Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Are you a Car Star?

I have a confession. I like to sing. In my car. Really loudly and with much passion. I know. You're wincing, aren't you? I'm the chick you pull up next to at the traffic lights who's howling along at the top of her lungs. All you can be thankful for is that the windows are up. And I can't even guarantee you that.

Today I had some errands to run. Errands involving highway driving. I'm politely referred to as a Nervous Nellie when it comes to driving, so my singing serves two capacities in these situations. It keeps my mind off the 4,500 'what ifs' that can turn my palms sweaty when I'm driving at 100km/hour - and it makes me breathe deeply and keeps me calm.

That's my excuse, anyway.

Today I found myself singing the fourth part harmony that The Dixie Chicks so obviously miss. I totally rocked a Pink song (did I mention I'm a closet (or not so closet) dag?). There may or may not have been some Jimmy Barnes in there. Singing along with Jimmy makes me appreciate the range of the man's voice. Those songs get high, people.

In the privacy of my own car, I'm the lead singer, with any choice of international superstar backing band I damn choose. I like to think I make the most of that.

Are you a Car Star? What's your music of choice?

[image: bsandgren]

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Proud parents come in all shapes and sizes

The scene: the empty carpark at the local swimming pool. Dark clouds gather on the horizon, threatening. A mother gathers her babies about her, anxiously scanning for traffic.

The Misters are back at swimming lessons. Which means that the race from school gate to pool is on again. Twenty minutes from bell to the first splash, via a quick snack, changing from uniform to what Mr4 calls 'swimming underpants' and a hurried 'how was school?' update. It's a finely timed operation.

The scene: deciding that the coast is clear, the mother lines her babies up. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. You can almost hear them sounding off like the Von Trapp children as she makes sure they're all there.

At 3.15pm, we pull up out the front of the heated pool. Across the road, the open-air pool is closed, awaiting the long weekend and the warm weather. As I unbuckle my seatbelt, I glance across the deserted carpark, surprised that there are so few cars here yet. And that's when I see them...

The scene: Dad appears from nowhere to bring up the rear of the line. There are so many of them and they have a long way to go. Between them, the parents frogmarch their little charges to the edge of the carpark. They stand near the kerb, watching, waiting. The road in front of them, a standard suburban street, appears vast.

"Quick!" I shout, racing around to let the boys out of the car. "Look!" I point to the little family, taking its first tentative steps onto the street.

"Ducklings!" shouts Mr7. Mr4 claps his hands. We all stand and watch, breaths held as we watch the line of fluffy ducklings, sandwiched at either end by their ever-vigilant parents, make a break across the street.

"There aren't any cars coming, are there Mum?" asks Mr4, worried.

"Those lookouts will let them know," says Mr7, pointing out the two ducks standing, as though on guard, nearby.

The scene: the ducklings flap and waddle and wiggle their way across to the other side, and the safety of the river bank. Mum and Dad Duck stand on the verge, watching as, one by one, they slip and slide and slither their way down the grassy hill towards the water below. Proud parents.

We watch them until they disappear over the rise. At which point I realise the time, line the boys up and we skiddle and skaddle and run helter skelter toward our first lesson of the season. Where Mr4 did the best 'big arms' ever, and Mr7 received a 'good' from the notoriously tough teacher. Proud parent.

[image: via dreams that glitter xo]

Monday, August 29, 2011

A note about school notes

On Monday they fall like confetti from the sky. Or from the reader bag. School notes. Blue, pink, yellow, green, orange... All full of instructions. "You need to do this/sign that/pay this/prepare that."

A deluge.

I read them. I immediately throw the ones of least apparent relevance. A sizeable pile remains. I sign what I can. Return it immediately to the reader bag. One down. Truckloads to go. How, for instance, to deal with the 'Buskers Afternoon' notification. Can I be a parent helper? Can I avoid it?

The Fair Trade Colouring Competition is due on Thursday. I have a bad feeling the colouring sheet remains in the Fibro, under the renovation dust - will Mr7 be devastated? School photo season is upon us. Choose a package - cheque or credit. Due back when? Eeek! Tomorrow. Wait a minute - wasn't there one about the preschool photos as well? Rummage. Due back when? Eeeek! Tomorrow.

There has to be an easier way.

How do you deal with the onslaught of school notes? Any tips?

[image: how much do you love this picture by beet09? You can buy it as a greeting card at RedBubble.]

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Making the switch (or thinking with your eyes open)

Following Thursday's Inner Hoon post, Mr4 (who, by the way, did not read that particular post) decided that today was the day to Lose The Training Wheels. He was ready to be a Big Boy. Fo' Real. So, with great ceremony, the little wheels were removed and he and I and Mr7 duly removed ourselves to the wide, open spaces of the local showground to see if we could, as Mr7 put it, get him going.

Half an hour into proceedings, huffing and puffing and with very sore hamstrings from bending over to hold the back of his seat (which is not very far off the ground), I called a halt. He had made some progress. He could push off and pedal a few rounds, but then it all went pear shaped. Let's just say that any distraction is a good distraction as far as Mr4 is concerned. And every time he spotted a distraction, his handle bars went left and he went with them.

