Monday, 24 December 2012

One day to go!

Baby Duck, like nine-year-olds everywhere, has been counting down the days till Christmas. He built his own countdown calendar out of lego, and has been happily updating it all month. We progressed from “I can’t believe Christmas is so far away” through “it’s still two weeks to go” to “it’s Christmas in 12 more hours!!!!!!”.

The good thing about being a kid is you have nothing else to do but look forward to Christmas, unlike all the frazzled adults who have a million things on their plate and wish the whole thing would just go away. I’m sure that’s why kids love it so much – the sheer joy of presents with none of the seasonal responsibilities and pressures.

The bad thing about being a kid, of course, is also that you have nothing else to do but look forward to Christmas. When you’re not busy and distracted, the big day seems to approach at a snail’s pace. Why does December go so slooowly?

“I wish it was Christmas tomorrow!” has been heard a lot from a certain small boy. Not enough to make me rich if I had a dollar for every utterance, but certainly frequently enough to buy me a very nice Christmas present.

Now at last it is Christmas tomorrow, and soon enough it’ll be gone in a frenzy of unwrapping and excitement. Such a short thrill after such a long build-up.

Already he’s planning to update that lego calendar tomorrow: 365 days to go!

Friday, 30 November 2012

Made it!

Phew! Finished my NaNo novel at 3 pm this afternoon. Soooo relieved. An entire first draft in a month, a new PB for me. I estimated I’d need about 60,000 words to tell the story, and it came in at 60,088. Not bad!

The ducklings all finished their novels too, though you will be shocked to learn there was some “cheating” involved this year. The girls both set their goals a little higher than turned out to be achievable. Not to worry – just change your goal to something lower! It’s not really cheating, of course, since that’s allowed in the Young Writers’ Program, it just feels like cheating to those of us who have to make 50,000 or bust!

I bought “Nano carrots” again this year – a much-desired book each, that they couldn’t have until they reached their “goal”. (Maybe next year I’ll have to specify which goal if they’re going to keep changing them to fit.) For a while it looked as though Drama Duck was going to have to wait till Christmas to get hers, but she put in a final effort this afternoon and managed to stagger across the (adjusted) line.

Baby Duck finished before any of us. His goal was 1,000 words, and he did more than that in Chapter 1 of his magnum opus, so he stopped writing and read his Nano carrot instead. It may take some effort to get him going again, but his idea is interesting so I’d like to see him finish the story.

All in all, a successful November. I hope, if you were doing NaNo this year, your novel went well too.

And now – oh joy! – I get to do something other than write again. Like maybe read some of these:

Or do some more of this:

Or even this:

Yay! So happy!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Life is full of purple satin

Let’s face it: there’s never a perfect time to undertake a large project, is there? Like, say, writing a whole novel in a month. Life will always get in the way, whether it’s family emergencies, dramas at work, sickness, or just plain old daily grind. We all try to fit so much into our lives, it’s hard enough to carve out time for another big project even if everything goes smoothly.

I lost a great deal of time this November to making dance costumes for Demon Duck’s class of thirty kids. It was my own fault - I stupidly volunteered, underestimating, as usual, the time it would take. Funny how I always think I’m some superhuman production machine when these things come up. Ten bubble skirts and twenty singlets with fake satin braces sewn on them? Sure, no problem!

In the end, with the dress rehearsal mere days away, I had to put my NaNo novel on hold. For three whole days I did nothing but sew *@#%^$!! singlets, till I was so sick of the sight of purple satin I could scream, with not a single word added to my wordcount.

But eventually even this torment had to end, after 17 metres of satin, 600 metres of thread and about 60 hours of swearing, and I had to face the novel again. The idea of giving up was hugely tempting at this point. After all, that was 6,000 words I had to make up, and time was already tight because I wanted to finish the whole novel by November 30th, which I estimated meant writing 60,000 words instead of 50,000. A big job, and one I’d never managed before. To have lost three days, when I’d been determined not to miss any, was a huge blow, but that’s life, isn’t it? Just chock-full of damned purple satin.

I’m hopeful there’ll be a happy ending to this story. I have three scenes still to write, and three days left to do it in. It’s tight – tighter than I’d hoped – but should be do-able. I’ve passed 50,000 words, which is kind of a psychological barrier, and feel the end just over the horizon.

I’m glad I forced myself to go on. If you have a goal, it’s no use giving up at the inevitable setbacks. Giving up seems so much easier, and so tempting. Maybe there’ll be a better time later, you think, and you’re desperate for sleep and sick of the whole thing anyway.

But there’ll always be purple satin, in some form or another, and you just have to pick yourself up and keep going. However much the to-be-read pile beckons, or however many tempting crochet projects you find on the internet in those too-frequent breaks from novel writing!

Writing a novel is only glamorous and exciting for about the first week. After that it’s work, like any other task that takes hours out of your life. Like making *&#!!%* purple satin bubble skirts. Often interesting, occasionally exciting, but still work. It requires some stick-to-it-iveness. (I’m sure there’s a real word for that, but my brain is too fried at the moment. Tenacity? Stubbornness? Something like that.)

Every time this month I’ve sat down to add more words to this novel, I’ve thought “I can’t do this”. The temptation to give up never goes away. But every time I push myself to do just a little more, and slowly the story grows. Tortoise-like, I inch my way toward the finish line.

Have you ever felt like that with a big project? What kind of purple satin has life thrown your way?

