Tuesday, 29 December 2009

This New Year Business

I'm not a big fan of New Year, either as a celebration (having to stay up past my bedtime and fend off drunken strangers trying to kiss me, ewwww) or for making resolutions. In recent years I've made a positive resolution now and again, such as a few years ago when I decided to take proper holidays. Last year I had a year off buying clothes, because I realised I was buying more from habit than from need. It was an interesting change, and meant I had more time and money for other things (oddly enough, holidays again). I stuck to it, too, apart from one pair of hand-made boots I found at a festival and snapped up because I'd been looking for a pair like them for a couple of years and was highly unlikely to find another pair, and then three pairs of thick socks to go with them when I realised they weren't comfortable or warm enough with the thin socks that were all I had.

This year I'm making one, very small, resolution, which is to take part in Quillers' Blog Takeover Day. If you want to join in, the idea is that you write a post on New Year's Day (or, if you use Blogger, you can write it beforehand and schedule it to post on New Year's Day) in which you can be anyone but yourself. Or anything, even. So the post can be from the point of view of a fictional character, or a real-life character, or a meerkat, or a cabbage... if this isn't making sense, there are several examples from the last Blog Takeover Day on Quillers' sidebar.

I'm also making one, very big, wish. I really, really want to secure an agent and a book deal in 2010. I can't make that as a resolution, because it's not within my control. And there's no point resolving to try as hard as I can, because I did that ages ago. But I think there is one small change I want to make. Last year I wrote around 20 short stories, which isn't a lot for some people but it is for me because I find it takes a lot of time to build effective characters, settings and plots. I learned a lot from writing those short stories, I even sold a few, and I'm not ready to stop writing shorties yet. But there were times, last year, when I prioritised my short stories over my book. This year, that will change.

So do you have any resolutions, wishes, or plans for 2010?

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Seasonal Musings

The weather outside is frightful, but I don't care because I'm sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop and a glass of wine while my Paramour makes his delicious blue cheese gnocchi and pleasant music plays. It's nearly Christmas. I don't feel very Christmassy yet, which is probably because I'm still at work - till lunchtime tomorrow - but I expect I will be feeling all festive by the time we leave tomorrow to go to spend Christmas with our dear friends.

I was feeling a bit pouty this morning (yes, I know I'd better not, but sometimes a girl can't help it) because I was sitting in my office inputting some incredibly tedious data while the whole of the rest of the world seemed to be on holiday. Then I thought about my mum, who has always advised me, when I feel like that, to count my blessings. And do you know what? It wasn't very long before I lost count.

I am such a lucky person. For a start, I live in the developed world. Yes, I know our society isn't perfect. In fact, there are lots of problems with it. But I've never had to go hungry or stay cold for more than a few hours. It seems very fashionable to gripe about 'the system', but the NHS sorted me out most efficiently when I had to have my operation last year. Again, there are problems - my experience wasn't perfect - but it was pretty damn good, all things considered. I'm healthy now; I live in a comfortable house; I have a loving family and a whole bunch of terrific friends, including you; you're one of my blessings. And the Internet, for goodness' sake! It's a miracle! I've only been using it for 10 years and already I take it for granted most of the time, but this morning I heard a song on the radio, thought 'that would be a great one for my Paramour to sing at acoustic nights,' got onto Google, found it on YouTube, and emailed him a message and the URL in less time than it takes to tell. I guess most of us do things like that, but when you stop to think about it, isn't it amazing?

And this year, I'm lucky because I look set to have a truly happy Christmas and New Year, for the first time in several years. I can't quite trust that - to some extent, I'm waiting for the bad news phone call or the climatic or domestic calamity that will pull the happiness rug from under me - but the signs are good.

Yet there's still a bittersweet quality to this winter holiday. Although it looks as if I'm going to have a terrific time with people I love, I'm well aware that others are not so fortunate. Some people I know are out of work and skint and trying to make a good Christmas for their children on very little money. Others are recently bereaved, or know they are probably facing the last Christmas with someone they love. Some people have other problems which stand between them and a good time: health problems, homelessness, job insecurity, relationship difficulties, money worries. I'm only an onion skin away from being in their position. At this time of year, for some reason, the fragile, precarious nature of the happiness and comfort I am privileged to experience is more vivid, more real than at other times. I am so aware that at any moment, a chance event could transform happiness and comfort into misery and woe - and yet perhaps that's no bad thing. It certainly helps me to appreciate the many ways in which I am such a very, very lucky person.

And on that note, as the gnocchi is ready (oops, forgot to count my Paramour, don't tell on me!), I wish you happiness and love over the winter break.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Done It!

I finished the second draft this afternoon! Yes, I'm pleased. Yes, I'm sure I can't do any more till I've had a break and some feedback from my lovely readers. But I've also been here several times before, so I'm not all excited and bouncing around. Which is partly because it's hard to let go...

In fact, I'm knackered! I haven't had much headspace for anything other than my book in the last week, which is why I haven't blogged. But I'll try to come up with a post worth reading, this side of Christmas.

And for now, I think I shall award myself a glass of wine and an evening off, and try to feel celebratory.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The Best Bit Of Editing

I spent most of last weekend editing, and I think that if I do the same next weekend, this draft will be done. It's been quick, not because I've been rushing (honest, Debi!) but because I've had lots of time to work on the text.

I don't have much time to edit this week, but the work is still going on in my head, and I'm into my very favourite part of all: making connections. I find myself thinking about a conversation between character A and character B, and realising that character A has a perfect opportunity to raise issue X which will foreshadow the conflict in scene Y. Then I realise I can make character B more understandable for the reader by highlighting a particular aspect of their personality in scene Z. And so it goes on.

The only way I can make this happen is to write and write and rewrite and get to know my characters and their situations better and better. I'm motivated to do that because I know eventually I will reach this stage. I feel as if my brain is making connections all by itself, and that is the most delightfully addictive feeling. Each new connection fills me with joy, and gratitude to my brain, for getting on with the job while I'm busy with other things and just keeping me posted about progress. Which probably sounds daft (although maybe not if you're a writer too). But I reckon if there was a recreational drug that gave people the same sensation, it would be a best-seller.

I can't wait for the weekend!!!

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Independent Bookshop Dilemma

Earlier this year, in the market town where I live, an independent bookshop opened. I was delighted. The proprietress, who I will call Sandie, had run other bookshops in the area, and was knowledgeable about and interested in books and reading. The bookshop was opposite my favourite cafe, in a little courtyard set back from the marketplace, and I enjoyed going there to browse, shop, and chat with Sandie. She was happy to order books for me, and to let me know by email when my orders arrived. We exchanged book recommendations and the whole experience felt very positive.

Then, after only a few months, things began to change. Part of the shop was restocked, not with books but with window blinds. Sandie was in the shop less and less often, replaced by a woman or a man, both perfectly pleasant but neither interested in books or reading. I asked which days Sandie was working but they were very vague and said it changed from week to week. When Sandie isn't there, neither is her laptop, so the only way they can check prices and delivery options for orders is by phone, which is time-consuming and they don't seem very keen to do it unless I insist. I ordered a book recently but Sandie didn't email to tell me it was in, so I rang the (mobile) number on her card, which had an automated answering message: 'This is the Vodafone voicemail for oh seven blah blah blah,' which I found offputting so I didn't leave a message. Instead, I went into the shop, found out from the stand-in woman that my book was indeed there, and presented my credit card, only to be told that they no longer took credit or debit cards and I would need to pay by cash or cheque. I'd been intending to use my credit card - we are in the inevitably expensive run-up to Christmas, after all - so I was not impressed. On further enquiry, the stand-in woman told me that the card machine had broken and wasn't being replaced, that they were losing sales as a result and that, in her view, Sandie had lost interest in the shop. I asked about the answerphone message on the mobile, and she said that was because they had two businesses running from the premises, the one with the window blinds and the one with the books. I didn't understand why that would stop them personalising their answerphone message: surely it would be possible to say 'this mobile takes messages for both X and Y'.

I ordered another book that day, and Sandie did email to tell me it was in. She apologised for the lack of facility for paying by card, and said the decision had been taken in an effort to cut costs. I went in to the shop this morning, hoping to see her and discuss the situation, but the stand-in man was there. He said gloomily that he'd drawn the short straw today. I asked him to tell Sandie I was sorry I'd missed her again, and he said she'd had to take some time off because she hadn't been well.

