Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Queenie's Cross

There was a teeny tiny speck-like blot on the landscape of my lovely trip to London. I ran into an old acquaintance who I know to be an interesting, quirky, intelligent woman. I was pleased to see her, and in the course of catching up, I told her proudly that I've sold two short stories to women's magazines.

'So you've worked out the formula, then,' she said.

At which point I suddenly wanted to get all shouty, but being a v mature grown-up type of person (yeah, right!) I managed to control myself and muttered something inane before rapidly changing the subject.

It did make me feel cross, though. It's not her fault; she's absorbed and repeated a common misconception, and I'm sure I've done that myself many times. For sure, women's magazine short stories are hardly Grate Litrachur. But there is no formula. There are many types of story beyond the boy-meets-girl romance, such as crime, humour, historical, family, or supernatural, and there are some that don't fit into any genre. There are a few do's and don'ts - which differ from magazine to magazine - and beyond that, it's all creativity and skill.

I was writing for years and years before I sold a short story. That's 'writing,' not 'working out a formula'. Mostly I was writing rubbish, but it was good practice and I learned a lot from the process. Still do, in fact. In the last year, I've written 26 short stories, of which I've sold two. There are several others out there, so my average could go up any day - but actually, as mags receive 50-100 stories for every one they publish, two out of 26 isn't at all bad. And the other 24 were, again, good practice.

My stories won't change the world. But they may provide a little entertainment for someone sitting on a bus or a train, or putting their feet up at home. One of my stories might give a slight lift to someone's spirits, or offer someone a nugget of new information, or just enable someone to pass a few enjoyable minutes. Small effects, but positive ones, that I don't think could be achieved by using a formula.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

What I Did On My Holidays

Trips up the river on a boat in glorious sunshine: 1
Hugs and kisses from friends and relatives: 34
Work meetings, good, also involving hugs and kisses from lovely clients: 2
Fabulous art exhibitions (one hats, one Constructivists, one Picasso): 3
Sumptuous meals out (one V&A lunch, one Gordon Ramsay gastro-pub, one gourmet vegetarian, one Thai): 4
Delicious dinners in: 4
Glasses of wine: errr, lost count
Beers: 2
Large Calvadoses (or should that be Calvadii): 2
Hangovers: 1 (oops - I think it was the Calvadoses, or possibly the Calvadii, or maybe there is no plural because you're only supposed to drink them in ones, hmmm)

Highlights: all of it, really, except for the hangover. Let's try for one per day.

Monday: sitting in the V&A cafe with my laptop, working on the plot of my novel, feeling like a proper writer. (And the exhibitions - I saw the hats before lunch, then after lunch I looked at the frocks and the shoes. Now that's what I call a real museum.)

Tuesday: the boat trip, riverside walk and pub lunch with my lovely auntie who retired from her job as a special school teacher last summer. We've been promising ourselves some weekday fun since then and it couldn't have been better.

Wednesday: the Constructivists. I knew very little about them and it was fascinating. I particularly liked Popova's work, and was sorry she had such a sad short life - she married, had a son, then the following year her husband died of typhoid, then four years later her son died of scarlet fever and soon afterwards she did too. She was only 35 and I think she had a lot of work still to do.

Thursday: Picasso. It's a themed exhibition, rather than simply chronological, so there was a room for self-portraits, another for nudes, another for still-lifes, etc, with the paintings displayed chronologically within each room. I really liked the way this helped me to think about his work differently. The gourmet veggie lunch was pretty damn good too.

Friday: coming home after a terrific work meeting. I landed a great project last week, a writing assignment with some research but it's mostly about using language creatively to explain complicated stuff to people who need help to understand it, and I like doing that.

And the weather was perfect! I think London looks at its best in the sunshine.

I'm still glad I don't live there any more, though. It's exhausting - I'm knackered now - and although I had a wonderful time, I'm very glad to be home.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Writing Progress

So, about my goals for March. I didn't meet a single one as work just got too crazy. April has been easier workwise, but difficult health-wise. However, I have made some progress with my April goals (yes I know it's over halfway through the month now, but I've only just got round to blogging this, OK?). These are:

1. Write two short stories (done)
2. Edit and resubmit three short stories (underway)
3. Edit and submit three short stories (errr...)
4. Start on the sixth draft of the novel (underway)

Sixth draft? What are you playing at, Queenie?

Well, it's a tricky business, this novel writing. Sol Stein reckons his novels go through 11-13 drafts. On that basis, I'm only halfway there.

