Monday, July 31, 2006

Author Photo again


A week or two back we had a discussion about author photos. I voiced my scepticism about any photo of mine selling a book here, and in reply to some comments, gave my opinion about airbrushing Glenda into cinderella-land here, and finally decided I would give you the real article, see here.

And here now is me as I am, this last weekend. In the forest. No make-up. Hair that hasn't seen a hairdresser in a couple of months. In the clothes I more normally wear (the t-shirt is at least 3 years old) and doing the kind of idiotic thing I like to do, in this case, mucking around with a (live) stick insect my husband wanted to photograph. Click on it to make it a decent size. If you are very, very brave.

You asked for it. At least, some of you did. The others wanted to send me off to the nearest professional photographer to whip twenty years off my age and sixteen layers of wrinkled skin off my face, to make me look like something that wouldn't scare infants in broad daylight, let alone a dark night.

So, would you buy a book from this person? I want to hear from you!!

Actively voicing the passive

Aargh. Came back from a weekend away to find my laptop has no power - I suspect something drastic happened to the insides, as just before everything went black, it went very, very hot...

I am now an anomoly. A writer with no computer. And being a writer, I have no money to buy a new one. Later on today, I shall track down the dealer for the brand, and find out just what it is going to cost to resurrect a laptop so old that the keys have had all the markings worn off them.

I am now sharing my husband's laptop. Expect to hear about a divorce in the offing any time soon.

Anyway, that was why the grammar thingy is a Monday thingy instead of a Sunday one.

Here it is: Using the Passive Voice

‘Don’t use the passive voice!’ screams the advice. You see it again and again on the ‘How to write...’ pages. I was therefore interested to discover than at least one writer didn’t even know what it was, and proceeded to give advice on how not to overuse the past perfect tense. (e.g. He had been a troll before the princess kissed him and he’d become a handsome prince.)

The passive voice is not a tense at all, but a state where an action is performed by something to something else, and the thing on the receiving end of the action is the subject of your main verb. Make sense? Probably not.

Look at these two examples:

The prince was hit by the club wielded by the lime green troll.
The lime green troll hit the prince with his club.

They both say the same thing, but the first sentence is passive and the second is active voice. The passive voice always has the idea of something being done BY x TO y, where y is the subject of your verb, in this case the prince.

The word ‘by’ might not even be included.
The corpse was brought inside is also passive, even though nothing is said about who did the deed of bringing the body.

The passive voice can also be in the present tense: The flowers in the church are arranged every day by the nuns. Or past perfect: The flowers had been arranged by the nuns… or future: The flowers will be arranged by

So what is wrong with the passive voice? Well, nothing at all, really. It’s perfectly good grammar and sometimes it is an invaluable way of expressing what you want to say. The corpse was brought inside is exactly right for describing an act when you don’t want to deal with who is involved.

In your story, who is carrying the corpse may be totally irrelevant. They are not characters you are dealing with in your tale and they may never appear again – so why bother with them? Secondly, the carrying of the corpse may not be an action that you particularly want to dramatise. It is more descriptive. So you don’t need the active voice. Your prose is not going to be improved by saying The passers-by carried the corpse inside.

With the troll though...
This is an action scene, and the passive voice is to be avoided. It makes your action seem flat. The lime green troll hit the prince has much more, er, impact.

A handy way to check for passives in your prose is to use that “find” function under the “edit’ menu. Ask to find all instances of the word “was” or “were”. Now obviously it is going to turn up a lot of non-passive uses, such as:
The chickens were sick
.
The weather was foul.

The pink elephants were running down the sidewalk.
And that’s a good thing because you can check at the same time if you are over-using a rather weak verb (the verb to be) instead of a verb with more impact (the chickens sickened), or a continuous tense (was running) when a simple past tense (ran) would be better.

The continuous tense (is fighting, was fighting etc) is rather like the passive voice - it lacks impact and is best used for description or where you really want to give emphasis to the continuous nature of the event. e.g. While I was camping at the waterfall in Actagamama, I caught dengue fever.

Er, wait a minute. I have to go fight with my husband about whether he can take the laptop to work today...

Friday, July 28, 2006

Why I like living in Kota Kinabalu

The view from part of our apartment - all that you see is in the grounds. Behind the trees to the left is a pond...with fish and frogs and a couple of water monitors.


  1. No traffic jams. (Hey, KK guys, don't contradict me - if you'd ever lived in KL, then you'd know what a traffic jam is!)
  2. The rush hour only lasts an hour.
  3. It's windy. Yeah, I know they call the place The Land Below the Wind, but it's by the sea, and it's nice and breezy, and in the topics, only the wind makes life bearable.
  4. The scenery. Ocean in the heart of the city. Island views out of your office window. Mount Kinabalu in the distance as you drive home along the sea front. Geez, do you know how much people living in, say, Berlin, would pay for this?
  5. This apartment. There is so little housework, I almost have nothing to do. Almost. And when I look out of the glass wall of my lounge room, I see Pink-necked Pigeons squabbling over in the ficus trees, and sea eagles wheeling in the sky.
  6. The sunsets. You don't get 'em like this in KL.
  7. The distance. I ask someone to pick me up at my house from the city centre and he refused - too far. It's a 12 minutes drive, for crying out loud. To get into a national park is half an hour boat ride, or an hour's drive. Wow.
  8. You can't tell who people are from their looks or their names. That is so refreshing. A Muslim name doesn't necessarily mean a Muslim. A non-Muslim name can be owned by a Muslim. A guy who "looks" ethnic Chinese is a Kadazan and vice versa. Marvellous to be freed of all this nonsense. (Doubtless this is why the powers that be want your race, religion and every other damn irrelevant fact on every form, identity card and pass. Otherwise, you might escape their bureaucracy. You might be free...!! )

Thursday, July 27, 2006

For whom this bell tolls

No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...
Any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.

