The Life of Mammals

“If we’re very quiet we can observe a family grouping here. The mother is in the middle, with her three offspring piled around and on top of her for warmth. We see them in a typical bonding ritual, their attention fixed firmly on the TV.”

Thanks, Sir David, I’ll take it from here.

As a special treat the ducklings get to stay up to watch David Attenborough’s The Life of Mammals on Monday nights. I get almost as much fun out of watching them as I do from the show. They’re such different personalities.

Baby Duck: He’s not as interested in the show as the girls, but won’t miss a chance to stay up. Comments on odd things. Tonight, for example, an ad came on for the Good Guys (a local electrical appliance retailer). The ad is a deliberately corny song-and-dance extravaganza to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations.

“They’re not really good guys, are they, Mum?” says Baby Duck.

“Why not?”

“That man was throwing a TV. That’s naughty. And they climbed up on top of that bench. They shouldn’t do that, should they?”

Drama Duck: Keeps up a running commentary throughout the show. “Don’t chase me, don’t kill me,” as antelope flees lion “ouch, that’s my stomach, ooh, get off, bad lion, don’t bite me, oh that hurts” etc. One of her nicknames is “Little Miss Talk Underwater”.

Demon Duck: This one has a wicked sense of humour. After the umpteenth time of me shushing Drama Duck, she says matter-of-factly, “shall I get the stickytape, Mum?”

Driving me crazy

School’s gone back so Baby Duck has me to himself again. He’s enjoying the chance to get a word in without the girls interrupting him. He particularly likes to chat when we’re in the car — no TV to watch, I suppose – so every car trip becomes an exhausting ordeal-by-question. I tell you, the Spanish Inquisition would be proud.

Generally I’m very patient but when the 200th question in a 5 km trip is something like “do dinosaurs fight better than robots?” I’ve been known to get a little tetchy. There’s no point saying “I don’t know” (believe me, I’ve tried) because it only leads to insane five-year-old speculation being interspersed with the shot-gun spray of questions. Resorting to logic and pointing out that dinosaurs and robots never co-existed only elicits the dreaded “but why?”

Then there’s the times he decides to play guessing games:

“Look, Mummy, I made a shadow with my hands.”

“I can’t look, darling, I have to watch where I’m going.”

“Guess what it is,” he says, undeterred by this minor technical hitch. “It’s something that lives in the sea.”

Well, that narrows it down since he only knows about three things that live in the sea. “Octopus” seems the most likely thing to be formed by little hands, so I try that but I’m wrong.

“No, it’s something that lives very deep down,” he says, so I try whale. No. Shark? No. By now I’m out of options so I give up.

“It’s a five-legged octopus,” he says. Should have seen that one coming.

He obviously feels sorry for his mentally deficient mother because for the next one he tells me he will give me a clue.

“It’s something from Ice Age 2 and it lives in the sea and it’s not the two monsters.”

I get that one right since there’s only one other thing in the movie that fits that description.

“Good, Mum,” he says approvingly, then throws another hard one at me.

“This one is a plant that lives in the sea.”

“Seaweed?” I try, fairly confident this time. I mean, how many plants are there that live in the sea? But I’m wrong again.

“I’ll give you a clue,” he says. “It’s got a mouth.”

Okay, maybe he thinks sea anemones are plants. He’s only little after all. So I try that.

“No, it’s got teeth. And it eats sharks.”

What?! “I don’t know any plants that live in the sea and eat sharks,” I say. “You’ll have to tell me.”

Clearly he doesn’t know any either, and there is a short silence in the back seat while he tries to come up with something. At last, triumphant, he announces:

“It’s a shark-eating plant!”

“Once upon a time …”

I’ve just finished the first draft of my novel and am feeling very pleased with myself. There are several reasons for this, other than the obvious one that I won the race with Drama Duck after all (take that, nine-year-old!).

One is having proved that I can actually finish a whole novel. I am a notorious starter but a very bad finisher, in all aspects of life. Even my children are aware of this and roll their eyes whenever I start a new quilt, suggesting that I should instead finish one of the gazillions of UFOs (UnFinished Objects) in the quilting cupboard.

A less obvious reason is that now I can finally allow myself to start revising that sucker. The only way I could finish was to start at the beginning, not do any editing and just keep writing till I got to the end. In the past I’ve always been lured down the editing cul de sac, never to return to the story highway.

