how shall I put this? – not the most placid of persons. I can see it now. November will be full of daily crying jags, fights and bitter complaints that everyone else is hogging the computer.

And that’s just me.

Wait until she gets started. The you-know-what will not just be hitting the fan, but knocking the fan right through the wall, destroying everything in its path before coming to rest, a twisted wreck, a mile down the road. The world is not ready for the terrifying collision of NaNoWriMo and Demon Duck’s, shall we say, underdeveloped strategies for coping with stress. Sorry about that, world. But what can I do? Her big sister has been planning excitedly for weeks.

I could refuse, on the grounds that I won’t get any writing done if she is storming down the hallway every five minutes to throw herself on her bed and sob. Unfortunately, the fact that it is true won’t win me any points in the Being a Good Parent Stakes. Instead, I will have to grit my teeth and Encourage the Budding Novelist.

Just one more thing they never tell you in antenatal classes. But don’t get me started on that.

So. My feelings about Nano are something of a mixture. There’s the usual oh I can’t wait, all tangled up with its old friend what the hell are you thinking??? There’s the twins this year I’ll be more prepared and I still have plenty of time, but now they are shadowed by their gloomy cousin Good Lord, now I’m support crew for not one, but two junior Nanoers and his sidekick this is all going to End Badly.

The sensible thing would be to do a lot of preparation. Plan and outline to the nth degree, know exactly where my story’s going before November arrives. There are people in my writing group who write like that. They even use spreadsheets to order their scenes.

I’ve been thinking about the eternal plotters vs pantsers debate as I write Dragonheart. I started with a one-page outline in very general terms that covered the initial situation, the main conflict, half-a-dozen characters and “it ends like this and they all live happily ever after”. I did more planning than I’d ever done before, considering character motivations and some worldbuilding details. The first few scenes were clear in my mind. So not a complete pantser.

Once I got stuck into the frantic terror of Nano I wished most desperately that I’d planned in more detail. Worldbuilding’s all very well, but what would the characters actually do? My brain was bursting with the effort of dreaming it all up on the fly. I resolved to be more organised and never put myself through this again. How much easier it would be if I had a scene outline for every scene, not just the first few, and all I had to do was flesh it out. Plotting was definitely the way to go.

Or was it? I’ve talked about muse bombs before: those little gifts from the subconscious. They start off as little details, mere window-dressing on a scene, but on reflection they morph into something huge and wonderful in the story. The closer I get to the end of Dragonheart, the more I can see how enormously these features have influenced the shape of my story.

They didn’t exist in the outline. Lots of things didn’t, of course; it was very basic. More importantly, they didn’t exist in my brain at the outset either, and I don’t think any amount of planning would have unearthed them. They grew out of the story as it unfolded, when I arrived at that place in the telling.

Another one appeared the other day. 83,000 words in, you’d think I’d know everything about my world. But a perfectly innocent sentence came out of a character’s mouth and I looked at what I’d just typed and went “Oh my God – how did I not see that before?”. My whole magic system got turned on its ear.

I know the plotters say that an outline isn’t set in stone. You can change it as you go along. But if you’re going to end up changing 90%, what’s the point of going to the effort of nutting it out beforehand? Dragonheart would be a very different story without the ideas that joined the party along the way, so I don’t think major plotting is the best way for me. Even though it might stop me feeling that my brain is going to explode out my ears.

That’s not to say that I won’t do any planning for Nano. I’m thinking that a happy medium might be to plan the first quarter of the book fairly tightly to get me off to a good start.

After that anything goes. And probably will.

Now I just have to find me a flame-retardant suit for when Demon Duck gets started.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

I blame Glenda Larke

I had a dreadful headache all day yesterday, and I blame Glenda Larke.

Late last week I heard her new book, The Last Stormlord, was available at my local sff bookshop. I’ve been hanging out to read this one, so “visit to Infinitas” went on the to-do list for Monday.

Unfortunately for my head, I then discovered on her blog that the whole book was up on the Voyager website for a couple of weeks. (And what is up with that? Publishers giving away the whole book for free? Which universe is this again?)

So I thought I’d take a little peek. Cue hollow laughter. I ended up staying up till crazy stupid o’clock on Sunday night reading the damn thing onscreen in teeny tiny print. Despite knowing that I would have the actual real live book in my hands the next day. Despite knowing I had to get up early. Despite the fact that my eyeballs shrivelled up and fell out of my head. I just groped under the table, picked the dog hairs off and stuck them back into their bleeding sockets.

Note to Publisher: Do not offer Gigantic Whole Novels on your website. I don’t care what your marketing gurus told you, it is not good business to make readers’ eyeballs fall out of their heads. Not much chance of people buying your product, is there, if they can no longer read.

