Monday, 23 February 2009

Fashion for the elderly

You know, it’s possible there are worse things for your ego than the well-meant comments of your offspring, but I have yet to discover them.

“You look good, Mum,” the ducklings said when I appeared in a new outfit the other day.

“Almost like a teenager,” says Demon Duck, who is a generous, if misguided, soul.

“Except for your hair,” says Drama Duck, surveying me with the critical eye of a ten-year-old fashion guru.

“Why? Can you see the grey?”

“No, it’s just a bit short. Teenagers have long hair, and you don’t, so you look old.”

My expression must have clued Demon Duck in to the fact that her sister isn’t exactly winning any prizes for flattery here.

“But the dress is beautiful,” she says, clearly eager to make up for her sister’s shortcomings. “It’s not fair, you know. I wish they made dresses like that for kids, but they don’t. They’re only for elderly people.”

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The little engine that could

You may notice I’ve put the “cover” of Dragonheart and an up-to-date wordcount widget in the sidebar. Not because I think anyone will be interested in how many words I’ve written, but I because I find the “public accountability” aspect a useful weapon in the war against procrastination. And the cover? Hey, I made it for Nanowrimo and I just like looking at it! Makes me feel all “authorly”.

Having spent the last two weeks celebrating my new freedom to do anything I like by in fact doing very little, I decided that the time had come for butt-in-chair. So on the weekend I read through the manuscript so far of Dragonheart, which I haven’t looked at since November, to get myself back up to speed. I have such a bad memory I’d forgotten where I was up to. Fortunately I still liked it. It was almost like reading a real book. I got engrossed in the story and was quite disappointed when it ended. “But what happens next?”

I wish I knew! I have the next little bit mapped out, but the rest of the book is distressingly vague. My notes to myself are full of “But why?”s and “such-and-such needs to happen – HOW?”. And in the big finale: “some huge complication needed”.

Muse, if you’re paying attention – a little more detail would be helpful. Appreciated, even. My control-freak self hates the not-knowing. Control freak self lies in bed at night going “but why? Why does that character do that?” and getting really frustrated when the answer doesn’t immediately appear. It’s that big gap between being a reader and being a writer. When you read, the story unfolds with such a smooth inevitability you can’t help but imagine it must have fallen fully formed into the writer’s head. If the writer’s done their job, it seems there’s no other way the story could have played out, so once the writer thought of the very first sentence, all the rest of it must have just flowed naturally from there. It's so easy! Anyone could do it.

If only! I try to console myself by looking back through my notebook and realising how much was unclear when I started, which has since fallen into place. Surely the rest of it will too – eventually. But I’m an instant gratification girl and waiting is just hard.

I know if I keep trudging on it will come. So my little wordcount widget sits there like the beacon on top of that terrible hill that leads to THE END, urging me on.

I think I can. I think I can.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Beware crispation and distance creepage

I love the instruction manual for my laminator. I read it every time I use the laminator, because the expressions in it always make me smile. “In order to avoid crispation, please don’t insert the open side of the pouch into the laminator first”. “Crispation” is such an evocative word, it should be a real one. “Please re-laminate if the lamination is not very well for the first time”. After “accomplishment of lamination”, “book, file or other heavy things can make it more flat and good-looking”.

“As to the smutch on the covers of machine, please wipe them off by wet cloth.” “To avoid the danger of distance creepage, please don’t place the machine in wet conditions”. That last one’s got me. I wonder what they mean by “distance creepage”? I picture some poor guy sitting there with his Chinese-English dictionary scratching his head as he searches for the right word.

I take my hat off to him. His English is a hell of a lot better than my Chinese. I still find it amusing, though.

Picking the right word is often difficult, even in your native language. Roget would have been out of a job otherwise. I bet I’d be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time a writer agonised over a word choice. Creep or sneak? Blue or azure?

So many words mean almost the same thing – but not quite. If you call a talkative character garrulous you project a very different image than if you say they’re chatty. And is she a female or a girl, broad, sheila, gal, lady, chick or woman?

The nuances of word choice are a great tool for a writer. I’m still learning to adapt my word choices to my point of view character. Clearly a Harvard professor has a different vocabulary to a five-year-old, or an old lady or a migrant fruit-picker. In direct speech I’ve always tried to show such differences. But until a year ago or so my brain hadn’t quite cottoned on to the fact that the rest of the narration should also show these differences if I was really deeply in the character’s point of view. My general narration tended to sound like me.

You’d think with all the books I’ve read that this would have been a no-brainer, but no. Finally someone hit me with the clue stick, and it’s improved my writing, though it’s still something I have to work at. Particularly when the differences between characters are not so obvious as Harvard professor versus five-year-old. It’s a bit harder to show the differences between three career women of similar age, say, or a group of kids who go to the same school. Or, in my case, a group of blood mages. I keep trying, though, because those books where all the characters sound exactly the same annoy me, and I don’t want to write one myself!

Of course it’s easier if one or more characters has a distinctive way of speaking. Maybe I need a character who sounds like my laminator manual.

“Caution, when dragon is in nearness – avoid crispation!”

Monday, 9 February 2009

Settings: the devil is in the details

So, you’re writing a novel or a script or whatever and you’d like to set your story somewhere exotic. Trouble is, you don’t know about anything beyond your own home town. What do you do?

1) You could try research. Libraries, internet, even TV documentaries or travel guides. Or you could talk to someone who’s been there, check out a few of their holiday snaps maybe.

2) You could write fantasy. You can make up whatever you like and nobody can tell you you’ve got it wrong (one of many reasons I like writing fantasy!)

3) You could be like the people responsible for the travesty of a movie the Carnivore watched on Friday night, and say your story’s set somewhere else but actually make it identical to your own home town.

