Friday, February 25, 2011

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a brilliant book. It’s not just the ultimate dystopian classic. It’s a cultural phenomenon. It gave us Big Brother, the Thought Police and, of course, the adjective Orwellian. I’ve never read anything that can rival Nineteen Eighty-Four for its sheer sense of decay and oppression. There’s not a single page that doesn’t provide a chill of some sort, and that doesn’t hold up a mirror to modern society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four’s relevance hasn’t diminished over time, despite the parallels to twentieth century political figures that might otherwise date it. Sure, Emmanuel Goldstein might be Leon Trotsky, and Big Brother might look like just like Stalin, but you don’t have to know that. You only have to realise that Goldstein may no better than Big Brother, and, most importantly, that Goldstein might not even exist at all. History is written by the victors. It is tweaked, changed, whole parts of it are purged, and Winston Smith knows it, but the truth has been so well hidden that nobody will ever discover it. Not Winston, and not even the reader.

I love Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a book with a message, but it doesn’t preach. Orwell really had a handle on that old advice for writers: Show, don’t tell. If you don’t come away from reading Nineteen Eighty-Four with a healthy distrust of the government and the media, you’re doing it wrong.

But they should never have made me read Nineteen Eighty-Four at school. I hated this book when I was in school, and this is why:

1.   Newspeak. God, how naff. And what’s all that Doublethink stuff? I’m a teenager. I can’t even hold a single thought in my head, let alone two contradictory ones. Johnny Depp is so hot.

2.  Unattractive hero. The guy was like, totally old, and not at all good looking, with a nasty cough and a varicose ulcer. Who cares what happens to him anyway?

3. This book is too long. And nothing happens. And then nothing keeps happening.

4. Rats aren’t even scary. Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street is scary. This book would have been way better if Freddy was in Room 101 instead of rats.

5. Duh. It’s way past 1984 and this never even happened, so why is this supposed to be such a great book? The writer was totally wrong about everything. Animal Farm was better. It had, like, animals. 

6. Big Brother is so much better on TV.

When I was fifteen I wasn’t ready for Important Books. I was too busy scratching movie stars’ names into the back of my ruler with my compass, colouring in the checks on my school uniform with red pen, and teaching myself how to do bubble writing. I now have a lot of catching up to do.  

Buy Nineteen Eighty-Four here at Amazon.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The End of the Affair

Do you believe in love at first sight? Remember the first time you caught a glimpse of that Idea? It was perfect. It was everything you’d wanted. If it wasn’t love at first sight, it was definitely lust. Oh yeah, the things you’d do to that Idea once you got it home…

The honeymoon period is wonderful. You and your Idea, wrapped up in one another, spending all your time together. Long evenings in, watching old movies and eating takeaway food, just getting to really know one another. You can’t stop thinking about your Idea. You can’t bear to be away from it. You stop going out with friends. They’re just jealous because they can’t see how your Idea is perfect for you. After a while they stop calling.

Then real life gets a look in again. You and your Idea have settled into a routine. Maybe your Idea isn’t as perfect as the day your saw it and your heart skipped a beat, but neither are you, right? And you still love it. The first heady weeks of romance are gone, but you and your Idea are both in this thing for the long haul. And sometimes you disagree, but that’s okay, because you always make it up in the end. Eventually. 

And it really doesn't matter, does it, that the passion has gone? 

Then one day you find yourself looking at other Ideas. Just sneaking a peek here and there, just checking them out. There’s nothing in it, I swear. Look, if you’re going to be that way, maybe we should take some time, alright? 

A little bit of space will be good for both of you. And it’s not like you’d entertain any of those other Ideas anyway, is it?

What your Idea doesn’t know can’t hurt it. Besides, your Idea doesn’t own you. Who the hell does it think it is? God, maybe your friends were right all along. Maybe this wasn't the right Idea for you. You realise you’ve made a huge mistake. 

You’ve tried to make it work, but it's like you don't even communicate anymore. 

Maybe the best thing to do is to make a clean break. No regrets, no tears, no recriminations. Sometimes things just don’t work out.

And you’ll try to remain friends, you and your Idea, even if it’s awkward at first. Maybe, one day, you’ll be able to think back fondly on all those months you spent together. Maybe, flicking idly through all those pages you made together, you’ll see where you and your Idea went wrong and learn from it.

Your friends will be supportive. These things happen, they’ll say, and you’ll let them drag you out for a night on the town. You’ll find your feet again eventually. And then one day, when you least expect it, it’ll happen. You’ll feel those goosebumps, your breath will catch in your throat, and you’ll look up and see it: a fabulous, sparkling, utterly magnificent new Idea. 

And its awesomeness will blow your mind. 

* I found all these great pictures here: The Silent Film Still Archive.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Best Last Lines

Claudie A has a brilliant post up on her awesome blog right now on the importance of first lines, and how the right one grabs you and reels you in. It got me to thinking about last lines (I've always been contrary) and how those are just as important. 

