Tuesday, 30 December 2008

2008 retrospective

As December draws to a close, I can't help but once again reflect on the year that is ending. Unlike 2007, which was a stellar year for me, 2008 has been . . . shall we say no more than average, and my mood is a little melancholy as I write this.

I am going to try, however, to write a constructive post, rather than one which lists all the bad things that happened and all the things I didn't do. Yet I must be honest with myself and acknowledge that, if 2008 is to be labelled a 'dud' year (as I am already doing), then just about the whole of the blame lies with me.

Certainly I embarked upon this year in high spirits, buoyed by the achievements of 2007. And it certainly hasn't all been bad: I have managed regular trips down to Phillip Island, including several writing retreat weekends with various members of my writing group; the kgs have stayed off, despite being sorely tested by the myriad cafes in Elsternwick that enjoy my regular patronage; the home 'driveway community' has come closer together, yielding a secure and warm living environment; I got away to Singapore for a week-long work trip/holiday; and I've spent quality time with my 5.5 year old niece, getting her prepared in my own inexperienced way to start school in Germany imminently.

But I do confess I had to scrounge to write that list. That's the thing about this year. It's been a year of 'I'm going to . . . (renovate bathroom . . . finish redraft of novel . . . read a gazillion books . . . see certain movies . . . get in control of my garden . . .)'. I've allowed myself to be distracted/exhausted by work, and I've probably spent too much time socialising. Yet I also feel as though I haven't seen some of my friends enough. How is that possible?

I dunno. All I know is that I'm going to be more disciplined and focused and in control in 2009. I am not going to let work rule my life, nor am I going to let my weekends slip away into the ether. I am going to achieve stuff.

That's the thing about this annual transition into a new year. As arbitrary as it undoubtedly is, it provides a line in the sand. We can wipe the slate of 2008 clean, shed off all our residual baggage and embark on the new year filled once again with resolve and high spirits.

NOTE: I should perhaps explain that another reason for my melancholy mood is the departure of my sister and her family to Germany yesterday. Although I know I know their three-year adventure will be a wonderful experience, a large, selfish chunk of me will miss them terribly.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Reading goals for 2009

It seems to be an annual undertaking lately that I go through my bookshelf at this time of year. Here's what happened last year, and I repeated the experience today (albeit without any purging).

The thing that has struck me today is how few books I have read this year. I managed to read most of the Page Turners books for 2008, but, aside from those, the only book I have read in entirety is Bright Air by Barry Maitland, who I saw at the Melbourne Writers' Festival in August.

Of the pile beside my bed back in August 2007, I finished The Golden Fool by Robin Hobb this year (in addition to Freakonomics the Page Turners book), but aside from that made no dent whatsoever. The other book I have been reading for months now is Kushiel's Scion, by Jacqeline Carey. I just can't seem to finish it.

This seems to me a tragedy, particularly when you take into the account the thousands of books in the world waiting to be read. I have about a shelf's worth in my living room. Some of them I came across again today and I wonder what happened to the person who could churn through a book a week. And then there are all the books recommended by others. These days I get alternately excited and daunted when someone describes a book that I want to read. (Or, worse, wants to lend me a book.)

So here are the books (in excess of any Page Turners books) I want to read in 2009. I'll keep the list short to give me the greatest chance of success. Let's consider it a goal/new years resolution:
> The Shadow of the Wind
> Possession
> Atonement

In addition to these, I would like to ideally finish the books in the pile beside my bed!

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Christmas movie

The night before the night before Christmas I sat down and watched one of my favourite Christmas movies -- While you were sleeping. It's a girly flick that's as much about family as anything. A big warm-hearted family that embraces a lonely girl at Christmas. Of course they think she's engaged to their son who's in a coma, but not all families would go to the lengths to which they go to make her feel part of the family. Right down to giving her a present and hanging a Christmas stocking with her name on it. It seemed really fitting to watch this movie tonight!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Midsummer

Today was the Summer solstice. The longest day of the year (in the Southern Hemisphere). As usual I celebrated with friends with a picnic in the park last night. We've not had the most summery weather of late, but Melbourne did manage to turn on some sunshine and, although the evening was a bit cool, the temperature held for long enough.

This year our picnic was in a park just around the corner from a pizza restaurant, so a few of us cut some catering corners. We sprawled around on rugs and had a few drinks, enjoyed some nibbles, and ended up back in the pizza restaurant for coffee and chocolate mousse.

It's hard to believe that the days will all start getting shorter again from here. It feels as though Summer hasn't even started yet.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Introduction to the Green Fairy


Friday evening. Exhausted, drained from a tough week of work. In need of relaxation, socialisation. What better solution than an evening with good friends, sampling various different types of absinthe for the purpose of 'research'?

I had never tried absinthe before, and was completely ignorant of its history and the various rituals associated with its consumption. Fortunately, our host was an experienced absinthe drinker, and had all the implements -- right down to the slotted spoon. Check out this Wikipedia entry on absinthe for all the details.

Put simply, however, absinthe is a spirit of up to 70% proof, flavoured with anise and other herbs, including fennel and wormwood (artemisia absinthium). The traditional way to drink it is to mix it with iced water poured through a sugar cube placed on a specially slotted spoon. The mixture clouds (looking rather like aspirin) and the flavours are brought out.

The other way to drink it is to torch an absinthe-soaked sugar cube until the sugar caramelises and then mix this into the spirit straight. It's like breathing fire.

The evening was conceived by our host, who is to write a magazine column about absinthe (also known commonly as the Green Fairy) and needed to sample some different blends. She had some sample bottles provided by a specialty shop, plus an entire bottle. With some anticipation, five of us gathered around the dining table and commenced the ritual.

We tried four different absinthes in all, passing each glass around the table, for the stuff is seriously expensive and very alcoholic. These are the ones we tried:

Mansinthe -- partially designed by Marilyn Manson, winner of many medals. We judged this one excellent.

Nouvelle Orleans
-- This one was harsher, with a not so nice aftertaste. I don't think we liked this one so much.

Duplais Blanche -- I thought this was quite similar to the Mansinthe, but I don't think my palette's too discerning.

Verte de Fougerolles -- We sampled this the most, because we had the whole bottle. Again, I couldn't really pick the difference, but I liked it. (Er . . . I don't mean we drank the whole bottle!)

We tried most of these with either sugar or a syrup called 'sirop de gomme' -- orange blossom syrup -- deciding that the sugar was best. We also compared the traditional 'mix with water' style with the 'flaming sugar' style and decided we rather preferred the latter. But we were only taking really small sips, and I probably agree that the traditional method works better as a drink.

As we sampled and talked and ate (it must be said) we also viewed a series of images inspired by absinthe over the years. Some were advertisements for various different brands, others paintings by artists of the day, others anti-absinthe propaganda or anti-anti-absinthe propaganda. I've included a few here, since they are very interesting.

It was a lovely evening. And now that I read on the Wikipedia site that absinthe was embraced by the Parisian bohemian set (artists and writers), it feels all the more fitting that we, a bunch of writers, spent an evening in this way.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Lament

For the past fortnight, I've walked to work only once. How bad is that? It has arrived at the stage where I'm working so late and am so mentally drained that the mere thought of a 3.5+km walk home at the end of the day is just too daunting. And in the mornings, I'm clutching at that extra 20mins of sleep.

It's got to stop. This is high summer, for heaven's sake, the time of year when the evenings are long and supposedly balmy. Walking to and from work is supposed to be a joy. In another week, we have the summer solstice and the midsummer celebration!

Unfortunately, work is just not letting up and is sapping my soul. My only salvation is dragging myself out to cafes and restaurants for many meals, which is some consolation -- but not a substitute for walking and writing!

Don't let me get started on my lack of writing.

I have just one more week of work to go until a two-week 'break'. I am counting down the days. It won't be a true break, because I've already figured out that I'll have to do 3-4 days work in order to get some stuff out of the way -- stuff I know I won't have the head space to do in January. This makes me furious and frustrated, but it's got to be done. I will probably pick one or two days in the week before Christmas, and then another the following week. Maybe another two.

It makes me feel sick just to contemplate it.

Monday, 8 December 2008

The magic faraway tree

After six years of living in my house, I am getting to know the neighbours. It actually started a year ago, when I was dragged outside for Christmas drinks. I should explain that I live at the end of a driveway shared by eight units. My neighbours at the back are social creatures and it was they who introduced me to most of the other residents, some of whom I'd never even laid eyes on until that cheery evening a year ago.

