30 January 2009


So, second day back at work yesterday, 43 degrees outside, and the airconditioners packed up. We were trying to concentrate on what we had to do: meetings, interviewing prospective students, admin duties, the usual stuff, while the temperature began the climb through the thirties. Most unpleasant.

In my mother's words: we were spiflicating. This is a word she always uses for when she's absolutely boiling. I always thought she'd made it up because it seemed an unusual word, and I'd never heard anyone else use it. But it was common lingo in our home.

So, I was surprised one day to come across it in the Macquarie -- only it doesn't mean "boiling hot", does it? It (spiflicate) means: "to destroy utterly; hurt, punish, or damage; destroy or kill". Hmmm. Maybe I'd misunderstood her meaning. Maybe she'd meant the heat was damaging us. That we were hurting.

So I rang her up.

"What does 'spiflicating' mean?" I said, as innocently as I could.

"Really hot," she said, "boiling. You know, when you think you're going to expire from heat."

Well, perhaps she didn't say "expire". That's more my type of word, but you get the drift. And that's how I felt yesterday. I was hurting. I felt close to expiring. (Yeah, yeah, I'm being dramatic, but it was a dramatic kind of day. And is again today.)

I know now that I shouldn't use "spiflicating" in this way, but I kind of like it. I'm tempted to put it into one of my character's mouths. "I'm spiflicating," one might say out in the desert. I'm tempted to try to spread the word and hope that like other words and phrases (it's all good, for example) it catches on. I mean it's all very well to argue that I've got the meaning wrong and shouldn't be using it incorrectly (yes, the editor in me shudders at the thought), but I'm too attached to the word -- and who ever uses it in it's real sense anyway? It's a spiffy word that should be out there more.

Anyway, language grows through misusage, even if some of that growth annoys the hell out of me. After learning that "alright" should really be "all right" -- my Webster's labels "alright" as "substandard usage", and several of my other dictionaries don't list it at all. One of my style guides says we should preserve "all right" as the correct spelling and never, ever use "alright"; another says that we should get with the times and not be so stuffy. I always use "all right". Even worse, for me, is the use of "disinterested" (meaning "unbiased") for "uninterested", but this meaning is becoming more acceptable and is listed in the latest Macquarie as being acceptable. Yuck. No, no, no. But "spiflicating" -- now, there's a word. Merriam Webster require three citations from diverse sources before they'll consider adding a new word (or neologism, another cool word) to the dictionary. How many do the Macquarie people need, I wonder. So here it is: spiflicating, spiflicating, spiflicating. Go out and use it. (If Ellen can have her interrobang, then I can have spiflicating = bloody hot, boiling.

Which brings me back to how I felt yesterday. You know, I actually didn't mind it too much till I went downstairs and realised how much cooler it was. Enrolments were happening there, and the cynic in me wondered whether that part of the aircon that had broken down serviced our part of the building, or whether someone somewhere decided to divert what aircon there was to where the enrolments were happening. It would make sense because there were a lot of people there. I'm a cynic because this used to happen when I was a scientist. When the temp got into the high 30s, the good people who maintained the aircon would turn our aircon off and divert all power to the operating theatre. Now, I can understand that the surgeons need to be cool, but we were up there spiflicating in our lab coats (me crouched over my Bunsen burner). And the biochemists -- half their tests wouldn't work, and then we'd get irate phone calls from doctors demanding results right away, and not wanting to listen to us say that we couldn't do it, not until things cooled down or we got our aircon back. Of course they never offered to give us a greater share of the aircon they were enjoying...

28 January 2009

Writers' rooms

Before I went away I was reading a blog (I think) about writers' rooms -- the different rooms that famous writers wrote in. And it made me think about my two writing rooms, and the other rooms I've written in.

In my old house, my computer sat before my study window, which was framed by a herb garden where rosemary and lavender flourished, basil struggled and parsley was always going to seed. Beyond the herb garden were red and grey pavers and a lovely Hannah Ray (bottlebrush) with velvety greeny-grey leaves and spectacular red flowers in autumn and spring. Sometimes, I'd daydream while looking out the window.

The walls were lilac, the carpet grey, the curtains a fantastic bubbly material with greys and pinks and purples, in a subtle zigzagged pattern. In that room, I belted out my first draft.