As I carried his bike back to the car, I told him that he needed to concentrate a little better. Looking at motorbikes roaring past, for instance, was causing him to crash.

"But I was looking at the lovely day," he responded.

I know the day is lovely, but even so. If he wanted to ride his bike, he needed to think a little harder.

"But when I think really hard, I have to close my eyes, Mum," he responded. Er, yes, I could see how this would make staying on the bike difficult. (See Thursday's post about raising the legal driving age to 30.)

I told him that he needed to find a way to think hard with his eyes open.

Later, as we were driving out to view an antique food safe (I take them to all the best places, it's true), he told me that he'd had a breakthrough. "I've worked out how to think with my eyes open," he told me, pride infusing every syllable.


"There's a switch in my head," he confided. "If you push it one way, your eyes close. But if I push it back the other way, reeeeaaaallly hard, I can think with my eyes open."

Oh, that's all right then.

We are heading back to the showground tomorrow for round two. Let's hope that switch is in the right position.

Have you taught a child to ride a bike? Any tips for one who is distracted by 'the lovely day'?

[image: fieldnotes]

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Writing + Weight Loss = Same/Same

I'm guest posting at Diminishing Lucy today. I love her blog. She covers an awful lot of ground, from family to fitness, and does it without apparently breaking a sweat. My post today is all about how writing and weight loss have a lot of similarities... particularly given I'm not doing a lot of either at the moment. Please pop over and say hello...

Also, if you haven't joined up with the Weekend Rewind, it's not too late - and it's SUPER EASY this week. All you have to do is to link up a post from this time last year. How hard can that be???? Hope to see you there!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Big red cars

Mr4's inner hoon is well developed. At four. He will stand on a street corner and point out the 'coolest' cars. All of said cars have flashy paint jobs, shiny wheels and 'wings' aka spoilers. Mr7 has told him that spoilers are aeroplane wings turned upside down, so they hold the car down, rather than pushing the plane up. Mr7 learned about that on an episode of Peppa Pig, or Olivia, or one of those Piggy ABC shows. See, TV is educational.

Mr4 likes the music loud when he is in the car. He likes the window down and the breeze in his hair. He tells me that he will be a much better driver than me. Apparently he will be 'fast' and will not hit the gutter when he attempts to reverse park. Everyone's a critic.

Mr4 dons his bike helmet, puts on his gumboots, and climbs on his little bike (with training wheels) as though he is stepping over a Harley Davidson. He brmmms as he drives, makes screeching noises as he skids to a stop, and swaggers like a Bandido as he pushes his bike into the preschool playground. He walked around with his helmet under his arm for ages the other morning, waiting for someone to notice, then tossed his hair back with 'oh, this old thing' attitude as he confided that he'd ridden to school that day.

Mr4 has all the makings of a mother's worst nightmare.

I think I'll start lobbying now for the driving age to be raised to 30.

[image: Disney]

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Were you a Trixie Belden fan?

Mr7 is reading Trixie Belden books. Books written in the 1950s about a teenage girl and her friends who solve mysteries. Their gang is known as The Bob-Whites of the Glen. BWG. They are named after a flock of birds. It is all so innocent and twee as to be faintly ridiculous. Assuming, of course, that you didn't know better...

Mr7 is reading Trixie Belden books because I bought them for him. I was obsessed with Trixie. She was so cool. Always described as 'sturdy' with freckles and sandy curls. She hated sewing and all the other girl stuff that 'Moms' wanted her to do. She wasn't scared of anything. Her best friend Honey Wheeler was tall, slim and really good at all that stuff. My friend S and I used to pretend to be Trixie and Honey. Swapping roles, depending on the day. Trixie followed on from our Famous Five obsession. I think S's mum was glad when we grew out of the Famous Five, because we'd dug a sizeable hole in her backyard in our attempt to create an underground clubhouse.

I wasn't entirely sure that Mr7 would take to Trixie, her being a girl and using such phrases as 'gleeps!' and 'gadzooks'. But I think he responds to exactly the same things I did.. She's a resourceful girl our Trixie. Smart, persistent, charming. She also has a loyal group of friends, willing to follow her to the ends of the earth and always on hand to pull her out of scrapes. And, of course, key for any Sherlock Holmes fan, there's a good mystery at the heart of every book.

I was never really a Nancy Drew girl. But I did read about 37 Trixie Belden books. I wonder if Mr7 will stay the distance.

Were you a Trixie Belden fan?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

You do what you do

My mum is a very wise woman. One of her best pieces of advice ever? "You do what you do." Always useful in those moments when you're second-guessing yourself. Looking at everyone else. Wondering why they seem to be more popular/cool/successful than you. Slanting green-eyed looks at the person next to you. Or the one across the room. Wondering if what you're writing/saying/doing is ... enough.

You do what you do. Nobody else does what you do.

Trying to be someone or something else is never the answer. The only voice that will work for you is your voice. Have confidence in that voice.

Stop comparing. Stop contrasting. Focus on making what you do the best that you can do.

