Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The calm before

 We're teetering on the precipice of calving. 

By this weekend we'll have a pen, if not two, of beautiful little brown calves and more arriving every day. I feel both excitement and dread.

Last week I realised that calving was imminent and I still wasn't ready. It's very easy to put off until winter, what should have been done when all the calves were moved outside in the summer. So, the sheds were cleaned out, sprayed with antibacterial spray and filled with fresh straw. The feeders were disinfected, scrubbed, rinsed and fitted with new teats. There's still a bit of cleaning I'd like to do, but essentially, we're ready.

Mother's guilt.

At this time of the year I look at the months between now and Christmas stretching before me and I feel tired. In that time all the cows will calve, they will be mated again, paddocks will be worked up, crops will be put in, silage will be cut. It's a lot for one man to do on his own and I know I have to kiss goodbye to Daddy doing bath times and to Miss Three having uninterrupted play.

If I'm honest, the thing I find the hardest about this part of the year is dragging a small girl with me as I try to do all the things that need doing around here. It's not just the super power that children have of slowing everything down to snail's pace, especially when there's a lot to do. It's also the guilt of taking her out in the rain and when she just wants to carry on with whatever project she has going.

But there are babies.

But this afternoon we brought in a little bull calf, abandoned by his mother, frozen and covered in mud. By the time I'd snuggled him into the straw and encouraged him to drink a litre of warm colostrum he was deciding to live. An hour before, he had been flat on the ground and ready to die. And I remembered. I remembered the joy and the excitement of this time of year. The potential of the newborn and the instant gratification that comes with saving a life.

Calving 2017, let's be having you.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

How to talk teenager - a guide for authors

I've seen a few posts around the social media traps recently where authors have expressed their angst about an upcoming talk or workshop in a high school. Having spent the bulk of my career teaching teenage boys, I totally get how daunting it can be. A room full of strange adolescents can feel a bit like the public speaking equivalent of sky-diving. So before you pack your spare undies, here are a few things you need to know about teenagers:

1. They're all wearing masks:

Teenagers are entering a whole new world. They know they aren't kids, they're not adults either. But the expectation for the weird transitional space they occupy is kind of fuzzy. For this reason they will almost uniformly adopt a bored face until some kind of silent consensus is reached that they will engage with an experience. If you can get them to drop the bored face, nice one. If not, don't worry. There will be kids engaging on the inside. You'll probably hear from them later via social media.

2. They can spot a phoney at 50 paces:

Please please please don't try to be something you're not. If you don't ordinarily use their lingo. Don't use their lingo. Seriously, they can tell and you just look like a nob. Teenagers would rather you were you. Talk to them like people - I promise they really are people. Try to enjoy yourself. Enthusiasm is contagious. My philosophy is that even if they're laughing at you, at least they don't look bored.

3. They're almost all good people:

Sometimes teenagers come across as rude, self absorbed little shit-heads. In groups they can sometimes be a bit tricky to manage, but that's what their teachers are there for. If they're rude, try not to take it personally. It's not about you. It really isn't. In my experience, underneath the bluster, almost all of them are good people. Sometimes good people that make bad choices, but good people none the less.
The best piece of classroom management advice I ever got was about the power of silence. If they're chatting while you're talking, just stop and wait. Never speak louder to be heard over top of them.
Maintain an unruffled, confident demeanour, and wait.
Make eye contact with the chatters, and wait.
Smile, and wait.
Inside you might be freaking out that they're never going to stop. But remember, you're an unknown quantity. They're unlikely to test you at your first meeting. Remember too that you're there for them. If they don't get to hear all the great stuff you have planned, that's their bad luck. Also the stopping and waiting will prompt the supervising teachers into action, they should sort out any repeat offenders. This tactic is even more effective when you stop talking mid sentence, or mid word.
You have good stuff to say and everyone deserves the opportunity to hear it. Don't allow your talk to be ruined for others by speaking when someone else is. 

4. Social media - good:

If you really want to get to know teenagers, get to know them individually or in small groups. Best way to do this as an author? Your social media platform. Make it easy for that kid who watched your author talk at school today, to get in touch with you in their own time when nobody's watching. Be easy to find online, on social media and your website. Be present. Make sure you respond - the quicker the better.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Social media: Taking our brains to the gym

I've been getting involved in a few robust debates on social media recently. I enjoy a contest of ideas now and again. If it's done well, it can be like taking your mind to the gym. It's not often done well though is it? Not on social media anyway. But it should be. What an opportunity.

