Sunday, 26 December 2010

The house is full of flowers

The house is full of flowers because Mum is gone.

She wore the new shirt I gave her for Christmas but she never got to see how pretty she looked in it.

Red roses and rosaries; a white-haired priest with an Irish accent.

A man in a frock coat walked down the road in front of the hearse while the summer sun beat down.

Black dresses and sunburn. Hot little boys with sweaty heads.

Her children following the hearse, just the four of us alone together. My brother drove and swore; my sister couldn’t remember what day it was. We laughed and cried in that contrary way people do, battered by grief.

Contrary like her. Artist and mother; creator of books and babies, the heart of our family. Both stubborn and passionate; unsentimental and loving. Champion worrier to the end.

On Monday night my sister told her everything was in order and she could stop worrying. Tuesday morning she was gone.

Even 87 years was not enough.

The house is full of flowers and I will miss her all the rest of my life.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Nano carrots

“What the hell’s she talking about?” I hear you say. “That’s just a photo of a pile of books.”

Work with me here, people. You’ve heard the expression about the carrot being a better motivator than the stick. Well, I explained this one to the two eldest ducklings this month, along with a practical demonstration.

They both signed up for the Young Writers’ version of Nano again this year. In order to avoid a repeat of last year, where Demon Duck stopped writing after a week and I had to take 1500 words of dictation from her on the last day to get her over the finish line, I bought her a book she’s been begging for.

“This is your Nano carrot,” I said. “You don’t get to read it till you finish Nano.”

Hers is the Young Samurai novel, and she finished her 3,000 words before school this morning.

Drama Duck had no trouble finishing last year – she was done a week before the deadline. That suggested to me that her wordcount goal was too easy for her, and I wanted to encourage her to tackle a bigger project. Out came Nano carrot number two, the new Rick Riordan novel.

“If you make your goal 8,000 words instead of 5,000, you can have this book when you finish.”

And hey presto! She marched up the stairs last night, having finished her wordcount, and swiped the prize off the pile in triumph.

The third one, of course, is for me: Jackie French’s new novel Oracle. I read a good review of it in the papers a couple of weeks ago, and I’m looking forward to it. Adventures in ancient Greece are always fun.

And yes, I get to read my Nano carrot too. I put in a big effort yesterday, because I knew today would be crazy, wrote nearly 4,000 words and just scraped across the finish line. Thank goodness. It was a real struggle this year.

Just to add to the challenge, our computer guy arrived in the middle of the day yesterday and took over my computer for a couple of hours. Aaargh! What’s a girl to do when she’s thrown off her computer?

Why, go and sew something to relieve her feelings, of course.

I’m so in love with this bird fabric, this is the third thing I’ve made with it, and I’m not done yet. The whole of that particular range is so delicious I could eat it. (If, you know, I had one of those weird disorders where people eat stuff they’re not supposed to, like coal or chalk. I would eat only the most bright and beautiful of fabrics.)

Isn’t it gorgeous? I think this will be a pillow for my bed. Yum yum. Someone pass me a knife and fork.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Dear Blog

Dear Blog,

I’m sorry I haven’t spoken to you in a while. Don’t give me that sad puppy dog face – I still love you, honest. You’re great. It’s not you, it’s me.

Me and that Nano guy. I’ve been seeing a lot of him this month. Between him and end-of-year madness and the Carnivore travelling a lot, things have been rather busy around here.

I know you think I take you for granted, only seeing you when I feel like it. Not like that Nano guy. My God! He’s so demanding. It doesn’t matter what you do for him one day, he expects you to show up again the very next day and do it all again. And the next day, and the one after that … I tell you, I’m exhausted. I’ve come that close to breaking it off with him – not once, but several times. This year his demands seem so much harder than previous years. I really thought I couldn’t stick it out for the whole month.

So here we are, with only three days left in November. I know you feel neglected, but hey! Get in line! What haven’t I neglected this month? You’re no Robinson Crusoe.

Just. Can’t. Wait. For November to be OVER. I’m at just over 45,000 words tonight, so I’m pretty sure of getting my 50,000 words in. But AAARRGH!! I still don’t have a handle on this book I’m writing. Still blundering around in the dark. How can I be this far through the story and not really be able to say what it’s about? If I manage to get a coherent plotline out of this mess it’ll be a bloody miracle.

So, anyway, dear blog, I promise I’ll be back soon to lavish love and affection on you. We both just have to hang on for three more days and life will be back to normal. Kind of. Well, there is Christmas around the corner, you know, which on top of everything else involves every person I’ve ever met suddenly deciding they have to catch up with me before then as if they all think the world is going to end on December 25th.

So, yeah. Maybe “promise” is too strong a word, but you know I could never leave you. In the words of the immortal Arnie: “I’ll be back.”


Tuesday, 2 November 2010

And they're racing!

No, not the Melbourne Cup, which ran today. I’m so uninterested in horse racing I forgot all about it till it was over. Still don’t know who won. Probably some horse.

No, I’m talking about the really important race that runs every November: NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. Though really they should be considering changing it to IntNoWriMo, since it is an international event these days, with people all over the world taking part.

I was very tempted not to join in this year, through fatigue and general lack of ideas. But Drama Duck and Demon Duck were both keen to give the kids’ version a go again, and of course they wanted me to play too. Still I seesawed back and forth. The night before it started I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to do it. My idea was so weeny and had such gaping holes in it where there should be things like plot and character.

Yet there I was yesterday, typing like a demon. And I achieved a personal best – 4039 words in one day. I can still hardly believe it. If you’d asked me that morning if I thought I’d ever be able to write so many words in one day, let alone that day, with only my skeletal idea to prop me up, my answer would have been a resounding no.

Now it’s day 2, and I’m still going strong. Just waiting for the wheels to fall off. A story arc would be nice, maybe some character motivations – even a title. I’ll just have to put my trust in the process and hope that these things will come in time. So far they always have, but it’s damn scary when you’re on this side of the process, waiting for the magic to happen.

Just don’t ask me what it’s about, okay? I have Absolutely. No. Bloody. Idea.

Isn’t Nano fun??

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Liar by Justine Larbalestier

Q: How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Fish.

The astounding Liar by Justine Larbalestier reminds me of this old joke. Not because the book doesn’t make sense, but because it constantly jolts your reality, forcing you to adapt to a new idea of what the story is about. Just when you get comfortable – bam! – it does it again. And again. And again. By the time you get to the end of the book you’re reeling from the constant body blows as the story keeps shifting.

Liar is a hard book to talk about, because it’s such a mind-blowing ride you don’t want to give anything away and spoil the experience for others. It’s narrated by Micah, a girl who admits she lies all the time, but is promising to tell us, the readers, the real truth. Larbalestier takes the concept of an unreliable narrator to such extremes it leaves you wondering how she managed to keep track of her slippery, twisting story. It does your head in just trying to keep up when you’re reading it – imagine holding it all in your head long enough to write it!

Every time you think you know what’s going on, Micah begins a new section by admitting that half of what she just told you isn’t true. Now she’s going to tell you what really happened. Only when you get to the next section it’s “well, actually, I know I said that was the truth, but, no, really – this is what happened”.

And you just keep on falling for it. Well, I did, anyway. And that’s what makes this book so clever. All fiction is lies, isn’t it, by definition. Fiction is made-up stories. When we read fiction, we agree to go along with whatever version of reality the author is presenting. It’s part of the deal – you tell me a good story, and I’ll accept for the moment that talking caterpillars exist, that other planets are populated by alien species, whatever it takes.

So we come to fiction happy to swallow the biggest fattest porkies an author can come up with, in the name of entertainment. We expect to be lied to. But the unwritten rule is that the author must present the lies as truth and we’ll accept it as such for the duration of the book.

So when a book like this comes along, where the narrator keeps pulling the rug out from under us, it really throws us. Maybe I’m a slow learner, but it took at least ten of these episodes before I got it through my head that this narrator really meant it when she said she was a liar. Every time she said “actually, what I just told you was crap, but now I’m telling you the truth” I believed her, because I’m so conditioned to the way fiction works. I was almost at the end before it dawned on me that maybe I would never find out “the truth”. I kept turning pages, unable to stop, desperate to “find out what happened”, because that’s what books are normally about – finding out what happened.