Or, as Melinda Schneider sings, "Be yourself. Everybody else is taken."

It's great advice. It works. In writing, in blogging, in life.

[image: via weheartit]

Monday, August 22, 2011

How much information is too much information?

Before you have kids, nobody ever warns you about the quicksand. Okay, they don't warn you about lots of other stuff either (conjunctivitis anyone?) but the quicksand is one area into which an innocent parent wanders easily and often. Big quicksand subjects are sign-posted - you can prepare for Death, Sex and Mortgages, you can see them coming (or not, see here) and deflect the child with a random 'oh, wow, was that a Ninja Turtle I just saw?' But the others...

Today I found myself floundering not once, but twice, and without warning. The conversations went from nowhere to Physics (eep!) and Chemistry (help!) in the blink of an eye and without a safety net. This time it was not Mr4, asker of the world's most difficult questions, but Mr7 who led me merrily down the path towards MumsNotASuperhero (could almost be a Welsh village, could it not?), via quicksand.

The scene: Front yard, Gran & Pops's house. The boys are riding bikes on the very cool driveway.

Mr7: "Mum, why do bikes stay up when you ride them and fall over when you stop?"

Me, not thinking: "Oh, it's to do with physics."

Mr7: "What's physics?"

Me, still unaware of the cold trickle of wet sand between my toes: "It's a type of science."

Mr7: "What's that got to do with bikes?"

Me, beginning to feel ground shifting beneath my feet: "Well, the bike stays up when you ride because the force of the momentum of the bike is stronger than the force of the pull of gravity on it."

Mr7: Pause. "Mum, what's force?"

Me, finally listening to internal voice shrieking 'you have no idea what you're talking about': "You'll learn about it in year 9 science. Just keep riding or you'll fall over."

The scene: The dinner table. Mr7, Mr4 and I are enjoying a little light dinner table conversation.

Actually, I cannot even relay this chat word for word. All I remember is using the words 'organic', 'chemicals', 'photosynthesis', 'carbon dioxide' and 'biology'. The feel of cold, wet sand closing over my head has blanked out the rest. Suffice to say, I was on shaky ground and ended up offering to buy him one of those kids' science encyclopaedias, just to take the pressure off.

My policy with the basic information questions (as opposed to the big Life questions) has always been to throw as much detail at the kids as they could take. If they ask me something, I explain the hell out of it (hence my 'fun' chats about collective nouns), pretty much until their eyes glaze over - a sure sign that they've stopped listening. But, as Mr7 gets older and, let's face it, smarter than me, the gaps in my own knowledge (particularly in the sciences) become more glaringly apparent. I get the feeling I'll be standing in that quicksand more and more often in the future.

How do you handle questions that have real, factual answers? Do you go for simple and efficient, or throw as much at your kids as they (and you) can handle?

[image: beatboxgoesthump.tumblr]

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The blinking cursor

Beat. Beat. Beat.

Blink. Blink. Blink.

Like a neon sign with a short in the electrics. Small black line in a sea of white.



My 500 words a day challenge is progressing in fits and starts. Much like the blink of the blinking cursor. Three thousand words this week. No words the week before. The middle of the book is before me. The hard yards. I do a lot of staring at the blinking cursor. Waiting for something to happen. Anything.

Some days, all I can do is write something. Anything. Just to get some words down.

Much like this blog post.

Are you writing something? Do you love or hate the blinking cursor?


Friday, August 19, 2011

What did you talk about this week?

It's been a long week (not) in the Fibro. The Builder has been flat out with bathroom renos, I have been flat-out with book edits, and the boys have been flat out... being boys. So our topics of conversation have been somewhat more narrow than usual. But that doesn't mean there were few of them. No sirreee.

Bath enamel, plastering, taps, lights, kitchen colours, kitchen colours, kitchen colours, internet access, Friday Night Lights, community grants, breakfast, weeds, the collective noun for a group of Harry Potters, Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, shiraz, dressing gowns, pipes, bad Chinese takeaway, hats, coffee, wife swapping (don't ask!), novels, writing, Dianne Blacklock, Twitter, blogging, Cars 2, tennis, moving house.

What did you talk about?


Thursday, August 18, 2011

There are times in life when I wish I could sew...

As a non-sewing, non-crafty, non-gifted-in-most-areas mother, there are certain times of the year that I dread. Book Week is one of those times. Others include Easter (Bonnet Parade, anyone?), Christmas (I can make a mean Shepherd's head-dress out of a towel, but that's the extent of my talents) and, indeed, any time of the year that might conjure up the need for a, gulp, costume.

Tonight my focus is on Book Week. Because it's next week. It could be worse, I guess. It could be tomorrow.

Mr7's Book Week aspirations have suffered some downgrading since he first arrived home last week declaring that he would be Robin Hood. I thought fast. If I could find some facsimile of an elfy-green shirt and a bow and arrow, we might pull it off. Spirits were high as we hit the shops of Fibrotown last Friday. Spirits were low as we trudged home again. No bow, no arrows (though he fixed this problem by making them himself from straight sticks and feathers and flinging them at his brother), specifically, and tragically, no green pointy hat.

