Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Indulging my love affair with bookstores: BORDERLANDS - SF in more ways than one.

I am off back to Malaysia today. Saying goodbye to second daughter and venturing into the wilds of LAX to see if this time I can get through the queues (because I have a paper ticket) and the security in under 3 or so hours in time to get on the plane.

We returned to L.A. yesterday, after our holiday in Yosemite and San Francisco - more of which later. Suffice it to say that high on the places to visit was Borderlands, the specialty bookstore in Valencia St, Mission district - and an absolute must on the itinerary of any sff reader. Or in fact, cat lover. This is Ripley the hairless Sphinx cat. Patting it is rather like running your hand over a balloon filled with water. Sort of rubbery on the outside and soggy inside... Every time I pointed the camera in its direction it looked away in that delightfully non-obliging way common to all felines. Gotta love 'em.

Came away from Borderlands with still more books to try and fit in suitcases and still remain under the weight limit. Wish me luck.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Really big trees...

We have big trees in my state in Australia. There's a giant karri that has a firewatching tower near the top. It is 201 ' or 61 m tall. I have climbed it, in fact. It was one very scary climb even back in those days before I had wonky knees... Then there are Malaysian rainforest trees of which the Tualang Koompassia excelsa gets up to about 288' or 88m, and other species equally tall.

And then there are the sequoias. At over 100m and over 2000 years old. And they are really something. Did you know that the cones stay on the tree for 20 years or more? I guess they just live at a different tempo to we poor mortals...
Above: Younger daughter and me.

Above: A dead one.

Below: The Grizzly tree.

Below: And what one looks like when it falls over....

Redwoods. Magnificent. They put you in your place in the scheme of things.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


I have visited a heck of a lot of National Parks in my lifetime, from Ecuador to Poland, Scotland to Australia. I have worked in National Parks throughout Malaysia. I have seen some of the most wonderful things that the earth has to offer us...And I can still say wow at what nature and millions of years of evolution has wrought.
Heard in the Park:
Teacher talking to students mentions saving the planet, value of recycling, being green, etc.
Student mutters to fellow student: "Save the planet; recycle homework."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Travelling in California...

A few shots of the trip north from L.A. Just to remind you how dry this state is - and how important water is and will be in the future of the world.
Well, Yosemite was not the easiest place to get internet connection, hence the hiatus. We actually stayed outside the park as there was no non-camping accommodation inside, and we were not geared up for camping. So we spent 2 nights in Fish Camp at a place called White Chief Mountain Lodge, believe it or not. It's a town with a general store (see photo below).We were very late leaving L.A. - spent the morning stuffing envelopes (don't ask) so we travelled the latter part of the journey in the dark (no moon but the stars were great) through forest. I was actually editing something for friend of older daughter on an I-phone while we went. She sent an email, I edited it by phone. This kind of technology blows my mind - there we are, travelling miles from anywhere, in the pitch dark, and we get an email. How cool is that??

More tomorrow, about Yosemite. Place with a big WOW factor.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I am off to Yosemite today for 2 nights, then on to San Francisco for two nights. Looking forward to this immensely!! Both places are a first for me. Blogging will depend on availability of connection. Should be fine in SF.

The photo is a candid shot from Long Beach marina - Western Gull, I think.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More from Longbeach....

1. So you thought writing on a movie set would be glamorous, eh? When I got bored, I did some work on Stormseeker.

2. When a hotel room was being booked for my daughter, she was asked if she'd like the Queen Mary. Now, she's the kind of person who get's seasick jumping a puddle, so she said no.
3. So instead we stayed in the Renaissance - this was the view from our window.
4. I eventually found my way to the beach. I've decided that one reason I am not enamoured by L.A. beaches, is that the sand is such a yucky colour. Sort of nondescript brown. Give me those brilliant white sands of West Australian beaches any day...

Monday, September 22, 2008


I am actually staying in a hotel in Long Beach at the moment, as my daughter is working on location here (film work, production side, not acting!).

I spent a bit of time today on the set in an old warehouse down on the waterfront (an episode of CSI and Prison Break were filmed here), which was very interesting, for me at least, and confirmed my previous impression of film work - gleaned from when she was a kid acting in some TV adverts years ago: you would have to be insane to think that acting is glamorous. It is repetitive and boring for the most part, and I take my hat off to actors who can produce great work in short takes done for the umpteenth time.
The other thing that impresses an outsider is how many people and how much time and equipment goes into producing each of minute of film...