The thing is, I pay more for books in the bookshop than I would if I bought them online. I don't mind paying extra if I'm getting a good service from a bookseller who is interested in what they do. I do mind paying extra for a lousy service from people who would rather be somewhere else. In general, I believe that it's really important to support independent bookshops. But is there a limit to this? I run a business myself, and I know I need to make it as easy as possible for my clients to buy the services I provide. If I start making life more difficult for them, I will lose business; it's as simple as that.

I can't decide what to do. As far as I can see, the options are:

1. Carry on shopping there and put up with the lousy service and expensive books in order to support an independent bookseller.
2. Try to discuss the situation with Sandie by email (I'm not sure if this is a good idea if she's unwell, but I could write a gentle email to start with, enquiring after her health and asking whether she would like some feedback or not).
3. Go back to buying books online, thereby saving myself time, money and aggravation.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Festively Positive

Over the last six years the winter break has been an ordeal. Six years ago my ex-husband was killed in November (in the same week as my grandfather died suddenly) but he wasn't buried until January, so that Christmas and New Year was very weird and horrible, and the echoes resonated through the next few years. Three years ago my Paramour's mother became ill and had to move into residential care. She had always been the fulcrum of festive get-togethers for his family, and they didn't really know how to manage things without her, plus she needed visiting, so for the next couple of years we were whizzing around from house to house, trying to see both parents, both brothers and a grown-up niece while not spending enough time with any of them. They all live in the same big city, but various distances apart, with as much as half an hour's drive between some of them. Last year I escaped the whizzing around because I'd just had a hysterectomy, which also meant I missed most of the fun bits - I was allowed to go to one party for about half an hour, and a few people kindly visited me, but I don't remember any of it being particularly festive.

During this six-year period, I think I'd completely lost contact with the idea that Christmas and New Year can be fun. I was whingeing by email to a dear friend about this, back in early October, and - despite being extremely busy - she and her partner kindly invited my Paramour and I to stay with them over Christmas. They live near my Paramour's family, and she thought that being based with her and her partner might make the whole visiting thing easier for us. That cheered me up no end, although I was still unsure how we were going to manage the family visiting. Then my Paramour's youngest brother's newish girlfriend decided to host a family get-together on Boxing Day. That cheered me up a lot, because it means we can see everyone in one place for a few hours, like we used to, instead of trying to get round all the separate houses and wear ourselves out while shortchanging everyone else. And two of our dearest, oldest friends are coming to stay here on the 28th and 29th, AND we're having a wee party here on New Year's Eve, mainly for local musicians and their families so they can all sit round and play tunes to their hearts' content.

Then, on 7th January, my Paramour and I are off for a long weekend in Belgium and Holland, via Eurostar! His birthday is in January, so it's my Christmas and birthday present to him, with a little help from air miles.

With all these treats to look forward to, I'm beginning to feel slightly festive. I do think the build-up to Christmas is too long; anticipation is one of my favourite feelings, but I can't sustain it for months. Two weeks today, though, we'll be setting off to spend Christmas with our friends. I can definitely sustain anticipation for two weeks. So here we go: with fingers firmly crossed for no crises in the next few weeks, the countdown officially begins!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Saturday Night's Alright For Launching

On Saturday night I went to Cally's book launch. It was invitation-only and I felt very flattered to be invited. My lovely mentor Debi came as my 'plus one' and it was the most marvellous night.

Leigh met me at the station, we went to the pub where we met up with Jen. (We'd also been hoping for Helen's company, but sadly she couldn't make it.) We drank Pinot Grigio and ordered food - when I saw that fish and chips were advertised as being served with 'pea puree', I knew I was in the poncy south! I predicted mushy peas, which turned out to be spot on.

We'd been there for an hour or so when Cally arrived, looking gorgeous as usual. We chatted with her for a while and then went upstairs to the very nice function room: wooden floorboards; big windows on two sides; a well-stocked bar; comfy leather sofas; plenty of chairs and tables; and a floor-to-ceiling Christmas tree.

It wasn't long before people started turning up. Cally's parents were there, looking as if they might burst with pride. People came who she'd befriended at school; on holiday; via the Internet; all sorts of places. Several people had travelled quite a distance. Even Cally's agent came, managing to combine glamour and approachability, intelligence and friendliness, in a way that would have made me want to spit with envy if she hadn't been such a nice woman. She also had a handsome boyfriend in tow, who turned out to be a professional jazz singer, and gave us a wonderful a capella version of Cheek To Cheek (you know - the one that starts 'Heaven, I'm in Heaven...' - geddit?). Cally's agent made a lovely speech, telling everyone all about Cally's sales (three reprints! 11,000 copies!! Eight translations and counting!!!), and that Cally was a terrific writer who was going to go from strength to strength. Well, we all knew that, but it was good to hear it from one of the people who is helping to make it happen. Cally thanked them both, and everyone else, and then had to stop talking because she was welling up, so we gave her a round of applause and got back to the serious business of drinking and eating (lovely buffet, mmmm) and gossiping and talking about writing.

Every time I looked at Cally, she was signing another copy of her book and grinning like a loon, so I reckon she had a good time. I had a great time, catching up with various mates and making new ones. So did Debi, who kindly took me home and put me up for the night, as well as providing me with copious breakfasts the next morning. Altogether, it was absolutely the most fun I've had in ages.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Advent Calendars

Earlier this week, Quillers pointed me to a couple of online advent calendars with giveaways: those for Headline Publishing and Random House. These are well worth visiting if you fancy having a go at winning free books - and the Random House one offers chocolates as well!

But it's not just publishers who are using this promotional technique. Dorset Cereals, purveyor of high-end muesli-type nosh, have got one too with prizes including clothes and crockery. So has What Digital Camera, for anyone interested in photography-related offers - although I was unimpressed when I checked this one out at 7.30 am today, and got a pop-up box telling me I was cheeky for clicking too early on the 2nd Dec box. I've left a comment so maybe they will sort out the problem.

When I got going on Google, I discovered that there are more of these calendars. Here are some other examples:
One for motorsport enthusiasts
One for people who like spa and beauty pampering-type treatments
One with media-type prizes related to Trance Around The World
Sweeties from Haribo (although you have to answer a question) (click on the second button on the right, under the Promotions heading)
And even one for Everton FC supporters (although I couldn't actually get the page to load this morning for some reason).

Heating product manufacturer Danfoss Randall (stay with me, folks) have put an interesting spin on their advent calendar. They are offering good prizes - today's is an M&S hamper, and others include iPods and digital cameras - but to enter, you have to answer a question about energy-efficient heating solutions. All answers can be found on their website, and winners will be picked at random from all those who answer correctly. (I just tested it out, and along with the question they offer a link to the page on their site where the answer can be found. Very user-friendly, I thought.) They're aiming for a bit of eco-education along with their profile-raising, so I think they deserve support: the link to the calendar is here.

If you know of any others, please let me know in the comments, and I'll add them to this post. Happy comping!

Edited to add: Quillers has kindly pointed out that more are listed at www.loquax.com. Some of these have money-off vouchers as prizes, rather than things you win outright, and others are local to a particular area, but do have a trawl if you feel in the mood.

Monday, 30 November 2009

That Was A Week, That Was

Last week was all go, and it all went rather well, thank goodness. After the visitors left yesterday afternoon I was shattered, and spent the rest of the day sitting around reading (short stories, Guardian Weekend magazine, local paper), chatting (an hour on the phone with a much-loved old friend), eating dinner (lovely spicy tangy gnocchi with red onions, olives, capers and chillies, cooked by my aforementioned Paramour, bless him), and then watching two whole hours of TV with him (Hugh F-W and Top Gear - that's how tired I was) and doing a bit of crochet.

This morning I feel rested, rejuvenated and cheerful. A bit fizzy, in fact; as if something lovely is going to happen. Which it almost certainly isn't - but it's nice feeling this way, anyway, so I don't care. What is going to happen, at least according to my diary, is a fairly tranquil week, with enough work but not too much, a few short trips here and there, and a lovely meeting with lots of blogfriends at the week's end. Also, I should have time to fit in an hour's work on my book every morning. I managed two one-hour sessions of editing last week, and got a surprisingly large amount done in that time, which was very pleasing indeed.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

All Change

Next week looks manic. All of a sudden I have paid work commitments (hurrah!) and then my family are descending at the weekend for our annual pre-festive-season get-together. Which is all very well, but I was just getting going on the editing, and now it looks as if I'll have to put it down for a week, and yes I know the value of mulling periods but right now I don't want one, dammit!

