30 June 2007

Medical shenanigans

Every now and then I have a year filled with medical visits. When I hit my early thirties, I tore the ligaments in my ankle and fractured my arm (within about a half second of each other), then got bronchitis that culminated in pneumonia. Then I tore my ligaments again, and they didn't want to Xray because I'd had so many Xrays in such a short period of time.

This year seems to be another such year. Did my ankle again in January, stepping off the bottom couple of stairs in the middle of the night. Five months on and it's still not right. Then I had a small op earlier in the year -- the only serious part was when I woke up and my blood pressure was 180 over 95, which they were concerned about.

The night before last I had my next encounter. Had my parents over for dinner: nice lamb roast, nothing special, but had a packet lemon pudding for dessert, a brand I'd never tried before. Parents went home. Two hours later I had a sharp pain in my stomach, then I started to get itchy. As in wanting to tear my skin off. It started on my face and ears, then progressively moved down my arms, trunk and legs. Blisters. Welts. Allergic reaction. I knew that. As a child I couldn't eat strawberries. I'd come up in dreadful hives, several centimetres wide. I grew out of those. Then I got hayfever in my late teens. RAST tests at work (in my lab days) showed I was allergic to cats, dust and dust mites. I mostly grew out of that in my early thirties. Then someone sprayed some flyspray at home, and suddenly I was scratching -- another head-to-toe rash, with welts and the whole bizzo. And I had another incident after our old house was treated for termites. We stayed out of our house for three days (we were told to stay out for twenty-four hours). About a week later I went to the doctor's with a numb face, and he asked if I'd been exposed to pesticides... So, flyspray, pesticides -- was it the packet pudding, or broccoli we'd bought somewhere new, that perhaps hadn't been washed properly? I don't know. What I do know is that I began feeling really ill, and said I thought I had to go to hospital.

On the way in, I almost passed out. The Gadget Man begged me to hold on, but it was a struggle. I turned on the cold air, and Princess Sleepyhead, in her generally oblivious (naive?) state, complained that she was cold, and asked me to turn it off. At the hospital, I collapsed onto the admissions desk, which pretty much got their attention, so I was raced straight in and seen to. They gave me cortisone, and some water, which made me just a little sick (which I thought was probably a good thing), but then they gave me something to stop the vomiting. Then, to my surprise, they said they were closing at eleven, so had to get an ambulance to ferry me to another hospital.

Every time the ambulance bill comes up we debate paying this. So far, I've won every year, and we've renewed. The Gadget Man always says it's a waste of money. I think he'll change his tune now. This was my first ambulance ride. Bumpier than I expected. And no-one told me ambos were so cute!

I was okay, by then, to walk in and out of hospital unaided, but later I collapsed again. After my high BP last time I was in hospital, now it was 75 over 40. I was not feeling good. And the itchiness, which seemed to have disappeared with the cortisone, came back with a vengeance, mostly centred around my feet. Antihistamines did the trick. And a drip to rehydrate me. I shared a cubicle with a druggie who was intent on arguing with her boyfriend over her mobile phone (despite the signs to switch off mobiles), which freaked The Gadget Man out far more than it freaked me out, because I was only picking up about half the details. Anyway, I spent the night in hospital, then came home and spent one very precious writing day sleeping. Arrggghhh. These whole days devoted to writing are so precious that I hate to see them squandered, but sometimes there really is no choice.

27 June 2007


I read much like I write, which is on a one-book-at-a-time basis. I can really only get my head around one plotline at a time. Perhaps it's because I'm not visual like the rest of the world. I think conceptually. I write conceptually. I read conceptually as well. No film playing in my head as I'm turning the pages, alas. (Actually, I was most surprised to find that others could do this. And that old chestnut given to nervous public speakers -- the one about picturing your audience as naked -- I didn't know whether to be amused or horrified when I realised other people actually *could* do this. There you go.)

Anyway, I was quite surprised to realise this week that I have five books on the go at once. Four novels and one nonfic book.

The nonfic book is The greatest SF movies never made, which is one of those books you can just dip in and out of. Each chapter is about a different movie that almost got made. (Though it seems to me that some of them did in the end, but perhaps became a different movie than what they would have otherwise been.)

Then I am still reading Alfred Bester's The stars, my destination. Now the fact that I haven't finished this when I was clearly reading this weeks and weeks ago might suggest I'm not interested to see what happens, but that would be wrong. I put it aside a bit unwillingly because we were getting into the heavy marking period of the semester. Suddenly, I'm inundated with student manuscripts, and something has to go. My writing suffers too, but I have been trying to at least write something every week. Better to keep the cogs oiled. Even so, I've found I've come out of my story because I haven't been writing every day. Writing really should be an everyday event, and do I ever know it. It's particularly hard when wrestling with a large plot and cast of characters, as I'm dealing with, because I forget all the intricacies, and then it becomes time consuming (but very enjoyable) to go through it all again.

Still reading Andre Dubus III's House of sand and fog, for the third time. Would have finished this already, but I want to read it with my class, bit by bit, so the nuances that I want to talk about are fresh in my mind. Oh, it really is a book to sink into and luxuriate in. The voices are just so wonderful.

Then I've just started Grace Dugan's The silver road. After all, I have to be reading a fantasy book! I'm loving the richness of the detail in this one, enjoying the characters and the slow build up of tension, and looking forward to reading more. Nice internal design -- not that this matters to me, but I have noticed it in passing.

Almost at the same time I started Ian Irvine's new YA series Runcible Jones: the gate to nowhere. Normally, I wouldn't do this, but I went out and had some time to kill and had this book in my bag. This is fast-paced and has me really turning the pages to find out what's going to happen next. As a side note, it's an interesting size: the width of a trade paperback, but much shorter. I like the size. It's nice in the hand.

