Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Sunburnt Country

When I was kid, I remember a book I had, written in verse, with delightful drawings, about a farm family in Australia. Now I have idea who wrote or illustrated it; in fact, what I chiefly remember about it is something I accepted absolutely as a child. Instead of having the four seasons in it as per a European or American type book, it had the four seasons à la Australia: flood, bushfire, drought and ... finally ... a good season when things weren't flooded, too dry or on fire. Oh, how true that is in so much of farming or station country.

Here are some more photos from my sister Margaret's trip to Lake Eyre and inland South Australia. As any country-born Ozzie will tell you, there aren't too many bridges in that part of the world. But there are lots of ravens and some crows. This lot, believe it or not, are fishing. Which is not something they get to do all that often, because the river only runs rarely. Still, once a fisherman, always a fisherman? They were getting fish as long as 15 cm (6"). This is Cooper Creek at Innaminka
And here is Lake Eyre. Margaret said the Lake Eyre Yacht Club were still waiting for the water to arrive - and below you can see the water as a faint blue line on the horizon and the salt was a bit soggy.Note the bay below. Ok, so the water's a little on the low side as yet. It takes six weeks to get there from where it rained, at about 30 kms a day, and the lake was still filling up when my sister was there. When it is so shallow, a shift in the wind can send all the water to one side and leave miles of mud exposed...
Usually it fills up only about once in 50 years or so, when it can be 4 metres deep (14'). And it is a tad on the large size. Almost 9000 sq.kms. That's 3,400 sq miles. Once full, it takes years to dry up again. The water doesn't run out. This is below sea level and there is nowhere to go.
Just look at those cloudless skies.
They spent a night camped on a channel of the Warburton River at Cowarie station (in cattle country, Australia has stations, not ranches) where the water was moving at 20 knots. There's a really interesting video about what the water means to the station owner - a woman - here:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Guess what and where?

Click to enlarge.

Here's a photo. Can you name what and where?

Here are some clues.

It's recent - within the last month.
It's in Australia (taken by my sister on her perambulations)
It portrays something that doesn't happen very often.

No prizes for the correct answer, just a pat on the back.

Next post will be the second part on writing a fantasy novel for beginners.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A day in the life of...

Catch up housework day. On the lounge room spring clean. Discovered two enormous lizards behind one of the bookcases (after I'd emptied and moved the bookcase.) Not the usual wall geckoes, but the Spotted Gecko that makes messes that you don't want to know about. Dunno what on earth they find to eat there. Also discovered that one bookcase was ruined underneath in the waterfall flood (aka roof leak) a couple of months back when I was raptor watching.

Then postman came and brought 2 copies of a new print run of The Aware. Yay! (this by the way is the time-honoured way of finding out that your book has gone to reprint - when you receive copies.) Now as I was only told about the last reprint back in February, I am really chuffed! And even better - they have done the cover with a lovely shiny finish instead of the matt one they used before. Oooo, nice. Love you, Voyager Oz!

If you look carefully at the photos of the book above, you will see they aren't quite the same. The one on the left is the old version(s), and the one on the right is the new version. It is so spiffy! Shiny cover like a duck's back that does justice to the lovely Jeff Bridges cover, whiter paper and although it has the same number of pages, it it more compact (see the thickness difference?). Wow. Wonder what I did to deserve that. But it's just lovely that this book, published in 2003, is still selling so well.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

If you like urban fantasy and Hong Kong you'll love this movie...

We went to see the movie "Push" starring Dakota Fanning and Chris Evans, today. Basically I went because I know the director, Paul McGuigan - and I'm glad I went.

I note from some of the reviews that many people found the plot confusing. I'm not sure why - as a SFF fan, I recognise it as an urban paranormal story with its own twists, and if that's what you like reading, you won't find it confusing. If you're a fan of the gritty style of say, Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files, then go and see this.

Paul matched his direction and the camerawork and the tough side of Hong Kong to the grittiness of the story, dodging all those usual touristy panoramas of Hong Kong and the harbour. (The panoramas are there, they are just - thank goodness - not the pretty-pretty ones that you usually see ad nauseum.) I came away with a great respect for Paul's ability.

