The little engine that could

You may notice I’ve put the “cover” of Dragonheart and an up-to-date wordcount widget in the sidebar. Not because I think anyone will be interested in how many words I’ve written, but I because I find the “public accountability” aspect a useful weapon in the war against procrastination. And the cover? Hey, I made it for Nanowrimo and I just like looking at it! Makes me feel all “authorly”.

Having spent the last two weeks celebrating my new freedom to do anything I like by in fact doing very little, I decided that the time had come for butt-in-chair. So on the weekend I read through the manuscript so far of Dragonheart, which I haven’t looked at since November, to get myself back up to speed. I have such a bad memory I’d forgotten where I was up to. Fortunately I still liked it. It was almost like reading a real book. I got engrossed in the story and was quite disappointed when it ended. “But what happens next?”

I wish I knew! I have the next little bit mapped out, but the rest of the book is distressingly vague. My notes to myself are full of “But why?”s and “such-and-such needs to happen – HOW?”. And in the big finale: “some huge complication needed”.

Muse, if you’re paying attention – a little more detail would be helpful. Appreciated, even. My control-freak self hates the not-knowing. Control freak self lies in bed at night going “but why? Why does that character do that?” and getting really frustrated when the answer doesn’t immediately appear. It’s that big gap between being a reader and being a writer. When you read, the story unfolds with such a smooth inevitability you can’t help but imagine it must have fallen fully formed into the writer’s head. If the writer’s done their job, it seems there’s no other way the story could have played out, so once the writer thought of the very first sentence, all the rest of it must have just flowed naturally from there. It’s so easy! Anyone could do it.

If only! I try to console myself by looking back through my notebook and realising how much was unclear when I started, which has since fallen into place. Surely the rest of it will too – eventually. But I’m an instant gratification girl and waiting is just hard.

I know if I keep trudging on it will come. So my little wordcount widget sits there like the beacon on top of that terrible hill that leads to THE END, urging me on.

I think I can. I think I can.

Beware crispation and distance creepage

I love the instruction manual for my laminator. I read it every time I use the laminator, because the expressions in it always make me smile. “In order to avoid crispation, please don’t insert the open side of the pouch into the laminator first”. “Crispation” is such an evocative word, it should be a real one. “Please re-laminate if the lamination is not very well for the first time”. After “accomplishment of lamination”, “book, file or other heavy things can make it more flat and good-looking”.

“As to the smutch on the covers of machine, please wipe them off by wet cloth.” “To avoid the danger of distance creepage, please don’t place the machine in wet conditions”. That last one’s got me. I wonder what they mean by “distance creepage”? I picture some poor guy sitting there with his Chinese-English dictionary scratching his head as he searches for the right word.

I take my hat off to him. His English is a hell of a lot better than my Chinese. I still find it amusing, though.

Picking the right word is often difficult, even in your native language. Roget would have been out of a job otherwise. I bet I’d be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time a writer agonised over a word choice. Creep or sneak? Blue or azure?

So many words mean almost the same thing – but not quite. If you call a talkative character garrulous you project a very different image than if you say they’re chatty. And is she a female or a girl, broad, sheila, gal, lady, chick or woman?

The nuances of word choice are a great tool for a writer. I’m still learning to adapt my word choices to my point of view character. Clearly a Harvard professor has a different vocabulary to a five-year-old, or an old lady or a migrant fruit-picker. In direct speech I’ve always tried to show such differences. But until a year ago or so my brain hadn’t quite cottoned on to the fact that the rest of the narration should also show these differences if I was really deeply in the character’s point of view. My general narration tended to sound like me.

You’d think with all the books I’ve read that this would have been a no-brainer, but no. Finally someone hit me with the clue stick, and it’s improved my writing, though it’s still something I have to work at. Particularly when the differences between characters are not so obvious as Harvard professor versus five-year-old. It’s a bit harder to show the differences between three career women of similar age, say, or a group of kids who go to the same school. Or, in my case, a group of blood mages. I keep trying, though, because those books where all the characters sound exactly the same annoy me, and I don’t want to write one myself!