The next morning he awoke, full of inspiration. "I won't be Robin Hood, I'll be Sherlock Holmes," he said. Great, I thought, how hard can that be? Er, hard. Apparently only a long coat will do and we have, as yet, been unable to turn up a child-sized Sherlock coat. Or a pipe, for that matter. We have a tweed cap, a magnifying glass and a notebook, however, so I feel like I've put some points on the board there.

As the days have drifted on and I've not shown enough enthusiasm for spending every afternoon unearthing the perfect costume, he has downgraded once more.

"I suppose I could go as Harry Potter," he said, glumly. I leapt on that suggestion. We have a robe, a wand, some glasses... and there's been so much 'Accio this' and 'Leviosa that' going on over the past year that he's a shoe-in. "Why so glum about that idea?" I asked.

Turns out there are at least three other boys in his class alone going as the Great Potter. I tried to bring him out of his slump by entertaining him with ideas for the collective noun for a group of Potters (see, I really am the most Fun Mum ever...). "A flight of Potters?" I ventured. "A spell of Potters? A Hogwart of Potters? A Dumbledore of Potters?" It wasn't until I got to A Quidditch of Potters that he even managed to raise a grin.

I confess that I spent tonight googling Sherlock Holmes accessories. I have been to op shops looking for coats. I even contemplated making a boat hat out of green paper and sticking a feather on it. This is what we non-sewing, non-crafting, non-gifted-in-most-areas mums are reduced to at times like these. I am wondering if I can put him in a black turtleneck, black trousers, black shoes and a woebegone expression and sending him as a starving writer? That would work for Book Week, right?

Do you love getting the kids dressed up, or dread it as much as I do? In the meantime, I open the floor to your suggestions for the collective noun for a group of Harry Potters. Give it your best shot people! The winner gets to make Mr7 a costume.

[image: if all else fails, he can wear a paper bag on his head, as per this gorgeous print by katep/etsy - or maybe I will...]

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The people that you meet

Sometimes it's worth the effort. Whatever 'it' may be. However much effort may be involved.

Tonight the Fibrotown library played host to two fab Australian writers. Dianne Blacklock and Ber Carroll made the trip down from their various parts of The Big Smoke to talk about their new books, their writing journeys and, surprisingly, their sex lives (well, technically, how their sex lives do not end up in print, but my line was better, right?).

I nearly didn't go. I'd made all the plans, tweeted Dianne (whom I didn't know from a bar of soap) to tell her I'd be there, lined The Builder up to leave our bathroom renovations to get home on time. And then it rained. And it was cold. And we had visitors in the afternoon, which put my quiche making/washing up/bathing children/feeding children/getting showered/getting dressed plans out the window. It would have been so easy to give up, put my slippers on and stay home.

But how often do fab Aussie writers come to the Fibrotown library? Not often enough. So I went.

It was a great talk. Funny, informative, personal. They covered the process of writing, the process of writing with children (quite a different process), where ideas come from, how ideas become books. And the aforementioned sex, of course.

Afterwards, I somehow ended up at the pub with Dianne (how these things happen is just a mystery to me) talking about writing. For hours. We'd never met (though I did remember reviewing her first book for CLEO, back in the day), but that didn't seem to matter much. It never does when you're talking about writing, I find.

An unexpected bonus on a Wednesday night. Definitely worth the effort.

You can meet Dianne too - she's on Twitter here and on Facebook here. Her eighth novel, The Secret Ingredient, is out in November (that's her current book in the image), and I'll be inviting her to the Fibro for an intimate discussion about how to blend personal observations and details into fiction - and still keep your friends. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Warning: may contain unsolicited parenting advice

Today I found myself handing out some unsolicited parenting advice (UPA). This is not my normal modus operandi. Like most mums-to-be, I was on the receiving end of so much UPA before the birth of Mr7 (and afterwards, often in the queue at the supermarket checkout, I found) that I swore I'd never dispense it myself. I've slipped up over the years, of course - there are moments when a person finds herself saying things before she even realises her mouth is open - but for the most part, I wait until I'm asked.


Not only was today's UPA out of the ordinary, it was also out of the blue. I was doing an interview. I know. Professional and all. With a mum to be, who was sharing some of her thoughts and fears about the impending birth. I asked all my questions, took due note of all her answers and got us unscathed to the end of the interview. She was, like all first-time mums to be, full of what ifs and hows and maybes and shoulds and coulds and... in other words, no clue. "I'm just not sure what it's going to be like," she finished up. "I've been asking everyone. People at work, my friends, my family, the lady at the fruit shop..."

I couldn't help myself. "Can I just say something?" I asked. What was she going to say? No?

 "Of course," she said.

 "It's going to be just like your life, but with an added, new, and wonderful dimension," I said. "Your life goes on. It doesn't suddenly all come to a crashing halt. It's different. But it's still your life."

"Oh," she breathed. "I'm so happy to hear that."

I was emboldened. "Here's the thing," I continued. "I remember feeling exactly as you do before the birth of my first child..."