Only with this book you have to figure it out for yourself. And there’s not just one possible answer. Pivotal moments in the plot may or may not have happened. Whole characters may or may not really exist. Days later I’m still thinking about it. Talk about “choose your own adventure”! But how do you weigh the “evidence” when it’s all unreliable? Maybe none of it was true??

Awesome, awesome book. It’s just been nominated for a Children’s Book Council Award, and I hope it wins. I don't know what else has been nominated, though I’m sure they’re all good books, but this is something very special. A book like this doesn’t come along very often.

Now I just wish I knew someone who’d read it so we could discuss it! It makes you want to compare notes with everyone, and see what they thought happened. I may have to force it on the Carnivore, though I suspect his accountant’s soul will not deal well with the lack of certainty.

Also, there are no car chases.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Your war correspondent checks in

Greetings from the battlefront! The war against sugar continues. It’s been two months now, so I thought it was time for an update.

First and most obvious change: my frequent, regular headaches have lessened dramatically. Yes, I still have sinus problems, but obviously not nearly as badly as I’d assumed. Turns out those headaches were mainly sugar withdrawal symptoms.

Second, my skin looks better than it ever has since those distant days pre-puberty.

Third, I’ve lost a small amount of weight – maybe 1.5 kg. Hard to tell precisely with my erratic bathroom scales (pick a number! any number! you don’t like that one? just get off and get back on again!), but my clothes are definitely looser. Seems a pretty pathetic amount compared to how much I lost in two months on Weight Watchers, until I remember how hard Weight Watchers was. Sure, it taught you useful, sensible things about portion sizes and balanced nutrition but ye gods! I was always hungry. I remember obsessively totting up my points at night after dinner, desperately trying to figure out what, if anything, I could afford to eat before I chewed my own arm off. That and the fact that once I stopped noting and counting every single thing I put in my mouth the weight started creeping back on.

I am also pleased to report that the desperate chocolate cravings did finally abate, some time around week 6 or 7. Yesterday I even had a piece of the formerly beloved peppermint chocolate, and you know what? It was too sweet.

The world as we knew it has come to an end -- the sugar-free Chocolate Bar of Doom is actually starting to taste rather good …

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Ugly Quiltling

Once upon a time there lived an ugly quiltling. The poor little quiltling didn’t look anything like the other quilts in the family, who all laughed at it and said how ugly it was. Even its own mother didn’t love it.

The poor little quiltling would sit by the lake and watch the beautiful quilts go by, and dream of growing up to be a beautiful swan quilt.

Sadly, this never came to pass.

See? Ugly!

I’ve joined the free motion quilt-along on Christina’s blog A Few Scraps. I’ve done some free motion quilting before – mainly stippling, though I branched out into (wonky) flowers and butterflies in my last quilt.

Definitely need more practice! I thought it would be a fun way to improve, so I finally put together the ugly quiltling the other night to be my practice piece. The idea was to put together a quilt top that you wouldn’t get too attached to, so you wouldn’t worry about “ruining it” as you learned. “If at any time you think to yourself ‘My god, this is one ugly quilt’ then you have succeeded,” Christina said.

So the poor ugly quiltling will never be beautiful, but it will certainly be very useful. Heaven knows what I’ll do with it when it’s finished – no one in the family likes it either! Maybe for the dog? My tastes in fabric have certainly changed a lot since I bought those. I think they’re from my “trying to like country style because everyone else does” phase. I’m looking forward to getting started on the actual quilting part.

Back in my normal colour palette of bright and vibrant, I’ve just made a pretty handbag out of the same gorgeous bird fabric I used for Demon Duck’s apron.

I saw it on Terry’s Treasures blog, and she kindly linked to the pattern, which turned out to be very easy, though I thought it would be bigger than it turned out. Maybe I’ll make a bigger one another time. I have so many quilting irons in the fire at the moment! Not unusual for me, of course, queen of the unfinished projects.

At least I’m making progress again on Verity. Hopefully another 5,000 words or so will see me typing “The End”.

Monday, 20 September 2010


As you get older it gets harder and harder to do things for the first time. I love learning new things, but trying new things? Scary! Of course, there’s always a million things you’ve never done, but by the time you’ve got some history behind you, the list of things you’re likely to ever attempt shrinks.

I can assure you, for instance, that there is no way I am EVER going to jump out of a perfectly good plane and trust my life to a concoction of silk and rope that will hopefully deploy at just the right moment to save me from being splattered across the face of the earth. Nor will I ever go scuba diving, or learn to speak Japanese (not to pick on Japanese, which I’m sure is a perfectly good language – just can’t see it ever making it on to my list of 100 Things to Do Before You Cark It). And I’ll probably never tailor a three-piece suit, or drive a semi-trailer, or get into a fist fight or a million other things, large and small.

But lately “firsts” seem to be popping up all over the place. I played my first ever game of netball, after watching the girls from the sidelines for the last three years. First ever game of any team sport, in fact. And it was awesome. Who knew sport could be so much fun?

This week I’m going for my first ever taekwondo grading. I’ll be a yellow belt! Huge, I know – it’s only one rank above absolute beginner, but I’m still excited.

And at the beginning of the month, I went to my first ever sf convention – the World Science Fiction Convention. It’s usually held somewhere in the US, but this year it was in Melbourne, so I dragged the whole family along for a long weekend. The long-suffering Carnivore carted the younger two around to all the Melbourne attractions through bucketing rain and arctic gales, while Drama Duck and I skipped around the convention centre in airconditioned comfort, having so much fun it should have been illegal.

One of our first panels on the Saturday was on pitching your novel, where I was pleased to discover I knew everything the panellists were advising. The big excitement at this session, though, was meeting up with bloggy friend Jaye Patrick. Jaye and I have “known” each other ever since I did Nano for the first time in 2007, and it was great to finally meet in real life. She put me on the spot though. One of the first things she said to me was “how is Verity going?” and of course I had to admit Verity has been sadly neglected.

After lunch Drama Duck and I lined up for half an hour to make sure of a spot at Glenda Larke’s kaffeeklatsch the following day – a chance to sit around a table drinking coffee and chatting with an author for an hour about whatever you like, limited to only eight people. We were the first two people to sign up and very excited at the opportunity.

Glenda is lovely, with a great sense of humour. We attended several of her panels over the three days we were there, and she was very entertaining as well as insightful. The kaffeeklatsch was great. Drama Duck even worked up the courage to ask her a question and now has a serious case of hero worship going on. She demanded a Glenda Larke book to read after meeting her. The only one I had with me was the second book of the Watergivers trilogy and she got stuck into it straight away. Every time she came up for air she’d say “this is a really good book, Mum!”. She’d finished it before we got back to Sydney.

Other highlights included meeting George RR Martin – he’s such a Big Name in the fantasy world it’s like meeting God – and some other writers whose blogs (and work) I follow. John Scalzi is just as funny in person as on his Whatever blog. Peter V Brett made a big impression in the panel on promoting yourself and your work. He’s an introvert, like many writers, and finds self-promotion difficult. He pointed out that an introvert is not a person who can’t manage social interactions, but someone who is drained by the effort, whereas an extrovert is energised by social interaction.

I also discovered some new writers to try, like Catherynne M Valente, scarily intelligent and fiercely feminist on all the panels we saw her on. She had a rant about Shrek 4 at one stage which was very amusing but also thought-provoking. Her beef was that Shrek makes a deal with Rumpelstiltskin to change the past so he doesn’t rescue Fiona from the tower. In this new world Fiona rescues herself, and is brave, resourceful, a leader and freedom fighter – but the world is absolute crap. The message being that women must never dare to take action but must wait to be rescued by some man. Strong independent women destroy the world. I knew there was a reason I didn’t like that movie!