The good news is that I've almost finished writing short stories for this year. I have two to edit and a few to sub, which will all be done in odd moments this week (mostly this afternoon, by the look of things) and then I can concentrate on the book whenever I have time to write for the next few weeks.

I find it quite hard working on the book and writing short stories at the same time. I'm learning a lot from the short story writing, so I reckon it's worth it, but I do resent the time I have to spend creating new characters and situations when I could be fiddling with something or other on the book. And there is so much to fiddle with, from the overall structure, through characterisation, to the scrutinisation of every word and image to decide whether it's optimal in context.

At present, it looks as if I'll be able to get back to the book next week, if all goes according to plan. And then I have, ssh don't tell anyone, two whole free weekends in a row, which is very rare in my life. So even if the weeks become busy, I should be able to treat myself to writing weekends.

I doubt I'll be blogging much, if at all, next week. I'll be running around the country - out of town every day, and two nights away - so forgive me if I don't appear in your comments boxes. Back in a week or so, and I'll do my best to catch up with your news then.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Grumpy Old Writer

I have declared today to be Word Usage Rant Day (WURD for short, am I good or what?). I'll start, then anyone who feels like it can have a go in the comments box.

There are three forms of word usage that have been annoying me lately. The first is 'on a regular basis', 'on a daily basis', 'on a weekly basis'. Why all those unnecessary extra syllables? What's wrong with 'regularly', 'daily' and 'weekly'? Or, in the last two cases, if the word doesn't seem right in context, 'each day' or 'each week' will do fine. I'm bored with 'basis', it's boring, y'hear?

Then there's the use of the word 'genuinely' for emphasis when it adds nothing. 'This movie genuinely scared me.' 'Here is a genuinely helpful warning about spam.' 'She is a genuinely honest competition judge.' The word 'genuinely' contributes no value to such sentences, as far as I can see. All it does is leave me wondering about the non-scary movies, the unhelpful warnings, and the dishonest competition judges.

And finally, my pettest of pet hates: 'nothing worse'. And here *rubs hands in glee* I can name names. For example, singer/songwriter VV Brown recently went on record as saying 'There's nothing worse than feeling podgy and you have to wear "that dress" and not feeling hot in it.' The actor Rupert Grint said 'There's nothing worse than a critic being bitchy.' And just to prove this isn't solely a meedja phenomenon, some entrepreneur called Michelle Mone is quite sure that 'There is nothing worse than interviewing someone who is lacking confidence and positivity.'

Malnutrition, anyone? War? Double amputation? Sheesh!

Now I know language is a living thing, that it changes continually. I'm fine with that, in principle - and I wholeheartedly embrace many of the changes in practice - but I don't have to like, or even approve of, every single change.

So what gets your back up about current language use?

Friday, 13 November 2009

Free Books!

Does everyone except me know about Scribd? And, if so, why didn't anyone tell me?

According to themselves, Scribd is 'the world's largest social publishing company with the goal to collect all the world's written works and make them available for people to read and interact with in any way they want. Scribd is changing the way people discover, share and sell original writings and documents on the Web. Its innovative document reader technology enables anyone to easily upload any files, including PDF, Word, PowerPoint and other document types and share on scribd.com or embed on thousands of other websites.'

According to me, Scribd = free books! (And recipes, and presentations, and games, and lots else besides.)

I came across Scribd the other day when I was searching for help with short story writing. Google suggested I look at a book on Scribd, by Michael Allen, called 'How To Write A Short Story That Works'. To my surprise, after a quick registration procedure, I was able to download the entire book for free. And it had some useful stuff in, too. Not everything was relevant for me - I'm OK with spelling and grammar, thanks - and some parts felt slightly long-winded and/or repetitive, although this could be because I've read 57283 how-to books already. But there were some sizeable nuggets of information and guidance that I found very useful indeed.

So, if you want free books - and who doesn't? - I'd recommend heading over to Scribd. But be warned, there's loads of content to browse through. You may be away for some time!

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


I started work on the second draft of my book yesterday. I've pulled together all my mentor's comments. Her global comments are in a 'to do' list, and I'm in the process of importing her detailed comments into my manuscript. Most of her suggestions for specific deletions or amendments go straight in, apart from the ones where I think I might know better - oh the hubris!! Then there are places where I write shouty little notes to myself in capitals, such as INTERNAL RESPONSE NEEDED HERE or TOO SUBTLE (thinks: blimey, that's a first!), NEEDS MORE TO HELP THE READER GET TO KNOW THIS CHARACTER.

I'm also going through an archive of my relevant writing, again on my mentor's advice, to identify pieces that I might be able to adapt and include. Both of these tasks are laborious but not difficult. And it is such a joy to have writing tasks that don't make me feel as if I'm fighting invincible monsters while wearing lead boots and a blindfold.

I know from experience, and can see from my mentor's global comments, that there is more hard work ahead. As I've said before, I'm not afraid of hard work; often, I enjoy it. But the last month or two, I have found writing to be difficult in a new way. I wish I could work out why, because I have a theory that if I knew the reasons, I'd be able to overcome the difficulty. (Which may be a completely stupid theory.) But I don't mind not knowing why if I can overcome it anyway. I'm optimistic that this more enjoyable patch is a good omen for the future, and I'm hopeful that I can move forward to a place where writing is mostly fun again.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Old Friends And New

Last weekend was such a perfect social mixture that I feel as if I've had a holiday. It began on Friday night with dinner at our place for three couples, people I met through work about eight years ago. We know each other fairly well, now; they no longer feel like new friends, and they're good relaxing company, although they don't yet feel quite like old friends. The evening was great fun: all the food was well received (hardly any leftovers!!) and the conversation flowed as readily as the wine.

On Saturday my Paramour and I went to stay with my old friend Amy and her children aged 10 and 11. She and I have been friends for more than half our lives, so she is definitely in the 'old friend' category. My Paramour and I have spent so much time at her house that we know where everything is, and she and her children treat us as part of the family. Again, we ate, drank and talked non-stop. Amy has recently split from an unsuitable bloke - a perfectly nice man, but one who turned out to be rather possessive and controlling, and was therefore a slightly inhibiting influence on her friendships over the last couple of years. There were some positive aspects to this, too - he encouraged and supported her to get more qualifications, which has helped her professionally - but my Paramour and I are not sorry he's off the scene. We all relaxed into each other's company in a way we haven't been able to do for a while, and it was a real joy.

Then last night we had our new neighbours round for wine and pizzas. And they're lovely! The children - Jack (six, nearly seven) and Anna (four and a half) - were good company: well behaved, chatty and confident. Mark is a self-employed builder and Carrie is a teacher, and it didn't take us long to discover that we all share a very similar world view. I think they will be good neighbours. It's too early to know whether they will also be good friends, but all the signs are positive.

It didn't occur to me, until I sat down to write this post, that we'd had such a perfect mix of old friends, new friends, and those inbetween. Friendships do develop, shift and change, and sometimes end. I have felt sad, recently, about a couple of long-standing friendships that seem to be on the way out, so I find it helpful to remember that it's also possible to make new friends. A wise friend said to me recently that friendships ebb and flow like the tide. I value my friends enormously - and that includes my blogfriends *waves to you*. So much so that, if I had to choose between my writing and my friends, my friends would win hands down.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Does It Feel Good?

So I finished the first draft, and posted to let people know, and several of you bounced up and down in my comments box and my email inbox, whooping and congratulating me.

'Does it feel good?' asked lovely blogfriend JJ.

I remember the first time I finished the first draft of a book. That felt amazing. This time, I just felt flat.

I think there are a number of reasons for this. Having taken the previous version through six drafts, I'm well aware of the amount of work that is still to be done (although this time, I think largely due to my wonderful mentor's input, I reckon I can finish it in four). I am pleased to have reached this milestone, and I think the next draft will be more fun, because I much prefer editing - crafting the story to make it as good as I can - to churning out the words in the first place. But I'm still struggling with my writing. Writing is often difficult, but I don't mind difficult; often I enjoy it. I'm not sure why I'm struggling at the moment. Yesterday, I took several hours to come up with the bones of a short story, and that's unusual.

It could be that I'm struggling because my skills are improving and I'm in a period of adjustment. That would be good. Or it could be because I'm a little weighed down with other things - my Paramour's ongoingly high stress levels; insufficient paid work; being a bit under the weather myself just now. That wouldn't be surprising. Either way, I know I have to write on through this.