--John Donne

If someone pinches my bottom on a train, I don't then turn around and slap the face of every man, woman and child in the carriage.

If two soldiers are kidnapped by criminals, the armed forces concerned should not then turn around and destroy a country, killing anyone who happens to get in the way, ruining its economy for future years, shattering its infrastructure, traumatising a whole generation of children.

It is hard to understand how the people killed can be in the way, seeing as they were exactly where they should be - at home, at work, driving down a road - or in a UN observer post. How many of the dead do you reckon actually had something to do with the kidnapping? 5%? A generous estimate.

The UN deaths were totally accidental, of course. We have the assurances of Israel. Although it is odd that the Israelis didn't seem to know where the UN post was, and made 21 strikes within 300 m over 6 hours until they hit it. And then ignored requests to stop the bombardment as people tried to rescue those inside. My husband worked for the UN, and this strikes home to me. And if you don't care about the UN, then consider this: you are the UN. That's right - in one sense there is no such entity as the UN - it is a union of every nation. Yours too. And the people who work for the UN come from your country as well, no matter who you are. This was an attack on you. The people who died were representing you.

Jane Holl Lute, a deputy head of U.N. peacekeeping operations, told the Security Council there was no Hizbollah firing coming from near the UN outpost.

The next 9/11 or train bombing could be orchestrated by someone incensed by the loss of a family member in the hell that is now Lebanon. Remember that before you applaud what has happened.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

How I Write a Novel (7): building a sense of place

This should actually be called "world building when you don't have a clue" although I'm not talking about general world creation [a la god], but something perhaps of more of value to all writers - what do you do when you want to include something in your novel that you don't know too much about?

I was prompted to think about this because someone asked me about ships. He saw that I had written
The Isles of Glory and wanted to know where I got the info on sailing ships that I put into the 3 books.

I'm not a sailor. I used to paddle a homemade canoe on the Canning River as a kid. I loved all the
Swallows and Amazon books and read every one multiple times - which did teach me words like "sheet" and "tack" and "cleat" and all that nautical stuff. Not enough to make me able to write a book that included trips on 18th or 19th century sailing ships!

[
Word of caution, though: learning facts from fiction books can be hazardous...who's to say that the writer knew what he or she was talking about?]

I once took a day trip sailing on a schooner to a couple of islands, and once spent a few days sailing with friends from Phuket to Ko Surin and Ko Semilan, none of which qualifies me as a sailor either.

So...how did I do it.

Well. firstly I made darn sure [I think] that I didn't make mistakes. If I mentioned a particular type of ship [schooner, brigantine etc], I made sure my description of the ship had the right number of masts, steering system, and so on. Not good to put a tiller into a ship that steers by means of a wheel! All this can be checked from internet sites. The moment you make a mistake, you lose your knowledgable reader. And unfortunately it will be what he remembers most about your book.

[Caution 2 : anything taken from the internet is not necessarily correct. Double and triple check everything.]

Secondly, I don't try to be too smart and include a whole bunch of stuff I don't know too much about. Rather I take the small details and make them true and visual - those are the things that give the atmosphere, the feel of being there. And it helps if you remember interesting bits and pieces from your own experience. For example, we have a chest-of-drawers in my family that came out from England with my ancestors. When you have a 6 month journey ahead of you, living out of a chest, what sort of a chest do you want? One that opens with a lid? Nope. You can't put things on top of it then. One that actually has drawers is much better - with nice inset brass handles that you won't bruise yourself on when the ship heaves...

Here are some examples from the three books of the Isles of Glory - from large to small vessels and with different first person narrators...

The ship came in under sail and bumped against the dock as gently as a rowboat on a jetty. A typical piece of Keeper seamanship; there was very little the Keepers did badly. Just a look at the vessel was enough to know that they were special: the woodwork gleamed, the sails were unpatched, the ropes were neatly coiled, the brass shone, there were rat-barriers on the hawsers. A greater contrast to the shabby, foetid slaver tied up beside them couldn’t have been imagined.

_______________________

We had drifted further out to sea and were in among the fisher fleet. Their lanterns gleamed only dimly now as the sky lightened. The golden paths across the water had gone. I could hear the sound of voices and laughter coming to us from the fishermen as they hauled up lines, pulled in nets. I lay back, to look up at the mast just visible in the pre-dawn light. A bird was sitting on the crosstree, a creature too small to be one of the usual seabirds. I eyed it uneasily; it looked like that pet of Flame’s. I wondered how long it had been perched there. It cocked its head to one side and I suddenly felt very naked. I pulled the blanket up over my body. ‘Scram,’ I said. ‘Go tell her I’m all right.’

