Monday, 31 January 2011

A good start to 'year of the writer'

January has turned out to be a good month on the writing front. Once I got back into the groove after travelling, I have managed to write for at least a couple of hours on most days, spurred on by my pre-work stints in the 'Cafenatics on Church' cafe in the CBD. And now I have just spent a four-day weekend down at Phillip Island to further immerse myself.

The best bit is that progress is being made. . . Towards the end of the novel. . . The climax is fast approaching. If I carry on at my current rate of application, I'm in with a strong chance of achieving my goal of a completed draft by the end of February.

This is exactly how I wanted to start 2011, which is to be known by me as the 'year of the writer'. Bring on February and the challenge of meeting my first self-imposed deadline!

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The King's Speech

I finally saw The King's Speech this afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed this gentle insight into King George VI's struggle with a speech impediment that made it almost impossible to deliver any form of public address. The movie focuses on the working relationship and ultimate friendship between Bertie - Duke of York/George VI (Colin Firth) and an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), plus also paints a loving relationship between Bertie and his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter).

It's a subtle film, marvellously acted, that also explores the impact of live wireless broadcasts on the public role of the royal family, the abdication of Edward (Guy Pearce) in favour of Mrs Wallace Simpson, and the lead-up to World War II. The scene where Bertie as the King has to deliver the 'we are now at war' speech over the wireless, coached and supported by Lionel using all sorts of devices, is a very moving climax.

The poignancy of Bertie's plight is so beautifully portrayed as he strives to meet the expectation of all around him, while combating such a human frailty as a stammer. Everyone is talking about this film and there's a good reason why. I hope Colin Firth gets an Oscar to add to this week's Golden Globe.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Morning cafe experiment

In order to find a better mid-week writing window amid full-time work commitments, I am trying something a little different this week. I am taking my baby computer with me into work, and writing in a cafe before I arrive in the office.

That is, I did so this morning and intend to repeat the event tomorrow. My work circumstances have recently changed, meaning that I’m in the office rather later than before. Yet in order to beat the peak-hour rush, I’ve been taking the same train and reading in a cafe over a coffee — then it occurred to me that I could write instead.

I have had some good success writing before work (at home) in the past, but that was when I started work at 9am and the office was under 4km from home. Although I maintain that I am not a morning person, it is undeniable that my mind is fresher and the words come more freely in the early hours, before my head is cluttered with work stuff.

I really like starting the day knowing I’ve already put at least some words down on the page. Utilising the mornings helps ensure that I write every day, and even improves the likelihood that I’ll continue on in the evening.

Unfortunately, the pre-work time-window is not long enough! It was hard this morning to drag myself away and into the office . . . Maybe I’ll find myself taking an even earlier train soon, just to make my efforts pay!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Kindling interest in e-books

After a few months and many hundreds/thousands of kilometres travelling with my kindle, I think it is time to document some of my thoughts on the whole e-reading experience.

Firstly, and I emphasise this, a kindle is not an iPad. It is a non-backlit dedicated e-Reader, which I charged exactly twice in 10 weeks of travel. Think of it as a glorified book (d'oh) that holds more books than I could read in a year, is smaller and lighter than a single book (and an iPad), and which downloads books via wireless from Amazon wherever you happen to be in the world (so long as you have the 3G version).

I emphasise this because I fielded a lot of comments about why I didn't get an iPad. It was an easy decision for me, because I was already taking a netbook computer with me, having dismissed an iPad as an option for writing and blogging. (The on-screen touch keyboard just doesn't do it for me.) So with a computer in tow, a dedicated e-Reader was all I needed. Besides, a kindle is cheaper, smaller, and lighter than an iPad, with much longer battery life. (Interestingly, two of my travel buddies had reached exactly the same conclusion and were also travelling with netbook and kindle.)

I have found the kindle experience a highly positive one. The screen is easy on the eyes, and it doesn't seem to worry me that I'm turning the page more frequently than I would a paperback. It's easy to hold, making a huge difference when reading on my side. Moreover, you can place it on your lap, or a table, and eat/use cutlery while reading. This is brilliant for eating/reading on planes, or solo cafe experiences.

