In Which I Am Penalised For Having Common Sense


*~*~Warning – non-writing-related personal crap ahead. Check back tomorrow for something more interesting.*~*~

I don’t have much time or energy to devote to posting today, because I’ve already been to the doctor and still have to go to the physiotherapist and wait on a call from the psych unit.

Why? Because I am sensible. And forgetful.

Not going into excessive personal detail, I have two problems that impede my ability to do certain jobs. First and most problematic, I suffer from mild hypermobility syndrome, which means my joints are unusually flexible and basically means that I am constantly spraining and twisting and damaging and dislocating myself, which as you can imagine is just delightful (Did you know it’s possible to dislocate your collarbone? It is! And my giddy aunt, does it hurt.). After my fourth major injury in three years, my physiotherapist told me very firmly not to work in a supermarket or a job that requires constant heavy lifting ever again.

Note that my physiotherapist said this, not my doctor. Why? Because I am not stupid and don’t have money to waste. I learned quickly that my injuries needed attention from a physiotherapist, not a doctor. The doctor would at best immediately refer me to a physio who could actually help me, and at worst would screw around for weeks or months assuring me that my acute DeQuervain’s Tenosynovitis was just a sprain and to keep working, it would be fine. (I did. It wasn’t. I was in physiotherapy for months.) So I stopped wasting my money on going to the doctor and just went straight to the physiotherapist. The receptionist and I now know each other very well.

Which has suddenly become a problem because when proving to Centrelink (Australia’s unemployment services thingie) that I have a physical condition that prevents me from doing certain jobs that involve heavy lifting or repetitive motion, a physiotherapist is not acceptable. I need a note from a Real Doctor. So I had to go check in with the doctor and convince him to accept a note from my physiotherapist, which I now have to obtain, because the rules are stupid. I mean, I get them wanting proof that the problem exists, but it really bothers me that they won’t accept the word of someone who can treat it, only someone who can’t.

As for the psych unit referral, well… I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder about fifteen years ago. The doctor I saw at the time (who I was referred to by Centrelink, so they should already have this on record) told me that since my coping mechanisms were already pretty good and my panic attacks weren’t severe enough to make medication necessary, there wasn’t a lot she could do to help me. So I spent the intervening time polishing my coping mechanisms, identifying and avoiding or learning to manage situations that would set off panic attacks, identifying food intolerances that exacerbated the problem, ‘medicating’ myself with chocolate and herbal supplements and generally managing to get along all right. So now I have been informed that I need to see someone again to prove that I really have a problem because I am not taking medication and therefore cannot really be sick.

I am being penalized for coping too efficiently with my problems. Which kind of sucks.

Sorry about the downer post, will try to get back to writing-related subjects tomorrow.


Food and States of Emergency

We’ve had one in my city, this last few days. Storms, flooding, etc. And as usual, the supermarkets have been taking a hammering, because people hear ’emergency’ and panic and start buying up.

Now, admittedly, I had to go to the supermarket myself. The intense humidity had sent our bread moldy, and I wanted some fresh fruit for the spawn. But I’d have managed perfectly well if we’d been cut off from the shops, really. Even if the power had gone out, since we have a gas stove for cooking.  I always have stores of rice, canned goods, dried stuff etc in the cupboard, and we could easily go a week or two on what we have in storage.  It wouldn’t be especially delicious, but we’d manage.

This is a direct response to how I grew up, living way out in the bush, where a flooding river or washed-out road could leave us stranded for weeks. I’ve always kept emergency food supplies on hand, and I do it because I’ve always done it. So it always baffles me a bit when I see people panic-buying before a holiday when the shops are closed, or during or after a natural disaster, because I don’t understand why they don’t already have food.

Which in turn informs how I write about food. There’s always been some criticism of how much Tolkien talks about food in ‘The Lord Of The Rings‘, but at least he mentions it. When I’m reading, nothing throws me out of a narrative like a character embarking on a long journey on horseback with no mention of carrying food, or worse, traveling on foot through desert or post-apocalyptic wasteland or whatever and all I want to do is grab them and shout where is your food. Because I’ve back-packed a week’s worth of food – in the form of dried stuff like rice, a few cans, the bare minimum in size – into the bush, and I tell you what, it weighs a hell of a lot. Even if you don’t need to worry about water at all, food is heavy. And in a situation where it will be hard to get more, you think about it a lot. Nobody should be blithely striding off with no food and no concern about food, unless they’re battery-powered. And then they should be worrying about where to get a charge or a new battery.