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Imaginary medicine

Recently I took the ducklings to the dentist. In the grotty old carpark out the back is an equally grotty sign, advertising for a chemist shop that no longer exists:

CHEMIST: Prescriptions made up

This tickled Demon Duck’s sense of the absurd.

“Hey, look Mum – ‘prescriptions made up’. What’s this prescription do? We don’t know! We made it up!

In other efforts of the imagination, I progress with my NaNo effort. Yesterday I would have said I was progressing well. Today has been more of a struggle.

I’m trying a new approach this year. In the past I’ve started writing with no more than a premise, a handful of characters and a couple of scenes worked out. This can bring great delight, as your imagination throws up exciting ideas and connects elements in surprising ways. It can also, of course, create a huge amount of stress, as you struggle to work out the plot on the fly. I’ve never managed to write more than about 500 words an hour this way, and often considerably less, so it’s always been a stressful slog.

This year I have much more of the story mapped out – perhaps as much as three-quarters – with many scenes neatly noted on plot cards. This has meant a more cohesive story and a writing speed hovering close to 1000 words an hour, or double my usual. Go, me! This is more like it!

Sadly, today I arrived at one of the holes: “memory scene involving characters A and B”. I hoped by the time I got here something brilliant would have occurred to me. No such luck.

After procrastinating most of the day I decided to skip it and write the next scene I knew instead. Lord, it was like pulling teeth. Eventually I got something half the length of my usual scenes, that took twice as long to write, and lay limp on the page like cold spaghetti.

And I still have to write another 900 words to make the day’s quota. I’m well ahead, but I’m determined not to lose any of my buffer. This year I’m not stopping at 50,000 and outlining the rest of the book; I want to write my way all the way to The End.

My poor imagination is feeling bruised already. I could do with one of those imaginary prescriptions!

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

'Twas the night before Nano

’Twas the night before Nano and all through the house
Every writer was panicked and glued to their mouse
The outlines were dodgy and full of plot holes
And 50k words seemed impossible goals

Okay, so now you know why I write novels and not poetry. But yes, Nanowrimo starts tomorrow, that month of mass insanity where writers all over the world egg each other on to write a 50,000-word novel during November. I’m equal parts excitement and terror. 50,000 words in a month – even though I’ve managed it four times before – is very daunting. Or maybe that should be “because I’ve managed it four times before”. I know exactly what I’m getting myself into!

On the other hand, knowing what’s ahead is also kind of exhilarating and I guess that’s the reason I keep coming back – the excitement when marvellous plot twists come to you seemingly from nowhere, the buzz when the writing’s going well and, above all, the rush of making it to the end. (And maybe the joy of collapsing when it’s all over!)

This year we have four Nano-ers in our house. The girls will be doing it again for the third year, with Drama Duck aiming for 15,000 words and Demon Duck going for 5,000. Baby Duck is joining the fun for the first time, with a goal of 1,000 words. I don’t think he’ll have any trouble. Some of his dinnertime monologues about lego or Skylanders are waaaaay longer than that.

If only he could find a way to write a story using lego bricks he’d be set.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Taking flight with Andromeda Spaceways

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine has been around for ten years now. To celebrate, ASIM#56 is a bumper edition containing no less than 20 – count ’em, 20! – fabulous stories of sffnal goodness. From aliens and asteroids to demons and zombies, if science fiction and fantasy are your thing, there’s something here for you.

There’s also the story of a sphinx who’s bored with asking riddles and the desperate family of merchants who have to outwit her or lose everything, including bits of their anatomy they’d really rather stayed attached. A story – and I quote from the editor – which is “light-hearted and whimsical, a story that makes you smile”.

Well, it certainly makes me smile, because it’s my first semi-pro publication. Very exciting to see it looking so grown-up and real in print. And even though the pay rate wasn’t “professional”, everything else about this magazine and the experience of working with them was.

They have one of the best submission systems I’ve seen. Instead of disappearing into a black hole for months, as happens with so many other magazines, you can track the progress of your submission through first readers, second readers, editors, etc. When you get accepted, the editing is painless, and the contract, payment and contributor’s copy arrive in a timely fashion.

The whole process was smooth and stress-free. And now I get to hold this cute little magazine in my hands that has my name on the cover and my story “The Family Business” inside.

It’s almost exciting enough to make me stop procrastinating and write another one …

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Snow White and the Night of the Living Dead

We went to see “Snow White and the Huntsman” recently. There’s a scene where All Hope Seems Lost, where Snow White is laid out in a chapel, apparently dead. I say apparently because Kristen Stewart’s facial expression is no different here than in any other scene in the movie, so it’s a little hard to tell.

However, since we’re all up with our fairy tales, we know she’s only awaiting the prince’s kiss to awaken and live happily ever after. Chris Hemsworth duly supplies the kiss then wanders outside to grieve. Next thing we know Snow White appears in the doorway. The courtyard hushes as all turn to look upon this miracle. Snow White paces slowly into the courtyard, a pale and beauteous vision in white. No one moves or speaks.

No one, that is, except Baby Duck.

“Braaaaaiins,” he moans and the Carnivore and I crack up.

Gotta love that kid’s sense of humour.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Lesson learned

You know how sometimes when you’ve been working on something for a while and you just want it to be finished now already – you put your head down and bolt for the finish line? And if there’s a few little corners cut or things not done quite up to standard in the rush you just go Who cares? Don’t be such a perfectionist! No one but you will ever notice.

Or maybe you tell yourself that’s the best job you can do when really deep down you know you could make it better except you can’t be stuffed fiddling with it any more.