In my new house, my computer is along the wall that houses the window, but is offset so that if I'm looking straight ahead, I'm looking at the wall. The window, slatted with wooden venetians, looks out onto a lush tropical-looking garden that's more drought-resistant than it looks. Palm trees form the backdrop and a small pond forms the foreground, though this is more often dry these days than wet. It's a restful garden.

When I first moved into this house, I had great visions of writing on my deck -- taking my laptop outside and sitting overlooking the swamp. I tried this once or twice and found I spent the entire time gazing out at the swamp, watching the pelicans and swans, rather than writing. The deck (on a windless day) is great for workshopping or marking, but never for writing. For writing I'm serviced best by a blank wall and my own imagination, so while I might dream of having a room with views like these two, taken from a lookout in the Mimosa Rocks National Park (in NSW), I know that such views are best left to dreams.

27 January 2009

Planning to write

Weather is a funny thing. Or perhaps it's not so much weather as foreign weather -- weather in a space that isn't your own, that doesn't behave as the weather you're familiar with. And seeing I'm from the city that's famous for having four seasons in a day, I thought I was used to everything. (Well, everything except rain, of course!) Wrong.

But let me explain. We've just been away on holidays, and part of my holiday experience always includes writing, whether I'm camping and away with a notebook (the paper kind) and jotting notes and poems, or somewhere more upmarket (ie with electricity) where I can take my laptop and happily plug away on my novel.

Holidaying with the family isn't quite the writing experience that going on a writer's retreat is. Obviously, it's much poorer writing-wise because you have to spend a lot of time with family doing family-type things, whether that's sightseeing, playing cards, bushwalking, swimming or whatever. At least I do. (And we did all of those this holiday.) So writing time becomes a precious precious thing -- something you have to budget for.

Very diligently, I planned out my writing time. Trouble was that one of my kids had borrowed my laptop and played games and flattened the battery, which didn't bother me too much as I prefer to work plugged-in with a brighter screen. So, the appointed time came, and I was faced with a thunderstorm. No drama. I switched off the computer and waited till it had passed, by which time I was booked up to do something else.

Meticulously, I planned out writing time the next day. After all, where I live, we rarely get thunderstorms so I wasn't likely to face another one, right? Wrong. Next day, same thing. And the next and the next. For five days out of the nine we were away (and the first and last days were spent driving -- so, really, we're talking five days out of seven) we had thunderstorms for part of each day. Although where we visited was sub-tropical, it certainly felt like tropical weather.

This meant writing time was much scarcer than I'd hoped for, because I also wasn't game to leave the computer charging while we were out. These storms just rolled in when we least expected them. One minute it would be sunny and hot; the next indigo clouds would be rolling in. We saw cloud formations I'd never seen before -- strange bubble-like patterns, dimpled like the surface of a mattress.

On the other hand, I did do lots of reading, and I found myself thinking about my novel -- always easy to do, but interesting when you're in the type of setting that your characters are inhabiting for at least part of their journey. All the smells and sounds and textures are there for you to experience. I love it! And there's no point getting too frustrated at how many more hours you could have been writing (I did squeeze in a few) because you're doing that other thing that writers should be doing: getting out there and living!

16 January 2009

Who do you write for?

I'm a great believer in writing your first draft for yourself -- not getting hung up on who your audience is, whether your protagonist's age is going to be more suited to children's fiction or YA, whether your audience is going to prefer first person, present tense; third person, past tense; or some other combination. The first draft should be for the story -- and if you're lucky enough to write in that white-hot streak of creativity where the words are pouring out, then you should let them pour. Don't hold them up with some internal editor. Let that come later.

When the draft is finished, it's great to have a gut read: a quick read where you mark passages that aren't working, logic problems, places where the pacing sags. This isn't a fine line edit -- in fact, I don't allow myself to hold a pen when I'm doing a gut read. If I have a pen in my hand, then I'll be tempted to correct those little typos, the missing apostrophe, and I'll lose the impetus of the story. I'll do my gut read with a highlighter and just put a vertical line alongside the parts that aren't working. Then I'll come back later and look at these passages more critically, more analytically, but not during the gut read -- this is just time to note the problem and move on.

