Saturday, November 30, 2013

My First Thanksgiving

So, I had my first Thanksgiving the other night. This is because my American co-writer was in town. So here is what I learned: 

Pumpkin pie is really nice. I mean, shockingly nice. I don't really like pumpkin that much, but wow. Pumpkin pie is awesome! 

I don't think I could handle being put on the spot and told to name things I'm thankful for. These would be my answers: 

1. Um, everything? 

2. My co-writer who made me and my extended family dinner, and was a lovely guest, and has an evil sense of humour, and drank a lot of wine with me. 

3. That kangaroo we saw the other day at the wildlife park that punched a duck. Because I feel now that my life is complete. 

I hope that everyone had a great Thanksgiving, and now I feel I know what Americans are feeling now: Wow, that was a great meal. Holy crap, it's less than a month until Christmas! 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Getting It

My family is supportive of my writing, but I don't think they get it. 

My father never did. Once, when I was in high school we moved the length of the state at the end of Year 10, and I got to start Year 11 at a new school. And I was fifteen and hated my parents. And this move was like the worst ever, since my sister Kath was starting university in Brisbane and hadn't come, and we moved in the school holidays so I didn't know anyone, and the pets didn't arrive for weeks after we did, and we couldn't even move into our new house straight away because there was massive flooding and the guy who was moving out hadn't been able to leave yet. Oh...yeah, and because everything was so busy and unsettled and up in the air, this was also the year my parents forgot my birthday

Welcome to Townsville. Fuck my life. 

So that was me: fifteen and full of rage and self-pity, with this one really weird hobby that my dad just didn't get. He sort of ignored it, I think. It wasn't like it was a real hobby or a sport or something. No, it was just his kid moping around, glaring, and scribbling angry things down in a notebook. 

I guess he knew I was an okay writer, but, to my dad, there was really only one way to judge the value of a thing: monetarily. I don't mean that like he was a scrooge or something. I mean that he just didn't get the idea of art for art's sake. Art for art's sake was pure wankery, according to my dad. How I got away with eventually doing a Bachelor of Arts at uni, complete with useless subjects like History and English, is beyond me. I guess "uni student" trumped "unemployed", but just barely. 

I'm worried this is sounding a little like a pity party. It's not supposed to. Lots of teenage kids and parents fail to see eye to eye. So many, in fact, that I'm pretty sure it's the natural order of things. If you're lucky, you'll be friends again sooner or later. When I was a little kid, my Dad and I got on great. Not that you can tell from this picture, where we're both scowling, but to be fair the sun is in our eyes. This is actually one of my favourite photos of me and Dad. We're on a ship, on our way home from New Guinea. Look at that: we're a super scowly team. And also, he's got me. 

Anyway, I think the point is that my dad grew up in a very different family situation. He grew up working class, in a family where everyone was expected to pitch in. Reading for pleasure was something that was acceptable, but writing for pleasure? Get out there and get a damn job. 

By the time I came along, he'd had his damn job for so long that he had himself a pretty decent career. He was smart with money and maths (something that skipped a generation with me) but always remained what he would call practical. And I would call close-minded. But that's okay, because even if he didn't get what I was doing, he tolerated it. 

Back to Townsville. I was miserable. When school started I was still miserable, in that determined way that only a teenager can be. Because my parents had ruined my life, dammit, and no way was I going to validate them by actually being happy and making friends. They could go to hell. 

Anyway, back track a few months before I left Goondiwindi. My English teacher had told me to enter a statewide writing competition, so I did. But because by that stage I knew I'd be moving, but didn't know the address yet, I put my address down as care of the Westpac Bank manager, Townsville. 

So when my dad was flicking through his mail at work one day, he opened the envelope addressed to "J Burke" without even thinking. It was his name too. And inside he found the letter telling me that I'd won the statewide competition. Also enclosed was a cheque for $500. 

Turns out you could get money from this writing thing after all. 

That afternoon when I got home from school I found the open letter and the cheque on the table I'd commandeered as a writing desk. Right beside the new electric typewriter I'd been ogling in catalogues -- computers were still big, expensive, and weighed a ton back then. 

Better than Christmas. 

Even now, I'm not sure that he ever really got what I was doing. I think it would be hysterical if he was still alive so I could tell him I'd finally got proper books published...and they're erotica BTW, Dad, wanna read one? But I think that maybe he finally got that perhaps this wasn't just a hobby, or a waste of time. 

And when I finally moved onto a computer -- Dad brought his laptop home on weekends and I pretty much stole it from Friday night to Monday morning. Thanks, Westpac! -- he supported that as well by taking me with him to the office when he needed to work on weekends and looking the other way while I printed out reams and reams of whatever story I was working on at the time. 

