Losing touch with the natural world

There was a pix in the newspaper today of a very large millipede which apparently caused a ruckus in a town market. The millipede was 8″‘ long – nothing unusual. I see them all the time in the forest. Along with some of the other things I’ve posted here. What worries is that it should cause a stir.

We have become so divorced from the natural world – of which we are an integral part – that we think ourselves somehow special and able to exist apart. We surround ourselves by things that are both tamed and exotic – plants, animals – because we prefer them to what we already had. We destroy everything that bothers us – snakes, wasps, spiders, tigers, elephants, rainforest…what does it matter? We can survive without them.

Can we? I’ll make a prediction. If you are under 30 years old now, and live to be 80 plus, you’ll find out in your lifetime that we can’t. At least not with the kind of life you have now. And I don’t mean it will be better. It won’t.

Not so very many years ago, farmers and villagers over Malaysia counted the seasons by the arrival and departure of migratory birds. (Well, what better way when we don’t have winter and spring and autumn and it’s kind of summery all year long?) Now, when I mention bird migration, people look at me and say, surprised, “We got migratory birds, what?”

I have to explain migration to people suddenly worried about bird flu. I have to tell them the most elementary of things – yes, migration happens. Yes, birds do come from Indonesia to here. If you ever bothered to look, you’d see them. No, you probably won’t catch flu that way – you’ll get it via some idiot who imports illegal fighting cocks, or who smuggles in exotic pet birds for his shop.

We ignore our connection to the natural world at our peril. Bird flu could be the next wake-up call. And if it is, it will be because of the way we farm and the way we market our food. It will be because we have made too many inroads into the wild, not because the wild has come looking for us.

Want to learn about our wild heritage and do something to save yourself? Join the Malaysian Nature Society. And stay a member for the rest of your life. They at least are trying – on your behalf. And yet they have a measly 3,000 or so members in a population of 23 million. And that – to me – is a national disgrace.

Photos [courtesy my husband]
Beetle, spider and vine from Maliau Basin
tualang tree [Koompassia excelsa] with wild bee nests hanging under the branches, oil palm plantation, Kalabakan. The world’s tallest tropical rainforest tree.

Sabah Blogging: the Sunday market

The early morning Sunday market in Kota Kinabalu is fun. It’s also heart-rendingly sad at times.

Right in the heart of the city, you can buy just about anything, from live puppies to rainforest solutions to your impotency problem, from wild honey to – alas – shells and corals stolen from the country’s natural heritage (or possibly from the Philippines’ natural heritage), from tortoises (yes, they are tortoises, not turtles, you Americans out there – they have legs, not flippers, damn it!), to clothing and sumptious food.

You can even have your blood pressure checked for a donation (people give as little as US 30c) to a charitable organisation.

Bottles of bee honey – many of the insects used are not at all like the honey bee. Wood, bark, fungi, lichens, roots, leaves – everything seems to have medicinal value – a lot of it aimed at enhancing sexual function (men really do have a problem, don’t they…) Funny thing is this: the buyers all seem to think that because a product is “natural” it’s got to be good for you. Hmm. Have they never heard of hemlock or similar? They happily take untested produce on the say-so of a stranger telling them it’s “traditional medicine”. Yeah, right. They are braver men than me.

Check out those lovely woven dishes and containers.

Writing tips: keep it tight

The regular Sunday writing tip…

I tend to write a first draft quickly, aiming just to get the story right, with a good sense of flow. When I read it back, I groan. The flow of the story is fine, but the writing is sloppy. There are too many superfluous wishy-washy words that shouldn’t be there. (I never show my first draft to anyone!)

Beware of words that don’t mean anything much: seem to be, appear to be, really, actually, very, keep on, almost, have to, go and, all those useless prepositions. Go for verbs that are punchier.

He went and blew the candle out. If it makes sense, change it to He blew the candle out.
The day appeared fine.
Why not: The day was fine. Even the verb “to be” has more of a punch that “to appear” or “to seem”! Run a “find” on your word processing programme for overused words.

Here are some examples from my recent writing:

“…and then keeps sending me small luxuries he buys with his own money”
Changed to: “…and then sends me small luxuries he buys with his own money”

“I don’t know what you said to her to explain why you lost control of your power while fighting…” There’s a stack of short words here, and you end up reading it twice to work out what it means. It can be altered without changing the meaning or the speech patterns of the character.
Changed to: “I don’t know how you explained your loss of control over your power during the fight…”

…so his father could have a sense of … becomes: …so his father gained a sense of…

…with a troubled expression on her face becomes simply: …with a troubled expression.

Arrant started preparations for planning the building of the aqueduct (Ugh! Did I really write that!?) becomes Arrant started planning the construction of the aqueduct. I replaced “building” with “construction” because it meant one less “ing” word – even though “building ” was a noun in the sentence, it sounded ugly because it followed “planning“.

Beware of too many prepositions one after the other:
He passed
by back up through the alley…
He sat back down behind with Tim.
He turned up below with Garis.
I looked behind back to where…
Reword!

