Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It's all about Horizons...

There's a little content box a bit down on the right hand side of your screen there which speaks to my inner geek* - it's the NASA 'Photo of the Day' application.

Anyway, last week, (on friday or saturday, I think...) those of you with an appreciation for all things spacey might have noticed the following photograph there:

This is the Space Shuttle Discovery, rolling out to the launchpad for her final flight, scheduled for November 1. After she returns to earth for the last time, there's one flight (the Endeavour) scheduled for February 2011, and then a possible flight by the Atlantis in June. After that, it's all over for the Space Shuttle Programme, which is something I find terribly sad, in its own way.

Why? Like everything, it's all about childhood, really.

Here, from 1981, is a pic of the Columbia lifting off on her maiden voyage, and the first ever space shuttle mission - STS-1:

I've got vivid memories of this moment. When they launched Columbia, I was 9 years old, and living at Cocos. There was no TV on the islands, but a few lucky families had those new fangled 'Video Cassette Recorders' and got relatives and friends in Perth to tape shows and post them up on the fortnightly supply flight. These tapes were handed around the island from family to family, many of them literally played to pieces.

Someone taped the launch of the Columbia, and I remember watching it with my dad, on our blurry little portable TV and feeling utterly blown away by the power and grandeur of it.

But more than that - it was the ingenuity which really got me: men and women had built this thing - this spectacular machine - and now, as we watched them on our little screen on a tiny speck of an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, they were setting off into space on it. I guess that part of the power of that moment for me was the fact that, as I mentioned yesterday, on the Islands our horizons were so tiny - everywhere you looked was empty ocean. To a nine year old, living in such a tiny little world, watching a machine like the Columbia leap into the sky was more than just cool - it was liberating. For my 9-year-old self, it was a moment filled with possibilities.

And so now, when I look at that picture of Discovery on her way out to make that leap for the final time, and when I think about the end of the shuttle era fast approaching, I can't help but feel kinda sad - it's not just the end of a technology; it's the end of a tiny little sliver of my childhood.

Of course there'll be other spaceships, and other grand moments, but none will ever quite match the power of that instant viewed through the eyes of a child.

I guess that's one of the reasons I love writing for kids.

It's all about horizons.

*if we're being honest, my 'inner geek' isn't that far in. Just below the skin, really. Except for the bits where it breaks through...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On Two (or three) Wheels

A little housekeeping, first.

The astute among you* will have noticed a new banner at the top. I made it on my iPad, using a funky little text design app called 'Type Drawing'. I'm not convinced that I've got it completely right yet, but I kinda like the idea. Let me know what you think...

Now, down to business.

Bikes have been a big part of my life for a long time now. When I was a kid, growing up on the Cocos Islands, our bikes were our ticket to freedom; the island we lived on, called West Island was a long skinny, flat coral raft, about 7 kilometres long and about 500 metres across at its widest point. It was also about 2 metres above sea level. As kids, we must have explored every accessible inch of that island on our bikes. We rode them out onto reefs, along beaches, into mangroves (every bike on the island was painted in this sort of thick black tarry paint, to prevent them rusting out within three weeks, and so we pretty much rode them anywhere. I remember being awfully upset seeing my shiny blue bike disappear into the island workshop, and re-appear a couple of days later looking exactly the same as everyone elses...) and even up and down the island's runway.**

As an adult, in my 20's, I got into triathlon in a big way, and spent countless hours cruising around Perth and Fremantle with my cycling mates. Most saturday mornings we'd hit out from the uni at around 6.30ish, and put in a 50-80k ride, usually around the river and up the beaches, and stopping for breakfast down in Fremantle, or perhaps up in the hills, if we were feeling energetic. A few times a year we'd do a big ride down to Mandurah or Rockingham and back, notching up a hundred+ kilometres in the morning, and then going home to sleep all afternoon. I've got some really good memories of trundling around Perth with the boys, chatting and taking in the scenery.