Fanning was fabulous, playing a sassy 13-year-old dealing with very adult problems - her mother is a prisoner and she herself sees the future, including her own imminent death, not the easiest of things to cope with when you are barely into your teens. Small wonder then that her mantle of teenage smart-ass bravado occasionally wobbles under the strain. Her relationship with the film's hero played by Evans - who has his own set of problems - is the centre of the movie as they strive to change the future. I loved the final last twist at the end (after you think the tale is finished!).

Basically it's a story of psychics - bad guys and good guys - set in Hong Kong. It's a gangster sf movie. And it has some really neat stuff, including one of the coolest gunfights I've ever seen. The fight sequences are much grittier and more realistic than those beautifully choreographed totally unreal dances in the Matrix, yet along similar lines.

And oh, two things. I've always wondered what would happen if you pulled the key bits out of one of those edifices of multi-storeyed bamboo scaffolding you find in this part of the world; and I've also wondered what would happen if the glass broke on those huge fish tanks they have in seafood restaurants in this part of the world.

Now I know.

Director Paul McGuigan PUSH Exclusive

Pix from here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Would you like this job?

General requirements: Requires no intelligence, just a really, really weird idea of what it titillating. Would help, actually, to be mindless. Otherwise a highly developed sense of humour is advised.
Not suitable for: anyone subject to repetitive wrist injury. Might help to be ambidextrous.
Recommendation: Suggested that applicants have a highly developed sense of secrecy. (After all you wouldn't want anyone to know you do this for a living, would you?)
Location: Malaysia. (Specifically: the offices of the Malaysian Censorship Board).
Pay and perks: unknown, but probably includes a pension and medical benefits.
Job Description:
The ability to wield a mean black marker pen so that it totally eradicates all suggestion of what it covers.
Example of the work required: for the month of May 2009: Go through all copies of the National Geographic entering Malaysia and cover all suggestions of erotica from this offensive and pornographic monthly magazine.

p.s. possibly such as this disgusting photo here, (look at the third one on the page), obviously unsuitable for the sensitivities of Malaysian viewing.

(Information about this job taken from letters to the editor p56 The Star newspaper)
Pix from Harry Clarke's Faust see here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"I'm trying to write my first fantasy novel, but..."


I had an email from someone some time ago, which I didn't reply because I was so busy, but it deserves an answer. In fact, the problem is so universal for first time novelists that I decided to put the answer up here, and I shall break it into parts.

Briefly, the writer had done some important things to get herself started:
- enrolled into a writing course for practical nuts and bolts help
- got ideas for a story
- decided what she wants to accomplish by the end of the book

But, when she started to write her first novel other practical problems emerged and she felt she was foundering.

She identified two main problems:

1. Am I just waffling or is this good?
2. How do I write the not so exciting bits in between?

And I don't think there's a writer out there worth their salt who hasn't at times asked just those 2 questions.

Today I'm going to look a the first point.
How do you know you aren't waffling? Writing boring rubbish? Wasting your time on writing something you will just have to throw out later? How do you identify what's boring and what's not?

The easy answer is that you don't know. Which is not much help, so let's look at it from another angle.

  • Everything you write is useful because it helps your "learning to write" process.
Yes, it may be awful. But when you start your first novel, you can't know that and you shouldn't let it bother you. Just write now and judge it later.
Lots of writers put it this way: give yourself permission to write crap in the first draft. And believe me, ten books accepted for publication and I still write crap in the first draft. I also write brilliant stuff, too, and so probably will you.
  • Your main aim at the beginning should be to get the book finished
DON'T go back and re-read and re-read and alter and change and throw out and start again. You will never get the book finished if you do that.

Get your story down on paper - or on your computer. **

One of the best ways to finish a book is like this: start your writing period for the day by rereading what you wrote the day before, then write until you are finished for the day - without going back to re-read again.

