Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Birkenstocks


Went to the Birkenstock factory today. OMG! Thousands of Birkenstocks, everywhere in every size. Sandles and court shoes and clogs and runners and boots and . . .

I bought two pairs -- a pair of red Birkenstock runners to replace my trusty-yet-dead Timberlands, and a gorgeous pair of taupe suede T-bar Birkenstock shoes.

Oh, and when I went into Bonn this afternoon I bought a new winter hat.

It was a real shopping day. Sigh.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Beethoven in Bonn; Chocolate in Cologne


It's the end of my first week of holidaying in Bonn, and it's been pretty busy. There have been quite a few trips to and from school and kindergarten (both short walks away) and many of our days have been dictated by the timing of the 'school run'. Having said that, mum and I took a day to explore the heart of Bonn on Thursday, and we kept the kids out of school yesterday to spend time doing something nice (we went to a nature museum in the morning).

Since one of my main reasons for coming over here was to spend time with the kids, who I've missed terribly since they moved here, I've been happy to spend the days doing 'normal' stuff -- reading them stories, drawing pictures with them, going for walks and rides on the many paths in the parkland along the banks of the Rhine (at our doorstep here), playing in playgrounds . . . The weather here has been pretty cold though (~4-6 degrees) and rainy at times, so we haven't always been able to get outside with them.

We have, however, managed to do a few 'touristy' things. Mum and I walked along the Rhine into Bonn city centre (about 5km) and spent a lovely day trundling through the plazas and laneways of the old city, which is all pedestrian only. I don't think we really felt we were in Europe until doing this! One can never underestimate the power of architecture, a few statues and an ancient Roman arch. We ate lunch in a cafe overlooking a thoroughfare, and marvelled at the number of different coats and umbrellas on passers-by. One of Bonn's major claims to fame is as the birthplace of Beethoven, and they have created a museum out of the gorgeous little house in which this great event took place. We both agreed that the little three-storey house, with its uneven floors and intricate slate roof, was the star of the show. I purchased a CD recording of a couple of Beethoven sonatas played on Beethoven's own violin and a similar antique piano, which has turned out to be quite lovely!

Today (Saturday) we all went to Cologne for the day. Because we can't all fit in the car, G and I took the kids on the train, while mum and S took the car and met us at 'the Dom', Cologne's famous cathedral. The day, which started out promisingly with sunny blue skies, turned bitter mid-morning, and we were thankful to get inside the massive church. The Dom is very impressive, with spectacular stained glass windows and several chapels. The kids were probably a little bored, so we didn't spend as long there as I'd have liked, but oh well. The weather was still bitter when we came out, but by the time we'd had lunch in a cafe, the sun was out again. This convinced us to walk to our next destination -- a chocolate museum.

Yes, I kid you not, we went to a chocolate museum and it was fantastic. It explored all aspects of chocolate -- the basic process of making it, the history of its consumption and discovery by the western world, where and how it's produced around the world today, who consumes the most per capita (the Swiss at >10kg . . . Australian consumption is a modest 5.6kg, which was almost the lowest), how it's been marketed over the years, and insights into the life and working conditions of cocoa bean farmers, mostly in developing countries. (In fact 75% of cocoa bean farmers have never even tasted chocolate.) To top this all off, it had a fully working Lindt chocolate factory, which featured and explained the process step by step, from mixing raw ingredients to moulding and packaging. You could buy bags of the chocolate produced in the on-site factory (and we did). They also had a massive chocolate fountain, which carries 200kg of chocolate, and provided samples on wafers. It was a complete choc-fest. The kids went home by car, leaving mum and I to linger on in the cafe and eat choco duo torte with coffee (or in mum's case, hot chocolate), and then to go mad in the chocolate shop. I was completely taken with the way they do Easter here, so I bought a heap of Easter chocolates, along with some 100g bars for general consumption. In fact, I spent 50 euro (~$100) on chocolate! (Yes, perhaps a tad excessive. Oh well.) It was a good day.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Bonn nuit

I am currently on holiday in Bonn, Germany, catching up with family and taking a break. It's Monday night, and we've been here two days. So far, I've been introduced to the family routine, including expeditions to school and kindergarten.

It was a tough work week last week, leading up to departure, so there hasn't been any writing since last Monday. But I'm hoping to get back into it once I've properly adjusted to the new time zone. (My eyes are heavy and my brain is slow this evening.) Not sure when the best time will be, because my nieces and nephew are rather demanding of my time!

Friday, 20 March 2009

Sisterhood



I've been tagged by Indii to share the Sisterhood award (thanks, Indii!). The idea is to share great Sisterhood moments from either adulthood or childhood.

So here are a few of mine.

1. 20 yr reunion of first year engineering: By the end of the first week of my engineering degree, I had formed a group of women friends that would stay with me forever. It was a clumping effect, and we became a bevy of gals in a swarm of boys. A few weeks ago we celebrated the 20 yr anniversary of our meeting with a dinner. Although inevitably some have dropped off, and others have breezed in, the common factor is that we all hung out together in the caf at uni. It was fabulous to commemorate the achievement of a two-decade friendship group.

