Seven telltale signs that it’s school holidays

There are a few surefire ways to tell that it’s school holidays around here.

1. Children who are unable to get up on time for school miraculously leap out of bed at crack of dawn to watch TV.

2. Everyone is so pleased to be able to stay home and do nothing for a change that a million playdates and excursions have to be planned to alleviate the boredom.

3. We mortgage our house to pay for movie tickets for five people to the latest kids’ movie.

4. The ducklings’ love/hate relationship with each other escalates to new heights/depths.

5. Their mother starts looking around for a cardboard box big enough to ship at least one child overseas.

6. Maternal patience starts to wear veeeery thin. As in “Muuum, the dog hurt me – she dug her nails into my foot.” Me: “I don’t care if the dog disembowelled you, I don’t want to listen to any more of your whining.”

7. Dinner conversation devolves into a succession of slightly off jokes. You try eating pizza with broccoli on it with someone saying: What’s green and hangs from tall trees? Giraffe snot!

On your marks …

The Nanowrimo site has been cleaned out, all sparkling and ready for this year’s extravaganza. I feel excited already and it’s still only September.

If you haven’t heard of Nano, it stands for National Novel Writing Month. If you join in you agree to start a new novel on November 1st and “complete” it by November 30th. To be complete it must have a beginning, middle and end, though not necessarily fully fleshed out, and must be at least 50,000 words. If you make it you’re a winner, though the thrill of accomplishment is the only prize.

The website has lots of tips and a great forum where you can find encouragement and inspiration (or someone to commiserate with when things aren’t going well). Pep talks from famous authors are emailed every week. You can also find writing buddies to compare wordcounts with and egg each other on.

Last year was my first attempt. I was about 98% certain that I wouldn’t make it, yet I managed it. I was so pleased with myself I took a photo of my screen, showing the wordcount over 50,000. I know, I’m tragic.

My only regret last year was that I didn’t write a fantasy novel. I had this “real world” idea that just wouldn’t go away and, since I never really expected to make it, I thought I’d just spend the month on it and get it out of my system. That would be the novel that I’m still revising, so that plan didn’t quite work out.

So this year it’s all-singing, all-dancing fantasy all the way. Magic – yes! People turned into animals – yes! Fairies and dragons and warriors with bad attitudes – yes! Quests with no toilet stops – yes, yes, yes!!! In short, all the great cliches of fantasy. I can hardly wait.

I’ve started planning my novel already (who said I couldn’t learn from my mistakes?). Haven’t broken it yet to the other half that I’m doing it again. He was very supportive last year – even made the ultimate sacrifice and took the kids to a teenage mutant ninja turtles movie while we were on a weekend away so I could have time to write. I think he will be quietly horrified to find that he has to live through it all again this year.

Anybody else planning to take it on?

Canine reproduction: which comes first, the dog or the egg?

Baby Duck and I were cuddling in bed this morning. At least, I was trying to cuddle, hoping that the day might go away if I could just keep my eyes closed a little longer, but Baby Duck was full of beans and it was like trying to wrestle an octopus.

“Mum?” he says.

“Mmm?” Go back to sleep, pleeeease.

“Does a girl dog have to marry a boy dog so she can lay eggs?”

Well, no, son. A girl dog has to have a complete biological redesign in order to lay eggs.

After we get that part straightened out he tries again.

“Well, does a girl dog have to marry a boy dog so she can lay puppies?”

“She doesn’t have to marry him, but she has to be with him. She can’t have puppies on her own.”

“Then why did Summer have to have her bits taken out? She’s always on her own.”

I wonder about this kid sometimes. The dog was desexed nearly two years ago. I’m surprised he even remembers it. He thinks about the strangest things.

Must be his father’s genes.

Tag, you’re it

14. What kind of person do you think the person who tagged you is? Jenn seems to be a very deep thinker. Her posts on writing are very insightful. She’s also friendly and welcoming to visitors.