During that re-read at the beginning of each writing day period, don't do too much alteration. Correct only the most egregious mistakes and move on. Your aim is just to put yourself in the flow of writing. You are preparing for your writing period ahead, not worrying about yesterday's.

I actually re-read from the beginning after about every 50,000 words, just to make sure I am on track. I find that helpful - once again I don't spend too much time on corrections. I just want to refresh my memory and enthuse myself for what's ahead. But do what works for you, always remembering you want to finish it, not get it perfect. Perfection is for later.

Ok, so now you've finished. Take a look at the word length. An adult fantasy novel? Probably 90,000 words upwards. For a first time novelist, you might find it easier to sell something at around 120,000 - 140,000 words. You'll have a heck of a job selling anything more than 180,000. If it is over 180,000 words you had better decide what needs turfing out! Mostly I would suggest that a first time novelist aim no higher than 160,000. (And no, there's no need to start telling me about the bestselling debut novel of 200,000 words...I know some people can. They are the exceptions.)

Now you are starting your rewrites. How many rewrites? Five? Thirty-five? Answer: could be either. I think nothing of working through a 180,000 word book thoroughly five times, and redoing parts of it fifteen times and then throwing bits out anyway. In other words, there is no magic number. You just do it until you get it right. And as a first book, you have that luxury. No deadlines. So take your time, and don't submit until you have got it right.

  • So now to the really difficult bit: how do you know what is good and what is crap?
Here's a few ways:

--Ask someone else. In fact lots of others. The beta readers. Make sure they are people who read and understand the genre. Ask them which bits they thought were boring.

--anything that makes you frown needs looking at again. Why are you frowning, hmm? What is giving you that slight feeling that something is "off"?

--ask yourself what bits don't push the story forward. Ask yourself what a sentence/prargraph/chapter achieves, why it is there. Does it tell you more about the character? If you can't answer those questions, they maybe it is for the scrap heap.

--Look at the tension and atmosphere. If two people are chatting about the weather and there's no tension, why is the conversation there? If they are arguing about the weather because one wants to cross the river now and the other thinks the rain makes it too dangerous, then that's good. If the description gives the reader a feel for where they are, an atmosphere, then it is not crappy writing.

--so, to sum up, crappy bits tell the reader nothing they need to know about the story, don't add to the tension, don't contribute to atmosphere and don't reveal character. Throw them out.

--didactic or pedagogy or preaching tend to be boring and irritating unless they are cleverly integrated into and/or integral to the story.

--repetition tends to be a bad idea. And telling something again in a different way tends to be poor writing too. One of the common forms a beginning writer employs is this: have a character say something in a speech, and then explain it again afterwards.

"Petric, I think the horse is going lame. We need to rest the poor beast."
"Rubbish, Hobbs, we can make the inn before nightfall."
As they drove the cart on, Hobbs worried. They'd never make it to the inn. They should rest the animal or the horse would not be able to pull the cart. It wasn't right to torture it like this.

--generally speaking, the shortest way of saying something is the best.
Here's a common mistake of mine that I still have to correct in the final re-writes - using too many prepositions: e.g. He looked back over his shoulder. (Cut the "back").
If your sentences ramble on and on, how can you make them snappier?

--and here is the best way of all to distinguish between the brilliance and the crap. It is both the easiest and the most difficult of hints to adhere to: Put your manuscript away.

Don't look at it for a minimum of 3 months. Better still, don't look at it for 6 months. Don't talk about it, don't think about it. Start your next novel, preferably something unrelated.
At the end of 6 months, go back and re-read. Believe me, the crap will leap up off the page at you. That's when you do your final re-write. Or decide to forget it and try another story.

Hope this helps. Part 2 in a day or two.

**(I am assuming here that you already have the main ideas, characters and end in mind, so you know where you are going. Some writers will have that story mapped out in detail, others are more inclined to wing it. How you do it doesn't matter, as long as you have the idea(s) in your head and the destination in mind. I personally would suggest that you have two other things reasonably clear before you start: the world and the "magic". Or, to put it another way, how do people earn a living, what do they see when they look around them, and what makes your world different to our world.)

pix by anne anderson taken from here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Another one of those days...