Yes, well. Check out Exhibit A:

Many moons ago – possibly even before the first duckling arrived, but so long ago I can’t remember any more – I designed my own quilt, based around a beautiful printed panel I bought. Naturally, being me, the finished quilt top got stuffed in a drawer and never quilted, till earlier this year I had one of those seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time moments and entered it in a quilt show.

Then of course I had to finish it. But ohh! the horror! when I dug it out of the cupboard and saw those terrible mismatched seam intersections. This wasn’t going to be a quick quilting job. Present-day me couldn’t bear to enter something so dodgy in a big prestigious quilt show, as if that was the best I could do, even if lazy-beginner-quilter me had been satisfied with it.

So out came the unpicker. Man, I hate unpicking! So much that I was tempted to just let it go. And there were so many of these hideous seams to unpick. But I got through it, thinking unprintable things about my lazy-ass close-enough’s-good-enough former self the whole time, and managed to produce a much better finished object.

I’m glad I took the time to fix it, though I hated every minute. It would have bugged me ever after if I hadn’t.

So, lesson learned. Do the damn job right the first time! Words to live by, I reckon.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The ducklings' big Japanese adventure: Tokyo

Konichiwa! The ducklings have had their first-ever overseas trip since last we spoke – eight days packed full of temples, shrines, trains and theme parks in the Land of the Rising Sun. (You have to guess which of the aforementioned they enjoyed most. Hint: it starts with “theme” and ends in “parks”.)

In many ways Tokyo was much like Sydney. Skyscrapers, tree-lined streets, cars and people everywhere. Starbucks, McDonalds, Subway. Yet in other ways it was very different. So many, many people, and hardly a non-Japanese face to be seen. Temples and shrines popping up among the office towers. Businessmen riding bicycles, their briefcases in the basket on front.

And just. So. Big.

Sydney is tiny in comparison, a little doll-sized city. There are two people per square kilometre in Australia, 300-and-something per square kilometre in Japan overall, but an eye-popping 5,000-plus people per square kilometre living in Tokyo.

“So help us out,” said one tour guide, “and take some Japanese people home with you!”

Our first day in Tokyo was a beautiful clear day, and Tokyo Tower looked stunning against the blue sky.

I thought this place was meant to be smoggy? Why are all these people in the street wearing face masks?

We had a sweet park on our doorstep.

And a stunning temple just around the corner.

There are Shinto shrines everywhere, some big, some small, like this little one nestled on the side of a hill in the park.

In the afternoon, after admiring the expansive view from the 40th floor of the World Trade Center, we glided up the Sumida River, passing under twelve brightly coloured bridges.

I was fascinated by the patterns everywhere: looking up under bridges, the ornate roofs of temples, railings, columns. Lots of things to inspire the travelling quilter.

We did some souvenir shopping for the girls’ friends at a rather touristy marketplace at Asakusa, then visited the big Kannon Buddhist temple and neighbouring Shinto shrine.

Most Japanese happily combine the two religions in their lives.

“We are born Shinto and die Buddhist,” our guide told us. “And in December we all become Christian to celebrate Christmas!”

There was a large dog statue on either side of the Shinto shrine, which is common. The one with his mouth open is saying “ah”, the first syllable, representing birth and beginnings.

This one, with his mouth closed, is saying “mmm”, the last syllable, representing death and endings.

After our long overnight flight and busy day touring, we started to flag by dinner time. Finding somewhere to eat was a little challenging, as many places had no English menu, and the ducklings had had enough foreign adventures for one day. We ended up at a little Italian place where the owner spoke English (as well as Japanese, Italian and Spanish!). The food was great and comfortingly familiar, and we got to admire the Tokyo Tower in all its nighttime glory on the walk back to the hotel.

All in all, a most satisfying first day in Japan. But what inspired the most awe and wonder in the ducklings? Was it the magnificent gold-encrusted Buddhist temples? The endless vista of Tokyo laid out at our feet seen from on high? The insights into an exotic and foreign culture?

No. It was the toilets.

So fascinating were the plumbing arrangements they deserve their own post. So stay tuned for “True Tales of Tokyo Toilets”.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The writer's dilemma, or "Dammit, that was my idea!"

I’m working on a short story for a competition. The competition’s theme is the Apocalypse, which isn’t really my cup of tea. So I decided to do a lighthearted take on the four horsemen of the Apocalypse instead of a gloomy breakdown-of-society story, and have it all turn out happily in the end. I do like me some happy ending.

In completely unrelated news – or so it seemed – someone recommended Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman to me while I was standing in a bookshop on Saturday. Naturally I bought it. Why else stand around in bookshops? I like Terry Pratchett and this is one of his I haven’t read before. But guess what it’s about?

I’m now nearly halfway through, and it’s vastly amusing but dammitall, they’ve used half my jokes! For instance, their apocalypse is set in a small English town, and when the horsemen arrive they comment that they thought the apocalpyse would start somewhere bigger, like New York. Mine’s in a small Aussie town, and when the horsemen arrive they comment that they thought the apocalypse would start somewhere bigger, like Washington or Beijing.

Aaargh! Guess I’ll have to take that line out.

Clearly Pratchett and Gaiman don’t have a monopoly on the Apocalypse. Just because they’ve written about it doesn’t mean it’s now off limits for everyone else. It doesn’t even mean that no one else can write a funny version of the Apocalypse.

But it certainly makes it more challenging. While I know I started my story before I realised theirs existed, other people reading my story won’t, and if it’s not sufficiently different they’ll assume I’m ripping off Good Omens.