Then comes the next draft (and the next and the next). If you're writing for publication, then this is the time when you need to start thinking about your audience. Who are you writing for? Is this story suited to your target audience? Is it too complex for children? Too unsophisticated for adults? Too boring for teenager? Is the language appropriate? What about sentence structure and length? Are the paragraphs too dense? Too long? Is there a good mix of narrative to dialogue? Are you showing rather than telling? Are you opening up enough story questions for your reader to want to keep reading? Is there enough conflict? Does the tension escalate? There are lots of things to think about.

If you're not writing for publication, then you don't have to worry about these questions. You're writing for yourself so you can just do what you want. There's nothing wrong with not writing for publication, as long as you are clear that this is what you're doing. Most serious writers, however, do want to be published, and if you do want to be published then at some stage you need to think about your market and what that market wants -- what the gatekeepers (editors) who select the stories that will be published want. What are they publishing? Why? Go take a look at their recent releases -- are they like your book? How? How are they different? If they're not at all like your book, are you targeting the right publisher? Research is the key.

Some writers write for different audiences and use different pseudonyms so that the reader is clear about what type of book they're buying -- for example, Megan Lindholm writes urban fantasy but epic fantasy as Robin Hobb. Iain Banks writes mainstream fiction, but science fiction as Iain M Banks. Some children's writers will write erotic fiction using a pseudonym to protect their identity. It's all about meeting reader expectations. I know writers who love Robin Hobb stories but not Megan Lindholm ones, and others who love only the Megan Lindholm ones. It helps if you're a reader to know which books are which, and it helps as a writer to know this too, as it dictates your approach. Knowing your audience isn't about shutting doors, but opening them -- helping you to get your book through the doors you want to get it through.

14 January 2009

City of Ember

City of Ember was the other film I have seen recently, though it was several weeks ago now, so I'm not going to go into any great detail. 

Ember is a film with a spec fic premise -- Ember is an underground city, built so people could survive a nuclear disaster on the planetary surface, and now the power generator is failing, and the inhabitants need to return to the surface. The city planners had, of course, left instructions on how to do this, but these have been "lost" along the way. Introduce our two main characters, two teenagers who are just both beginning their careers in the workforce. Let them make some discoveries, and send them on a chase for the missing information.

This certainly feels like a children's film, not just because the protagonists are so young, but because it lacks sophistication. That's not a criticism, just an observation. Personally, I would've preferred more sophistication, but then the film would've been less suited to its target audience. There were a couple of things that happened a bit too easily along the way, but it was a rollicking good ride for most of the film, and atmospheric as well. A good one for the kids.

Slumdog Millionnaire

My mother dragged me along to see this film yesterday -- she asked me the other day if I were interested, and I said no. So she read me the spiel. Nope. Not really. But it had excellent reviews, so I thought, why not?. (It's either a feast or famine with me with films, and at the moment I'm feasting!)

Slumdog Millionnaire is the story of a young man from the slums of Mumbai who does extraordinarily well on "Who wants to be a millionnaire" and is then accused of cheating, and so the story is structured using a series of flashbacks as he is interrogated and taken through the questions, then thinks about how he knows each answer.

Slumdog is a culturally rich film: gorgeous, uncomfortable, colourful, pungent to the eyes (and, yes, invoking other senses for me). There were times I sat in my seat squirming -- part of the torture scene at the beginning (be warned), but also sometimes with the TV show host's snipey comments, and the audience's consequent laughter. (I hate seeing people humiliated.)

I was totally caught up in the story. My mother and son both found it a bit slow in the middle, but I was too intrigued. I had no problems with pacing, but it is a slower film in the way that many arthouse movies are. Still, the setting is so fascinating that there was always lots to look at, and there's plenty of action in parts too.

Unless you're a purely action-adventure film lover, put this one on your must-see list!

12 January 2009

The curious movie of Benjamin Button -- possible spoilers

This was one of those must-see movies for me -- mostly because of the premise. I haven't read the F Scott Fitzgerald short story that it's based on, but the premise -- a man being born old and growing younger -- sounded fascinating. It sounded a strong spec fic premise, and indeed spec fic is how I'd classify the movie (the old what if scenario), but I was sure that the way it was being presented many viewers wouldn't realise that's what it is. My mother, for example, who hates science fiction and fantasy and doesn't understand my attraction to all that "weird stuff", was very keen to see this. And certainly didn't see it as that type of movie.

The reviews were excellent so I had great hopes of enjoying this movie, but then I went out with a writer friend a few days prior to seeing it (a spec fic writer friend), and he said he walked out in the middle of it, that it was too schmaltzy for him. Hmm. Okay. So I cranked down my expectations a couple of notches, though I'm not too averse to a bit of schmaltz if it's done well.

