Friday, November 30, 2007

Into China

Rather than venture into Guangzhou (Canton) on my own, I decided to do a tour. This was mainly because our sortie to Dong Men quickly showed me that past Shenzhen's shopping area, hardly anyone spoke English so if I needed to find out how to get somewhere (or even catch a taxi) I'd have no hope. The tour was great - once I got over feeling like a sheep being herded everywhere - and I saw lots of fascinating things, including five of the terracotta warriors, a huge jade ship, one giant panda stuffing her face with bamboo, and a backstreet local market in Guangzhou that was astounding. I have restrained myself from posting my photo of the pile of gutted frogs. Instead here is a nice photo of a cage of snakes. Everything in this market was being sold for eating, and that included snakes, frogs, turtles, eels, scorpions, toads and fish.
While I did get some photos of the giant panda behind a window, this guy was outside eating an apple - lesser panda (red) - and not at all bothered by us lining up along the fence to take photos. In fact, he looked kind of bored.
We also visited a kindergarten to hear a bunch of little kids sing to us, plus the Six Banyans Temple and a memorial to the founder of modern China. Plus a few other things.
Today I had a "time out" day and went to the movies. Quite a few people here had recommended Lust, Caution and said I should see it in its original version as it was likely to be cut for Australia. It was directed by Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) and was wonderful. One of those movies I shall be thinking about for days.
Yesterday I visited the Correctional Services Museum at Stanley. Lest you think I was desperate for entertainment, I actually thought it was the police museum. Instead I got the history of prisons in Hong Kong - very interesting, even if some of the photos made me feel a bit sick. Back to Australia tomorrow. Feels like I've been here for six weeks, not two!
For NaNoWriMo, I think I've managed about 12,000 words. Nowhere near 50, but a lot more than if I'd never bothered to try. I'm now a fair way into a new novel, so we'll see if it's any good or not when I'm back in work mode and feeling less critical and more clear-minded.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hong Kong Diary - more

Like many cities in the world, Hong Kong has its Christmas decorations up, and some of them are truly amazing. This is a centrepiece in a large building in Central, (the photo only shows one part of it) with twirling chandeliers and a massive tree covered in coloured balls and these things all around it. I think they are meant to be poinsettias. In front of the big shopping mall in Causeway Bay, the decorations are purple and silver, with angels and glass domes.
On Friday morning, Sue and I went on a Chinese cultural tour, which began with a one hour tai chi lesson on the harbour front. This is the "experts" group giving us a demonstration - note the backdrop that was our view as we scooped and swayed and stepped. The tai chi master leading the session had a Madonna mike on his head and kept us all moving (not necessarily in time, mind you) - it was fun and invigorating. And amazing to be doing it while looking across at all those skyscrapers. City views here are terrific, even better at night with the light shows. A lot of the buildings have neon Christmas pictures and images on their fronts. We also learned about feng shui, and drank lots of tea in a tea house (I have now got a nice store of lovely teas to take home, including lychee and rosebud tea).

On Thursday we ventured across the water to Macau. A one-hour ferry trip and you're in another country. Well, still part of China really, but we still had to do the immigration thing at each end. Nothing more painful than standing in a queue in front of a group of businessmen off for an "anything goes" weekend, and having to listen to the pontificating.
We arrived too late to see much, unfortunately, and only managed to look around the cathedral ruins just before they shut the gates. The streets were still fairly lively, but apart from the casinos, Macau seems to close down much earlier than Hong Kong. This photo is one of many shops selling the local nougat and shortbready cakes - this woman is actually selling slabs of meat (like jerky?) but we weren't tempted by that. The nougat was another matter.
We ended up at Fernando's, a famous restaurant on the southern island, and I ate drunken steak (drowned, I think, in red wine and a ton of garlic) and Sue ate Portuguese grilled sardines. Macau still has quite a Portuguese influence, especially in the old buildings and food in many of the restaurants. It'd be good to go back in daylight and see all the historical stuff that we missed out on.
The ferry back was "interesting" - whatever ticket you booked, you could go back earlier if there was room, so each ferry sailing had a standby queue. If you missed out you had to run for the next standby queue (and I mean RUN). We used a bit of strategy and went three ferries ahead to get a place! Long day all the same.
Our classes have all finished - I have a day at a school on Monday. Everyone has been great - lots of enthusiastic students, very different from having a class for a whole year. I have done hardly any writing since I've been here (NaNo is pretty much a wipeout for me - I'm trying not to let the failure depress me too much) but I am gathering such good material for poems and stories again that I figure I am still being a writer!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Day in Shenzhen