It was called Supernova and was supposedly set in Sydney. I watched it for a while but couldn’t take it for long. I could put up with everyone speaking in American accents, but there was so much else that was so badly wrong it left me completely confused. I kept thinking the story must have switched to America and I’d somehow missed the part where the whole cast got on the plane.

It opened with a guy at a desert observatory. After a couple of minutes he got in his car, observed by two agents who had the place staked out, and drove to Sydney airport. One of the agents was an African American, which was out of place enough that it started alarm bells ringing. We have a multicultural society, with people from all over the place: lots and lots of Asians, Europeans of every kind, plenty of Middle Eastern people, quite a few Indians, Pacific Islanders, our own Aboriginals – but virtually no Africans. If you saw one on the street you’d look twice. But they popped up everywhere in this movie. At least half the extras were African Americans.

So the guy drives from the desert to the airport in an hour or so, when in fact it would take at least a day. Hell, some days you can’t even drive from the CBD to the airport in that time. His car is a left-hand drive and has Californian numberplates. In Australia we drive on the other side of the road and, strangely enough, our cars are registered in Australian states, not American ones.

It was all very confusing. A few minutes later another character was exploring an abandoned house at night. She was spooked by an animal in the house. A porcupine. Last time I looked we didn’t have any of those in Australia. Echidnas, yes. Porcupines, no.

I kept thinking I’d missed something at the airport scene. Surely we were now supposed to be in America? But no, people kept insisting it was Sydney. So why were they worrying about running out of “gas” when we call it “petrol”? Why did the children go to school on yellow school buses when children here catch regular commuter buses to school, which come in any colour the bus company chooses? Why were nervous housewives running around waving handguns when the house alarm went off when our gun control laws are so strict nobody but criminals and cops or gun enthusiasts have guns, which, if they’re legal, must be kept locked in a purpose-built cupboard at all times?

I gave up in disgust after about half an hour, but it left me perplexed. If you want to make a movie in America, go right ahead. But why pretend it’s set in Sydney? None of the reasons I could think of put the filmmakers in a good light.

1) They are so ignorant they have no idea that the rest of the world isn’t exactly like America.

I find this one hard to believe. Some parts of it must have been filmed in Sydney. There were shots of iconic Sydney landmarks being destroyed in the finale. So at least some of the people involved with the movie must have been here, in which case they must know at least some of the basic things they got wrong, like cars driving on the wrong side of the road, or Californian numberplates not being exactly that common outside America.

2) They believe their American viewers are so ignorant they have no idea the rest of the world isn’t exactly like America, so see no need to change anything.

This is pretty insulting to the American viewing public.

3) They believe their American viewers won’t notice all the mistakes, so there’s no point going to the expense of getting it right.

Possible, perhaps – except that it costs nothing to say “petrol” instead of “gas”, or to substitute a cricket bat or kitchen knife for a gun. But they couldn’t even be bothered doing that. Or do they think the American audience wouldn’t understand what was meant if characters said “petrol”? Again, pretty insulting to their viewers’ intelligence.

Which brings me back to the question: why bother insisting it’s Sydney if it’s demonstrably America in everything but name? Setting is made up of a myriad of details, probably the least important of which is the name. If I say my novel’s set in Paris, then there can’t just be the Eiffel Tower in the background. There’d better be people walking dogs everywhere, and the smell of fresh, crusty bread, cars parked haphazardly all over the footpath, a biting April wind and the sound of church bells. Otherwise no one who’s been there is going to believe me. Or worse, if everyone works from 9 to 5, just like they do in Sydney, with no mention of the looooong break in the middle of the day, people will ridicule me. That’s not how things work in Paris, so if I want people in my story to work 9 to 5 with a half-hour lunch break, I should set the damn story in Sydney. Or else get a clue and do my homework on Paris. It’s one place where the classic maxim “write what you know” has some merit. And if you don’t know, you’d better find out.

This is where writing fantasy is so much easier. Your world, your rules. As long as things are internally consistent, virtually anything goes. It’s like playing God. On the other hand, the fact that you can’t take anything for granted means more work. Every part of your society and world has to be considered. Characters can’t just hop on a train or drink a cup of coffee. You have to consider the level of technology and civilisation. How do people get around? What foods and beverages are available?

And do they have porcupines?

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Flap flap flap

Anybody else hear that flapping noise? Look, up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a guy wearing his underpants on the outside? No, it’s just Baby Duck leaving the nest.

Yes, my baby started school on Monday. I didn’t even get a goodbye kiss. He kept asking if it was time for him to line up yet. Once the bell went he was off like a shot, barely remembering to wave as he disappeared into his classroom.

So far so good. He seems quite happy to keep going back, which is the main thing. The house is very quiet without him, although the Carnivore makes enough noise for three people, so I’m not exactly lonely.

I have spent my new-found writing time revising a short story I wrote before Nano last year. Today I finished scribbling all my corrections on the hard copy and typed them in to the computer. There was a lot of red pen, with many crossings-out and new bits inserted.

As I worked through the pages I noticed something interesting – though some parts were buried in a storm of red pen, most of the dialogue was untouched. I’ve always felt that dialogue was one of my strengths as a writer, but it was interesting to see it demonstrated in such a concrete way.

Or maybe I just suck at revising. It’s entirely possible I’m just rearranging the deckchairs as the ship goes down. I do find it difficult to take a long enough view, even after leaving a story for months. I worry that I’m only fiddling at the sentence level when I should be looking at the much bigger picture: do I need this scene/character? Have I come up with the best possible answers for the story questions? For that matter, have I even asked the right questions?

Eek. So many things to consider. So many balls to keep in the air at once. Did I mention I suck at juggling too?

What’s your favourite part of writing? What are you best at? Or worst at?