Since moving to Canberra, my cycling has dropped off a fair bit. A year or so ago I traded in my racer for a more practical commuter bike, with big fat tyres and suspension, for the ride in to work, but I don't do it nearly as often as I should. Partly this is because the state of the roads and cycle paths is pretty disgraceful here, but mainly because of the high prevalence of utter bogans with whom you have to share the road.***

But still, I love being out on a bike and, for as long as I can remember, cycling has been one of the big pleasures of life for me.

I particularly remember my first bike. Don't know how old I was when I got it, but it was a red tricycle, with white wheels. I can clearly recall riding endlessly up and down the path around our house, and probably had my mother living in constant fear that I'd set off down our (incredibly steep and unforgiving) driveway**** My trike had a little platform on the back, which you could stand on and use to scoot the bike along and this - most importantly - was shaped like an aeroplane wing, with little 'go fast' ridges and a slightly scalloped trailing edge.

I can't remember what happened to my little red tricycle. I guess it got thrown out eventually.

But anyway, a week or so back, we decided that it was time we got a bike for Toby. He's been scooting around on one at daycare, and loving it.

So we went to Toys R Us, and spent a good chunk of time considering the relative merits of the multitude of models on display: did we want one with parental steering? mini-bucket seats? horns and rear-vision mirrors? seat belts? a sun shade? Drink bottle holders?***** Should we get him the one in neon green plastic, or bright blue plastic? (Or would getting him a blue one be buying into gender stereotyping?) We were determined to avoid the various merchandised ones, which ruled out the Elmo, Thomas and Bob the Builder Bikes******

Then, just when it seemed all hope was lost, we spotted it. Right up on the top shelf, on sale.

A little, shiny, red metal tricycle, with white wheels.

It looked eerily familiar. And it was perfect.

And Toby loves it...

*ie: all my readers.

** there was this great system: if a plane was landing, a siren would go off, and you had about three minutes to get off the runway and to a safe distance. I suspect this has probably changed in the intervening years.

*** On my last ride in to work, about 6 months ago, I was almost killed by a P-Plated commodore full of idiots who deliberately swerved into the bike lane at 80kph, passing within about 2cm of my handlbars, while one of them leaned out the window to whack me on my helmet. Sadly this isn't the first time something like this has happened to me here in Canberra, and I've been a bit loathe to get back on the bike since.

**** I never did. Though I did spend a disproportionate amount of my childhood trying to persuade my brother to give it a go...

***** I am not making any of that up.
****** That either....

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Young Over-Achievers...

A rare saturday blog post from me, owing to Toby having a sleepover at his grandmother's house last night!

I mentioned in my last blog that I was off to launch a book on Wednesday night.

The book in question was The Griffin's War by Katie J Taylor, one of my former Uni of Canberra students, and a very impressive young woman.

I've mentioned Katie here before, but thought I'd talk about her in a little more detail here. Hopefully she won't mind.

Firstly, here's the book I launched for her this week ---->

If you look closely at the fine print at the top of the cover, you'll notice that this is book 3 of her trilogy The Fallen Moon.

And if you look at the date of my last post, about Katie's first book in the series, you'll notice that it's dated almost exactly a year ago.

That's right. In the last 12 months, Katie has put out not one, or two, but an entire trilogy of very readable, *very* hefty fantasy books. And she's already finished the drafts of the next three in this world she's created. The 'Fallen Moon' books are also just about to hit the shelves in the USA.

Speaking as someone who took the better part of an entire decade to put out my own spec-fic trilogy, I can only take my hat off in admiration. In fact, I think it's safe to say that Katie is one of the most prolific writers I've ever met.

But that's Katie for you. If you ever get a chance to meet her, and to listen to her speak, then you should take it - she's a fascinating writer to talk to. After just a few minutes, it quickly becomes clear that Katie is a writer whose characters are utterly alive in her head. The minutiae of her worlds are similarly alive to her. As someone who works in a very different way, and who has a very different approach to narrative, it's quite amazing to be privvy to such a dedicated young writer.