So all up: one nonfic, one science fiction, one literary, two fantasy (one of which is YA). Not counting the nonfic book, two American writers, one contemporary, one not, and two contemporary Australian writers. A good mix, overall. My quandary is going to be which one to pick up next, but perhaps that will be determined by my mood at the time. Dugan's and Irvine's books are prime examples of satisfying different reading needs: the fast-paced page-turner that will give you a real ride versus the slower, more evocative work. Both great reads, but at some times I'll feel more like one kind of book, and at others another type. Doesn't mean I won't enjoy both, as I'm sure I will.

26 June 2007


On Saturday it was more of a SuperNOVA day. I headed across to Adam's to watch Claire shoot another scene for her SF movie Liminal. (I always hear her referring to it as The liminal but the opening credits of the film, as shown at the con, just had it as Liminal, so I'm going to go with that.) Adam's baby is the newest cast member -- so she had to grow a few tentacles for the filming. It's an interesting process to watch someone's house being transformed into a movie set. Claire's set design is cleverly portable, which made everything easy. We all know the adage of not working with children and pets, I presume. Is that because they're cute and steal all of the limelight? Or because they're rumoured to be difficult? I'm not sure. Ours was definitely cute, tentacled and all, and no more difficult than any small child would be (and a lot less so than a lot of Hollywood starlets, by all accounts). Anyway, after a clever suggestion from her mum, it was all done in a matter of minutes. Fait accompli! A new star is on the ascendant. Must say that I can't wait to see the final cut of the film. It's great to see Claire seguing so easily into the role of scriptwriter, director -- the lot really. Wonder if the people at Project Greenlight know what they've started?

I would post photos -- of this and the writer's party -- but I'm not sure of the etiquette of doing so without people's permission. Sounds anal? That's the editor in me talking.

Friday night

So, last Friday night (you'll know if you're a reader of Sherryl's blog) we celebrated the launch of her newest book Sixth grade style queen (not!) with a writer's party. Western Women Writers were there in force, of course, with some of Sherryl's other writer friends. I love catching up with people and talking writing. Most of us don't bring our spouses because our spouses, well, mine at least, aren't that interested in talking about writing. At home, we might talk about different aspects of writing, but it's usually a matter of my commenting about something, and everyone else listening and maybe putting forth an opinion or two. Not real discussion. Get a whole lot of writers together though, and it's a gabfest.

We talked about many different aspects of writing and publishing, particularly publicising your book and the trouble writers have to go to to get their book on the radar. I understand the logistics of a publishing company not being able to get behind every book they publish, but it seems ludicrous that they spend so much money on so few books, usually on books that need little publicity tp begin with. I find it scary when the big names in writing are people like Steve Waugh, though he's no doubt a very fine writer. It seems to me that if you want to have the publishing behemoth behind you, it pays to be famous in your own right first. Anyway, we had a long discussion about how writers have to take some of the responsibility for PR of their books themselves. Of course for some this will prove more difficult than for others. Some people are drawn to writing because of the whole writer in the garret thing, the solitariness. The whole idea of having to go out and promote yourself can seem akin to hell. But that's the reality of the writing life for most writers. It has to be done. Far better to do this than see your book remaindered (though this can happen anyway, but this is all about maximising your book's chances).

We also talked about Paul Collins's new foray into publishing. He passed around his first two titles, including one by Sean McMullen, and I must say they looked great. It's always exciting to see someone new (well, Paul's not new to writing or editing, of course!) taking that next step and opening up new avenues for the rest of us.

This party was of course on top of Sherryl's launch at Altona Primary School a couple of weeks back. The grade fives and sixes were a great group and plyed her with lots of questions. I know, because I was there. Again with Western Women Writers. Later we went for coffee with her editors and later again for lunch to celebrate. Mmm, seems like a lot of eating for one book, but it was worth it. Style queen's's well and truly launched now, with champagne at the party, so it should be smooth sailing from here.


Mmm, there's a few things I've meant to blog about the last few weeks that have slipped past me. One was our trip last weekend to check out our new puppy, which we're getting this Sunday. We're not sure how excited Georgia is about this. Here's a photo of the puppies -- think that's ours in the middle, but I'm not entirely certain. They're tollers. (Nova Scotian Duck Tolling Retrievers, for the uninitiated, which was me until about 12 months ago.)

Of course the problem always is which one do you pick. We had a choice of two. When we picked Georgia, we had a choice of three, but only two were girls, and we wanted a girl. Princess Sleepyhead came along and liked the "other" one, but we liked the fact that Georgia was the more boisterous of the two. Maybe we should've seen that as a bad sign? The naughtiness factor? Really, she's a lovely dog. She's now much bigger and just as energetic. This time we all went, and again Princess Sleepyhead didn't pick the same one as the rest of us. She liked the runt, which was very cute, but all I could think of was almost 30 kg of overgrown puppy bouncing all over the tiny thing. So poor PS didn't get her way again. Still, she's got naming rights this time. Sir Talkalot named Georgia, and I think the next one is likely to be Luna. Here's the latest photo of Georgia for comparison.

Blog surfing

I have to admit to having developed a liking for blog surfing. Sometimes it's via the "next post" button at the top of blogger, and sometimes it's through the blogs that have just been updated links on the sign-in page. As I was logging in today, I noticed one called "e learning" had just been updated. As a teacher, e-learning is something I'm always trying to learn more about. Tomorrow, Sherryl and I are doing a session at one of our other campuses on how to edit podcasts. Hopefully, then, I'll be able to get our newest online unit up and running. So, I thought I should have a quick squiz at the e-learning blog and what do I find? It's about learning English. Funny how different things mean different things to different people. Like STDs -- I remember when we were studying microbiology, Telstra, or Telecom as it was known then, ran a series of "STD -- share it around" ads. A bit unfortunate for us, as we knew them even then as Sexually Transmitted Diseases. The old Colonial Mutual Life (CML) building I used to pass in the train, always brought to mind Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia. I guess we should never take acronyms or initialisms for granted.