Russell Kirkpatrick and David Cornish gave me a new appreciation for maps in fantasy novels. I’ve always been pretty anti-map. I gave up looking at the things once I realised they were like having spoilers. Oh, there’s a huge city on the map up there? Must be important then. And there’s only one pass through the inhospitable mountains? Guess we know which way the characters are going then. But their maps are works of art, and there was much discussion of the things you could map apart from geographical features. Interesting stuff.

In fact, there was so much interesting stuff on offer it was hard to choose where to go. Every hour there were at least three panels I wanted to attend. Unable to split myself, I had to miss some that sounded awesome, but most of the ones I attended were good. Probably my favourite of the whole weekend was “Anatomy for Writers, Fighters and Tavern Brawlers”. Run by Sean McMullen, a martial arts expert as well as an author, it was not only educational but extremely funny. His poor assistant got drawn all over to show his muscles, stabbed with an umbrella masquerading as a sword and manhandled in various painful-looking ways as Russell demonstrated disarming and attacking opponents. Russell also snapped a thick board with his bare hand, which Drama Duck and I were hugely and geekily impressed with, seeing as how we’re budding martial artists ourselves. I’ve never seen anyone do that in real life.

All in all, it was a great experience, and very inspiring. I’ve started working on Verity again, after procrastinating as long as humanly possible. Yes, there have certainly been some unusual and stressful times lately, but basically I was just scared to get back on the horse after so long. Now that I have, my enthusiasm for the story is back.

In one of those serendipitous coincidences, I also found this post today by John Scalzi about making time to write: in essence, it’s really not that hard. “Do you want to write or don’t you?” he asks. “If your answer is ‘yes, but,’ then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say ‘no.’ ”

In other words, “Butt, this is Chair; Chair, meet Butt”. Time to get those two old friends reacquainted.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

My secret weapon against chocolate cravings

Are you ready? I’m about to reveal my secret weapon against chocolate cravings. Please note, this is not for the fainthearted. Are you sure you want to know? I’m telling you, this is scary stuff.

Okay then. Here it is. When I have desperate chocolate cravings, I know it’s time to bring out the big guns. Nothing stops those cravings like this baby …

Dark chocolate!!

I promise you, one mouthful of this will turn you off chocolate for life (or in my case, at least for the rest of the day).

I hear rumours that some people actually like dark chocolate, and all I can say is: diversity is a good thing and the world is full of wonders and isn’t it lovely that we’re all different but – Good God! What is wrong with you?? This stuff tastes indescribably bad. It is an affront to the very name of chocolate.

Not that I’m picking on this particular chocolate bar. I’m sure it’s no more vile than any other dark chocolate. I knew when I bought it it was a long shot, but I was hoping my love for all things peppermint might overcome my dislike of dark chocolate. No such luck, alas. This abomination has been living in my fridge for over two weeks. In chocolate bar years that’s a lifetime, since the lifespan of most chocolate that enters this house can be measured in moments.

So why am I eating it if it tastes so bad? It’s all part of my fiendish plan to defeat the Demon Sugar. I’m finding chocolate the hardest thing to give up, so I’m trying to recondition my automatic response to it. Like Pavlov’s dog – you know, every time he served the dog dinner he rang a bell, till eventually the dog would salivate at the sound of the bell even if there was no dinner with it?

This should work the same way. If every time I crave chocolate I have this disgusting travesty of a chocolate bar, eventually I should skip straight to the part where I want to wash my mouth out just at the thought of eating chocolate. Right? Right??


I promise to stop obsessing about food soon. Next post I’ll tell you all about my adventures in the arctic wasteland otherwise known as Melbourne at the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention.

Monday, 30 August 2010


That sound you heard was me falling off the sugar wagon.

What can I say? It was a kids’ party. There were cupcakes and honey joys (yum!). I had to cook the damn things, see them, smell them. Just. Could. Not. Resist.

Yes, Demon Duck’s so-called “sleepover” party was a sleepless night of sugar-fuelled madness. And that was just me. You should have seen the kids. A raging success, in other words, though we paid for it for days afterwards with grumpy, exhausted children. She had a ball, which is the main thing, I guess. The things we go through for our children.

I decided the guests would cook their own pizzas for dinner. So in a fit of madness I went out and bought some gorgeous bright fabrics.

You can’t cook pizza without a pretty apron, can you? Oh, right, you can. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, which has been my defence for a lot of stupidly time-consuming endeavours over the years. I have to admit I was kinda over aprons by the time I finished all nine of them.

And then the night before the party we went shopping for lolly bags and couldn’t find anything suitable. No problem! I’ll make those too. Just hang on a moment while I duck into this handy phone booth and change into my Supermum outfit. Oh, yeah, and I made a red-and-white checked tablecloth too, to give the dining room more of a “pizza parlour” feel.

Actually the lolly bags weren’t that time-consuming. And they did look cute. It would just be nice if I occasionally had these brainwaves some time other than the eleventh hour.

Here they are with the aprons. Just pretend you don’t see my ironing board in the corner of that photo, okay?

So anyway, about that sugar. A couple of those honey joys committed suicide right in my mouth. And a cupcake. And maybe a Mint Slice. And two or mumble mumble five little homemade ginger biscuits. So the day after the party I got Brave and Ruthless and gave away the remaining party food. Didn’t want any more suicides on my conscience.

The funny thing is, I used to eat biscuits every day and crave cake all the time. But apart from this one party aberration I haven’t missed those at all since I started my war on sugar. It’s chocolate I miss the most. Chocolate is the hardest to go without, and the thing I still crave (and occasionally give in to those cravings).

It’s been almost a month now. On the plus side, I’ve cut my sugar intake drastically. The most obvious reward for that is fewer headaches. On the down side, I still haven’t managed to kick the chocolate habit and therefore am still experiencing cravings. I know I need to grow a set and go cold turkey already. I’m just prolonging the agony, sneaking myself bits of chocolate now and then. How hard can it be to face a future without chocolate?

Whimper …

Whose crappy idea was it anyway to make all the bad stuff taste so good, and so much of the good stuff taste bad? I mean, really – brussel sprouts? Lamb’s fry? What kid ever wants to eat those? How much easier would it be if things had been better designed?

You wouldn’t catch little Johnny sneaking his food under the table to the dog if it was yummy healthy Smarties on his plate instead of peas. No, those plates would be licked clean. Dinner time would no longer be a war zone.

“Eat up your lovely chocolate, darling, or you’ll never grow up to be a big strong boy.”

Ah, yes. If I ruled the world, things would be much more efficient.

Friday, 13 August 2010

The love has gone

My love affair with sugar is fading. We used to be so close, but now we hardly see each other …

But before I give you the latest report from the war zone, I have to show you the invitations I made for Demon Duck’s upcoming slumber party.

Aren’t they cute? When you lift the quilt the invitation is revealed hiding underneath. I was very proud of myself for dreaming this up – and then it occurred to me how very little actual sleeping takes place at a so-called slumber party. Lots of giggling and talking, watching DVDs and consuming junk food, but not much sleeping. So maybe a bed wasn’t such a good idea after all!

I did a little sewing the other night. One of my sister’s sons gave her a Kindle for her birthday recently (I shall have to give Baby Duck hints that this is the level of awesome required for presents from one’s grown-up sons!). She was carrying it around in a satin bag. The first thing I thought when I saw it was that she needed a padded bag to protect it. Actually that was probably the second thing, after “Oh my God, you’ve got a Kindle!”

So I had a go at making one. My first attempt ended up too small, and will be reincarnated as a handbag for Demon Duck. For my second attempt I found a pattern here and, armed with proper measurements, it turned out much better.

Here it is with a book inside it (since my son hasn’t received the memo yet about buying his mother a Kindle).

As for the War on Sugar, or The Sad Story of a Love Gone Wrong, there’s not a lot to report. I’m past the major headache stage and the cravings are lessening. I weakened and had one square of peppermint chocolate with my cup of tea the last two nights. One lousy square! How the mighty have fallen. I claim extenuating circumstances. I won’t bore you with the details, but life is fairly stressful at the moment.

