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.