2009: My year in review

2009 calendar

I never really feel as if I’ve achieved much in any given year. 2009 is not an exception: these last 12 months have been enjoyable, but they also feel rather uneventful. Though that isn’t quite true. Here’s a list of stuff I’ve achieved in 2009:

I did a triathlon. My first one! I plan to do a second in 2010.

I completed the City 2 Surf. An epic (so-called) fun run from Sydney’s CBD (the “city”) to Bondi Beach (the “surf”). It is 14 kilometres, or 8.6 miles. My knees weren’t the same for days afterwards.

I moved house. From the west side of Sydney (the inner west, my inner snob wants to clarify) to the east. I consider this an achievement because we moved all our furniture ourselves. Tip: do not do this.

I travelled overseas for work. In 2008 I went on my very first business trip, but it was “merely” interstate. But in 2009 I jetted all the way to Los Angeles. For work!


I finished My Book. I consider this the big one, given that I started writing (what has become the “final” version of) the thing in about 2005. While I’m still revising it, it’s complete from A to Z, in a polished enough form that I have been able to present it to other readers. This makes me Happy.

Of course, it’s the end of the 00s (notice how I used numbers there, so as to cleverly avoid using a daggy name like the Noughties, which I’ve never liked, or the Aughts, which never really caught on ((We’re calling the next decade the Teenies, right?))), though since a list of my personal achievements in the last 10 years would pretty much encompass all the important growing up experiences, it seems pointess to post it here.

And some things I hope to achieve in 2010:

Find an agent. A good one, I hope! (“Land a book deal” is also something I hope to achieve in 2010, though I’m focusing on short-term goals for the moment.)

Get a tattoo. Just a l’il one. I’ve been insisting for years that I’m going to get a tattoo, so I should probably get around to doing it. After all, who doesn’t want permanent ink painfully inserted into their skin?

Look like this. Likelihood of achieving this goal: not very likely. (At least I’m realistic.)


Book review: Finch, Jeff Vandermeer

FinchI bought Finch off the back of a very enthusiastic review, not realising it’s the third book in a sort-of-series – while each book stands alone, together they form the Ambergris Cycle.

Kinda wish I’d known that before picking it up (a quick spot of Googling does wonders, kids), because there’s a lot about Finch that was difficult to wrap my head around – stuff I’m sure would’ve made a lot more sense if I’d had a fuller understanding of the backstory.

That said: I enjoyed Finch a lot. It’s the second noirish-detective novel I’ve read in as many months, but it could not be more different to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The premise is eye-poppingly original (synopsis here; the book’s set in a bleak, crumbling city where super-creepy mushroom people oppress humanity), and while the plot meanders into confusing territory, Vandermeer’s writing is stark and powerful.

The titular Finch, a detective “tasked with solving an impossible double murder”, is an appropriately gloomy protag, and the world he inhabits is appropriately apocalyptic – Ambergris is a compelling place, but one I’d stay faaaaar away from if it actually existed.

But it’s also one I’d like to visit again via the safety of books. Will definitely add earlier entries in the Ambergris Cycle to my ever-expanding to-read list…


Movies I’ve seen (which aren’t Avatar)

Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes

Robert Downey Jr is… the drawcard of a film which is otherwise a bit of a muddle. Director Guy Ritchie’s trademark gangster talk and slick visuals don’t quite mesh with the richly visualised 19th century London of the film, though he nevertheless does an admirable job of transporting audiences back in time to a world of cobblestones, steam and stagecoaches.

But it’s the overly complicated storyline that’s the biggest offender. For starters, there’s no actual mystery to solve – which is a crime when your leading character is the world’s most famous sleuth.

The Lovely Bones

Peter Jackson and fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (the trio also penned the Lord of the Rings trilogy) are mostly concerned with adapting Sebold’s tone of poetic whimsy, because they excise many of the book’s darker, more morally grey moments.

That’s a mistake, because the resulting film lacks both conviction and emotion.


What the hell happened to Sex and the City?

Sex and the City 2

A Photoshopped android stands in for Sarah Jessica Parker

If there’s a Sex and the City rerun on TV, I’ll usually watch it. I’m not an obsessive fan of the show, but I like it fine. (Even though after all these years, I still get mad at Carrie forĀ breaking up with Aidan and later settling for that dick Big.) ((I also blame the show for the apparent rash of weirdly picky, crazy-analytical single women out there, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.))

So I find this sad:


Sex and the City, the TV series, was about four female friends who talked a lot about the guys they were sleeping with, and looked good doing so. Sex and the City, the movie, mostly overlooked the strongest part of the show – the friendship – and instead presented the foursome as glamazons who live expensive lives few actual women could actually afford. The film isn’t awful, but it’s wildly different in tone to the TV series: the pace is slower, the dialogue has lacks snap, and even the fashions seem out-of-place. (TV-Miranda would never wear the stuff movie-Miranda gets around in.)

The sequel looks even less promising. That last shot of the gals strutting through the desert? Full. Body. Cringe. When did the franchise become so… tacky? Does anyone still find Sex and the City empowering? And if the answer is yes: why?


Quit reading this and go see Avatar

Last week I indicated that I really, really, really liked Avatar. Exactly how much did I like Avatar? So much that when I reviewed it professionally, I gave it five stars out of five.

I have never given anything five stars out of five before. I always swore I never would, because no film is perfect. Avatar isn’t perfect, but it deserves every one of those stars.

Here are some of the words I used to describe it: “Masterpiece”. “Immersive”. “Wondrous”. “Game-changing”. “Amazing”. “Lush”. “Stunningly emotional”. “A film like no other”. So now I have to go refill my supply of superlatives.

Go see it (then come back here afterwards and complain that I ruined it for you by hyping it up too much).