And, although I am a little weighed down, I'm not hugely miserable or depressed or anything. My problems are temporary; generally, life is fine; and there are some really good bits. In fact I'm going to have a lovely weekend: I'm doing dinner for eight of us tonight, then tomorrow my Paramour and I are going to stay overnight with dear friends, and on Sunday the new neighbours are coming round to see our house and drink wine and eat pizza. And I'm not going to do any writing at all!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Finished... For Now

It seems I have finished the first draft of my memoir. That happened rather fast, and mostly by cheating. Well, sort of cheating. I imported several thousand words from the sixth draft of my novel, and re-edited them into memoir style, which helped. The other thing that helped was redefining the target word count.

I was originally aiming for 80,000 words. Then my lovely mentor, aka evil hatchet woman, used her red machete on the first few chunks - nothing so common as a pen for her, oh no! So I thought OK, better increase the word target to 90,000 to allow for all that deletion. But in later chunks, she's been saying things like 'do more of X here' or 'give us more of Y there', so I decided that would balance out her machete-wielding antics, and went back to my original aim of 80,000 words.

Trouble was, the story finished when I'd only written 76,500 words. I could have gone back and shoe-horned in extra bits of dialogue and description, perhaps a whole new scene or two. But I didn't think there was any point. I know I've got a shedload of work to do on the second draft. Surely I can sort out the word count then.

So I've finished! For now.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Heaven Can Wait

Cally Taylor, on the longest blog tour in history, has reached Qwerty Queen's domain. I will avoid the temptation to make comparisons between Ms Taylor and that other longest-tour-in-history record-holder, Iron Maiden. (They had very different riders, too - Iron Maiden didn't ask for lots of Hotel Chocolat products.) Nor will I review Cally's debut novel, Heaven Can Wait; that's been done, very competently, elsewhere.

I will say that I enjoyed reading Cally's book very much. It has made some people cry; it didn't have that effect on me, although parts of it were moving, but it did make me laugh. It's lovely to be able to praise this book because I've met Cally a few times and she has been enormously supportive of my writing. I think it's highly unlikely that I would have sold any short stories without her support.

Also, as a researcher, I can't pass up an opportunity to ask nosy questions, so when she invited me to interview her, I seized the opportunity to ask about some of her influences.

How have your real-life friends influenced your writing? "My real-life friends have been hugely supportive of my writing. For a long time I think they viewed it as a hobby I dabbled with when I wasn't socialising with them, but they were all as delighted as I was the first time I had something published in print (a piece of Flash Fiction in a competition anthology by Leaf Books in December 2005). In fact, half a dozen of them came round to my flat to celebrate with champagne!

In the summer of 2006, when my short story “Wish You Were Here” was awarded the runner-up prize in Woman’s Own magazine, lots of my friends rushed out to buy a copy and I was really touched by the phone calls that followed – particularly the ones that said it had made them cry!

I can't even begin to describe the reaction of friends and family to the news I was getting a novel published. I felt really quite over-whelmed by all the love and warmth that greeted the news. So many people told me they were proud of me it was astonishing.

None of the characters in my novels are directly influenced by any of my friends or family but I think it's inevitable that every person you meet has an impact on you in some way. I think my subconscious stores up all my experiences and the traits of the people I've met and mixes them all up to create characters."

How have your blog friends influenced your writing? "My blog friends have been so supportive it's incredible. Joining the Novel Racers was the best decision I ever made. I lurked on Kate Harrison's blog for ages, looking longingly at the group she'd started up with Lucy Diamond and thinking there was no way they'd ever accept a novice writer like me into the fold, before I finally plucked up the courage to ask if I could join. Everything changed for me after that. From being the only writer I knew I was suddenly surrounded by other people who were writing novels, dreaming of publication and struggling with this or that. It was wonderful to be able to talk about the craft of fiction without eyes glazing over or the subject being changed (no offence to my real life friends but if you're not passionate about writing discussing it for hours on end probably isn't that interesting!).

When I was writing ‘Heaven Can Wait’ I knew that the other writers in the Novel Racers group were beavering away on their own novel and that really helped to motivate me to get mine finished.

In April 2008 I started up my own group – a short story group called ‘A Story A Fortnight’ – and that’s also been a fantastic experience. Everyone is so generous with their knowledge and critiques and I’m inordinately proud of all our achievements, not least the fact that the group has now sold over 50 stories to various women’s magazine. I’ve met lots of the Novel Racers and SAF girls in person now and they’re as lovely and fun in real life as they are online.

Finally I need to mention the blog friends who visit my blog, some of whom have been there right from the beginning - when I first started blogging in 2006 about my attempts to get published. Writing can be quite a lonely world to live in sometimes and supportive and encouraging comments from my blog visitors continue to remind me that I'm not the only one who lives there!"

How have your own religious or spiritual beliefs, or the lack of them, influenced your writing? "Ooh, tricky question. I got confirmed when I was a teenager but would probably describe myself as an agnostic now. One of my favourite quotes is from Gabriel Garcia Marquez "I don't believe in God but I'm afraid of him" and that pretty much summarises my attitude to religion. I don't really believe in anything but there's a part of me that's a bit worried about what'll happen when I die if I don't (probably a hangover from being religious when I was younger).

I don’t like thinking about death – it scares me – and a psychologist would probably say that, by writing about death and the afterlife in a light-hearted way, I’m masking that fear. I’d say to that psychologist “It’s just a story. Tsk!” ;)"

How has your short story writing influenced your novel writing? "Writing short stories helped me find my voice as a writer. When I first started writing them I wrote what I thought were literary stories but I felt like I was forcing them out instead of writing what came to me more naturally. And that was light-hearted romantic comedies!"

How do your tastes in food and drink influence your writing? "Drinking wine helps when I'm blocked! When you're three sheets to the wind you think every word you're writing is great (even if you can't understand a word of it the next day). Seriously though, I don't think what I eat or drink influences what I'm writing although I definitely can't write if I'm hungry. If I'm hungry I can't do anything!"

Thanks, Cally, for those interesting and entertaining answers. If you'd like to know more, Cally's blog is here and her website is here. And finally, I'd like to alert you all to two competitions being run in conjunction with the publication of Heaven Can Wait. The first is a short story competition that Cally has set up in the hope that another writer can get a lucky break on the back of her own success. This is typical of Cally's supportive approach, and you can find details here. Then, whether you're a writer or not, you can enter the competition run by her publishers to win a load of high street shopping vouchers: details here.

And finally, many apologies for the weird fonts and formatting. I've tried everything, including retyping the whole post, and I can't make them behave :-(

Friday, 30 October 2009

Neighbour Changes

A quick recap on the neighbour situation. We've lived next door to Pam and Bob since we moved here almost nine years ago. Bob was always pleasant and friendly; Pam was barely civil at best, sometimes quite hostile. Then in April Bob was diagnosed with cancer; in May, he died; and his funeral was held in June.

My Paramour and I have done what we could to support Pam. She hasn't had an easy time. Her father collapsed ten minutes before her husband's funeral, and had to go to hospital in an ambulance with one of her brothers while the other escorted her to the funeral. A couple of weeks later, her dog died very suddenly. We encouraged her to get a puppy, which she did. She put her house on the market at the end of July, and we thought about buying it ourselves, but it would have been too much of a financial stretch.

Pam is a difficult person, and I wasn't sorry at the prospect of her moving away. However, I didn't think her decision was entirely wise. She told me she didn't want to stay here because her only friends are 'pub friends', she knows she shouldn't spend much time in the pub, and they're not helping. They don't want to hear about Bob, and keep telling her she should move on. In my view, nobody should ever say that to a grieving person. Pam wants to move to live near her family, and maybe that is a good idea, but she's lived with Bob in the house next door to us for the last 20 years, and it seemed to me that part of her motivation was to escape her grief. Which, of course, she won't be able to do.

My Paramour and I met one of our new neighbours a few weeks ago. We were on our way back from town and saw a couple of people on the pavement outside Pam's house, pointing at things and chatting, so we went and introduced ourselves. Mark, our new neighbour, was with a friend, looking at some of the work that will need doing. He told us that he and his wife had wanted to buy our house when it was last on the market, but couldn't afford it at the time. We both took to him: he's a few years younger than us, friendly, with a good sense of humour. It's been 15 years since I last had a neighbour I really liked, and it would be lovely to live next door to people we get on with.

Today is their moving day. Last night I went to the supermarket and bought two bottles of fizz and two cards. (I'm afraid I bought a slightly nicer bottle for the new neighbours.) This morning I took Pam's bottle and card next door, first thing, and left it on her wheelie bin. About half an hour later I got a text message.