Some writers refuse to read the work of other writers in their field, not wanting to be influenced by others' ideas. I’m glad I’m not one of them since I found the bit about assuming the apocalypse would start somewhere bigger. Leaving my very similar reference in would just look like plagiarism.

You’d be surprised how often this kind of thing happens. People will often come up with similar ideas for books, movies, songs or inventions quite independently. Sometimes it’s because of some big event that moves a lot of people to write about it, like September 11, or a need that becomes apparent that prompts several inventors to design the same thing. Other times there’s no apparent reason. It just happens.

The common writing wisdom is that there are only so many ideas around anyway. The idea isn’t important; it’s what you do with it that makes your story different from the others. Look at vampires, for instance. There are shelves and shelves of vampire stories these days, but none of them are the same. And nobody tells all those authors they can’t write a vampire story just because Twilight’s so famous.

Nevertheless, some of my initial enthusiasm has faded. I’ll still finish the story and submit it. It’s an amusing yarn, and really nothing like Pratchett and Gaiman’s apocalypse. It’s just …

Damn. I wish I’d been first.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Who am I?

I received my first “editorial letter” recently. One of my stories is being published in a semi-pro magazine in a few months, and the editor sent me an email with a file attached suggesting a few changes.

I was quite nervous about opening it. What if she wanted to change great chunks of it? Or delete parts I felt were integral to the story? She said they were only minor changes, but maybe her idea of minor would be different to mine.

As it turned out I needn’t have worried. One phrase deleted, a couple of words switched for synonyms and a handful of commas added. Nothing to alarm even the most sensitive of writers, and I’d already decided before I opened the file that I’d agree to any changes she wanted. Editors have a lot of experience at prettying things up for publication, after all. If they think something needs changing then it probably does.

So – big sigh of relief, trauma over … until she sent another email requesting a paragraph-long biography to go with the story.

“Marina is the best-selling author of Blah …” I wish.

“Marina has travelled the world and held 57 fascinating jobs that make her uniquely qualified to write this awesome story …” Not quite.

How do you describe yourself without boring people on the one hand or sounding like you’re blowing your own trumpet on the other? It has to be true (damn), interesting, relevant to the magazine’s audience and preferably humourous.

I could tell them I’m a skilled quilter, but readers of a spec fiction mag aren’t going to care about that. I have three children (likewise, yawn). I could say I have a masters degree in English, which might be relevant but makes me sound like a tosser.

Hey look! I have eyes that look blue in some lights and green in others. Also, I’m a pretty ordinary photographer.

I’ve been to more weddings than anyone who isn’t a marriage celebrant (I used to play the organ at weddings). And I cried at every single one of them. I always cry at weddings. And funerals. Even if I don’t know the person.

I own a dog with a death wish. I have a huge collection of dragon statues. I’m a really crap housekeeper but I cook a mean spaghetti bolognese. I had to beg my sister for months to give me her Super Secret Spaghetti Recipe.

That one little paragraph caused me a lot of trouble. This is what I came up with in the end:
“Marina lives in Sydney where she divides her time between kid-wrangling, writing and many other interests. She has a bad habit of starting new novels without finishing the old ones, which she'll have to kick if she is ever to get any of them published. She blogs at”
How do you sum up a life in one little paragraph? What would you write if you had to describe yourself?

Wednesday, 18 April 2012


If things have been quiet on the blog lately it’s because typing has been a little challenging.

I broke my finger. Playing a ten-minute practice game of netball with a bunch of eleven-year-olds, would you believe. Oh, the shame. Poor little pinkie, it didn’t even get sacrificed in a noble cause, taking one for the team. My real team was left without their shooter for the final game of the summer night comp. Bummer.

It wasn’t a massive break, just a little chip off the knuckle bone – but it’s surprising how awkward it made things. Typing, of course, was out. Alas, so was crochet. But even little things like opening jars, doing up your bra, carrying things, just general everyday stuff become much trickier without a full complement of fingers. You don’t think you use your little finger for much until it’s all strapped up and aching. Then suddenly you find a new appreciation for this often-overlooked digit.

However, it’s well enough now to type, so Hi! Did you miss me?

Baby Duck has been concerned about the long break between posts, at least. He wants me to tell you that he planted his sunflower seed today. No longer is this symbolic piece of plant life growing on wet cotton wool on the kitchen windowsill. Today it discovered the world of real dirt, which it will probably appreciate more than Baby Duck did. He left the actual planting to me and “helped” by saying “yuk” a lot as my hands got messier. I guess farming is out as a career choice.

I’m very pleased to have a nearly normal range of movement back. I missed crochet desperately. It’s become a real stressbuster for me. And heaven knows, with our neverending renovation in its eighth agonising month now, I need all the stressbusting I can get.

I busted out a big hook and a chunky ball of wool from the stash the other night and celebrated my return to crochet by making a quick cowl.

Please to avert your eyes from the hideous lines on my neck and be admiring instead of glorious crochet. Look, look! Completed project! In only one night!! My God, I may run out of exclamation marks!!!!

It was very simple. I chained 130, joined the chain, then crocheted rows of (US) double crochet till I ran out of wool. I had planned it to go round my neck twice but it ended up too big and loose. So big it actually goes around three times, so it’ll just be extra snuggly.

Next day, still making up for lost time, I tried a pattern I’d found on the internet here and made a baby hat with ears. Oh my God. I nearly died of the cuteness. I wanted to run straight out and accost people in the street till I found a newborn head to try it on. Fortunately Drama Duck suggested a saner alternative, so here we have my ancient baby doll modelling the bear ears hat.