Of course it’s easier if one or more characters has a distinctive way of speaking. Maybe I need a character who sounds like my laminator manual.

“Caution, when dragon is in nearness – avoid crispation!”

Settings: the devil is in the details

So, you’re writing a novel or a script or whatever and you’d like to set your story somewhere exotic. Trouble is, you don’t know about anything beyond your own home town. What do you do?

1) You could try research. Libraries, internet, even TV documentaries or travel guides. Or you could talk to someone who’s been there, check out a few of their holiday snaps maybe.

2) You could write fantasy. You can make up whatever you like and nobody can tell you you’ve got it wrong (one of many reasons I like writing fantasy!)

3) You could be like the people responsible for the travesty of a movie the Carnivore watched on Friday night, and say your story’s set somewhere else but actually make it identical to your own home town.

It was called Supernova and was supposedly set in Sydney. I watched it for a while but couldn’t take it for long. I could put up with everyone speaking in American accents, but there was so much else that was so badly wrong it left me completely confused. I kept thinking the story must have switched to America and I’d somehow missed the part where the whole cast got on the plane.

It opened with a guy at a desert observatory. After a couple of minutes he got in his car, observed by two agents who had the place staked out, and drove to Sydney airport. One of the agents was an African American, which was out of place enough that it started alarm bells ringing. We have a multicultural society, with people from all over the place: lots and lots of Asians, Europeans of every kind, plenty of Middle Eastern people, quite a few Indians, Pacific Islanders, our own Aboriginals – but virtually no Africans. If you saw one on the street you’d look twice. But they popped up everywhere in this movie. At least half the extras were African Americans.

So the guy drives from the desert to the airport in an hour or so, when in fact it would take at least a day. Hell, some days you can’t even drive from the CBD to the airport in that time. His car is a left-hand drive and has Californian numberplates. In Australia we drive on the other side of the road and, strangely enough, our cars are registered in Australian states, not American ones.

It was all very confusing. A few minutes later another character was exploring an abandoned house at night. She was spooked by an animal in the house. A porcupine. Last time I looked we didn’t have any of those in Australia. Echidnas, yes. Porcupines, no.

I kept thinking I’d missed something at the airport scene. Surely we were now supposed to be in America? But no, people kept insisting it was Sydney. So why were they worrying about running out of “gas” when we call it “petrol”? Why did the children go to school on yellow school buses when children here catch regular commuter buses to school, which come in any colour the bus company chooses? Why were nervous housewives running around waving handguns when the house alarm went off when our gun control laws are so strict nobody but criminals and cops or gun enthusiasts have guns, which, if they’re legal, must be kept locked in a purpose-built cupboard at all times?

I gave up in disgust after about half an hour, but it left me perplexed. If you want to make a movie in America, go right ahead. But why pretend it’s set in Sydney? None of the reasons I could think of put the filmmakers in a good light.

1) They are so ignorant they have no idea that the rest of the world isn’t exactly like America.

I find this one hard to believe. Some parts of it must have been filmed in Sydney. There were shots of iconic Sydney landmarks being destroyed in the finale. So at least some of the people involved with the movie must have been here, in which case they must know at least some of the basic things they got wrong, like cars driving on the wrong side of the road, or Californian numberplates not being exactly that common outside America.

2) They believe their American viewers are so ignorant they have no idea the rest of the world isn’t exactly like America, so see no need to change anything.

This is pretty insulting to the American viewing public.

3) They believe their American viewers won’t notice all the mistakes, so there’s no point going to the expense of getting it right.

Possible, perhaps – except that it costs nothing to say “petrol” instead of “gas”, or to substitute a cricket bat or kitchen knife for a gun. But they couldn’t even be bothered doing that. Or do they think the American audience wouldn’t understand what was meant if characters said “petrol”? Again, pretty insulting to their viewers’ intelligence.