Apart from that, no sugar apart from what’s in a couple of pieces of fruit a day. Not even in tea, which is another sad story of lost love. I’ve been having Equal, a sugar substitute, in my tea. It gives the tea a slightly different flavour, but it’s still tea and it’s still sweet – and yet … Nope. I’m just not feeling it. Turns out that my great love of tea was actually a great love of the sugar in it. Without sugar tea is just a pleasant hot drink that I can take or leave.

Jay Lake had a link on his blog to a report on the evils of sugar, specifically its fructose half. A new study has found that pancreatic cancer cells use fructose to divide and proliferate. The researchers fed cancer cells both fructose and glucose, but the cells used the two types of sugar differently, showing the sugar industry’s claims that all sugars are the same to be wrong. In the US, where they have a huge amount of high fructose corn syrup in their diet, this has big implications. “US consumption of high fructose corn syrup went up 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990, researchers reported in 2004 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.”

Now the research team is hoping to develop a drug to stop cancer cells using fructose to grow. I guess that’s what researchers do, but it seems to me to be coming at the problem from the wrong end. Instead of trying to fix the damage fructose causes, wouldn’t it be better to prevent the damage in the first place by removing fructose from the diet?

I realise that’s not an easy thing to do. Trust me, I know! Governments would have to take on the big companies like Coca-Cola and educate people on the dangers. It would require a huge shift in people’s attitude to sugar. But we only have to look at the government regulation of the tobacco industry and the way the public perception of smoking has changed over the years to know it can be done.

Meanwhile, my personal struggle against the Demon Sugar continues. Someone hide those biscuits and pass the damn nuts.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Kicking the sugar habit

It has occurred to me more and more lately that I am addicted to chocolates and sweet foods. I used to have a more responsible attitude. I’d only eat my beloved peppermint chocolate two or three times a week, for instance. Then it crept up to every night. Then the amount started to increase. Lately I’ve felt that I could happily down the whole block in a sitting, though I haven’t quite sunk that low yet. But the potential was alarming. I could end up one of those sad cases where they have to bring in a crane and knock a hole in the wall because they can’t get the body out through the door.

So I decided to give up peppermint chocolate, at least for a little while. Two days later, my well-meaning family, unacquainted with my new resolve, gave me ten blocks of the stuff for my birthday. Sigh.

Then we watched the DVD Supersize Me, in which Morgan Spurlock nearly eats himself into an early grave by eating nothing but MacDonalds for a month. I’d seen it back when it first came out, but wanted to show it to the girls. There is a moment at the end when a very sick-looking, much larger Spurlock is sitting with a dietician. On the table between them are pots and pots of sugar, representing the enormous amount he has ingested over the month.

With that image in my head I walked into a bookshop the next day and a book jumped out at me: The Sweet Poison Quit Plan, by David Gillespie.

“Sugar makes you fat,” it begins. “It is converted directly to fat by your liver and it destroys your appetite control so that you want to eat more of everything.”

Gillespie also says it is the cause of many chronic diseases such as heart disease and obesity, and of course diabetes. It is as addictive as nicotine, and in just about everything we eat. Not only that, but it caused the Global Financial Crisis. Okay, I might have made that part up. But there is a lot of food for thought in his book, if you’ll forgive the pun. If you’re interested, his blog discusses much of it.

Ding ding ding! This was ringing some bells with me. Most days I wake up with a headache, which often disappears mid-morning. Hey, that would be just after I’ve had my glass of sugar (ie orange juice) for breakfast, followed by my sugar-laden morning tea. Coincidence? And you know when I have a headache and the Carnivore suggests I take a tablet, and I say “oh, I’ll just have a cup of tea, that’ll fix it”? Maybe that’s not the caffeine after all.

Okay, I’m a sugar addict. I finish the book on Monday afternoon and resolve to give up sugar forthwith. No tea and chocolate before bed.

The result?

Day 1: I have a filthy headache all day. As in, toothed, spacefaring worms from the planet Mongo are devouring my brain kind of headache. I take this as a challenge and resolve not to be bested by the demon sugar. Feel abnormally tired driving home in the early afternoon, so much so that I worry about falling asleep at the wheel. Damn the evil sugar and its energy highs and lows! Sing along to the radio and focus on how good I will feel when I conquer this addiction. Cut my beloved breakfast orange juice back to half a (large) glass.

Day 2: Headache has subsided to a dull ache. Amazingly, I feel no cravings for sweet food. I attribute this to my new gung-ho attitude to the demon sugar and feel mildly smug all day. Cut sugar in my tea back to half a teaspoon. Tastes so bad am forced to drink herb tea instead. Notice for the first time how very sweet orange juice is, and contemplate cutting my breakast ration back further.

Day 3: Still no cravings for sweet foods. For the queen of peppermint chocolate, this is most unexpected, but very welcome. Snack virtuously on nuts and natural yoghurt. (“What’s that?” the Carnivore asks. “Natural yoghurt.” “Does it taste nice?” “Disgusting. No sugar.”)

Day 4: Cut breakfast orange juice down to half a small glass, and drink a large glass of water with it. OJ is now tasting almost unpleasantly sweet. Perhaps I’m only drinking it out of habit now. Have also purchased some dextrose (“good” but not very sweet, sugar) to try in my tea.

Perhaps as a result of cutting my OJ back so far from normal levels, I experience some cravings today. Manage to tough it out, but then, at dinnertime, a heavy blow. The Carnivore points out that the bottle of diet soft drink I’ve been drinking with dinner the last few days is, in fact, the real deal, overflowing with sugar. Feel despondent. Tip evil, lying soft drink down the sink. And then the traitorous Carnivore flourishes the packet of Mint Slices (a peppermint chocolate biscuit – only my Most Favourite Biscuit in the Whole World) he has bought. Feel betrayed. And slightly homicidal.

Day 5 (Today): Cravings are worsening. Spend much time staring at the pantry shelves, hoping some healthful sugar-free chocolate will magically materialise. Wonder how diabetics cope. Search the internet for “diabetic chocolate”. Avert eyes from Mint Slices in fridge. Encourage confused but eager children to eat all the sugary treats in the house. Wonder how long I can keep this up.

Consider lynching David Gillespie.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Time flies when you're ... hmmm

Having fun? I wouldn’t exactly say that. Not that fun is not being had. There’s fun by the bucketload around here lately – writing workshops, netball clinics, basketball clinics, shopping, trips to the park and the movies. It’s just that it’s the ducklings who are having it, and me who is doing taxi duty and continuously digging into my ever-lightening wallet to pay for it.

Yes, you guessed it – it’s school holidays again, which is why I haven’t posted for a couple of weeks. Too busy with the aforementioned fun.

I have a love/hate relationship with the school holidays. By the time the term drags to a close I am longing for the holidays with a passion usually reserved for peppermint chocolate. No more getting up early! No more rushing to after-school activities! Lots of time spent lazing around with my darling ducklings!

Then, by the time the new term rolls around, I’m so pleased the holidays are nearly over. I can’t wait for the kids to go back to school. Not because I’m sick of their company – just because I can’t get anything done while they’re home. My revision is languishing, my sewing is abandoned. I’m desperate to take off my maid/taxi driver/entertainment officer hat and get back to work. Every time I walk into a bookshop I get cranky seeing all those people who are published when I’m making no progress.

Cranky at myself, mainly. I know perfectly well I should be able to work when the kids are around, despite the extra interruptions. I’m just not focused enough – I get into holiday mode too.

So I guess it’s a win/win for me. I love the holidays and I love term-time too. Next week the kids will be back at school, and I’ll be able to get stuck into revision. All I have to do is remember where I left that attention span …

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Seeing what's there

I finished my mystery WIP from last week. It did look very like a skirt in the photo I showed you then, but in fact it is a table runner.

Only I think I need a bigger table! It was meant to live on my sideboard, but it turned out way too big. Even on the table it takes up a lot of space but it’s very pretty. Here’s another photo which gives you a better idea of the colours. They’re so gorgeous.

I had a few random wedge-shaped scraps left after I cut out the table runner, and those beautiful fabrics were calling to me. “Don’t throw us out!” they said. “We could make a really pretty little art quilt.”

I’ve never made an art quilt before, but I’ve been wanting to try for a while, so last night I had a lovely play, sewing random scraps to other random scraps with joyful abandon. I ended up with this: my newest WIP.

