Sunday, 31 October 2010

You be the judge: my intense experience of judging a writing competition

Just recently I was invited to judge a writing comp, probably because my short story made it into the RWA Little Gems Topaz anthology.

I thought, 'This can't be too hard' but I was wrong. What an intense experience. I did an initial read of the three entries allocated to me, jotting down comments along the way.

Of course, being a vainglorious would-be 'author', I initially compared the entries to my latest WIP and wondered why my work wasn't screaming up the bestseller list (maybe I need to finish a book first). The entries didn't come close to matching the literary genius of my brilliant work in progress!

But hang on! The memories of the negative feedback I'd recieved from comps entered over the past five years flooded back. I hesitantly opened my competitions folder and leafed through the judges comments on my MS, now in the drawer never to be opened.

Here's what one judge wrote: "The story has potential and it began well. I didn't care for the deck-hand bit (that kind of misunderstanding has been done to death). The hero came across as uncouth with his comment about the boat and totally unkind comment about her financial status. The whole scene between hero and heroine seemed contrived to generate a motiveless (to me) conflict."

Ouch. I can't tell you how much I loved my opening scene on the yacht until this judge slammed it onto the pavement and ground it to a pulp with the heel of her boot.


That judge gave me 37 out of a possible 63.

However, the two other judges awarded me 56 and 52, with the 56 judge commenting: "Setting, heroine setup is good, GMC is very solid for heroine."


Because I've suffered heartache at the waspish pens of others, I waited another week before I re-read the three entries. And they weren't half bad. I tried to be fair with my comments and to point out the problems where I saw them. But I'm not going to dump on these entrants when I've only read a small portion of their stories and have no knowledge of their writing experience.

Being a judge is hard work, but the task was made easier after I put my ego in the drawer.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

A heart count in my WIP causes mine to sink

I just did a search through my latest WIP, which is 14,040 words, and already it contains 14 mentions of the word 'heart'.

And in my first MS that's locked in a drawer never to be opened, the organ that pushes blood from one part of the body to the other appears over 80 times.

How's that for heart-attack material? 

I don't know whether you can have too many hearts in a romance, but I tend to rely on this essential organ too much in my attempts to evoke reactions from my characters. 

There's hearts beating, flying, swooping and sinking all over the shop!

There's tired analogies such as 'her heart beat like a drum' and other cliches including racing, heavy, empty and hollow hearts

A quick flick through several romance novels reveals: His heart stopped, his heart turned over, joy flooded her heart, her heart sank, his heart twisted in sympathy, her aching heart, heart banging against her rib cage, her heart beat out a grim rhythm of a farewell, he sounded as if she gashed a hole in his heart, her heart launched into a veering race (these last three, all very nice, are from Anna Campbell's Tempt The Devil). 

If the heart is used sparingly, it can be used to good effect. But too much of anything isn't recommended.

If there's anyone out there who can help me with this (and don't suggest I try using my imagination), I'd like to know. How does one describe a character's emotions without falling into cliches and relying on heart analogies and metaphors? 

 PS: This post was inspired by a poignant quote from an article in The Sun-Herald, where a former member of the French Foreign Legion, David Mason, says: "I stood next to the cot [of baby boy Abdou, who dies] and felt one of the strings that bound my heart to my soul stretch and snap."

PPS: I took the photo of these fibreglass heart lights at Ku de ta in Bali. It's an amazing nightclub that overlooks the beach at Seminyak on the south coast. The hearts were strung up in a tree at the entrance to the club to celebrate its tenth anniversary.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

I'm on my way: from pantser to plodder to plotter


For the past two weeks I've spent a couple of hours every Friday at my friend Ms Fivestar's office, where I have managed to bang out a couple of thousand words of my latest WIP.

Ms Fivestar works with her business partner Mrs LOL, so there's lots of chit-chat and takeaway flat-whites
before I start to rock and write.

I love it. I still get stuff done, which wouldn't happen at home where there are distractions such as layers of dust, grimy pots and pans in the sink and at least three loads of washing. 