So Voyager must share part of the blame for the monumental headache I endured yesterday. But most of it is Glenda’s fault, of course, since if she hadn’t written such a good book I might have been able to resist the lure of just one more chapter.

I imagine Glenda might point out that people who have reached my age ought to be aware that staying up reading half the night will give you a headache. And if they persist in such foolish behaviour they deserve everything they get.

Much as it pains me to disagree with one of my idols, I would have to reply that people who commit reckless acts of Awesome World-building must in turn be aware that their actions are extremely dangerous to the reading populace. Books such as The Last Stormlord should come with a warning not to operate heavy machinery after reading. I was a write-off on Monday, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the story, couldn’t wait to get back to reading it.

The story is set in the desert world of the Quartern, where rain no longer falls randomly, but is summoned and distributed by stormlords. Water’s scarcity informs the whole society, and Glenda brings this alien world to life with amazing skill, from its marvellous wildlife to the rigid hierarchies of the cities.

Through a series of misfortunes, the number of stormlords has dwindled till now there is only one, and he is rapidly failing. The search is on for a new stormlord to prevent the total breakdown of society. But no one is as they seem, as the book’s two main characters, Shale, a water-sensitive boy from the lowest caste and Terelle, a girl struggling to escape a future of prostitution, soon discover. And maybe all those stormlords didn’t die by accident …

Quick! Run to your nearest bookshop and buy it. Don’t start reading it on screen, thinking you will be able to stop reading and go to bed at a reasonable hour. Trust me, you are not that strong. That way lies the Headache from Hell.

This is a seriously good book. Can’t wait for the next one! But please, Voyager, don’t make it available on your website. My eyeballs will thank you.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Alas! she loves another

Dear Dragonheart,

We’ve been going steady for a while now, and I know we’ve had our ups and downs. I had a couple of flings with short stories, and there was that long separation a few months back. Things were a bit rocky there while we were getting reacquainted but then, I don’t know, I changed, or you changed, and suddenly we were in love again, just like that first flush of romance when it all began.

You were once again the only story for me, and I’m sure you felt the same. We were meant for each other, and it seemed that nothing could ever part us again. Only ...

Don’t get mad. It’s not you, it’s me. Me and my BAD AS (Bloody Awful Deficient Attention Span). I just have this problem with commitment.

I’ve started seeing someone else. No, no, nothing’s happened yet. We haven’t even held hands. We’re just talking. But this new story’s so luscious, so full of ripe promise, that I’m all giddy and starry-eyed just thinking about it. It’s making it hard to honour those vows I made you, to see it through to the bitter end.

You’ve got to help me, Dragonheart. Be scintillating. Sweep me off my feet with the dizzying turns of your plot. Pull all those hanging threads together into an ending so wondrous that I can resist the lure of the New Story. Work with me here, baby.



Sooo. Remember how I decided not to do Nano again this year? Yep. I lied. Thought of the most splendiferously brilliant idea the other day, and now I just want Dragonheart to be over so I can go play with my shiny new idea.

Of course, I realise it’s only shiny because it’s new, and by the time I’m halfway through I’ll think it’s the most appalling drivel I’ve ever written, but still. Even knowing that, the first flush of romance is still exciting.

It may even be a good thing for poor Dragonheart. I’m at 82,000 words now, still struggling on, but the ending can’t be too much further, can it? I’m toying with my new idea, doing a little research, but only after I write every day on Dragonheart. I’m determined to finish it now I’m this close, and if I can manage it by the end of September that still leaves me a month to plan before Nano kicks off.

Besides, Drama Duck wants to do Nano this year too, so I can hardly leave her to do it on her own, can I?

The sacrifices I am prepared to make for my children ...

Monday, 24 August 2009

A family of comedians

I am living with a family of comedians.

Evidence the first:

Baby Duck had a haircut on Friday. Our friend who was cutting his hair asked if he’d like hair the colour of hers, but he declined, saying her colour looked old. Pretending outrage, our friend said, “Just wait till you’re forty! I’ll tell you ‘hey, you’re looking pretty old now’."

He said, “And I’ll say ‘you still look older than me!’ "

Evidence the second:

Someone who shall remain nameless, but she’s my middle child and her name starts with Demon and ends with Duck, defaced my menu board while I was out yesterday.

(What, doesn’t everyone write the week’s menu on a whiteboard in their kitchen? What do you mean, I’m anal?)

She had carefully written up the menu as follows:

Monday: takeaway
Tuesday: takeaway
Wednesday: takeaway
Thursday: takeaway
Friday: takeaway
Saturday: takeaway
Sunday: out

Only the spelling mistakes have been changed to protect the innocent.