Isn’t it adorable??

Plus [cue exclamation marks] it’s Another Finished Project!!

Hey, I could get to like this finishing stuff thing.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Chagall with mangoes

I’ve been attending an art quilting class this term at Material Obsession. What fun! I’ve never been a big fan of traditional quilts, though I’ve made a few over the years – getting sucked in by the colours in my usual way. Plus they’re a great way to learn the sewing skills you need. I’m certainly not knocking traditional quilts with their regular block designs. I just wanted to try something a bit more “out there”.

You might remember my first attempt at an art quilt, which I blogged about here.

Oops. I can’t believe that was nearly two years ago! Aaaand it hasn’t got much further along in all that time. I know, you’re shocked. But it now has a red leaf and is ready to quilt, so hey - progress! Glacial, but progress.

So, given the fact that I work so much better with a deadline (ah, Grasshopper, self-knowledge is a wonderful thing), I decided to join the marvellous Kathy again for art quilting classes.

Our first month the assignment was a still life. Not the most exciting of things to me, having watched Mum paint half a bazillion of them over the years, but oh well. I dutifully flipped through some art books for inspiration – artists love still lifes – and gathered my fabrics to take to class.

When we arrived Kathy had some all-white objects to set up against a white backdrop, her point being that colour would distract us. If everything was white we could really concentrate on the shapes and the relationships between them. You can see Kathy’s account of the class here, with a picture of the set-up.

And then she handed out paper and pencils and told us to draw. EEK!! I haven’t drawn since high school, so I wasn’t very comfortable with this step. Predictably enough my drawing was fairly unimpressive.

Then the fun started. “Now draw it again, this time without looking down at the paper.” It was fascinating to see how much looser and freer everyone’s drawing was this time. I liked mine much better. “Now draw it with your eyes shut.” I admit I did peek once, but my drawing was only slightly more surreal this time than the previous attempt.

Then it was time to get started on the designing and sewing of our quilts. Some chose to use the sketches we’d just done as a starting point. I had a still life by Chagall.

I love Chagall’s blues! I was picturing this colour scheme, with the window and the bowl on the table in front of it, only with mangoes in the bowl. In my head the contrast of the orange mangoes against the blue room would be delicious. Only problem was I’d forgotten to bring any mangoes with me, so off I trotted in the middle of the class to buy some.

Once I’d done a quick sketch of my mangoes (without looking at the paper – yay for bold free drawing!) and worked out the proportions of my design I got busy with my blue fabrics creating a background. I tried a new-to-me technique for cutting and piecing curved lines, so there are no straight lines in the piece. I like the slight wonkiness of it all.

I completed the background by the end of the class. True to form, I then put off adding the bowl of mangoes till it was almost time for the next month’s class. It felt like it was going to be too hard. Without the motivating power of the deadline I still wouldn’t have done it, but I managed, and it wasn’t as hard as I’d feared.

At first I wasn’t happy. I’d tried to suggest shading by using different fabrics, but it seemed to me that it hadn’t worked until I was doing something on the other side of the room and happened to look back. Then I could see the blending effect and felt better.

I still have to quilt it, of course, but I’m pleased with it so far. For some reason I'm ridiculously happy with the shadow under the bowl, of all things. Mainly just because I thought to add one(!), but also because it's a scrap from a quilt I made for my Dad many years ago.

Turns out still life was fun after all!

Monday, 12 March 2012

*@!!*$%! names

Cardygirl had a cute suggestion for Baby Duck’s new name: “Duck Dodgers of the 21st Century”. Of course Baby Duck would have to have it explained to him, not being of the right vintage to get the reference. The Carnivore also offered “What the Duck” as an option. That man amuses himself greatly.

Why are names so difficult? Shakespeare reckons “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, but being right doesn’t change the fact that names matter. We all have different associations with different names – which makes getting two people to agree on a name for a baby a hell of a job. Thank goodness I only had to do it three times.

Plus I cheated by not letting the Carnivore have a say the third time. I mean, I ask you – how would you feel if, after protracted negotiations with your beloved over the name of your second child, in which, in the spirit of loving compromise, you gave up the middle name you had your heart set on in favour of the one he wanted, which you didn’t even like – only to have him ask a few weeks later: “what’s her middle name again?”??

“That’s it! I’m picking the next one’s name All On My Own.”

I always wished they came with a name already attached. Picking names is so hard. There’s all the ones you can’t stand because you used to know someone you didn’t like who had that name, plus the ones you can’t stand just because they’re gross, or oldfashioned, or they sound hideous with your surname. Then there’s the ones you like but so does everyone else and there’d be bound to be three of them at least in the same class at school. Or the ones you like but someone you know has already used them. Or even the ones you like but the family expects you to use in honour of some dead relative so you refuse to even consider them.

Fortunately I’m not having any more children, so I don’t have to negotiate that particular minefield again. Unfortunately I’m a writer, so naming characters is part of the job description. Whole books full of them, dammit. I hate naming characters.

I’ve been working on an outline for a new novel lately. I’m about a quarter of the way through and I’m completely stuck. Why? Because I don’t know what anyone’s name is! It sounds ridiculous, I know. I’ve been using X and Y, or role descriptions like “the ex”, “the ex’s best friend”, and that’s got me so far, but I’m at the point now where I really need to know my characters and what motivates them before I can figure out any more of the story. So I have to know their names. I mean, an “Erin” sounds like a very different person to a “Katie” or even a “Phyllis” or “Muriel”, to take it to extremes.