22 June 2007


A few months ago I was despairing at the long stand of eucalypts along the campus border -- or more specifically how many of them seemed to be dying. Tree after tree stood brown and lifeless, headstones to the drought. In the past few months we've had quite a bit of rain, though not in the water catchment areas, alas, and I've noticed new growth on nearly all of the trees. Now they look like big brown soldiers with green hats on. Oh, I love gum trees. And I love how individual they all are.

20 June 2007

Omniscient POV

We had a discussion at Western Women Writers today about omniscient POV, which used to be the way everyone wrote, but is not so prevalent these days. And I know Sherryl (Books and Writing) has recently blogged about POV, but tonight it's on my mind, so I thought I'd blog about it anyway.

These days readers want a more intimate relationship with one or a few more characters, but don't want to go head-hopping all over the place. POV is something my students often struggle with, but often they're not aware that they're struggling with it. I teach second year students, so they've already learnt something about POV in first year. (Kudos to this year's class, many of whom at least knew they were having troubles with it. But classes in the past have all said they're good on POV, and then when I get the chapters in ... )

I know as a reader I prefer an intimate viewpoint, and that's how I like to write -- from the inside out. These days most of the omniscient POV writing I see is in SF, whether it be science fiction or fantasy. That's not to say that's what everyone is doing in these genres, but some people still are. When I'm reading, if I am jumping from head to head, I don't form as strong as attachment as I do if I'm right inside one character's head.

Most people get the general gist of what the differences are between intimate (or subjective or limited, which are all names for the same thing) and omniscient. They get the whole one-character-per-scene viewpoint thing, but then will present something like: She thought it was a great time to go, and the look in her eyes said it all. This kind of thing drives me mad. We've started the sentence well inside the character's head but then jumped outside. A character cannot see the look in their own eyes. Ever. (Well, unless they're looking at their reflection, but using mirrors etc to do this is a cliche that we all should try to avoid. It's a cop out.) People even do this in first person, which drives me even crazier. In real life I cannot see my smile -- I can feel it, and so can describe it in those kinds of terms, whether visceral or emotional, but I cannot see it. I feel it when one eyebrow rises, a tightness across my forehead when I'm frowning.

I did a workshop with Andrea Goldsmith when I was just beginning to take my writing seriously, and she told us all to be visceral in how we described things. And that's a great bit of advice. Not: I touched my short, crew-cut hair. But: The stubble was prickly to my fingers. Visceral writing comes from the inside of the character so is truer to POV, and invokes the senses at the same time. I love it when I get double mileage out of something!

One of the other jarring things is when characters use words that are out of character to describe themselves. When I'm walking along the street, I'm not thinking about the colour of my eyes, so if I mentioned that in a piece of fiction, I'm violating POV. If my character is running for his life, and the narrative reports: "He slammed his size-ten feet onto the pavement", then it's a POV breach because he's not going to be thinking of the size of his shoes at that point of time.
That's not the character speaking, it's the author -- the author who is trying to get more information across to the reader. Zip. I'm pulled out of the story, and that's not where I want to be, especially in the middle of the action. As always, it's good to see what other writers are doing. But I do often see POV breaches in published work and often wonder whether the editors don't notice them, or think that they're not important enough to bother an author over. For this reader they are. Always.

19 June 2007

Past perfect

Past perfect is one of those difficult tenses. Sorry to bore you all, but today I'm in the mood for a grammar rant. (Wearing the grammar teacher and editor hats today.) I love tenses. I love all their different names and the way they interconnect, and how you use them differently. For the uninitiated, past perfect is a tense formed with "had" + past participle of a verb, eg had walked, had danced, had brought, had eaten, had ridden etc.

Past perfect is used for actions completed in the past before another action in the past. It's like a second step back in time. For example, if I'm writing in present tense and want to indicate a past event, I use simple past: Today I go to the milk bar; yesterday I went to the bakery. But if I'm writing in past tense, then I can't just use simple past, and need to show another step backwards: Yesterday I went to the milk bar; the day before I had gone to the bakery. Should be simple, right?

I remember someone saying to me when I first started taking writing seriously that you should never use "had had", that the second had was never needed. I know now that this was a stupid piece of advice. Even then it felt wrong, and so when I wrote my fledgling stories I would contract the first one and use I'd or she'd or whatever, just because I could tell instinctively that I really did need both verbs, but people tended to let me keep the two verbs. Perhaps where this advice stemmed from -- or at least should have stemmed from -- is that when you segue into past perfect, which indicates a second step back in time, you only have to use the had the first one or two times and then can slip into simple past tense. Simple past is much more direct. Too many "hads" bog down a sentence. Pace stagnates when it should be racing. Of course the trick is to signal clearly to the reader when you are returning to the "now" of the story, whether it's in present or past tense.

But the problem I see often in student work is use of past perfect when simple past will do. This is usually because a student is writing in present tense and so should use simple past for past events, but I think they're so used to writing in past tense that they take that second step backwards when only one is necessary. They'll also use past perfect when they really want present perfect (have gone, have fished, have eaten, have drunk). Obviously for some it's tricky stuff. I'm lucky because it's always come naturally to me. Sometimes I think it only affects them on paper -- that they can handle tenses properly in speech, but this isn't always the case. My tip, as with any problem when writing, to improve your tenses? Easy: read lots. Read widely. And pay attention to what the author is doing.

16 June 2007

Writing to music

I love writing to music. Nothing is more effective for getting me in the right frame of mind than choosing a piece of music with the same atmospheric feel as what I'm trying to create. The mood of the music then flows into the mood of the writing. Some of my students like to write to modern music, but for me there's only one type of music that does it. Soundtrack music. And I guess I'm thinking about this because of the trailer on the previous post, and thinking how much I love the music already.