15. What’s the last song that got stuck in your head? Ants in the apple, a-a-a. What, you don’t know this one? My dear, you haven’t lived! There’s a whole alphabet full of them, all the way up to “zippy zebra, z-z-z – and that’s the sound that z makes”. It takes six minutes and forty-something seconds to sing the whole thing, and as soon as you finish, Baby Duck says, “Let’s do it again, Mum!”. Yee-hah.

16. What’s your favorite item of clothing? My new green top.

17. Do you think Rice Krispies are yummy? Not sure what these are. Must be an American thing. Assuming they’re some kind of breakfast cereal, I would probably prefer my homemade muesli, which is so scrummy I hunted down a hospital dietician and begged her for the recipe.

18. What would you do if you saw $100 lying on the ground? Assume it was a trick.

19. What items could you not go without during the day? Did I mention the thing with the peppermint chocolate?

20. What should you be doing right now? Sleeping. See answer to Question 2.

Are we there yet?

The ducklings have a fabulous picture book called Are We There Yet? by Alison Lester, about a family that goes on a road trip around Australia. It’s one of those rare books that manages to be beautiful and a lot of fun as well as educational. Every second page, after lots of detailed illustrations and interesting info about the family’s current stop, the refrain goes: “And Billy said, ‘Are we there yet?’”

Anyone with kids is all too familiar with that particular chorus. I’m starting to feel like Billy myself as I work through this revision. Are we there yet?

The problem is that I’m having to put a lot of new material into the first part of the novel. This is a good thing, since it needed it, but also a bad thing because it makes me feel that I’m not making any progress. I’m writing and writing and writing yet I never move on through the pages of the first draft cause I keep thinking up more stuff that I need to add before I can continue.

The other problem is that I’ve had to redo some of these new scenes because I don’t think sufficiently about them before I write them. Just when I think they’re done and I can move on, some humiliatingly obvious thing occurs to me and I think, well der! why didn’t you write it like that instead? So back on the little mousey wheel I go, running and a-running. Are we there yet?

Jen Hubbard had a great post a couple of weeks ago on the stages of writing. Some of the stages of rewriting had me laughing even as I winced, like “Oh, that’s perfect! No, wait, it doesn’t fit”. Or “We’re on the right track now! We’re off the right track. We are in the fields beyond the track.”

When you read a good book, one thing flows from another in such a way that it seems inevitable. Yes, of course that character did X when Y happened. Naturally they broke up at the end – it was the only possible outcome after what happened at the party. And so on. Everything fits together so well it looks easy. I guess I never really believed it truly was easy, but I’m discovering exactly how hard it is now, and I’m here to tell you it ain’t pretty. Think jelly wrestling with crocodiles.

If I want to produce that seamless inevitability, I’ve got to do some more planning, sit down and really pinpoint what the focus of each scene is. Otherwise I’ll be re-re-re-re-re-rewriting these suckers till I go grey. Oh, wait, that already happened. Well, till I become that demented woman yelling at her computer, “Are we there YET???”

Swimming for aetheists only?

Drama Duck was reading a book about sharks1 to Baby Duck last night for his bedtime story. She’s an advanced reader for her age but she tends to slide over unfamiliar words instead of stopping and trying to figure them out.

I could hear her from the next room, her voice full of expression:

“The average hammerhead shark is about eleven feet long. It is easily identified by its superwide head. The hammerhead’s eyes are at either end of its head, giving it great binocular vision. Hammerheads eat fish, squid, octopuses, cri-Christians and other sharks.”

Christians? Seems a tad exclusive of them. Shame the ancient Romans didn’t know about this dietary quirk. When they got tired of throwing Christians to the lions, they could have thrown them to the hammerheads instead. Although “Christians to the hammerheads!” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

After a moment’s thought I realised that the word she’d stumbled on must be “crustaceans”. I suppose it is a tricky one. Christians of the world can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that they’re no more likely to become a shark’s lunch than the Buddhists, Muslims, aetheists and everybody else after all.

1. The Magic School Bus: The Great Shark Escape by Jennifer Johnston

Once upon a time — you were saying?

I posted a while ago about beginnings and how important it is to hook the reader right from the start. I said that “Once upon a time” just didn’t cut it any more.