I have massively enjoyed the portability -- it fits easily in most of my handbags -- and the availability of books via Amazon is simply fantastic. Just this evening, I realised that I'm about to finish the fantasy novel I'm reading (part 1 of a trilogy), so I went to Amazon and downloaded the next one. And the books from Amazon are significantly cheaper than paperbacks here in Australia, particularly with the Aussie dollar doing so well. Less than half the price.

Having said all that, there is one particular aspect of paperback reading that I miss when reading on the kindle. No matter what anyone says, it is not easy to flick through the pages of an e-book. I do this quite a bit with a paperback, usually. Often it's to refer back to a description or passage of relevance, or to consult the map at the beginning of the book in some fantasy novels. Sometimes it's to see how far to the end of the chapter or section, or to see when the next section dealing with a certain character is due, or . . . well, sometimes I take a peek at the end of the book.

I also like having hard copies on the bookshelf in the living room. It reminds me of what I have read, what I want to read, and often what I've half read from all the bookmarks sticking out. Having books around is homey and comforting. Although I've heard people say they would miss the 'smell of the pages', I don't find this is the case with me; but I still like the tangibility of a live book.

Some other thoughts:
- the user interface is a bit clunky, but if you don't try anything too complex, it's fine
- the fledgling e-book industry is guaranteed to change over the next few years, and who knows whether the kindle will be my reader of choice? I may need to accept that my kindle books become obsolete from a technology point of view.
- the formatting on some books can be a little haphazard, and I've noticed more typos than usual in the book I'm currently reading. I presume these are not present in the print edition.
- the kindle does not read e-Pub files, or any other proprietary files. This effectively limits me to Amazon.
- The number of titles available on kindle is good, so long as you're looking for classics or recent books. Moreover, here in Australia there are further limitations due to digital rights management. Sometimes a book I want is available for US readers but not me!
- I can't lend books that I purchase on the kindle
- Amazon makes it frighteningly easy to purchase books!

At this stage, it's too early to tell how much kindle reading I'll do in the future. I have the feeling that if I see a book I want to read in a bookshop, I'm still quite likely to buy it, particularly if I know and like the author. Also, I have a gazillion unread paperbacks on my shelf. But it's more than likely that many of the other benefits of the kindle will see me continuing down the e-book path. I'm just going to hope that the rumours of 'bundled books', where you can buy the same book in both formats, eventuate and prove cost-viable.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Coffee heaven

I'm starting to develop quite a habit of buying new electrical appliances in the Christmas/New Year period (during the sales, of course). My latest, picked up just this afternoon, is a new Nespresso Coffee machine.

I've been quite dismissive of capsule coffee machines in the past: there is still a sizable part of me that feels guilty about all the packaging, plus there's no getting away from the higher running cost. However, after witnessing one of these machines in action, and tasting the coffee that comes out of them, I've decided the advantages outweigh the negatives.

The most important thing, obviously, is the taste of the coffee. Nespresso has 16 different capsules to choose from (samples of all provided on purchase) so now I just have to drink my way through these and decide which ones I like best. The quality of the coffee is excellent; but just as one might prefer one cafe brand to another, I expect it to be the same with these.

Significantly, the quality of the coffee from the automatic machine is substantially higher than I could achieve with a manual machine. I'm no barista, not at all. The way the capsules work ensure no burnt coffee, or tamping variations. And the milk heats/froths to precisely the correct temperature, so there are no too-cold or too-hot coffees. The machine takes out all the user-error, and delivers a technically perfect coffee.

Another major factor, and probably the one that tipped me over the edge, is the 'no mess' factor. I hate cleaning up coffee grounds. Hate it, hate it, hate it. For this reason, I avoid using plungers, stove-top cafetieres, percolators (unless there's a crowd). Yes, I would honestly rather drink instant coffee than deal with the mess. Sad.

But with the Nespresso machine, there's no mess! The pods empty into a container that is easily emptied (and can apparently be recycled/composted), and the milk frothing device is easily cleaned. I know I will actually use this machine on a daily basis, rather than have it sitting dormant on my benchtop for over a year (as happened with the last manual coffee machine I had). An added bonus is its teeny-weeny footprint. So compact.

This will not replace my love of heading off to a cafe with friends. But it will hopefully counteract my tendency to head to a cafe for a coffee (and whatever else I might find there) when I should be writing, or doing some other form of work, instead. Not that I intend to entirely give up taking me and baby computer off to a cafe for a few hours' indulgence. . .

