Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Nearly There

I had three stern deadlines to meet by next Thursday morning. I met two of them today, and if all goes according to plan, I could have the other one sorted by lunchtime tomorrow (fingers crossed). Then I am actually going to have a weekend off, which will, for various reasons with which I shall not bore you, be the first whole weekend when I've been able to please myself since last August. I am sooooooo ready for it.

These gear changes are one of the strangest things about self-employment. I can do the non-stop working part, and I've also learned to ride the chunks of time where I don't have much work, especially since I decided to treat my writing as part of my paid work. But the change from one to the other is always weird. One or two of my employed friends have suggested that it's similar to the change between work and holiday, but I don't agree. I decide when I'll go on holiday, and where, and with whom. I don't get to decide when I'll be busy and when I won't, unless I turn down offers of work, and I rarely do that because of the financial implications. So the gear changes are reactive, almost enforced, and I think somehow that makes them a little more difficult.

Having said that, I wouldn't choose any other life. The plus side is that, overall, I get lots of time to do what I like. This weekend will be a rehearsal for, ooh, looks like most of April. Bring it on!

Friday, 20 March 2009

Wanted: Book Recommendations

I have a real-life friend!!! She's called Kirsty, and she reads this blog. *waves* Hello, Kirsty!

Kirsty emailed me last week (she is a real-life friend, honest, but she lives quite a long way away) (although having said that, I do email friends who live very near me) (in fact I email my Paramour quite often, is that really really sad?) (I'm not sure I want you to answer that)

Where were we? Oh yes, Kirsty's email. It was a plaintive plea born of near-despair. She said
One thing I really want to do is start reading happier books. I keep reading appallingly sad books, and just stopped in the middle of one set in India when a baby was buried alive. I understand that is the reality of some women's lives, but, y'know, I'm reading for leisure.
I have so much sympathy with this. I'm not averse to reading a sad book now and again, but do they ALL have to be so tragic? There seems to be a real vogue at the moment for books full of horrible characters who have desperately sad lives with no redeeming features whatsoever. And maybe I'm shallow, but I just don't want to spend my leisure hours thinking about people who are having a terrible time. I do quite a lot of that in the day job, as it happens, and a fair amount in my personal life, so when I read for pleasure I'd like it to be just that - for pleasure.

I asked Kirsty if I could throw open her plea to a wider audience. She was enthusiastic, so here we are. I'll start with some recommendations of my own.

One of the best books I read last year was Lottery by Patricia Wood. Its central character is Per, an adult man with learning difficulties, whose family are money-grabbing bastards who don't care about him and whose best friend is an alcoholic. So far it sounds just like the kind of miserable book I'm trying to avoid. However, it has compelling characters in a gripping story which is heartwarming without being saccharine.

Another I enjoyed very much was Run by Ann Patchett. She's a terrific writer and I loved Bel Canto, the story of a group of people held hostage in an ambassador's house in an unspecified third world country. Run is set in a very different territory: a New York family. Again, it has heavy-duty themes: bereavement; kinship; race. But again, the characters are fascinating and memorable; the plot beautifully designed; and the story has optimism at its heart.

A third was The Road Home by Rose Tremain. This is the story of Lev, a bereaved Eastern European man who travels to London to look for work. Some of it is enormously funny and some equally moving. I reached the middle and then put the book down for a week, convinced it was all going to go horribly wrong for Lev, and needing to psych myself up to read the rest. One of the things I admired most about this book was the way the author differentiated between the characters' voices. And, again, such characters! I found it really interesting to see my own country through Lev's eyes. I won't spoil the ending for you but I was very glad I found the courage to finish reading the book.

You may have worked out, from the recommendations above, that my great love is contemporary literary fiction. However, my final recommendation is a Retro Read: a book first published exactly 100 years ago. It's still in print, which is a considerable recommendation in itself. One of the things that fascinates me about this book is the way it lets us glimpse a past society through the contemporary literary fiction of its time. Some of it seems incredibly dated, of course, and it's not at all PC. Yet it has a feisty heroine who struggles to overcome considerable difficulties: poverty; a misguided mother; social class differences. Some of the characters may seem stereotypical to 21st century readers, particularly the men, but the women are strong and well-rounded, and the author is a master of descriptive writing as well as storytelling. I re-read this book at least once a year: Gene Stratton Porter's A Girl Of The Limberlost.