2. The first writers' retreat: Back in August last year, seven of our brunch regulars congregated down at the island for our first retreat. It was a five-day sojourn of fabulous food, marvellous conversations and intense writing.

3. Climbing Mt Bogong in year 10: It was a mixed school trip, but I went with two of my particular friends and shared an amazing long weekend. We climbed the mountain, and also spent one morning in the very early hours gazing at Halley's Comet. A memorable expedition.

4. Weekends with my niece, H: Before the entire family left for Germany, H and I shared a couple of weekends when she was 4 and 5. These were days of complete indulgence (me indulging her) and building a special relationship. We watched DVDs, visited the children's farm, embarked on creative activities, and H even got to sleep in Aunty Ellen's bed! (Incidentally, sleeping in my grandmother's bed when I was young remains a special memory for me.)

5. Year 12 Physics project: Way back in year 12, Helen and I embarked on a physics project, where we could apply ourselves to anything. I can't recall why, but we decided to build a solar power hot water heater. We spent multiple weekends on the project, took it extremely seriously, and had a ball.

6. First European travels: After graduating from our undergrad degrees, Helen and I took off overseas for 3 months. Backpacking on an extremely limited budget, we travelled through Greece, the UK, France and Italy, experiencing the wonder of new places and cultures. I don't think I will ever forget the feeling of that first morning in Athens -- the euphoria of being somewhere else, and confronted by all that history.

OK, I'll leave it there. I'm sure there are many more!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

In which writers debate writing over brunch (part 2)

Now for a wrap up of the rest of our brunch meeting, which again had us discussing interesting topics. Unfortunately, it's been a few days and my memory is a little faded . . .

Savagely interesting characters
This was raised by P, who had the epiphany recently that all his characters in the past had been if not boring, then a little 'normal'. The trick to make a book truly memorable is to have what he termed 'savagely interesting characters'. Well, yes, I'd have to agree. No-one wants to read about dull people. But what makes a savagely interesting character? There could be a temptation to go completely over the top and have a novel full of wackos. This is of course not what we're talking about. The best characters to read about are those a reader can completely relate to, and which have such a combination of faults, ideals, habits, views that makes us want to probe deeper and get to know them. P also used the term "ruined characters", which is only one type of interesting character - although through the course of a good story, most characters you care about will usually be ruined in some way. But should you start with a ruined character? Definitely many novels do, and the story is about them overcoming it.

Whenever I think about characters I can't help but rave about Robin Hobbs' Liveship Traders (fantasy) series, because her characters in that are brilliant. There are about seven POV characters, and each one is savagely interesting, and has a poignant story.

Prologues
There's definitely a stigma about prologues in writing circles, but, despite this, fantasy novels continue to be published with prologues and the public don't seem to mind. For myself, I don't much like a prologue that blahs about backstory, just to get a reader into the world. I usually find these boring as hell. Even prologues that depict an incident from the story's past can be annoying. The trick, I think, if you must have one, is to keep it short short short. That way you don't feel as though you're wading through crap in order to reach the start of the story.

Subtlety
Yes, well this came up I think in response to my rant about MR (see here). In a lot of mass market fiction there is no room for subtlety -- the audience supposedly have short attention spans and want to be hammered over the head with fur-lined hoods. But is this really true? I guess all one can do as a writer is write what feels right to you and assume that you will find your audience -- or that it will find you. I know that I am not MR's audience, and I don't think I will ever read or attempt one of his books again. My preference is for books that imply and leave clues and you find your brain scrambling to put the pieces together -- whether it's to assemble the world, or the situation, or the details of a mystery. This is how I try to write, although maybe I haven't quite nailed it yet. Still working on it! Either I'm too subtle, and nobody picks it up, or I err in the other direction.

Anyway -- going to leave the brunch wrap there. Until next month!

Saturday, 14 March 2009

In which writers debate writing over brunch in March (part 1)

At our writers brunch today, we talked about a range of interesting writerly topics, including point of view (and how to select it), gender differences and how this might alter perspectives, the importance of 'savagely interesting' characters, the merits of prologues and the merits of subtlety. Hmm lots to discuss!


Point of view (POV)

Point of view is something I never thought I had trouble with, until last year one of our number stated that clearly I was writing omniscient after reading my first chapter. At the time I tried to hide my horror. Me writing omniscient? Good god, slit my wrists now. (For the non-writerly readers of this blog, omniscient is when the story is narrated from a distance, as though by an observer of events.) I have always believed I was writing intense third person (from within the head of a particular character), and to be told I was writing omniscient cut to the quick, because it meant I clearly had not mastered something I always thought I had.

Anyway, after discussing today (and confessing my horror) I believe now that the fault is probably only in the early chapters, where I was trying to fill in character backstory. As K quite rightly pointed out, one doesn't often sit around thinking about one's past in coherent fashion, which is what I had my main character doing in order to fill in details about her past. It's therefore more a lack of judgement, than POV error. Something I will review next editing pass. But, at the end of the day, maybe it doesn't matter if the first few chapters slip from time to time; I'm pretty certain that the rest of the novel doesn't have this issue.