I’ve been going through baby name books and internet sites, in search of my perfect character names. No luck so far. I’m in awe of people who are good at this. JK Rowling, for instance. “Sybil” for a seer? So clever! And what about “Sirius Black”? I love that one! Sirius, of course, is the name of the dog star. And what does Sirius Black turn into? A black dog. Genius.

So I’m squirming like a worm on a hook here, knowing that names are important, and the right ones will help capture my characters, but unable to find them. Did I mention I hate naming people?

I even made this cute little crochet owl the other day, following this pattern, and I can’t think of a name for him either.

I know what you’re thinking. You don’t have to name the owl, Marina. It’s just a stuffed toy. And it doesn’t even look like an owl.

I know you’re right, but he’s just sitting on my desk staring at me, all vague and nameless. Sad, unloved and nameless. Accusing, almost. What kind of mother are you? If you really cared you’d give me a name. And stop letting people say I don’t look like an owl.

Sorry, buster, you really don’t look like an owl. The original did, but I think I overstuffed you. You look more like a sparrow with a really big butt. Maybe an overweight robin.

Hey, I could call him Robin. Robin the Owl.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Spot the problem

Hmmm. I think I may have a problem here:

I promised Baby Duck a “bugs in bottles” quilt about two years ago. I made the blocks and then they just sat there, unloved. A few weeks ago I decided I’d better pull the finger out and get on with it, so I laid the blocks out on the floor, settled on an arrangement and started sewing the rows together.

I thought I remembered having made an extra block with a mainly white bottle to use as the quilt label on the back. Apparently my memory was playing tricks on me, since there was no sign of it. It had been so long.

And then, what do you know – I lay the last row back down on the floor and it’s suddenly sprouted an extra bottle. The missing white bottle must have been lurking under another block all the time. No wonder I’d seemed to be short one black strip.

My trusty unpicker soon had the culprit out of there and the row resewn. I’m now nearly done with the quilting and should have a completed quilt to show you any day now. Just as well. The kid’s not getting any younger, and this quilt has a definite use-by date. Some day soon my baby’s not going to be a baby any more, and bugs in bottles will be daggy beyond belief.

We’ll have to come up with another pseudonym for him when that day comes. I’m not sure I can still call him Baby Duck when he’s a hulking creature with facial hair and a baritone growl. He thinks it should start with a “D”, like the girls’. Darling Duck? Ditzy Duck?

His sisters have been known to get out the dictionary in search of annoying adjectives, Demon Duck in particular. (Why am I not surprised?) Some of her suggestions include Desexed Duck (inaccurate but satisfyingly insulting, apparently), Dopey Duck, or Demented Duck.

Actually, that last one could work …

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

First impressions

Like people, a story only has one chance to make a good first impression. I love a good first sentence, especially if it’s a funny one. Here’s a great one from Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia:

“On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.”
With an intro like that, how could I resist? Nor was I disappointed. If you like your action flavoured with werewolves, vampires and lots of snark, it’s a good fun read.

And then there’s the opening of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, which I reread recently:

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”
How can the army possibly use a 75-year-old recruit? Immediately you’re drawn in. The answer is very thoughtful as well as highly entertaining. I enjoyed it even more the second time round. If you like science fiction and you haven’t read it yet, grab yourself a copy ASAP. You won’t be disappointed.

How about you? Read any good books lately?

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Tales from the building site: The Big Wet

Not so long ago, Sydney was in the grip of a drought that had been going on for nearly 10 years. We’d forgotten what it was like to be able to wash our own cars. If you wanted to water your garden, there were certain times of the day – and as the drought worsened, only on certain days of the week – when that was allowed.

The newspapers were full of scaremongering. Practically every week they reported the ever-sinking levels in the dam that supplies Sydney. Most Sydneysiders could tell you to the nearest decimal place exactly what the level was. What would we do when the water ran out? For it seemed to be a question of “when”, not “if”.

If only we’d started our renovations earlier, no one need ever have worried. They needn’t have built that white elephant of a desalination plant, if only we’d had the community spirit to remove our roof a couple of years before we did. The drought finished a year or so ago, but if we’d known, we could have knocked it on the head years earlier.

Because, guess what? Ever since we started renovations in September, it’s done nothing but rain. This summer is officially the wettest in 50 years. We’ve had no more than four or five hot sunny days the whole season.

For most of its young life, our new upstairs room has looked like this:

That’s a lake at least two inches deep. And when it gets over the level of the bottom timber of the framework, it runs through the roof cavity into the rest of the house. We have regular waterfalls from our bathroom ceiling. Drips and runs and water damage in the hall and adjoining rooms.

The day after the Carnivore proudly moved his wine into the new wine cellar, even that got flooded, as water pooled in one of the bedrooms which is currently open to the elements and leaked down on to the wine racks below. Now the cellar smells digustingly of mold and damp.

We have a roof now, as I think I told you before, but since there are no walls the rain still drives in and pools on the floor, and we still get the occasional unplanned water feature in the bathroom. We’ve been waiting since November for bricks to rectify this problem, but there’s still no sign of them. It would be nice to have walls again. Just one of those things you take for granted until you don’t have them, and then all of a sudden “walls” becomes an impossible dream, the pinnacle of all your desires. Forget winning the lottery, just give me walls.

Though I guess if I won a big enough lottery, I could buy a Real House. With Walls.