My husband hates soundtrack music. He says it's not real music. My kids love it, but maybe I've indoctrinated (read brainwashed) them. Favourite soundtracks to listen to are Gladiator (the original and the "more songs from") and The lord of the rings (all three of them). Along the way I've bought lots more soundtracks. Most are music only: Excalibur, Star wars (the original trilogy, but I also have The phantom menace, Capricorn One, Battlestar Galactica (from the film/original TV series), but I also have some that have singing as well: Cold mountain, Moulin Rouge, The bodyguard, Rocky (the first three soundtracks). Really, for writing though, it has to be a fantasy movie. Maybe the science fiction movies feel too "technological"? I don't know. They're neither more nor less dramatic, but the mood isn't quite right.

The other piece of music that has been inspirational is Peer Gynt -- especially "In the hall of the mountain king", which really encapsulated the feel I wanted in my novel, and inspired the series name (The oracle of the mountain king), though this of course may change if the series is published. I wanted the mad dance of that music, the franticness, the frenzy of escalating tension. I often think of this when I'm writing.

When I was teaching first year classes and sometimes in Novel 2, I would get students to write to two pieces of music. Each year I would tape different selections from my soundtracks. The first time I used this exercise was in a Short Story 1 class. I had twelve students, all of whom were writing contemporary stories. For one of the pieces I chose music from The fellowship of the ring that involved the black riders chasing Frodo to the ferry. Eleven of my twelve writers wrote about being chased by horses, yet none of them had recognised the music and only one (strangely enough) had seen the film. That really drove home to me the power of music. I had expected twelve contemporary but dark, frightening pieces, and instead I got eleven horse chases. How bizarre.

I find now that whenever I'm feeling stuck, putting on a piece of music can help me make the segue into words.

14 June 2007

While on the topic of daemons...

Here's the trailer. How cool does this look?

Pick your daemon

On a fun side note, Sir Talkalot came home from school the other day talking about daemons. If you haven't read Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy (and you really should) then you'll have no idea what I'm talking about but, to tell it simply, a daemon is an animal extension of yourself (if you live in Lyra's world), part of your soul. All right, that's not entirely accurate, but it's close enough. And if you go to the movie site and look up daemons, you can do a quiz to find your daemon.

So Sir Talkalot had done the quiz and come up with a fox, and when I did it he was rolling around the floor because mine came up as a chimpazee. Now, I don't know why this is so funny (particularly because Princess Sleepyhead got a crow, and the Gadget-Man -- wait for it -- got a goose). I think the chimp would be a very good daemon -- smart, has an opposable thumb, cuddly, yes, the chimp would be a great daemon. Anyway, I got the last laugh, because I said to Sir Talkalot, "I may have a chimp, but look at his name." Because my daemon's name is the same name as my son's! How bizarre is that? Admittedly, the spelling differs -- and Sir Talkalot sees this as his salvation, because he's now arguing that it's pronounced differently. Nah. It's the same name, but how how strange!

All good things come to an end

Well, the con is over and, as always, it's a bit of a letdown. Time now to start looking at next year's con and to book early. The thing with cons is the price goes up incrementally. For about a month after a con, the next year's is low price, but then it creeps up -- well, not so much creeps as goes up in leaps. I rarely get in on the lowest price tier, because it always seems to be a bad time financially for me. As it is now with the Gadget-Man being out of work. Ah, well. But I usually get in on the next tier, which last year meant a leap from $80 to $110. There were a few more increments after this, and I think by the time of the con itself a day-pass cost more than the whole con if you'd paid at the beginning. So now is the time to get on the wagon, people. And if you're worried that something might come up, and you'll have a ticket you can't use, you can always sell them. There are always people who are happy to snaffle up a ticket at rock bottom prices!

The other thing that's come to an end is the semester, though I still have some Editing tests to mark. End of semester always invokes mixed feelings because, on the one hand, I miss my students and classes but, on the other hand, I have more time to write. So I'm hunkering down to get through some serious words in my rewrite. And because between the con and the intense marking frenzy of the last few weeks, I haven't done much writing, I'm itching to be at it. The counterpoint to this is that it will take me a few hours to reabsorb myself in the story and till the words are really flowing again, but once I sink into it, I'll be off: fingers a blur of motion across the keys.

12 June 2007

Last day of con

It's always a bit sad when a con ends. There's nothing like spending a few days hanging with your friends -- some of whom you don't see very often -- attending panels to hear how other writers approach the craft, or discussing other aspects of writing or something that might illuminate fantasy (such as sword fighting as previously mentioned or, today, blacksmithing). At the end of it you're exhausted but have come away after days of thinking, breathing and eating writing, feeling inspired and ready to go. Pity you have to come home and do class prep, really! Well, all right, most people don't, but I do. And finalise my marks, which is why I'm late to my blog again.

I was all set to be in at 10 for the panel on hooks, but sat for many minutes at Flinders St in a train that was supposed to be departing. Anyway, I was late, which led me to standing outside the panel door, thinking is it worse to be rude and go in, or to miss out? I'm really glad today (as I usually do) I decided to walk in, because today I had an epiphany of sorts. I always go to cons or writing sessions, hoping to hear something new, and once you've been around the traps (to use a cliche) awhile this doesn't happen very often. But today it did.

Anyway, I'll stick to the format I seem to have adopted and go panel by panel:

(i) Hooks -- Pamela Freeman and Isobelle Carmody were both talking about their being two kinds of short stories: those that have a hook and are usually science fiction (and often have a twist and a payoff) and those that don't, but focus on character and have an emotional payoff -- they give a deeper understanding of humanity and what it is to be alive. I've conflated what they were saying together here, but it seems to make a viable whole. Joel Shepherd talked about publishers looking for a universal hook that doesn't exist, but acknowledging that some hooks do hook more people than others. Lucy Sussex talked about how publishers talking about hooks are often really after a sound bite -- the type of thing politicians have to do when they have ten seconds to deliver a message. An audience member raised a question about how important it is to end a series with a hook to get the reader into the next book, and Pamela Freeman says she doesn't do this but rather leaves at a point where it's clear that more is going to happen. This is where I've left my first book too. I would hate to be a reader left with a giant hook and then having to wait twelve months to find out what happens. It was the same when I first saw Empire strikes back and, although it was my favourite of all the Star wars movies, I felt enormously frustrated by the ending. The film felt unfinished. I knew it was the middle of three, but I wanted some kind of closure, the way the first (fourth) movie had done.