Narrative implausibility, or, why Dexter Morgan is the world’s stupidest serial killer


World's dumbest genius serial killer, pictured with family

Anyone who consumes fiction must have some very high hooks on which to suspend their disbelief. This is especially true for fantasy and sci-fi aficionados – you can’t buy into that malarkey about magic and spaceships unless you’re willing to accept the impossible.

However. Suspension of disbelief only stretches so far.

I pondered this during the week while catching up on the fourth season of Dexter, which was pretty excellent (and horrifyingly bleak) – except for some sloppy writing which pulled me out of the world. Mildly spoilery examples follow.

So in one instalment, Dexter sets up a kill room in a hotel bathroom. Because cheap hotels, as we all know, are bastions of privacy. Later in the episode, Dex stalks his victim to a construction site and prepares to attack. Suddenly, the victim attempts suicide! But Dexter rescues him at the last second, aided by onlookers who rush in to help. Onlookers who Dexter apparently didn’t notice while he tracked his victim; onlookers who apparently would’ve done nothing had Dexter attacked the victim before the suicide attempt.

Contrast this with Avatar (WHICH I LOVED), a film populated with blue-skinned cat-eared aliens who live on a planet overhung by huge floating mountains. How did the aliens, who evolved on a world light years from Earth, evolved to be (for all intents and purposes) exactly the same as Homo sapiens? How do those rocks float in the air? You might ask a billion questions like these – but ultimately the answers don’t matter, because the little details serve the story. They aren’t its sloppy byproducts.

It goes back to that old saying: audiences will believe the impossible, but not the implausible. I can believe blue cat people live on floating rocks. But I can’t believe a so-called genius serial killer would make such dumb mistakes.


Book review: Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett

Unseen AcademicalsThe other week I had a work-related Christmas dinner (great food, great company), and my team played one of those corporate-style getting-to-know-you games wherein we each had to name a person we’d love to have dinner with.

I nominated Terry Pratchett.

I read a lot as a kid and a teenager, but Pterry’s Discworld books were the first novels I was super-invested in. Between the ages of 13 and 16 I reckon I devoured each entry in the series at least five times – there were more than 20 Discworld novels in those days (there’s now 37), so that’s a lot of reading.

Pratchett probably had more influence on my writing and my worldview than any other writer. So it’s through this lens of adoration that I read the newest entry in the Discworld series, Unseen Academicals.

First up: even a bad Discworld book would still be a good book. Academicals (synopsis here) is not a bad Discworld book. But nor is it the greatest. The development-of-football plot didn’t feel as fleshed out as other Discworld spoofs (particularly coming so soon after Going Postal and Making Money), the plot lacked a clear drive towards something, and the new characters often felt like retreads of characters that Pterry has done better in the past – while I liked Glenda, Nutt, Trev and Juliet, I don’t really care about any of them.

That said, there are some great moments: pretty much anything about the Librarian, Ponder Stibbons and Ridcully, whose rivalry with former Dean provided some of Academicals‘ high points. Pratchett introduces fun new supporting characters (Pepe, Dr Hix) in amongst the old faces (Rincewind), though other Discworld fixtures seemed way off (Vetinari, who seemed oddly un-Vetinari in many of his scenes).

Perhaps this sounds harsh. But I really did enjoy Unseen Academicals (what can I say? I’m a Pterry fanboy). I wouldn’t recommend it to a Discworld n00b, but it’s nevertheless a solid entry in this fantastic (in every sense of the word) series. And it also has a touch of finality: because of Pratchett’s Alzheimer’s disease, Academicals could be one of the last adult Discworld novels. Which is a very sad prospect.


I’m writing this in the first person. You’re reading this in the second person.

Elaine (aka the greatest female sitcom character OF ALL TIME) flirts with third-person aficionado The Jimmy

Elaine (aka the greatest female sitcom character OF ALL TIME) flirts with third-person aficionado The Jimmy

You know what strikes me as weird? That referring to yourself in the third person is generally considered douchey, yet Facebook statuses force you to write this way. (At least, traditionally formatted Facebook statuses do.) Facebook: making d-bags of us all since 2004.

My Book is written almost exclusively in the third person – sometimes omniscient, sometimes dipping into my MC‘s POV (wow, bit of AO there ((That’s Acronym Overload, natch))) – with a bit of second-person stuff thrown in when I feel like giving you a more intimate perspective on what’s going on. (See what I did there?) Most of my fiction is written like this – I enjoy first-person, but if the Flying Spaghetti Monster descended from heaven and demanded that I choose only one narrative mode to use for the rest of my life, I’d pick third.

Most of what I read is third person too. A trend emerges!

Not sure why I prefer third, though it’s probably because it offers a bit more freedom – it allows me to duck out of a character’s perspective and insert broader information about the world I’m writing in.


An open letter to Chapter 12

Chapter 12

This is the first image that came up when I googled "Chapter 12". Um.

Dear Chapter 12 of My Book,

Remember when you were just a scrappy little first draft? All cute l’il mismatched sentences just waiting to be polished up into nice shiny paragraphs. And remember when you had that exciting new subplot injected into you? Gosh, was that an exciting time!

Not so long ago I thought you were cool, Chapter 12. That there was no way you could possibly be more awesome. How wrong I was! Closer inspection reveals that you need some work. Boy oh boy, do you need some work. Did you realise that your sentences are awkward? Your dialogue weirdly leaden? Your pace strangely disjointed?

Not to mention all those adverbs you’ve scoffed.

Because I’m your pal, Chapter 12, I want to help you. What say we spent the next couple of days whipping you into shape? You’ll be as slim and trim as your writerly brethren in no time!

Yours sincerely,
Sam Downing