I can't say anything about what the production is, so don't ask. All hush-hush at the moment.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Title troubles settled

As some of you may remember, the titles for the three books of my present trilogy presented me with a problem. I can write a 180,000 word book, but I can't come up with a three word title. Or more or less words than three. At least, not without help.

So with the help of an agent and two editors (they all rock) from two different countries, it seems we have finally found something that all of us like. And glory be, they are not as yet used by half a dozen genre writers and film-makers, although there is a spy thriller with a name that comes close to the final book title.

So here is the unveiling...

Trilogy name: RANDOM RAIN



Saturday, September 20, 2008

Reading and travel

Started the day at 4.50 a.m. to get to Charlottesville airport. I am now in L.A.
Did quite a bit of writing until laptop battery ran out. Then read a good book "Rules of Ascension" by David B. Coe. Plane arrived half an hour early.

I finished both "The God Delusion" and "A Year of Living Biblically" while in Virginia, and I recommend those for any God-fearing person who would like to have their faith tested. I would dearly have loved to recommend them to the pleasant young man sitting next to me on the plane, who was far to polite to say anything about the nosy woman sitting next to him reading over his shoulder. He started off by reading "The Shack"*, then turned to a manual which had one section headlined "Homework: Maintaining a Biblical Marriage" and numerous other equally interesting exercises. Then he ended his reading with a book titled "Christian Trivia."

Daughter No.2 met me and we had lunch in a shack - a Thai restaurant by the sea in Malibu. Now settled into Echo Park...

*which has an extraordinary 1,300 reviews on Amazon and an editorial blurb starts by saying: "Mac is a grief-stricken father in mid-life about to have an extraordinary experience with God. His great sadness began four years ago on a weekend camping trip, when his 6-year-old daughter, Missy, was murdered. What he couldn't know then, but is about to learn, was God's purpose for Missy's death." (Sounds really sick to me and an instant turn off.)

Friday, September 19, 2008


I was interrupted while writing the previous post and it ended up posted before it was ready. Now fixed!


Last Friday some of us posted a query letter that was successful. Tomorrow, others are posting a successful synopses. I am not involved because I was reluctant to post a synopsis - I think they give away far too much about a book, and I don't want my readers to know what is going to happen!

I did post the beginnings of the synopsis of Random Rain here back in July, if anyone missed it and is interested.

Anyway, if you want to see what a stack of other writers say about synopses with examples, look here tomorrow for a list of URLs.

Tomorrow, I set off for Los Angeles. So, soon some bogging from the west coast.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Preeta Samarasan

Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening is the Whole Day is a "new" Malaysian author who is deservedly going places. She was interviewed by MPH's Quill magazine, and the wonderful Sharon Bakar at Bibliobibuli has posted the interview in two parts: Part one and part two, an interview absolutely worth reading, and not just by Malaysians.

Preeta has some exceptionally wise things to say about writing and the Malaysian scene, for a start. I look forward to meeting her in person one day.

As an individual I related to the question on whether it is necessary to leave the country to become a Malaysian novelist of note.

Preeta replies, 'I think writers are people who identify as outsiders whether or not they have the opportunity to leave physically. Frequently, they identify as outsiders from childhood...' which I think applies to me, a feeling that was exacerbated by my living almost my whole life in places that did not remotely resemble the place where I grew up.

She adds, and this is something I have been saying for ages and is the main reason I opted out of mainstream literature into genre: 'But one thing would probably been different (if she hadn't left Malaysia) : I don’t think I would’ve been brave enough to say these things as loudly as I’m saying them now. Like most Malaysians, I had lots of unexamined fears when I lived in the country. Fears of the government, fears of What People Will Think -- between those two, it’s hard to say which is the greater set of fears! I think of my expatriate status as a luxury that allows me to say what I want without these fears.'

I can remember the moment when I learned the power of What People Will Think in the Malaysian context. It was shortly after I arrived in Malaysia in the early 70s. My husband was abroad, so a friend invited me to stay for a week or two in her remote Kelantanese kampung up near Jelawat. (The hospitality of these people - none of whom had much money - was extraordinary; I have rarely felt as welcomed by strangers as I was in that village.)

Anyway, to get to my point: the houses there used cheap cotton prints for curtains - the kind of material that only has a pattern on one side. They hung these curtains with the pattern facing outwards. It was more important that the house look good from the outside, than that it looked good for you, the owner, living on the inside.

To live in Malaysia and to write an honest book about Malaysia and Malaysians takes enormous courage.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Careful of that sword, aka please don't sue me...

This clause is in my new book contract:
"The Works shall not contain any recipe, formula, suggestion or advice which if followed has the potential to cause harm..."