Ok, so book gone to another stage, and unlike my dear and quite crazy friend Karen, I don't plunge straight into writing another half-dozen books the next day. For a start my brain won't stand for it. And second, neither will all the other things I have to catch up on. They are positively shouting at me that I have to attend to them. So I tried to get a start on some of those things today. And here's what went wrong.

1. I tore a nail off. Y'know, till it bled.

2. I put my telescope in for cleaning (it has to go to Austria!) and bought a replacement for the missing rubber eyepiece that fell off my binoculars. Found I had to buy two pieces, even though only one was missing, and those tiny pieces of rubber cost a whopping 75RM (over 20USD or 27AUD). (All this preparatory for returning to my environmental work.)

3. I went to check up on the environmental job, to see when I could get started, only to find that it has been a probable victim of the recession. Looks as though we are all out of work. Damn. It was Phase Two of the project, too, which means that I feel all the work we did in Phase One is not going on to a useful conclusion. What a waste of money on the part of the people who paid us. There's still a faint hope it will be revived, but we suspect someone has earmarked the money for something else, (aided by the fact that the old boss was transferred). Sigh. That's a personal financial blow.

4. I went to the Australian High Commission (that means Embassy to you non Commonwealth types out there) to get the forms for a new passport. Last time I got one - 9 years ago - I had to have the forms signed by a guarantor, so I didn't expect to be able to submit the forms today.

Things, I discovered, have changed. First you have to go through an outer door, hand in photo ID, go through metal detectors, have your bag xrayed, past another guard, through another 2 doors, past another guard, upstairs, to be buzzed through another get the picture.

5. Found I don't need a guarantor, yay, I can put in application today. But, alas, I have the wrong sized photos (although photo shop was told it was for Oz passport and said they knew what was required). So I left the Hi Com to get new photos. Went out through all that security, handed in my pass as I left, etc etc.

6. Got new photos. Came back through all the security, got new pass, past metal detectors, xrayed handbag, etc etc.

7. Was asked for money. Gave them credit card. Sorry, don't take Amex. Looked in purse. Didn't have enough cash.

8. Went out through all the security to bank. Came back through all the security (for the third time). Xrayed handbag etc etc.

9. Filled in form etc etc. Left through all the security, handed in pass etc etc.

10. Was out in street again, when phone rang (its the Hi Com) and a security guard comes rushing after me. I had walked off with my old passport which they needed. Ok. Back inside, fourth time. Show photo ID. Get handbag xrayed, go through metal detector, numerous guards, doors....

So how was your day?

Pix from Harry Clarke's Faust (Goethe) via here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Titles, and apologies all around...

I have delivered my MS for Stormlord Rising, which is book two of The Watergiver trilogy (at least, that is what it is being called in Australia. In UK and US, I think they are avoiding giving the trilogy as a whole a name. It is to be referred to as the Stormlord trilogy.)

What a epic the title has been. Droughtmaster, Rainlord, Rainlords of the Scarpen, Drouthlord, Rogue Rainlord, Random Rain, Time of Random Rain, Stormquest, Stormseeker, The Watergivers, Stormshifter, Burning Sky have all been associated with this series at some time or another, and probably a few more I can't think of off-hand.

(And, dammit, I still have a title to think up for Book 3)

Anyway, it has been submitted, and now I have to see if my editor ages ten years and mutters under her breath, 'Bloody hell, what was she thinking?'

And so now the time has come to:

A. Give an abject apology to all those people whose emails have been sitting in my inbox unanswered for months and to tell you I am now beginning to answer them,
B. Start on the housework which has not been done for several months either. Yuk, yuk, yuk.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Deep philosphical questions of the day


1. Why do manufacturers of computer keyboards go to all the bother of painting the letters on the keys, yet haven't bothered to find a way of doing it that doesn't wear off in three months of usage by a fantasy writer?