Pleased as I am with the result, one consequence of this new way of working was that every time I called up my file I had to stare at the first page of the novel. At first this was a bright shiny experience. Look at that beautiful beginning! See how cleverly it hooks the interest! But after a while the effects of first love wore off and I began to notice (gasp!) that there were flaws in the previously beloved opening. That first sentence that I’d thought was so cute was in fact in a different point of view to the rest of the scene. And then came the dreadful day when I realised that a lot of what came after it was, well, a bit boring. Back story. Told instead of shown. How could I ever have thought this crap was any good? The romance was over! But I wasn’t allowed to fix it till the first draft was finished – that was the deal.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings. What makes a good one? “Once upon a time” works pretty well for fairy tale writers, but the rest of us have to make more of an effort. There’s lots of good advice out there: start with a hook, jump straight into the action, pose a question that the reader wants answered (Tabitha Olson has a good post about this). Simon Haynes has been pondering beginnings recently too, wondering whether to stick with the slow-burning fuse start his books usually have or jump straight into the bomb blast.

Beginnings that I love include this one from Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie:

“Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her ’86 Civic, broke her sister’s sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs.”

This tells you so much without being an infodump. It gives you a lot of facts about the story plus a feel for the personality and background of the main character, all in such an amusing way that you can’t help wanting to read more. Why is Sophie in Temptation, a place she clearly doesn’t want to be? What other disasters are in store?

One that made me laugh out loud was Montana Sky by Nora Roberts:

“Being dead didn’t make Jack Mercy less of a son of a bitch. One week of dead didn’t offset sixty-eight years of living mean.”

What a great opener! The voice is so down-to-earth, so full of personality, I couldn’t wait to read more. So why are all these people at his funeral if he was such a bastard? You have to keep reading to find out. And that’s why it works. No bombs, just a dead guy in a box, but I’m hooked.

So now I have to find my story’s equivalent to dead guy in a box. Doesn’t have to be funny, though funny is good; just memorable. Gotta give those readers a reason to keep turning the pages. Assuming that there ever are any readers, of course. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

Would you like cliches with that?

I was reading the monthly newsletter from my favourite bookshop, Infinitas, today. It lists all the new books out and reproduces the blurb for each to whet your book-buying appetite.

When you read a whole lot of blurbs in one sitting like that it’s like getting a big shiny needle to vaccinate you against the dreaded cliche disease. After a while you just don’t notice them any more. Everything is “epic”, all the evil villains are “hell-bent on destroying everything that [insert name of protagonist] holds dear”, etc, etc. It all starts to sound the same after a while.

So there I was, scrolling half brain-dead through a tide of “mismatched bands of saviours” and heroes who had to save the world “but could he save himself?” when one sentence leapt out at me.

“Hidden hands pluck the strings of tyranny like a fell chorus.”

I boggled at that one for a moment while I tried to picture hands, hidden or otherwise, singing like a chorus. Where are their mouths? Exactly how many hands are we talking here? More than a pair, clearly. Where does one find all these disembodied singing hands? And they can pluck too, not just sing. Such multi-talented little hands.

I stopped skimming then and went back to look at the rest of this blurb more carefully. There were “dire portents” plaguing people’s nights and assassins skulking. “The hunters have become the hunted.” (But what are they hunting? Talent scouting for performing hands perhaps?) Then there were strangers arriving, bards singing “their tragic tales” and “somewhere in the distance … the baying of hounds”.

But wait, there’s more! “All is palpably not well.” No – really? What gave it away?

By this time I was feeling very sorry for the author. I know nothing about him, but I’m assuming he can write better than this. Most likely the marketing department came up with this deathless prose, and now the poor guy has to cringe every time he sees his own book. Apparently there are also “ancient crimes … clamouring for revenge”. I think I’d be clamouring for revenge myself if I were him, for crimes against the book-buying public.

The blurb concludes with the assurance that “this is epic fantasy at its most imaginative”. Quite possibly. Pity you can’t tell that from reading the blurb. Though that bit about the hands takes a special kind of imagination, I guess.

It makes me wonder about blurbs, though. Yes, they often draw on archetypes or tropes as a way of packing a lot of information into a short hook. But how much is too much? How many cliches can you pile on before it becomes unintentional parody? If I read that on the back of a book I was browsing, it would be back on the shelf as fast as my non-singing little hand could manage. Hardly the desired effect. Am I expecting too much?

Mamma mia! He can’t sing!

The whole family went to see Mamma Mia today. Such fun! I could happily see it again tomorrow.

I wouldn’t take Baby Duck again though. He likes his movies animated and got pretty bored. He spent a lot of time climbing all over me and making very loud comments in all the quiet bits, like “that lady looks like a naked chicken!”. The girls loved all the singing and dancing, though Drama Duck got a bit frustrated because we kept laughing at jokes she didn’t get. She is so desperate to be grown up.