At the launch the other night, she made a fantastic speech - she talked about her recent experiences at World Con in Melbourne (which, sadly, I didn't manage to extricate myself from the rest of my life in time to attend) and the realisation she came to one night there, having met so many of the world's top spec fic writers (She has a copy of her book with some incredible signatures in it, including - and I'm very jealous of this - George R.R. Martin!) that really the writing game isn't about yourself as a writer, or about the success or otherwise of your books, (that way lies madness), but it's about other people - your readers. It was an incredible thing for someone still starting out in this industry to talk about: I'd been at this game a lot longer than Katie before I came to a similar realisation, and when I did, I think that in many ways it was a moment that really released me from constraints in my writing - It was fantastic to hear Katie talk about it in such a thoughtful and reflective fashion.

So congratulations to Katie on The Fallen Moon (I'm not going to spoiler it here, but have reviewed all the books on Goodreads for anyone interested), and also to Harper Voyager for taking on such a talented young writer and giving her such a supportive start to what will, I suspect, be a very long and productive writing career.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Little More on Inertia

Last week I wrote briefly about inertia.

This was largely because I didn't feel like I was having a particularly good week. I got a lot of little stuff done, but somehow the big stuff (like writing, for example, or working on the couple of academic papers that I've been plugging away at for what feels like forever) wasn't getting done, and not for lack of time, but motivation.

In my rather bleak post last week, I put this down to inertia, and suggested that;'s irritating when the brain and the willpower don't come into alignment. For a writer, it's dangerous.

But today, I'm going to disagree with that.*

Because after due thought and consideration, I've come to the conclusion that inertia isn't dangerous, or even bad. It's a necessary part of the whole creative process.

At the moment, I've got my next book sitting on my computer, almost finished. It's somewhere in the region of about 35,000 words, and I expect it'll top out at around 50ish. (It's going to be a lot shorter than my last few books, which is not a bad thing, in my opinion.) It's been at that point for roughly two months now, on a sort of jumpy pause, halfway through chapter twenty-three.

But where last week I was letting this really bother me, the weekend gave me a chance to recharge my batteries and get a little perspective. (There's nothing like working in the garden to help clear the mind...)

And the conclusion I've reached is this: The book will finish itself when it's ready to be finished.

Now, I suspect that this isn't the way a lot of writers work, or think. But it's the way I need to work and think, for a few reasons.

One is because this book is going to be an important one for me. It's different to all my other stuff; very different. It's much more commercial than most of my previous works, but that's not a bad thing. Up to date, it still has an awful lot of me in it; I'm enjoying writing it, I'm loving the story, and most importantly I'm having a lot of fun with it, and I want all this to continue right through the draft. This book is going to involve a little bit of re-imagining of myself and my writing, and if I try to force it out onto the page, all I'll end up with is a disingenuous piece of writing, that has nothing of myself in it. So for that reason, I'm loathe to try and force it out.

Another reason is that the reality of my life now is very different from what it was a couple of years ago. Back then - when I was writing 'Into White Silence' for example, I had the luxury of being able to put a couple of months aside and just bury myself in writing. Not so much any more - now I have fatherly duties which take up (and are the best part of) most of my weekends. I have my job at uni, which is work I love doing - both the teaching and researching - but which leaves me mentally wiped at the end of most days. Time has become a commodity, and if there's one thing that good, genuine writing needs, it's time. So I'll just have to accept the fact that I might need to space my writing more widely across the year, and get used to writing in those periods where I have my mojo on.

Finally there's the requirements of the book itself. During these last couple of months of inertia, I realised the other day, I've been mentally tweaking, exploring and shifting a lot of tiny aspects of the story around in my head, and improving it as a result. This makes me wonder if, just perhaps, this story isn't ready to be confined to the page quite yet.

So there you have it. I'm reversing my position on inertia. For the moment, at least. It's not dangerous, it's natural and probably necessary.

Now, I'm going to have a nap...

* I read somewhere that all good blogs engage in public debate. Well, that's just what I'm doing here. Only with myself.

