As you get older it gets harder and harder to do things for the first time. I love learning new things, but trying new things? Scary! Of course, there’s always a million things you’ve never done, but by the time you’ve got some history behind you, the list of things you’re likely to ever attempt shrinks.

I can assure you, for instance, that there is no way I am EVER going to jump out of a perfectly good plane and trust my life to a concoction of silk and rope that will hopefully deploy at just the right moment to save me from being splattered across the face of the earth. Nor will I ever go scuba diving, or learn to speak Japanese (not to pick on Japanese, which I’m sure is a perfectly good language – just can’t see it ever making it on to my list of 100 Things to Do Before You Cark It). And I’ll probably never tailor a three-piece suit, or drive a semi-trailer, or get into a fist fight or a million other things, large and small.

But lately “firsts” seem to be popping up all over the place. I played my first ever game of netball, after watching the girls from the sidelines for the last three years. First ever game of any team sport, in fact. And it was awesome. Who knew sport could be so much fun?

This week I’m going for my first ever taekwondo grading. I’ll be a yellow belt! Huge, I know – it’s only one rank above absolute beginner, but I’m still excited.

And at the beginning of the month, I went to my first ever sf convention – the World Science Fiction Convention. It’s usually held somewhere in the US, but this year it was in Melbourne, so I dragged the whole family along for a long weekend. The long-suffering Carnivore carted the younger two around to all the Melbourne attractions through bucketing rain and arctic gales, while Drama Duck and I skipped around the convention centre in airconditioned comfort, having so much fun it should have been illegal.

One of our first panels on the Saturday was on pitching your novel, where I was pleased to discover I knew everything the panellists were advising. The big excitement at this session, though, was meeting up with bloggy friend Jaye Patrick. Jaye and I have “known” each other ever since I did Nano for the first time in 2007, and it was great to finally meet in real life. She put me on the spot though. One of the first things she said to me was “how is Verity going?” and of course I had to admit Verity has been sadly neglected.

After lunch Drama Duck and I lined up for half an hour to make sure of a spot at Glenda Larke’s kaffeeklatsch the following day – a chance to sit around a table drinking coffee and chatting with an author for an hour about whatever you like, limited to only eight people. We were the first two people to sign up and very excited at the opportunity.

Glenda is lovely, with a great sense of humour. We attended several of her panels over the three days we were there, and she was very entertaining as well as insightful. The kaffeeklatsch was great. Drama Duck even worked up the courage to ask her a question and now has a serious case of hero worship going on. She demanded a Glenda Larke book to read after meeting her. The only one I had with me was the second book of the Watergivers trilogy and she got stuck into it straight away. Every time she came up for air she’d say “this is a really good book, Mum!”. She’d finished it before we got back to Sydney.

Other highlights included meeting George RR Martin – he’s such a Big Name in the fantasy world it’s like meeting God – and some other writers whose blogs (and work) I follow. John Scalzi is just as funny in person as on his Whatever blog. Peter V Brett made a big impression in the panel on promoting yourself and your work. He’s an introvert, like many writers, and finds self-promotion difficult. He pointed out that an introvert is not a person who can’t manage social interactions, but someone who is drained by the effort, whereas an extrovert is energised by social interaction.

I also discovered some new writers to try, like Catherynne M Valente, scarily intelligent and fiercely feminist on all the panels we saw her on. She had a rant about Shrek 4 at one stage which was very amusing but also thought-provoking. Her beef was that Shrek makes a deal with Rumpelstiltskin to change the past so he doesn’t rescue Fiona from the tower. In this new world Fiona rescues herself, and is brave, resourceful, a leader and freedom fighter – but the world is absolute crap. The message being that women must never dare to take action but must wait to be rescued by some man. Strong independent women destroy the world. I knew there was a reason I didn’t like that movie!

Russell Kirkpatrick and David Cornish gave me a new appreciation for maps in fantasy novels. I’ve always been pretty anti-map. I gave up looking at the things once I realised they were like having spoilers. Oh, there’s a huge city on the map up there? Must be important then. And there’s only one pass through the inhospitable mountains? Guess we know which way the characters are going then. But their maps are works of art, and there was much discussion of the things you could map apart from geographical features. Interesting stuff.

In fact, there was so much interesting stuff on offer it was hard to choose where to go. Every hour there were at least three panels I wanted to attend. Unable to split myself, I had to miss some that sounded awesome, but most of the ones I attended were good. Probably my favourite of the whole weekend was “Anatomy for Writers, Fighters and Tavern Brawlers”. Run by Sean McMullen, a martial arts expert as well as an author, it was not only educational but extremely funny. His poor assistant got drawn all over to show his muscles, stabbed with an umbrella masquerading as a sword and manhandled in various painful-looking ways as Russell demonstrated disarming and attacking opponents. Russell also snapped a thick board with his bare hand, which Drama Duck and I were hugely and geekily impressed with, seeing as how we’re budding martial artists ourselves. I’ve never seen anyone do that in real life.

All in all, it was a great experience, and very inspiring. I’ve started working on Verity again, after procrastinating as long as humanly possible. Yes, there have certainly been some unusual and stressful times lately, but basically I was just scared to get back on the horse after so long. Now that I have, my enthusiasm for the story is back.

In one of those serendipitous coincidences, I also found this post today by John Scalzi about making time to write: in essence, it’s really not that hard. “Do you want to write or don’t you?” he asks. “If your answer is ‘yes, but,’ then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say ‘no.’ ”

In other words, “Butt, this is Chair; Chair, meet Butt”. Time to get those two old friends reacquainted.

We interrupt this program

… to bring you a public service announcement. Jacqui Robbins has offered an amusing challenge on her blog: to write the worst possible first sentence for a children’s picture book ever. Is good! Is funny! … is nearly over!

Entries close on the 15th, so I have been slack in not telling you before this. Hop on over and join in the fun. Some of the entries so far require a strong stomach. I’ve had a couple of attempts myself, but I fear I shall never make it as a picture book writer – too wordy. Witness one of my efforts:

“Maybe the smell should have warned him, or the way Tricky Tim sniggered as he held out the bowl, but Greedy Gordon never said no to chocolate ice cream and by the time he realised what he really had in his mouth it was too late.”

Jacqui, however, already is a picture book writer, so her sentences are much better, eg:

“Fuzzy the Bunny lived with his Mama Bunny, Papa Bunny, and his sister, Roadkill, in a hutch at the base of a tall oak tree.”

Jacqui’s new book, Two of a Kind, has just come out, and promises to be full of all sorts of authorial genius. I bet it is even good for you.

And speaking of good for you, I bought a loaf of packaged herb bread to have with dinner tonight. As I prepared to put it in the oven, I noticed the advertising on the pack loudly trumpeted that it was “suitable for vegetarians”.

You know, unlike all those other loaves of bread that are made of meat.

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.

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.