I still can't quite fathom how that can happen. Some had lived in my driveway for over two years before I met them, and I encounter their cats nearly every day. But so rarely do I actually see anybody except for my fellow rear-dwellers.

Anyway, after being introduced last Christmas, and finding the driveway residents a friendly bunch, I have encountered them a few times over the past year -- so now I can wave and stop for a quick chat from time to time. But it's still amazing how infrequent such meetings are, considering how often I'm up and down that driveway.

It all ramped up a notch recently, because we had a driveway Christmas party on the weekend. This was a full-on social event, complete with a Kris Kringle gift exchange, visit from Santa (for the kids), Christmas tree and fully laid table. I was assigned a dessert (nice and safe) while the 'core' driveway social group took care of just about everything else.

We had a great evening. It's rather convenient to attend a party where you can zip off home to get a jacket or grab another bottle of wine and be back in half a minute. I found it amusing that my presence was so marvelled upon (you see, I really have been out of the loop!) but in a good way. Some of the guys I knew very little, so it's excellent to be on better terms with everyone.

A particularly amusing moment was when I was asked whether I go up and down the driveway much! Er . . . yes . . . I walk to work 3 or 4 times a week and on the weekends, there's all that cafe hopping!

I remember when I first moved in here, the average resident age was considerably older than me and everyone kept to themselves, but that's definitely changed. Our driveway now plays host to a vibrant community of friendly kindred spirits who can be found sharing a drink more often than not, and who step in to feed cats or fish when people go away.

It's epitomised really by the sight that greeted me when I returned home from brunch yesterday: a picnic table had been set up down the end of the driveway, right in the centre. Laid upon it were all the leftovers, and seated around it were representatives from 3 out of 8 units, swilling the remnants of the previous night's wine. There was a spare seat conveniently vacant, so I joined them!

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Devilcat'seye


I took Chenna to the animal eye specialist again a couple of weeks ago. There seems to be no change in her condition, but this time they did send me this photo of her mysterious left eye that has changed colour. Basically it's just a monitoring game now, with another consultation in 4 months. The eye specialists keep talking about taking the eye out, and I can see they're torn between playing it safe and not wanting to rip out the eye unnecessarily. I confess it's rather overwhelming.

Some more light entertainment

After a break of more than a week and half, it's hard to know where to start with blogging! I feel that anyone who bothers to read this blog deserves something interesting, rather than another moan about how exhausted and busy I've been. Consequently, while I get my act together, I've decided to post another brain teaser (or two)!

Bells
It takes Quasimodo, the bell-ringer of Paris's Notre Dame cathedral, 3 seconds to ring 4 o'clock. How long will it take him to ring midday?

Water in the wine
You have two completely identical tankards; one contains 150ml wine, the other 150ml water. You take a spoonful of liquid from the tankard of water, empty it into the tankard of wine and mix it in well. The, using the same spoon, you take a spoonful of this mixture and empty it back into the first tankard of water. Thus each tankard once again contains 150ml of liquid. Is there more water int eh wine, or more wine in the water?

They're not too difficult really. Answers tomorrow (I hope).

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Nearest book project

This looks fun!

Rules:
* Grab the book nearest you. Right now.
* Turn to page 56.
* Find the fifth sentence.
* Post that sentence as a comment then repost these instructions in a note to your facebook wall (or blog!).
* Don't dig for your favorite book, the coolest, the most intellectual. Use the CLOSEST.

OK, so the nearest book to me right now is in a bookshelf with many other books, so I have a choice within reason!

I've chosen Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion: "Try one and see why artichoke devotees feast on these thistles each spring with such enthusiasm."

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Moan

Here we are a week after setting goals, and guess how many words I've written -- none. Very disappointing. Too many things on. Too tired. Pathetic.

It's fairly intense for me at work at the moment, with new responsibilities that I'm having to adjust to. I'm finding this is sapping most of my energy, so that in the evenings I'm pretty much dead. As for getting up in the morning . . . well, let's just say that early mornings of writing are not in any danger of happening. Even the weekends are proving a challenge. It seems easier to enjoy the local cafes and get the house under control, than get creative.

So for now I guess I'll bide time until I can get my rhythm going again. And find my energy. Hopefully some good, upbeat news soon.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Brain teaser


This is the start of a new series of mind puzzles, shamelessly lifted from a book I bought recently. See how you go with this one, which is the first in the book.

Love potion
Merlin has to make a love potion for King Arthur. According to his book of spells, he needs 4 litres of 'oil of toad'. To measure this out, the wizard only has two unmarked pots -- one that holds 5 litres, the other 3 litres. How can he measure out 4 litres?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Setting goals

Spent today with my writing group again. Several of us seemed to be floundering somewhat, so I decided we should each set some goals that we need to achieve by our next 'meeting' (December 20).

This was met with some reluctance by one of us (she who was not floundering). This person is currently participating in a modified NaNoWriMo (50,000 new words in a month), writes every day, and always has multiple projects on the go. Clearly she has no need of goals, so she's off the hook.

Well, I'm not so lucky -- or maybe committed, or organised, or whatever. It's been hard for me to maintain any momentum of late. I think I've been going out too much. And work is making me tired. So I've set myself the goal of 6,000 words in the next month. That's only 1500 words each week. (Actually, I have 5 weeks, so should make the target 7,500 words!) Should be a piece of cake.

To achieve this, however, I will need to get back into the rewrite. At the moment, I open the file, stare at the screen, and an immense weariness encompasses me. My mind screams and sends me off to watch TV instead. So I need to recalibrate. The first step will be cleaning out my study, which is very cluttered at present. I truly think it is affecting my ability to focus. It's sending out bad vibes. It's pathetic, but I know that once the kipple is gone, my mind will be clear and I will be able to think again. That's tomorrow's project. (And, yes, this is a familiar cycle for me. You'd think I'd learn to keep my study CLEAR!)

Others' goals included having to finish a novel rewrite, decide which novel to submit to a publisher and submit it, and decide whether or not to a) write 10 publishable short stories in 2009, or b) spend 1-5 years writing a novel that might never be published.

So that's where we're at. Let's see how we go.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Movie: The Women

Saw the movie The Women tonight. It was OK -- entertaining enough, but not earth-shattering. It seems to me that Meg Ryan pretty much always plays Meg Ryan, which is endearing, but same-old.

It's basically a movie about the importance of female friendships, and how women should be true to themselves, and not lose their identity in the shadow of spouses. In fact, there's not a male to be seen anywhere in the movie. Storylines involving male characters (such as the main storyline of a cheating husband) evolve through the female characters that are affected -- wife, lover, best friend, daughter, housekeeper and nanny. This was an interesting angle, one evidently also taken by the original 1939 film of the same name. (Although I bet the 1939 version didn't have the token lesbian character that seems to be popping up everywhere. As one of the characters in the film puts it: half of New York seems to be lesbian these days!)

I think I might have liked it more if the women were not for the most part glamourous, wealthy society gals in New York. Why not tell a story about women who make up the bulk of society -- everyday women with boring jobs (as opposed to fashion editors, fashion designers, writers)? Also, the characters were all fairly two-dimensional, facing the same old moral and personal dilemmas. It really didn't break any new ground.

Probably the best part of the evening was the foray to a new restaurant, 'After the Tears', a Polish vodka bar next door to the cinema. We had some Polish tapas (yum) and chocolate crepes for dessert with coffee. All this on a balmy night at an outdoor table. Very enjoyable indeed.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Page turners: Parentonomics

I'm running a bit behind with Page Turners posts. We read Parentonomics by Joshua Gans, a friend of mine and husband of one our group members, in September and discussed at our October meeting. I've delayed posting because I haven't quite finished the book. Somewhat unusually for me, I'm still reading it after the discussion. However, we had the second half of our discussion at last week's meeting, so it seems appropriate to post about it now. ( . . . Before I get into posting about the next book!)

Parentonomics is subtitled "An economist dad's parenting experiences" and is exactly that. Joshua is an economics professor at Melbourne Business School who has found himself applying many fundamental economics principles -- mainly in the form of incentive schemes -- in the rearing of his three children. He has a blog called game theorist (musings on economics and child rearing) which I understand has a large following, and it is this which generated the material for the book.