All that can wait... 

And in the space of two weeks I've learnt an invaluable lesson. I need to do more plotting. It's not just enough to go to Ms Fivestar's office and knock out the words. I really need to sit down and consider where my story is heading before I get to the next bit. 

So today, in preparation for tomorrow, I've created a framework for my story. It's no longer so free-form and a series of scenes floating around in my head. I'm also finishing off the synopsis. It might change as I write, but at least I have some structure to my story.

BTW, Ms Fivestar and Mrs LOL's office is no ordinary work space. It's an old warehouse (it might have even been barn or stables, that's how old it is) that's been converted into six offices, each with a mezzanine level. It's light and airy - and there's a cafe downstairs!

I've got the life. I just hope they don't start charging me to use the space!

PS: Pic is of daily offering to Hindu gods in Bali. I'm thinking of starting up this practice at home, just because it's a lovely ritual.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

The tragic tale of Blackie Buttercup the rabbit and why sometimes it's OK to lie to your kids

Once upon a time, in 2000 to be exact, we owned a rabbit. Spanner and I were under the misguided impression that it would be a less labour-intensive pet than a dog. 

I can't even remember where we bought Blackie Buttercup (BB), a white New Zealand short-eared bunny with a penchant for hand-woven Indian rugs, chair legs and internet cables. The bloody thing gnawed its way through most things in our house whenever we allowed it inside.

The most upsetting incident involved a Ginger Spice doll. BB chewed the doll's leg to just above the ankle and amputated her foot. I still have the maimed doll, which resides in a box with at least a dozen dishevelled Barbies and one exhausted looking Ken. 

But I digress. BB, it turned out, was more trouble than he/she was worth. Despite this I became attached to the little critter, which would hop around my feet as I hung out the washing. 

About six months after we brought BB home, he/she disappeared. We searched far and wide, but it was Spanner who made the gruesome discovery several days later. BB had crawled into our neighbour's yard and under the house where he/she had consumed Ratsak. 

We decided not to tell the kids the truth. Instead, we wove a romantic tale about the liberation of BB into the bush reserve near our house. And they believed it.

Until yesterday. 

Believing that Precious Princess was asleep (it was around 9am) I recounted the sad tale of Blackie Buttercup to an electrician/sparky who was at our house to install a new oven (we were discussing the whereabouts of the electricity cabling, which led me to the saga of BB). 

Just as I finished the story, PP swung open her bedroom door and stabbed a finger at me. "You lied to us about Blackie Buttercup!"

In front of the stunned sparky, I argued with PP about why we felt we had to tell a lie. I mean, how do you explain to three kids under the age of ten that their pet has endured an agonising death after ingesting poison? 

"But," PP argued, "for years we thought Blackie Buttercup was out there in the wild popping out babies. Whenever we saw a rabbit, we thought it was related to Blackie Buttercup. But it was all a lie."

Then she looked at me oddly, and I knew an evil idea had formed in her head. Bribery.

Panic clenched my heart. "Don't you dare tell your little sister about this," I begged. In the meantime, the sparky had edged to the front door, planning his own escape. "She'll never forgive me." (Miss Hissy is the unforgiving type)

A twisted smile distorted PP's beautiful face into a mask of terror. 
"Mmm. Maybe I will or maybe I won't."

I'm not sure if there's a moral to this tragic rabbit tale. 

Maybe it's to make sure the family is out of earshot if you're talking behind their backs.

I still think we did the right thing, even though PP currently holds the balance of power in this household.  

The pic is one of only two in existence of Blackie Buttercup. Here, he is being nursed by Miss Hissy.  I scanned the pic and can't work out how to get rid of the frame! I hate technology.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Lost in the supermarket* or why Australia's two supermarket giants make me cry

The supermarket makes me depressed. It's windowless and fluoro-lit, and the temperature swings from nipple-pricking ice cold at the dairy section to airless around the shampoo, condoms and toothpaste aisle.