_______________________________

It was a close call, but we made it, slipping out on the tide with just minutes to spare. We would never have managed it if the whole of Rattespie had not taken it as a challenge. This was the first local ship to set sail for weeks; it meant money in the townsfolk’s coffers and they weren’t about to waste the opportunity. Chandlers bustled, farmers appeared out of nowhere with fresh produce, sailors signed up, longshoremen came looking for work loading the ship, shipwrights recaulked part of the deck where timbers had dried out and shrunk.

_________________________________

As I pen this in my cabin aboard the R.V. Seadrift, I find myself wondering: is this really I, Anyara isi Teron, here on board a ship bound for the Isles of Glory? Freckled, prosaic, undistinguished Anyara, embarking on an adventure most men could only dream about – it’s not possible, surely! And yet I, an unmarried woman, find myself untrammelled by family, with the shores of Kells rapidly dwindling on the horizon and empty ocean ahead...adventure indeed.
From where I sit, if I glance over to the wall under the porthole, I see my two sea chests, now stacked on top of each other to make a chest-of-drawers with polished brass handles; all I have to do is open that top drawer and the documents are there for the reading. And yet I hesitate to hurry through the papers. I have months ahead of me, and I must ration my reading. Perhaps this evening I will dip into the first of the papers. Just a few.

______________________

A few words, that's all it takes to convey the size of a ship, or a cabin; the uncertainty of sailing into the unknown; the work involved in getting a ship ready for a long sea voyage. A writer doesn't need to know everything to say enough.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

How I Write a Novel (6): the editor's edit

Every publisher has their own way of doing things, so don't take this as necessarily the norm. This is just the way it's done at my main publisher, with my particular editor and copy editor.

When I have decided (hopefully before the delivery deadline!) that I have finished the book to my satisfaction, I send it off to my editor at the publishing house. After what seems to be a long silence (she's definitely overworked!) of four weeks or so, she gets back to me. And usually she wants some changes. Fortunately, none have ever been too drastic and on one memorable occasion there were none requested at all. It's usually along the lines of, 'Is that X scene really right where it is? I think it would be better moved to the end of the book.' Or, 'I find the account of Y's journey to Altan as a child rather like a hiccup in the story - couldn't you include it just by having him refer to it once he is grown? Or as a flashback later on perhaps?' Or, 'I think it needs a prologue to give more back story.' Sometimes we talk on the phone about these changes.

There are usually 3 or 4 such suggestions. In the meantime, I have been going through the book yet again, correcting small mistakes. Once I have the editor's input, I rewrite on the basis of her suggestions, which doesn't usually take me more than another two weeks. And I send it back.

A couple of things for writers who have got to this stage to think about:
  • An editor is not always right. BUT this is their job and they are pretty good at it, believe me. When my editor tells me that something didn't work for her, I sit up pretty straight and take notice. And I rework the section. I don't think there has ever been a time when I didn't make the change, and there has been only one time when I wished I hadn't done a particular alteration.
  • However, I am the writer. It is my book. So I do what I think is right for the book. Sometimes I say to myself - 'Geez, why didn't I see that myself?' and the changes just tumble off the end of my fingers into the MS. Sometimes I have to think about it some more. Sometimes I take the advice to the letter, because I know it is right; more usually I see the problem immediately but I can see a better solution than the one suggested - if indeed an actual solution was suggested. An editor's strength is in seeing the problem; the writer's job is to see how to correct it.
  • If you think your work is perfect and doesn't need an editor's input, then you ought to be self-publishing.
  • If you are an unpublished writer and are still submitting to agents/publishers, then your work has to be far more polished than mine is by the time my editor first gets to see it. That's unjust, I know, but it's the way things work, at least when I am operating to a deadline.
Let me explain that last. An unpublished writer's work has to shine above all the others that land on an agent/editor's desk. You have to impress. The agent/editor doesn't know you or your work from the ravings of meglomaniac when she/he first turns the title page.

My editor, however, already knows the standard of my work; she knows I am professional; she knows she can rely on me to make changes, to deliver a good story (usually) on time. She knows that the odd silly mistake/repetition/not so polished paragraph is going to be weeded out - either by me or by the copy editor - before the book is printed. With your book, though, she needs to know that you do indeed know the difference between 'your' and 'you're'. She needs to be impressed by the polish of your work.

With mine, she is (I hope) impressed by me being able to get a good MS onto her desk in six months. I didn't have the luxury of time that an unpublished writer - who has no deadline - has. And we still have time - editor, copy editor and author - to bring this work to a final polished state. It is in fact better for us to have editorial input before the author has laboured over the final sheen, rather than to ask the author to do that final buffing up twice. It saves time.

So, after working on the alterations suggested by the editor, I send the book back to the publisher, the alterations are accepted (well, I've never had mine rejected, but I suppose it could happen) and so on to the copy editor.

And it looks as if I still haven't got around to what happens at the copy edit! Next time.

Oh, and what was the alteration I regretted making? It was with my first published book, Havenstar. The editor thought I needed to tie the ending up neatly. I had - I thought - left enough hints along the way to show what was going to happen after the climax was done. The editor didn't agree, and asked me to write an extra chapter to dot the i's and cross the t's. So I did.
But I wasn't comfortable with it - it smelled a bit cutesy to me. I was, however, too new and untried and unsure of myself to protest. And perhaps too inexperienced to work out a way to please both of us.