Not being a parent, I'm not a follower of the game theorist blog, although on the occasions I've visited I've found it an interesting and entertaining read. Parentonomics of course picks out all the best bits. Joshua has arranged hundreds of anecdotes, derived from both his own parenting experience and his wide reading, into themed sections and chapters that deal with issues such as toilet training, discipline, and even children's parties. His writing style is easy to read, humorous and insightful, while the way he (and in many cases his children) thinks is fascinating. I admit that knowing the family probably makes it more meaningful, but I think this is a book that most parents would enjoy. Joshua dwells on both the successes and failures of his economic gambits.

Our first group discussion was over a month ago now and I don't recall much of it. I think we found ourselves dwelling on our own childhoods and how they compared with Joshua's kids', and that we discussed whether there might be a long-term impact of raising kids using incentive schemes. Without exception, we all enjoyed reading the book, even those of us without kids.

At our most recent discussion, we went through some questions that N, "the children's mother", had put together. (She intentionally wasn't present at our first discussion.):

1. Did you find reading the book voyeuristic? If so, was it because you knew (some of) the characters?
Most of us present said that in a few parts, but not many, we had felt a little voyeuristic, but only because we knew the characters. The most notable for me were incidents related to childbirth. Othertimes I felt like I was getting to know the family even better.

2. Did the fact that none of the characters are named (other than the author) bother you, or interfere with the flow of the stories?
We all said no I think. In principle this is true, although I think that Joshua wasn't always consistent with his pseudonyms, which probably bothered me a little bit. We commented that N was always "the children's mother" instead of his wife, which we found interesting.

3. Do you think you learnt anything about economics?
Yes, a little. I think I always considered economics to be about $$ and money markets, but in fact money is just one kind of incentive.

4. Did you learn anything about parenting?
Reading about parenting experiences is bound to introduce new aspects of parenting I hadn't before considered. Parenting is hard (from all accounts) and it's not surprising that everyone tries different methods. Parentonomics introduces a different perspective that might work with some children, but probably not all.

5. Have you thought about what a sociological equivalent to the book would be like?
I believe we agreed that there were many such books out there.

6. Do you think it's inappropriate for an economist to publish a book about parenting, about which he is technically not qualified?
Joshua makes clear right at the beginning that this is not an advice book, and that his experiences are his alone. There is no law that says one has to be qualified to publish a book. So long as there are people out there who want to read it, and a publisher who wants to publish it, it's fine!

7. Did the combination of stories about the authors children interspersed with his research work well as a narrative?
I thought so. However, I think most of us said the anecdotes about his kids were the most entertaining and interesting. I made the comment that I felt the book owed a lot to the personalities of the first two children, and the eldest in particular. Maybe it's just the slant Joshua casts upon them, but the way they think and act seems remarkable. But perhaps all kids are remarkable but it's not documented! (I understand child #3, who was very young for much of the time covered by this book, will be featured much more prominently should there be a sequel!)

8. For those who don't have children: did you find it difficult to relate to the stories?
We said no, we had all been kids once and many of us had nieces and nephews. As I said before, we spent considerable time at the original meeting reminiscing about our own childhoods.

To sum up, it was an interesting experience reading and discussing a book written by someone I know socially (as opposed to knowing someone from the SF community). Especially something that boils down to a fairly personal account of family life. There's some intriguing stuff in there. And some smart kids.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Wine in abundance (a plug for Wine Selectors)

Yesterday I returned home to find four cases of wine at my back door. How marvellous! Three were there because I had ordered them. The fourth was my second of two automatic allotments for the year. I confess I hadn't expected it to arrive at the same time.

So what did I order? Well, I'm stocking up for Summer. There's a case of mixed Rose, a case of mixed sparkling red and three bottles (OK, so it's not quite a case, but it's in its own box!) of sticky whites. The fourth is a case of mixed reds, which is what I usually get.

As a result of all this, I'm swimming in bottles of wine at present -- not necessarily a bad thing. It's Friday evening after all. In the face of such abundance, I naturally cracked one open to drink (a Cab Sav).

I should add that I ordered all this from my wonderful wine club, Wine Selectors, which I utterly recommend. The club has a tasting panel to put together fabulous mixed cases at extremely reasonable prices. My 'wine plan' delivers typically four mixed red cases a year, each containing wines from a particular region (somehow I convinced them to send me two per year instead of four). I'm billed automatically for these regional series cases, plus can order at will from catalogues and e-mail newsletters with special deals. I've found this is a good mix. I always have plenty of excellent red that arrives automatically, plus can supplement with whatever takes my fancy.

And the best thing is that I never have to go to a bottleshop and stare despairingly at row upon row of wine. I always have it in the cupboard -- and it's all excellent.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Four days, four cafes . . .

Had a great four days down at the island, with a focus on both literary and culinary pursuits. An interesting development was the reading of my complete manuscript by one of my friends, Kath, who's seen bits and pieces of the story since the beginning. Anyway, she was keen to read the latest rewritten section and offer comment -- which she did -- but then she somehow convinced me to let her read the rest of it. Right to the end. Rough and raw with scribble all over it. Terrible stuff, all of it. The first person other than me to actually get to the [ENDS].

This was, as you might imagine, rather daunting for me, mainly because it needs so much work. I am focusing on adding layers of texture as well as tightening the plot and deepening characters, so to have someone read the 'crap stuff' was not what I had in mind. But she caught me in a weak moment -- it's so nice to have someone actually read the material that I've slaved over, even if they read it about 100 times faster than I can write it -- and I relented. This allowed us to have some discussions about where the whole thing is going (is it a trilogy?) and how the rewrite of this book at least is going to pan out.

So now I have more of an idea of where a potential sequel and even a third might head, and I feel excited by the prospect of exploring these characters further and making sure they get their full journey.

I managed to do some actual writing, but not a huge amount, primarily because we were too busy exploring the culinary offerings of Cowes. Day 1, three of us went out to breakfast to a cafe called Mad Cowes, where I had my usual poached eggs with spinach, mushrooms & grilled tomato. This is my standard 'healthy' breakfast, made a little less healthy but very yummy by dollops of basil pesto on the grilled tomatoes. And coffee of course.

Day 2, Kath left us and Sarah and I went to the Phillip Island Food store for lunch. This is, I reckon, the island's best kept secret. It's in the heart of the main Cowes shops, near Coles, and specialises in gourmet food cooked on the premises. I've heard its lemon tarts are widely sought-after for entertaining, and the rest of their cakes and salads look amazing. Anyway, we had homemade enchiladas with Greek salad. Absolutely divine, with naughty, mouth-watering flaky pastry. We topped it off with a shared slice of the famous lemon tart with coffee. The cafe is complemented by a gourmet grocery section, which sells local wines, fancy cheeses, plus top-shelf gourmet teas, pastas, olive oil etc. Very chic.

Day 3, and Sarah and I ventured out to Silverleaves General Store and Cafe, which required us to get in the car. This is an old-style cafe, also serving food cooked on the premises, specialising in old-style food, like devonshire teas and ploughman's platters. We had afternoon tea, hence shared a serving of scones with raspberry jam and whipped cream. Lovely. There are also some grocery sections, selling wines and preserves etc.

Day 4, and our last day, so we decided to make the most of it. We ventured to Infused, surely the most upmarket restaurant in Cowes. Its lunches are in the same style as its dinners -- very upmarket indeed, but we threw caution to the wind and enjoyed ourselves. We decided to order in the 'tapas' style, ie multiple entrees to share. This allowed us to have a little bit of a few different delectable dishes: olive bread with olive tapenade and mushroom-stuffed roasted capsicum; steamed spring-onion dumplings with chili jam; rocket, pear, feta and olive salad; salt & pepper squid with pear and ginger salad. Each dish was superb, accompanied by a glass of pinot noir on my part, and beer on Sarah's. We sat out in the sunshine at a rustic picnic-table, eating this amazing food. A fabulous way to end the weekend.

So now I am home and back down to earth. Chenna is pleased to be home, since she can now go outside again, but I can't help thinking it would have been nice to stay down at the island for just a little longer!

Friday, 31 October 2008

Getting away again

Planning to get back into it this weekend with a four-day trip down to the island. But it won't be strictly writing - oh no! This time, there will be many walks and much socialising with my non-writing friends who are accompanying me. How will I get writing done? Well, they can always read books, can't they?