Anyway, this, today, led to the moment of epiphany, because Pamela went on to talk about worldbuilding, and how she read a number of fantasy novels and found she often finished the first book and didn't want to read on, but rather to speak to others who had read the book. When she thought about why this was she realised that most fantasy writers do all their worldbuilding at the beginning of the first book and after that point there are no new revelations about the world. Being a fantasy reader, she says she reads as much for the world as the story, and one of the great pleasures is turning a corner. She wanted to offer the idea that this world (of hers) was full of infinite possibilities and so during the last quarter of the first book she puts in new information about the world. Wow! I had never thought of that before. When I caught up with Ellen after the session, she was as blown away as I was. So was her friend Simone. For me, that revelation made going to the whole con worthwhile. Even if everything else had been shitty (which it wasn't), it would've been worthwhile.

Isobelle continued on to say that each book must be as good as the others, and that if the story was going to take three books, there had better be good reason for this, which Pamela backed up by talking about the overall story arch. I think (missed this in my notes) she then talked about each book being part of a three-act structure, which again I'd never heard stated before, but I think I intrinsically knew -- especially from hearing George Lucas talk about his trilogies. He spoke about "middle films", and so I think I had made that leap, but still believe, as the panelists said, that each book should stand alone.

Joel Shepherd made an interesting point about following Tolkien's lead and setting different parts of his story in different places.

(ii) Blacksmithing -- Steve Gleeson. Now, Steve, fresh from his triumphant film debut (or at least debut at this con) was back in familiar territory. Ellen, Lita (fellow SuperNOVArian who's off doing the Inca Trail at the moment), Bren and I did a workshop with Steve in his forge last year, and it was excellent. Bren and I only made it there for half a day, but I loved every minute of it. Well, almost every minute. I do remember the heat getting to me and feeling faint towards the end. So it was really good to have the theoretical aspect to attach to the practical experience. Steve spoke of how he got started, how he acquired his tools, how blacksmiths served their apprenticeships, what attributes a smith needs -- really, all sorts of things. I was the magpie, picking up new terms. There were a few things I hadn't thought of before. Stuff I'll have to google, especially because one of my main characters is the son of a blacksmith. Now, I know why he didn't want his father's business (whereas before I thought he'd left for other reasons). It's lovely to be sitting there, and subconsciously working away on your novel in the background. I didn't think I needed another reason for this character to leave, but I love having more complex motivations because they more closely reflect real life. And I have to say I hadn't heard of a whitesmith before, but maybe that's just my naivete. I also hadn't thought of the beginnings of the phrases "strike while the iron is hot" and "too many nails in the fire". Come to think of it -- I hadn't even heard the second phrase before, so there you go. And now I know the difference between a striker (person) and flattener (implement).

(iii) Fantasy -- this one was about alternatives to European-based fantasy. Joel Shepherd said his fantasy is European-based because historical events drive it, but if doing something more epic, you can do whatever you want. There was some discussion on the difference between trying to subvert the paradigm and playing with the familiar fantasy tropes. There was some dispute about which authors actually did subvert the paradigm, because whenever someone suggested a particular author, someone else was able to give a good reason why they weren't subversive. Then Pamela Freeman, in the audience, raised the question of cultural appropriation. I'm always pleased to hear people talking about this, because I think that we white Australians, living among a people whom we have dispossessed, a people with a living culture who are still hurting from all that has been taken from them, need to be particularly sensitive about this. I've argued with writers who say we should be able to mine anything. But I acknowledge it's not always that simple. When do we cross lines? Is it writing from an indigenous perspective? Probably. (And I have written one story where I have done this -- because it was the only way to tell the story, and it is set in the future; however, because I have done this, I'm not sure I will ever be comfortable about sending it out for publication. I don't know. I really don't.) Is it when we write any indigenous characters into our stories? If so, if we never do this, doesn't that then make them invisible? It's very tricky stuff. And loaded.

Gilian Polack said she does cultural appropriation all the time because she's Jewish and writing stories with a Christian sensibility. She made some great points about learning your own cultural limitations and how it depends on which people you're writing about, how you write about them and how well you understand particular subcultures. Glenda Larke said that writing about Malaysia in a mainstream novel offended her Malaysian in-laws so she moved into SF. Joel Shepherd said that if you didn't know a culture well enough to know whether they'd be offended then you were in for trouble. He talked about Lian Hearn, and all she'd done to learn Japanese culture. Pamela Freeman, who seemed to be the person for me with the off-centre comments that kept striking a chord, talked about setting her novel in Aus but it not working, and she said it's because that was another form of cultural appropriation, and that certain landscapes have stories attached to them, and they're not our stories. I found this harder to accept, because that land is our land now tell, so there we are mired somewhere in the dichotomy of that little statement. She said certain landscapes evoke certain types of stories. Although I disagree (right now) with her take on this being cultural appropriation, I found her comments valid and woth thinking about.

On that, pretty much, the con ended. Ellen, Simone and Lucy Sussex and I wandered down to the bar for coffee, where we were joined by Bren and Claire. And then it was all over, and Bren and I were walking back to the railway station. I'm sure I'll have more to say about the con as a whole, but I'll do this when I'm a bit more awake.

11 June 2007

Con day two (or three?)

Sir Talkalot came with me to the con today -- his first experience of a con, and mine of taking a kid to a con. He was given very strict instructions about how he could and could not behave, and behaved generally very well. Having him with me did affect some choices in panel a little. When we first arrived it was a choice between writing horror stories and cover art. I probably would've gone to the first, but knew he'd be more interested in the second, so took him to see that (although it was already halfway through). After the first panel, caught up with Ellen and Steve, and finally Bren, who we had somehow missed all day yesterday.