Oh dear. I immediately cut out the "charm of powerful trouble recipe", you know, the one on page 234, the bit about boiling and baking the "Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg and howlet's wing..." After all, even if readers aren't crazy enough to drink it, we all know how badly things went wrong when someone dabbled with that mixture, right? And nowadays we have to worry about bird flu, SARS, salmonella and rabies as well. OK, toss that bit.

But what on earth am I going to do with that description of teaching the lad how to fight with a sword on p.93? Or the battle description on p.450. Loads of advice with the potential to cause harm there. You know, stuff along the lines of: "Lop off the dastardly knave's head, you fool!"

I do so love lawyer lingo.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ok, folks, newsflash


The Random Rain trilogy is going to be published by HarperCollins Voyager Australia.

Book One will be out in September 2009, a year from now, if all is well, with the other two books to follow in 2010, just 6 months apart.


P.S. So, Joanna, you will get your free book! :)

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Take a look at the plant below - looks like it has some sort of pine cone type thingies on it.
But nope, they are the protective cases of some kind of caterpillar. At a wild and uneducated guess, a moth - not sure why I think that. It could just as easily be a butterfly. Pix taken up at the apple farm, showing one of the guys poking his head out of the attached end.
The bush was covered in these things.
And how is the writing progressing? Nearly 60% of the final total on the writeropia picometer.

As my word aim for the first draft is about 170,000, the percentage for that is even better:

Or am I trying to disguise the fact that I am not writing as much as I should - and average of 600 words a day in the past 8 days? Aargh. Gotta do better than that.

Friday, September 12, 2008

On writing a query letter

[This is actually an idea by author Josh Palmatier. What happens is this: a number of authors are putting up an example of a successful query letter, i.e. one that either got them an agent or an editor. In other words, they post a query that succeeded. In addition, the writer might also post a discussion about how they write queries or whatever they feel might help other aspiring writers with writing their own queries.
At the end of this post there is a link to all the other blog posts on queries posted by all of the other writers.]

My advice on writing a query letter:
If you ignore instructions, you are doomed from the start.

The first thing to do before writing a query letter is to see what a particular publisher or agent wants. And nowadays that's usually easy - you look at their website. Can you send them an email? Do they want the first three chapters with the query letter or do they want the query first?

Don't send a two page query letter if they ask for one page. Don't send it as an email attachment if they ask you not to. Or maybe they are a publisher who doesn't want a query from anyone but an agent? Then don't waste your time sending one. Different countries have different ways of doing things too; don't expect to use the same letter to appeal to an American agent and a British agent...

Back in the days when I started querying, in the late 1980s, finding the prerequisite information was harder. There was no internet. I used the UK Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, ran a finger down the columns of agents to the first one that said they were looking at fantasy, and sent off a query letter.

The letter below was more or less it (and you are going to tear your hair out in frustration knowing that anyone could get anywhere with something like this - but back in those days quite frankly there wasn't as much competition. You know what? - When you had to type an MS, fewer people actually ever finished a book...) :

Dear (agent's name)

Please find enclosed the first three chapters of a completed a fantasy novel of 90,000 words, entitled* Blaze Halfbreed. I hope you will consider reading the whole novel with a view to representation.

I am an Australian teacher presently living in Vienna, Austria. My only previously published work has been non-fiction articles for nature and travel magazines.

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours sincerely,

* Some purists insist that you can't use entitled in this context. They are wrong. Entitled not only means what is due to you, but also the designation, or title.

Yep, that was it. I suspect this kind of query letter will not get you far today. The book, btw, became somewhat longer after agent and editorial advice, and was changed from a standalone to the first book of a trilogy. It was eventually published as The Aware, Book One of The Isles of Glory. My agent was the first person to ever read it, other than myself.

Nowadays it pays to add some kind of a hook to get the agent or editor interested in reading those three chapters - but I would still keep the rest of the letter short and pithy. At this point in your relationship, an agent or editor is not interested in the fact that you work as a trapeze artist or an ambulance driver (unless of course you've written a book about a cowardly trapeze artist or a traumatised ambulance driver). I included the bit about the non-fiction publications merely to show that I can write professionally enough to be published. No details, because I doubt the agent would have been familiar with the magazines involved. If I'd written for a well-known international magazine, then I would have added "including Playboy" or whatever.

If you want to know how to write a query letter with a hook, then look at the archives of Pub Rants or Miss Snark. In the end, though, it will be your book that gets you an agent or a publisher, not your query letter. And it is better to expend your energies in writing that irresistible first chapter than agonising too much over a letter. One good sentence or a short paragraph that tells the reader enough about the book to intrigue should be sufficient. Don't try to summarise the story!