How kind. Thank u. Have just found your card. I will miss your kindness and understanding. Bob really liked u both as I do. I feel totally bereft 2day when I should b happy 2 make a fresh start. Once again thank u. x

My Paramour thinks that maybe the move will be helpful for Pam. I hope he's right - but I'm not convinced.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Writery Stuff

A week ago I was fed up. I was working really hard on the book, longing to get to the end, and yet struggling with the process. My lovely mentor said I needed to slow down. I didn't want to hear that, but she was very persuasive:

"Sometimes our authorial selves just need a break! The trouble with being dependant on word counts is that there's a risk of not having breathing space to let the book just 'be' for a while. If the pleasure has gone out of the process, I promise that will show in the writing itself. There's no way it couldn't. Maybe you need to ease up on yourself and stop racing to the end. I've always said that writing is so much more than words on the page. It's the walk in the country, the sit on the bus, the lie in the bath ... all the times when your book is sitting on your shoulder and whispering in your ear, even though you're not notching up the word count directly. Obviously I also want you to be able to finish this book, but if you're hating the writing I can't believe you will feel good with the finished product or that it will be anything like the standard I know it could be and indeed should be if it is to have any chance of fulfilling its potential."

Reluctantly, I had to admit she was right. So I grumbled to a halt and felt cross with the whole world. Writing a book was a stupid idea, it was a rubbish book and nobody would ever want to read it.

Then on Thursday I sold a short story. Woo hoo! My fourth sale, to The Weekly News who bought my first story too. That cheered me up a whole lot.

And on Friday I found myself thinking about my book quite lovingly, and with some interest, which was a pleasant experience.

Over the weekend I wrote a short story in a new genre, and really enjoyed using language to create emotion in the reader. (At least, that's what I was trying to do. I'm sure my short story group will tell me whether I've achieved my aim.)

Later today, or tomorrow, I am going to start work on the book again. Instead of feeling stroppy and resentful, I'm looking forward to it. I've cleared my way through some other jobs, to free up time, and I've worked out a new way to tackle the writing. I may even take the final stretch at a more leisurely pace. No promises, though!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Things That Made Me Smile Today

There are a few letters to keep you going if some of yours are held up by the post strike. Wahey!

That was a text from a good friend. It made me smile.

And: I sold another short story. Yippee! To The Weekly News - it's the second one I've sold to them.

Also, my lovely mentor sent me some great feedback on chunk 6 of the book.

JJ's terrific post with inside info from the publishing industry is very useful, and made me smile - if a little ruefully in places.

Paolo Nutini's fab CD Sunny Side Up makes me smile every time I play it, especially when I remember that my Paramour gave it to me for services rendered. I particularly like the new single Pencil Full Of Lead (that link is to the lyrics; music version on YouTube here). My Paramour said it even made him feel happy when he was stuck in a traffic jam and that, from a man who does not do queuing or waiting, is a huge compliment.

All my lovely friends on my sidebar make me smile. Sometimes one of them makes me laugh out loud. Hilary is particularly good at this.

And I smile every time I remember that I'm going down south tomorrow for a weekend with some of my lovely blogfriends.

What has made you smile today?

Monday, 19 October 2009

Not Blogging Today...

...because my lovely mentor told me to have some time off. (I think she meant from working on the book - but I'm a creative, right? So I can interpret her suggestion creatively, right? Sssshhh, don't tell her!)

Friday, 16 October 2009

Gigs and Writing

Great comedy gig last night: Simon Amstell, supported by Arnab Chanda. I'd never heard of Mr Chanda but he was very funny. "What do butterflies get in their tummies when they're nervous? It can't be butterflies. They would just be pregnant."

There were similarities between the two acts: both men were skinny, clever, fizzing with energy, slightly surreal, self-deprecating, self-mocking. Simon Amstell was on top form, juggling the subjects of being Jewish, shy, gay, single and famous, with great courage and vulnerability. I went with my Picky Friend who has a well-developed critical faculty. After the show, PF unhesitatingly scored it nine out of ten, commenting 'if I ever gave anything a ten, it would have had a ten'.

And tonight: The Unthanks, with my Paramour, which I suspect will be every bit as good, albeit of course very different.

Before then, though, I am going to try to produce another 2000 words (and do various jobs as well, sigh). I'm finding writing really hard at the moment. Each word takes a lot of effort and grunting, as if I haven't had enough fibre in my writing diet. It's not always like this: sometimes the writing flows easily, more often it's an enjoyable challenge. But I think writers need to find ways to write through the patches where the going is hard.

I've been reading some poems by Alice Walker. I read poetry a lot, which doesn't equate to reading a lot of poetry, because I'll often read a poem several times, slowly. This is because I like poetry, yet I've been struggling with Alice Walker's poems. She writes about interesting subjects: feminism, family, racism, love. But it seems to me that her poetry doesn't have the layers, colours, depths that I find in the poems I love best, such as those by Carol Ann Duffy or Seamus Heaney. Then I found a line that struck me in one of the few pieces of prose in the book: 'there is only waiting for poetry, there is no solicitation.' I wonder whether this is why I don't get on so well with her poetry: because she didn't write through the times where writing was hard, and so didn't develop the full range of her abilities to express herself.

Then again, maybe I'm wondering that because I want some justification for my current struggle, and really Alice Walker is a fine poet who I don't get because I'm not clever enough, or not American enough, or not mixed-race enough, or something. Because far from waiting for the muse to strike, I'm soliciting like anything; in fact, I'll probably get arrested any day now.

What do you think? Do you write when writing is, as my dear friend Beleaguered Squirrel so eloquently put it in her latest blog post, like trying to pull a dead cat through your own gut? Or do you only write when you feel inspired? Or some combination of the two?

Wednesday, 14 October 2009


Life has become horribly frustrating. Everything is thwarting my desires. If I was a character in a novel, I'd be a great read right now. Trouble is, what's good to read about in literature is often vile to live through.

Specifics are as follows.

Many, many short story rejections. I know each rejection takes me closer to the next acceptance. I know I've done well to sell three stories in my first 18 months of writing them. But, dammit, another acceptance wouldn't half cheer me up.

My poor Paramour. As well as his bereavement, he is now also dealing with a very stressful work crisis that may end up with him not getting paid several grand for working his butt off over the summer. He's pale and distracted and not sleeping well. This mostly makes me feel compassionate, but there is a significant side order of frustration because several of our joint projects have had to be put on indefinite hold, and your friendly neighbourhood monarch doesn't like uncertainty, she likes plans and lists. (Plus I want to disembollock the stupid treacherous incompetent people who have put him in this position, and I can't.)

My slightly mad youngest aunt. She's 14 years older than me and mostly good value: funny, intelligent, and a fabulous cook, but every now and again she takes umbrage at something minor, blows it all out of proportion and has a big rant at someone. It has come to my ears that she is currently hopping mad with me. I'm not particularly bothered about this as such, because (a) she's being ridiculous, and (b) one of her redeeming features is that once the rant is over, she forgets all about it - I don't think she'd know what to do with a grudge. However, I've been tipped off by a family member, who doesn't want me to confront my aunt because they will get in trouble for telling me, so now I have to wait for her rant. I hope to goodness I answer the phone when she rings because, if she rants at my Paramour about something that's nothing to do with him when he's horribly stressed and miserable, I may not be responsible for my actions.

Work. I don't have enough paid work. There are rumblings of more to come, and I expect it will, but it looks as if I'll end up doing 80-hour weeks in Jan/Feb/March like I did last year, which will rebalance the finances but will mean I have to postpone working on the book, and I've heard all the platitudes about a break being helpful for your writing so I don't want to hear them again, OK? It's an ongoing source of frustration that my clients are such deadline junkies when, with a bit of planning and organisation, they could have better results and we could all have more manageable lives.

Not getting stuff done. Writing, of course, but I have a zillion other outstanding jobs - plants that need pruning, rogue piles of stuff everywhere which need sorting and tidying, trips to the charity shop with the resulting throw-outs, self-assessment paperwork, correspondence, Xmas shopping (some of which is suddenly more urgent because of the imminent postal strikes), clearing out the dead phones and computers from my office, taking all the cardboard that won't fit into the recycling bin down to the tip because the effing council won't pick up side waste, etc etc etc. Due to the lack of paid work, I have plenty of time at the moment yet it still seems difficult to get through the tasks.