Yes, that’s a real leaf sitting on top of this little quilt. That’s why it’s still a work in progress. I have to applique a fabric leaf on there instead, then quilt and bind it. But I got that leaf off the maple in our front yard to help me draw it right.

(Actually the Carnivore got it for me, bless his little cotton socks, at about 10 o’clock last night, when it was probably all of two degrees outside. That’s true love for you.)

Only when he handed it to me, I was shocked at how long and skinny the points of the leaf were. It was nothing like the picture of a maple leaf I had in my head.

And then I realised I’ve lived here for 17 years, and walked past that maple tree day after day – and never known what its leaves really looked like. My mental classification system has just gone “yep, maple, I know what they look like”, without actually seeing what was in front of me.

I suppose classifying is a self-defence mechanism of the brain. If we couldn’t make assumptions based on previous experience, our brains would have to examine and evaluate every single thing we saw and did, every time. We’d be overwhelmed by detail, unable to function. Maybe it’s even a survival skill – “ooh, I remember how sick I felt last time I ate the shiny purple berries, better not do that again”.

But if you’re a writer or an artist, sometimes you have to take the brain off automatic mode. You have to see those details you normally gloss over before you can describe them or represent them visually. You have to listen to what people really say when they’re frightened/ecstatic/overwhelmed, so your characters don’t sound like animated cardboard. (Believe me, I know cardboard – there’s an awful lot of it in Man Bites Dog. The interminable revision grinds on.)

So I’m going to practise being a soaky soaky little sponge, and really see the things I look at. I’ll try to give people my full attention, instead of half listening and half formulating my response while they’re talking. (Unless it’s Baby Duck rabbiting about monsters or X-Men or aliens. I reserve the right to tune out baby babble.) Who knows? I might Become a Better Person. Or more likely I’ll forget – but it would be an interesting exercise, don’t you think?

And speaking of forgetting, I almost forgot to wish my blog a happy birthday. Two years old today, and if not exactly “going strong”, at least still going!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Crimes against the English language

Driving into the city last week I passed a building which housed a kitchen renovation company. Biggest range!! said one sign. DIY or we instal! said another. Then there was the sign, in really big lettering, which they clearly felt was their greatest selling point.

I could picture the brainstorming that must have gone on for the creation of that slogan.

“How about we make it easy?” says the first advertising guy.

“Nah,” says the other one, “too simple.”

“Well, what about we make it simple then?”

“Hmmm. I’m not feeling it. We need something, I dunno, that combines ‘simple’ and ‘easy’.”

Deep thought for a moment.

“I know!” cries the first guy. “We simply make it easy!!”

“Better. It’s just … it’s just …”

We just make it easy?”

“I’ve got it! We just simply make it easy!!”

Talk about diluting your message. “We make it easy” isn’t the most original slogan but at least it has punch. “We just simply make it easy” – not so much. My editor’s soul was itching to rip the useless weasel words right out of there. Lucky I didn’t have a red pen with me, or who knows what might have happened.

It was a day for noticing signs. Further along the road was a branch of a shop that has me shaking my head every time I see it. I can’t decide whether the people who named it have no imagination or they’re deliberately making a very gross pun to make their shop memorable. Maybe there’s just something wrong with my imagination, and other people don’t start thinking about the wrong kind of stools the minute they see a perfectly innocent sign.

What do you think? Would you call your shop The Stool Shop? Even if you were selling stools?

Then there’s Baby Duck. He’s making great progress with his reading this year, but his spelling is still in that adorable phonetic stage little kids go through. His seems more extreme than I remember the girls’ being, though. Often I have to ask him to translate for me.

For instance, he wrote and illustrated a new story this week. The title was “A Gient Giniypig”. Easy enough with the picture of a King Kong-sized guinea pig standing on top of a building fighting off planes. But I needed help with the writing on the bottom of the front cover:

“oftld and ilstchidt dy [Baby Duck]”

Even with his name there I couldn’t pick it. Apparently it says “authored and illustrated by [Baby Duck]”. Silly me.

At Easter he gave me a present he’d made at school. There was a tag attached with my name written on it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a misspelling of “Marina” before. You spell it just like it sounds, and most people are familiar with it anyway from boat parking lots.

This is so cute I think I’ll laminate it and keep it forever as a bookmark. Every time I look at it it makes me smile.

Now I shall take off my editor hat and show you what I’m working on sewing-wise at the moment. Hey, it’s Wednesday, and I’ve always wanted to do a “Work-in-Progress Wednesday” post, but selections of my deathless prose from the interminable Man Bites Dog revision just don’t seem interesting enough.

Can you guess what it’s going to be?

How about now?

No? Hopefully next week I can show you the finished thing. I promised my quilting group I’d have it finished by our next meeting, so that will give me some motivation to get on with it. I’m also working on another sock monkey. I got a bit carried away with the stuffing, though, so he’s turning out to be a very chunky monkey. Baby Duck insists I give this one googly eyes, so he could also be a rather scary-looking monkey.

Or as Baby Duck would say, “a scerey looking muker”.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Monkeying around

Some people – often people of the male persuasion – suggest that quilters are all mad. They take some perfectly good bits of fabric, cut them into little tiny pieces, and sew them back together again.

So how’s this for a really crazy idea: let’s vandalise a perfectly good pair of socks.

Aren’t they pretty? So warm and snuggly-looking too. I was almost moved to spare them. My toes would have liked to get better acquainted. But no. They had a higher purpose to fulfil.

I hacked into them with my trusty scissors. Four hours, a pile of toy filling, and many pricked fingers later, I had this:

How cute is he?? Apparently sock monkeys are a childhood fixture in America, but I’d never heard of them till I came across some sweet little ones on Kellie Wulfsohn’s blog. Then I found this great tutorial on how to make them so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Can you guess what my problem is now?

That’s right. I have three children. And only one sock monkey. Thinking of all those dreadful pinprick injuries I had sustained in the making of Monkey One, I suggested to Drama Duck that she might be too old for a sock monkey toy.

Apparently not.

The sacrifices we mothers have to make for our children! Stay tuned for Monkeys Two and Three to join the tribe. Herd? Troop? What is the collective noun for monkeys? In this case, perhaps a cuddle of monkeys. Or a cuteness. In fact, he’s so cute I might need one for myself.

Look out, socks! I have scissors and I'm not afraid to use them ...

Monday, 7 June 2010

One letter makes SUCH a difference

The phantom whiteboard defacer has struck again at our house. You may remember me telling you last year about Drama Duck removing some of the letters from the menu I write up on the whiteboard in the kitchen every week. In that case, “beef skewers” for dinner became “bee sewers”.

This whiteboard also serves as my shopping list. Whenever I realise I’m out of something, I write it on the whiteboard, then transfer the list to a piece of paper when I’m ready to go to the shops. This morning I was hastily scribbling items from the whiteboard on to a piece of paper just before we rushed out the door to school.

Chicken stock cubes: check. Dishwashing liquid: check. Stain remover: check.

Hang on – what’s that next item???

I’d written “chicken noodles”, but some unknown person – which, on enquiry, proved to be the same person who perpetrated the bee sewers – some wicked person had changed the “n” of “noodles” to a “d”. Don’t think they sell those at Coles!

Definitely her father’s genes.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Notes from the white room

I received a very useful rejection for a short story recently, which pointed out that my tale suffered from “white room syndrome”, ie the action could be taking place anywhere – or nowhere – due to the lack of detail of the setting. As often happens, once I became aware of it, I started seeing it everywhere – in stories I was critiquing for others, in the book I’m revising, even in published novels. (If you’ve ever read The Partner by John Grisham, you’ll know what I mean. It’s a fast-paced thriller with very little description of any kind.)

By coincidence, I was working on the lesson that covers settings in the course I’m doing, How to Revise Your Novel by Holly Lisle, when I got this rejection. For each setting, I had to fill in a page which included, among other things, listing what elements of the setting I had described in the scene. Before this exercise I would have said my settings were well described. My main characters, after all, are artists, so visuals are important to them. They notice details of colour and lighting. Or do they? Hmmm. Hope their favourite colour is white.