Something like this might have done the trick for "Blaze Halfbreed": When you can't legally stay in one place for more than three days because you lack citizenship, you have to be special to earn a living - or indeed to stay alive. Fortunately Blaze is special. She not only wields a large sword, she can physically see what few people can: magic.

And here is the list of other authors who will be posting their own query letters sometime today - and theirs will probably be much more up-to-date and relevant to today's situation than mine.

Paul Crilley
Chris Dolley
Diana Pharaoh Francis
Gregory Frost
Simon Haynes
Jacqueline Kessler
John Levitt
Joshua Palmatier
Janni Lee Simner
Maria V. Snyder
Jennifer Stevenson
Edward Willett
David J. Williams

Thursday, September 11, 2008


If you haven't been to Charlottesville, Virginia, you are missing a treat. It is one lovely university town. Last weekend we went up into the hills to pick apples, and the view from there shows just how the large town conceals itself in vegetation...Those hills on the other side of the valley are the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the next valley over is the Shenandoah.
If you look very carefully at the bottom photo you will see a number of black spots in the sky - these were Turkey Vultures circling on the thermals.

Tomorrow tune in for a post on writing a query letter...with a successful example and lots of links.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

More on language...

A while back, I mentioned a discussion about coping with words that were "foreign" to me because, as an Australian farm kid growing up in the forties and fifties, with no access to TV (let alone the internet!) and rarely going to the flicks (movies), so much of what I read was indeed foreign.

I never saw snow, even in the distance on mountains, till I was 20, and I never saw it snowing until I was 36. I never saw an acorn or an oak tree when I was young.

And sometimes that led to odd perceptions. I thought chipmunks were as big as cats and groundhogs were more the size of kittens. I thought snowflakes were at least an inch long (hey, that's the way they are often depicted in kids picture books!). I thought the Mona Lisa must be a huge picture. And I thought an acorn would be as long as my thumb instead of more the size of my thumbnail.I remember my husband discovering after he arrived in Australia that strawberries didn't grow on trees like mulberries, or even on bushes like raspberries. And when I pointed out the Southern Cross to an American friend in Malaysia, her astonished exclamation was, "But it's so small!"

This past week I saw my first groundhog - in fact, I saw two, at different locations on the same day, so I finally cleared that one up.

This kind of mistake is growing more and more rare, of course, as we become more and more visual through the media, and it has become so easy to look things up. What mistakes did you make as a result of learning something through reading, but not seeing it?

Sunday, September 07, 2008


Russell Kirkpatrick had an interesting post over on his blog last week, about a list of words he obtained from a book he was reading, a list that a reader of that book had trouble understanding. Russell asked how many of these words we knew without having to look them up. Read his blog here to find out how he came by the list.

I particularly liked his remark in the comments section too: "I guess authors have be careful at what level they pitch their vocabulary. A reader doesn't want to be constantly looking up words in the dictionary. But if we all write for the lowest common denominator, some lovely and powerful words will be lost forever."

Here's the list:
haled (as in 'haled him home')
lard (as in 'with a needle lard each tenderloin')
omelette aux champignons
mot juste

en casserole
succes de scandale
truite bleu
Plimsoll mark
Paradise enow

The ones in the red are the ones I did not know. The blue ones are either the ones I sort of knew but didn't quite get right, or ones I guessed wildly at, and got accidently right.

I note that one commentator on Russell's blog said she got them all right - which was pretty impressive.

Anyway, it highlights a problem that we writers have - do we make concessions to our readers with the choice of our vocabulary? Use long and difficult words when short simple ones will do and we are accused, quite rightly, of being pretentious. However, there are times when a more difficult word is exactly right in that context. And so I use it, knowing that many of my readers will not understand it.

I look at it this way: most of us have learned the more unusual words in our vocabulary by reading them. Reading, not listening, is in fact the reason I have an extensive vocabulary. [Maybe that is not so true now with the present generation who get to listen to TV a lot more than my generation listened to the radio. I wonder, though, if TV extends vocabulary the way reading does...other than it puts the watcher in touch with recent trends in catchwords, technology and slang.]

And so my hope is that if a reader does not know a word when they read it, they will either guess its meaning from the context, or they will look it up, and either way they gain a new word.

Of course, sometimes a disparity in the writer's vocab and the reader's recognition leads to confusion. As I think I have mentioned elsewhere, my copy editor read the sentence "She feathered the oars" and asked me why the oars were covered in feathers? And a mention of someone being in the van of the army led to the query: How come the army had vans? What sort of vans did they have in those days?