Come back, Drought. All is forgiven.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012


Don’t get excited – I haven’t had a complete personality change and actually finished my crochet blanket already. Although I am still rippling away industriously, so yay me. No, today I thought I’d show you one of my (many) works in progress and talk a little about how long it takes sometimes to get to the finish line, and how much a project can change along the way.

Take this block for example:

Waaaaay back in late 1994 I decided to enrol in a class at the local evening college to learn to quilt. This was one of the first blocks I made, hand-drafted and handpieced, though originally it was bigger and centred. Ugly, isn’t it? File it under “What Was I Thinking?”. In my defence I can only say that the range of fabrics that were available back then were very different from the options we have today. Country style was all the rage, and quilt shops were a sea of mustard yellow, brick red, dark blues and olive greens.

I managed to find a few brighter fabrics, as in this Dresden plate block, another block we learned in class:

But after a couple of blocks I had a problem. Everyone else was using a limited number of fabrics, all carefully co-ordinated, and constructing a traditional sampler quilt out of their class blocks. But I was going wild buying fabrics and trying different combinations in my blocks, so none of them matched. Even then I had the whole “if three colours are good, then thirty must be better” thing going on.

Besides, I’ve never liked sampler quilts. So some of my blocks got turned into cushions, and some of them just sat in the cupboard. For 17 years.

After about a year of lessons I went off into the world, armed with my newfound knowledge, and began to branch out. I started projects I saw in magazines:

This was but one of many blocks in a large country-style quilt. It was a lovely quilt, but I never got much further than this. Country can be beautiful, and I often admire it in other people’s houses, but it’s not really my thing.

The strip of yellow rectangles down the left-hand side in this picture is an off-cut from another UFO (UnFinished Object) I started in a workshop.

Other workshops produced finished quilt tops (though not, you will note, finished quilts):

and more off-cuts that I bundled into the bag with my lonely orphan blocks. The bag got bigger, with more off-cuts and left-over background blocks, such as the tumbler blocks that make up the background of this quilt I made for Drama Duck when she was born:

Hey, look at that! A rare sighting of an Actual Finished Quilt on this blog. Designed it myself, too. Mind you, I say I made it for her “when she was born”: that was certainly the intention, but I think she was three or four by the time it was finished.

And sometimes I made a few blocks just to try an idea, or for a project I then abandoned:

I know, you’re shocked. Me, abandoning a project.

So they went into the bag too.

Every so often I’d pull out the bag and fiddle with the bits and pieces inside. Everything was different sizes, different colours and styles. Nothing went together. I’d move things around then shake my head and stuff it all back into the cupboard.

Then late last year, inspired by the mad riot of clashing colours I saw every time I did a class with Kathy at Material Obsession, I pulled out the bag again. I threw things up on my “design wall” (aka a sheet hanging over the curtain rail in the dining room) at random. I pulled a handful of wildly colourful big prints from my stash (looove the fabrics you can buy now!) to tie the assortment of colours in my blocks together. I made a couple of new blocks, again trying new techniques (like the wonky star at the top of the next picture). Only this time I had a plan in mind for them.

So I guess you could call this my “sampler quilt”, that I started all those years ago at evening college.

It’s changed a lot along the way as I learned new skills, and started (and sometimes abandoned) new projects. There are pieces in there from quilts I love, pieces that mean something to me, as well as pieces I don’t really like. A lot of history.

So sometimes finishing has to take a long time. You have to allow time to learn the skills you need, time for your tastes (and even the materials available to you) to change, time to change direction half a dozen times. And then you can cobble together a Frankenquilt out of left-overs, experiments and memories.

I can’t call it finished yet, since the quilting’s not done, but the top is complete so, creatively speaking, it’s finished. A new creation out of spare parts. I’m really quite fond of my Frankenquilt, though opinions are divided among the rest of the household. Demon Duck thinks it’s really ugly. Baby Duck just thinks there’s too much quilting and crochet on my blog lately and not enough about important things.

Like him.

Thursday, 2 February 2012


Starting can be daunting.

What if it doesn’t turn out the way I envisaged?

What if I make a mistake and have to redo everything?

As in: what if I chain 210 stitches, laboriously crochet back along them and get to the end of the pattern and have five chains left over? And rip out the whole thing and redo it, only to not have enough chain left to complete the pattern this time?

Well, then we fudge it.

The important part is to get started. You can procrastinate forever because you’re afraid things won’t be perfect, but if you don’t give it a go you don’t get the chance to learn from your mistakes. (And here we take “learn from your mistakes” to mean “figure out how to fudge crochet stuff-ups”. Don’t give me that look – short-cuts still count as learning!) Things don’t have to be perfect, they just have to get done. Most of the time no one but you will know it’s not the way it was “supposed” to be anyway.

See? Looking good, isn’t it? Who cares if it’s one wave shorter than the pattern said? I’ve got going now and I’m loving it: the soothing rhythm of the crochet, the delight of watching the colours play together as I add each new one.

Certainly beginnings are important, but they’re not the whole story. This goes for writing too. It’s great to hook readers with an amazing first paragraph, but if the rest of the story’s not as good you won’t hold their attention long. Conversely, some of the best stories don’t have beginnings that reach out and grab you by the throat.

I always notice first sentences and mentally grade them, but they’re not a reliable indicator of the quality of the book. Some that have made me laugh out loud belonged to books that ultimately left me cold. Some great books had real attention grabbers, while others started off with something quieter and then sneaked up on me with their awesomeness.

I’ve been thinking about first sentences again recently because Drama Duck collected a whole bunch of them for her Nano last year. She decided to write a collection of short stories instead of one longer one, and asked all her friends (and some of her teachers) to give her a first sentence she could use as a prompt for a story. She ended up with about 30 sentences and got 10 or 12 stories out of them.