And anyway, if I don't get any writing done, it won't matter, because that'll mean I've gone for almost four days without sitting at a computer! That can only be healthy.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

This is what I wake up to every morning . . .



This is absolutely brilliant -- and Chenna to the tips of her cute white whiskers.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Tough talk

Another weekend, no words. In fact, another week, no words. How easy it is to lose momentum! Too much socialising and sitting in cafes/restaurants. Too much Facebook and those seductive word games of Scrabble and wordscraper. Too much TV. (The preceding week of Veronica Mars season 3 began the rot.)

I have a weekend at the island coming up, and I hope to reimmerse myself enough to resume early morning (pre-work) writing sessions. I need to set myself some goals. I need to set myself some deadlines. I need to consciously reprioritise. November is NaNoWri Mo (national novel writers month - in the USA) and although I won't be attempting the 50,000 word novel in four weeks, I will make sure that I don't continue to drift as I have been the past few weeks.

Friday, 24 October 2008

movie: Titanic


The most recent version of Titanic the movie -- Titanic the mega-movie -- has copped a lot of flack over the years, primarily for its schmaltzy soundtrack and love story. But I think its criticisers have missed the point.

The movie is not about Leonardo and Kate at all. It's so much bigger. It's the story of a ship -- a magnificent feat of engineering for the time. It's a story about human arrogance and bravery and selfishness and selflessness. It's about seizing the moment and making every second count. It's about how people act under extreme pressure. It's about individual acts of heroism.

Leonardo and Kate are only there to tie the whole thing together. 'Rich girl meets poor boy' allowed the movie to explore the massive class element on Titanic. First class passengers enjoyed fine china, private promenade decks, cigars and brandy. Steerage class, on the other hand, slept four to a cabin and weren't allowed to enter certain parts of the ship. The story of Jack and Rose is merely a symbol.

There are so many scenes that make me feel extremely emotional, and not one of them is about L&K. There's the scene I'm watching now, when the string quartet, playing on the deck of the sinking ship disband and then one by one come back to play that famous song (??), while individuals show acts of heroism -- Fabricio the Italian cutting the ropes of one of the lifeboats, a mother reading her children to sleep as the room fills with water, Mr Andrews, the ship's designer, standing on his own, setting a clock to the time the ships goes down.

But as much as anything, it's about the ship. My favourite scene is early on in the film, when the captain says: "let's stretch her legs", and the command goes down to the engine room, where massive pistons pump up and down, and then the command is rung further down to the boiler room, where tens of poor souls shovel coal into the furnaces. And then there's the scene where the great propeller is raised up out of the water as the ship tilts to an almost impossible angle. Before breaking in half and sliding to the bottom of the ocean.

It's an amazing movie. I believe I saw it three times in the cinema. But in many ways it's been a guilty pleasure. In fact, I think I might have persuaded myself to believe the negative hype. But tonight I've watched it for the first time in years, and from the moment it first started rolling, I remembered everything I loved about it. And I don't even mind the Jack and Rose storyline.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Still an Icebreaker addict


Snowgum's annual warehouse sale commenced today with a special "members night". Icebreakers 40% off!

One thing I definitely needed was new casual shoes that will do for walking to work. I have worn through the soles of my fabulous red Timberland runners, so I have a feeling that any day now they will fall apart. The sale catalogue included some Merrill casual runners, so I attended tonight's warehouse sale with clear intentions.

Icebreakers 40% off!

I found the shoes and they looked great and seemed ideal. I also found another pair of nubuck walking baby janes in a charcoal grey. Very stylish and comfortable. I walked around in both pairs (not at the same time) and convinced myself that both were needed.

But I couldn't of course ignore the fact that Icebreakers were 40% off!

I went to the Icebreaker rack first and grabbed about eight tops in five minutes flat -- to be tried on and evaluated. I carted these around while I chose shoes, then we found en empty fitting room and I tried all 8 tops on. Every one looked fabulous, but of course I couldn't buy them all. So I settled for four.

But it didn't stop there. There was a small selection of kids' Icebreakers on the rack as well, so I had more decisions to make. In the end we decided it was rather extravagant to purchase an Icebreaker for a newborn (currently 2.5 weeks old) -- no matter that he will be approaching one next winter. However, with two nieces about to be transported to Germany for a European winter, Icebreakers could be justified as Christmas presents. I was sorry not to find something on sale for my nephew. But I know where the Icebreakers live!

In all, I purchased a grand total of SIX Icebreakers this evening! A fairly impressive effort.


Saturday, 18 October 2008

Brainstorming over brunch

Had 'brunch' with my writing group again today. It was a gorgeous warm spring day, and our cafe had new stuff on the menu. Bliss! Our conversation ranged widely, and I can't remember half the stuff we discussed, but one particular achievement was solving a logic/timeline problem experienced by one of us in her novel.

This is just the kind of thing I hoped we would do when we started meeting for brunch, ostensibly to discuss novels and novel writing. Someone has a problem, lays it out, and we put our collective brains to work on it. By brainstorming the issue, it no longer seems insurmountable, and we gain new perspective on how to tackle things.

I think to-date we've all been a bit shy when it comes to discussing our works in progress in detail. However, since the long weekend we had down at Phillip Island, when most of us shared our first chapters and we discussed how well they were working, we at least have insight into what each of us writing. Without having already experienced the opening chapter of the novel in question (we made the author read it out to us one evening), we might not have had enough knowledge of the story to be helpful. As it was, we instantly grasped the problem and managed to come up with some ideas to help solve it.

I think we need to deploy the hive brain more often to assist with novel challenges, whether plot, character, or setting related etc. It's a powerful force and we should make the most of it.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

From the deck!

Last week it was the massive deck down at Phillip Island with a Brown Brothers orange muscat. Right now, it's my own little deck at home with a gin & tonic. This is the first time since I've had a wireless router at home that it's been warm enough and pleasant enough to migrate out here, and isn't it fantastic? There're still a couple of hours of daylight left, and if the mozzies don't get me, I plan to sit here for a bit and perhaps write.

I've spent all afternoon on a story for work -- a terrible way to spend a sunny Sunday! Chenna has been keeping me company though, sleeping in the most unlikely of places all over a bunch of cables, with her head on the power source. Can't be good for her or the power source. And until a moment ago, she was sprawled out on the outdoor table, where I'm sitting just now. Very companionable.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

It takes sense to use scents

As writers, we are told repeatedly to use all five senses to convey setting. Although most readers wouldn't even notice, the presence of all five senses helps engage them and make them feel more part of the action.

By far the most common sense used in scene setting 'descriptions' is sight. Visualisation happens first -- colour, form, size -- and from visual descriptions, most readers can imagine what a scene looks like, and some can even 'play' the scene in their head like a movie in the mind.

But what about the other senses -- hearing, touch, smell and taste? Hearing is the next easiest to use, I think. It's relatively easy to throw in some birds chirping, or a baby crying, or people laughing etc. Touch too is fairly straightforward; you can use temperature, texture, hardness/softness etc to add dimension. With both these senses, the challenge is not to use the same sounds and textures repeatedly, and to instead ensure that they are specific and original (unlike my examples!).

Which brings me to smell and taste -- the most difficult in my view. Not only are they challenging to call up (for reasons I'll come to in a moment), but they are challenging to implement subtly and successfully. It's very easy for the use of these senses to appear self-conscious in narrative. I've read novels where the author seems to be working through a checklist: have I used sight? (of course, yawn); any sounds? (too easy); what about touch? (yep), smell? (check!), taste? (I'm working on it . . .).

So why is it so difficult? Here is a theory I came up with recently. I think the reason is that our senses of smell and taste (aside from when we're eating) are simply not used as often. I suppose it could just be me, but I don't actually use smell or taste much to engage with my surroundings. Most of the time I don't smell or taste anything at all.

I experimented with this as I walked home last night. I focused on smelling my surroundings. And most of the time I didn't smell anything. My sight and hearing never ceased (the latter despite the music blaring from headphones), but most of the time I smelt nothing. It was only when I walked through a cloud of scent left by a passing woman, or I encountered a jasmine bush or an open garbage bin, that I smelt anything good or bad.

Consequently I now believe that smell (and taste) should be used as an 'accent' sense, to be deployed strategically in narrative for maximum impact. For isn't that the wonderful thing about brushing against a mint or rosemary bush? The scent smacks you in the face. And while I'm not advocating that the use of smells or tastes should stand out in narrative, their power should perhaps be reserved for the scenes where added setting impact is warranted, for they sure do pack a punch.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

When does an edit become a rewrite (or vice versa)?