Ever since Shakespeare ended Hamlet with The rest is silence and maybe even before (I haven't done any research for this post) last lines have been sticking with people. And it's not always the happy ending that is the most memorable. Sometimes it's the sucker punch that leaves you gasping for breath, like in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: He loved Big Brother. 

For me, my favourite last line ever is from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The whole book is beautifully written. It is set in Germany in World War Two, and narrated by Death. Death is ageless, maybe tired, and maybe lonely. I borrowed from Wilfred Owen when I pictured him: His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin.  Death's attention is caught by the girl Leisel, the book thief. He is fascinated by her. He encounters her three times in her life without taking her. The fourth time, of course, it is inevitable. And at the end of the book, in the very last line, Death makes his confession: I am haunted by humans. 

Nothing I write here can do justice to how powerful that line feels when you read it in context. It's a beautiful, tragic end to a beautiful, tragic book. That line stayed with me for days after I finished The Book Thief. It was perfect. 

Great first lines will hook you, but great last lines will never let you go. 

What is the best last line you've ever found? 

Buy the Book Thief here at Amazon.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Editing: My brain hurts already

A lot of people hate editing. For pantsers like myself, it's particularly challenging. Because half the time we don't even remember what's in there, let alone have any idea of what we should be tweaking, tightening, expanding, or just plain ripping to shreds. You know how in Nanowrimo they tell you to ignore your internal editor? I think mine died of neglect. 

Anyway, here is a list of things I absolutely cannot do without when editing:

1. Pyjama Pants

Elastic waistband and stretchy material. Oh yes. I’m here for the long haul.
Socks, if it is winter. Fuzzy ones.

2. iTunes.

I can’t possibly work without my uber-depressing playlist “Music To Slash Your Wrists To”.  Highlights include Beggar’s Prayer by Emiliana Torrini, Into My Arms by Nick Cave, and The Last Day on Earth by Kate Miller-Heidke.

My playlist is a depressant, but writing is a high, so it kind of balances out in the end.

3. Caffeine

Perhaps I wouldn’t need so much of this stimulant if my music wasn’t a depressant, but there you go!

4. Small breaks

Before I develop that thing you get on long plane trips.

5. The internet

So I can look up that thing you get on long plane trips. Deep vein thrombosis. See, the day's not wasted! I learned something! 

Also, I need the internet so I can check Facebook every couple of minutes, play silly games, try to answer free personality tests in the persona of famous historical dictators, and generally distract myself from doing anything productive. I need two computers. One for work, and one for play. And the one for play needs to be broken.

Also, how come I’ve never been diagnosed with a Napoleon complex when I was pretending to be Napoleon the whole time? 

6. My plastic Roman.

Just because.

Lucius mightn't look like much, but he once slaughtered a whole village of barbarian Lego pirates, Dora the Explorer and a T-Rex before breakfast. He's that hard. Don't cross him. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ancient Rome is ruder than you think: Part 2

Sometimes, researching, you'll come across something truly surprising. And, wading through the turgid essays, poems and philosophies of the Ancient Romans, I did. I found Catallus, the shock jock of his day.
Catallus - poet or sexual predator? 

There is a common misconception that the Ancient Romans patricians were a moralistic, dull bunch of blokes who spent their lives orating pompously to the mob and modelling for marble busts. And if you read anything by Cicero about Duty and Law that’s the impression that you’ll get. Of course, the Romans also knew how to organise an orgy or two, so they were a contradictory bunch.

Which brings me to Catallus 16. Most poems are known by their first lines, but not Catallus 16.  This is because the first line is probably about one of the most sexually explicit things you’ll ever read. This poem was not even published into English until the late twentieth century. It's a shame really. More kids would probably want to learn Latin if they knew it could be that filthy. Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo, Catullus says, and I'm not putting the translation here.

Catallus 16 is all about Catallus having a go at his friends Aurelius and Furius for calling him a sissy over the love poems he wrote to Lesbia. The things he’s going to do to them to prove his manliness wouldn’t be out of place in a prison movie, and Catallus doesn’t use any euphemisms in describing them.  

Apparently Catallus contends that a good poet should be virtuous, but his verses needn’t be. It’s very easy to miss the point in all the obscene invective.

Wikipedia offers a good translation of Catallus 16, but there are translations on the web that, while less blatantly biological, sound more like natural speech to the modern ear. In Wiki’s translation Catallus sounds like a seriously demented sexual predator. I can't help picturing him wearing a mask, carrying rope and duct tape, and I have a feeling I'm doing him an injustice. 

I prefer the ending of this anonymous translation, which I think captures the spirit of the poem better: F*ck you both. You can blow me.

Here is a link to a translation of Catallus 16 on Wikipedia, if you want to go down that path: Wikipedia 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Why do we write?

Why do we spend our lives tapping away at our computers and daydreaming about the worlds and characters we create? Why do we eavesdrop on conversations on public transport, hoping to hear something strange and unexpected? Why, in the middle of a heated argument with someone, is there aways a detached part of our brains making notes for dialogue later? What are we trying to achieve? Why do we write? 