There is, there are, it was, it is are often superfluous. Toss them if you can.
There were six men standing on the road = Six men stood in the roadway.
It was a storm that came from the north = The storm blew in from the north.

Some time this coming week, I’ll do another blog on “How I write a Novel”. Right now I have to devise a questionnaire for birder tourists coming to Malaysia…
I’d rather be writing the ending of “Song of the Shiver Barrens“.
Or doing some birding myself.
Especially on a Sunday.

When friends and booksellers rock…

A fellow writer and friend, Russell Kirkpatrick, once recommended a book of mine (The Aware) to a bookseller over where he lives in Hamilton, New Zealand (pop.130,000 – or so the town website tells me). The bookseller read it and loved it, then started to recommend it – and subsequent books of mine – to readers coming into her (independent) store. The nice thing is that they kept coming back for more…

Result: she has sold 20 copies of each title. Wow. Geez, that’s one book per every 2,160 people. I don’t know your name, Ms Bookseller from Hamilton, but I think you rock! Bless you.

Now if only Whitcoulls, the New Zealand bookchain with 80 stores, would stock my books with that sort of enthusiasm…

Borneo blogging: back in Sabah


Here I am back in Kota Kinabalu for at least four months. If I look out of my window, I can see Pink-necked Pigeons in the line of fruiting of fig trees outside. They mutter and grumble and whine like a line of school-entrapped teens.

And I am having problems with language. The accent is different, and I find myself straining to make sense of Malay that has a strong Indonesian twang to it. And then there’s culture-shock. I ordered teh O kosong yesterday (literally “tea nothing empty”) and, guess what, there was half an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass. Guess I’ll have to learn to add “Gula tak nak!” (sugar don’t want!).

I am going to get back to Song of the Shiver Barrens today, even though my editor tells me there is no need to have it in at the end of July as she is off to UK for the whole of August. (She is going to meet my agent for the first time while there). I am expecting the copy edit for Shadow of Tyr back any minute, too.

On another front, I have embarked on a new project for the Malaysian Nature Society who are in turn working with the Ministry of Tourism on the promotion of bird tourism. Or maybe that should read birder tourism. I’m glad to have some “real” work again (huh!)- the first this year. In the meantime I am delighted to see that the last project I worked on – the push towards the gazettement of NW Langkawi as a national or state park – seems to be moving things along. Occasionally we do have small victories. Just hope it is not too late…

So a busy few months coming up.

Review out of the past

The Aware in good company. Pix by Russell Kirkpatrick

Thanks to the original reviewer, I just found out about a review of The Aware from back in June 2003.

Another nice one.
I am still waiting for the inevitable day when I receive a rotten review – that’s pessimist me, waiting for the second shoe to drop! Still, with 5 books on 3 continents in 3 languages, and still no sarcastic review rubbishing anything (not even on Amazon!), I am beginning to think that maybe I write an ok story. Guess I am a typical insecure author.

The review was in Broadsword, a wargaming/military history magazine. The reviewer, Donald Lamont, loved the plot and the action (says he wanted to grab a sword and jump right into the action himself!) and the characters; refers to Blaze Halfbreed cutting “a swathe across a very detailed and unique world” and ends by saying that that he “very much recommends it for anyone who reads fantasy,” because my writing style gave him the feeling of one of “those really good RPG sessions that you always talk about. Do yourself a favour and read this book.” Wow. Thanks Donald. The whole review is in Broadsword June 2003. I must admit I know nothing about roleplaying myself, never having done it. It was particularly satisfying to have the fights praised in such a magazine!

Over on Emerald City, there’s an announcement about Trudi Canavan’s new deal with Orbit for her new work, to be set in the Black Magician trilogy world. Congrats, Trudi…love to see Aussies go on to new successes. I love the bit about being the first fantasy author to take off like that in years!

Life in the technological fastlane

Back in the Dark Ages (I remember having a slate in what we called Standard 1)(yep, that long ago)
…in a little “country” school (it’s now an outer suburb of Perth, but then it was the back o’ beyond) (yep, that long ago)
…Grades 5 & 6 had a single teacher and shared a schoolroom and we kids shared twin desks which were nailed to the floor. Yep, that long ago.
The teacher was a madman from hell, whose idea was to terrorise everyone into learning. We started the day with something called “mental arithmetic”. He went around the class asking everyone in turn things like: if you paid tuppence for one apple, how much were 28 apples going to cost you in shillings and pence? (Yep, that long ago.)
Boys were sometimes caned for not being able to answer; girls were simple terrorised. (Yep, gender discrimination.)

I was not much good at mental arithmetic, but I was better than the friend I sat next to, so I used to make marks on the desk with a finger to tell her the answer. All this did have one good effect: I grew up not needing a calculator. I wouldn’t advocate the method for today’s kids – but sometimes I do wonder…

Today I bought 10 lightbulbs. I asked the shopgirl how much they were. She said, $1.80 each (Malaysian ringgit).