Which brings me back to the question: why bother insisting it’s Sydney if it’s demonstrably America in everything but name? Setting is made up of a myriad of details, probably the least important of which is the name. If I say my novel’s set in Paris, then there can’t just be the Eiffel Tower in the background. There’d better be people walking dogs everywhere, and the smell of fresh, crusty bread, cars parked haphazardly all over the footpath, a biting April wind and the sound of church bells. Otherwise no one who’s been there is going to believe me. Or worse, if everyone works from 9 to 5, just like they do in Sydney, with no mention of the looooong break in the middle of the day, people will ridicule me. That’s not how things work in Paris, so if I want people in my story to work 9 to 5 with a half-hour lunch break, I should set the damn story in Sydney. Or else get a clue and do my homework on Paris. It’s one place where the classic maxim “write what you know” has some merit. And if you don’t know, you’d better find out.

This is where writing fantasy is so much easier. Your world, your rules. As long as things are internally consistent, virtually anything goes. It’s like playing God. On the other hand, the fact that you can’t take anything for granted means more work. Every part of your society and world has to be considered. Characters can’t just hop on a train or drink a cup of coffee. You have to consider the level of technology and civilisation. How do people get around? What foods and beverages are available?

And do they have porcupines?

Flap flap flap

Anybody else hear that flapping noise? Look, up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a guy wearing his underpants on the outside? No, it’s just Baby Duck leaving the nest.

Yes, my baby started school on Monday. I didn’t even get a goodbye kiss. He kept asking if it was time for him to line up yet. Once the bell went he was off like a shot, barely remembering to wave as he disappeared into his classroom.

So far so good. He seems quite happy to keep going back, which is the main thing. The house is very quiet without him, although the Carnivore makes enough noise for three people, so I’m not exactly lonely.

I have spent my new-found writing time revising a short story I wrote before Nano last year. Today I finished scribbling all my corrections on the hard copy and typed them in to the computer. There was a lot of red pen, with many crossings-out and new bits inserted.

As I worked through the pages I noticed something interesting – though some parts were buried in a storm of red pen, most of the dialogue was untouched. I’ve always felt that dialogue was one of my strengths as a writer, but it was interesting to see it demonstrated in such a concrete way.

Or maybe I just suck at revising. It’s entirely possible I’m just rearranging the deckchairs as the ship goes down. I do find it difficult to take a long enough view, even after leaving a story for months. I worry that I’m only fiddling at the sentence level when I should be looking at the much bigger picture: do I need this scene/character? Have I come up with the best possible answers for the story questions? For that matter, have I even asked the right questions?

Eek. So many things to consider. So many balls to keep in the air at once. Did I mention I suck at juggling too?

What’s your favourite part of writing? What are you best at? Or worst at?

Five things I learned on holidays

1) Holiday houses never have enough teaspoons.

2) Fishing is no fun if all you’re doing is baiting hooks and casting lines for children.

3) Children only enjoy fishing if they catch a fish in the first 30 seconds. Makes you wonder why you bothered baiting all those #@$?!*! hooks.

4) Going for a brisk walk along the beach every morning will only do pleasing things for your hip measurement if you don’t also spend the rest of the day lazing around eating cheese and biscuits and drinking wine.

5) Actually fishing is no fun full stop. I only know how annoying it is to take children fishing because the Carnivore told me. I was lazing on the lounge eating the cheese and biscuits while he was out suffering. Look, it was tough, but someone had to do it.

I should probably add a sixth point: I discovered I’m even lazier than I’d realised, hence there were no blog posts while I was away. I did a few pages in my art journal, but failed to finish any of the sewing projects I took, or read any of the books. I was a complete vegetable, though I did manage to drag myself off the lounge long enough to thrash the whole family at putt-putt golf. A most satisfying holiday!

So I’m back, all refreshed and ready to dive into the challenges of the new year. Baby Duck starts school on Monday, so once I get over the tearful goodbyes (mine, not his) it will be full steam ahead on Dragonheart, my fantasy novel which has been languishing since Nano ended.

And yes, I’m aware there was a fairly awful movie around a few years ago of that name. The best thing about it was that the dragon had a Scottish accent, since it was voiced by Sean Connery, who never bothers to alter his accent even to play a Russian sub commander. It’s only a working title. No doubt something stupendous and far more suitable will occur to me in the fullness of time. In the meantime I’d appreciate it if you kept the sniggering to a minimum, okay?