Yep, page after page came up empty. A “table”, not described, would be the only object mentioned in a scene set in a dining room, for instance. Yet in my head I had seen the tablecloth, the cutlery, the subdued lighting, everything. But none of it had made it into the story. I could draw you the floor plan of whole houses in this novel, but no one could ever guess it from what I’ve written. Not that I’d want to bore readers with floor plans, of course! I don’t even look at maps in fantasy novels. But I need to find a happy medium between the “nothing to see here” style of a John Grisham and the “five pages to describe the butcher’s shop window” of AS Byatt. (I love AS Byatt. But she has the skill to get away with it. I don’t.)

It’s interesting, though, isn’t it, how much work readers will do to flesh out a writer’s creation. I built pictures in my head while reading The Partner, despite the lack of description. Grisham said “courtroom” and my mind supplied the wood panelling, the rows of hard bench seats, the gowns and wigs, courtesy of all those Hollywood courtrooms I’ve seen. In fact the reason I read the Grisham book was that I’d heard he deliberately wrote very sparsely. He started off writing down the bones of his story, thinking to flesh it out later with descriptions and details. Eventually he decided to leave all that out, since people normally skipped over it anyway. I think he put it as “leaving out the boring bits”.

While I certainly wouldn’t condemn all description as “boring bits”, I know what he means. No one wants the story held up for big lumps of setting or long descriptions of what people are wearing or eating. I like descriptions in small, easily digested amounts – little “telling details” that individualise a character or place.

Probably it depends, too, on genre. Small details can play large roles in crime fiction. Descriptions of exotic alien places and customs are half the fun in fantasy and science fiction. I don’t read much romance, but I imagine loving descriptions of the hero and heroine’s charms could be a feature there.

What do you reckon? How much is too much, or not enough? And do you think the magical Goldilocks amount varies by genre?

Saturday, 15 May 2010

And the Housewife of the Year Award goes to ...

… someone else. Look, I freely admit I’m not the world’s greatest housewife. Life’s too short to spend your time picking up all the kids’ toys and belongings scattered through the house, when as soon as they come home from school they’re only going to re-scatter them. And there are so many other things to squeeze into every day. Some of them are necessities like washing, shopping, cooking. Others are more fun, like dropping into the local patchwork shop to buy cotton and coming home with a few extra things.

You can see I’ve been replenishing my stock of hot pink fabric after Drama Duck decimated it for her owl.

I needed the cotton because I ran out two-thirds of the way through quilting butterflies all over that quilt that’s been hanging over the railing in my foyer so long. I’m practising my free-motion quilting and the butterflies are gradually improving. It will be so nice to be able to pack that quilt away!

But about that Housewife of the Year award. I changed the sheets on Baby Duck’s bed, so for a change the bed was made when he came home from school. He stopped dead in the doorway of his room and turned a look of surprise on me.

“Mum! Are we having visitors today??”


He’s come out with some pearlers lately. Another one was when I was driving him home from school on Friday and we were discussing the movie Monsters Inc. He couldn’t remember the name of one of the monsters so I supplied it.

“That’s really good that you remembered, Mum,” he said in tones of great admiration. “Usually old people forget everything.”

And he wonders why I laugh at him so often.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Owl babies

Do you know the picture book Owl Babies, by Martin Waddell? So cute! Three little owl babies, Sarah, Percy and baby Bill, wake up alone and wonder where their Owl Mother is. Sarah and Percy discuss the problem but all Bill can say, on nearly every page, is “I want my mommy!”

Now we have our own owl babies. I saw the cutest toy owl on the front cover of a quilting magazine recently. Once I’d dragged the ducklings all around the patchwork shop in search of the perfect fabric for its wings, Demon Duck was quick to announce that she was going to make an owl too. Then of course Drama Duck had to get in on the act as well. So our house was a hive of industry over the recent long weekend.

This is Drama Duck’s owl. She’d have to be Sarah, wouldn’t she? Very girly! I wonder if you can guess what Drama Duck’s favourite colour is?

Demon Duck’s owl is Bill. He’s very striking, isn’t he? I love how appropriate the moon and star fabric of his wings is for a nocturnal creature.

Which leaves Percy for me. He’s red and blue to match our lounge room, where he’s perched on my red velvet chair, looking very comfortable.

I feel the urge to sew lately, to surround myself with bright coloured fabrics. I’ve been reading lots of quilting blogs and drooling over the gorgeous creations. Have a look at all the beautiful things on Quiltsalott, for instance. Or what about this divine quilt? Baby Duck would love it. Unfortunately his mother is so slow it’d probably be finished by the time he was 38. Maybe if I start now it’ll be ready for the grandkids!

So you may see some more quilts here in the future. I’ve had an almost-completed one hanging over the railing in my foyer so long it’s starting to bug even me. The problem is that I like doing the patchwork, seeing the design come together – but I hate quilting the damn thing and finishing it off. Hence a cupboard bulging with UFOs (UnFinished Objects). Bad Marina, no biscuit! Must. Do. Better.

But at least I have three finished owl babies to admire!

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

It's all relative

The girls had a cross country carnival today. Demon Duck came 22nd in her age group, an improvement from 36th last year, so she was pleased. Drama Duck came 12th in her event. We were pleased at the obvious improvement in her fitness – she ran for most of the three kilometres. But 12th isn’t quite as good as it sounds, since there were only 15 competing in her age group.

It reminds me of one of Baby Duck’s earliest sporting achievements. He came home from preschool one day full of joy.

“We did races today,” he said, “and I came second!”

“That’s great, darling! How many were in the race?”


Thursday, 22 April 2010

Attack of the tae kwon dodos

I’ve been running around the house all week yelling “tae kwon dodo!!” and pulling ridiculous martial arts poses.

“You’re so embarrassing, Mum,” Drama Duck says. The other two just ignore me.

The scene in Ice Age where the dodos do taekwondo is one of my favourite parts. I love it when one executes a flying kick off a cliff and the others peer mournfully over the edge and say “That was our last female”. But my taekwondodoism this week has had an ulterior motive: trying to get the ducklings revved up about starting taekwondo.

They had their first lesson on Tuesday night. Halfway through Baby Duck burst into hysterical sobs and watched the rest of the lesson from the safety of my lap. Not sure why, but apparently the yelling was scary and it was hard and boring. Most things are, according to him. The only thing that isn’t boring is watching TV.

Undeterred, I decided to try the Thursday night class instead. Same taekwondo school, but a different location and a few younger students. To make it more appealing, I said I’d do the class too so I could help him.

Thus I have just had my first taekwondo lesson. The combination of me and martial arts is such an unlikely one, anyone who knows me will now be rolling around the floor laughing. But I made quite a good taekwondodo. I’m going to be sore tomorrow, but I had fun.

The teacher was a lovely man who I now feel very sorry for, as not one but two ducklings burst into tears before the end of the class. Baby Duck again for his own inscrutable reasons, and Demon Duck who lost it when asked to do something she didn’t know how to do and spent the rest of the class sobbing in the toilets. I’m sure the poor man thought it was his fault, but it was just her painful perfectionism coming out. He was a gentle and patient teacher, and seemed quite stunned that he’d managed to make two of them cry. I told him to go for the hat trick next week.

On the way home Demon Duck asked when we would be getting our uniforms.

“Maybe when we get through a lesson without anyone crying.”

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Baby Duck discovers April Fools' Day

Plastic cockroach: 50c
Packet of Weetbix: $6

Look of unholy glee on your small son’s face when you discover his first April Fools’ prank: Priceless

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Amnesia as a genre

Hands up if you know anyone who has ever suffered full-on amnesia. I’m not talking the “I did not have sexual intercourse with that woman” kind so favoured by politicians, but the kind where someone has an accident and wakes up missing the last several years of their life.

Don’t know anyone? How about celebrities then? Have you ever read about this happening to a well-known person? You’d think it would be in all the papers, wouldn’t you. No?