The very first fanmail I got was from a lovely reader who had loved every inch of the book - until the last chapter. She was so maddened by it, that she dashed off an email.
Why did you do that? she asked. It wasn't necessary and it was just too neat!

She was right, the editor was wrong and I should have stuck with my instincts.

Is there any sense to this?

From a description of Tyre, July 22, by the CNN journalist Cal Perry, as reported here.


More children are in a nearby basement. The true cost of the shelling can be seen in their frightened eyes.

I am the first visitor to walk down the long stairs, and as I get there, a little boy starts screaming and pointing at me. He is hysterical.

His mother says, "He thinks you are Israeli."

I speak to the boy in Arabic. "I'm a journalist," I tell him, but he still cries.

I shall try to return next Sunday to the [ir]regular Sunday grammar and style blog...

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Awful day


The power was off all morning, the internet slowed down to the pace of an anorexic snail with a wonky slime trail this evening - so forget the post on copy editing. Tomorrow, ok? So take a look at my grandson on his second birthday last month instead. Isn't he cute? And maybe it will help you forget that a certain Middle Eastern country seems to have gone completely bonkers this week.

Apparently the way to get on with your neighbours in that part of the world is to blow them all to pieces. The theory might be that if they don't have a viable country left, they will treat you with courtesy next month.

Well, I have prophetic powers. And here's a predicition, Israel. Sadly, you will spend the next twenty years wondering why people hate you so much that they strap explosives to their bodies and blow themselves and your kids up in pizza joints. Sound familiar?
I really, really, wish that wasn't going to be true.
I really, really wish that history taught people lessons, not hate.
The horrible truth is that violence begets violence. If you want peace, this is not the way to obtain it. I thought Hizbollah were about as bad as you could get. Now I'm not so sure.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Just can't resist posting these...



My daughter Nashii and the other two members of the band F.O.Machete, Callan and Paul, in London for a gig recently.

And what a fantastic photographer Simon Clark is... see here for more of his work.

Check out the F.O. Machete website for up and coming gigs, downloads, CDs and records, reviews, etc.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Back to Shiver Barrens at last!

Here's another photo from our last weekend - this one taken on the road to Mt Kinabalu.

My copy edit of The Shadow of Tyr is done. One copy has gone off to HarperCollins Voyager Oz, the other to Orbit UK where the editors have not yet read it. (I am always awed by the fact that publishers buy books before they are written - wow, that's faith for you.)

I love doing copy edits - and I will talk about that tomorrow or at the weekend in a post How I Write a Novel (6).

And so I now have time to get back to finishing the third book, The Song of the Shiver Barrens. Yay!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Irony...and just who is to blame?

From today's paper (The Star, p12) : Malaysians are due for another hazy spell unless the Indonesians tackle the hundreds of forest fires raging in various parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan...

Er, did anyone read my blog yesterday? Whose forest is burning?

And then, on p.19: Nomadic shifting cultivators in Sarawak's deep interiors have started large-scale post-harvest burning on hill slopes...

Someone evidently forgot to tell the paper that Sarawak is a state in Malaysia, not Indonesia. How dare we blame Indonesia for our haze when we can't get our own act together?

I'm a farmer's daughter. An old-fashioned farmer, what's more. My dad was born in 1890. He was out milking cows - by hand - before he went to school, back in 1900. He would have welcomed a milking machine, believe me. As a young man, he ploughed using a team of horses. And switched to a tractor as soon as they were a viable option and he could afford it.

And you can't tell me that farmers trying desperately to eke a living out of tropical, rain-leeched soils on steep hillslopes, wouldn't welcome an easier way of doing things - like a way not to have to start all over again every three years. If only someone would explain it to them and make it a viable economic alternative for them.

Malaysia is a moderately well-to-do nation. Our infant mortality is lower than that of the United States. Our graduates are top-notch in many fields. We've had people doing Ph.Ds in agriculture both here and overseas for decades. Can anyone honestly tell me that none of them can work out a way for farmers to keep using the same land again and again and thus avoid destroying our rainforest so wantonly?

We are in the 21st century, and we can't work out a better way of doing this? Of course we can, and in fact doubtless have. (I'll admit I know nothing about what's available out there - but I have faith in Malaysian ingenuity.)

So why is the burning continuing?

Could it possibly be lack of leadership from politicians, intent only on the next election - and not on the wellbeing of our land twenty years from now? Could it be that it is easier to let farmers do the traditional thing rather than risk upsetting a voter by enforcing new methods? Is it because truly visionary leadership at a regional level is non-existent?

Shame on those leaders who have don't love this land enough to keep it from being washed away to the sea.
Shame on those leaders who don't care enough for the poorest people of the mountain slopes.
Shame on those leaders who don't care enough for the health of our children to protect our air and water quality, but who allow the burning to continue, who allow the streams to become mudflows.
Shame on those who don't recognise the grimness of our future because they won't acknowledge the environmental disaster they are creating by their neglect.

If you have another explanation, please tell me. Because I find all this unbelievable. Just what century are we living in again?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Malaysia: country of law breakers

Prepare for another rant.