Monday, September 20, 2010

What I Did on My Weekend...

If there are a few typos in this post, then I'll apologise. I've got some minor typing issues at the moment, mainly to do with the fact that my left thumb is currently encased in an enormous bandage.

If you follow me on Twitter, and if you were following along last friday night, then you'll already know the sad saga of my evening. But, for those of you who weren't* here's the abbreviated version:

Friday night, Min and I planned to do a chinese steamboat dinner - yum. We had scallops, pork, beef and chicken all marinading, along with yummy enoki mushrooms, cloud ear fungus*, and a simmering stock of chicken infused with szechuan peppers and soy and tsing zao.

Oh, yeah, and cabbage. That Chinese cabbage called Wombok.

And it was the cabbage that brought me unstuck. I was cutting it up in to managable pieces when I managed to almost slice the top off my left thumb. It was a lovely cut - an almost perfect circle, with just a tiny little hinge holding my fingertip onto the rest of my finger.

And there was some bleeding, too.

"Hmm... ouch." I said, very calmly.***

Then, with Toby asleep in bed, we called my brother in Law - the awesome Joe - who drove all the way across Canberra on a friday night, picked me up and took me to the emergency room at Calvary hospital, where I had the following conversation with the Triage nurse.

Me: Hi. I've managed to slice open the tip of my finger.
TN: How.
Me: With a kitchen knife, while making dinner.
TN: What were you cutting up?
Me: Uhm... Cabbage.
TN: (slightly incredulous) Cabbage?
Me: Yeah.
TN: Is your tetanus shot up to date?****
Me: Yes.
TN: Okay. Well, sit down and wait over there. But I should warn you that there are people in the waiting room who've been there since three this afternoon*****, so you're looking at a minimum 5 hour wait. Probably closer to 6 or 7.
Me: You're kidding?
TN: *Shrugs*

So at that point, and resisting the urge to point out that it would have been quicker to drive to Sydney and get it looked at there, I left, choosing home surgery as a more viable alternative. Luckily, while stopping at a late night chemist on the way home to pick up supplies, the nice pharmacist suggest I go to the medical centre down the road and just three minutes from the emergency room of the hospital which is open every night until ten. I went there. I didn't have to wait. I got the top stitched back onto my thumb. I find myself questioning why TN didn't just send me right there in the first place, but I guess she had her reasons.

Then Joe drove me home. It was 10.30. Min had put the steamboat stuff back in the fridge and ordered a pizza.

Saturday morning here was one of those gorgeous spring days, which in Canberra are particularly lovely; cool, damp, sunny. You can taste the season in the air. We'd planned to get to work at taming our feral garden, and weren't about to let the fact that I had a thumb encased in bandages stop us. Saturday morning saw the three of us outside in our wellies, weeding, digging, planting.

One of the first things we did when we bought our Canberra house was to build two big garden beds and fill them up with good soil. And for first couple of years that we lived here, our garden beds were the envy of the suburb: silverbeet, cucumbers, zucchini, spinach, garlic, spring onions, basil, coriander, rosemary, sage and, of course, tomatoes. Lots and lots of heirloom tomatoes. Black Russians, Green Zebras, Golden cherries, Romas, Black Krims, and others I can't quite remember. At one point, we had about seven different species of tomato in our gardens. Right through summer we ate them with everything: a thick sliced Black Russian, on toast, with a liberal sprinkling of salt for breakfast on a summer morning is just delightful. As summer wore on, we got ourselves a preserving kit and started bottling and during the winter months, when all outside was dark, cold and dead, we had the pleasure of opening our own jars - filled with garden tomato, basil leaves and a dash of balsamic vinegar - every time we needed them.

Then, a couple of years ago, things changed. Toby came along and, for some reason, last year's gardening was less than successful.

Now, though, he's old enough to toddle around out there too, and to 'help'. Occasionally he even pulls out weeds, and not plants.