And I told her about how I'd rung a friend up one day, just before I was due to give birth. My friend F's first baby was five months old by then, fat, happy, gurgly.

"I'm just wondering what you actually do when you take the baby home," I said.

Silence. "What do you mean?" F asked. "Like when you get home from hospital."

Yes, then. When you arrive in your same house, through your same front door, bringing that little person with you that, somehow, they've let you take home with you. Despite the fact that you have not one clue what to do with said little person. What exactly do you do?

"Well," she said, giving the matter careful and considerable thought. "We had a kebab. You could do that."

I'm not sure what I expected, but it was not something as pedestrian as a kebab. "Really?"

"Yes, really. I'd suggest you do that, Al. Put the baby to bed and have a kebab."

See what I mean. Your life goes on, with a whole new dimension in the next room. One of the best pieces of parenting advice I ever received. And I was happy to pass it on. Solicited or not.

What's the best piece of parenting advice you've ever received, solicited or otherwise?


Monday, August 15, 2011

Were we all in the library?

Over the past few weeks, I've had several different conversations with several different people, which have all, for one reason or another, wandered back to our high school days. These high school days all took place at different high schools, at different times.

But we all had one thing in common.

"I spent a lot of time in the library in my high school years," confided my bubbly friend N over a cup of Nescafe on the weekend.

"Well, I hid in the library a fair bit," said my outgoing friend M over a glass of red a few weeks ago.

"You spent year 8 in the library, didn't you Al?" said my all-knowing friend A, on the phone.

Choose any night on Twitter and someone is using their 140 characters to confess their misspent youth with the Dewey Decimal System. These are bright, funny people. Very good in writing. Those hours of isolation amongst the dusty shelves have stood them in good stead.

I have just one question. If we were all in the library, who was in the playground? Surely someone was out there, living the dream, being the Cool Kids.

Was it you?

'Fess up. Did you spend your high school years in the library or, er, smoking behind the bike sheds?


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Empty rooms

Empty rooms look smaller. Empty rooms look darker. Empty rooms have no heartbeat, no energy.

The middle of the Fibro is empty. Bathroom and laundry stripped of their walls, rugged concrete exposed underfoot. Wires wave from dark corners. Creatures with many legs scuttle in the shadows.

It's hard to imagine that in a few short weeks we will be back in there. It will be white and clean and bright.

Now it is just empty.


Friday, August 12, 2011

What did you talk about this week?

Friday is here. I have uncapped a beer. Let's give a cheer. That I do not write poetry for a living...

This week, Fam Fibro has been all about the renovations, the general chaos of moving to my parents' house for a few weeks while it all goes on (thanks Mum and Dad!), and wondering why we're doing this to ourselves. A few other things that came up...

Writing, book edits, real people, questions, Robin Hood, Wi-Fi, banks, arrows, scooters, dressing gowns, food diaries, centimetres, chest infections, antibiotics, temperatures, Fireman Sam, Superman, clutter, schedules, passwords, soccer training, paint colours... That's about it. We really are very focussed. Aren't you glad you don't live next door?

What did you talk about this week?


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tips for writing features #9: Case studies will always surprise you

I'm on a bit of a roll with writing posts this week. Apologies to those who are looking for Alla Hoo Hoo or updates on my garden, but I find with (almost) daily blogging that you can only write what you can write. I've got a lot of work on at present, across three different forms of media, so writing is on my mind.

Which brings me to this post about case studies. I've spent much of my week looking for 'real people' for various things. I love the term 'real people'. Like celebrities aren't people. Or real. Which, I guess, in a way they're not. I've written before about finding 'real people', so this post will not go into the trials and tribulations of life pre-internet ("does anyone know anyone...?"), nor how much I love Twitter for its instant gratification approach to rustling up case studies. Instead, I want to focus on the 'surprise' factor of case studies.

When I worked at CLEO in the late 90s, we were all about the case study. All magazines were. It was new and exciting stuff to feature 'real people' in those days. Prior to that, mags had been full of stories by staff writers featuring 'my friend Alice'. No identifying details, no photographs. Suddenly, it was all about pics. Two of my first assignments when I joined the team were to find eight women of all shapes and sizes to pose nude, followed by ten men of all shapes and, er, sizes to pose nude. My friends started to avoid my calls after those two.

It always surprised me what people were willing to share with the hundreds of thousands of readers of a magazine. Why their wedding dresses hung, unworn and forlorn, in their wardrobes. How many times a week (or even day) they had sex. What they really thought about their partner's dress sense - and what they'd prefer he or she wear. How their mothers made them fat/thin/happy/unhappy/mad. Where they thought the clitoris was (not always where one might expect). For every idea we came up with in a features meeting, there'd be (eventually, after a lot of stress) at least three people willing to share their stories.

Often I'd be asked 'do you make that stuff up?' My response? "I couldn't if I tried." The thing that always amazes me about case studies is how incredibly interesting people are once you start talking to them. Everyone has a story and I feel so privileged to be able to ask them all about it, even if it's only a tiny part of their lives that my feature is focussing on.