Me neither. So why does it happen so very often in fiction? It could practically be a sub-genre all on its own.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I love a good amnesia story. It’s like the ultimate mystery, where the puzzle the detective has to solve is their own life. I never get tired of it.

I read a couple last year, which made me think about how often I’d seen it used. There was The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson, a slightly science-fictional Young Adult contribution to the genre. A teenage girl comes out of a long coma with no memory of her life at all. She has to watch family videos to relearn her history. But why doesn’t her grandmother seem to like her? Why are her family hiding her away from the world? There’s an awesome moment when you find out what’s really going on.

About the same time I also read What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, a more typical entrant in the genre. There usually seems to be some crucial emotional entanglement the heroine (and yes, the amnesiacs are always women) has forgotten. In this one Alice has forgotten the last ten years of her life, so she thinks she’s happily married and expecting her first child. In fact she has three children and she and her husband are separated.

Or there’s Remember Me by Sophie Kinsella, where the heroine thinks she’s happily married because she’s forgotten the existence of her lover. Or Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult. Who wouldn’t want to wake up with no memory only to find they’re married to Hollywood’s most gorgeous star? Until you start to remember what he’s really like …

It was also a popular plot device in the Mills and Boons I read as a teenager. A particular favourite, whose name I’ve now forgotten, involved a woman who lost her memory in the same car accident that killed her husband. Later on she discovered, in very dramatic circumstances, that the child she’d thought was her husband’s was actually the hero’s. She’d forgotten that her marriage was unhappy and she’d been about to leave the husband for the hero.

So why do you think it’s such a popular theme in fiction, when it never seems to happen at all in real life? Is it a kind of wish fulfilment? A chance to see what life would be like if you could start fresh with a clean slate? Are there a whole bunch of women out there wondering if they would still have married their husbands if they met them as the people they are now? (and just in case you’re wondering, dear, my answer to that would be yes).

Anyone got any other good amnesia books to recommend?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Get Everything Done by Mark Forster

I’m feeling evangelical today, so let me tell you about my experiences with two very different books in the self-help organising/time management genre.

I read Getting Things Done by David Allen at the end of 2008 and found it full of great organisational ideas. I particularly liked the one about getting all your mental to-dos out of your head and into some centralised list so you don’t forget anything. This frees your mind from the stress of trying to remember all these bits and pieces, and allows you to focus on whatever your real tasks are.

Good idea, I thought. Must try that. If using a paper-based system rather than a computer program, he advised getting a diary big enough to fit weekly lists. So last year I had a lovely big diary with lots of room for writing lists and notes as well as my appointments. I’m a stationery geek and a listophile (if that isn’t a word, it should be!), so it should have been a great system for me, right?

Sadly, no. The beautiful diary, which I really did love – so many extra features! – was too big to fit comfortably in my handbag, so most of the time I left it at home. Can you say Diary Fail? I never had it with me when I needed to check or add appointments. So this year I’m back to my usual small, un-beautiful diary.

The other big problems with the system, for me, were:

(a) I’m a procrastinator; and
(b) I’m a procrastinator.

I’m sure there are people for whom the system works beautifully, and I’m not knocking it, per se. I’m just saying I’m not one of them. I loved making the lists, but as the year marched on I grew more and more depressed about how few items I was crossing off. Nor was this a new experience for me. See (a) and (b) above.

What I needed was not a system for planning and organising what I needed to do. Being a listophile, I’m quite good at that part already. What I needed was a way to make myself do the things on the list.

Enter Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play by Mark Forster. Who could resist a title like that?? I read this one towards the end of last year, and have since reread it, highlighter in hand (which felt vandalistic and shocked my children, but there were so many passages that seemed to be written just for me it was like a religious conversion. Praise the Lord, I have Seen the Light!).

Written by a procrastinator, for procrastinators, it points out what I had already discovered from my list-and-diary fail of 2009. Organisation systems, priorities, schedules, etc, are great for people who have no problem getting stuck into action, but they don’t really help people whose main problem is with the actual starting.

So instead of these, it offers strategies to help you actually do the things on your list. One that is working really well for me helps with that perennial problem of having so many things to do that you don’t know where to start and instead do something else, so none of them get done and they’re still hanging over your head. (I used to think I was the only idiot who sabotaged myself like that, but after reading this book I realise I’m not alone here!)

I pick three or four main tasks and set the oven timer for 15 minutes. Until the timer goes off I work as hard as I can on the first task. At the end of the 15 minutes I stop immediately, reset the timer and start work on the second task. I go on this way, rotating through all the tasks. It sounds daft, and I do feel a bit stupid setting and resetting the timer, but it really does work.

It’s the power of the deadline. I can do an enormous amount of work if I have a deadline. Make a quilt for someone’s birthday next week? No problem. Write 50,000 words in 30 days? Sure thing. Yet without a deadline I flounder around and fill up the days with busyness that doesn’t achieve anything.

In three days, my trusty oven timer and I cleaned out the pantry, a horrendous job I’d been putting off for six months, just by alternating that job with working on my revision of Man Bites Dog, making a quilt and a couple of other big tasks. Knowing that time is literally ticking away motivates me to focus on the task, so I get much more done in these short bursts than if I just allowed myself to work on it till it was finished. Plus I don’t get bored. This trick also helps with that panicky feeling of being overwhelmed by all the other jobs that are still hanging over your head, by allowing you to make progress on several things at once.

And this is just one of the helpful strategies in the book. If you’re a procrastinator like me – and I think there are a lot of us out there! – this is a truly useful book.

I’d tell you more but the oven timer is ringing …

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Genetics: a practical demonstration

The other day I was on the phone and my eye fell on no less than six pairs of shoes on the floor, all huddled together having a little shoe party. They all belonged to the girls, who only have one pair of feet each, so it must have taken some time to assemble this little pile.

Bloody kids, I thought. Why can’t they ever put their shoes away?

Today I was in the same room, took an unwary step back and tripped over a shoe.

Bloody kids! I thought again, full of righteous anger. But then I had to laugh.

I looked down and realised the shoe was mine.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is today’s demonstration of the awesome power of genetics.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A tale of four chickens

No, this is not the continuing story of my little black dream chicken. I’m talking real chickens here, three of them, who came home as little balls of peeping yellow fluff a few months ago to live with my neighbour’s family.

My neighbour procured a Taj Mahal of a henhouse for the new chickens and installed them in the backyard.

“But what about the dog?” we said.

They have a German Shepherd, a lovely friendly dog, but still.

“She will eat the chickens,” we said.

“No, no,” said our neighbour, with quite astonishing optimism. “When we go on holidays we’re sending her to a boarding kennel where they will train her to love the chickens.”

We were sure she would love the chickens. With sauce. But our neighbour was convinced all would be well. This in spite of the fact that their dog has been known to devour slow-moving possums.

So they went on their family holiday, and we had the task of looking after the chickens while they were gone. The ducklings enjoyed the job, and I was very thankful that no chickens died on our watch. They were all present and correct when the neighbours returned.

But soon after the parents went overseas on their own, leaving the children in charge of the chickens. And the dog, who was now home from her peace-and-love-to-all-chickens brainwashing.

Not two days later, we were out in the yard when a little voice called over the fence, “Have you seen any chickens in your yard? The chickens have disappeared.”

“Honey, if they were in our yard our dog would have ripped them to pieces. Are you sure your dog didn’t eat them?”

“No, there’s no sign of them. They’re just gone.”

Much speculation followed at our house as to what might have happened to the three missing chickens. Had a fox got them? (But surely the German Shepherd would have chased off a fox.) Had they slipped through the fence and gone for a walk? Had they left for a chicken holiday of their own? And what would the boys’ mother say when she came home and discovered her chickens were missing??

Sad little notices appeared on telegraph poles round about, asking if anyone had seen three chickens, but no one came forward. When the parents returned from their holiday we heard that their dog had, in fact, done the deed. She’d dug a hole under the side of the coop big enough for the birds to get out – and then merely waited till they did to chow down. The evidence was discovered underneath the house.

Wait a minute, you say. Didn’t you say this was a tale of four chickens?

Hang on, I’m getting to that.