Now that I'm into the second part of my novel rewrite (i.e. 'Act 2') I'm finding there's quite a high proportion of material that's to be retained. Or at least I plan to retain it at this stage . . .

It's an interesting process. At the end of the previous complete draft I spent quite some time going through scene by scene, making a judgement as to which scenes needed to be deleted, which edited, which rewritten, and also some to be inserted as well. I knew Act 1 required quite a deal of rewriting and new scenes, because the setup is so very important. Even so, I believe I've rewritten more than I originally intended. It will be interesting to see what happens with Act 2, where much of it was deemed OK upon first consideration.

The tricky thing is this: On the face of it, an existing scene may read really well. It may convey essential ideas, setting, backstory etc. But what happens when you change the scene preceding it? Suddenly, your characters are in a different place emotionally and possibly in other ways as well. So you need to carefully retrofit these moods & thoughts & repercussions into what's already there. But if you're already more or less happy with what's there . . . the whole thing can fall apart. Or else you kid yourself that maybe X wouldn't be dwelling on a specific event just then and so you ignore it. (And in many cases this would be true!)

When you're writing as sporadically as I am, it's very easy to 'forget' where your character is emotionally. This is why I always read back over what I was last writing, rather than launch straight into new words. I have to get back to the right emotional place. Plus in addition to emotion there are so many other things to keep track of: adornments and accessories, knowledge gained and mulled over, rising conflict . . . so many issues! This is one reason why I think I have a tendency to rewrite more than I intend. That, and I always find myself second-guessing the quality and appropriateness of the existing scenes. Surely I could do a better job if I rewrote it in such a way? I find it hard to judge sometimes just how 'right' a certain scene is.

When does an edit become a rewrite? I find this an interesting question, because so often I slip from one to the other without really noticing. There's a 'place' where you start with a scene, retain/edit large chunks/sections at a time, while simultaneously writing new chunks to replace the chunks that have been deleted. I honestly don't know if that's a rewrite or an edit.

In any case, although I invariably think such a modification ends up better now, who's to say I won't come back to it in another few years and think it's rubbish? It would be so much better if I rewrote it this way . . .

I guess you just have to keep going and make sure that the story feels right. So if an edit slips into a rewrite, you just go with it. In the end it must be better. Mustn't it?

Monday, 6 October 2008

New arrival

We have another addition to the family! My sister (M) and her husband (M) have had a baby boy (D)! Born on Saturday morning, baby weighed 7 pounds 5 ounces in the old scale, and is absolutely beautiful.

Being away for the weekend, I didn't get in to meet my new nephew until last night, but at least I got a cuddle. So far I have seen him asleep. There was a brief period yesterday evening when he seemed marginally awake and even had his eyes open a little bit, but then he went to sleep again. So far there's speculation that he might have inherited his father's curly black hair!

M&M&D are all doing well.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Chocolate & cheese (A tale of retreat)


I've just come back from a fabulous weekend at Phillip Island, spent with three other members of my writers group. Amusingly, there were several non-writing themes associated with the weekend:

> chocolate, cheese & avo toast
> I want what she's got (aka the cloning of Kirstyn)
> Show me the motorbikes

Ostensibly it was a writing retreat, but with four of us in residence, there was much scope for diversion. The first theme pertains obviously to eating. I believe we toned things down compared with the five-day retreat in August, but we did manage to ingest three entire blocks of chocolate and a massive chocolate cake between four of us over little more than 1.5 days. Add to that a decadent cheese platter, numerous mohito cocktails, plus bottles of Shiraz and a Brown Brothers Orange Muscat & Flora, and it's hard to see exactly where the improvement lay! Nevertheless, we managed to munch through a couple of fruit platters and many slices of avo toast in an attempt to offset the evil.

Kirstyn was entirely to blame for the second theme. I really cannot be held accountable for coveting her possessions, when she flaunts them so shamelessly. If it wasn't enough that she worked all weekend on an Asus Eee computer (I seriously am going to get one of them!), she also brought down her new Zen alarm clock. This is a rather impressive instrument that incorporates a metallic tube that is struck by a small hammer to issue a single note (E). The idea is that you set it for ten minutes before you want to get up, and it strikes the tube with increasing regularity, thereby waking you gently and peacefully. It is only available from Now & Zen in the USA.

Finally, we were very aware of the motorbikes all weekend, given that it was the Phillip Island moto GP. However, they were far fewer than we expected, and we successfully avoided all the traffic, both going down and returning. It did mean that we returned probably a couple of hours earlier than we would have liked, which was made all the worse by the lost hour due to the transition to Daylight Saving, but at least we didn't get stuck in 2-hour traffic jams. (Interestingly, on our way home we passed multitudes of people out with picnics to catch the homebound procession!)

Most importantly, we all got lots of writing done. I spent the weekend on the first chapter of "Act 2" of the rewrite, which is a chapter I've been looking forward to writing for a long time. In total I got about 3000 words done, which is a fantastic return for me. It's just so wonderful to be able to get away from home to focus on writing. Somehow, when I stay home, even if I plan to write, there are so many other things to get in the way. We spent much of today with computers out on the balcony, which was just lovely.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Retreating again

This weekend a group of us writers are going back down to the island for another retreat. Really looking forward to more drinks and computers on the balcony . . . we are going down tonight and back on Sunday night. Can't wait!

Monday, 29 September 2008

Wine tip


I came across an interesting article just now. It's about how to choose which wine to drink if you're watching calories.

One fact in particular I found very interesting:

If you like red wine
Think geographically. As grapes ripen, sugar is created and either turns into alcohol or remains in the wine. So, choose cooler countries of origin, where the grapes contain less sugar and the wine less alcohol.

Avoid wine varieties grown in warmer climates as they have higher concentrations of natural sugars, so opt for colder climate reds like South Australian shiraz or Tasmanian pinot noir. As a general rule, a shiraz grown in South Australia will have a slightly lower sugar content than a shiraz grown in the Hunter Valley.

Don't you think that's interesting?

Friday, 26 September 2008

writing in cafes

I could have done with an Asus Eee this evening. I was scheduled to meet a friend after work, but found myself running about an hour and half early. Perfect opportunity to go sit in my favourite cafe and write for a bit. Only I didn't have an Asus Eee, or even a paper notebook.

Fortunately, there's an Officeworks nearby, so I went in there and bought a paper pad and some pens and went into the cafe. (The one where they know me!) One cocktail and most of a glass of wine later, I had handwritten the first part of Act 2.

It was lucky that I spent yesterday evening reading over the existing draft of these chapters, and this morning's walk to work mulling over a possible opening to the scene. Not that I expect to use much of what I wrote this evening verbatim, but some of it will surely be useful.

It was such an enjoyable experience that it has firmed my resolve to investigate Asus Eees with greater vigour. After all, there are many times on a weekend where I feel as though I need to get out of the house to grab a coffee. For the first time I'm beginning to believe I actually might use a mini notebook computer for writing in cafes.

It was probably a good thing that the Officeworks where I went didn't happen to sell the Asus Eee.

In the meantime, however, writing by hand was productive, once I got into the swing of it. At first it was awful, because I'm so used to being able to edit as I go, and this made me reluctant to put any words down in case they were 'wrong'. But I got past that soon enough and found it quite librating. I found I started to care less about the pretty sentences and more about the ideas I was trying to get across. I didn't worry if I was using fragments, so long as the gist was there. I'm starting to think I should write by hand more often, to try to break myself of a tendency to be too precious about what I write. Maybe it will all come more easily if I 'let go'.

Maybe there's merit in holding off from buying an Asus to instead explore writing the old-fashioned way.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Closing the first act

Tonight I have finally reached "the end" of what I'm calling "Act 1" of my rewrite. It's taken longer than I planned. Much longer. And it's not even the end, really, because I feel as though I need to read through it to fix the rough edges. I know there are plenty of these -- things I've raised and then forgotten about. The irony is that most of these are things I was supposed to be addressing in the rewrite! How could I have forgotten them? (Well, not so much forgotten as let slip . . .) There are so many damn things to remember when writing a novel. It's a bit hard to keep a handle on it all. The good news is that it's only one of my character lines that feels a bit rough. It's way more complex, of course, which is why.

Sigh. So do I go on, or do I go back?