(Again, thanks Westpac.) 

And thanks Dad, too. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Kill Me Now: The Characters Who Only Live to Die

I've talked before about killing main characters, and the dangers inherent in that. Like alienating the 99% of people who were actually hoping for a happy ending. But what about secondary characters? You should be able to swat those like flies, right? 


Okay, so there's always that one character, right? You know the one. The cop who's this close to retirement. The new, slightly goofy kid in the platoon who keeps a picture of Betty-Mary-Emmy-Sue in his wallet. The funny sidekick who you were sure would make it through the final battle... And let's forget the old cliche that started it all: the kind-hearted poor-but-honest girl who dies of consumption after being thrown into the gutter by the heartless rake who seduced her. 

These are characters whose only purpose is to further the narrative and sharpen the hero's resolve by dying. And that's not how death works. That's cheap emotional manipulation, and most savvy readers won't shed a tear at all. They'll be too busy rolling their eyes. 

I'm not saying don't kill your characters. I'm not saying don't advance the narrative or sharpen the hero's resolve. I'm saying don't do it with a neon sign that says OBVIOUS PLOT DEVICE HERE. 

It's a little counter-intuative. Of course your characters are there for the purposes of the plot, but they don't know that and neither should the reader. That blonde girl who freaks out when she realises the call is coming from inside the house? Yeah, we knew from the moment she walked in that she was going to end up stabbed by some knife-weilding maniac wearing a hockey mask. Yawn. And once the character becomes a cardboard cutout who is only there to be a plot device, you lose all shock value, all empathy, and all heartbreak. Every character, however small, should be more than the sum of the parts of their death. 

Chances of survival: slim to none. 

I'll tell you the last character death that really shocked me. Stop here if you haven't read the entire Hunger Games trilogy. 

Prim. Because she broke all the rules of the cliche by getting out there and doing what she wanted to do. She might have always been in the background, but we saw her grow from being a frightened little girl to a young woman with the fierce ambition to do the right thing. She grew up, even when we were looking elsewhere, and became a well-rounded character in her own right. 

And when she died, it wasn't just a holy-crap-but-she-was-the-only-reason-Katniss-was-in-the-Games-to-begin-with moment. It wasn't just a "Poor Katniss!" moment. It was an "Oh, no! Prim!" moment as well. And that's how you kill a character. 

If you're going to kill a character, you need to build one first. 

What secondary characters' deaths have really worked for you? 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

This is not a product endorsement.

This is not a product endorsement. 

This is a lazy post. 

I have never tried Panda Cheese. 

But I would be too scared to refuse it. 

Love these ads!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thanks, Mum!

My mum is the best. 

So my pseudonym is writing this book set in Wyoming in the 1860's. Well, my pseudonym has written this book. And the publisher liked it, except for one tiny thing. 

I think it needs a second book, she said, told from the other MC's POV

Shit. Because of course the entire reason I told the story from the point of view of the character who lives in the town, is that the other character is a cowboy and I have no idea what they did. Apart from wear hats and ride horses. That still leaves a lot of details to fill in. 

But it's okay, because my mum is on the case. Look what magically appeared at my place the other day: 

Now if that's not a ringing endorsement from my own mother to keep writing smut, I don't know what is! 

In other news, when I drove into my driveway after work tonight, there was a possum waiting for me on the fencepost, like a tiny fuzzy gargoyle. Then it ran up a tree. And, I tell you, with mad photography skills like mine, I should start chronicling UFO sightings any day now. 

A photo of the ghost of a possum on a misty night. Obviously. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Spring Cleaning

I hate Spring Cleaning. Which you might be able to tell, since I've delayed it until summer. Also, you only have to see my house to know. 

Anyway, the other day I got a guy in to clean the walls. They had mould on them. Don't judge me for it; this is the tropics. I was going to do them myself, but then I remembered I have eleven foot ceilings and a credit card, so a professional cleaner seemed like the better option. 

Anyway, this meant I had to shift anything that might be breakable from any furniture that had to be moved, and also take things off all the walls. This is what I learned during the course of that terrible day: 

1. I have too much stuff. Seriously. Except I tried to pass this thing on to my sister since it was something I had no use for, and then it turned out it was a thing she'd given me for Christmas. Whoops. 

2. I am not the sort of person who can be trusted to remember anything. I'll take my iPod off the charger, I thought, in case it gets knocked over. I'll put it here, in this safe place. I now cannot remember that safe place. 

3. I am not good at being locked out of my house or, on the other hand, being inside my house when a workman is there. I just want to be inside my house and I want everyone to go home, in case I want to nap or write or listen to music up really loud. You know, if I could find my iPod. Which I'm sure is still in a really safe place. 