The piped music ranges from crap Mark Knopfler dirges (I don't care what all the ageing, balding 15-minute guitar-solo tragics out there say, MK put the 'dire' into '80s rock) to Kylie Minogue's frizzy disco turn.

I once had a panic attack in the dog-food and toilet-paper aisle as I felt its product-laden shelves close in on me (maybe it had something to do with my fear of being smothered by tonnes of super soft hypo-allergenic Sorbent rolls).

Recently I stomped in child-like frustration when my favourite brand of nuts, Nobby's, were usurped by the supermarket's own home brand. I want Nobby's cashews, not the non-brand that makes the two Australian supermarket Goliaths impervious to the struggling Davids of this world.

And yesterday I cried. I discovered that my favourite yoghurt in the whole world had been squashed next to the 'new' home-brand yoghurt, which promised the same taste sensation for less money.

And its packaging was similar to that of my yoghurt. It was an AVATAR. An imposter. A rip-off that denies choice to those of us who like to shop for our favourite brands. It's only a matter of time before my yoghurt gets the chop.

A tear trickled. Earlier, I'd supressed the urge to scream: "Where's the bloody Windex?" as I roamed the household-products aisle like a caged tiger. Turns out, it had been moved to a different spot. 

But the yoghurt situation was bad. I was pissed off BIG TIME. 

What to do? Because I'm officially a "mad bitch"**, I arrived home and immediately shot off an email to the manufacturer of my favourite yoghurt. "What's going on? Tell me it will be all right and my favourite yoghurt will always be there for me!"

I will report back when I get a response. 

There appears to be so much choice these days, but in reality there's precious little.


We will fight them in the aisles!    

*With respect to The Clash
**My eldest daughter Precious Princess described me in such glowing terms

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Casa Luna Cooking School is more for looking

As I still haven't done an ocean swim or written one pathetic word of my Great Australian Novel (*snort*) I thought I would return to my recent adventures in Bali.

Of course, with the imminent cinema release of Eat, Pray, Love, this post is timely as it deals with my own middle-life crisis, which is pretty ordinary albeit 'strangely compelling'*

But this post is about Ms Fivestar's and my experience of the renowned Casa Luna (CL) Cooking School in Ubud. The CL empire is run by Janet De Neefe, a glamorous expat Australian who married a Balinese more than 20 years ago and is now behind the Indus Restaurant, Honeymoon Guesthouses, Pantheon Gallery and the Casa Luna Restaurant, Cooking School and Emporium. 

We didn't meet De Neefe or "Mrs Janet", as she is called by her staff, who obviously adore her.

But we did get to enjoy several hours with our Casa Luna cooking 'teacher', Made, whose huge smile and wicked sense of humour was thoroughly engaging. On the downside, we didn't get to do much cooking. The class was less hands-on and more of a cooking demonstration.

One of the reasons for this is the class sizes. In our class was a group of around eight women from Geraldton in WA, Angela from Darwin in the NT (her boyfriend Robbie had a dose of Bali belly and couldn't make it), around half a dozen women from the USA (Pennsylvania), a mother and daughter from Brazil and Ms Five Star and me. Note: the majority of the women were aged 40-60 and the token male was absent.  

The cooking facilities in the tropical semi-outdoor setting comprised two wok burners, so you couldn't accommodate more than two people at a time. Admittedly, half the challenge in creating the dishes was the slicing and dicing, which was mostly completed for us before the class started. And at the end of the class, we consumed the feast. 

The dishes were: 
spiced fish in banana leaves, fish curry, spinach in tomato-chilli sambal, carrot and cucumber salad and sambal. These were followed by black rice pudding.  

There are lots of cooking schools in Ubud, and some might just be more interactive than this one. If you like to look and eat, it's a winner. But if you prefer to do more than stir and pound for a bit, you might just want to look around.
*Stay tuned for my 'the day I cried in the supermarket' post. It's a cracker. 'Strangely compelling' is designed to attract curious readers to my blog.