Politics. I blogged about this recently, so I won't bang on about it again, but I did read a terrific article by Jenni Russell that said a lot of what I wanted to say in a much more politically savvy way. The comments were interesting, too, and it's telling how few of them disagree (and these are Comment is Free commenters, who specialise in disagreeing).

Even the last lot of feedback from my beloved mentor Debi increased the frustration levels. Not because there was anything wrong with it - quite the reverse; it was incisive and helpful as ever - but because, dammit, she makes me think, and that slows down the writing process. Yes, I know being made to think is a good thing, indeed it's a big part of what I want from her, but there's so much to think about, and writing a book is so hard, and my biggest fear is that I'm looking down the barrel of another six drafts and another change of tack and never EVER getting the bloody book published!!!

I know the only thing I can do is to keep chipping away at the various tasks and accept the aspects of life that I can't change. I know that having a huge screaming tantrum won't help - it'll use up valuable energy and, when I've finished sweeping up the shards of china, I'll still have to keep chipping away etc etc. I know the chipping away and accepting approach is the sensible grown-up option. But you know what? Being sensible and grown-up, when you really want to have a huge screaming tantrum, is very frustrating - aarrgghh!!!!!

Monday, 12 October 2009


We had an inauspicious start to the weekend: a car journey where everything went wrong, from the major accident half a mile from our house which blocked the dual carriageway, through three other accidents and about 10 sets of roadworks, to the final contraflow 100 yards from my Dear Old Friend's house in Edinburgh. Then it got better. DOF lives in one of those gorgeous old Georgian houses with huge high-ceilinged rooms and she plied us with good wine and fab food and excellent conversation. Her mum was there too, I've known them both since I was 10 and my Paramour has known them for over a decade now, it was all very harmonious.

The next day was lovely. DOF had to work and DOF's mum was meeting a friend in town. My Paramour and I wandered into the city centre and met some other friends for a three-hour lunch at Wedgwood's, which has crippling prices in the evening but a rather good set-price lunch (£10 for 2 courses, £14 for three) and, er, the wine is good too. Then we wandered back to DOF's, drank tea until we sobered up, by which time the others were back and DOF took us to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society member's rooms for wee drams and haggis, neeps and tatties.

Sunday was DOF's mum's 87th birthday, so we started with presents and a leisurely breakfast. Then we all went to look round the Botanic Gardens, including the impressive new Visitor Centre and an amazing exhibition of art and artefacts all made from the wood of a single wych elm tree - there were the kind of things you might expect, like a table and a fruit bowl (although they weren't in the styles you might expect), but also a lot of unexpected things like a yurt and an Aeolian harp. The gardens were looking beautiful in the sunshine but then I did my dork act by trying to run up some uneven stone steps.

Falling over up steps is good because you don't have so far to fall. Falling over up steps is bad because there are lots of cornery bits to land on. Tally of injuries: big blue egg on right knee; skinned palm on right hand; skinned knuckle on left hand; small dent on chin; large dent in pride. I suspect it was quite an impressive falling over spectacle as several people rushed to my aid. My Paramour got there first and held my hand and said 'count to 10', which made me giggle. Then I wondered, being only 45 I'm fairly sure I just fell over, but if my 81-year-old aunt did the same she would have officially 'had a fall', so at what age do we make the transition? In the circumstances, I think I should probably find out - any ideas?

As I had no serious injuries we continued round the gardens, then DOF drove us into town where we pottered round the shops for a couple of hours. Shortly before we arrived back at DOF's, my Paramour got a call on his mobile to tell him a Good Friend of his had died. GF had fairly severe cancer and wasn't expected to survive long-term, but my Paramour had seen him the previous week and he'd been reasonably upbeat, talking about the next phase of his treatment, and he was still living independently at home so it came as quite a shock. I asked my Paramour what he'd like to do, and he chose to continue with the weekend as planned; mostly he didn't want to spoil DOF's mum's birthday (she was only widowed a couple of years ago, and these celebrations can be difficult). So we did - we tipped off DOF (which was just as well, because she could help me cover for my Paramour when he needed to go and be by himself for a while) and managed to give DOF's mum the special roast dinner we'd planned, with DOF's lethal margaritas to help everything along.

I liked GF very much, but wasn't close to him, so my job for the next week or two is to do support for my poor Paramour who loved his friend dearly and is grieving hard. Goodness knows he's done enough through my bereavements over the years we've been together - I think I'm ahead 6-2 at present, not counting the shared ones - and he's very easy to support, it mostly involves dispensing hugs and whisky. I can't take away the pain, but I can make life easier for him in some ways, and I'm glad to be able to help.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Let's Stop The Blame Game

The thing about politics is, it changes as you get older. I've known this for a long time: when I was in my early 20s, a boyfriend's uncle told me that voting Labour was for the young, and I'd shift to voting Conservative as I got older.

I have voted Labour for most of my life, with occasional forays in the Green or Lib Dem directions. Now, though, I am feeling somewhat disenchanted. There are many reasons for this, but one is a direct result of my work. I am currently being funded by the Government to research the reasons why some families with young children, living below the poverty line, don't use the services provided by the state. I wonder why the Government bother paying me with one hand, while with the other hand they are enforcing policies like the recent Ofsted ruling that parents who are friends may not set up informal childcare exchange arrangements and our Prime Minister's plan that 'bad' parents will have to attend parenting skills courses or their benefits risk being withdrawn. Even if you give your neighbour's child a lift, with your own, to an activity they both attend, you will have to undergo a check of your criminal record. Following the tragic and entirely preventable death of Baby P, Social Services departments across the land are reversing the policy of trying to keep families together that they have been using for the last 20 years and taking more children into care. So why do you think it could be that parents who are reliant on the state may not want to use services provided by the state? Can you see a potential problem here?

I'm not arguing that all these policies are wrong. Some of them may be right. What I'm arguing is that there has been a sea change from state support for families to state intervention in families, and in this climate there is little point investigating why some of the most marginalised families don't readily interact with public services, because it's completely bleedin' obvious.

So am I about to cross the floor of the House? I don't think so. David Cameron is machete-happy when it comes to benefits. He'd like to get unemployed people back into work, with particular emphasis on the disabled. Wake up, Mr Cameron! We have 2.5 million unemployed people in this country, most of them desperate to get back into paid work. Yes, getting them back into work is a great idea, but that won't be achieved by slashing benefits; it will only be achieved by creating and sustaining enough jobs to employ them all.

What will I do, then, at the next election? I have no idea. My Paramour and I are off to Edinburgh this weekend to visit friends, and they alerted us to a demonstration to celebrate 100 years of women's suffrage. Frankly, right now I'd chain myself to some railings to fight for the right not to vote for any of the tossers who think they can run this country. If there was a 'none of the above' box on the voting form, I suspect I'd tick that option.

When Labour were elected in 1997, I thought it was the dawning of a new era. As they spent the next few years lambasting the Tories for leaving the country in such a mess, I cheered from the sidelines, confident that Labour would make our nation all shiny and new. But Labour's promises - the ethical foreign policy, prudent domestic economic management, etc - proved worthless. Now, we're facing the prospect of the Tories being elected, spending the next few years lambasting Labour for leaving the country in such a mess, and so on and so forth.

Here's the thing. People who are elected as MPs have to represent all their constituents fairly. They don't only represent those who voted for them. So why oh why oh why can't we put a stop to the blame game which has to be one of the most unattractive aspects of our culture? Labelling some parents, unemployed people with disabilities, people of other political parties as 'bad' is fundamentally unhelpful. If everyone who stands for Parliament has the best interests of our country's population at heart, why can't elected MPs work together to sort out the most sensible way forward, then give each social programme long enough to prove itself - or otherwise - before changing tack?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009


Three thousand words today!!! I've never written so many words in one day, but I could see that halfway point and it beckoned me on. What's more, nothing else happened - no texts or phone calls and only a few emails, none of which required more than a minute to answer.

I reckon I could write another thousand if I didn't have a few other tasks that need my attention. I promise to write a blog post about something else soon but today it's all about the words.

I'm halfway! It's all downhill from here!

Er, is that what I mean? ;-)

While I think of it, JJ said in a comment on my last post: 'How the devil can you do it? And, more to the point, why can't I?' I think it's practice first, and then having the time available. Four years ago I was writing 500 words three times a week. JJ, too, has made huge strides in terms of her output, as anyone who doesn't know her can see from her blog. It's all about following Terry Pratchett's advice to writers: Apply Bum Glue!

Monday, 5 October 2009

Look At All Those Words!!!