Seriously, when else can a person really climb into a topic and thrash it out with people who hold on to opposing views with conviction? Often my friends hold views that fall more or less in line with my own. That's why we hang out. Anyway, I don't want to disagree with a friend so seriously that I ruin the dinner party. What if I have to storm out before dessert?  There's a scenario where nobody wins.

Most people go through their lives without really challenging themselves or others on their ideas and beliefs. That Year 10 debating competition was quite likely to be the last time you had to build a solid, structured argument, backed by research and delivered coherently. Having attended quite a number of Year 10 debates in my time, I can vouch that most of the debaters don't feel a burning passion for the topic they've been assigned.

Getting cross on line:

The brilliance of social media is that it can bring us into contact with all kinds of people, from all walks of life, living from as broad a spectrum of experience as we can imagine. That means we rub up against opinions that are so frighteningly different from our own that it shakes the very foundations of our world view. Are there people out there who truly believe milk comes out of a cow full of pus and blood and that dairy farmers dye it white before selling it? Apparently. [For the record, milk is white when it comes out of the cow. Fact]

The trouble is, our first reaction when we see people sharing things that actively work against what we know is right, is to get angry. That's a perfectly reasonable reaction. I mean seriously, let's all stop vaccinating our children. How bad could Small Pox be anyway? However, and this is the key, calling the person that posted in support of not vaccinating a f*#^ing numpty achieves nothing. Well, it forces a bunch of people to live through our fury fest. But other than that it achieves nothing. 

An opportunity to take our brains to the gym:

Let the fury pass. Try a little diaphragmatic breathing or something. Then go back. See? This can't be done in a face to face conversation, which is why I think social media is an awesome platform for debate. 

Some pointers:

Work out exactly what point you want to make. Don't try and address too much - it's a social media post, not an essay. When you make your point, try to be succinct (rich coming from me, but it's good to have aspirations). Back up your statement with reason. That means evidence - anecdotal if you must, but scientific research, statistics, published literature (I mean books here, they tend to have been through a fact checking process). Try to avoid referencing journalism - it is very often bias, especially online publications. You can go back to the sources a journalist cites though. It would be awesome if you could put links to resources that back up your point of view. 

Are we going to go to all this length just to reply to a post on social media? Probably not, at least not all the time. But we can at least accept that the person we're trying to convince is unlikely to change their mind because we said so. We're not going to change our minds because they said so are we? 

So why climb into it? 

Debate is fun. It is interesting. It forces us to really understand what we believe and why. It tests our resolve. It tests our ability to articulate our thoughts clearly. It forces us to consider the other side of the argument before we dismiss it. And all of that is why we should use social media as a platform for genuine, robust debate. For the first time in a long time, ordinary people are able to express their opinions in an open forum and see how they stack up against the opinions of others. This is brilliant.

What about this?

I heard a Ted Talk the other day (see it here) about a woman who grew up in a fundamentalist church and spent her life campaigning against, well, everything. Her rantings on social media were often responded to in anger. But a few people responded by asking questions. Not the furious rhetorical kind designed to make a person look silly or feel bad, but genuine questions from a place of curiosity. The woman responded, not just with answers but also with questions of her own. It brought some humanity to the discussion and allowed a real contest of ideas to develop. It stripped the hate out of both sides of the argument.

This is the really good bit. The woman, who had spent her whole life believing the tradition she had been raised in was the only right path, changed her mind. Not an easy thing to do because, in this case, it meant leaving her home and her family and everything she knew. Her change of mind meant she had to completely start again. What a huge, brave and incredible thing to do, because of people she had come into contact with on social media, because of debate, because of curiosity, because of questions. 

Friday, 10 March 2017

Why does it have to be pink?

I went shopping for a few clothes for Miss Two yesterday. Why does everything have to be pink? Or worse, purple? Who decreed that little girls must dress in colours so saccharine they make a mother's teeth tingle? Pretty dresses and candy colours have their place, they do, they're as valid a colour as a restful navy blue or an interesting emerald. But I don't want my kid spending her entire childhood going to preschool looking like a disney princess, and coming home looking like half chewed bubble gum.

While I'm ranting, I also have difficulty with T-shirts emblazoned with sequinned slogans ("I'm a princess, do what I say") or more sodding Disney princesses. You know what? A princess is down there among the last things I hope my daughter grows up to be. I've had a look at it as a job, it looks a lot like very well heeled hell. No choices and far, far too much being nice to people.