The reason POV came up is because our newest member inquired as to how we selected POV. In my case, it was quite pre-meditated: I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of no more than two characters, and this set my limits. Others have multiple points of view, because it suits the story better. I think we mostly agreed that the POVs selected should feel natural, and shouldn't be enforced by authorial limits, but I confess I haven't approached my novel this way. This is where my engineering side comes out. I'm obsessed with balance, and the only way I think you can achieve this with character POVs is if you plan them before hand and keep tabs on how frequently you use them or switch. I have been known to do word counts for each character and plot them in excel to see what the balance is. I don't believe all characters should necessarily be equal, but I like the distribution to be constant across all POV characters across an entire novel.

to be continued . . .

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Book: Into the Wild


Our March Page Turners book was Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. It's the true story about a young idealist American, Chris McCandless, who starved to death in the wilds of the Alaskan interior back in 1992. For the two years prior to this ultimate 'boys own adventure', McCandless had cut himself off from his family and friends, then hitch-hiked and worked his way around parts of America in true peripatetic fashion.

The book is a journalistic account of his travels, constructed from interviews with people he met in his wanderings, his own diaries, and conversations with his devastated family. It also delves into the stories of others who had similar experiences, either in Alaska or elsewhere, including the author himself, whose background is in mountaineering.

I found the premise interesting. What sort of person abandons his family and friends and disappears with no contact? What kind of person pushes himself to the limits and attempts to live off the land in the heart of Alaska? What did he do wrong that caused him to be killed?

The book answers all these questions in the end, and is very thought-provoking. But it takes a rather circuitous route in getting there. I confess I found myself at many stages along the way just wanting to read the magazine article that was the genesis of the book, because the constant anecdotes, presented in seemingly random order, made the book disjointed to read and consequently frustrating. Can we find out what happened in Alaska already?

Once the end is reached, however, the complete story of a strange and highly intelligent (albeit mentally unhinged, in my opinion) young man of 24 has unfolded. His motivations were to me largely unfathomable -- he was clearly very mixed up. His diaries and scribblings in the margins of novels such as Jack London's White Fang, and various Tolstoy, are those of an idealist.

The author's viewpoint and interpretation of events also colour the story significantly -- one senses Krakauer's reluctant admiration for McCandless's ideals. (Most of the PT group thought he was plain mad.)

McCandless's story is tragic in some respects, because he could have saved himself with a greater knowledge of the area (or a map and compass), but that would have subverted all his intentions -- which were to push himself to the brink and see if he could survive. He wanted to feel lost, simply for the challenge of it. (Which brings one to wonder why he allowed himself to live in an abandoned bus all those months.)

The book provoked a strong reaction in most of our group members, the prevailing sentiment being that McCandless was a selfish fool. I didn't have a strong emotional reaction, however. For me it was intellectually interesting, but not emotionally engaging.


The above image is a self-portrait, taken mere days before his death, with Chris McCandless holding his letter of farewell to the world.
PS - There is also a movie, which I haven't seen.

Orca maligned

There's a certain best-selling Australian author of thrillers (MR), whose novels many people find un-put-downable. I am not of their number. I am currently listening to his 'groundbreaking' novel set in Antarctica (or should I say 'icebreaking' he he) as an audiobook, and I'm finding it both woefully badly written and simply ridiculous.

Now I know MR is a mega millionaire and I'm an aspiring wannabe, but I mean, really. How on earth do so many people read his books? I've heard him say he deliberately writes using sentences especially crafted to be read quickly, to have readers flicking the pages in feverish anticipation.

Since when do tension-dissipating info dumps, or a gazillion compound adjectival phrases achieve that?

If I have to listen to the 'fur-lined hood' described as such one more time . . . or hear about the the 'ice-covered walls' . . . OMG, the repetition. The superlatives. The clunky clunky phrasing. The stating the obvious five times. Eeeek.

But -- as if that wasn't bad enough -- it's not only the sentences that stick out. There's a shocking lack of research in some parts. And if I can recognise this about certain subjects, how can I trust that the rest of it is correct?

The main thing at this early stage that I'm irate about is his treatment of orca (killer whales). Now I know that orca are predators, but they are generally considered to be not harmful to humans, with the only exceptions being isolated events with orca in captivity. They are part of the dolphin family -- beautiful creatures -- and they eat mostly fish or seals. Yet MR has the 'killers' acting like jaws on steroids, chomping down on people like mega sharks with gaping maws full of razor-sharp teeth.

Because I simply don't believe orca would act this way, all the violence, tension, drama, and terror in the scene is non-existent. In fact, I want to laugh.

It's a really good example of why research is important. I can't take any aspect of this book seriously now. MR has completely lost my trust. There can be no more willful suspension of disbelief. There can only be suspicion and laughter.

Sorry to all the MR fans out there.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Burning the candle


Can't believe it's been a whole week and I haven't posted! But the good news is that it's because I've been burning the candle at both ends of the day, writing writing writing. I've been getting up at around 5:50am to write between 6 and 7am, and then trying to fit in another hour in the evenings. It doesn't always work, but I'm starting to get into a much better rhythm. So yay!




More from me soon . . .