Here's how it's gone so far. I've written several other novels in the past, but never got beyond a first draft (and sometimes not even that far). A few years ago I went on an Arvon course where the tutors helped me to decide which of my ideas to take forward. The idea they liked best was one where I'd written the first draft in multiple third person POVs. One of the tutors advised me that this was too difficult for a novice novelist, and that I should write it all in single POV. So for the next four drafts I tried very hard to do this, and learned a lot of useful stuff about writing in the process. BUT the story refuses to be shoe-horned into a single person's POV, so one of my main tasks for the sixth draft is to put it back into multiple POVs. I think I'm ready to tackle that now.

The other main task is to design a proper plot - something else I've managed to get away with not doing up to now. I'm starting with that, scene by scene. I expect there will be about 80 scenes in total. So far I'm up to no. 4. I'd like to get them all planned by the end of this month, then I can start writing/rewriting next month. Some scenes, I'm sure, won't need a lot of reworking; some will need writing from scratch; some will need editing. I'll be glad when I get an idea of how many fall into each category.

I'm off to London today for a few days of jollity with friends and relatives, and a smidgen of work. I'll be taking my laptop and my plan is to work on trains, and in the early mornings, and in odd hours in between meeting people, and try to make some serious progress with the novel. Not sure how I'll get on... but it's worth a try. I'd like to get this draft finished by the end of June, although whether I manage that or not probably depends on how much paid work comes in over the next couple of months. We shall see.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Neighbour News

Remember Pam and Bob, our troubled next-door neighbours? Pam rang me!!! I found a message on the answerphone saying hello, this is Pam from next door, thank you for the card and the flowers, please could you let me have the phone number for your window cleaner? I had to psych myself up to ring back, but ring back I did. And we had a cordial chat lasting 6 minutes and 18 seconds, which I reckon more than doubles the amount of time she and I have spent exchanging words in the last seven years.

She asked after my operation and I told her about it, turns out she had the same one 20 years ago so she was suitably sympathetic. Then I asked after Bob. She told me he was only diagnosed with mesothelioma two months ago and their lives have been turned upside-down. When he was in hospital, he couldn't go to our nearest one (25 minutes' drive away) because he needed specialist care in a hospital that is more like an hour's drive from here, depending on traffic. Now he's at home, he has a bed downstairs in the living room and nurses coming in twice a day.

It must be very stressful for you, I suggested gently. Pam agreed that it was, and said in some ways the worst thing is that Bob can't remember ever being exposed to asbestos - which is, in theory, the only way people get his particular type of cancer.

She sounded sober, so I guess maybe his illness is having a positive effect in some ways. It was as good a conversation as it could have been. She knows, now, that if she rings for something we will respond. I don't feel right about ringing her just to chat, but if I was concerned I could pick up the phone (we never knew her number before). And now, if I meet her in the street, I can say 'how are you and Bob doing?' and be ready for a real answer. So I think that's progress.

Monday, 13 April 2009

A Tale Of Woe

I was so looking forward to the Easter weekend. After months of illness and surgery, followed by months of working like a crazy manic thing, I'd planned an Easter full of treats. Three friends were coming from FarAway City; we had tickets for an ace gig on Saturday night; after they left today, I was going to visit a writer friend and talk about writerly things.

On Thursday I started a cold. Oh well, I thought, Day Nurse/Night Nurse to the rescue, I'll be fine. Friday night was fun, I cooked a good dinner, the friends arrived at wine o'clock, it was all very convivial and jolly. The cold was developing but I was medicating it into submission.

Then on Saturday I got up and, as one does on first getting up, went to relieve myself. I don't know a good euphemism for the next bit, so I'll tell you straight. I was in the process of wiping my bum when something just under my shoulder blade went TWANG and hurt like hell. Oh bugger, I thought, that really doesn't feel good. While in hospital before Christmas, I got the hang of the 1-10 pain scale. It was a 10. No question.

I stood still for a minute and it receded back to an 8. I sorted myself out, washed my hands and staggered back to bed. Maybe if I lie still for a while, I thought, it'll calm down. But it didn't. It hurt to breathe. I was lying in an awkward position, only half covered by the duvet, but I couldn't move. Every time I tried, I scored a perfect 10. I stuck it for about half an hour and then gave up and woke my Paramour.