It is illegal to do any open burning in Malaysia. Of course, something being illegal here means very little. It certainly doesn't necessarily mean you'll end up fined or jailed. Red lights are - for example - only for motorists, not for pedestrians or motorbikes. And even with cars, it's optional if there's not much traffic. Just stand by a set of lights on a quiet Sunday afternoon if you don't believe me.

'One way' street signs have no meaning whatsoever for motorcyclists. In Bandar Baru Bangi, you don't even have to have a licence to ride a motorbike. Hell, you don't even have to be big enough to see over the handlebars - and you can take your little sister standing up in front of you and don't forget little bro - he can hang on behind. You've seen Dad do it, so why can't you, too? Even though you are only twelve. And Dad would never dream of wearing his crash helmet when he goes to the mosque on Fridays. Someone might pinch it while he's praying.
Besides, a helmet is a pest when there's a songkok or some other supposedly Islamic headgear on your head. Anyway, God is not going to kill you on your way to prayer and leave your family without an income, is He?

You can protect tigers all you want, but catch a man with one in his frig, and he'll shrug and say "I didn't put it there and I know nothing about it" - and he gets a gentle tap on the wrist by the magistrate who's probably just tried a child molest case and can't see that a tiger matters one whit. The worst thing that happens to the poacher is the tiger is confiscated. All that lovely money down the drain. Never mind, he can go back and get another. And another and another.

Taxes get paid only by those on salaries who therefore can't work out a way to run away from them. We start young, showing our kids how to ignore the law. We paint the maximum speed on the back of trucks and buses, just to show how much contempt people have for that law. Dad takes the kids fishing in the lake and sets up next to the sign that says "No Fishing, by order". Malaysia boleh, you see.

Fishing trawlers cover their boat number and openly trawl close to the coast (not allowed) because catches elsewhere are low. They don't care that they damage the coastal growth of sea grass. I've seen that myself off the coasts of Perak and Johor. Other fishermen poison fish with cyanide and bomb reefs. Take a look at Banggi Island if you don't believe me. And be very careful about eating fish in Sabah. They can misjudge the amount of cyanide. I could go on and on, just about the things I have seen myself.

I know how insidious this culture of contempt is - I've succumbed at times. I've done illegal U-turns, I've gone birdwatching (lots of times actually) in forest areas that have signs prohibiting entry. And yet I would never dream of doing it in my country of birth where there would be a penalty. We learn from example, you see.

Here in Malaysia, we carefully raise generation after generation of youngsters who have absolutely no respect for the law and we wonder why they end up drug addicts, or in jail, or prone to road rage.

We took these photographs over the weekend along the road between KK and the Kinabalu National Park. The fires - and there was more than one - are not accidental. They are burning the land deliberately to rid the earth of tropical rainforest. You can see some of those burnt patches in the second photo. Rainforest that could, with careful management, give future generations a living are being trashed on impossibly steep slopes. Just think what happens to the thin topsoil the moment it rains.

Why do they do this? To plant a crop of pineapples. Or hill padi. In three years, the hillside is abandoned because the soil is useless. And they find another slope, another patch of the world's most glorious biodiversity to destroy forever in exchange for three years of a pittance of an income. The rainforest does not grow back. The hills are a patchwork of weeds now.

Tomorrow I'll talk about who I blame. And it's not the farmer.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Glenda goes bush for a photo...

I have read with interest what everyone had to say about photos..and have decided that you are probably right. Glenda less formal is probably a better way to go.

Baggy clothes, binoculars round my neck, standing in a drain and not a skerrick of make-up in sight...this was me yesterday, up in Kinabalu Park. {We were up there giving some presentations - me talking about birds on migration and Ramly on the insect-eating fungus of Maliau Basin (absolutely gross subject: those you wish to destroy, drive insane first so they climb up and cling to the underside of a leaf and you can then eat the body and disperse your children - i.e. more predator spores. Now there's an sf plot)}.

Anyway, seriously, we are going to try to take a few shots out in the forest and see what happens...watch this spot for more horrendous pix of the fantasy-writing, jungle-bashing Krone of Kota Kinabalu...

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Who am I really?





















No grammar or style comment this week - just got back from a weekend away and I'm far too tired to think of grammar!

Thanks everyone for the comments on the post below...I am replying here. I know which photo to send out of those three, for sure - but the general feeling seems to be that one ought to get photos done professionally with all the blemishes removed and edges softened and...

So I thought about it.

Here's the same photo very amateurishly softened and glowed and with half the wrinkles and most of the age spots magically banished to the photo-blemish graveyard of the cyberworld. (Took me all of 30 secs to do this).

But is it me?

I am the product of a life in the sun - the first 15 years of which was spent without the benefit of sun screen. (Unfortunate result: three skin cancers). I am the product of my years. I've had kids and I've breastfed them. I am greying and my hair is thinning, and I rarely wear much makeup - if any - and you are more likely to see me sweatily lugging a huge telescope and tripod through mangrove mud, than dressed in Westwood, teetering on a pair of Jimmy Choo's, clutching a handbag bought in Paris. I have wrinkles and age spots and arthritis. Things droop and wobble.

I'm not proud of any of that - any more than I am proud of being my age or being short or born blue-eyed. I'm not ashamed of any of it, either. It's just what I am, much of it beyond my control. I really don't have much say in the number of years I have been around...!