So it's over to you now. Bring on the happy books! Clearly they don't have to be 100% happy - in fact they couldn't be; you need The Very Hungry Caterpillar for that. They also don't have to be contemporary literary fiction. I do read across genres, and love, for example, Terry Pratchett; such a happy writer. But Kirsty and I will be very grateful for any suggestions you can offer. And I hope this will be a useful resource for others, too.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Pay It Forward

I promised you photography. I had fantasies of innovative composition, breathtaking subjects, a whole new view on the world that would leave my commenters speechless. (Although now I think about it, speechless commenters is not only a contradiction in terms, but also utterly undesirable.)

Here, for now, is the reality.

There is a point to this. It is the delightful set of goodies sent to me by Helen last week when I joined in her Pay It Forward game. There's a lovely greeting card; a keepsake card saying 'no road is long with good company' (a Turkish proverb, apparently, and so true); a Choc-u-lator, which is an electronic calculator that looks and smells like a chocolate bar but isn't edible (VERY frustrating!); a Fairy Wishing Coin, and best of all, some real Fairy Dust. It describes itself as 'facial glitter' but luckily I read Caroline's blog so I know it's really a good luck charm and that I should sprinkle a pinch on any writing project I send to a publisher or agent.

So now I've had my goodies delivered, it's my turn to Pay It Forward. This means that the first three people to say 'Me! Me! Pick me!' in my comments box will receive a selection of little goodies from me in the post. It won't be anything priceless like the Fairy Dust (I reckon Helen mugged a leprechaun for that) but I'll try to make sure you receive something desirable, useful and attractive. And then, of course, you have to Pay It Forward on your own blog, to three of your readers.

The photo above was brought to you by my new camera. I ended up going for the Panasonic in the end, after a lengthy comparison session with a very helpful woman in Jessop's. I like the electronic viewfinder and the chunky grip - I'm left-handed and find many cameras difficult to operate, but this one works well. I'm enjoying playing with it, and so far I'm pleased with my purchase - but good grief, it's complicated. At this rate I reckon I'll get the hang of it by about 2015. So don't hold your breath!

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Boring, Boring, Boring

All work and no play makes Queenie a dull monarch. And it's wall-to-wall work around here this month. I'm doing lots of writing, but it's all reports. I have five more to do before the end of the month. I think it's five. I haven't even started on the data analysis for one of them. I get up in the morning, wash, go to my desk, work for as long as I can (with occasional breaks for food or a quick walk), go home, look hopefully at my Paramour and ask 'is there any dinner?', eat something, sit on sofa in catatonic state, go to bed. I did have a day off on 1st March, and I may get another one on the 28th if all goes according to plan.

Part of the problem is that all my clients are in the public and third sectors, which means everything has to be finished and invoiced by 31st March, so I'm often in this position at this time of year. But after all my travails I will have a healthy bank account, and April should be considerably saner. In the meantime, please forgive the infrequency of my postings, and the complete lack of anything interesting to say when I do post.

Bet you're really glad you came over and read this, aren't you? ;-)

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Teen Spirit

Last night the Paramour and I threw a dinner party for 10. Sounds impressive, but in reality there are two families of four and us, and we meet up every couple of months for food, wine and chat at each other's houses. It's laid-back, great fun, and one of the best bits is the children.