When the story began with an aged Daisy (Cate Blanchett) in bed in a hospital in New Orleans, my heart sank. A frame story. I'm not a great one for frames because 95% of the time they add nothing to a story. And while this technically wasn't a frame, because it dipped in and out of the hospital all the way through, it worked more like a frame story than a parallel plot. It was a device used to tell the main story -- so we have Daisy's daughter reading Benjamin's diary out to the ailing Daisy. Nothing much actually happened in this storyline, and to me it could have been cut without any loss -- in fact with great gain. Sure, there was a small surprise that came out in this storyline, but it was so predictable that I guessed it within minutes of the film beginning. Yawn.

Benjamin Button's story itself was interesting, but I felt the movie's length. Very rarely do I do that -- I sat through all three Lord of the Rings movies, other longer movies like Gladiator, The Right Stuff, Australia totally caught up and entranced, not noticing how time passed. In this one, I would've been glancing at my watch had I been wearing one. It just seemed slow. Beautifully shot, beautifully made up, beautifully acted but slow. Perhaps if the frame story (yes, I'm persisting in calling it that) were cut . . .

I also got caught up in the logic of his physical appearance -- if we accepted the story's premise (which I did). He was born an old-looking baby and died a young-looking baby. I would have expected him either to be born as a little old man (and as his mother died in childbirth this would have been easy to achieve) or to die a very babyish looking old man. The physicality, the way it was presented, didn't quite work for me. Why I should get hooked up on such things is perplexing -- perhaps it's just the spec fic writer in me wanting a world with its own internal logic, which I didn't quite get here.

It is an interesting story, one worth seeing, but not one I'd hurry to watch again or hurry to buy on DVD. It's that book I buy that I long to take my blue pencil to, that I sit through interested but never fully caught up and engaged. Perhaps I should go dig out the short story and see how it compares.

07 January 2009


As we were watching "Spooks" yesterday (the BBC series), we discovered a doco on the US version of the show, which is called "MI5". What I found most interesting was that the BBC DVDs are 59 minutes in length, the international versions (presumably what we get here in Australia) are 50 minutes, and the US versions 44 minutes. Of course this means that sometimes whole subplots have to go, which we just couldn't imagine. The shows seem masterfully plotted, with plenty of twists and turns. Also, someone was talking about how in the BBC version often the characters will talk about doing something and then go out and do it, whereas in the American version they cut the talking and just show them doing the action, and as a consequence the audience has to work harder.

Of course this is what we do in writing too -- the old "show, don't tell" -- or sometimes even more relevant to this is when writers repeat something in the narrative that they've put in the dialogue, or vice-versa. In writing, this drives me crackers. Just get on with it, I think. I must say that in the TV show, I hadn't noticed the characters doing this, and wondered whether the show would be harder to follow -- whether sometimes, because I'm not British, I needed more information to "get it". That can't be so or neither the Australian nor American versions would be successful, and I've followed this show just fine on TV.

When I think about it, whenever I've watched it on television, I've had to concentrate. It's rather like watching "The West Wing", where you can't afford to miss a minute. I'm not sure I require the same level of concentration with the DVDs, so that, I guess, answers my question.

After watching the doco, my kids and I discussed the episode we'd just watched, which had a couple of subplots. One seemed to me much more essential to the main plot, but my son reasoned that the episode wouldn't have been the same without both. No, perhaps not, but I could see that the second subplot didn't really add to the main plot or to my interest, particularly. It did give the characters a bit more stress, but an audience wouldn't have noticed this if it were missing. In actual fact, both could have been cut without too much detriment as far as understanding goes, but the first made the show a lot more enjoyable for me.

It's interesting to discover these facts and contemplate them (particularly as I'm facing some major cuts to the middle of my novel). I think each episode now we'll be talking about how different the other versions might be, which is me thinking as a writer, and my kids starting thinking about how stories are structured, as well. They learn, and we all get more from the shows -- if that's at all possible.

Almost a perfect day

Yesterday was an almost perfect day for me. It was good exercise-wise (which I'm usually not so good at, but which we, as writers, do need to think about because writing is such a sedentary job), I had fun, and I was productive! What more can you ask for?