See my word counter? I broke the 40k barrier yesterday and another 10k chunk went to my hard-working mentor. I can't believe I've done 40k in six weeks flat. Then again, this is a rewrite, after six drafts of a former version, so I ought to know my way by now. That does save some time, because I know what I'm telling, but I still have to deal with the question of how to tell the story. At the moment that's proving difficult. I could claim to be mired in a sticky middle patch, which would be plausible in terms of the word count, but would imply that I have some idea where the end will be. Which, at present, I do not.

Nevertheless, with a fairly free day today, I've churned out another 2k. Two thousand words seems a perfectly possible daily output if I don't have much else to do. I'm nearly halfway! At this rate, I could be halfway by Wednesday lunchtime!

I don't think I'll be able to keep this up indefinitely, as paid work is bound to get in the way - and indeed it needs to, because of pesky things like bills and the mortgage. But, for now, it feels good.

Friday, 2 October 2009

I Blame The Parents

This meme was passed on by JJ. I have to list five of my obsessions, so here goes. They are in chronological order and, to my surprise, I can trace them all back to my parents.

1. Reading. My mother taught me to read when I was three years old. Her teaching method may have been slightly unorthodox - I remember a lot of bribery involving ice lollies - but it worked, and I don't think a day has gone past since then without me reading something, if only street signs and packaging. But mostly it's been books.

2. Writing. I began to write at school, with lots of supervised practice and encouragement at home, and have been doing it ever since. Learning to type was a bonus (thanks, Mum - again!) because I can write three times as fast with a keyboard as I can with a pen.

3. Cooking. My father is a keen cook, I often wanted to help, and he was usually willing to let me have a go. I remember the excitement of preparing a whole family meal by myself for the first time, I think I was 12 or 13. I love cooking, especially for other people, although I will also cook proper meals for myself when I'm alone (a habit I got into when I lived on my own). I'd write a cookbook if there weren't so many already.

4. Keeping fit. As a child, my mother taught me to swim, my father taught me to play tennis, and they both infected me with the walking bug. I hated PE at school, but started doing yoga seriously when I was 16 or 17, then swam regularly in my early 20s until I developed an allergy to chlorine. I played tennis (badly) and badminton (well) until I slipped a disc in my back and was banned from racquet sports. You might think all these mishaps would have put me off, but no: the doctor advised me to take up weight training which, to my surprise, I loved, and have done regularly for the last 20 years. I am by no means super-fit, and there are times when my exercise programme has had to be shelved for a while - the last year of my PhD; while I was suffering from huge fibroids and then recovering from the consequent hysterectomy - but I always come back to regular exercise because it makes me feel better about everything.

5. Crochet. My mother was a keen knitter and dressmaker, my father a rug-maker and embroiderer. I have dabbled in all four but crochet is my newest obsession, it's only been with me for a few weeks and look:

I think most people have done this meme now, but if you fancy having a go, please help yourself!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Holiday Photos

This is the little resort of Bosa Marina. Quite unspoilt, just a couple of restaurants and cafes, no sunbeds for hire. Warm, clean sea, and a huge arc of sand - this photo shows about a quarter of the beach. Look for the palm tree in the middle of the photo, our apartment is the one just above and to the right, on the top floor, with the long balcony.

This is a sunset view, taken from the balcony.

A 2 km walk up the Temo river (the only navigable river in Sardinia) brought us to the pretty mediaeval town of Bosa.

There were lots of lizards, they mostly disappeared with a tail-flick, but this one was cheeky!

And another sunset. I couldn't resist them - you're lucky I only posted two pics!

Grey mornings in the Midlands just aren't the same... sigh...

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Of Smuggness

Dear Reader, I am feeling very Smugg. So Smugg that a small 's' and one 'g' cannot convey the level of my Smuggitude.

The reasons for this are twofold. First, I have just had an utterly lovely holiday in unspoiled north-west Sardinia: snorkelling with sardines in clear warm sea (beats dolphins - more appetising), eating pizzas the size of cartwheels, reading book after book after book, gawping open-mouthed at stunning sunsets and frescoes, chatting happily with my travelling companion, and writing rather a lot of words too (5000 new ones plus 2500 lifted from a previous draft and edited).

Second, during my holiday I got the third report from my lovely mentor Debi. She had quite a lot to say, and was a bit worried that I might develop homicidal tendencies as a result, and dismiss her as an evil hatchet woman. Although I regularly seek and use feedback on my writing, it is true that my first reaction to receiving feedback is often to feel defensive, upset, and cross. I usually get past that fairly quickly without the need to inflict it on the giver of feedback. But this time there wasn't a shred of anything other than illumination and gratitude. I'm hoping to apply the lessons learned to the current 'chunk', and to have that ready to send to Debi sometime this week. Paid work is in rather short supply just now, but the upside of that is more time for writing, so I intend to make as much use of it as I can.

I will of course be popping round to visit you all in the next couple of days. Holiday snaps to follow.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Fabulous Friday

Look at my word counter! Just look! Over there, on the right, headed 'Rewrite In Progress'. See? One-third done! Yep, the latest chunk of 10,000 words went off to Debi this morning. I even managed to write 500 words on Wednesday - and, speaking of Wednesday, thank you so much to everyone who responded to my last post. Your kindness really helped me through a very difficult day.

Today is differently difficult, in that I have rather too much to do for the time available. And the time available is shrinking rapidly, because at 4.45 pm I am leaving to catch a train to Birmingham Airport, where I will meet a girlfriend for a night in a hotel before an early check-in to catch the plane to Sardinia!!!!! We're staying in the mediaeval town of Bosa, in an apartment which looks amazing. The weather looks fab too - around 27 degrees in the daytime and 18 at night, perfect!

I've never been to Sardinia before, and neither has my friend. She is escaping from her husband and two children and her demanding job, so she's looking forward to the break. I will of course take my laptop and intend to write as much, or as little, as I feel like writing. I don't expect to have Internet access, so I'll tell you all about it after I get back (next weekend). There may even be photos!

Have a great week, everyone. Byeeeeeee!!!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

My 20th Wedding Anniversary

Dave and I met in 1985 when we were both volunteers at Centrepoint Night Shelter in central London, which offered overnight accommodation, food and advice to homeless teenagers. We hit it off from the start and soon became friends, often going out with other groups of volunteers.

After a couple of years Dave asked me out on a date. I was surprised, but then I thought, why not? We had a great time and soon became an item. He told me, on that first date, that he wanted to marry me. I told him 'no chance.'

So we got married on 16th September 1989. I'd never seen myself as the marrying type, but he went on and on about it until in the end I thought well, we're living together, I love him, if it'll shut him up we might as well. I wanted to get married in jeans and t-shirts with a couple of people off the street for witnesses. Dave wanted the whole enchilada, but luckily we were too skint for that. We settled on a low-key, registry office wedding, with a bring-a-bottle reception at his brother's house.

Then Dave began to lose interest. I realised, much too late, that he'd been trying to replace his mother who had died in a tragic accident when he was a young teenager. We had lots of good times, but he became increasingly difficult to live with. He was terrible with money and had no scruples about taking and spending mine as well as his. He could be enormously compassionate and loving, and at other times incredibly selfish. If I accused him of selfishness he would think for a moment, then say with disarming honesty 'yes, you're right,' which would have been endearing if it had been accompanied by any change in behaviour. He was emotionally literate, and taught me a lot about managing my own emotions, but like so many people, he wasn't as good at managing his own. At times he would stay up all night for nights on end, either out clubbing with friends or at home listening to music and writing poems. At other times he'd stay in bed all day, or droop around the house, for weeks. I think now that he may have had bipolar disorder but I didn't know enough, then, to seek information or help.

Our marriage lasted for six years. I tried to hold it together, but I couldn't make a marriage on my own. We were both sad when it ended, but we went back to being friends; we were always best at that. We had a great divorce. On the day our decree nisi came through, Dave took me out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Clapham. We were ordering aperitifs and starters and more drinks and main courses, and the waiter asked what we were celebrating. We told him. He rolled his eyes, said 'I get all the nutters on my tables,' and walked off. Dave and I laughed till our tears fell.

After a while I got together with my Paramour and Dave got together with Mandy. Dave and my Paramour got on well, and after I left London, Dave came to stay with us a few times. I also went to stay with Dave and Mandy. I liked Mandy, a kind young woman, although she had a lot of emotional problems and phobias and was quite fragile. I think Dave saw himself as her rescuer/protector, and perhaps she saw him like that too.