Evidence the third:

The girls went iceskating yesterday while I was out. I think that was pretty brave of me. If I say that I was imagining severed fingers lying twitching on the ice, you will think my worrywart gene is showing again. In my defence I offer that I used to work with a lovely man who was missing a couple of fingers because of an iceskating accident as a child.

I mentioned to Drama Duck last night that I’d been a little stressed about them going skating.

"It was fine,” she said dismissively. “I’ve still got most of my fingers."

Evidence the fourth:

And the reason I was not available to personally supervise the safety of my daughters’ precious pinkies?

My brother rang a couple of weeks ago to say he was going away for a few days. He usually does Mum’s grocery shopping for her, and wanted me to cover for him. Not a problem, since I usually visit Mum once a week anyway, but just to make sure I wouldn’t forget, I wrote “Mum shopping” on the calendar that hangs on the back of the en suite door.

(My friends find it amusing when they ask me if I’m free on a certain date and I tell them I have to go check on the toilet door.)

This morning I got out of the shower and found that underneath “Mum shopping” the Carnivore had written “Could not find a decent Mum".

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

100 ways to say "tree"

Yesterday’s post reminded me of another travelling game that has gone down in family legend.

We were driving along a dull stretch of freeway, with nothing but trees either side of the road as far as the eye could see – and the ducklings wanted to play I Spy. So we came up with a variation, where the answer was always the same, but the challenge was in thinking up a different description every time.

“I spy with my little eye something that has a brown trunk.”
“I spy with my little eye something that has green leaves.”
“… something that birds build nests in.”
“… something you can make paper out of.”
“… something loggers cut down.”
“… something that starts with T and ends in E.”

And so on. It kept the ducklings amused for a good half hour, all yelling out “TREE” every time at the tops of their lungs, and we came up with 30 or 40 ways to describe a tree. It got harder as we went along, of course, till we were really racking our brains trying to come up with something different.

It occurred to me this morning that this is good exercise for a writer’s brain. So often we reach for the same old descriptions – “brown trunk and green leaves” – instead of pushing a bit further to get “something you can make paper out of” or even further to “something featuring heavily in a lot of creation mythology”.

My first drafts are full of brown trunks and green leaves. My characters shrug and snort and nod nearly every time they open their mouths. Their hearts pound in their chests and leap into their throats every time they are alarmed (which is a lot of the time). There are grim looks by the bucketload and so much crossing and uncrossing of legs when they sit down it’s a wonder they haven’t all got cramps in their calves.

But that’s what revisions are for. Karen Miller says first drafts are just her telling herself the story. Alexandra Sokoloff had a great post a while back titled “Your first draft is always going to suck”. It helps to remember that when I’m feeling that my writing is registering too high on the crapometer. This is just me working out what happens. The time for adjusting subplots and foreshadowing is not now. Elegant prose is not now.

Now is just brown trunk after brown trunk, till I’ve built a whole forest to play in. Now is the painful “but what happens next?”.

So, time to stop playing on the blog and go find out. Damn trees.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Telling tales

Mum lives about an hour’s drive away. It’s an easy drive, along motorways and freeways, but monotonous, particularly for small passengers. To pass the time last weekend I suggested we take turns telling a story, with each person taking up the tale where the last one left off.

In fact we had time for half a dozen stories in the two hours there and back, featuring such things as giant hairy flying cucumbers, pink elephants that turned into long-lost brothers and cows who were “dairy godmothers”. I believe that pun was snitched from a real story but it gave me a good laugh at the time.

It was fascinating to hear what each duckling came up with and observe their different personalities at work. Demon Duck, our little perfectionist, was very hesitant. A couple of times she got carried away by the story, but mostly she had a very quick go before passing the responsibility on to her sister. I think she was afraid of “getting it wrong”.

Drama Duck, otherwise known as “Little Miss Talk Underwater”, was in her element. Her turns were very long and inventive, and long after her brother and sister had dropped out of the game she was still eager to continue.

Baby Duck surprised me. He eventually got bored – he is only six, after all – but his efforts were quite creative and coherent. Once I thought he’d gone off into a different story altogether, but he brought it back around and tied it into the main thread. He’d only introduced a different point of view. And his grasp of storytelling conventions was quite firm. When it was his turn to start a new story he began:

“Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, in a land far, far away … there lived a little lizard named Fred.”