On Sunday we ventured into China, and went a little further this time, past the Lo Wu shopping centre and on to Dong Men. This is an older area but only by about ten years, I think. It was a very busy shopping centre/streets but here the shops were much better in terms of brands and quality (much of Lo Wu is copies). One huge store sold nothing but shoes and boots. We also found a Starbucks, a McDonalds and a KFC. I have noticed that in the 12 months since we were last in Hong Kong, coffee chains like Pacific Coffee and Starbucks have sprouted everywhere. (Starbucks in Australia note - wireless internet here is FREE.)
I have no idea what this huge bell is all about - something historical, I imagine. The streets were full of people, mostly strolling and looking in shops. Hardly any signs with English so even in the railway station we had to ask for help. Lots of interesting people to watch and listen to. Sue took a photo of a noodle shop that had about thirty people outside, all eating bowls of noodles with their chopsticks.
Lo Wu was less overwhelming this time because we knew what to expect. Hundreds of shops but mostly selling the same things. I was looking for a new wallet but there were only about 6 different kinds (all copies) and when none of them were what I wanted, that was it. No point looking further. I did buy a Tshirt and jewellery, but that was it. Very restrained!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

More Hong Kong

Today, we had our first sessions with the Women in Publishing group here - they're a professional organisation whose members are either editors, publishers or writers (or connected with the industry in some way). We use the Helena May Centre which is a wonderful club with a long history of women's activities in Hong Kong. Today I was looking at a World War I first aid/bandage rolling group. Late this afternoon we went to the Flower Market north of Mong Kok. There are four streets (a whole block) of flower shops, selling every kind of flower you can imagine. There was even a shop selling those plants that catch insects in gourd-shaped flowers (can't think of the name of them) and a few shops selling deep blue roses. The orchids were beautiful - one table full above, but there were many, many more.
This woman on the street corner is shovelling charcoal to cook chestnuts and yams, and was not happy when she saw me taking her photo. The smell of the charcoal was not nice at all!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Letter from Hong Kong 1

I'm back in Hong Kong again for more teaching and training. A busy two weeks ahead, with some R&R planned too. Today I spent the day at Yew Chung International School in Kowloon Tong. Did NOT get the day off to a good start when I got off at Kwung Tong station by mistake. A very kind man directed me to the right station, and I was only five minutes late, but luckily my sessions had been rescheduled so I had time to catch my breath and calm down (I hate being late!)

Hong Kong is the same as always - busy, busy - and the streets are more packed with people at night than during the day, even rush hour. Everyone loves being out and about, and the shops stay open till midnight usually. Although we are staying further towards Central on the Island, we are still in Wanchai and found ourselves yesterday going back to familiar places for photocopying and eating out. But we will venture further afield once things slow down a little.

Sue has lined up a cooking class (she really wants to learn how to make dumplings) and on Friday we plan to try early morning tai chi in the park and learn the art of Chinese teamaking. We are near Lockhart Road which has a large number of bars along it - a lesson in names and titles. Try Devil's Advocate, Old Chinese Hand, Wild Coyote, Typhoon and Agate. Most of them are full of tourists. We think we will avoid the Kangaroo Bar.

I am hoping to write while here - NaNo is hanging over me and my word count has come to a grinding halt. But there's not much I can do about it when I am totally brain dead by the end of the day. Maybe tomorrow...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Research Sideways

I've just finished reading The Scourge of God by William Deitrich - a historical novel about Attila the Hun. I hadn't read a big historical novel for a while, but I wanted to do some research on that era and thought I'd start with a novel - one that came highly recommended for historical accuracy. At first, there was so much information that I struggled with it, but once I got to know the characters a little, the story started to take off. There are several point-of-view characters but the main one is a Roman called Jonas. As with many historical novels, this person never actually existed, but most of the other characters did. A fictional narrator gives you a bit more leeway with the novel side of the project.

Deitrich did a great job of depicting both the cultures and life of the time, as well as the geography. Jonas begins in Constantinople, and then travels north into what is now probably Romania, then west into France where the huge final battle between Aetius and Attila takes place. His description of that battle, which some estimates put at over half a million soldiers on each side, is terrific, both in the single viewpoint of hand-to-hand combat and the overall fighting of hundreds of thousands. Some say three hundred thousand died in one day.