I also learned early on what a responsibility it is. To listen hard. To question the details. To get it right. And to be aware, even if they're not, that words take on extra weight when they're printed and published.

 So, tips for interviewing 'real people'.

*Firstly, get the names right. It's the one thing they'll never forgive you for getting wrong.

*Be prepared to have a 'chat' to begin. Talk about the weather. Kids. Dogs. Whatever works. You need to establish some kind of connection before you hit them with questions about their sex life/birth story/shoe size.

*Have a list of questions ready to go, but be prepared to wander down a few side roads to get the best story possible - so often the crux of a case study has come from an aside or from a little throwaway remark right at the end of an interview.

*Sometimes you'll need to ask the same question two or three different ways to elicit the response you want. And be prepared to discover that the response you thought you wanted may not be the best response on the day.

*Know when to stop. Sometimes, particularly if the subject is intense, it can feel awkward to extricate yourself from the conversation. Be gentle, professional and firm. This may sound like a strange piece of advice, but as someone who always wants to know more and has to stop herself asking people round for coffee, it's a lesson learned the hard way.

So (and here I am being gentle, professional and firm) that's it. Any questions?

[image: love this garland from saratops/etsy]

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Making time to think

Does your mind play tricks on you? Does it whirl around in circles making you feel busier than you have any right to feel? That's where I'm at right now. There's a lot going on round here, but not as much as my mind would have me believe. Left to its own devices, it swirls around, creating pools and eddies of thought, creating waves, creating whelm. (What is whelm anyway? I know we can be over it or under it, but is there a middling whelm?)

I'm working on a story about organisation at the moment. Clearing clutter. Creating systems. Making space for thought and productivity. One of the experts made the point that we create much of our own anxiety and stress simply by not using the tools at our fingertips. If I were to write down all the things that I need to do, put them in order, pop them on my calendar and schedule time for them, I'd be feeling much less agonised right now. I'd feel as though I had some control. Instead of guessing and worrying and fretting, I'd be calm.

My love of To Do lists is well documented (yes, my To Do book is coming along well, thanks). But I'm going to try something new today. I'm going to allocate time for the tasks that are cluttering up my mind. If I spend half an hour now, it will save me hours and hours of wondering and whelm (I really hope that's a word - if it's not, it should be). Relieved from the duty of all that wondering and whelm, my mind will be able to do it's true thing and think. Technically.

One of the things I love about freelance writing? It teaches me all kinds of nifty stuff.

[image: Boutique Avenue Tumblr]

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fibro Q&A: Does a writer need an agent?

One question I get asked a lot is whether I have an agent. When I answer yes, the next question is 'why?'. After that comes 'how do I get one?'. Clearly I can answer the first one quite easily, but the second takes a bit more explanation and the third... well, it's best to hand that over to the professionals.

Which is why I've invited Sophie Hamley*, literary agent extraordinaire with The Cameron Cresswell Agency, to the Fibro to answer the questions that I think are on every writer's lips. She willingly obliged, and I didn't even have to tie her to a chair. She's that kind of woman.

What does an agent do and does every writer need one?
Sophie Hamley: "In broad terms, an agent manages the business of writing so that a writer can get on with the actual writing. Agents place authors with publishers (or 'make deals', to be blunt); we look after contracts and administrative matters; we often talk through creative issues with authors; we also spend a lot of time dealing with publishers, because if we didn't we wouldn't be able to place our authors with those publishers. Not all writers need agents. Some writers are very comfortable managing the business; some just don't see the point. And that's fine - agents really only want to have clients who actually want agents!"

How do I find one?
SH: "The Australian Literary Association has a list of all of its member agents; the Australian Writers Marketplace is also a terrific resource. Before a writer submits to an agent it's worth doing some research: go to their websites and look at the authors they already have. If one agent only manages non-fiction and you're writing fantasy, it would be a waste of time to submit to that agent. Only submit to agents who are looking after your type of work, and if you're not sure if they are or not - ask. Agents often get clients through referrals, too, so if you know a writer who has an agent, ask them about their agent (in a polite fashion, of course). I can't emphasise strongly enough how good it is for writers to 'network' with each other - if only for the creative and moral support."

What are the biggest mistakes that people make when they contact an agent?
SH: "They don't read the submission guidelines, or they ignore them. Nothing tells me to reject faster than someone who clearly just doesn't care enough to even write a half-decent letter, because if they don't care about the letter, they probably haven't taken any care with the manuscript. Some writers complain about having to write letters and synopses but, well, how else is an agent meant to be introduced to your work? We can't just read full manuscripts - there's not enough hours in a century for that."

What are agents looking for - what will make them take on a writer as a client?
SH: "The most important thing is the writing, of course - I want to take on someone when I get really excited reading their work. The next most important thing is professionalism - and the two often go together. It's rare to come across a really exciting manuscript that isn't also accompanied by a really good letter, and by professional behaviour from the writer in subsequent commuications. The agent-author relationship is primarily a business relationship, so it needs to be professional on both sides. I wouldn't expect an author to want me to be their agent if I behave in an unprofessional manner."