I see dragons, he sees … bacon?

Remember Mark Antony’s beautiful speech from Antony and Cleopatra that begins “sometimes we see a cloud that’s baconish”?


Okay, how about this. What do you see in this picture?

A rhino perhaps? A dragon even?

We visited Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney recently. The ducklings and I had fun spotting all sorts of strange creatures in the caves, like this “dragon”. There were stalacmites at odd angles that looked just like unicorn horns, lots of monsters and a couple of dragons.

What was my beloved’s contribution to this game of make believe?

“Hey, that one looks like bacon.” [He’s talking about the pinkish shawls hanging from the ceiling.]

My meat-obsessed carnivore doesn’t have a poetic bone in his body. Drama Duck and I looked at each other, that special look that says “we really love him but he’s not quite like the rest of us, is he?”

“Maybe the dragon eats the bacon,” she said.

It was an … interesting day. We changed our minds several times about whether or not to go that day due to doubtful weather and general laziness (at least on my part). So we didn’t end up leaving till eleven, and by the time we got there it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

The last 10 kms or so of the trip winds round and round the mountainsides on a road that feels about two foot wide, with a terrifying drop off the edge. I was practically hyperventilating and vowing never to return before we’d even arrived. Thank goodness we didn’t meet one of the many tourist buses coming the other way.

There’s nothing much there above ground, just a hotel and ticket office. We crawled past a million tourists to the carpark, which was full. A sign directed us up a steep road to carpark 2.

Which was also full. So we climbed more mountain roads, around more scary twisty bends to carpark 3.

Which was also full. By this time we are a long way from where we need to be and I’m starting to wonder if we’re going to have to park somewhere in central Australia. The road is now a dirt track with a most terrifying incline. But at last we find a place to dump the car, though we almost lose traction and fall back down the mountainside trying to get there. A helpful man directs us to a walking track to take us back down to the ticket office, which he says will take about 20 minutes “or I could call the bus up here for you”.

“No, no,” says the Carnivore gaily, “we’re happy to walk.”

I think 20 minutes might take more like 40 with Baby Duck in tow, but I can’t face the idea of a bus ride back down that dreadful road either, so we walk.

Did I ever mention that I hate walking downhill? I know I’m not the fittest person, but by the time we got to the bottom my quads felt like jelly – and we hadn’t even started yet.

The first guided tour that wasn’t sold out was at 4:30, so we spent the time in between doing the self-guided tour of the Nettle cave, which is largely above ground. Demon Duck kept having conniptions about how high up we were, but everyone else enjoyed it (though there were a lot of stairs).

Then we took a guided tour of the Lucas Cave. Our guide announced that there were 910 steps to climb “but don’t worry, they’re nearly all at the beginning – after that it’s okay”. So we and 164 million of our new best friends trooped off up the stairs of torment to view the delights of the Lucas Cave.

Which took so long, with 164 million people in the group, that there was no time to see any more caves after that, for which I was profoundly grateful, though Baby Duck was disappointed. He wanted to go back the next weekend.

Fortunately we didn’t have to climb back up the mountain to our car. There was a minibus to take drivers back to the various carparks, otherwise I’d probably still be there, crawling upwards on my hands and knees.

One more not-a-New-Year’s-resolution: Must. Get. Fit.

[And one more time without the bacon:

Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendant rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air


Whew! Lucky I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions. Those babies would have been smashed already. Have I been exercising? Eating less rubbish? Writing every day? Updating my blog twice a week? Only if today is Opposites Day.

Not that I’ve been completely unproductive. I’ve sewn a few bags lately, including a tote bag for Demon Duck’s teacher that we both liked so much we were sad to part with it.

I also finished a more sedate handbag for myself. I’m wearing a lot of blues and browns lately so it goes nicely.

I’ve got stuck into the decluttering and have already thrown out a stack of scrapbooking magazines about four foot high. I’m still working my way through another stack almost as big. This job is part of the reclamation of the rumpus room as a usable space and not just a junk storage area, which has been hanging over my head for ages. It feels great to see the floor reappearing from under the piles!