(i) I hate my cover -- Isobelle Carmody talked about the main function of a cover is to make you pick a book up, and then about the importance of a blurb, and the difference between writing your own and having the publisher get someone to write it for you. Her tip is that a mixture of both works best. An audience member talked about how publishers often designed covers based on demographics, so a white horse on a fantasy cover was often geared towards a younger audience, whereas a dapple grey horse was for an older audience. He had some really interesting things to say. Isobelle talked about how publishers like fat spines because they can put more on them, and those books elbow others out of the way, but as a counterpoint how much harder it was to get a fat book translated because of the cost. That was an interesting point I had never considered.

(ii) Science fiction and fantasy in the school curriculum -- panelists talked about what was on the curriculum and the difficulty in getting kids to read SF, that they're just not interested in it, which surprised me! But they also talked about the fact that the only books on the curriculum were old books or not Aussie writers (eg Frankenstein had made it on because if it was written in the nineteenth century then it must be good, right?), and the trouble being that to get more more-modern SF on the lists you have to convince people at the very top, and the teachers, because the teachers ultimately decided what gets taught. I was also amazed to learn that most teachers hate teaching creative writing (because they don't know how to mark it) and that teaching creative writing is no longer being taught during their teacher training years. Some audience members, however, felt that it was about to make a comeback, with the Victorian curriculum about to change.

(iii) How to promote your book -- Ian Irvine talked about all he has done and gave the rather depressing bookseller stats in the US. The most interesting thing he said (and he had a lot of interesting things to say) was that the most important bit of promotional work you can do is promoting yourself to your publisher. Yes, an interesting point, and one that was driven home to me recently by a friend's experience in trying to promote her book.

(iv) The swordfighting panel -- always a highlight for me. I go all gooey when I see men wielding big swords. My students laugh when I tell them this. Or how rockets make me go gooey too. We came in in the second half of this panel -- though I really, really wanted to see it, I thought that I should do the promotion panel, which was just a half hour one. Some interesting points were on why female fantasy sword wielders are often portrayed incorrectly, and how bendable Viking swords were, and the importance of wrestling in swordfighting. Chris Barnes, one of my Clarion buddies, is always great value -- entertaining and informative. Every con needs panels on swordfighting!

(v) Approaching the craft -- a number of writers talked about where their ideas come from and how they develop them. Isobelle Carmody made some interesting points about the difference between short stories, which she sees as being quite circular, and novels, which she sees as more linear, and how in the short story the situation is more important. If I recall correctly, because I missed this part in my notetaking, she also talked about how a story often is chosen to illustrate an aspect of a situation, and a light bulb came on for me because this is how a lot of my short stories come into being, I think. A few of the panel talked about how rigid they have to be in their working hours -- something that always bears thinking about because it can just be far too easy to let time go.

(vi) Interview with Isobelle Carmody -- I'm sure she had plenty of great stuff to say, because she has been really inspirational, but I had hit the wall. I looked across and Bren, Ellen and Steve all seemed to be fighting to stay awake, which is no reflection at all on Isobelle, but rather on the heat and the fact that we were all feeling panelled out. Every year I hit a wall on the afternoon of day two, when I just can't take any more in. And here I was facing it down. My mind was wandering. My eyes growing heavy. But Isobelle spiced things up with a reading from a cat's POV, and Richard Harland (her interviewer for this session) read the parts of a couple of dogs. Both were excellent. Isobelle had so perfectly captured the cat's disdain in both her words and in her mannerisms. Fantastic reading that woke me right up.

There was really only one more session (or a choice of a couple, really) but that was it for us. Bren, Ellen, Sir Talkalot and I hit the bar, and then caught up with Claire McKenna and her partner. We all went out for a quick dinner, with a couple of others who are in Claire's film, and then back for the launch of the new Orb and the launch of Liminal Claire's film. Steve has the lead role and was great. Sir Talkalot and Princess Sleepyhead were both in it as extras (they looked so young!) and I had a very fleeting role along with Adam Browne, who's another great friend of mine. The film is still a work in progress so there were a few minor problems like colour inconsistencies and sound problems, but it was so much fun to watch. Must say I'm a bit worried about the jars of body parts labelled "Bren" and "Tracey" -- and those of many of my other friends. And that I can't see myself in any serious acting career. Ever. But it was fun to be a part of it -- I was in it because I'd dropped my kids off, and Claire needed a few extra extras, so thought I could do that. But it was interesting seeing all these people I know but hadn't known were in the film. Other SuperNOVArians had major roles, which was brilliant and Choofa's daughter was great. Afterwards, we went off to the bar to celebrate, and caught up with lots of people who I hadn't seen in a while, which is one of the brilliant parts of being at a con. And I must say I'm not a great fan of the maskobolo (or masked ball) that usually occupies one of the night, so having the film to watch instead was much more fun for me. Sir Talkalot and I caught the train home with Adam -- so that rounded off the night beautifully. Still didn't talk to as many people as I would've liked, but you can't do everything, and I feel like we did plenty today. One more day to go, so better get off to bed!

09 June 2007

Con day one (or two?)

Day 2 of the con, but my day 1.

Hmm, saw lots of good panels today, so might just list what they were and anything that came out of them that I found really inspiring.

(i) Where are the new dangerous visions -- interesting because there seemed to be some disagreement among the panel members (Jack Dann, Gillian Polack and Dina Taylor (hope I've got her name right)) adout where the new dangerous visions lay. Dina thought they were in gender, sexuality and race; Gilian thought in religion. Jack talked about magic realism and how it seems to have infiltrated other fiction -- which corresponds to my wonder about how MR is accepted in lit, whereas the rest of SF is frowned upon. Bizarre. Doesn't make any sense.

(ii) Isobelle Carmody's Guest of Honour speech -- very entertaining and with great sound effects. But she talked about how fantasy tries to name the unnameable, and how she thinks it's popular because it embodies that yearning that many of us have for something more in life. Interesting and reassuring to here her talk about not using lists of details. Although I do have a lot of worldbuilding stuff and character profiles, I sometimes feel I don't look at them as often as I should. But she married the whole idea of continuity with the push for publishers not spending enough time on the editing process. She thought they viewed it as part of the technical process rather than creative, and that this was part of the problem. I liked the way she talked about finding that not writing books in series one after the other keeps her fresh.