Demon Duck and I thought that sounded like fun, so the three of us picked one of her sentences and decided we’d all write a story from it. It’s always interesting to give the same prompt to different writers and see how widely the resulting stories differ.

Our sentence was: “The man in black could just be seen behind the maple tree.”

So far I’m the only one finished and I’m waiting rather impatiently to see how my fellow writers dealt with the challenge. Hopefully Drama Duck doesn’t decide to start another magnum opus or I could be waiting a while.

But it was a fun exercise. I had no idea where I was going with it, so I just started. Added one sentence. Then another one, till an idea started to emerge – demonstrating once again the power of Starting.

Oh, Starting, how I love you! Your possibilities, your excitement! I just wish you led to Finishing more often. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment Finishing brings, even if it’s just a 1000-word story you’ve knocked out to amuse your children.

It could take me a little longer to finish this sucker.

But I’m working on it.

Monday, 30 January 2012

How to make a dead body

Apart from the obvious way, of course. Here at Pecked by Ducks we certainly don’t condone the taking of live bodies and turning them into dead ones. In this context, you understand, we are discussing the creation of a fake corpse.

Of course it’s possible that you may not live the kind of life that calls for the display of fake corpses in your home. But you never know when a little murderous d├ęcor might come in handy, so I present the following as a small public service.

You will need some clothes, including gloves and shoes, a nice big pile of towels and a disembodied head. If you don’t happen to have one of these kicking around your closet, you can always make do with a hat and some more towels.

We found a styrofoam head at Lincraft which Drama Duck took great delight in painting up. It’s clearly a female head, but we needed a male, so heavy eyebrows and a moustache were added. Now it just looks like a lady with an unfortunate facial hair problem, but no matter. Good enough for our purposes, which were simply to add a little atmosphere and scare the guests at a murder party.

So meet Roger.

Step 1: clear a big space on the floor (always a challenge in itself at our house) and assemble your clothes, head, towels and murder weapon.

Step 2: insert the murder weapon in the back of your artistically bloodstained neck.

Step 3: shove rolled-up towels into the sleeves and trouser legs of your clothes. Plump up the body with more towels and arrange the lot in a realistic pose on the floor. Add the head, shoes and gloves, and voila! Instant dead body.

Step 4: prepare for the screams as your guests arrive.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The $2,000 skewer

Remember the story of the $327 hair-washing hose? Ha! That was nothing. Just a trifle. I now have a much better “outrageous sums of money my children have cost me” story.

See that 8-inch piece of bamboo? Not the most glamorous piece of bamboo you’ve ever seen – a bit bent and hairy, perhaps – but without doubt the most expensive sliver of wood ever.

This is the skewer that, covered in yummy chicken, Baby Duck dropped on the floor on Sunday.

“Pick it up!” his sisters yelled, but Baby Duck, not being a man of lightning reflexes – or possibly any reflexes at all – sat and watched as the dog pounced. I rushed back in from the kitchen, barely ten feet away, but too late.

I’m still gobsmacked that she managed to down the whole thing so quickly. How do you swallow a whole 8-inch skewer loaded with chicken that fast? I kept staring at the floor, expecting to see pieces of wood – I mean, really? Who eats the wood? – but there was nothing.

So the worrying commenced. Monday morning she threw up, but she seemed so normal otherwise I crossed my fingers and hoped it was unrelated. When she did the same thing Tuesday morning I had to give up on the coincidence theory and take her to the vet. The vet checked her out but could find no other symptoms so it was back home to the worrying and watching.

Finally on Friday morning we had a different dog. Instead of bounding out of her bedroom (the laundry), eager to hoe into breakfast, she limped out and looked at Drama Duck as if to say “do I really have to eat that?” She had a couple of mouthfuls to be polite but that was it. She could hardly manage the stairs either and was obviously in pain, so it was straight into the car and back to the vet.

They operated and found the skewer had gone through her stomach wall and was heading for her liver. Fortunately there were no signs of peritonitis, which was my big worry, so they removed the skewer and sewed her back up. I’ll spare you the close-up of her scar – it’s quite gruesome.

But she’s back home now, looking sore and sorry, poor baby. The Carnivore’s feeling rather pained too.

“We could have let this one die and bought two dogs for that kind of money,” he grumbled. Can’t let anyone suspect he’s actually fond of the stupid animal.

I was so pleased the vet kept the skewer for me. Is that weird? I was busting to take a photo and share it with you. I guess I’ll just throw it out now, though it’s tempting to hang it round Baby Duck’s neck, like the albatross in "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner", to remind him to be a little faster next time he drops something on the floor.

Or I could just dock his pocket money for the next 40 years or so.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Turnip brain

Proving yet again that she is a cross between a particularly stupid golden retriever and a turnip, Two Planks has outdone herself. Today she devoured a chicken skewer that Baby Duck had dropped on the floor – wooden skewer and all. I am now anxiously watching her for signs of imminent death from pierced intestines.

I’m trying to reassure myself. She’s eaten all kinds of weird stuff in the past, from half-bricks to chunks of wood to thorny plants, with no ill effects. And hopefully she did actually crunch that sucker up instead of swallowing the damn thing whole. But still.

I may only be a blue belt in taekwondo, but I’m a black belt in worry. Fingers crossed this is another case of me imagining dire scenarios that never come to pass.

Does anyone else have a pet with a death wish?

Stupid dog.