If I get a professional to photoshop the real weatherbeaten me into oblivion for publicity purposes, aren't I subscribing to the same principles that lie behind this artificial world of airbrushed supermodels and botoxed celebrities that I so loathe for its despising of what is normal and healthy and real? People do get old. Things happen during the process. It doesn't make us ugly or in need of cosmetic surgery to correct the "faults". They are not faults!

No amount of lighting and airbrushing is going to make me a better writer - and my books are not going to be one whit more entertaining because of it. And I doubt that a pretty pix will sell a single book anyway...I am sure most of you agree with that. So why should I lie? Why should I buy into the fiction that growing old and not looking perfect is somehow wrong and in need of correction?

(And btw, if you saw me out in the tropical heat of the rainforest with the sweat dripping off the end of my nose in a reality shot, then I would look even worse!
And about now, you have all begun to realise why I named this blog "Tropic Temper" - Yep, I can rant with the best of 'em.)

So here's what I have decided. I shall send the untouched photo to the marketing dept and let them make the choice. Yeah, at heart, I am just a cowardly writer who likes to pass the buck...

And thanks all, for your input. It was appreciated! You're a great bunch of people. And I have no idea why my b & w photo at the top of the blog keeps blinking in and out of reality.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Would you buy a book from this person...?

What sells a book is an eternal mystery, unknown to Man. Or to the woman who works as the marketing /publicity person at XYZ publishers.

We all know that bad books sometimes sell. By the gadzillions. We also know that some blindingly brilliant (and entertaining) novels never seem to take off. But you know what really, really puzzles me, far more than those minor mysteries?

It is this: Why should the publicity department of a publisher think that a photo of me is going to help the sales of my books? Is he kidding?

Now it might be different if I looked like my daughter who is now displayed in 8' splendour on the back of a Glasgow bus (see here). Or my other daughter who is also a bit of a stunner when her two-year-old hasn't smeared lasagne in her hair.

But me? I haven't seem too many women my age and height and weight and unlifted-wrinkle-factor doing much advertising of products lately. I look like the "before" shot for someone going on an Oprah makeover show for really desperate housewives. So how the hell is any photo of me going to help sell my books?

Take my word for it, folks, I write a good book. People who buy my books seem to like them. That's all you need to know. You don't need to see what I look like.

However, I bend to the pressure of the publicity/marketing department. If you did see a photo of me, which one of these would turn you off reading a book of mine the least?

Nope, no good. My daughter is on the back of a bus. I just look like the back of one. I am heading out to a botox party (back in a couple of days), and does anyone know how to use that airbrush thingy on photoshop?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

How I Write a Novel (5): Beta Readers

I had my first two novels published without even being aware that there were such people as beta readers. Oh, one or two family members had read the books, or versions of them - but my family members are far too kind to be beta readers (or far too wise).

The only real feedback I had was from my agent and editors. I am wiser now: I know there are wonderful people out there who actually like reading books in progress and providing the feedback that helps you to make it a better book.

This was especially valuable when I was writing "The Shadow of Tyr" recently (to be published in January). For a time, the book just would not go right. And I couldn't work out what was wrong. A couple of my beta readers came along and put their finger on the problems - to the extent that when I finally showed the MS to my editor and agent, they both asked, Huh? So what was the problem? And my copyeditor said the book was "truly magic"!

So here's to my beta readers - you rock.

Here are a number of things that a writer must remember about this process:
  • As an author, you MUST divorce yourself from your work - a crit of your book that says, "Hey this is crap. I found it boring and repetitive," is not a description of you. You have asked for critical feedback; when you get it, swallow your pride and accept it. Don't ever then sit down and write back a long justification of your work and why your beta reader is wrong. If you do, you've just lost yourself a beta reader and made yourself look ridiculous.
  • Choose your beta readers carefully. I am told there are some destructive people (usually unpublished and embittered) out there who like nothing better than to tear other people down. I haven't actually suffered from this myself, but I have heard of other authors who have. You need someone who can tell you what it was that was wrong, and why - (but not necessarily how to fix it - that is your job, although they may be able to help you, especially if they are fellow writers). Any beta reader who attacks you, not your work, needs to be discarded immediately.
  • Choose beta readers who are familiar with the genre and who read widely. That way, they lnow what they are talking about. They know bad when they see it.
  • Here's what should happen. Your beta reader says: I thought Chapter 12 dragged. There was too much telling, not enough action. Too much boring dialogue. By the end, I was yawning. Now you, as author, know that there is a lot of valuable info in Chap 12 that the reader must be told - it's now up to you to work out how to make it more palatable. A really superb beta reader might make a suggestion: Why don't you pep this up by having Tom there, asking silly questions and Alice losing her temper... but don't expect a beta reader to give you the solution. All they should do is tell you what doesn't work for them and why.
  • Should you always take notice of the advice? Not necessarily. Beta readers can be wrong. They can even say contradictory things. But generally, if you have chosen them wisely, it pays to think very, very carefully about what they say. If two of them say the same thing, then you know you should really sit up and take notice!
  • Different beta readers are good at different things. That's why it's great to have a few of them. Some are plot hole finders. Others go after lousy grammar. Others home in on continuity mistakes. Some just look at the bigger picture. Bless them all.
  • So where do you find a beta reader? I am exceedingly lucky that one of my book group who lives a couple of streets away is also a sff fan and an editor - she is invaluable. She is a treasure. But she is also a working girl, and it is cheeky to ask someone who does this sort of thing for a living to do it for free! So we have an understanding - she does it to the degree that it is still fun for her. The moment she is pressed for time or it starts to be a chore, she's gotta stop and say, Sorry. Not this time. And that's always the way it should be, even with someone who is not in the industry.
My other beta readers, I found through the internet. I belong to a message board over at Voyager Australia, and I met authors and readers there who volunteered. Some of them are fellow authors - and they are wonderful. They are also enormously busy people, and it can be an imposition to ask them to do something as time-consuming as this. One is a bookseller. One a copyeditor. One a writer and editor, with her own unpublished books on the burner. One of them I still have never met.