(iii) Worldbuilding 101. Ellen and I divided for this one as we also wanted to see the panel on good versus evil in fantasy, so Ellen did that one and I went along to worldbuilding with Ian Irvine, Gilian Polack and Keith Stevenson. Gilian thought that for good worldbuilding you need an addictive personality. Should suit me, I thought, as I am known to become rather obsessive about things. Ian Irvine talked about not getting too lost in the details -- something all panelists agreed on. Ultimately the worldbuilding has to serve the story, not the other way around. Some things of particular interest here were Ian's comment that if you try to create a world where everything is different, you'll end up having to spend half your novel explaining things, and will end up with a xenobiology text. He said lots of readers don't like his stories because they have only a touch of alienness, but that's why. Must say I agree with that. An audience member said he'd been to something where an editor said that to become a hotshot writer you should build a world, write six or so stories in it and then sell them to Asimov's. Ian said that that might be true of science fiction but that he would be astonished if it were true in fantasy because hardly any successful fantasy writers were writing short stories. I kept thinking of the SuperNOVA boys who would like to see me write more short stories. It's just not the genre or form I'm most comfortable in. I mention genre because I don't think fantasy lends itself particularly well to short stories. He also said that to do great worldbuilding, you don't need a PhD but a keen interest. Keith asked the others what the biggest pitfalls were. Gilian thought Mary-Sue. Ian thought putting too much thought into the worldbuilding and not enough into telling the story. He reminded us that every page has to have something interesting, exciting or curiosity-arousing to maintain tension.

(iv) Eating ancient food -- with Gilian Polack. She said that we focus obsessively on food in real life, but we hardly mention it in our writing. I found this interesting because one criticism I read levelled at fantasy quite often is that writers mention food too much. But perhaps it's just that thing about not being able to please all the people... She said a lot of writers get food right, but a lot more get it wrong, and that anyone who thinks people ate rotten food all the time in the Middle Ages is a zombie. She said spices were more expensive that fresh meat, and anyway rotten food disguised with spices will still give you food poisoning. Touche. I did get to try some Grains of Paradise -- a medieval aphrodisiac. Mmm, quite nice, too.

After this panel Ellen and I checked out the dealers' room, and then swapped notes about the panels we'd missed. Then we rehit the panel trail, marvelling about how some people like us go to cons for the panels, whereas another group rarely go on them.

(v) Teen angst -- Kate Forsyth said that someone said (Susan Cooper, I think, but I wasn't sure) that children are people without the coats of time. Interesting. Pamela Freeman said that she thought fantasy was popular with teens because it has an intensity of experience and element of idealism. Kate Forsyth thought it was because it often has a theme about empowerment. Lucy Sussex talked about the trouble she sometimes has telling whether a review book is meant for YA or adult audiences, and that sometimes price is the best guide. That was quite interesting. Pamela talked about how some people don't have a fictional imagination and are better suited to nonfic.

(vi) I wish I'd thought of that -- Keith Stevenson's talk about his theories of how people get down to write -- ie the pinball theory of creativity, plus some stuff to consider for worldbuilding.

Ellen and I had lunch out, and went out with Steve Gleeson for dinner, which was interesting as he's just come back from Vietnam so had lots to tell us. Anyway, we were late for the Ditmars, and as Ellen and I were on public transport, decided to come home and be very decadent and write. So I'd better heave-to!

08 June 2007


This weekend I'm spending time -- a lot of time -- at Convergence 2, the National Science Fiction Convention (or natcon as it's known for short). Every year for the past several years I've attended at least one convention. The media portray such cons as strange events filled with even stranger people who are all dressed up like Mr Spock or the alien from Alien. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cons are filled with writers and editors and fans. Lots of panels are scheduled -- some of my favourites over the years have been ones on swordfighting, medieval music and maps. Seeing someone exude passion is always so inspiring. This con I'm looking forward to Steve Gleeson's blacksmithing workshop. I've done a half a day in his forge with Ellen, Lita and Bren -- fellow SuperNOVArians (as is Steve) and it was fantastic. The panels I love best are the ones where I get inspiration for my novel, where I glean some new slant or fact or something that will help me flesh out the world more.

Much of the action seems to happen in the bar or at room parties. I do remember a particularly memorable game of charades at a room party with my Clarion buddies, and Zara doing Maria from the Sound of Music. A con is a great chance to catch up with my Clarion buddies and fellow writing group members whom I don't see all the time. It's a chance to sit around and talk writing, find out who's publishing what and with whom. And it's lots of fun.

I should be there now but am hamstrung marking late assignments, even though I told my students that if they handed them in late that there was no guarantee I'd get them back to them this semester. I just can't help myself. But if they're done, then I can go enjoy the con with a clear conscience, and not have them hanging over my head. And tonight there was only one session on, and a more lightweight one for me in terms of how it might "impact" (oh, I hate that kind of corporate speak) on my writing. But tomorrow, I'll be hanging out with Ellen and Bren mainly, taking notes and getting as much info as I can. The con's one of the highlights of my writing social calendar.

07 June 2007


Ah, it's that time of year that all teachers hate. My eyes especially hate it because I feel like I'm going cross-eyed marking grammar tests. Is that a comma or a semicolon? Is that comma inside or outside the quotation marks? Actually, the grammar tests are easy in comparison to the novels. We spend all this time, reading, assessing, thinking about what's down on the page and whether it's enough for the reader to create the scenery, whether the characters are alive on the page, whether the narrative is rising in tension and the writing compelling, how fresh and original it seems, whether there are POV violations or not, whether the dialogue is believable and what it adds -- myriad things to consider -- and craft our comments accordingly, and the student gets the paper back and focuses on the mark. The mark to me is the least important thing. But I know as a student I was the same. This mark will tell me whether he or she really likes it or not. And of course it doesn't necessarily -- especially if there are specific assignment criteria that haven't been met. But I guess that's part of the writing game as well as the student game. I had one friend who entered a short story in a big writing competition and said, "Oh, well, if it doesn't win anything I'll know it's a crap story and isn't any good." I was horrified and told him he must never think like that. And having done some judging I know that sometimes it's like comparing a good curry to chocolate: they both tast great but give you totally different experiences. But that's part of the fun of it all -- you just never know what's going to turn up in that assignment tray.