A curious side effect of the sorting process is that is makes me want to scrap again – or at least mess around with paints and patterned paper, which I haven’t done in nearly two years. I dug out my old art journal and did a couple of pages, which was a lot of fun. This is one of them.

So no New Year’s resolutions, because I know I’ll break them. But goals – I can do that. Generally I aim too high and miss, but at least I get further than I would otherwise. Last year I wanted to finish two first drafts, Man Bites Dog and Starfire. I only managed Man Bites Dog, but I wouldn’t have done even that without something to aim for. I also wrote 50,000 words on a new novel, Dragonheart, plus started revisions on Man Bites Dog.

Another goal was to start submitting short stories for publication. I only submitted two, which wasn’t as many as I’d planned, but one got a very encouraging rejection and the other got published, so that went pretty well too.

Writing goals for this year are:

* finish revising Man Bites Dog
* complete first draft of Dragonheart
* write and submit more short stories
* establish a routine of writing daily (at least on school days!).

Other goals include:

* keep up with the monthly art journal challenges at Blue Bazaar
* declutter and get organised
* have more fun!
* and I’m not even going to mention the whole exercise-and-diet thing.

The “have more fun” goal started well. On New Year’s Day we had afternoon tea with the neighbours that turned into dinner and a movie as well. Less successful (from my point of view at least) was an excursion to Jenolan Caves a few days later. But I’ll tell you about that next time I post on my new bi-weekly*-but-it’s-not-a-New-Year’s-Resolution schedule.

Happy New Year to all!

*I just looked up “biweekly” in the dictionary because I was having a vague moment about whether it means “twice a week” or “once every two weeks”. According to my dictionary it means both. Both?? They’re two completely different things! It’s an outrage!! What kind of sloppy good-for-nothing word is that?

Writing routines

I haven’t done a post about writing in a while.

Don’t get excited. This isn’t going to be one either. More of a thinking-about-getting-ready-for-writing one. And if you think that sounds like procrastination, it’s juuuust possible you’re on to something there. Nevertheless …

With Baby Duck starting school in a month, I’ve been contemplating the vast amounts of time that are about to open up for me. Well, maybe not that vast, but life will certainly be different. It will be strange and wonderful to have several hours to myself every day. Just thinking about it makes me excited, like Christmas all over again – only without all the shopping. Much better.

I want to establish a routine of writing every day. There’ve been some interesting posts on routines and organisation lately, such as Jeff Abott’s series on the organised writer, starting with this one: The Creative Habit and the Organized Writer. Over at Murderati JT Ellison has written three posts on The Writer’s Life, starting with this one. Both of them enthuse over the Getting Things Done system created by time management guru David Allen, so I bought his book (and a couple of others on time management and decluttering, which for me go hand in hand).

Yes, I’m conscious of the irony in adding to the clutter of my house with more books on decluttering. Still, I figure there are worse things to spend your money on, and they make me keen to get started. Not that getting started on new projects is usually a problem for me. It’s more the finishing I find tricky.

The idea I like best from it all so far is to have one central place to keep all your mental notes to yourself, all the flotsam of daily life – be it work, social, school or writing-related. Getting it all out of your head gets rid of the nagging worry that you’ll forget to send the money to school on the right day, or pay the Visa bill or buy flowers for Great Aunt Desdemona or whatever. And if it’s all written in the same place, whether it’s electronic or paper, you know you’re on top of it all and you can free your mind from the stress of trying to remember all these bits and pieces, and focus on whatever your real tasks are.

I’ve certainly missed my share of deadlines, only to discover the relevant piece of paper at the bottom of a pile on the kitchen bench a week later, so I’m familiar with this vague feeling of unease that I’ve forgotten something. Some things I write on the calendar, but not all, so starting tomorrow my new diary will be getting a workout. Onward and upward and all that. I’ll let you know how it goes.

If anyone else has some good organisational tips, particularly writing-related ones, I’d love to hear them.