He and I between us couldn't move me, so we ended up calling an ambulance. I've never done that before in my life. Mick the Paramedic turned up first, did some investigations then gave me Entonox aka gas-and-air, another new experience and a very welcome one. Then another Mick and his partner Dan Dan the Ambulance Man arrived. They were lovely, so kind and helpful. On the way to the hospital, the second Mick told me he thought it was probably just a pulled muscle. I think he wanted to reassure me, which in a way he did, although I replied that I'd feel a right prat if I'd called out an ambulance for a pulled muscle. 'No need,' he said, 'it can be very painful, and you're clearly in a lot of pain, so you've done the right thing.' I could have kissed him, but I sucked on the Entonox nozzle instead.

Two hours in A&E, some prodding and yelling and an X-ray, and it was indeed a torn muscle. I was given Tramadol for the pain and Diazepam to relax my muscles, and sent home with instructions to rest. No problem there, I didn't have any other options. The drugs worked well and I spent a happy afternoon on the sofa, chatting with my friends. They went off to the gig and I had a small dinner as I wasn't feeling very hungry.

Then the nausea started, and the hot chills and the cold sweats. Oh joy. I wondered whether it was a reaction to the drugs, and stopped taking them. I very nearly puked - got as far as standing in the toilet waiting for it to happen - but it didn't. I don't, generally; it's been about 12 years since the last time. I found it hard to sleep because of the pain in my back, and took a painkiller at around 12.30 am, and another around 2.30 when the first one seemed to have gone down OK. I finally slept from about 4 to 7 am.

I still felt sick when I woke up, and didn't want to eat anything, so decided to stay off the drugs again. My Paramour took our friends out sightseeing in the afternoon, and I thought I'd risk some natural yogurt with a little honey. I figured if that went down OK, I could try something more solid, and then maybe have some longed-for painkillers. But it didn't go down OK at all, and this time there was proper puking. Yuck. I gave up on everything and went back to bed.

And I felt lousy all day today, until the nausea abated halfway through watching Clare on Countdown - I tell you, she has magic powers! Having said that, I still feel fairly rough - back hurts; nose is snotty; most of me aches, and I have no energy - but nausea is the worst, and now that's shifted, I feel as if I'm on the mend.

I think perhaps, as that clever Mr Pratchett would say, my brain's been writing cheques that my body can't cash. It looks as if I've had three in one: a snotty cold, a back injury, and some kind of gastric virus. They say bad things come in threes, and although I'm not generally superstitious, I'd be glad if that one could come true this time, because I'd really like to get better now.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Positive Thinking #3

This is my third and last post on positive thinking, for now. I'd like to recommend another website: Self Esteem To Go, written by Zoltan Roth. Zoltan has left a couple of comments on my blog, so I went to check out his website. He has had an interesting life: born in Hungary, he qualified as a teacher, then emigrated to the USA, learned English, and re-qualified as a massage therapist. He has written articles on self-esteem for several other websites and e-zines. His website offers lots of information about positive thinking, self-esteem, self-confidence and so on. Well worth a look.

And here's a slightly different take on positive thinking. I had some friends staying over last night: Al and Vajra, and their two daughters, Phoebe aged 8 and Rebecca who is five and three-quarters. Rebecca has a docile angelic demeanour that belies a fierce intelligence, a wicked sense of humour, and a mischievous streak as wide as the English channel. Over dinner, Al told us how Rebecca had recently started sucking her thumb, and Phoebe had started biting her nails. So, Al said, they'd talked about this all together, and they'd decided to use 'Stop 'n' Grow', a vile-tasting but harmless product that can be painted onto nails. Phoebe was nodding sagely. I looked at Rebecca and she was wearing her most winsome expression.

'It worked on me,' Phoebe said, and held out her hands for me to see.

'Lovely nails, well done!' I said. 'What about you, Rebecca?'

'It didn't work on me,' she said, her face serious.

'Do you know why?' I asked.

She nodded and broke into a 5000 kilowatt grin. 'I gave them the other thumb.'

'She did!' Phoebe crowed. 'But she didn't do anything wrong. Mum or Dad would say "give me your thumb," and Rebecca did what she was told.'

I couldn't help but laugh at Rebecca's audacity. I looked at Al and Vajra to see if they minded, but they were laughing too.

'For weeks,' Vajra said, inbetween giggles, 'and we never realised.'