Oh, well, better get back to it!

06 June 2007

New blog

You may notice I have a new link called "Playing with words". The other day I was browsing the "Green Guide", part of the Age newspaper, and they had an article about miniblogs, some of which only allowed you so many characters (as in letters, not people who inhabit novels and writer's imaginations!) per day. I thought the idea of this was intriguing, and feeling inspired by what one of my writer friends is doing (see link to "Ordinary Magic") thought I'd like to have a go at one of these.

As a writer, there's always the question of putting things up on the internet versus trying to get them published by a magazine or book publisher and maybe get paid for my efforts. Money is not why I write, though I'm always happy when a cheque comes in. And it is validation -- someone not only liked this but liked it enough to publish it. The other side, especially with poetry, is getting stuff out there to an audience and read. There are so many blogs around these days that I wonder just how many people do like them. On the other hand, I'm quite partial to a big of blog surfing (oh, I do love Blogger's "next blog" feature) if I have some spare time. I have to be careful though not to use it as a procrastination tool. Writing has to come first. Always.

Anyway, I got it in my head that I'd like to try a miniblog, and use it as a creative outlet. What I'm writing are not poems, but poetical ideas. I haven't put the thought into structuring them as poems, into linking ideas and building a poem, or on keeping to one metaphor. These are just random thoughts, captured as a way of feeding my writing.

I do think creativity feeds itself: the more you do creatively, the more creativity wells up within you. Some people fear using it up, exhausting it, but it's the opposite. It becomes exhausted if you don't use it, just like a limb you're not using, and if you're not careful it can wither and die. Creativity is another way of looking at the world, an eye for difference and the ability to capture and express it. So, with all this in mind, I set about starting a miniblog, hence the existence of "Playing with words".

03 June 2007

Mostsalvat photos

Well, I promised I'd post some when I found the cord again. Thankfully I did because the camera was getting very full. Here are some photos of Montsalvat. How can you not love this place?

As I said in the post about Montsalvat, when I'm there, I'm suddenly inhabiting the world of my novel. My characters, unfortunately, don't have the luxury of a swimming pool, but they do have indoor roman-type baths, and a squalid moat, full of all sorts of unmentionables! I'm sure my kids wondered why I was so dreamy when I was walking around, snapping photos. I should have hung a sign around my head that said "writer at work". (Only that would've seemed pretentious.) But I love that you can do that with writing -- all my life I've been a daydreamer, only now I get to justify that it is part of my profession. And it *is* a part. A very important part. Here are just a few of the photos that inspired me.

02 June 2007

At the dog beach

I love our local dog beach -- and so does Georgia. She's a typical Golden in that she loves the water. And I love it because it's an off-lead area all year around, and she can romp and splash as much as she likes. It's quite social on the weekends with lots of people and their dogs.

Georgia enjoying the reflections

Having an explore

This one's a little out of focus. Can I say how much I hate autofocus? Give me a manual anyday.

I love this photo -- there's a hint perhaps of a human footprint, and then there's a bird's, the dog's and a little sea slug's -- creature and all. (All right, I don't know exactly what the little guy in a shell is, but you can see him bottom right.)

01 June 2007

Why I'm tense about tense

The other day Sir Talkalot asked me to look over an assignment he'd written. Now, it was a creative piece, and he considers himself a reasonably talented writer -- he is of course very modest, as all good children are! Anyway, his story wasn't bad, but the tense was all over the place. This is something I sometimes see in my students' writing, and it is usually when they are trying to write in present tense, because they like the immediacy of present, yet they somehow keep falling back into past, and they don't understand why. In fact, they don't even know they have done it until I point it out.

I explain that it's because so much fiction is written in past tense that it's our natural fallback position. Most of us can write in past without even thinking about it. But try to write in present, and those who are not as strong grammatically yoyo between tenses faster than you can "walk the dog" (old yoyo trick, for the uninitiated). And that's before we start thinking about the differences between present perfect and past perfect.

When I said this to Sir Talkalot, he looked at me a bit puzzled and said, "But I was trying to write in past tense."


This I hadn't expected. But it made me speculate about my whole concept of fallback positions -- not because I think I'm wrong. I don't. (Perhaps proving that I can be just as modest as my son!) But because my concept is based on the fact that in the past most fiction *has been* written in past tense. These days authors, and especially, I think, children's and YA authors are writing more and more in present tense. This means that our younger generations are being more and more exposed to present tense writing, and consequently to less and less past tense writing, though I would think past tense would still win out.

When I was at Clarion a few years ago, one of the tutors despaired at how much present-tense writing was around, and said how noticeable it was. And I said that surely it was only noticeable because there is so much past-tense writing around that present-tense still sticks out as something different. We are so used to past that it is an invisible tense in a way that present can only aspire towards. Present tense calls attention to itself. It feels edgier, and so many writers, for this reason, choose to use it. Frankly, I think that to use this as your sole justification for writing in this tense is as specious as to argue that we shouldn't write in it because there is too much of it around (when clearly it is visible because we're so used to past tense -- though maybe this ignores the question of whether there might be a reason that past was the favoured tense for so long).

But what does this drift towards present-tense in published material mean for writers? Will young writers with more exposure to present tense come through their reading with a better handle on tense or a worse? Will that lack of a fallback position strengthen or weaken them? Without doubt, the grammar geeks will be fine. But what about the others? It certainly bears thinking about.