It's sure as hell not for the money, the fame or the respect. I think that any of us who have been slogging away at writing for a while just want some modest success to show for our labours - although obviously the Booker Prize would also be nice. Is that a trophy or a plaque? Because if it's a trophy I'll need to clear some space on my desk. 

I know why I write. It's because I'd go insane if I didn't, as simple as that. In another life I'd be an obsessive hand-washer, but this time around I'm stuck with the crazy compulsion to create stories and characters. It's a whole other thing that I am trying to take it to the next level and get published. That's just my stubbornness. 

I was a very stubborn child.

When I was three I refused to speak to my father’s boss, despite all his efforts to bribe me. I glared instead. My campaign of terror was working well until I got distracted at the bank Christmas party. I thought my mother was still standing behind me, and turned around in mid-conversation to find myself face to face with the man. I talked to him for the rest of the night because I knew when I’d lost the fight, and we had a lot of catching up to do by then.

Whenever my sister Kath organised the whole tribe of neighbourhood kids into regimented games it was always me who started the mutiny by wandering off. Just because it annoyed her.

When I was five I refused to go to school and a high school girl had to hold me down on the bus while I kicked and screamed and Kath pretended not to know me – I didn’t want to go because I had better things to do.

When I was fifteen I wagged school regularly, because Maths was boring, and went to university with Kath instead. Does it count as truancy if you’re getting a higher education? My school thought so. 

My stubbornness extended to writing. It may have actually started me writing. I’ve been writing since, well, before I can remember. Just like I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read – I’m not saying I was a prodigy, just that I have a bad memory – I don’t remember a time when I didn’t write. If I didn’t like the way a story ended, I wrote my own. Just because I could. And I never looked back.

Writing is catharsis. It is free therapy. It is comfort food and drugs all at once. It's how I psych up for a bad day. It's how I wind down at the end of one. It's the freedom to ask all the difficult questions in the world, and to have a go at answering them at the same time. You're allowed to be a bit strange if you write. You're allowed to see things differently. You're allowed to bastardise all the interesting bits of your life, and anyone else's, and twist them into something shiny and new. And maybe, if you're lucky enough and stubborn enough, maybe one day other people will get to open the covers of your book and discover something wonderful as well. 

That's why I write. What about you? 

Monday, February 7, 2011

I've got a contract...shh!

So, something weird happened. After spending November and December querying agents and having no luck, and, worse, having an awesome agent pass on my full manuscript, I took a break. And, during that break I wrote a fairly trashy romance. Well, I think they call them romances. It's a bit of a story, a lot of fairly explicit rude bits, some conflict, and a happily-ever-after. But mainly rude bits.

I wrote it in a few weeks, a couple of hours a day, because I can't not be writing. And then, when I finished it and spell-checked it I sent it off to a publisher for practice. And, guess what? I now have a contract sitting in front of me and an editor waiting to work with me.

How the hell did that happen?

And I'm stoked, of course, because, well, shit, a publisher! But here's the thing: I have a pen name, and I will not be telling any of my friends or family what it is. I hope the book does well. I hope the readers like it. It might even turn out I have a knack for the genre, but the book will remain my dirty little secret because it's not the sort of thing I want my friends and relatives to know I wrote.

Am I being a hypocrite? Am I being a snob? Or am I just over-thinking it?

If there's anyone else out there in the same boat, I'm open to advice!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Cyclone Yasi, a non-live, very long blog


Wednesday 02/02/2011, 1827 hrs.

The big one is coming. Stuck at work between emergencies, I thought I’d maintain a running log (that’s work talking). There’s no point trying to keep my mind off it, so I’ll do the opposite. There’s nothing like writing it all down to make it less scary. Please note, swear words may be used later as the weather gets worse…

The police station has become a halfway house. It is full of kids, pets, and those of us working for the duration of the cyclone. There are dogs in the holding cell, cats in Liquor Licensing, and toddlers in the Criminal Investigations Branch. The power went out a while ago, but the generator has kicked in. We have air-conditioning, computers, fridges and (while the winds are still not too bad) we have a BBQ on the front steps. There are forty-five of us (pets excluded), and we’re having BBQ sausages for dinner, and saving the barramundi for breakfast. If it wasn’t for the cyclone, this would be a great night.

I am six hours into my eighteen-hour shift. Eighteen, they tell me, maybe nineteen, but certainly no more than twenty…I suppose the morning will decide. Not only do I need to be able to get safely home, but the morning shift needs to be able to replace me. Ten of those hours (maybe eleven, certainly no more then twelve) are on overtime…the mortgage will thank me, if I still have a house.

They are setting up places to sleep in the empty offices. Is it wrong that it’s not even 6.30pm and I want a nap?

The wind gusts aren’t too bad yet, but it’s still very early in the evening. There are trees and powerlines down all over the city already.

Tomorrow was my day off, dammit.


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