I started out by taking my dogs for a long walk (or amble really) along the beach front (in an off-lead area), so they had lots of swims and socialising. It was just a tad too warm for my liking, which is why we went early. I came home and did some emails and stuff, rang a few people (all business related) and then took one of my kids bowling. The other hadn't struggled up yet (though it was now lunch time). We won one game each (we're both pretty hopeless), so it was nice and even.

Came home and got to work on my novel and spent a very productive couple of hours going through reader comments. The major thing I did was trim a three and a half page scene down to two and a quarter pages, and it was much better for the cut. I have a tendency to have my characters gab too much, so it's largely a matter of seeing what dialogue I can cut -- thinking about why I have included each piece of dialogue. Is it there because it's advancing the plot or adding to character? Is it showing character motivations or character interactions? Is it giving a feeling of a larger world? Is it adding to atmosphere or helping set the tone? Is it doing more than one thing?

After getting off to a false start where I took out one slab and then realised it was essential that I keep that, I put it back in and thought some more and found something less essential. I'll often show a lot of the conflict through the dialogue, but it can't be pointless bickering -- the conflict has to escalate. Anyway, I felt it was all very successful: the scene is zippier because it's more focused and still has plenty of dialogue to keep it moving.

Then I cooked dinner (something easy), went for a swim, stewed a whole lot of apricots and watched some television with the kids.

We're currently ploughing through "Spooks" and enjoying it immensely, which was a great way to wind down at the end of the day.

01 January 2009

Movies: Twilight

Now, I have to confess: I haven't read the books. My daughter loves them. Several of my students have been engrossed -- I can tell because they're still reading when class starts. I have dipped in and sampled bits of the first chapter and think I *could* read these books. But I have others on my pile, a lot of others on my pile, that I want to read first.

I've also read a very negative review of the books/film that looks at the subtext of the novel and says it's a terrible message to send our children -- that women should be meek and submissive, and, after all, Bella doesn't get herself out of trouble: she has to be saved. In most great stories, the hero or heroine saves themselves through use of their own wiles (if not strength or courage or talent) -- an essential part of the hero's journey. Go read Joseph Campbell and see what he says about it.

The casting was interesting -- Edward, who was supposed to be more beautiful than any human had a right to be (from what I've heard) didn't strike me as beautiful at all. Sorry, but he just didn't do it for me. He looked nothing more than anaemic, perhaps not unexpectedly so for a vampire, and -- well, just not human. And I don't mean that in a good way. I mean his contact lenses, or something about his eyes, just made him look freaky in a bad way -- in an unbelievable-as-an-Ewok kind of way. Who gave them buttons for eyes, anyway? (All right, as far as Edward goes, that's an exaggeration, but that's all it is. He is cast of the same mould -- just a more-dilute version of the unbelievability-factor for me.) They made me doubt him as a character. I couldn't relate to him because his eyes didn't look real. I couldn't see any soul in them -- again, maybe this is meant to be. Orlando Bloom managed to carry off the contacts as Legolas, but then I prefer his real eyes. I could imagine a younger Orli carrying off Edward -- to me, he is "beautiful" in an ethereal kind of way.

I did like Bella. She had a humanness and vulnerability I could warm to, and I totally bought her character.

The whole subtext-thing is a conundrum -- does this mean we can only write characters who are feisty? I keep coming back to Anne Elliott in Persuasion, who strikes me as a character who has not taken charge of her own destiny. Instead of getting out there and living, she has sat back and pined and moped because Frederick Wentworth is out of her life. And then when he's back, she sits back and doesn't tell him how she's feeling. And he's no better. He does the same thing. But then neither of them are modern characters -- not modern, but still great characters.

It's all right to argue that Bella should have been cast more in the Buffy mode, but then wouldn't we be criticising the writer for ripping off "Buffy"? Especially as she also has vampire connections. 

Most modern women characters are go-getters, but is it right to say they're sending bad messages if they're not written this way? Aren't we then in danger of making a new stereotype?A new cliche? We are not all hewn from sterner stuff, much as we might like to imagine ourselves as so. I know I'm not.

So, did I enjoy this movie? The truth is that I liked it, but I didn't love it. It's not one I'd have to see more than once, though I can't get that song "Supermassive black hole" out of my head. I felt the same ambivalence about the first Harry Potter movie, but I thought they improved as they went on (and got darker). Maybe the same will happen here. We shall see.