Happy Star Wars Day!

May the 4th be with you.

I have no reason for posting today other than a wish to make you all groan at the terrible lameness of that pun. I promise a real post soon, but how could I resist? It’s a once-a-year opportunity.

Tomorrow serious I will be, my young jedis.

Curse you, Dav Pilkey!

The ducklings have discovered Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books. Demon Duck and Baby Duck are particularly smitten. Not only do we have Captain Underpants stories at bedtime every night, but they have both written Captain Underpants stories themselves, which they read to each other. Demon Duck also does comics. Nor can we enter a bookshop without purchasing another volume in the saga. We also have Captain Underpants songs, computer games and much discussion of wedgies.

In short, our house has been taken over. Not even Drama Duck is immune. I have a whiteboard in the kitchen where I write the weekly menu. The other day I discovered my menu had been vandalised. Drama Duck explained that this was something they did in the Captain Underpants books – the boy heroes change the letters around on the school noticeboard to make the notices say something funny.

So last Tuesday, instead of beef skewers for dinner, we had bee sewers. Captain Underpants would be proud.

Alien invasion

I’ve just come back from a week in sunny Queensland, enjoying the theme parks on the Gold Coast. The ducklings had a marvellous time. Demon Duck is now known as Daredevil Duck, from her complete lack of fear on rides that scared even her daddy. I, on the other hand, am now known as the family chicken.

Surfers Paradise is a funny place. I’ve never seen so many hotels and holiday apartments in one place. And yes, I’ve been to Waikiki. Every single local resident must work in the tourism industry. I can’t imagine how they all make a living in winter.

And what is it with Irish pubs? They’re on every street corner, often cheek by jowl with a tattoo parlour. I tell you, Surfers is the tattoo capital of the world. Every second person you pass on the street has a tattoo. And every other person is a Japanese tourist — although many of them have tattoos too.

I saw everything from full-back tattoos to barcodes on the neck; from delicate swirls on girls’ shoulder blades to hideous things protruding from low-slung jeans that looked like the top of a particularly ugly grey lacy g-string (or thong, for the Americans out there). There were full sleeves, the classic barbed-wire thingy around the upper arm, coloured flowers, writing – even one guy with a girl’s name tattooed over his heart. I hope it was the name of the girl he was with.

Tattoos were particularly noticeable at Wet ‘n’ Wild, a theme park full of waterslides, since everyone was wandering around in their swimmers. It led me to realise that they weren’t really tattoos at all, but some kind of aquatic aliens. Lurking in the dark tunnels of the waterslides, they waited for their next host to swoosh by, allowing them to spread through the park and, ultimately, the world.

I figure they must have made planetfall somewhere near Japan, hence the large numbers of Japanese tourists already infected with the alien parasites. It makes sense that they’d pick an island nation like Japan, so they were never far from water. And Japanese tourists are everywhere – what easier way to spread than to hitch a ride with such seemingly innocent characters?

I haven’t figured out their motive yet, though. World dominion is so old hat. And why start in a place like Queensland, if that’s your goal? Queenslanders all seem to drive about 10 km under the speed limit, a habit which the Carnivore found very annoying. I suggested to him that the aliens may have come to teach the Queenslanders to drive faster, but he didn’t seem convinced.

At least the ducklings enjoyed helping me with the alien spotting. I’m glad to report that we all made it back unscathed, though there was one touch-and-go moment as I passed a tattoo parlour when the alien mindwaves almost lured me in.

Be on guard, earthlings. You never know where they’ll strike next.

Where writers really get their ideas

Writers get asked a lot “where do you get your ideas from?” Most answer with some variation on “ideas are everywhere – it’s not getting them that’s hard, it’s the execution that’s the tough bit”. Unless, like me, you blame everything on evil brain sloths.

But now I can reveal to you, in a world first, that there really is a place writers go to get ideas. They don’t want you to know, in case you stumble on the next best-selling premise before they do, but it’s there, a treasure trove just waiting to be tapped. Or dug up, or whatever you do with treasure troves. And isn’t “trove” a funny word? You never hear it on its own. It’s always part of a treasure trove. Why is that?

But I digress. Back to the world first. Drum roll, please.

Ideas are free for the taking right here on the Glorious Internet. There are sites like Seventh Sanctum that do nothing but generate ideas for stories, themes, characters – whatever your writerly heart may desire. In mere moments there I had the seed of several breathtaking new novels. Check these out:

The story of Dracula as an occult rags-to-riches story. Everyone’s looking for a new take on vampires. Stephanie Meyer, eat your heart out. Not just any old angsty emo teen vampires, but The vampire, re-imagined as an angsty emo teen, just trying to make his way in a cruel world. Suffering the slings and arrows and stakes of outrageous fortune as he claws his way up from humble beginnings to the top of the Transylvanian heap.