She then proceeded to use a calculator to tell her that 10 x 1.80 = $18.00.

Writing tips 3: the feral apostrophe

The Sunday regular blog: grammar and such…

There is nothing that so marks a piece of writing as unprofessional as a feral apostrophe.

And yet writing “it’s” when you mean “its” is an easy typo, and one that you can’t pick up with a spellcheck. Happily it usually does jump out at me from my own typing like a red flea on a black and white page. Unhappily, it does the same to me when I read it elsewhere. It prejudices me immediately. (And yet there is a certain member of my own family, who has a Masters from Oxford and a Ph.D from Cornell, who regularly sends me plaintive emails asking, ‘What’s the rule on “its” again?’)

Let’s be quite clear about one thing first before we deal with “its” and “it’s”:
PLURALS never take an apostrophe UNLESS they also show POSSESSION (ownership).

You can’t write: Bagel’s, application’s, war’s, boy’s – when all you mean is more than one bagel, application, war or boy. (And I don’t think there are going to be too many people reading this who think that you can!)
Example: You can write “the boys’ shouting was heard in the next street…”, meaning the shouting of a number of boys was heard; or you can write “The boy’s shouting was heard…” meaning the shouting of one boy was heard. But never, “The boy’s shouting in the next yard were heard all over the neighbourhood.” What you mean is that there were a number of boys shouting and they, the boys, were heard all over the neighbourhood. So it should read: “The boys shouting in the next yard were heard all over the neighbourhood.”.

And you CAN’T write “your’s”, “our’s”, “her’s”, “their’s” either, EVER. Even though possession is involved. There, that’s simple enough, isn’t it? NEVER, ever, ever. Don’t worry about why not, just remember the rule. It’s simple.

The trouble usually come with “its” because sometimes we do insert an apostrophe.

This is also quite simple to remember too:
“It’s” means “it is”. ALWAYS.
If it doesn’t mean “it is”, then spell it like this: “its”.
Don’t worry about why. Just do it. Easy, right?

How I write a novel (2)

I think, if anything, the only thing posts of mine on this subject are going to say of value is this: everyone has to select the way that best suits their own creative mind.

I obviously seem to hate to be squashed inside the rigid design of a chapter by chapter outline. My way is definitely not a method that I would advise for everyone. It could be disastrous.
So why does it work for me?

Think of writing the book like a bus ride.

Firstly, I always have a clear objective: I know exactly how the book is going to end. The terminus is there and I am heading towards it all the way. (Mid-journey, I have been known to change which door to the terminus I use, though, and change the ending to the book a bit.)

Secondly, although I may not know the roads the bus will take, I have vivid stops along the way clear in my mind and I do know the kinds of scenery there will be visible out of the windows. I know my world, although the details of the route may be indistinct when I get on to the bus.

Thirdly, I know the important people on the bus very well indeed.
Fourthly, I know what I want to talk about with those people, while I am on the bus. I know what are the most important elements of our conversations and the tales they will tell me – love, politics, betrayal, war, courage, ethics or action? – I know what I want to emphasize.

Because I have those important things clear in my mind, I don’t mind where the bus wanders as it goes along. I don’t count the stops it makes, or exactly what I see through the windows, or who climbs on or off – those things become clear as I travel. Sometimes I tell the driver where to go; other times it’s the other passengers that direct the journey. I am careful, though, about the plot dictating too much of the route. That’s the mark of an unskilled navigator.

Why is it a method that I enjoy? Because it allows me to improve the story as I write – to spot interesting things out of the window as I travel, to ask interesting questions of those characters on the bus. I’m not so caught up in the map of the trip and with the timetable that I can’t see opportunity when it shows up.

And, oh yes, because I love writing… but hate writing synopses and outlines – even outlines done just for myself.

I have a friend who has a brilliant idea for a sf novel. Yet he’s so involved in the planning, he has never got past the first chapter. If he used my method and wrote, damn it, he might have finished it by now.

I shall talk more about the process in future posts.

BLOG INDEX: My books

Heart of the Mirage (book 1 of The Mirage Makers)

Fifth Review of Heart of the Mirage May 31, 2006
Fourth Review (Heart of the Mirage) May 26, 2006
Third Heart of the Mirage Review May 10, 2006
Anticipation. For Ages May 08, 2006
Second Review (Heart of the Mirage) May 03, 2006
First Review (Heart of the Mirage) May 01, 2006
Feedback trickles in…. April 28, 2006
Heart of the Mirage extract April 10, 2006
About Heart of Mirage March 27, 2006
So what’s the book about? March 23, 2006
The Mirage Makers trilogy map March 03, 2006
Orange in April March 01, 2006

Isles of Glory trilogy: The Aware, Gilfeather, The Tainted

Covers again: gotta love ’em March 19, 2006
There are covers…and there are, um, covers March 10, 2006
The Isles of Glory US edition February 07, 2006

Havenstar (writing as Glenda Noramly)

Havenstar sells….! March 03, 2006
The Russian translation March 24, 2006
Havenstar makes money February 19, 2006