And they all rock. I am eternally grateful to everyone of them. And I have done beta reading for many of them, in turn.
  • If you are an unpublished writer and want a published writer to beta read for you, you should probably forget it. Unless they are a good friend, it is unlikely to happen. Most authors don't have time, and are especially reluctant to help people they don't know for fear of later being accused of pinching their ideas.

And this pix has nothing to do with beta readers. It's just a water monitor that lives around our apartment block - and it is 5' long - a metre and a half. Click on it for a good look.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Life on the back of a bus.

[Quite literally...]

I have pinched a post from the blog of my daughter's band [see here] over in Glasgow, because it made me laugh. Here's what she says:

"O.k. o.k., so I finally admit that it's me on the last Belle and Sebastian album cover 'the life pursuit'. What I didn't realise when I agreed to do it is that they would stick my face on fridge magnets, glow in the dark nashii t-shirts, shopping bags and wait for it, my eight foot face on the, yep ... back of a bus. Even the thought of this makes me furrow my brow and look worried, even now.

"Trouble is, it was supposed on the 44 bus. The 44 travels peacefully through the leafy beautiful west end of Glasgow, cruising past the delis, cafes, down past the grand looking university. In fact, the 44 travels right in front of my house too and I suppose they figure past potential Belle and Sebastian fans.

"Trouble is they put it on the 45 bus. The forty five travels wildly through the south side of Glasgow, cruising past the hoods and banged up derelict drug-addled sink estates of the Gorbals. In fact, the 45 travels past the place where a 12-year-old just died from a smack overdose, too, and I figure past every potential person that would probably eat Belle and Sebastian fans for dinner.

"So with a failed mission, the manager of Belle and Sebastian kicks up a fuss with the bus company. Guess what the result is: 'Totally, we get the point of your complaint, but no matter who you are, we aint re-routing no bus for you but .. tell you what, we'll give you a free month!'

"Awesome. My face is still rumbling around the south side of Glasgow as we speak. Our friend and Engineer, Jim Brady, said he nearly smacked into the back of it the other day in total surprise as my huge face towered above him. I think he must have been mesmerised by my meter long duck lips. Hah! "

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Grammar: a look at some commas

The regular Sunday "style and grammar" post.

Is it: He's coming too or He's coming, too
I don't want one either or I don't want one, either

The answer on this one is actually quite simple. You can please yourself.
There are no set rules, at least none that are applied regularly today. [Some people will try to make rules, but they don't seem to work very well.] Just do what you think suits the situation.

Jim has a ball, so Mary wanted one too!

I think that works without the comma. But there's nothing wrong if you put one in.

Jim worked in accounting at the time, but he had another job, too. He was a barman at night.

I like that better with a comma.

There is one case where the comma is used more often than not, and that is when the "too" is in the middle of the sentence.

Michael used to go sailing every Sunday, and his son went with him. His daughter, too, when she was old enough.

Inevitably, when I get a copyedit back from the publisher, I find she has inserted more commas than I originally put in. I usually leave them there. I figure that a copyeditor - while perhaps not the actual god of punctuation and grammar - does come close, and tends to know more than I do about what is best!

So don't fuss too much about this one. No editor is going to toss your work across the room because you did or did not insert a comma before "too".

That's all I have time for this week - I have a copyedit that has to be completed and sent back to Australia ...

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Going into Orbit...

I have been told that I can make this official - The Mirage Makers trilogy has been bought by Orbit UK. That's right, after 8 years away, I will be back in the UK market next year. So all you UK fans who liked Havenstar, I'm heading your way again! Look out for book 1, Heart of the Mirage, around May of next year. It will have a different cover from this [Australian] one.

We Aussies seem to be doing well on the international market lately - and I am joining many of my fellow Voyager Oz authors in the Orbit line up, including my pal Karen Miller [see pix], author of the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology who has also just made a similar announcement.

So watch out for Aussies in Orbit....!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

How I write a Novel (4)

See also Part 1; Part 2; and Part 3.

So there I am, with a finished version of the story that makes me reasonably happy. Remember, parts of this book have already been rewritten several times. So, what's next?

Next comes the meticulous sentence by sentence rewrite. The first bit is the easiest : the spellcheck. Making sure I haven't misspelled proper names as well as ordinary words.
The rest is so much harder because the spellcheck can't tell you that you've written "there" when you mean "they're" - and I do that silly sort of stuff a lot because I tend to "hear" words rather than see them as I write. In addition I'm a lousy copy editor and tend to read what I think is there and not what really is.
At this stage, the grammar function can be helpful too - it can point out some mistakes, as long as you don't take too much notice of the things it doesn't do too well.