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Head for the finish line

After a few false starts since arriving home (during which I stared at the computer screen and panicked), I've spent the past two days getting back into the novel.

Why the panic? Because I am so near the end I can taste it, but all I could see were all the loose ends that somehow need to be resolved. Worse, I wasn't even sure I could remember what they all were. This is one of the problems that arises from not writing consistently. I forget stuff: emotional levels, what has been foreshadowed and when, what the hell I was planning sometimes.

I need to write more consistently. I know this, and that's one of my focuses for this year. But I also need to remember that nothing is final. The words are put down. The words can be edited . . . or deleted if I choose. I can even add words (gasp). I have to tell myself these things, or I allow thoughts of imperfect previous chapters to clog my creative energy.

So, once I repeated this mantra a few times, and promised myself an editing pass before anyone gets to read it, I decided not to read back over the entire manuscript to gather all the threads, and instead head straight for the finish line.

I've been pleased with my focus, now that I'm "in". I'm not worrying too much about volume at this stage, so long as progress is being made and I'm maintaining "bum on seat". So far, so good.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Crossroads

Step one in my mission to take control of my life in 2011 was to quit my job. This happened on Friday.

Over the years I've been blogging here, I've made a concerted effort not to blog about work for the most part, since I've not wanted to compromise myself professionally. This is still largely true; but I will say that management changes, leading to a dramatic shift in culture, made the workplace unbearable and led to my resignation from a job I've held (and for the most part enjoyed) for 10 years.

Despite my conviction that I need to get out, I found the process difficult. For one thing, I am not all that comfortable with change, and this has manifested over the years as a dogged perseverence and unwillingness to quit. (Without this, at least two of my three degrees would never have been completed.) Neither do I relish confrontation or the knowledge that I'm leaving the company in a tight situation. And then there is the very real fact that I don't have an alternative job lined up just yet . . .

The unfortunate truth, however, is that my job became so unbearable that none of these factors weigh with me anymore. Leaving now, as soon as possible, is the only option.

So I have a choice. One option is to seek a new position in which I can take my career in technology communications to the next level, likely involving a level of responsibility and intensity. Or I can decide to downscale that career in favour of fiction writing. It's a tough choice for me, because I have demonstrated expertise (and fairly good salary expectations) in the former, and nothing but a nearly completed unpublished manuscript in the latter.

I have always believed in heeding heart before head, and that will remain my credo. As I commence the dire task of updating resume and exploring job options, I can only hope that everything will fall into place and the 'right' job -- one that's not too demanding, not too mind-numbing -- will manifest and my heart will tell me what to do. Because I now have the opportunity for a change in direction, to shift fiction writing a little more into the spotlight, if I can be brave enough to seize it.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Reflection 2010-2011

Perhaps it's human nature to feel the need to mark the passing of another year -- and the start of a new one -- with self-absorbed intense reflection. Whether or not this proves of interest to anyone other than myself remains to be seen, but I intend to continue the tradition. I like the fact I can read over last year's epistle and remember how upbeat and positive I was about my life at the time (although not so much that it reminds me of which milestones have still not been met).

In a great many ways, 2010 was a stand-out year, as expected. It was the year of Footsloggers and the Oxfam Trailwalker, an event that consumed me body and soul from January through April and left me with a resounding sense of achievement, fitness and general self-satisfaction. Then of course there was my recent travels in Europe, a mega-holiday of 2.5 months, and all the planning and gadget testing and general excitement in the lead-up. Both of these events have filled me with positive energy, a sense of purpose, and the conviction that I can take control of my life.

If I sound pensive, it's because with these two events defining my year, 2010 has not gone so well on the writing front. Aside from the brief spectacular highlight of Aussiecon 4 in September, I might as well have shed my desired 'writer' persona completely and replaced it with wannabe 'endurance athlete' (hehe) or 'intrepid traveller'. This was of course always on the cards when I embarked upon the twin adventures, but I am once again disappointed with my lack of application when I did have the time window available (except for my trainwriting in France/Spain, which I was very happy with).