2. How can my washing machine do a better job of finding stray Kleenex tissues than I can?


Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Saga Continues

From Reuters: see here for full article. (Sylvia Westall, May 13).

Race to Lead IAEA Has No Clear Front-Runner, Diplomats Say
Thursday, May 14, 2009

"As of now, on their own, if you put any one name of these five on the ballot, I don't think any could get 24 votes. I don't see any personality among these five now who exerts an appeal across the political divide in the board," said one high-level diplomat from a developing nation, likely referring to a split between Western nations and developing countries that emerged in the first effort to select a replacement for three-term IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei...

"I don't see any of the five bridging the North-South divide. ... The winner must show he can count on some support outside his natural grouping," according to a European Union diplomat. "A moderate G-77 (group of developing nations) candidate might be best placed, but the most propitious ones were not nominated."

(My bold italics)

Yeah, well I could have told 'em that. Sigh.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Why aren't Malaysians proud of their wildlife?

Imagine this. You are enjoying the cool beauty of the tropical highlands in the Awana Golf Resort, just over an hour's journey from Kuala Lumpur. You are surrounded by the wonders and abundance of tropical rainforest diversity.

So what does the hotel advise you to do?
"Look out your window and enjoy the sight of...
the wild African giraffes that are native to the area."

Ok, they didn't quite say that. They said enjoy the sight of the Blue-breasted Kingfisher. Terrific, except that the species is only found in West Africa.

What is WRONG with talking about any one of the glorious
745 + bird species
we have in Malaysia?
I come across this kind of thing all the time here. Do Malaysians despise their own so much that we have to advertise the assets of other countries and pretend they are ours?
There is no excuse - not one - that Awana can give to explain this. They hosted the world BirdLife International Conference a few years back. They have made much of their nature programmes. All they had to do was google the name. Or pick up the phone and ring the Malaysian Nature Society. Or ask any of the birdwatchers who bird around the area.

Click on this to enlarge: it is the blurb on the cover of the folder that has info about the hotel found in the hotel room. Shame on everyone who allowed this travesty to occur.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Still writing, so just some pics...

Modern art? Splodges left by the painters where they cleaned their brushes? Nope, just fungi, lichens and mosses on tree bark.
Taken by husband at Awana, Genting Highlands.
Click on them if you want a bigger pix.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

So here is what you prefer in your trilogy... order to remind you what happened in the previous book(s).

45% Cleverly inserted reminders
41% Synopsis at the beginning
29% Glossary at the back
22% Don't need reminders - I reread the previous books
3% Don't need reminders - I remember everything

It doesn't add up to 100% because I allowed people to vote more than once.

I didn't expect so many to prefer a synopsis. (Hate them myself. Hate reading them, hate writing them.)

I suspect the operative word with the winner is "cleverly". There is nothing worse than unsubtle info dumps in the first chapter or two.

And oh, wouldn't I love to be one of those folk who remember everything? I don't even remember what I wrote in the previous book!

Thanks for entering the poll!!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Just cos I thought you might not be envious enough...

In lieu of a proper post while I finish up this book. So I can't work ALL the time, can I? These are photos taken on the cable car near where we stayed in the Genting Highlands. The astonishing thing is that all that forest you can see - plus lots you don't see - was sold by the powers that be to one man. Many years ago, in the 1960s to be more precise, for a song.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

I can write anywhere...

Even here.

This is where I have been for a couple of days. Had to go with husband who had a work related retreat.

Terrible hardship, y'know. I mean, who could possibly WORK in surroundings like these? And me with a deadline - which come hell or high water, I will meet - in another four days.

Awana Hotel and Golf Resort, Genting Highlands, i.e. in the cool mountain air...

Below: on the balcony of our room
Below: view from our room
Below: and the room the suite

Below: the art-deco shower recess...
Ah, life is so tough sometimes.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

And bliss is...

When I was a kid growing up on a pint-sized farm in Western Australia, I thought shoes were a grown-up horror. Bare feet were bliss.