Friday, September 05, 2008

Back to work

Grandson started going back to pre-school yesterday. I was too sick to do anything, but today I start working again in all seriousness.

On July 13th, my word count was 100,000, or 55% of the supposed total of Book 2 of the Random Rain cycle. I've actually done quite a bit of writing work since then: another rewrite of Book One, and another draft of those first 100,000 words of Book Two, working through it from beginning to end. And to give you an idea of what happens between draft one and draft two, here's the new word count for Book Two. And remember, I probably cut a couple of thousand words out too.

So now it's back to serious work. From next week, I have a clear four to five hours a day...

No blog today

Godda cold. Miserubble.
So I leave you with a thought.

"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write
things worth reading or do things worth writing."

Benjamin Franklin

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Things I learned this week, or how to greet someone while sitting on a camel

1. Taxi is probably the most international word in the world today.
Followed closely by: sex, ok, pizza and chai.
The latter will apparently get you a cup of tea from Bangladesh to Russia. It might even work in Malaysia. Although, be warned, in a number of places it might not be the cuppa you are used to.

2. In Sardinia, there used to be a woman in every village called the acabadora who would put the sick and dying out of their misery with a little hammer. The last reported incident was in 1978.

3. The all-American gesture of the high five actually originated from Prophet Muhammed and his followers in 6th century Arabia. It was the easiest way to greet someone when sitting on a camel.

Don't you just love the internet? My younger daughter sent me the link to interesting and totally useless cultural stuff like that, see here.

And what have I learned on my own? The fascinating fact that farting is the favoured subject of conversation in four-year-old boys, ranking up there just behind their interest in having mac and cheese for lunch.
Every day.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Looking in from the outside

I have a personal stake in the future of the United States. My grandson is an American. So is my son-in-law. My two daughters live there.

In another less personal way, I have a second stake in what the future holds for the USA, and that is this: I live on this planet, and what the USA does counts. It counts with everyone one of us because it is a big, wealthy country with a great deal of power. It counts in just about every way you can think of: environmentally, commercially, militarily, scientifically, etc, etc. And so I want it to have a responsible leadership - someone who thinks very carefully about of the consequences of the use of military force or of its trade policies, international relations, education policies. (In fact the weight of the responsibility that falls on the shoulders of a President of the USA is unbelievable - and I wonder why on earth anyone would actually WANT such a job...?)

So I have watched the selection of the Republican presidential candidate's running mate with appalled fascination. A man who is 72 years old with a slew of known health issues may live to be 90, sure - but the odds that he might die in office - if he is elected - are obviously higher than younger men, or men of his own age with a clean bill of health.

Now in most countries that wouldn't really matter. You'd have another election, or the second in command, someone already elected to the national governing body and probably elected to the post by his fellow party members, steps up.

In the USA it does matter. It matters a lot. Because in the USA a President who dies in office would have elected by his single vote the next President of the United States. (And you folk from the USA don't know how utterly weird and undemocratic the rest of the world thinks that is!)

When I look at Senator McCain's choice of a running mate, I am enormously fearful. Sorry, no matter how hard I look, I can't see in Sarah Palin someone who is anywhere near being qualified to be the President of the USA. Of course, it's only a remote possibility it would ever happen, but it makes me tremble already.

And, of course, I have absolutely no say in the matter.

Monday, September 01, 2008

I Love the Internet

Over the weekend, I accessed the internet, standing up, at a slow, old computer the size of a small elephant and much prone to crashing (with what looked to be one of the earliest versions of blogger possible) and wading through things hordes of acronyms like WEP, DNS, DHCP, WPA, ISP, IP, cmd, TCP, not to mention mysterious words like ipconfig and ping. I have followed numerous esoteric (to me anyway) suggestions made by people who gave of their time to help in attempts to diagnose what was wrong with my laptop connection to the internet. Unfortunately, often the answers I got back from running diagnostics made as much sense to me as the acronyms. Less perhaps. Try Ancient Egyptian or basic Hittite.

In the end, I don't think it was anything I did (except ask it one more time to automatically find my IP and the DNS for the network connection) that solved the problem as abruptly as it had started in the first place. Both times, the server went down (for everyone in the house) beforehand.

I guess I'll never know what it was all about, but one thing I did have reaffirmed. There are wonderful people out there in the Web. People who will give of their time for others for no remuneration except my grateful thanks. You rock, guys.

P.S. And Khaldan - as I read your first comment, before reaching the end, I couldn't believe my eyes. Hrugaar had suddenly acquired geek status??