At the back of the book, there is a chapter on how he researched the story, and how little evidence there was of what really happened. The Huns didn't believe in reading and writing, so there are no written accounts from them. What there is came mostly from Romans. Deitrich talks about how he visited a number of museums and sites, trying to gather as much material as he could, but there isn't even a reliable picture of Attila, just a portrait made many years after his death with no evidence it was created by someone who knew him. Still, the level of detail in the book shows that Deitrich found enough to enrich the book immensely.

We are so used to having everything at our fingertips these days - TV, 24 hour news, internet, research libraries - that to write about a whole race of people who had no interest in recording their 'doings' is a real challenge. Which brings me to my research. I've been struggling for a while with a story, thinking it was fantasy but gradually realising that somewhere in my subconscious I've dragged the story up from a historical base. But what? I didn't do ancient history at school, and while I've read historical fiction over the years, I couldn't figure out why I could 'see' this story but had no idea where it was set. The word barbarians kept coming up, though.

Then I did some research on weapons, and immediately found that the ones I had in mind were used around 400-500AD, which led me to Goths, Vandals, Visigoths and Huns. Aha! I had my era at last, and my location - southern France. Now, this is a very weird way to go about researching a story - write a third of it before you know where and when it's taking place! But that's the way it happens sometimes. As for reading novels as a form of research - I can highly recommend it. You gain a 'feel' for the place and time in a way that normal historical reading rarely gives you, and you can then move on into more factual stuff as you need it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

NaNo Pros and Woes

I wonder how writers around the world are coping with NaNo. Why did the originators choose November? As my friend T says, why wasn't it NaJoWriMo? Except the No actually stands for Novel, so that doesn't pan out. However, it does seem that November is not a good month for Southern Hemisphere writers, due to study/marking/VCE exams/uni exams and anything else you can think of that signals the end of the year approaching (including the dreaded Xmas decorations already up in the shops - and no one has yet produced a plastic tree that comes anywhere near the real thing).

In the US, it's only the almost-end of their first semester. No exams, just that funny celebration called Thanksgiving. My best memory of Thanksgiving is working at the American Club in Sydney (much younger days, thank you) and carrying out massive turkeys on platters, then watching various men with their knives, both electric and manual, hatcheting said turkeys into lumps. Their dads taught them many things, but obviously not how to carve a roast properly.

So I imagine all those US writers beavering away (because of course there are no beavers in Australia), free of student encumbrances. What about the UK? It hasn't snowed there yet. Are they all still drowning their sorrows over their World Cup loss? Or do they not bother with NaNo? Are they instead off to the soccer, I mean, football? Are any writers in Asia or Africa doing NaNo? If you care, check the regions on the site, I guess. I'm just wondering...

And of course trying to excuse the fact that I am sadly behind in my word count. At Day 11, I should have racked up a tidy 18,000 words or so, but I think I'm up to around 8,000. Today, I had oodles of writing time, but I was in the bush (literally) and, having worked out, miraculously (or not so miraculously, if you are one of those people who reads your instruction manuals all the time) how to do ultra-macro photos on my camera. And the first results are up on my Bush Notes blog. What a beautiful day it was. And to top it all, I came across two fox cubs. Do not say the words vermin or extermination, please. Not yet. Let me just marvel at the experience.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Time to Read

A lot of people say to me, "How do you read so many books? I don't have time." As many of these are writing students, I don't have much sympathy because I believe you have to read widely in order to write better. Reading as a writer teaches you lots of small but vital things about writing that you don't really learn any other way. I'm always thinking, Wow, that's a great piece of dialogue - I must give that to my class to read. And sometimes I give them a writing exercise based on it.

How do I read so much? If I'm working at home, I read at the breakfast and lunch table. I read at night instead of watching TV (or as well as - most TV shows don't require 100% concentration!). And I always read for at least half an hour when I go to bed. On the weekends, if I'm not working, I read as relaxation. When we go up to the bush for the day, I spend a lot of time sitting under the trees, reading. I always take at least three books in case I run out. I am a fast reader, I guess, but only through practice.

Being a fast reader means that books I don't like so much get read pretty quickly, but if they really don't appeal, I toss them. Once upon a time, I'd persevere but not any more. Too many other good books out there to read.
I've just finished The Day the Gypsies Came by Linzi Glass. It's set in Johannesburg in the 60s, and has an awful cast of characters, nearly all of whom are very unlikeable. The main character is weak and doesn't act until the end, when it's too late. I struggled to finish this, but in the end I was glad I did for one reason - the relationship between the main character and the Zulu gateman, Buza. It was wonderfully written, and made the ending, despite all the other horrible things that happened, worthwhile.