My husband had hysterics every time Pierce Brosnan started to sing – and I use the term loosely. The first time he did it I was terrified he was going to have a stroke right there on the screen. His face went bright red and he looked as if he was going to burst a blood vessel. It’s not that his voice was bad – he could carry a tune all right – but it sounded forced and unnatural. His second song was in front of a huge crowd of extras and I just felt embarrassed for him.

Not that it spoiled my enjoyment of the movie. It was even kind of a relief to find that he wasn’t perfect after all. I mean, how can any man be that pretty? It’s not right. But it makes you wonder why they cast someone who can’t sing in a musical. Still, I’m not complaining. Between him and Colin Firth (who can sing) there was plenty of eye candy. And the songs are so good it’s hard to go wrong.

I’ve been an ABBA fan for more than 30 years, though for much of that time it was too daggy to admit. Even my beloved likes to belt out a chorus of “Waterloo”, though he’s usually so lyrically challenged that “Happy Birthday” is the only song he can remember all the words to. Now we get to indoctrinate our children. (Ah, the joys of parenthood.) Though we might have to wait a couple of years before Baby Duck’s little mind is ready to absorb their greatness. Those naked chickens can be so distracting.

On the merits of healthy competition

Today I face the lowering realisation that Drama Duck will probably finish writing her first book before I will. Her opus is a teenage mutant ninja turtles story and Baby Duck is her Number One fan. She has written two or three chapters today alone. Each chapter is read with great expression to her little audience, who greets each new instalment with as much enthusiasm as the crowds on the wharf clamouring to hear the end of one of Dickens’ serial novels when the ship from England arrived.

Her output is certainly better than mine lately. I only have two scenes to write to finish the first draft, but I’m in that slack “what the hell, it’s school holidays” mood. Much more fun to shoot hoops with the girls, or take the kids to the movies, or shop, or – or anything, really. Anything rather than write.

Hang on, why am I writing this novel again? Because I love to write? Hmmm. So how come I have to force myself to sit down and do it?

I always thought it was just me being lazy, but my travels on the internet show that many writers are masters of the noble art of procrastination. So maybe I’m not a freak of nature after all (or yes, maybe I am, but it’s nothing to do with the writing; thank you so much for that kind suggestion).

Anyhow, the race is on. See the motivating power of competition? Almost as good as watching a deadline go whooshing past. Am I going to let myself be defeated by a nine-year-old? No! I spit on nine-year-olds! (Sorry, Drama Duck, that’s just one of those writerly metaphor-type thingies. I wouldn’t really spit on you.) I eat nine-year-olds for breakfast! (That’s another one.)

And anyway, I already have finished a novel – when I was 13. And it filled three whole exercise books. So there.

The Art of Racing in the Rain

I am not the slightest bit interested in car racing. Would I willingly read a book featuring car racing? Not in a million years. Yet I have just read such a book and I absolutely LOVED it. I gulped it down in one sitting then sat there going “wow!” for a while. Then I wanted to read it all over again, more slowly, so I could savour it. I wanted to run out and buy a copy for everyone I know so they could all share in its brilliance. And I really, really wanted to have written it!

The book is The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. I heard about it on the internet – that it was good, and that it was narrated by a dog, which was intriguing enough to make me buy it. Luckily no one mentioned the car racing, or I might not have.

Enzo, the narrator, believes that when a dog dies, if it has perfected life as a dog, it will come back as a human. As a result, he makes a very careful study of the humans in his life so that he can learn to be one. He is chatty, funny, philosophical and very observant in an innocent way. His voice is distinctive and endearing. Seeing the human experience filtered through his eyes is fascinating. Even though some dreadful things happen to his family, his native optimism and faith in his owner mean that the book is always hopeful and leaves you feeling uplifted. If that sounds corny, that’s my fault, not the book’s. I find it hard to explain why I loved it so much.

It even made me look at Two Planks with new eyes. Could there be a philosopher hidden in that furry blonde head? Then I came to my senses and thought: “Nah!”

Part of it was the brilliance of the writing. It was so tight – nothing was in the book without a reason. Everything had significance – especially the car racing, which formed a beautiful metaphor as well as its practical function in the plot. And he made it sound interesting – even fun! If Stein isn’t a fan I’m in even more awe of his skill.

Now I have to get my hands on his other two books. I’ve decided to read less fantasy and try to branch out a bit more. This was certainly a flying start for that resolution. Anyone got any recommendations of books they’ve enjoyed lately?