Meanwhile, I’d been telling the ducklings about the movie Jurassic Park. I even acted out my favourite part, where the T-rex comes through the fence when they’re in the stalled jeeps:

“And they’re in the cars and it’s pouring with rain, and the goat disappears and there’s this HUGE dinosaur. And the kids are in the car on their own and they’re all omigod!! and turn off the torch! And she’s all aargh!! and waving it around and he’s all turn it off! turn it off! And the dinosaur’s attacking and the guy gets out of the other car and waves to attract its attention and then the dinosaur sees him and he’s all oh sh*t

Meanwhile I’m waving my imaginary torch and pulling scared faces and pretending to be a stalking dinosaur. The ducklings found it highly amusing.

“We want to watch it! It sounds really funny!”

“No, no! It’s not funny. It’s really scary!! It’s dark, and raining, and there’s scary music. And even though I’d read the book and I knew what was going to happen I was still scared!”

But they wouldn’t believe me. So I let them watch it.

And they thought it was funny.

“You’re scared of everything, Mum,” said Demon Duck. “You’re such a chicken you’re going to grow feathers.”

“Hey!” said Baby Duck. “Then we can give you to the next-door neighbours to replace their chickens!”

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Moments of brilliance

I’ve just begun revising my first novel, Man Bites Dog, and I’m reminded of that famous comment about Wagner’s works: “Moments of brilliance, quarter-hours of great boredom”.

Well, “boredom” is a bit strong, but you get the idea. I haven’t looked at it in over a year, so it’s like reading a story by someone else. I can’t remember what’s going to happen next as I read. I come across some parts that are good but of course, being a first draft, there are many more parts that are less than stellar. (Even one part that made me yell “No, no, no!” and cross it out with much violence, hoping no one will ever find out I wrote something so cringeworthy.)

The happy moments give me hope I can wrestle a good book out of this mess. I’m doing Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel course and I’m only halfway through the first of many steps, but I’m trudging on, putting my faith in Holly to guide me and my subconscious to pull some idea rabbits out of the hat. Gotta love those plot bunnies.

Bunnies … chickens … It’s a real farmyard inside my subconscious lately. Still haven’t figured out what happened to my little black chicken, dammit. I kept hoping I might dream of him again, but I’ve been away on a beach holiday, doing lots of tiring outdoorsy stuff, and sleeping the dreamless sleep of a very tired dead thing.

When I figure out how to drive my new camera properly I’ll post a photo of the view from the house we stayed in. It will make you all swoon with envy, it was so beautiful. But then I shall make you feel better by telling you about the mountain we had to climb to get back to our house from the beach, and the 5,083 steps inside the house itself, and how I borked my knee something severe just before we left, so that my holiday was just one big throbbing knee pain … and your envy will dissolve like a double Berocca in a glass of water.

“My goodness, but Marina deserved that view,” you will say.

So that’s what I’ve been up to for the last little while: revising, limping, computer-less. And now I’m home, and the ducklings have gone back to school, oh frabjous day!! and life can resume what passes for normal around here. At least, it would be normal if it weren’t for the physiotherapist doing things to my leg that I’m sure contravene the Geneva Convention. We don’t want to make a habit of that, oh no.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

And they all lived hap ... aargh!

Don’t you just hate it when you’re in the middle of an interesting dream and someone wakes you up? And then you never get to find out what happens???

This morning I was blissfully asleep, dreaming I was browsing in a bookshop. I found this gorgeous picture book about a little black chicken. He was drawn very simply, just a little egg-shaped blob with stumpy wings and two dots for eyes, but really cute.

Every day all the chickens gathered in a clearing in the woods to see Mr Fox’s magic show. Every day Mr Fox made one of the chickens magically disappear, which the other chickens thought was cool, but our little black hero was getting suspicious. So he decided to run Mr Fox out of town.

His plan was to scare Mr Fox away, so he gathered up all the plastic bottles and styrofoam hamburger boxes the chickens left littering the clearing after the show every day. He turned all this litter into styrofoam chickens and arranged them in the trees of the clearing. There was a great illustration of all these ghostly white styrofoam chickens perched in the trees at night, hundreds of them staring accusingly out of the dark.

The little black chicken climbed into the trees too and began a ghostly squawking, pretending to be the voice of all the dead chickens, so when Mr Fox came out to see what was going on he’d be terrified, thinking the ghosts of all his victims were after him.

Unfortunately Mr Fox wasn’t taken in. Even though it was night time, the moon was out and it was easy to spot one black chicken among all the white ones. It was as Mr Fox stared hungrily up at him that our hero realised he was now stuck in this tree with no escape and maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all.

And then …

“Brring brring, brring brring.”

No, I am not attempting to render the sound of a phone ringing. Those are the actual words that were spoken into my sleeping ear.

Torn from my little black chicken story, I opened my eyes to find Demon Duck kneeling on my bed, her mouth next to my ear.

“Brring brring,” she said. “I’m your alarm clock. It’s 7:26. Time to get up!”

Aaaargh!! Now I'm left with a whole bunch of unanswered questions. Does the little black chicken make it?? Does Mr Fox get his comeuppance??

And why on earth am I dreaming about styrofoam chickens???

Monday, 18 January 2010

Health by stealth

If I had been so deluded as to make a New Year’s resolution to get fit and lose weight – I only say if, mind you, since I certainly wasn’t – if I had been so foolishly optimistic about my own intestinal fortitude, then I might have been busy exercising and setting targets and denying myself peppermint chocolate. And really, what’s life without peppermint chocolate?

Since I am not so deluded, I have instead been sneaking up on myself. Yes, it’s my new plan – better health by stealth. I think I should trademark that – Health by Stealth™! The new path to a better you! No more weighing yourself, or feeling guilty and miserable when you eat that slice of cake, or miss a day of exercise because it’s too hot/too cold/the planets are in the wrong alignment. Never go near a gym! Perfect for people who don’t like exercise!

What is this wonderful plan? I hear you cry. And why are you not already flogging it on late-night TV?

It's fiendishly simple. Pretend to everyone, but especially to yourself, that you are not trying to get fit or lose any weight. You see? Am I not cunning?? No pressure. No angst. If I happen to go for a few more walks than normal, well, so what? I like walking. The fact that it may have some effect on my health and/or weight is neither here nor there. If I keep myself so busy I don’t have time to stop and snack, it doesn’t mean I’m trying to lose weight. I just have lots of things to do. And if I’m making sure to eat enough fruit and yoghurt, well, I’m just trying to look after myself. The fact that it makes me too full to fit in the chocolate is just a side effect.

And no, I’m not going to weigh myself. I’ll know if any of these things I’m sort of accidentally doing behind my own back are having any effect when my clothes start to feel loose.

But how does this work if you don’t like exercise? I hear you cry.

I’m glad you asked that question! I don’t like exercise that’s boring and repetitive. Especially if it hurts as well. So gyms just don’t work for me. All that squatting and pumping and feeling the burn. I like walking because there are always nice gardens to admire and people to say hello to, or you can just zone out and think about writing. I like dancing too, though that’s a little harder to organise. I need fun things I can do at home. Hula hooping is a good one, because it works up a sweat plus it keeps me interested as I try to learn new tricks. Check out some of the amazing things people can do with hoops here.

I’ve never been a runner because I’m just not fit enough. I can barely jog for a minute before my chest explodes and I have to stop. But running has the same advantages that walking does, of being outside, nice things to look at, etc, and I do like a challenge, sooo …

I found this cool site, Couch to 5k. That’s me: couch potato extraordinaire. It claims that even slobs like me who can’t run can work their way up to a 5km run using this program.

Now obviously I can’t commit to that, because then I’d have a fitness goal, and angst and disappointment and self-loathing blah blah blah. So if anybody asks – especially me! – I’m certainly not doing this. But I might just happen to do a little running while I’m out walking, and if it happens to follow the same pattern as the program mentioned on Couch to 5k, well, gosh! What a coincidence.

And if I was trying to lose weight, I’d probably like some encouragement, some feeling of community. I could go and read a site like Five Full Plates, where five very funny ladies are documenting their weight-loss challenge. But since I’m not, I just read it for the laughs.