So how do I find all the rough edges that spellcheck can't show me? Well, I run a "find" [under edit on the toolbar] of some things that I know need checking.
For example, I look for "really" and "very" and "seemed" and all those other words that I know I use far too much. Expressions too: "made an effort" was a favourite of mine for a while. And in one book I had over a 100 instances of "of course", most of which needed turfing out - of course! It's all too easy to have one's characters sighing all the time, or shrugging - find out what your favourites are, and replace most of them. Look for cliches and think of better ways of saying the same thing.

Once all that is done, I click on that funny little backwards "P" thingy on the standard toolbar - the one that shows up all formatting. It puts a dot between every word. With that function on, I then re-read the whole MS. I find all those little dots force me to slow down and read every single word. And oh, the mistakes I find with that. I blush, correct them, and move on. This is the stage when I find a lot of overuse of words [e.g. using "discovered" four times on one page], as well as typos, missing words, etc. After that, I run another spell check.

Is my MS ready to send off to the publisher or agent yet? Absolutely not. But it is ready for beta readers. More about these wonderful people next time.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Mountain moods...

Tomorrow I'll do another segment on "How I write a Novel". In the meantime, another couple of photos from the Crocker Range, Sabah, Borneo...

I was remembering today what was probably my earliest introduction to books about Sabah: "The Land Below the Wind" by Agnes Keith. I must
have been about 12 or 13 when I read it.
It was published in the late 1930s, or early 40s [before the war], written by an American married to a British colonial forestry officer, living in Sandakan. A recommended read, even today - and I notice it is on sale here in bookshops.

She spent the war years interred with her young son. Her husband was also imprisoned, but all three survived. Her war experiences became the subject of another book, "Three Came Home" and a film.

I was fascinated by 'The Land Below the Wind"...but I wonder what I would have thought if someone had told me then that one day I would live "below the wind" too?


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Our weekend in the mountains...

The hotel was at 1,550m; nights are cool or even downright cold. Our room cost 50 Malaysian ringgit for one night. That's about USD 18.00.

There were candles on the table - electricity only ran from dusk to midnight, it seems. No hot water in the bathroom, but never mind, there was an electric kettle. Just remember not to leave your bath till morning.

We turned on the lights come sunset - didn't work. Went downstairs (no phone - you didn't think there would be, did you?) and told the manager. He came up, stood on the bed, and gave the fluorescent bulb a twist. Let there be light...but not in the bathroom. The bulb there didn't work at all and they didn't have another.

Still, with a view like that out of the window, who cares?

And here's a lantern bug that came visiting. That strange black thing on the head is just ornamention. The poor thing could no longer fly because of a huge fungal growth on its abdomen.

That's life in a plant eat bug world...

It was a good weekend.

Monday, July 03, 2006

What people notice...

I am working on a project at the moment that has, as one of its aims, the increase of tourist arrivals into the country.
This last weekend, we drove up into the mountains east of Kota Kinabalu and I made a point of trying to see things through the eyes of a tourist. There was one thing that stood out by a mile - and it wasn't the great scenery, lovely though that was. It was the dogs.
There are not all that many dogs in rural Peninsular Malaysia because most rural people are Muslims; not so in Sabah. Every roadside restaurant or village had its dogs.

And I have never seen such a sorry lot in my life. Thin - often with the ribs showing, largely hairless with mange or something similar, scratching unhappily, lying on the bitumen of the road in an attempt to assuage the itch...they were everywhere. The hotel we stayed in had a dog with what might have been an untreated broken leg. Certainly he couldn't use it, and seemed uncomfortable no matter what he did.

It was a horrible advertisement: Come to Sabah and see how we look after our pets. I can imagine a great many tourists so upset by this parade of pathetic pooches that they don't even notice the beauty of the Crocker Range and the National Park on either side of the road...

Malaysia, you want to please tourists, you got a lot to learn about compassion for animals first. And I'm not even a dog person.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Grammar tip: on being too clever...

The usual Sunday grammar or style tip...

I have just been through my copyedit of "The Shadow of Tyr". And I bless my wonderful copy editor who has the eyesight of an eagle after a mouse when it comes to picking up mistakes... Inevitably, there are some mistakes that crop up where I have been too smart for the good of the copy.

We all know about the use of the subjunctive changing the form of the verb "to be" - like this:

If I were a writer, I would want to write a book like that.
He would be ecstatic, if he were published.

Normally, we would say "was" with the subject "I" or "he", but not in these above examples. Why not? Because they are conditional [subjunctive] constructions using the "if"...."would" form. In these above sentences, using "were" is correct grammar.

But I went overboard and used "were" with "he" in this construction:
He wasn't sure if he were successful.
But that's not a subjunctive sentence! No "would". No sense of "if this happened, then that would happen". I was just being too smart without thinking about what I was doing. And ended up wrong.
Correct: He wasn't sure if he was successful.

One other problem I have is with separating "too" or "either" from the rest of the sentence.
As in a sentence like this:
He was riding a camel too.
or:
He wasn't riding a camel either.

I have a tendency to stick in the comma all the time - which is not a good idea. It's easy to be wrong. I'll talk about this more next week.