Everyone needs to a) drink, b) eat and c) excrete. If characters not only don’t do these things, but don’t appear to have any way to do them – they’re carrying no food, they’re in a clean cell with no bucket to use, etc – it really kills the suspension of disbelief for me. You don’t have to show it, but keep in mind that the characters need to poop and make sure your reader can figure out how they’re doing it. Because I’ve been a part of so many conversations on this subject that it’s not even funny. “So… what do people on the bridge of the Enterprise do when they need to pee? They’re long shifts, you’d have to pee. Is there a discreetly hidden toilet somewhere, or do they have to get the turbolift to another level every time?”

Given the choice, I’ll take Tolkien and his loving descriptions of food any day.

Animated Ladies – The Rescuers

There are never enough female characters. This will remain true until ‘the hero, the grumpy one, the fat/big/dumb one, the cute kid and the girl’ is no longer a standard team lineup.This is a convention that drives me absolutely bananas, all the more so because I have once or twice caught myself doing it because I’ve actually internalized this crap. Women should not be only a token presence, despite the increasingly strict narrative conventions that bias towards males – so today’s post is about a movie that is an exception to that stupid rule.

I’ve been watching a lot, and I mean a lot of animation since I had a kid, even more than I did before, and I would like to shout out to the original ‘The Rescuers’, which passed the Bechdel test long before the Bechdel test was cool… or even invented. Spoilers ahead!

Of the four primary characters, three are female. And they never, ever talk about men. The plot goes like so – the primary villain, Madam Medusa, has a passionate, desperate desire for the fabled Devil’s Eye diamond. In order to obtain this thing, she has kidnapped sweet little Penny from Morningside Orphanage. The other two primaries, Miss Bianca and Bernard, get wind of this and on behalf of the Rescue Aid Society of mice (they are mice), go to the rescue.

So let’s start with Penny, who we see first. She’s a little girl in a very scary situation, something which isn’t really downplayed much. She’s been kidnapped, she doesn’t know where she is, and these people who use alligators as guard-dogs have not only held her for three months, but keep putting her down a scary dark hole in the ground where water comes in and might drown her. But Penny fights, to the best of her limited capacity. She tries repeatedly to escape, she puts messages in bottles and throws them out of the boat where she’s being held, she yells at Nero and Brutus (the alligators) when they catch her and gives the dopey sidekick Mr Snoops as good as she gets. Penny is The Victim, but she doesn’t passively wait to be rescued – she does her best to escape while going along with her captors as much as she needs to to keep them from hurting her. She’s smart, and she’s doing pretty damn well for a kid of 6-8.

Miss Bianca is the Hero of the piece, not Bernard. Bernard is unmistakeably second banana from the get-go. Yes, Miss Bianca suffers from some negative stereotyping (fussing about wrinkling her dress, making them late because she has to pack a few things, etc), and Bernard gets to save her from peril once or twice, but nevertheless she is unmistakeably the one in charge. Bernard does what she tells him, both because he has the world’s biggest crush on her and because he really doesn’t know what he’s doing. You see, when the Rescue Aid Society intercepts one of Penny’s letters-in-a-bottle, they agree that someone should be sent to investigate. Miss Bianca, the Hungarian representative, promptly volunteers. The chairman waffles about changing times and danger and goddamn women’s liberation okay fine you can go but you have to take a MAN with you. Then he calls for volunteers from the male representatives, trying to put Miss Bianca and the mission safely into male paws. Miss Bianca is not having his shit, though, and says sweetly that they’re all so kind, but if she has to take a guy she thinks she’ll take Bernard – the cute but doofy mouse janitor who just fell into the bottle and got stuck. The Chairman splutters, but she gets her way, and control of the mission. She gives the orders after that.

Madam Medusa, the Villain, is presented as a sleazy trollop – bad makeup, sagging figure in a skimpy dress, and so on, and that I don’t care for. But she is unmistakeably The Villain, with a pathetically incompetent male sidekick, Mr Snoops. She runs her own business, has her own evil plans and goals, and never shows the slightest interest in men. She’s the one who trained the alligators, who frighten Mr Snoops, and she drinks, drives recklessly, and waves a shotgun with abandon. She’s clever until she loses her temper, and if she isn’t quite as badass as she thinks she is, she’s not doing half bad as a credible villain. (Okay, she’s no Ursula, but she’s pretty good!)

Oddly enough, Miss Bianca and Madam Medusa, the Hero and Villain, never interact directly beyond Medusa freaking out about mice being in the house and waving her shotgun around. But they both talk to Penny, not once but multiple times, and (aside possibly from references to the pirate’s skull) never discuss men AT ALL. Bianca, Medusa, and Penny provide the entirety of the plot’s motivation, almost all of its smarts, and most of the romance – though Bernard crushes on Bianca, she’s the one who makes the move.

It’s silly and cheesy and still problematic in spots, but give The Rescuers credit – it had strong female characters before Strong Female Characters were required, and it’s a fun watch.