Let me be clear here. I do not buy into that whole gender neutral palaver, if a child wants to play with a baby doll or a dump truck, let them. Child development psychologists have shown that most girls will make a baby to look after out of whatever they can find if they don't have one. And most boys will find a stick and use it as a gun/sword/club. It's ok. It's hard wired into us. However, what about that little boy who desperately wants to play with the dolly or the little girl who really likes the blue pants and the green shirt? How do they feel when clothes and toys are so obviously marketed for EITHER girls OR boys? We are supposed to be a society that is becoming more accepting of everyone being who they are. And yet, at the earliest age we are faced with choosing girls stuff or boys stuff. How early does a child have to start feeling that they are different (or worse, wrong) because they don't like the right colours or the right toys. I'm sure in the deep dark Eighties, when I was a child, this wasn't such a big thing (back me up here Mum?).

Miss Two is a pretty standard issue girl. She likes pink and (gulp) purple. She's old enough to have a say in what she wears. So I do sometimes go out in public with a child wearing a purple top emblazoned with a sparkly Minnie Mouse. But I would like her to be able to choose that purple top on Monday and maybe wear red on Tuesday or yellow or turquoise. In the meantime, I remember with fondness her first year of life when everyone thought she was a boy because she never ever wore pink.

Do people with boys have a similar problem?

Monday, 12 September 2016

Five things I've learned from finishing the first draft

I did it. I finished the first draft of my first novel. The last time I felt this proud of myself, I had just given birth.
Following on from my Five things I learned from the first 20 000 words post, here are five things I learned by finishing the first draft:

1. Routine is key:  It's so boring, but it's what gets the words written. By setting up the rhythm of my day, it eliminates the procrastinating and prevents me bumping my writing down the priority list, which I am apt to do.
My routine is that I get up at 6am (earlier if I can manage it), put on my dressing gown and sit at the desk. Monday to Friday I work on the novel, Saturday I try to write a blog post and Sunday I get a wee sleep in as a reward. I find that if I try to do anything else like get dressed or make a cup of tea I end up unpacking the dishwasher or doing laundry. I get caught up in 'I'll just....' and the next thing I know, the small person is awake and my tiny writing window has shut for the day. Everyone has to find the routine that works for them and the time of day that works for them but this is what works for me.

2. The second (and third) twenty thousand words are the hardest: When I wrote my post at the end of my first 20 000 words, I was burbling along full of optimism. 'I got this,' I chirped to myself, tapping out the beat of my story on the keyboard. Like parenting, the moment I thought I had it under control, I suddenly didn't anymore. The manuscript got really sticky. I couldn't figure out where to go or how to get there. Self doubt raised its whiney, annoying little head. My word counts plummeted, there were days that in an hour I might only get three or four hundred words written. I have since learned that this is actually a thing, especially for people who don't plot their whole story in advance. I probably knew this before, but the same little demon who told me the story wasn't going anywhere, also tempted me with shiny golden new ideas, each better than the last and each one infinitely better than the dowdy old thing I was trying to write. I lost my way for a while, but, and here's where routine helped me out, I kept going. I wrote the words, every morning and eventually I came out of the bog and the travelling became easier again.

3. Little snippets of time build up: I fantasise about a whole working day (or even a morning) sitting at my desk. I dream of being able to get right into the story and write two or even three thousand words in a session. I imagine what it might be like not to have to watch the clock. However, this is a pipe dream for almost everybody. We all have roles and responsibilities that press against our creative time. The silver lining here is that busy people are generally more efficient. If we only have half an hour, we bloody well make it count. And you know, those half hours build up, I've drafted an entire novel in hour and half hour chunks. It can be done.

4. The world won't end if you fall off the wagon: It took me nine months to write this draft. In the middle of this period, a whole lot of personal stuff got in the way and I stopped writing for maybe as many as 12 weeks. Life happens and sometimes you just can't get yourself to your desk. I was worried this might mean I never got back there again. However, when I felt strong enough, I gave myself a good talking to and set my alarm again. When I returned to my story, guess what? It was still there, just as I'd left it, waiting for me. I read the last thing I'd written then I got going. It was hard at first to find my way back in to the story, but I leant on my routine and eventually it started to come out more easily again.

5. I have no idea how to edit a manuscript: I wrote the last sentence of my first draft. Tears filled my eyes. I sent some tweets. I did a Carlton dance celebration. Then I sat down and realised I have absolutely no idea what to do with it now. To make myself feel better I made a plan. Don't you think you always feel better when you have a plan? The plan is to trawl my favourite author websites and read all their posts about the editing process. I will then synthesise all of this into a blog post with pretty little links to all the source material - this might help someone else but the exercise will also help me process all the information. Then I might know where to begin.

Stay tuned.