Are you always looking for new clients? Even with the publishing industry so tough right now?
SH: "Yes, but I can't take on many each year - mainly because many of my existing clients are always writing new books! But I always keep a look-out - I work in this industry because I passionately love books and stories - fiction, non-fiction, children's, I love it all. So I don't want to miss out on chances to find new fantastic stories. Yes, the industry's tough. It's always been tough. Humans will always need stories, though. We just have to work out how they're going to be delivered and find their audience in the decades to come."

You can find out more about The Cameron Cresswell Agency submission guidelines here. And you'll find Sophie on Twitter here.

*Yes, Sophie is my agent.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Wallowing in memories (Fibro Renovations)

Tonight I took my last bath in the big, green cast-iron tub that takes up half the Fibro bathroom. When we first looked at the house, it was enough to make me recoil. A scratched, mould-green bath in a tiny, windowless bathroom. All I could see was mildew and plantar warts.

A quick re-tiling job changed the wall colour from green (to match the bath?) to white and a coat of white paint freshened up all the corners. But still... A mould-green bath never seems clean. No matter how much you toil and scrub.

As the years passed, however, the bath has grown on me. Much like mould, come to think of it. Despite its scuffed surface, it is deep and comfortable. Even when the bath toys are dancing on my head, the rest of me is warm and comfortable. Bubbles look extra white against a green background. The roar of the extractor fan (which must be on at all times in a windowless bathroom) drowned out the sound of squabbling children. There were things to like.

But now it is going. Tomorrow the demolition begins and our bathroom will become a laundry as our laundry (practically the largest room in the house - and with a window all of its own) becomes the new bathroom. Exciting times.

I stepped out of the green tub tonight and, I confess, I did look back with a tinge of regret. Our new tub will not be quite so gargantuan in proportions.* Better for these Green Living times. But the green bath may have been better for just the ... living.

Have you ever had the pleasure of the delights of the 'colourful bathroom suite', circa 1950-1970? What are your memories?


*In case you were wondering, we did look at re-enamelling our old bath with a slick white finish but the cost proved prohibitive. Sad but true.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Fibro Q&A: How to create characters (and give each their own voice)

I first met Kylie Ladd on Twitter about 18 months ago. At that stage, I was unaware she was a novelist - I just had a girl-crush on her ability to be funny, witty and personable in 140 characters. When I heard she had a book - After The Fall - I simply had to buy it, to see how she went over a longer format. 

She went well. In fact, After The Fall was easily one of my favourite books of 2010. With four main characters, multiple viewpoints and a plot about tangled relationships, the possibility was there for it all to go horribly wrong but, instead, it was an absorbing and insightful read. Not surprising, I guess, considering Kylie's background in neuropsychology.

Her new book, Last Summer, takes the multiple viewpoints of After The Fall and raises the bar even further. Told from the points of view of nine people mourning the loss of one man, it explores loss, marriage, Liberally sprinkled with sexual references. 

One of the things I love about Kylie's writing are the tiny composite pieces that make up her characters. The smallest details are often the most telling. It's not surprising then that Kylie Ladd's time in the Fibro  should centre around character. Specifically, how she creates such three-dimensional characters - and how she keeps all those voices straight!

In both After the Fall and Last Summer, you worked with multiple viewpoints. What is the key to keeping all those different voices straight?
Kylie Ladd: "Planning! I'm a bit of a planning addict, as you know, and I certainly love a spreadsheet or two. I use notes to keep track of character attributes, but I also keep a fairly detailed running spreadsheet that summarises what's happened in each chapter (whose point of view (POV) it was, what happened but also any particular themes and emotions I wanted to convey or develop) and I can also use to look ahead and sketch particular developments for particular characters. Sometimes with all those spreadsheets open my laptop makes me look like an accountant rather than a novelist, but whatever works... "

I know that you do a lot of work on your characters before you even begin. How do you build them?
KL: "Actually I'm not sure I do, or that I do enough... I think that while I often have ideas for characters and sketch them down before I start the novel, the character only really evolves and becomes clear to me as I get into the writing. As a result I find that the bulk of my edits are usually in the first third of the book, where I'm still figuring out exactly who I'm writing about. 

Kelly in Last Summer is one example... I had planned her first chapter, where she gives Rory's eulogy, and thought it - and she - were fairly straightforward. But then I got almost to the end, where she returns to her seat in the congregation next to her husband Joe:

"Joe reached for her as she shuffled down the pew, the arm that went around her shoulders as solid as marble. She squeezed her eyes shut and breathed in his scent: timber, sweat. Girls were supposed to marry someone who reminded them of their fathers, weren't they? Yet here she was holding on for dear life to someone who smelled just like her brother."

That bit just came to me as I was writing, but once it did it made Kelly, and her relationship with Rory, so much clearer to me. I went back and re-wrote the chapter, but after that Kelly was set in my mind, and her subsequent scenes were far easier. 

Something I also want to mention briefly is character names. I agonise over choosing these, but to me (rightly or wrongly) names are important, and can define a character, can give you a start on getting to grips with them. Sometimes names are attached to an important personal history, as in Trinity's case, but even if the name is as straightforward as Joe's I still think (or hope) that that conveys something - in this case a lack of pretension, of frills; a straight-shooter. That said, I have never, ever liked my own Christian name... maybe I'm trying compensate when I name my characters."