However, watch with care – the Rescue Aid Society song is one of the most potent earworms I have ever encountered. I actually woke up humming the damn thing.

Books and Blogs On Writing

I love reading about writing, in much the same way that I imagine car enthusiasts like books about engines. I love pulling the top off and poking around in the mechanics of storytelling, examining different narrative traditions and conventions, and sliding in underneath a faulty story to see where the plot-leak is. Analysis is fun!

And there’s lots to be found on the subject. I admit, I’ve never read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ because a) everyone keeps telling me to and I am contrary and b) I don’t care for Steven King’s work, so the value of his advice to me personally is questionable. (I have a copy of James Frey’s writing book, which I actually quite enjoyed, but again the source renders the advice a bit iffy.)

EDIT: The spouse has informed me that the James N. Frey who wrote ‘How To Write a Damn Good Novel‘ is in fact a completely different James Frey from the one who is notorious for sucking at discerning between fact and fiction. My defense is that I have trouble remembering names at the best of times, and expecting me to discern between people with the same name on the basis of an initial is asking far too much. Although clearly I have to start looking up everything. It’s a good book, though.

Blogs I read:

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books – This is a review site, not a writing one, but a big collection of scathing reviews is very helpful! The ladies pull apart the books they don’t like and spell out exactly why, so it’s a great ‘what not to do’ guide.

Pub Rants –  I really like agent-blogs that give advice, as there’s nothing like getting point by point advice from a member of the specific subgroup of humans to which I wish to sell my work. Kristin Nelson is one of my favourites, currently, because there’s lots of good advice, she posts reasonably regularly, and she likes all the genres I write which leaped her right to the top of my ‘fantasy agents’ pile.

Janet Reid/Query Shark – and Often harsh and always useful, there’s a ton of good advice here for writers.

Adventures in Text – I follow this not only because the writer is my NaNoWriMo ML and leader of the Cult of Kess, of which I am going to be Cake Guru when we get around to organizing our permanent Writer’s Retreat of Awesomeness, but because it has good advice galore. Go see!

And I cannot leave out Miranda – – who is my blogging-partner and encouragement-buddy, without whom this blog would probably not exist. If I don’t post every day, she has to buy me a drink, the reverse ditto. Rum is an excellent incentive!

EDIT 2: I can’t believe I left these out! Limyaael’s fantasy rants is an enduring favourite, full of rants that make me say ‘hear hear’ as well as useful tips.

Some of my enduring favourite books are:

J. Michael Straczynski’s ‘Complete  Book of Scriptwriting‘ –  Lots of interesting historical nuggets about the television and film industry combined with plenty of good advice about pacing, adherence to structure and so on. As the title says, it’s intended for script-writers rather than novelists per se, but he does acknowledge the potential for crossover, and a lot of the advice crosses over very well. It’s something I can read purely for entertainment, but I always come away wanting to write.

Lynne Truss’s ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves‘ – It’s a love-it-or-hate-it book, I’m told, but I’m definitely in the ‘love it’ camp. I adore the author’s particular brand of humour, and it does contain sound advice on the ins and outs of punctuation.

Chris Baty’s ‘No Plot, No Problem‘ – I love this book. I’ve read it over and over, and am currently on my third copy. (One got lost, one got so soaked that all the pages went moldy and stuck together). It’s very specifically a book for NaNoWriMo and the questionable-quality first draft, but I always find it very helpful in getting me motivated and enthusiastic about writing.

Kate Grenville’s ‘The Writing Book This one only just makes the cut, because I bought it and I have reread it and I remember finding it helpful at the time. I don’t remember any specific gems, though, unlike the first three, so it didn’t make quite the same impact. This is probably because a lot of room was taken up with ‘writing exercises’ which I loathe and never do. When I buy a book about writing, I want it to be about the *mechanics* of writing, not just cuddly little exercises for me to do as if I were still in primary school.

I also have a little grammar dictionary which I love because I stink at remembering formal grammatical rules, but which is currently put away somewhere so my toddler can’t destroy it, and I can’t remember which one it is. They’re good to have, though.

I’m surprised that, when it comes down to it, I only have a few books that I liked enough to buy/remember the name of. I need to find more. Any recommendations?


Hi, my name is Genre Salmon and I love exposition.

I always feel like I should be signing up for some kind of twelve-step program called Wafflers Anonymous or Twelve Steps To Brusque Economy Of Language, but it’s true. I admit it. I love exposition. I love old-fashioned books that start with two or three pages of it.  I love reading page after page of description and inner monologue. Assuming, of course, that it’s written well – dull exposition is awful. But hand in hand with my passion for lyrical, evocative prose does come an enthusiasm for that prose being quite descriptive. And lengthy.