Words this fortnight: 6 112
Words in total: 72 258

Monday, 29 August 2016

Being grown up is like eating dry Weetbix

I have spent the last two weeks preparing a submission to my local council about their proposed environment plan. Isn't that a grown up, grumpy old man thing to do?

Why would you do it to yourself?

I've done it because their proposal effects how, and indeed whether, we will have a viable farming business if some of their proposed changes come in. As farmers we fully support the need to take care of our environment and to be sustainable in the way we feed the nation. However, I have discovered that much of the documentation put out by our council is written by people with little actual knowledge of the way primary industry works. Example: in an effort to avoid clouding waterways and losing topsoil when cultivating paddocks on a slope, they have decreed we must all work up the land parallel to the contours. In real life, if you drive a heavy tractor towing a heavy set of discs across the side of a hill, you are likely to roll the tractor and die. Hmm, not your best work suit-wearing-policy-minion, not your best work.

Policy speak

Oh my goodness the documents were miserable. If there was a better way to desiccate the English language, the council would have found it. There were about a thousand pages in five fat volumes of dusty, impermeable language designed to put off all but the most determined objector. I'm quite convinced a lot of policies get through local government because the people they affect feel nauseated at the sight of the paperwork. That's why we have to do this. [I have deleted a long boring rant here about the general population losing touch with where its food comes from and the reputation farmers have for being a bit dim. Important, but not the point today.]

Then there's the process for submission. There's a template that, quite rightly, asks for specific references to the volume, chapter, page and policy number you wish to submit on. That means you actually have to read it. You can't just use the handy summary Federated Farmers did for its members. Boo. You have to quote the policy and re-write it striking out the bits you don't like and underlining the bits you put in to replace them. This flummoxed the mother-in-law. She spent an hour and a half with the Council Liaison expert from the milk company trying to figure out how to find the 'strike through' button on her laptop. I found mine. See? Because you're re-writing council policies in these submissions you have to use the same dry Weetbix prose they do. It's a bit like that game where you have to see if you can eat three cream crackers in a minute and all the saliva is instantly sucked from your mouth. I think my eyeballs were starting to shrivel.

Fiction is my friend

In short, I've never been so grateful for my thirty minute novel writing bursts first thing in the morning. And I've never felt so refreshed by opening whatever I happen to be reading when I get into bed at night. The English language is so diverse and so fascinating. If you have the misfortune to be up to the armpits in legalese, council speak or an accounting textbook, take heart. Language has more in its wardrobe than this. Underneath that black, pinstriped suit, it's probably wearing bright pink undies. Go find a novel. It'll cure what ails you.

Words this week:1 954
Words in total:66 146

Monday, 22 August 2016

I'm not nuts...but my characters took over

What does it mean when your characters take you in a different direction? 

Can characters take charge of a story? Let's be clear. I know they aren't real people. Characters are our creations, the firing of our synapses translated into print.

I have listened to many authors who, when interviewed, speak of the figments of their imaginations as though they are living breathing human people. 'Oh, she wouldn't say that.' 'I had it all planned but he took me in a different direction.' There are other authors who call this kind of thing so much bull-shit. They insist that they are in control. They write the characters and the characters do their bidding.

Because there are very few dichotomies in this world, I believe both these schools of thought are correct.

Making new friends:

I think we get to know our characters the same way we get to know an actual person. We learn about them a little at a time through their words and actions. The more of their words and actions we witness, the more we feel we know the person. We begin to make predictions about what they will do and say based on our experience of the things they have done and said in the past.

We do the same with our characters. The things we make them do and say builds a picture of the character a little at a time. We get to know them, and based on this information we can make predictions about how they might behave in other situations. The actions, words and thoughts we give our characters build a picture of them as a person. Sometimes this picture is different from what we'd planned before the real writing started, so when we get to a plot point requiring an action to take the story in the planned direction we suddenly find our character's (imaginary) personality wouldn't do it. This single moment often necessitates a complete plot re-think.

Our character has 'taken over' and re-shaped the book and we've managed to allow it to happen without needing psychotherapy.

Getting to know my characters:

Some people seem to find their characters waiting, fully formed for them in their imagination. This hasn't happened to me. I hope one day it will, it seems like an excellent short-cut. I tend to meet my characters a little at a time. At first they may just be a puff of hot breath, or an ankle disappearing around a corner. I have to chase them down and get them talking or stalk them for a while before I really start to know who they are. Most recently I discovered that a chap I thought I knew reasonably well turned out to be a woman. I'm quite glad really, she's much more interesting than he ever was, but it would have been nice to know this 60 000 words ago. 

How do your characters reveal themselves to you?

Words this week: 2533
Words in total: 64 192