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Tools of the trade

We bought a new knife recently. We have a knife block full of knives, but I use the same one all the time, because it’s the most useful length and weight for me. Several years ago it had a rather disastrous trip through the dishwasher, where it fell down on to the element and the heat gouged a contorted scar out of the handle. A kind friend filed it so it would still be comfortable to hold, if a little odd-looking. Earlier this year the two halves of the handle began to separate, so the Carnivore wound stickytape around it. King of the handymen he is not. Still, it worked for a while. Then the stickytape began to unstick from the handle and started sticking to me instead when I held it, at which point I decided it was time for a visit to the knife shop.

Taking the Carnivore to the knife shop is like letting a kid loose in a lolly shop. What is it with men and knives? There must be a Love of All Things Sharp and Pointy gene somewhere in their DNA. All that shiny dangerous steel calls to the caveman inside even the mildest accountant. If only something had been on fire too, he might be there still.

So after I’d talked him down from his steel-induced high and refused to buy the $300 knife, we brought our new knife home. Cooking that night I realised just how blunt the old one had been. The new one sliced through everything so easily it was a joy. It made me conscious again of how much easier jobs are when you have the right tools.

Patchwork, for instance, can be done by drafting blocks on graph paper, making templates, tracing around the templates on the back of every piece of fabric in the quilt, then cutting out with scissors and hand-sewing the pieces together. Which makes you realise why the popular conception of a quilter is a little old lady. It takes that long to make a damn quilt. Thankfully, these days you can buy a rotary cutter and cutting mat, cut out everything more accurately and about ten times faster, and sew it together with a sewing machine. I’m all about instant gratification, so no prizes for guessing which is my preferred method.

So then I started to wonder – what are a writer’s tools? What are the essentials that no writer should be without?

A computer is the most obvious one, of course. Yes, it is possible to write a novel without one. Books were handwritten for centuries, just as quilts were made the traditional way. And I’m sure most writers started off handwriting stories before they were old enough to learn to type. But these days you’d have to look far to find an adult writer who doesn’t use a computer. Quite apart from the fact that word processing programs make it easier, most agents and publishers now expect novels to be available electronically. Why employ a typesetter to type the novel out when the author’s already done so?

Then there are the fancy software programs specifically aimed at writers. They can do just about everything except write the novel. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Scrivener for Macs, which seems to be the holy grail of these kind of programs. yWriter, a free program written by author Simon Haynes, sounds similar and one day I’ll check it out. But exploring all the cool features and learning to use it properly would see me sucked into the Bog of Procrastination again, so I’ll stick with Word and my notebook for now. Fancy software would be nice, but it’s not essential.

What else? How-to books? I have a squillion and I love them, good ones and not-so-good ones. Nice to have a couple in the toolbox, but you couldn’t call them essential either.

Then there’s the internet, a great place to get writing advice. So many articles and workshops out there, much of it free. Bucketloads of tips from the experts! You can also “meet” other writers online, share stories from the frontline, even find a crit group. The trouble is that the internet can morph from Writer’s Best Friend to Procrastination Central in the blink of an eyelid. Blink! There goes two hours. Blink, blink! My God, is it time to cook dinner already? Essential tool or bane of existence? “Essential tool” is not looking good.

So maybe a real-life crit group would be a better tool than the internet one? Writers are divided on the subject. Some swear by them, others avoid them like the plague (or like cliches like that one). My writers’ group is a nice bunch, who offer helpful criticism without nastiness. But I can see the potentials for disaster inherent in the idea. And with so many writers working without a crit group or partner, it’s hard to make a case for one being essential.

So far the only essential tool I have on my list is a computer. Pretty short list! What about caffeine, I hear you cry? I’m not so much into coffee, but if I can get my hit from chocolate instead, I’m perfectly willing to declare caffeine an essential part of the writer’s toolkit.

Which brings me to the bath. You don’t see the connection? Then you have never lazed in the bath eating chocolate and drinking tea and had the perfect solution for your latest plot problem fall into your damp lap straight from heaven. It has happened to me several times. While my body is doing wrinkled prune imitations, my mind ambles off and uncovers all sorts of gems lurking in my subconscious. So I’d have to say the bath was an essential writing tool, at least for me. Though if you’re more of a shower person, that can work too. I just zone out better in the tub.

So, my list of essential writing tools:

- computer
- chocolate
- bath
- knife

Knife?? Yes, that’s the other thing I discovered, while chopping carrots with my new sharp knife. Though it doesn’t have to be a knife, it could be a paintbrush or a vacuum cleaner or a hammer. Anything that allows you to perform a mindless, repetitive task. Somewhere in the middle of admiring how easily my new knife laid waste to those carrots, my mind wandered off and left my hands to it, and the answer to a particularly thorny plot problem appeared from nowhere. Which makes my knife a writing tool, as far as I'm concerned!

So that’s my writer’s toolkit. What’s in yours?