I lost three kilos today

Otherwise known as having a haircut. My head, which used to look like a beachball, is now only the size of a tennis ball by comparison. You could have stuffed a serious cushion with the hair that was left behind on the hairdresser’s floor. My hair is ultra short again and I feel so much lighter.

Drama Duck says I look just like her father now. Scary thought. They say that married couples start to resemble each other after a while. (Or is it that people start to look like their dogs? I can never remember.)

Worse still, it’s not just a physical resemblance. I’m even starting to think like him. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

I walked past his car in the carpark on the way to the hairdresser’s. I was seized with the urge to move it – just by a couple of spots. He might not even notice, or he might come back to the car and go “what the??”. I don’t usually think like that, but it’s the kind of thing that occurs to him all the time. I was strong, however, and squashed the evil impulse.

Ten minutes later I’m sitting in the hairdresser’s and he wanders in with a silly grin on his face.

“I thought I’d better tell you in case you panicked,” he says. “I moved your car.”

I tell you, it’s a match made in heaven.

The Painted Man

I mentioned in a recent post that I’d stolen time away from my Nano novel to read The Painted Man by Peter V Brett. If you like fantasy you have to read this. Especially if, like me, you’re sick to death of the run-of-the-mill garden-variety fantasy. As in: farm boy discovers he’s actually the lost heir to the throne/the world’s most powerful magician/saviour of the universe/(d) all of the above, goes on a quest and jaunts around the countryside meeting elves and dwarves, often with a mismatched crew of companions, till the book has been dragged out to sufficiently humungous length. May or may not involve dragons. Or – God forbid! – prophecies.

Or else it’s all kings and princes and constant battles. Sieges galore, political machinations, rise and fall of empires, yada yada yada.

Well, I’ve read a million of ’em, so I’m always desperately searching for something different. I might have missed this one, because a cursory glance had me thinking it was horror and not my cup of tea. I kept seeing the blurb on the Voyager site that begins: “Mankind has ceded the night to the corelings: demons that rise up out of the ground each day at dusk, killing and destroying at will until dawn, when the sun banishes them back to the Core. As darkness falls, the world’s few surviving humans hide behind magical wards, praying that the magic will see them through another night.”

But then I stumbled on Brett’s blog, and found he was a debut author. Reading back through his entries I followed his journey to publication, the bidding wars and overseas sales, and became intrigued. If everyone who read the manuscript wanted to publish it, it must be something special, right? (And besides, he seems like such a nice, regular guy and his baby’s really cute.)

So I read it, and okay, there was a farmboy. But he too, was such a regular guy — so real — that I became engrossed in his story and didn’t even consider till I’d finished the book that it had started with the dreaded farmboy motif. Because this one didn’t have any magnificent lost heritage or amazing hidden powers to make him “special”. He was an ordinary person doing the best he could to face and overcome his fears and by doing so became a true hero. He earned it, instead of having it handed to him on a plate (no “we know you thought you were a lowly scullery lad/farm boy/whatever, but actually you’re the long-lost king’s son – here, have a sword and the hand of the princess”).

The book spends a lot of time developing its main characters, so you feel you really know them. They’re real, not just fantasy stereotypes. They have real problems, involving complex relationships, which build and snowball into bigger problems till they achieve “saving the world” size.

And then there’s the demons. Loved the demons! The whole worldbuilding, with scattered remnants of civilisation, the nightly assaults of the corelings and the wards that hold them at bay, was brilliant. So fresh and original. Not a dragon, elf or dwarf in sight. No magic swords, magicians, embittered mercenaries or royalty, deposed or otherwise. Just the grinding menace night after night, ordinary lives lived in constant fear and the effect that has on individuals and society as a whole.

Great storytelling. It’s one of those books you want to stay up all night to finish because you can’t bear to put it down. Probably not the best choice of reading material when you’re in the middle of Nano. Comparing my ugly first draft to this made me feel even more inadequate than usual. But I can’t wait to see where he takes the story. There were some intriguing developments towards the end that have me hanging out for the next instalment, The Desert Spear. I really hope it lives up to the promise of the first volume. It’s so good to see someone breaking new ground in fantasy.

Now I’ve just got to figure out a way to do it myself!