A rose by any other name

Today I bought a netball ring on a stand for the girls to practise their shooting. At least, it said it was a netball ring, but in fact it’s the size of a basketball hoop. It also came with a net to attach to the ring, a la basketball. I asked my husband not to put the net on when he was assembling it, since netball doesn’t use a net and I figured the girls would be better off practising the way they would be playing.

But he put it on. When I asked why, he explained that Baby Duck had insisted.

“You have to have a net,” Baby Duck said, “because it’s netball. If you don’t it would just be ringball.”

Ode to lost sleep

Look at these cute feet — Baby Duck at two months old. Who would have thought that five years later they’d have turned into instruments of torture?

I’ve noticed a funny thing about small children. In daylight they seem so soft and cuddly, all plump little legs and sweet rounded faces. But in the middle of the night they sneak into your bed and they’re suddenly all hard angles and nasty pointy bits. There’s nothing quite like being woken from a sound sleep by a vicious elbow jab to the kidneys.

And then they do the starfish thing, arms and legs sprawled across the bed, so that mum and dad are crammed into 10% of the space while the small pointy thing luxuriates in the other 90%.

Baby Duck is a master of the art. I’m pretty sure he grows extra legs at night too. There seem to be a lot more than two knees jammed into me. I feel like the meat in the sandwich crammed between him and his father. Sometimes he doesn’t even leave me enough room to lay my head flat on the pillow.

I suppose I’ll miss it when he grows out of this stage, but then again – maybe not. When you’re expecting your first baby you know you’re in for some disturbed nights. What nobody tells you is that it can go on for years. You go through the baby thing, the weaning thing, the waking up in the night (every night!) crying for water/cuddles/toilet/whatever-they-damn-well-please thing, the coming-into-your-bed-every-night-thing, then just as you think you might finally be getting it under control, along comes Number 2 and it starts all over again. Repeat as many times as your sanity allows.

In our case, Drama Duck is nearly 10, and we’re still woken up every night by Baby Duck, so a night of unbroken sleep is only a fading memory. I figure once he grows out of it we might have as much as five years of good sleeping before we get to the dreaded “waiting up for teenagers to come home” stage. Can’t wait! For the sleeping bit, that is. I can definitely wait for the teenager bit. Everyone who’s been there assures me that part is much worse than the original sleep-loss stage.

That’s another thing they don’t mention at antenatal classes. It’s all “how exciting, your first baby!”, when they really should be saying “are you mad? you’re creating a teenager!” At least I get to practise on Drama Duck first. Heaven help us all when it’s Demon Duck’s turn.

Living in Fantasy Land

Dymocks’ latest Booklover catalogue includes a fantasy-style map titled “Journey through the magical lands of fantasy”. Five lands are marked on the map, with a list of authors assigned to each land, grouped according to what type of fantasy they write. The groupings are “High magic & epic quest”, “History & myth”, “Sorcery & intrigue”, “All ages” and “Urban”. (Clearly I need to read more urban fantasy, as I’ve only read two of the authors on the list.)

Dymocks have done this before, and it’s a handy way to discover new authors. They’ve included quite a few Aussies but, as an Australian bookshop, I would have liked them to make a bigger effort to push Australian authors. I realise such lists can’t be exhaustive, but where, for instance, is Sara Douglass? She sells ’em by the truckload. Why not mention Justine Larbalestier under the “All ages” category? And what about Glenda Larke? I must have read a gazillion fantasy trilogies, but I’d never read one where the showdown with the ultimate bad guy comes at the end of book 2 instead of book 3 until I read her Isles of Glory trilogy. It was so refreshing to find a different take on the usual format.

The other thing that struck me was: why is JRR Tolkien the first name on the “High magic & epic quest” list? Don’t get me wrong, I adore The Lord of the Rings. It’s still my favourite book after all these years, he’s the father of modern fantasy, I know, I know, but come on! If there’s a single person out there in reader land who hasn’t heard of him by now, they must have been living under a rock. Is it really necessary to put him on the list? It’s like saying to someone, “Oh, you like religious stories? Have we got the book for you! It’s called the bible – you’ll love it.”

Another interesting thing I noticed – the majority of the names on the “High magic & epic quest” list are male, whereas all but two on the “Urban” list are female. Any theories about that? I have a few but since I haven’t actually read much urban fantasy I’d probably be talking through my hat.

And yes, I do spend quite a lot of time poring over the pages of book catalogues. No, I don’t need any help getting over my addiction, but thank you for asking.