It may be because the first story I remember being read to me – and one of my two absolutely earliest memories – is of my dad reading me The Hobbit when I was three, to take my mind off a burn. He started reading the Hobbit aloud when I was, I think, four. So I imprinted early on pretty prose and extensive waffling on. (And I liked Tom Bombadil. Shut up. Tom Bombadil is fun if you’re little.)

And all, all, all the writing books and blogs and so forth seem to be categorically against exposition. Show, don’t tell. Never infodump. Don’t give away too much in the first chapter. And I know it’s good advice, I really do, but it’s so not what I do. Nope. Not at all. At least not in my first draft.

In my first draft, I info-dump like crazy in the first couple of chapters. I write down everything I think of that I want to put in, at least in part because as I have previously mentioned, my memory is such utter crap that I can completely forget entire chunks of backstory overnight. I just shove it all in there. Then, if I get to a spot later on where this piece of information would fit, I shove it in there as well. I once found the same minor revelation in three different places in the same text, which was actually kind of fun because I’d shown the different results of early, middling and late reveals and I could see which one I liked best.  Then when I’m done, and I’ve worked in little niblets of information throughout the narrative and figured out what who should know when, then I go back and cut most of the info-dumping from the first chapters.

If you have trouble pacing yourself early on, it’s an approach I recommend. You’ve got all the bits you wanted to put in in one place, including all the stuff you don’t need to leave in at all because the reader doesn’t actually need to know it but you-the-writer do, and when you’ve got more of the basic structure down you can nip back and start picking out choice tidbits of exposition and seeding it through the story a tiny bit at a time without forgetting anything.

I understand other people often get the same effect via ‘planning’. Or ‘outlining’. I’ve never bothered doing an outline more detailed than a list of bullet points to keep the plot vaguely on track, but it’s presumably also a useful way of keeping track of what’s going on and what your back-story is. (Anyone?)

Anyway. I exposit and info-dump and have my characters talk way too damn much all the time – in the first draft, anyway. Because you can always cut, but a character nuance forgotten can be gone forever.

Yes, this exactly.

Dare To Be Great?

I found that picture on stumbleupon, and looked up the quote, apparently it’s from Pushing Daisies, a TV show I’ve never seen.  It does however, explain my great love of books and reading.  I’ve been reading since before I started school, first all the kid books, of course, “Go Dog Go” was my favorite, then moving onward.  My dad had a great collection of 80’s fantasy novels, which I stole, and devoured.  They were so much more interesting than my mom’s mystery novels (plus, serial killers are scary to read about when you’re 12, fiction or not), and have been firmly cemented as my favorite genre for over a decade.  I used to read ALL THE TIME, class breaks, recess, at home, on weekends, in the car, staying up late with a flashlight so my mom didn’t yell at me, on the beach, whenever, wherever.  I did a lot of…

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2013-10: Prince Ivan, by Peter Morwood.

So, I have read my first new book for the 2013 ten!

Well, new to me. It was Peter Morwood’s ‘Prince Ivan’, published in 1990 according to Amazon. I recently obtained the ebook, and I haven’t read Mr Morwood’s work before, so it seemed like a good place to start.

Overall I enjoyed the book. I like Russian fairy-tales, and there were some interesting variations on the usual themes. For example, Morwood’s Prince Ivan isn’t the youngest of three brothers, but instead has three older sisters, all of whom marry sorcerers who later help Ivan in his troubles. For Ivan has troubles, and though they’re largely a product of his own poor judgement (as they usually are in these stories), he actually makes his worst mistake through a piece of misguided kindness while under magical influence, so it’s not as bad as it could be. The Too Stupid To Live trope is the one that drives me wilder than any other. There’s plenty going on – there are several setbacks, pretty major ones, not just the resolution of a single problem then straight to the happily-ever-after that can make some fairy-tale retellings so dull.

I also enjoyed the language. The prose is very conversational, in the style of old-fashioned stories for children, and I have a nostalgic fondness for that particular style. Morwood peppers the dialogue with Russian words and phrases, to add colour, which works well enough but is sometimes overdone. His creepy description of Baba Yaga’s house with its fence of human bones is particularly effective, though.

All that being said, I wouldn’t rate the book over three stars. The plot drags in places, and just didn’t hold my interest all that well in other places. The characters aren’t especially well-developed, though they’re faithful representations of their fairy-tale archetypes, and I found myself more concerned with Ivan’s horse than with Ivan at one point, since Ivan was so obviously perfectly safe. If you’re looking to read about Tsarevich Ivan, Koschei the Undying, and their usual supporting cast, I’d recommend Mercedes Lackey’s ‘Firebird’ instead. The prose is stronger, the characters better drawn and more personable, and it has much more convincing peril for poor Ivan.

(Cross-posted to Goodreads)