I really want to go on, because reaching the end of Act 1 means I get to move into Act 2, where stuff really starts happening. Act 1 is merely the setup. All 39,000 words of it. (This is up from 25,000 words in the previous draft.) I will say here that I am generally really pleased with how it's coming along, and am not at all fazed about the increase in word count. I've spent a lot of time and effort on deepening character and plot in particular. I believe that's one of the roles of a rewrite -- at least the type I'm doing. Take a draft that's OK in essence and make it more complex and interesting. I hope I'm achieving that. I also hope that I can continue deepening etc and that it's not only "Act 1" that's going to end up longer, or the whole thing will be out of balance.

Anyway, I've been looking forward to reaching this point for ages (months). I want to leap into it. The next chapter is all I can think about! But this little nagging voice is telling me to print out the first 15 chapters, read them through with a pen/highlighter, and spend a week or so making sure they're as right as I can get them, before going on. I believe an appropriate metaphor would be a house needs sound foundations on which to stand. (mutter mutter mutter) I should point out that I don't actually want to perfect it at this stage. It's just that I want to make sure there aren't any glaring holes or inconsistencies that could bite me later if I don't eyeball and/or fix them now.

I don't know. Maybe I'll get some of the next chapter out of my system and then go back. It's not like it's going anywhere!

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Summersdawn

Some days I like to walk home from work without my headphones. Usually it's days when I have a very full brain and I need to mull stuff over, but sometimes -- like today -- it's because I want to really notice my surroundings.

Today was the Spring equinox. It actually happened at 1:44am, when the sun crossed the celestial equator and moved into our northern sky. Ostensibly it's when the day and night are of equal length and the days start to get longer again -- but that actually happened on Friday (as far as we can perceive -- see my earlier post). Nevertheless, it's a significant event on the celestial calendar, and -- being one to observe solstices -- I wanted to recognise it tonight.

So I walked home with my headphones off and I listened to my surroundings and watched the day fade. Venus is prominent in the western sky, a bright diamond accompanied by the much fainter Mercury and Mars. Scorpius is high overhead, preparing to descend into its Summer slumber. It's making room for Orion, which rises as Scorpius sets at about 11pm tonight. And watching over everything is the ever-present crux -- the Southern Cross.

So now we can look forward to the long days of Summer.

In my fantasy novel, I've given the equinoxes names: Wintersmorn for the Autumn equinox and Summersdawn for the Spring equinox. And I have to say that as the weather warms and the evenings lengthen it really does feel as though Summer is just around the corner.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Mini laptop sounds 'Asus' for writers


They're getting to know us quite well at the cafe where we writers meet monthly for 'brunch'. After another six-hour marathon spent indulging in lattes, wine and cocktails, I once again feel rejuvenated and reinvigorated.

At yesterday's meeting we talked much about the Asus Eee laptop computer -- a mini laptop that is taking the writing world by storm (or at least my writing world). It boasts flash (solid state) memory instead of a hard disk to make it robust enough for carrying around (and ideal for slipping into your handbag), and has just been released in a 10-inch screen model (larger than earlier models, but still small). But the best thing about it is its price (somewhere between AU$500-700).

Here's a review. I suspect it's largely targeted at the student market, but its simplicity is bound to attract others.

To get a feeling for what life would be like, we used one of the cafe menus to replicate the table space a 10-inch Asus would take up and practiced typing (on imaginary keyboard) with a latte in the other hand. Two members of my writing group have already succumbed to the need, and we fantasised about writing for hours in cafes, since the computer has a long battery life (>5 hours). Some models come in cool colours. I think I might want one too. A red one. Or a green one.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Being pathetic & unproductive

Tonight is all about procrastination. I simply can't settle down to being productive. For the past hour I have been checking blogs, reading web sites, e-mailing friends, making coffee, checking the weather . . . and that was after I permitted myself half an hour to play wordscraper on Facebook.

I keep clicking back to my WIP, at which point I stare at the screen for 10 seconds, before clicking away to do something else. What, I ask, is so hard about writing a few words down?

And here I am again. Not being productive.

Not even Neil Gaiman's sharky pep talk is working this evening.

OK, off I go yet again to make another attempt.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Magical keyboard

Earlier today I glanced down at my computer keyboard and saw the word "spell" on one of the keys.

OMG, I thought, what could that button possibly do? Why does my keyboard have a key that suggests a magical ability?

A moment later, I laughed at myself, because of course it was a reference to spelling, and most probably checking thereof. But I seriously seriously spent a few seconds immersed in the fantasy of that other meaning.

What does this say about me, I wonder?

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Dance of the planets

With Spring has come beautiful clear evenings and mild nights ideal for gazing upon the stars. The western horizon at sunset is particularly lovely at the moment, with a number of planets visible. This is what the Melbourne planetarium skynotes says for September:

A great dance of the planets is occurring in the western sky this month. Bright Venus and faint Mercury can be seen moving higher in the western sky, passing Mars and Spica who are drifting towards the horizon. Near the end of the month, Mercury starts its swing back to the horizon with Spica and Mars in tow.

A dance of the planets -- what a lovely idea! Venus is usually easy to see, bright and beautiful, but Mercury is a planet that's easy to miss, since it's often so close to the sun. I think the next week or two will be the best time for spotting it. Jupiter is also up this month, but starts off quite high, near Scorpius.

Another celestial phenomenon this month is the Spring equinox on 23 September. Here's some more very interesting info from the skynotes:

At 1:44am [on Tuesday 23rd] the Sun crosses the celestial equator and moves into the northern sky. While it is often thought that day and night are equal on the Equinox, this is not the case. It is only the centre of the Sun that is above the horizon for exactly 12 hours; our day is slightly longer at 12 hours and 9 minutes. Why is this? We calculate sunrise and sunset as being when the edge of the Sun first appears above or disappears below the horizon (not the Sun’s centre). What’s more, the Earth’s atmosphere adds its own strange effect – it bends light from the Sun so that at sunrise we happen to see the Sun before it physically crosses the horizon. The reverse occurs at sunset: we continue to see the edge of the Sun for several minutes after it has actually sunk below the western horizon. As a result, our equal day and night occurs before the Equinox on Friday 19th.

Now that I didn't actually know, although in hindsight it makes perfect sense. I feel another celestial celebration coming on . . .

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

An aunt's progress

This past weekend I once again enjoyed the company of my 5-yr old niece. Much easier this time round, a whole year later. Maybe because I had more of an idea of what to expect. Maybe because she is more grown up. Maybe because I was less fixated on planning everything out.

We went to the Collingwood Children's Farm again -- a disaster last time, but this time requested. Naturally, I was dubious about the wisdom of repeating what I felt had been a traumatic experience, but this time was different. A gorgeous day (instead of howling winds that sandblasted eyeballs), and a little girl that actually wanted to be there (instead of wishing she was still curled up on my sofa watching DVDs). A transformation! We petted goats, ogled at cows and horses, witnessed a very pregnant sheep and many little lambs, chased chickens, collected feathers, greeted geese, ate sausage rolls . . . in short, we stayed three hours!

The other major activity for the first day was creating creatures out of modelling clay and then baking them. At least, they were supposed to be baked, but alas I burned them instead. That stuff is not easy to handle! But much fun was had by us both in making little aliens and a dragon and some dragonflies . . . it doesn't seem to matter that some of them are black! (They were supposed to glow int the dark until I incinerated them!)

I was also quite pleased to take us both out to breakfast -- this being one of my weekend habits. We didn't go anywhere flash, but instead went somewhere close so we could walk/scooter together. An omelet was specially requested and consumed, at least in part. But then the complimentary cupcake ruined all the best intentions. Oh well. At least I ate all my breakfast!

And sleeping? Well, that went fine until 5am when a little voice in the bed beside me inquired every 5 mins henceforth how soon it would be 6 o'clock (evidently the ideal time for getting up). Hmmm. At least we didn't have the middle-of-the night 1-hr-long conversation as we did last time!

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Page Turners: The Kite Runner


In the end, I decided not to read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini for most of the reasons outlined in my post below. I didn't like the writing style (I found the author manipulative, which kept pulling me out of the novel). I didn't like the main character. The plot seemed trite and predictable and convenient. I would have liked to keep reading in order to hear more about Afghanistan, but I just couldn't make myself pick up the book or headphones. (For the latter, I blame Jane Eyre in many respects.)