How do you get into the right mindset to write your male characters? What are the keys to keeping a man 'real' (so to speak)?
KL: "To be honest, I don't approach or even think about writing male characters any differently than I do my female ones. Maybe I should, but to me gender is secondary- we're all people first, we all have fears and hopes, regrets and ambitions, and that's the stuff that really interests me. I don't believe that deep down men and women are really that different, so I don't approach writing them any differently.  OK, men talk about cricket more - but that wasn't hard to bring to life in Last Summer because I live with one like that!"

Do you find that everyone you know looks for themselves in the characters you create? Do you ever use tics and foibles of people that you know?
KL: "Of course I do. Any writer that says they don't is lying! How can you not, even if only subconsciously? I would never model an entire character on someone I knew - that feels like cheating, somehow, as well as being bound to play havoc with your personal relationships - but I'm not at all averse to picking up the odd tic or foible, as you say. 

As a literary device, they're useful for delineating characters, but more importantly I think they also
say a lot about who a character is - in Last Summer, Kelly's habit of driving through roundabouts in third gear, too impatient to change down, or Anita fretting about letting her only child eat junk food. And yes, I'm sure people I know look for themselves in my characters... but that's the danger of being friendly with a novelist. As Nora Ephron once said "Everything is copy." She's damn right. They've been warned."

Are you working on a new novel? What was the 'spark' for it?
KL: "I am about 1000 words off finishing my (fingers crossed) next novel. After near-drowning in a sea of my own words for the last 18 months or so it's a huge relief to finally see land. Of course, this is only a first draft, so there's heaps of pain to go yet - nonetheless, I'm pleased that (until I see my editor's report, of course) I think I've achieved what I wanted to. 

I am hideously superstitious about talking about work that isn't contracted to be published, so sorry, but I can't say much... I will say though that this novel is about the different ways we make - or find - family, and whether or not blood matters. At this point it's called Into My Arms. I hope Nick Cave doesn't mind."

You can buy Last Summer here at Booktopia. Visit Kylie Ladd at her website, or go say hello on Twitter (she's worth it!).

Friday, August 5, 2011

What did you talk about this week?

Well, here we are at the weekend. Time to relax, unwind and recharge. Also time to look back at the week that was. The Fibro was a hive of activity and conversation this week. Mostly centred around splashbacks and cupboard profiles. But we did manage to fit some other stuff in too. Some are personal, some are professional (as in, for a story). I'll leave it up to you to decide which is which...

Cold Chisel, prawns that had been hidden in a bag in our laundry for five days, freezing said prawns in container, under-bench top sinks, the wall that was and then wasn't, green olives, balsamic vinegar, visitors, moving house, bathroom cabinets, community grants, worm wee, soccer, concentration, Lego mini-figures, birthday parties, Cars 2, scooters, vacuum cleaners, milkshakes, organising one's office, organising (specifically) my office, the decision to have a baby, fitting in 'relations' as a working mother, Mosman, blogging, bloggers, pitching, ideas, the state of the freelance writing market, finishing the damn book, feeding the fish.

What did you talk about?

PS: I'm Rewinding at And Then There Were Four this weekend. Link up an old post for new comment love! Hope to see you there. 

[image: Disney/]

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The dirty secrets of my bathroom cabinets

With the bathroom and kitchen renovation fast approaching, it occurred to me today that I'm going to have to pull everything out of the cupboards. Everything. While this may not be as bad as it could be, simply because we've been in the Fibro less than three years, it is still not a happy-making thought.

When I consider what I actually use on a daily basis from my bathroom cabinets, I realise that it is a small and practical group of items. It all fits neatly into my toiletries bag when we go away. When I consider what is actually in my bathroom cabinets, I realise that I have a problem.

Admittedly, the problem is not as bad as it was during the years I worked on-staff at various magazines. Then the poor old cabinets buckled under the wealth of items collected during regular 'beauty chucks' - when the Beauty department cleared its filing cabinets for the onslaught of new products. For a woman who wears little make-up, I was stocked up enough for about 17 of me.

Half the problem in the cabinets today is the half-used stuff. Shampoo that I tried and didn't like. Moisturisers that didn't really do the job. A shelf's worth of de-frizzing, de-humidifying products  - and one random 'volumiser' (clearly it moved in by itself).

Why do I keep all this stuff? Because it feels wasteful to throw it out? Because it cost good money and deserves its space on the shelf? Because it's easier to shove it back in there than to decide what to do with it?

Well, the time has come. They're all going - lotion, potion and barrel brush. And such clutter will have no place in my sleek new bathroom. To ensure it, we will have no cabinet. If it doesn't fit in the toiletries bag, we can't have it. That's it. So simple. Why didn't I think of this before??

Can't imagine.

Are your bathroom cabinets, like mine, testament to every product purchase you've ever made? Or do you have a clean shelf policy?

[image: decal from tweetheartwallart/etsy]
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