Monday, November 05, 2007

NaNo vs Research

I decided to sign up for NaNoWriMo, even though I know I won't get anywhere near the 50,000 words. It's an incentive, mainly because two writer friends have also signed up and we are going to compare words. Mind you, one of them has had a head start by going off for a four-day writers' retreat and she'll probably come back with 20,000 words under her belt. But that's not what it's really about for me. It's more that I want to get back into the writing habit. This time of year is the hardest in terms of finding both headspace and motivation for writing. I'm just spending too much of my time reading and commenting on other people' s stuff.

But I have managed around 6,000 words so far (not all of them in NaNo time - I started early), and have come up against a small wall - the one called research. I'm at a point in the novel where I am about to make some things happen to the main character, but I'm not sure of the details of the situation, and I need to know them accurately, so the outcome works (otherwise what follows on will be "wrong"). It's a bit like in a crime novel, where you want someone's arm to be crushed in a certain machine, but if that machine doesn't operate in such a way for that crushing to happen, you can't write the scene. Sorry if I'm being confusing. I'm one of those paranoid writers who can't bear to talk about exactly what they're writing about.

So do I stop and go away and do research? A bit hard right now as it will probably mean interviewing an expert, and I don't have time. I could resort to books - I've already tried the internet and it doesn't have what I need (amazing but true!). I might just have to fudge it and hope that what I guess to be the correct situation is pretty close to accurate. And race off to the library as soon as I can.

My other option is to stop working on this novel and go back to the YA novel I was working on last month. Except I have no idea what happens next in that one either. This really is the biggest problem, I think, for many writers who can't do it full-time. The physical writing is not the issue - I type fast enough to do 1000 words an hour. It's the place inside my head where I plot and experiment and go what if? It's too full of other mush. Patience, I think, patience. NaNo is not a stick, it's a carrot!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Writers and Printers

Where would we be without our printers? Even in this age of the "paperless office" (yeah, right!), and even though quite a few publishers now accept email queries, if not email submissions, we still live and die by our printers. Gone are the days when a dot matrix printer was acceptable - now most people expect laser quality. It's hard to believe how disposable printers are made to be, as if our whole intent now is not only to use more and more paper, but to also have printers that are incredibly cheap and if the drum wears out, it's cheaper to buy a new printer than a new drum. Hello, landfill.

Everyone has their most-loathed manufacturers, both in printers and computers. Many years ago I had a Compaq laptop and the service provided when it broke down was so abominable that I swore I'd never buy anything with Compaq on it again. (Try, for example, being told that the power unit had to be sent to Scotland to be fixed! It'd only take 4-5 months.) And the fact that HP bought Compaq didn't improve things. I and my friends have a long history with HP's inkjet printers that defies all logic.

A printer that will print page numbers only at the top of the page, not the bottom? A printer that ignores all page settings and always gives you 1cm margin at the top? A printer that sucks up extra pages whenever it feels like it? And we all know that the reason printers are so darned cheap these days is because the manufacturers are making billions out of charging us megabucks for the ink refills. And most of the time, the ink hasn't actually run out, it's just down to about 20%, which is "below operating capability".

But a recent purchase by friends really wins first prize for manufacturer sneakiness. They bought a fairly expensive model so they could print photos and things for school projects. As the supplied ink cartridge ran out not long after purchase (because of course you never get a full one with a new printer), they took it up the street and had it professionally refilled. Before they knew it, the computer screen started showing messages warning them that since they hadn't used a manufacturer's cartridge, their warranty was now voided. (Same cartridge, mind you, just new ink.)

You might say, fair enough, because there are people who use ultra-cheap replacements and then claim there's something wrong with the printer. But hang on a minute, even HP produce a slightly cheaper version of their own cartridges. What is so bad about using a different brand of replacement anyway? Aren't we entitled to find a cheaper brand?

However, the final straw has been that now the printer won't print at all. It keeps telling them there is a paper jam, when there isn't. There is nothing wrong with this printer, other than the fact that somehow HP have found a way to make it shut down if you use the "wrong" ink. Bad move, HP. You have finally, irrevocably, joined my list of manufacturers whose products will never grace my office again.

And if all the people who have been badly treated by BigPond ever get together and boycott them, they'll be out of business in a second. We need effective complaining campaigns, we need to make manufacturers get their act together and we need to stop buying plastic crap that doesn't last the distance. OK, I'll get off the soapbox now.