Consequently, I forced myself to watch the movie the night before our meeting last Thursday, so that I might have some idea of the conversation. However, I tried not to say too much, because of my excessively negative reaction to this book. I thought the movie was OK. It did make me cry in a few sections, but it didn't make me wish I had persevered and read the book.

So I'm not going to go on here any more about what I didn't like. Instead I am going to summarise some of things discussed by the group, because I took notes.

One of the things many got out of the book was insight into the world of Afghanistan, past and present. Certainly the author portrayed a seemingly authentic picture of the Kabul he lived in as a child, including lots of detail about the various classes and the sport of kite fighting. We did wonder, however, about the authenticity of Afghanistan under the Taliban, given the author did not return himself until after the book was published. Nevertheless, all agreed it was a fascinating insight into that part of the world.

Inevitably, we talked a lot about Amir as well. Most seemed to agree he wasn't a nice person as a child, but thought it was a product of upbringing and culture. Owing to his difficult relationship with his father, Amir had a lack of role models. But does that justify the terrible way he treated Hassan in this book? And can you be redeemed for that? Someone argued that it was often better not to like the main character in a book, because antiheroes are more interesting. Well, I disagree with that. I need to be able to connect to the main character, not despise them. Flaws are essential, but there are limits.

Some felt the story was more about Amir as a character, and his inability to grow up because of the shadow cast by his father.

Interestingly (and possibly catalysed by my comments) others brought up the question of whether or not Hosseini is a good writer. Most seemed to think not, but in most cases their experience wasn't destroyed as mine was. They responded to his ability to generate emotion in readers -- and certainly he did that.

The relationship between Amir and Hassan as boys is pivotal to the story. Essentially they are friends, but it's a very unequal relationship, with Amir brought up wealthy and privileged, able to read and write, of a class that was respected. Hassan, on the other hand, was from a discriminated race and brought up as a servant. Yet he gives Amir an unswerving loyalty and devotion that I found really hard to take.

During the course of our meeting, the picture book called The Giving Tree was raised. This is a book about a tree that gives every part of itself to a boy over his lifetime as he grows into an old man. In the end, the tree is no more than a stump, yet it still gives of itself to provide a seat for the old man's weary bones. When I read this book, as I stood in a bookshop, I wept and then I hated that such a book was targeted at children. No relationship should ever be that unequal. And when the book was mentioned by chance in our meeting, I instantly felt it exemplified the level of giving Hassan showed Amir. How do some people end up being able to take take take and never give?

To sum up, just about everyone either liked or loved this book -- 6 out of 8 present had read it. The main positives seemed to be the descriptions of Afghanistan, and the depiction of just how shifty some people can be!

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Wordscraper

With the demise of Scrabulous on Facebook, we are being forced to play Wordscraper instead. It's very similar, but the board is different every time -- although it's symmetrical, it feels almost random as to where the 2W, 4W, 2L and 4L 'circles' (not squares) are located.

This means that it's possible to score very highly, with potentially multiple 4W and 2W in the one word. This led to my being confronted by a game where the opening move (against me) scored 384!!! It's proving rather difficult to recover from that.

But at least it fills the Scrabulous void.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Bright Air


Bright Air, by Barry Maitland, was the book I bought at the Melbourne Writers Festival last Sunday and subsequently read in three days. Needless to say I enjoyed the book a lot.

It's about Josh, a young merchant banker, who returns to Sydney after a four-year stint in London to the news that two of his uni friends (Curtis and Owen) had recently died in a rock climbing accident in NZ. On his death bed, Owen admits to another friend, Anna, that they killed Luce, Josh's former girlfriend and Anna's best friend, who also purportedly died in a climbing accident while studying birdlife on Lord Howe Island some four years previously.

There follows what I would call a gentle mystery/thriller novel as Josh and Anna team up to try to discover what really happened to Luce on Lord Howe Island. They get right into the amateur sleuthing business, which inevitably takes them to Lord Howe Island where they partake of some rather spectacular rock climbing!

I said in an earlier post that it reminded me of Donna Tartt's The Secret History and this was because Bright Air also centres on a close-knit group of university students, at the centre of which is a violent crime. However, as I read through the book, it reminded me more strongly of the Mary Stewart mystery/thriller novels, which also have a very strong sense of place and involve everyday people becoming embroiled in solving a murder.

In the discussion last week, Maitland said he was generally more interested in the 'why' of a murder, rather than the 'who' and certainly that's what drives this story. Josh and Anna, who naturally have difficulty believing that a close friend could have killed 'one of the group' (and everybody's favourite), are driven to discover under what circumstances that could have happened.

I suppose I will admit that I found some of the motives not quite as believable as they might have been, but this is largely in hindsight and it didn't affect my enjoyment of the story. The characters are well drawn and interesting, and the sense of place is fabulous.

I think place must be something that I'm driven to in a story. I've never really considered it before, but if I consider my favourite novels, they are largely ones with a strong sense of place (fantasy or otherwise). It's a case of virtual travelling -- now I want to go to Lord Howe Island!

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Autonovel

This ad keeps coming up beside my Facebook profile, saying: "NewNovelist: Amazing creative writing software. Plans and structures your novel fully!"

I can't help but wonder who uses such software. How does it work? It is merely a tool to help you arrange your own thoughts and ideas -- an interface for presenting them, say? Or does it really take a whole heap of ideas and churn out a plot?

Is that possible? Don't you wonder what a novel written in this manner would be like? I am so intrigued.

I'm also wondering whether this is an example of targeted advertising, although I'm not sure how Facebook knows that I'm trying to write a novel. I do know that I also get repeated ads offering to find me a date, right age and all . . . spooky. It's also annoying and rather offensive.

Does anyone know how to switch the Facebook ads off? (Ha Ha)

Monday, 25 August 2008

Other worlds (MWF#2)

The second session I went to yesterday was called Other Worlds, with Robert Murchamore, Melina Marchetta and Margo Lanagan talking about fictional worlds in which children can lose themselves . . .

It was quite an interesting session, with each of the authors talking about their work and how they approach writing for children (in 2/3 cases they didn't really). Each gave a reading from their latest or soon-to-be-published novels. I'm coming to rather like author readings, so long as they're not too long. It's nice to hear passages and then learn about how they came about etc. Insight into a novel or story is always worthwhile.

Not sure that I really learnt anything though. The MWF really is far more targeted at readers who want to hear their favourite authors speak, rather than writers keen to learn something.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

The moral of the story (MWF#1)

Today I went to a couple of sessions at the Melbourne Writers Festival, the first of which was entitled The Moral of the Story. It was advertised as a debate between Barry Maitland, crime writer, and Peter Mares on whether the best novels are moral, immoral or amoral, launched by the following Oscar Wilde quote: "The good ended happily, and the bad ended unhappily -- that's what fiction means."

I believe they did briefly mention this quote in the context of crime fiction and whether the 'bad guys' get caught or not, but it was swiftly passed in favour of a chat about Maitland's work in general.

Fortunately for me, the discussion was very well prepared and led by Mares (since it was being recorded for broadcast on Radio National tomorrow) and therefore very interesting, despite the fact I'd never even heard of Barry Maitland before today. It seems he is well known for a series of police procedural London-based crime novels (the Brock and Kolla series), but has recently published a stand-alone mystery called Bright Air. Much of the discussion centred around this latest novel, which is not a police procedural, but rather a mystery in which everyday people find clues and try to unravel the four-year old mystery of the death of their friend/former girlfriend.

I find that novels are always more interesting if you know a little of the 'behind the scenes' stuff, so I bought this novel today and -- having abandoned The Kite Runner while faced with quite some time to kill between sessions -- have been reading it ever since! Not sure if I'll venture into Maitland's Brock and Kolla books, but Bright Air reminds me a little of my old favourite Mary Stuart novels and a lot of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, which interestingly Maitland cited a number of times during the discussion in various contexts.

So there you go. Right now I venture into a life of crime!

Saturday, 23 August 2008

How not to start a novel - The Kite Runner

One of the writing craft issues I've been thinking about of late is what constitutes a good novel opening. A couple of weeks back, one of the blog-workshops looked at the first 200 words; and on the retreat last weekend we looked at first chapters.

Issues that came up included limiting the amount of setting and backstory, the posing of story questions and hooks (does it make you want to keep reading?), and likability of main characters.