A fusion of the story of Noah and the story of Hansel and Gretel. I’ll be on to this one just as soon as I can figure out a way to get around the likely effect of 40 days and 40 nights of rain on that trail of breadcrumbs.

A fusion of the story of Cain and Abel and the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Kind of a Day of the Triffids thing happening here, where the Beanstalk tries to kill Jack because he’s always been the favourite.

A fusion of the legend of Samson and the tale of Lady Godiva. Great potential for conflict in this one. “What do you mean, cut off my hair? How am I going to stop those peeping Toms from seeing all my jiggly bits with no hair??”

The tale of Lady Godiva being about a group of dolphins. Okay, so Seventh Sanctum’s got a thing for Lady Godiva. But see, this one proves it’s all true. Clearly, David Brin gets his ideas here. Only instead of Lady Godiva his said something like “Star Trek with dolphins instead of people”.1

So there you have it. No, don’t thank me. I’m happy to provide a public service to all struggling writers. Besides, it wasn’t my idea – I snitched it from Jaye Patrick.

Just goes to show that there really are no new ideas in the world.

1. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to get hold of a copy of his Startide Rising. Great novel!

Books for ducklings

If you look to the right, you’ll see a few books for younger readers on my list of books read this year. There are two reasons for this:

1) As an involved parent, I like to keep up with what my kids are reading.

2) I find books that other people are reading insanely attractive. I’ve read a whole bunch of thrillers and sf space operas over the years that I would never have picked up except the Carnivore was reading them, and I couldn’t resist a little peek. It drives him nuts, which is an added bonus.

I’ve got Demon Duck started on Terry Pratchett, which she’s enjoying. She’s only eight, but she has quite an adult sense of humour. Either that or mine is pretty juvenile, because we laugh at the same things.

Drama Duck is more of a problem. She’s ten and reads as well as someone 14 or 15 – but she doesn’t like to read the kind of thing that’s aimed at 14 and 15-year-olds. She doesn’t like dark or scary or sad, which pretty much rules out most of YA, as far as I can tell.

She loves Emily Rodda’s Deltora Quest books, though she’s bright enough to pick holes in the plots. But she enjoys the adventure and puzzle-solving in them. She also loved The Hobbit. I gave her the first Harry Potter, which she liked, but the movie of it frightened her and she’s shown no desire to read any more of them.

I’d like to introduce her to some good writing, rather than the pulpy girls/babysitting/boyfriends type stuff she often reads, but I don’t know what. At her age I was reading The Lord of the Rings and other adult fantasies. I don’t remember much that came before that except Enid Blyton (which she also enjoys). And though I still read the occasional YA, I don’t read “middle grade” books, so I don’t know what to recommend. I bought her a Garth Nix on the weekend, which looks promising – and there’s certainly a good backlist there if she likes it!

Does anyone have any suggestions of something to suit a fluent but sensitive young reader who enjoys adventure?

Don’t judge a book by its … author’s surname

I did something very brave the other day. Even foolhardy, you might say. I wanted to google an author’s name. I’d just read a book of hers and wanted to see what else she’d written.

The problem was her name. Nina Bangs.

Exactly. Now that you have finished laughing, you can see why I felt some trepidation.

“Self, this is going to end badly,” I thought. “Your pure white computer will be sullied by the suggestive, nay – blatant – filth that will appear. Hot and torrid things will rear their ugly heads on screen and you will end up being spammed by a million people offering you enlargements for organs you do not possess.”

I almost didn’t do it. But in the end I took my courage in both hands, and was vastly relieved to find that the whole first screen of results were all about the author. Nothing turgid, throbbing or otherwise discombobulating in sight. (But I wasn’t game enough to look beyond the first page of results. There is a limit to my bravery.)

Turns out that Ms Bangs has quite a backlist. The book was called Eternal Pleasure, and the Carnivore bought it as a joke, simply because of her outrageous name. And then it turned out the joke was on us, because he read it and said “this is great, you’ve got to read it!”. So I did.

My first paranormal romance. It felt more like a guilty pleasure than an eternal one, as if I shouldn’t be reading such a book. As if there are book police who disapprove of books by authors with suggestive names. But I did enjoy it, despite yelling “you have GOT to be kidding!” when I first realised the nature of the hook. It was a real page turner, and certainly different to anything I’ve read before.

We bought another of hers today. What’s in a name, indeed? That one certainly did its job. I just have to make sure not to read the book in public places. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was in the market for an … ahem … organ enlargement.

Sometimes the hardest part is keeping a straight face

Baby Duck is enjoying school very much, thank goodness. He adores his teacher, has made some nice little friends and loves learning to read, since he’s a book lover from way back. Most days when I ask him how school was he says “lovely”.

But a couple of weeks ago I picked him up after a rainy, miserable day and asked him how his day was.

A look of disgust came over his face. “I had to go to the canteen at lunch time to pick up the lunch basket.”