Then he hit another manic phase. He was preparing workshops that he thought would change people's lives. I asked questions about how he intended to manage the practicalities, which annoyed him, and we fell out. We'd had many arguments before and got past them, and several mutual friends were also finding him particularly hard work, so I didn't worry about it too much; I figured he'd get back in touch when he was ready, we'd both say 'sorry' and carry on as usual.

In November 2003 my Paramour and I came home to find a message from Dave's brother John on the answerphone, saying 'ring me.' I hadn't heard from John in years, so I rang immediately, full of foreboding. He told me that Dave had been attacked on the street in Brixton, near the flat he shared with Mandy; he was on life support; he wasn't going to make it.

The police didn't release Dave's body until mid-January. They never found out who killed him. The funeral was at the end of January and his family created and ran the service themselves. It was a lovely funeral, yet I found it bizarre for three reasons. First, they didn't mention me or our marriage. Second, Mandy read one of Dave's poems; a love poem; one that she said he'd often read to her. We were all given a copy of the original, in his handwriting. It was clearly dated 1993, and I remembered it well; he'd written it for me. Third, at the reception, I realised that Dave and Mandy had been so reclusive that most of Dave's old friends had never met Mandy. I realised this because they were all treating me as the grieving widow. I was grieving, for sure, but it was Mandy who needed to be in that role. I tried to direct people to her but they held back, reluctant, because they didn't know her.

I was, and am, grieving for my friend. My infuriating, funny, loving, clever, selfish, charming friend. I miss him most when a new gadget comes on the market, especially if it has anything to do with music. He loved technology and would have adored iPods, Spotify, Wii, all that kind of thing. I miss him right now, too, because he would have understood how I feel about today, probably better than I understand it myself.

I wish I didn't have a retentive memory for dates. Today is my 20th wedding anniversary, and I want to celebrate, and cry, and get through the day, and I'm really not sure how. I don't think anyone else I know remembers the significance of this date; if anyone does, they've never said. Nobody mentions Dave these days. I guess they don't want to upset me. I wish I could spend the day with people who knew him, and who remember, and we could talk about him, and cry a little, and laugh a lot, and eat and drink and take comfort in each other's company. But that's not going to happen. So I'll find another way, starting with this blog post.

Monday, 14 September 2009

It's Going Swimmingly

This mentoring business is the business. I had my second lot of feedback from Debi last week, and I was delighted to find that I'm meeting my aim of improving my writing as I go along. Now, as I write, I have a frequent voice popping up in my head saying things like 'Debi wouldn't like that adjective,' 'Debi would say you need an internal reaction here from that character,' and, most frequently, 'Debi would delete that bit.'

Debi is very good at deleting things, at least with my writing. I'm sure she doesn't take the slash-and-burn approach to everyone's work, because not everyone will need it, but I certainly do. As a result I've revised my target word count from 80k to 90k, because then I might end up with 80k that's made it past Debi's machete!

I've been on a writing roll over the weekend and am now halfway towards the next 10k. I hope to get there by the end of the week as I'm away next week. It would be nice to go away with one-third of the draft behind me, although I'm so into the swing of it now that I expect I'll still be writing while I'm away. At this rate, if I can continue to turn out 5000 words a week, I could have a full draft by the end of the year. I'm not setting that as a target, because if my paid work gets busier I'll have to slow down on the writing - but as things stand at present, it is possible, and it would be a great Xmas present to myself.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Ethical Mobile Phones

I've just come to the end of my current contract with Vodafone, and decided to try investigating ethical options. This was partly prompted by a flyer from the Phone Co-op which has been sitting on my desk for several weeks. All our landline business is with the Phone Co-op, who are not the cheapest but are definitely the most ethical; that's why we're with them, so surely it would make sense to transfer my mobile business too.

I've been with Vodafone for several years and have got used to their system of having a new handset 'free' with each new contract. I need a new handset; my current one keeps crashing. The fact that I'd have to pay £199 for my new handset, with the Phone Co-op, was initially a shock.

Then I started doing some sums. The Phone Co-op do offer 'bundle' packages of minutes and texts for a set monthly amount, but they point out that a lot of people have bigger 'bundles' than they need, and therefore end up paying more per minute/text they actually use than they realise. For example, if your 'bundle' includes 800 minutes per month, but you only use 200, each minute effectively costs four times as much as you think. Everyone's usage is different, which is why it's hard to work out what constitutes a good deal when it comes to mobile phones. But the Phone Co-op recommend their pay-for-what-you-use system, which starts at 4p/minute for calls and 6p/text, with a flat rate line rental of £1.70/month. They suggest that this works out cheaper for most people, in the end - and my sums seemed to bear that out.

So far, so good. Then I started looking into the ethics of handsets. Boy oh boy, what a minefield! We're getting used to thinking about ethical issues when it comes to shopping for food or clothes. Electronic goods are a different thing altogether. When a single component can have a supply chain of a dozen companies, it's really REALLY hard to establish anything definite about the ethical credentials of a finished product. Also, several mobile phone companies are good in some areas but bad in others. For example, Nokia score highly on environmental issues, but low on social issues because they have told newly recruited workers in India not to join unions, and most of their manufacturing is based in China which prohibits unions. Research carried out in 2006 found that staff of handset factories in China, India, Thailand and the Philippines worked up to 72 hours a week with compulsory overtime, insecure employment contracts, unsafe factories, inadequate protection when working with hazardous materials, wages below the subsistence level, suppression of union rights and degrading treatment.

I can't buy an ethical mobile phone. It's not possible to get one made locally by a craftsman. It's also not realistic to go back to life without one. My clients expect me to have a mobile phone and I can't afford to lose business.

So I'm going to bite the Phone Co-op bullet. My reasoning is, if I pay upfront and separately for my handset, I'm more likely to take care of it and keep it for longer, which offers more respect to the poorly paid people who have worked in lousy conditions to produce it for me. Also, I will recycle my old phone through a charity. But I still feel as if I'm in bed with the enemy.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Joy Of Mentoring

This writing business is hard, isn't it? While anyone who is literate can arrange words on a page, actually creating an effective piece of writing, whether it's a poem or a brochure, a novel or an email, is really very difficult.

I've been writing for decades, with some small successes: a national competition won, a handful of magazine articles, a very boring non-fiction book, a PhD thesis and three short stories published. For most of that time I've thought I wanted to write a novel. About six weeks ago I changed tack and am now working on a narrative non-fiction memoir, based on events in my life 12-14 years ago.

This has proved to be relatively easy in some ways and surprisingly complicated in others. The easy parts are that I know the characters really well because I know them in real life, and I can lift some scenes from previous pieces of writing so I'm not doing it all from scratch. The hard parts are the new writing, and disentangling threads that were important in my life from the threads that are important for the story.

So what does all this have to do with mentoring, you may ask? It's something I've considered doing before, and I've been very interested in JJ's experiences and those of Shaun Attwood as reported by PI. But I had stern voices in my head saying things like 'you should be past that stage after all these years' and 'you shouldn't spend MORE money on your writing' and 'mentoring is just wussy hand-holding anyway.' Three weeks ago I decided those voices are neither mine nor helpful, so they could shut up and let me get on with my life. Funnily enough they then went all quiet!

Having decided I wanted to dip my toe in the mentoring water, the next question was, who should I approach? I thought of a few possible organisations and individuals but my first choice was Debi Alper, who did such a helpful critique on the last draft of my novel. I wasn't sure whether she did mentoring, so I emailed her to ask how she would feel about taking me on. I was thrilled when she emailed back to say she would be happy to work with me.

I sent her my first 10,000 words, and they came back with suggested amendments and a written report a few days later. Debi's feedback was so useful that, if I had had any lingering doubts about the possible value of her mentoring, they would have been instantly dispelled. In particular, she identified a superfluous character. If I hadn't had her help at the start, I would have written that character right through the book, and it would then have taken much more work to edit him out. Also, she's given me several useful stylistic pointers: for example, I need to be careful not to use too many adjectives, or to overdo descriptions of body language. I'm learning such a lot from her advice, and aiming to put it into practice as I write the next section.

I've just emailed Debi the next 10,000 words and I'm looking forward to her response. She has mastered the art of constructive criticism, not only saying what I need to do but also explaining how to do it. She also seems to have a very thorough understanding of what works, and what doesn't, when it comes to writing and books. I'm so pleased I've finally taken the plunge. If you want to join me, I'd recommend it - it's lovely once you're in!