4. I have decided to stop buying people useless trinkety stuff, in the hope that they stop buying it for me. Remember a few years ago when decorative candles were all the rage? I have so many decorative candles that next time a cyclone hits and I'm without power for days, I'll be able to navigate in the gloom using only my sense of smell. Ah, vanilla. I've reached the bedroom. To get to the bathroom, head for the sandalwood and turn left at the green apple.  

5. I definitely put my iPod in something, or on something. And I think it was somewhere in the spare room. Unless it was my bedroom. 

6. Or one of my many bags. 

7. Or somewhere else entirely. 

8. I also didn't find either of the umbrellas I've managed to lose between last wet season and this one. My house is literally five rooms. Bedroom, spare bedroom, office, bathroom, and the rest is an open plan space that contains the kitchen, living and dining areas. How is it possible to misplace two different umbrellas in such a small space? 

But at least it's over now, and the house is clean. Most of my stuff is still lying around though, so getting everything back in order is going to take a few days. Not because it's hard work, but because I keep putting it off to do important things like watch TV. 

Oh, and if anyone finds a little old silver iPod with playlists on it called "music to slash your wrists to", "sexually ambiguous" and "say my name, bitch", that's mine. 


How's your week going? 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Welcome to the country! (It may kill you)

So, in some crazy exciting news, my pseudonym's co-writer is coming to visit. She's usually in the US, but is currently holidaying in NZ, and managed to get some cheap flights over here. And I'm taking her to see some of these: 

Salt Water Crocodile
Crocodile: source

And she already knows about these: 

Because that's what we do here. We sometimes feel we don't have enough legitimately deadly creatures on the continent, so we make some up. When really, we're spoiled for choice. 

In addition to the snappy chap you saw above, in my local area we also have the taipan, one of the world's most venomous snakes. Rattlesnakes? Pfft. A taipan won't even give you that much warning. Also, it doesn't just strike once. No, it gets its teeth in and delivers several bites at once. Seriously, you are chewing gum to this snake. But the venom is probably worse than the indignity. I mean, indignity can't kill you. 

The taipan: source
What I particularly like (read "fear") about the taipan is that when it's little, it looks almost exactly like a young non-venomous tree snake. Just on the off chance it could lull you into a false sense of security, I suppose. 

I also don't like tree snakes, even though I recognise that my fear of them is irrational, given that I'm not a frog and they therefore pose no threat to me. 

But when my mother had one living in her letter box, I refused to collect her mail for her. It used to stick its head out when the postman was trying to shove letters in. A very stoic man, my mum's postman. But once the snake ate all the frogs, it moved on. 

Let me tell you a story about a snake. 

Okay, make that two stories. 

Once, when the rest of the family was overseas or somewhere, I found a massive snake in my mum's backyard when I was over watering the plants. (Yes, Mum, sometimes I remember to do that. God, stop getting on my case. They'll grow back!) Anyway, it was a python. Maybe about six feet long. It was dead. I knew it was dead, because it had no head. I mean, I'm no doctor, but... 

How it lost its head or where that head went, I'm not entirely sure. And, thinking about it, I'm not entirely sure I want to know. 

Anyway, I looked at that dead snake for a while, from a safe distance. I thought about what I needed to do. I needed to pick it up and put it in the bin. I took a step towards it. I took a step back. I remembered what I'd learned from every horror movie ever: a thing is never as dead as you think it is. 

So I called my friend's boyfriend and got him to come over and do it.  

I'll take ridicule over trauma any day, thanks. 

Which brings me to trauma. 

When I was about nine, I lived in a small town called Monto. One day, my sister Kath and a few other friends were walking along the railway track into town. This was the shortcut. Anyway, for whatever reason, we were trying to scare each other. And Jenny (to complicate this story further, one of the other girls was called Jenny), who was walking on the other side of the track to the rest of us, suddenly screamed, "There's a snake!" 

Like I'd fall for that! I huffed and rolled my eyes. "No there isn't!" 

Pumped up with the urge to prove her wrong, I stepped over the railway track and found myself face to face with one of these: 

A red belly black snake: source

My heart stopped. It reared back. I stared at it. It stared at me. 

Don't move, I told myself. If you move, it will strike. 

I moved anyway. To be honest, I think I moved so fast I travelled back in time. 

I'm not sure if this is the exact day I got my snake phobia, but it certainly honed it to a sharp edge. 

Snakes terrify me. 

Oh, wait, here's a third snake story. A few months ago I was in my back yard, and I suddenly overheard the neighbours shouting. 

"Holy shit! Did you see the size of that snake? There! There it is! It's going over the fence now!" 

The other fence, I begged silently as I ran inside and closed the door. Please be talking about the other fence. 

Sometimes I wonder why I live in this country at all. 


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