Ah, those hot summer days feeling the dust under one's toes, those cold wintry days of slopping along the long shallow ditch through the cow paddock pulling a home made "boat" (actually just a shaped piece of wood with a nail at the pointy end) behind me on a piece of knotted string... Ok, so I'd emerge with blue toes at the end, and have to race back to the house to get warm again, but that was half the fun.

At school, we'd take our shoes off the moment we hit the bare earth of the playground and not put them back on until the bell went to bring us inside again. The boys often wouldn't even do that much. They'd sneak inside without shoes and at the end of the day their soles would be black because those jarrah board floors happily gave up some of their ingrained generations of oil...

Of course I paid a price for all that. I have two scars on the top of my feet still clearly visible nearly 60 years later. Whatever scars I had on the soles have long been worn off. The other price I still pay. I grew up with broad feet, typical of people who run around bare foot in their growing years.

As I have small feet otherwise, finding shoes to fit has always been a problem.

Today I walked into a shoe shop, wasn't intending to buy anything, truly - I was just waiting for my husband - and I found a brand of shoe that fitted me beautifully. And they had my size. Fifteen minutes later I walked out with three pairs of shoes that fit. And look good. And made with leather uppers. And they weren't expensive either.

Now that is bliss.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

More on the problem of recap...

...i.e. reminding the reader what happened in Book One, The Last Stormlord. (Yeah, I know, it hasn't even been published yet, but as I am finishing up Book 2, I have to think about this now.)

Every writer would love their readers to be SO impressed by their book that every word remains imprinted on their mind till the day they die. Alas, it doesn't happen like that, not even remotely.

Looking at what my beta readers forget is humbling. It is in fact easier to look at what they remember. Characters, the main ones, stay with them, but not the minor players, no matter how well you draw them - unless they are really odd or pivotal in some way. The world stays with them, especially some parts of it. Everyone retains a vague memory of the story line but how much is so variable I can't even generalise as to the amount.

Different people remember different things with startling clarity. Particular scenes affect different people in varying ways. Some remember things that even I've forgotten!!

What particularly universally disappears from their memories is the magic. I don't mean the broad outline, but the subtleties. My beta readers kept making comments like, "But can't character A get out of this sticky situation by doing magic type B?"

Er, no, 'fraid not. Character A is a rainlord and they can't do that. Only a stormlord can do magic type B. (I guess it didn't help that there is a rainlord character in Book 1 whose magic is aberrant.)

So I know that in Book 2, and probably Book 3 too, I have to somehow subtly remind the reader just what the difference is between a rainlord, a stormlord, a cloudmaster and a water reeve.

That's one of the very important reasons that one has beta readers, bless 'em.

BTW, Marina made an interesting comment about synopses versus other forms of reminder here. In answer, I mention the possibility of using a glossary this way. I am still debating the idea of a glossary for book 2. (Book One did not have one). What do you all think?

I have added a poll on the sidebar. It allows for multiple answers. If your answer is the last choice, please feel free to give an alternative in the comments!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

We progress!

Yeah, yeah, I know. Almost a week since I last posted. My bad and all that. But I am busy with Stormlord Rising. Which is coming along nicely, thank you.

(pix above is from the Oz cover...)
In the meantime The Last Stormlord moved on to proofreaders - two of them - and my editor tells me that they both told her they thought it was a terrific story. Love those sort of comments because they come from people under no obligation to make a comment at all!

And in other bits and pieces: Husband was off climbing Mount Kinabalu. Well, he didn't actually get very far. It rained, and rained, and rained, and the whole party in the end came down off the mountain without conquering the peak, or even seeing it. Still, the trip was more about setting up a programme for research with Sabah Parks, so it was still a success.
I miss Sabah.

And my day yesterday? I went to the local hospital for a check-up re my ulnar palsy. I had an appointment for 10.30 a.m. I finally left the hospital at 5.05 p.m. In other words, I spent the day in the waiting room (too afraid even to sneak out for a cup of coffee, let alone lunch, for fear I'd be called). Am I complaining? No, not really. That's free medicine, and I saw a lovely specialist. You can't have it all for nothing.