So now that I have got all the other stuff out of my system, 2011 is going to be the year when I put writing (fiction) first. This is going to involve major work changes and some rigid goal-setting (I've decided I need deadlines). From somewhere I am going to need to find some self-belief as well. It's all very well to shake up one's life, but one needs to have faith that it will be worth it. However, since I can't at the moment imagine doing anything else, I'm going to have to take that leap -- even if it feels like I'll fall flat on my face.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Most memorable moments

When one has been away for the length of time I have (10.5 weeks), many family and friends want to hear all about it now that I am finally home. Although I am tempted to email them the URL to this blog, which is a fairly comprehensive record, most probably want a more condensed version (!). Moreover, after blogging almost exclusively (perhaps vainly) about my adventures, I feel the need for one final indulgence to wrap the whole thing up.

So, here is a brief highlights package of most memorable moments in chronological order. They are the places or events that moved me the most, or which best epitomise an important aspect of this holiday. Following the top 10, there is a list of honourable mentions -- which just goes to show how fabulous the past two and a half months have been.

Top 10 most memorable
  1. Sarlat and the Dordogne region (France): I had never heard of this region, and it just blew me away with the richness of the history, architecture and food.
  2. Segovia (Spain): A fairytale fortified town with the most impressive Roman aqueduct penetrating the heart. Stupendous.
  3. Seville (Spain): So much to see in this town. Its Alcazar was the highlight, but also memorable were visits to the Giralda tower, bullring and a flamenco performance.
  4. The Alhambra in Granada (Spain): My reason for visiting Spain didn't let me down with its vast, beautiful gardens and carved marble frescoes.
  5. Ronda (Spain): The dramatic canyon with its unique bridge, and the narrow winding streets of the old town were breathtaking.
  6. The pudding club (UK): 6 months in the planning, this night was an orgy of British pudding consumption. The sticky date and bread & butter puddings were to die for.
  7. The Undercliff walk, Brighton (UK): We stayed in an old inn in the village of Rottingdean and walked below the white chalk cliffs into Brighton on a magical morning.
  8. Snowbound in London (UK): It took 5 hours for our car to travel 4 miles during the first snows of 30 November, and the subsequent few days saw us completely snowbound. After that, snow lay on the ground for the rest of my sojourn in the UK and then Germany. 
  9. Christmas markets (Germany): Gorgeous sprawls of snow-dusted huts bearing assorted handcrafts and delectable foods. Christmas lights and gluhwein abound.
  10. Family Christmas (Germany): The focal point of the trip saw my whole family converge on Bonn for a magical White Christmas.

Honourable mentions
  • Luchon in the Pyranees, France
  • Madrid and Barcelona, Spain
  • Bath (for the second time), UK
  • London museums, UK
  • London shopping, UK
  • Bruges - especially the hot chocolate, Belgium
  • Drachenfells walk near Bonn, Germany (I haven't blogged about this, but it involved pushing a pram up a steep and very icy hill with fabulous winter views of the Rhine River!)
  • New Years Eve fireworks in Bonn, Germany

I've had a wonderful time -- and it has been awesome to be away from work for an extended period -- but it is also nice to be home, where the sun shines and I don't need to get suited and booted merely to step out the door, where I can wear clothes other than those in my pack, where I can ask for a large skinny flat white and get a fabulous coffee . . .

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Fireworks at midnight

The first fireworks this evening were released at about 8pm -- maybe a trial run, or maybe for the enjoyment of children who wouldn't be staying up until midnight. Ever since then, the night air has periodically cracked and popped with light and thunder. We've been sitting inside in the warmth, drinking gluhwein and baileys, chatting casually on our last night together in Germany. Soaking up the atmosphere.

At about 10 minutes until midnight, we suited and booted to face the snow and cold outside. The fireworks had increased in intensity, and the dilemma was whether to go out the back door, or the front. Such was the activity that we thought mabe our clocks were all slow . . .

But then (as midnight obviously ticked over) the night errupted with colour and sound. The atmosphere was electric, as dozens of parties let off many dozens of fireworks -- some on the street in front of us. Fuses hissed and the air sang as tiny rockets soared. Everywhere you looked, more colour shot into the sky, or rained like glitter. Smoke and sulphur hazed the street, and it was impossible to look away. For at least 20 minutes it sounded like a war zone with unending gunfire.

Amazing night. Even now, more than half as hour later, the crack and thunder continues sporadically like the tailings in a pot of popcorn. Happy New Year to all.