I should probably describe them as young adults. One couple has two girls, the other a boy and a girl. Across the families, one girl and one boy are 16 going on 17, and the other two girls are 14 going on 15. They've grown up together so they know each other well. Two of the girls have boyfriends, and the boy has a girlfriend. Every time we have one of these get-togethers, I think surely this time one of the kids will decide to do something different. But they don't: they choose to spend their Saturday night with their parents and their parents' friends. They don't slide off to do their own thing, either, although they could if they wanted to. We sit round the table in the kitchen, and in the living rooms there are computers, musical instruments (the boy and one of the girls are particularly musical, and the other two aren't bad), TV, books, all sorts of things they could use to amuse themselves, and they know they are free to do so. But they hang out with us, and chat, and make jokes, and laugh, and are terrific company.

I worked with troubled teenagers for several years in the 1980s, and I know they can exist in perfectly healthy families (as well as the other kind of course). According to the press - and, therefore, much public opinion - almost every teenager is a troubled teenager. But our four are delightful. They're great company: intelligent, funny, thoughtful, caring. And I suspect it is these youngsters, not the ones in the newspapers, who represent the majority.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Tech Support Query

This week I did something I've been wanting to do for a while. I had a go at some creative photography, largely inspired by a fellow blogger (do take a look, she's very good).

Since digital cameras became affordable, I've used a basic one to take shots of friends and family, holiday snaps etc. My old camera died a couple of years ago, and I asked the Paramour for a new one for Xmas - 'just a point-and-shoot,' I said. He duly obliged with an Olympus FE 170 that met my needs perfectly.

Until this week. I rapidly discovered its limitations when I tried taking creative photos. The shutter speed is irritatingly slow; there is no viewfinder, so half the time I couldn't see what I was doing; the zoom was inadequate. How come I never noticed any of this before?

So I want to upgrade. But flippin' heck, it's complicated. There's a whole new language to learn, of SLRs and shutter lag, megapixels and purple fringing (bit retro, that; I haven't had a purple fringe since the 1980s). Did you know photos can have noise on them? Me neither. Still haven't got my head around that one.

Once I'd set the Google translator for 'Photography to English', I managed to work out that I need a 'bridge camera', i.e. the kind people get when they want something cleverer than a point-and-shoot but not as clever as a professional's kit. There are loads of bridge cameras on the market, so the research has been painful, but I think I'm nearly there. I'm considering going for the Panasonic DMC FZ28. It's a Which Best Buy, and the lovely people at cameras.co.uk also rate it highly. But before I leap, seeing as at least two of my blogfriends are addicted to photography, I thought I'd ask your advice. If you're a photographer, what kind of camera do you use? Would you recommend it? Why?

All input will be most gratefully received. You will be rewarded in due course by pictures here that speak a thousand words (mostly variations on the theme of: Queenie was a bit busy today so she dug a photo out of her archives to bung on the blog for you lot).

Sunday, 1 March 2009

February To March

January and February were a bit rubbish, but it looks as if March could be a better month. And February was good in two respects. I took (most of) a month off from drinking alcohol, which I think has been a useful experience. I don't feel so attached to the booze any more and I intend to stay that way. March has also, no coincidence I think, been a reasonably good month for my writing.

Remember my plans for February? All done, and more. Last Wednesday, due to a work glitch, I had a free morning. So I carpe-ed the diem - and finished the first draft of chapter one of my travel book. Then I felt like a real writer, i.e. convinced everything I'd written was rubbish, there wasn't a single good idea in the whole 5000 words, and every sentence was dull. Luckily I've now been through this enough times to recognise it as a passing phase, and sure enough, it passed. Not that I've swung to the other extreme; the chapter is only a first draft and, as first drafts do, it needs lots of editing and rewriting. But I'm looking forward to that part, it's work I really enjoy.

So here are my plans for March:
  1. Write two more short stories
  2. Edit and submit the two stories I wrote in Feb
  3. Resubmit any stories that come back from womags
  4. Work on the second draft of the travel book chapter
In April, my paid work will ease off and I should have time to work on the next draft of my novel. I'm thinking about starting a course in freelance/travel writing, and about planning some trips for later in the year. I'm also considering investing in a new writing gadget. This kind of playing with ideas is almost as much fun as the writing kind. Generally speaking, I think life is looking up. (Yes, I know, it's when you're looking up that you trip over things. Hey ho!)