I was a bit surprised that this wasn’t a high point of his day. Usually the kids love doing little jobs like that. It makes them feel important.

“Is that your job this week?” I asked.

He nodded. “Me and my friend went, and it was raining. We got wet.”

“Oh well,” I said, “it wasn’t raining that hard at lunch time.”

“But that’s not the worst part! We had to go all the way to the canteen in the rain” – he threw his arms wide, an outraged expression on his little face – “and there was only one bloody lunch!”

It’s very difficult to chastise a small person for inappropriate vocabulary when you’re trying hard not to crack up. But he’s never used that word before and it caught me by surprise. He sounded so absurdly world-weary, and the look on his face was priceless. I suspect my protests were unconvincing.

Note to self: Must try harder at this parenting thing.

Blade needs sharpening

You know what bugs me? When writers set up the “rules” of their world and then proceed to break them without consequence. Even if it’s only a teeny bending rather than a break, it spoils the story for me. It makes me stop suspending disbelief and start actively hunting for plot flaws.

I found one such instance in my own Dragonheart, when I was rereading it last month to remind myself of the story so far. After carefully setting up that human blood mages like my heroine would only use their magic against the fey, never other humans, I proceeded to write a scene in which she slaughtered no less than five people with magic because they were ambushing her. That one’s definitely going to need a rewrite!

Can’t believe I did it – but still, I picked it up before the first draft is even finished. How do such things get into finished, supposedly polished, pieces?

Take Blade, for instance, an action/horror movie. Tortured vigilante hero hunts down vampires. Not my usual choice in a movie, but it was entertaining enough for mindless Friday night viewing. Until, that is, they started breaking their own rules.

Why bother saying sunlight kills vampires if you’re going to have your vampire characters walking around in broad daylight? You can’t have one vampire dissolved by sunlight and another walking and talking in the daytime because he’s wearing sunblock.

Sunblock. I kid you not. The Carnivore and I were howling with laughter. What would that have to be? SPF 30,000? And the vampire put it on his eyes, right? And the inside of his mouth?

Oh, and for most of the movie vampires are so hard to kill our hero has to go to amazing lengths, yet near the end our plucky heroine sprays one with garlic juice and its head explodes. Uh huh.

Nor is it just fantasy that’s guilty. I watched a BBC production called Lost in Austen recently, about a modern girl who magically changes places with Elizabeth Bennet and ends up in the events of Pride and Prejudice. Well, I guess that’s fantasy too, but my objections had to do with the societal rules that got twisted to suit the plot, not the fantasy element. As if a gentleman like Mr Bingley, having asked Jane Bennet to dance, would then refuse to stand up with her because Darcy warned him she was after his money. To do so would have been unpardonably rude. He might have danced with her and behaved rather frostily, but I can’t believe he would have snubbed her outright. The rules of polite behaviour just wouldn’t allow it.

Not to mention the many things the modern heroine did and said that should have had her cast out of polite society. Or the fact that everyone accepted her sudden appearance and Lizzy’s disappearance. It’s a society where women are closely guarded, yet no one blinks an eye when Lizzy disappears without trace or warning.

Not that I didn’t enjoy it. I did, it was a lot of fun, and not to be taken seriously, I guess. But still, why not follow the “rules” of the society? Just because it makes a more dramatic scene for Bingley to refuse to dance with Jane? But if the viewers are going to sit there and say “but hang on a minute, that doesn’t make sense” is it worth going for drama over logic?

Maybe I’m just getting too picky in my old age. I hardly ever watch TV, but lately it seems that I’m picking holes in everything I watch. Does it really matter if entertainment isn’t internally consistent? Maybe not. But I can’t help feeling that if the writers made the extra effort to obey their own rules, they might come up with ideas that were even better.

Or at least that didn’t leave their audience in stitches when they weren’t intending to be funny.

What Marina needs

I found an idea on Jacqui Robbins’ blog that appeals to my sense of the ridiculous: Type your first name and the word “needs” into Google and see what Google thinks you need.

Marina needs:

1. a better slipway
— sounds vaguely obscene …
2. a facelift
— it’s not that bad … at the right angle … in a dim light
3. an iDockUSA
— this is what comes of having a name that means “boat parking lot”. Thanks, Mum.
4. a home of her own
— or at least a “space” of her own not invaded by kids
5. her rest
— AMEN!!
6. to replace fuel system
— that would be eating more chocolate, I assume
7. a clean-up
— I don’t know; I think I scrub up all right
8. gas
— the less said about this the better
9. a drink
— a cup of tea would be nice, thanks
10. a large hole excavated
— another suggestive one!

I’m jealous; Jacqui needed “werewolf points” so she could become a “Fire Werewolf”. I didn’t get anything that exotic.

What Marina really needs, of course, is to stop stuffing around on the internet and do some writing. But hey, it was fun.

So what do you need?

Fashion for the elderly

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

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

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

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

“Why? Can you see the grey?”

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

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

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