Would you believe I’ve found the most brilliant beginning – and it starts with “Once upon a time”? Just goes to show that if you’re good you can make anything work. And also that I have no idea what I’m talking about – not that that comes as a great surprise!

It’s from Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler. I read her Digging to America when it came out (a couple of years ago?) and was awed by her skill. I went looking for another, but didn’t like it as much. Last week I picked up Back When We Were Grownups while browsing the secondhand bookshop and I’m back to awe again. She is a master of understatement. Her characters are brilliant; so real, so ordinary but so engrossing. Yet they are brought to life so obliquely. She could have written the textbook on “show, don’t tell”. It made me realise how much I have to learn.

It was a quiet little story, like the others of hers I’ve read. Everyday, domestic problems – but do you think I could put it down? The first line sucked me in and I was gone.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”

How cool is that? I want to be Anne Tyler when I grow up.

Why stories shouldn’t have necks

Baby Duck has discovered a sudden passion for drawing. Looking at one of the many masterpieces littering the house today it struck me that children’s drawings are a lot like good writing.


This is me. Clearly I need to lose weight.

Apart from that lowering thought, it’s fascinating to see what my little artist has put in his drawing and what he hasn’t. You can see I have five fingers on each hand, since the little monkey has realised what important tools these are, whereas I have no toes. There’s no detail on the body as that’s just the big lump in the middle that all the interesting bits hang off. I have short hair, which is an accurate observation. My face is the most detailed part of the drawing because of its importance. It shows ears (with holes for hearing), eyes with irises and pupils (even at five he senses that the eyes are the key to the whole person) and a big happy smile.

What he doesn’t show is a nose. After all, noses just sit there and breathe which, while essential, is kind of boring. I also have no neck – another dull piece of anatomy that merely connects two more interesting pieces.

In their early drawings, kids only put in the features that have meaning for them. All the good bits. Writing should be like this too. As I revise my novel I’ve been hitting the delete key a lot, nuking all those passages where characters are travelling from one place to another, or making breakfast, or exchanging pleasantries.

Holly Lisle put it well in her One-Pass Revision article (which is one of many useful free writing resources on her site). Writers should “give the impression of reality” without all of the boring detail. “All the sex and violence, passion and struggle. None of the teeth-brushing.”

Down with teeth-brushing, I say. My five-year-old has it right. My story doesn’t need any necks. It can jump straight from the body to the face if it wants to, because that’s where all the good stuff is happening.

Slippery little suckers

Words can be such slippery little suckers. Tonight at dinner we were talking about the game MindTrap, which is an old favourite of ours. You play by answering questions using logic and deductive reasoning. I love the “lateral thinking” type ones, where you can ask questions to work out the answer to the puzzle. (You know, like the classic “Joe and Fred are lying dead on the floor, which is covered in broken glass and water. How did they die?” The answer: Joe and Fred are goldfish and their bowl has been smashed.) My beloved, not surprisingly for an accountant, likes the maths-based ones, most of which make my brain hurt.

The ducklings were curious so we got it out and read them some questions. One was:

“There are six ears of corn in a hollow tree. If a squirrel can take out three ears per day, how many days will it take to remove all the corn?”

Easy, huh?

Did you say “two days”? Yeah, me too. I knew there had to be a catch, but I never saw it coming. The correct answer is “six days”. The squirrel can only carry out “three ears” per day – but he already has two ears stuck on his head.

Slippery, all right.

Hack and slash

I’ve finally done it! After a medal-worthy marathon of procrastination, I finally sat down last night and started editing my novel. And it was fun. Take that, hideous opening sentence! In fact, goodbye whole boring first two pages. The first scene, which wasn’t particularly long, lost 1,000 words in a frenzy of hack and slash. Could be a problem if I keep that up, since I need to add about 20,000 words to the total length. I could end up with a short story instead of a novel.

Still, I’m pleased that I’m moving again. I finished the first draft two months ago and have been stalling ever since. My new goal is to finish the book before November rolls around and I start NaNoWriMo and do it all again. In fact, I’d better finish a couple of weeks before, to give me time to think about my NaNo project …

Guess I’d better go do some revising.