So Saturday morning was great; the three of us out in the sun, under our flowering plum tree, with the dog, getting in seedlings and pulling out all the winter-dead plants and prepping the soil for the upcoming growing season. With the wet winter now behind us, it promises to be a really good season, and we're going to make the most of it. Right now our broad beans are flowering profusely, promising a nice crop before a lot longer (one of the things I love about early summer is the broad bean harvest; such an earthy, springy taste, and they grow through winter. And they're good for the soil, too...) Our third generation parsley plant is going nuts, and our oregano and sage have come back to life. We also have a cos lettuce growing out the side of one of the garden beds, where it self-seeded last year.

The garden has become one of the big pleasures of our lives (Oh god, I've become my parents!) and last weekend it was just fantastic introducing Toby to it, too.

Anyway, I should get on with my day, and stop bothering you all.

*ie: anyone who thinks that life deserves more than 140 characters
** Black. Looks like a cloud crossed with an ear. Texture a bit like seaweed. Min loves it
*** Or words to that effect.
**** I didn't know you could get tetanus from cabbage, either.
***** At that point, it was 8.30

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bathrooms. Books. Workshops. Inertia.

Let's start with inertia, shall we?

Perhaps its because the ongoing saga of our bathroom renovations has thrown the last three weeks of our lives into utter disarray, or perhaps it's because I've got the middle-of-semester blues, or perhaps I'm just having a flat spell, but the last couple of weeks I've been finding it increasingly difficult to fight the overwhelming urge to do nothing. It's a little like everything has ground to a halt, and I just can't find it in me to get going again.

Which is utter crap, of course, I've got about a million and one things to do, most of them distressingly soon. Blog posts, for example. But still it's irritating when the brain and the willpower don't come into alignment. For a writer, it's dangerous.

Okay. Enough with the whinging. Now on to workshops...

Last friday I spent the day up in Sydney working with a group of fantastic young writers, and also fellow scribblers Jacqueline Moriarty and Suzanne Gervay run by the New South Wales CBC and held at the Australian Maritime Museum which, in addition to being a fantastic venue, is also the home of the Endeavour Replica, which I helped to build, rig and sail in Fremantle back in the early 1990's. Part of the day was a tour of the ship, which I haven't set foot aboard since it left Fremantle, and it was lovely to be back aboard her.

The rest of the day was fantastic - one of the best parts of this job is meeting and working with young writers, and a number of the guys and girls at the workshop have already done some incredible writing.

Tomorrow, I'm working at UC with students from Gold Creek High School, as part of our 'Uni Student for a Day' program, and that also promises to be fun.


I recently finished reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy (another of those big holes in my reading which I've been intending to fill for ages). It had quite an impact on me. I may have raved about it slightly at Goodreads. As I mentioned in my review, I think that one of the main reasons this book resonated so strongly with me was because of the portrayal of fatherhood within it. It captures all the utter powerlessness and desperation that comes with being a parent, and particularly a father (IMHO). It's a thoroughly beautiful, if completely gut-wrenching book.

Finally, Bathrooms:

In theory, our bathroom should be more-or-less finished tomorrow, except that while I've been typing up this post, our bathroom guy just called to let me know that there's been a problem with a benchtop, and we'll have to wait until thursday. This isn't overly surprising. Lately, I've been feeling a little bit like I'm on Grand Designs. I keep expecting to turn around to find Kevin McLeod in our hallway, looking terribly earnest and just slightly smug and saying something like "Tony and Imogen are convinced that they're going to come in on time and on budget*, but I'm at all convinced that they'll be able to achieve such an ambitious schedule on a project like this..."

Still, I can't complain. As of last night, at least we have a functioning shower again for the first time in three weeks.** This, if nothing else, has had a dramatic impact upon our quality of life. I'll stick some pics up here when it's all done***

Anyway, that's the brief summary of life at the moment. With a bit of luck tomorrow will see me in a more cheerful mood.

*We haven't. On either count.
** I smell a lot better, now.
*** Next year, on current projections.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Those Pesky Kids...

Here's something one of my students found glued into the endpaper of one of the books from our library, circa about 1982:

Says it all, really...


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