I raise this now, because I started listening to the audiobook of The Kite Runner today, and it seems to me that it does everything wrong. And I say this not as a critical writer-reader obsessing about craft and theory, but as a reader who was completely bored by the opening of this novel!

The opening chapter, a mere two pages long, starts in the current day and does pose one main story question . . . we know that something happened in the narrator's childhood that impacted him severely. (On analysis, these two pages now seem to me extremely schmaltzy, carefully calculated and rather contrived, but that's not my main point.)

But then we go into flashback mode, and it's the kind of distant narrative flashback, with lots of 'telling', that I despise. We get two pages of description of the house, we get descriptions of every character you can think of. Boring boring boring. Then we start getting anecdotes of this and that. And I don't really have any idea of where this story is going -- except for repeated references to the dramatic, disastrous event that's going to happen.

I've decided I really don't like first person narrative when it's bookended by 'current day' events. It seems to give the author too much liberty to cast veiled references to what's going to happen. I despise this mode of storytelling. It's cheap and contrived. Why not build up tension through events as they happen? There are ways of building up to a devastating event without portentous statements.

Then there's character likability. I'm afraid I don't much like Amir so far. Are we supposed to find his weaknesses OK because, as the narrator, he admits them? And then there are his actions (or lack thereof) at the devastating event. At that point the book lost me. I simply cannot forgive what happened here. I'm sure he will grow and find redemption, but I'm simply not that interested. I'm afraid I have no desire to read on or even get the movie out now.

Problem is, I feel obliged to continue, since this is our Page Turners book for this month!

It highlights for me the importance of the opening. I know this book is a global best-seller, and I'm sure there must be a reason for this, so I hold hope that I will find it more enjoyable and less boring as I read on. However, I admit I have my doubts. I don't actually much like the style with which the novel is written -- right down to the use of metaphor, which feels really heavy-handed.

Contrast this with Jane Eyre, which I have also started listening to as an audiobook in the last few days. I was expecting to be bored at the beginning of this, because I know it takes forever for Jane to get to Thornfield. But instead I have been riveted by the trauma of Jane's childhood, first with her relatives at Gateshead and then at Lowood Institution. Why? Because there is so much passion in young Jane and even though it too is written clearly by adult Jane, the action is in the here and now, rather than having the feeling of a distant recount. And then there is the magnificent language. Charlotte Bronte truly had a masterful way with words. Her writing is simply beautiful.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Synchrotron

Just wanted to mention my university alumni event and synchrotron visit from last week. I arrived a bit late for most of the alumni event, but did manage to catch up with some people. My former supervisor contrived not to be present, but at least I was saved that trauma.

The synchrotron visit was excellent. Basically (very basically), it's an electron accelerator that leverages the fact that when electrons bend they emit other particles/waves, such as X-rays etc. Electrons are accelerated at around the speed of light, forced to travel in a circle by huge electro-magnets. At certain locations in the ring, a line of the emitted particles is harnessed into a 'beam line', which is then used to perform scientific experiments. The Melbourne synchrotron has 5 operating beam lines, each set up to do a particular kind of experiment (e.g. powder diffraction, wide angle X-ray diffraction, infrared spectroscopy), with another 4 under construction.
The key thing with the synchrotron is the precision and efficiency of the beam line experiments. Our tour was pitched at a fairly technical level, which both challenged and stimulated me. I felt little (controllable) tingles at the thought of using such instruments for research.

Monday, 18 August 2008

The Great Retreat

Where to start? I've just come back from a writing retreat at the island with six other women who write SF. We've been meeting for brunch monthly now for almost a year, mainly to socialise about writing, and earlier this year we decided to get together for a long weekend away. I was able to provide the venue and so for the past month we've been planning the great retreat -- a weekend where we would write and write and eat and drink and write and have a generally fine time.

All right, okay, I've been planning the great event. The others had to put up with me allocating beds and requesting volunteers for meals and writing travel instructions and even developing a five-day schedule.

It was fantastic. It was the first time many of us had been away with anyone in the group, let alone seven at once, and we all got along really well. Everyone did their bit with meals and cleaning up, some of us went on walks, and all of us got a hell of a lot of writing done.

There are so many highlights to recount! On the writing front: one of us finished the first draft of troublesome novel (thanks to a goat), another discovered that she could write in a room full of people, and I made progress on my rewrite -- exiting the "rewrite of the rewrite" phase and entering the "rewrite proper" phase! For my part, it was unnerving listening to the clacketyclacketyclacketyclack of everyone's keyboards . . . Since I was largely editing, my clacking was rather limited, and I spent much of the time reading over words and staring into space (and listening enviously to the others typing at full speed!).

Some wrote with headphones. Others in silence. The overall room silence was beautiful and the energy almost palpable. Every so often, a brief conversation would break out for 5 or 10 minutes and then silence would descend again (or the headphones would go back on). Some wrote at the kitchen table, others wrote with computers on laps, sprawled on the couch. I tried both.

We did some "chitting" as well. This is a newly invented term for a "chat-crit". In other words, some of us had sent around first chapters, which we all read, and then sat around and discussed how they were working, without going to the lengths of a full crit. I loved this not only for the feedback, but also for the fact that we can now share and discuss our stories. It provides a small window, some context, for our subsequent discussions and we'll be able to brainstorm ideas hopefully, or at least have some insight into what each of us is doing.

For the most part, however, when we weren't writing, we were eating. OMG, how we ate. I guess we should have predicted it: ask 7 women to cater for a weekend and you have such an abundance of food -- and not just any old food, GOOD food. Every meal was more than accounted for, whether lunch or dinner, plus we had an "amazing breakie", which truly was amazing. And then there were the snacks. They weren't all unhealthy, although obviously the blocks of chocolate were, plus those evil chips I ate, but there were also nuts and avocado toast and fruit toast and OMG we ate so much food. We have all sworn to live in soup for the next week!

So now it is over, and we must hope we can all maintain this wonderful writing momentum. But hopefully we can do it again in a few months time. I am so lucky I can go down to the island on a regular basis, and now it looks as though I might have some volunteers to keep me company!

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Retreating not so gracefully

Finally here it is -- the night of our writing retreat! I'm running late -- supposed to be leaving round about now -- but couldn't leave without a quick "woo hoo!".

Going down to the island with a bunch of crazy women SF writers. Should be an absolute blast!

Back on Monday . . .

Monday, 11 August 2008

Olympic fever

It seems that when I said I was not planning on watching much of the Olympics, I lied.

The first night (Saturday) I resisted for about an hour, then put the TV on for about 2 hours and watched the fantastic end of the men's cycling road race. I did turn the TV off again eventually and go back to my computer, but the damage was done.

The second night (Sunday) I watched a few things here and there, including the sensational comeback by the Hockeyroos, when they recovered from 1-4 down against Korea to win 5-4. Again, I didn't watch the Games all evening, but had the TV on 'for company' (something I never do) and pottered around on the computer (planning for the writing retreat) until I heard something interesting, at which point I'd dash across to the TV to see the latest.

And tonight . . . well, tonight I switched on the TV the moment I stepped inside, and it's been 'keeping me company' ever since. I had been shopping, so I did manage to put the shopping away, plus read a few e-mails, but about 10 minutes ago they replayed exciting swimming events from today, so of course I had to go and watch those . . .

I think I am saved by the fact that the swimming finals are on during the day, instead of in the evening, because I doubt I could keep away from the TV under such circumstances. In fact, it was not until I realised this that I considered it safe to put the TV on at all.

I don't know what it is about the Olympics that's so exciting. Maybe the fact that it only comes around once every four years. Or maybe because so many countries all come together to participate.

As to be expected, Australia has won its first two gold medals in the pool. We can usually count on a few golds from the pool; these then are usually complemented by others that are totally unexpected. It's interesting that the level of expectation makes a huge difference on media reaction. Take for example Stephanie Rice, who won the 400m IM on Saturday. OMG the uproar. Clearly she was a dark horse in the race, so we were in awe. Then comes Libby Trickett, who some might say was expected to win a few gold medals. So when she wins her first today (100m butterfly), the late news headlines don't even mention it! I had to trawl the internet to find out the swimming results for today, and there it was! Huh.

So after three days, I am fairly hooked. However, at least I am not completely fixated to the exclusion of all else. And at least I am going on a writing retreat this coming weekend and I'm hoping we won't get too distracted by the Games and get lots of writing done. (Coz I'm certainly not getting anything done tonight!)