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Positive Thinking #2

Following on from my last post, I had a polite and friendly email from John Cruttera, asking me to link to his website on positive thinking. As you can see, I'm happy to oblige. I surfed around the site for a while, and found much of it thought-provoking. Most of it interested me, but one sentence on the home page made my researcher's antennae stand up. Here's the sentence:
Of the 65,000 thoughts that flit through your mind each day, 95% of them are the same ones you thought yesterday.
This seems intuitively believable at first sight. But Mr Cruttera doesn't cite a source for his assertion. I couldn't imagine how thoughts could be measured, either quantitatively (number of thoughts) or qualitatively (subject of thoughts). Mine are a big old mess, a lot of the time! So off I went to Google, and found lots of webpages quoting the same statistics, some citing respected medical author Deepak Chopra as the source, and no information about methods anywhere. Some webpages say that these (or similar) figures are estimates, but I haven't found anything specifying the basis for those estimates - although I haven't researched this exhaustively, so if anyone has any information about this, please let us know via the comments box.

Please don't think I'm criticising Mr Cruttera; I'm not. I'm sure he reproduced the statistics in good faith. But it is alarmingly common to find people using statistics to give credibility to arguments, even when those statistics themselves have little credibility. Think about it. Sixty-five thousand thoughts per day? That's over 2700 thoughts per hour, every hour, including when we're asleep. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that we can think just as much when we're asleep as when we're awake. That we can in fact think 45 thoughts per minute, 24 hours a day. That's one thought every single 1.3 seconds, round the clock. Hmmmm. I am unconvinced - but happy to hear arguments, in either direction. Bring 'em on!

I am in favour of positive thinking. I am also in favour of analytic thinking, deconstructionist thinking, critical thinking (in the positive sense) - the kind of thinking that doesn't take things at face value and informs debate. I am very much in favour of thinking for fun. This is where Mr Cruttera's site really shines. My favourite pages are those where he keeps stories and quotes about positive thinking. I'll leave you with the first quote from his quotes page:
A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort. ~Herm Albright, quoted in Reader’s Digest, June 1995

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Positive Thinking

We have a lot of control over whether to take a positive or a negative approach to events. We can't control how we feel about things that happen to us - but we can control what we do about those feelings, and how we approach those situations.

Let's take an example we all know well: someone rejects a piece of our writing. In terms of how this feels: it's horrible, it hurts, it's like a kick in the guts, it's infuriating, depressing, frustrating, and generally leaves us feeling thoroughly miserable. Then we can choose how to approach this. We can sit and cry; ring friends and family/write blog posts to enlist support and consolation; disappear under the duvet and refuse to talk to anyone; binge on chocolate or wine; listen to the inner voices pointing out smugly how crap we are; and so on. Or we can see it as an opportunity to improve the piece of writing and resubmit it elsewhere; console ourselves with recollections of the number of rejections experienced by hugely successful writers like Jasper Fforde and JK Rowling; share the news with a friend who's feeling low, to give him/her scope for some cheering schadenfreude; do some vigorous exercise to bring on the endorphins; listen to the inner voices assuring us that each rejection is a step nearer acceptance; etcetera.

In my case it's usually a bit of both, but I do try to choose a positive approach as much as I can. This doesn't mean I try to be happy when I'm not, although I do find that being positive sometimes helps me feel a little happier - or slightly less miserable. I've been interested in the positives people have found in the recession, which range from 'no junk mail from credit card companies' (have you noticed?) through 'greater creativity' to 'more sex' (!). Recession positives also demonstrate that the positive approach you take depends on your attitudes in general. For example, some people find a positive aspect to the recession in 'reduced materialism', while for others it's 'more great bargains in the shops'. Another example is that the recession leads to fewer cars on the road, which for some people is 'beneficial to the environment' while for others it's 'a chance to drive around more without so many traffic jams'.

Some experiences make it more difficult to take a positive approach because of their massive negative emotional impact. Examples include chronic physical or mental illness, redundancy, relationship breakdown, or bereavement. But it can still be done. One of the most inspiring examples for me came from my dear friend Polly, whose husband killed himself some years ago. She rang to tell me the news, distraught, all over the place, as you would expect, yet during our conversation, she said to me 'Queenie, you know what, I'm learning so much from this.'

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Everybody Needs...

My Paramour and I used to live in a small terrace with a culture of neighbourly chat. People weren't in and out of each other's houses all day, but would always swap gossip in the street. We now live in a semi-detached house with Pam and Bob next door - I guess they are in their early 60s. My Paramour pointed out Pam in town a few days before we moved, so I knew her by sight. The day we moved in, we were unloading a van and she came up the road, walking unsteadily, eating chips from greasy paper. I went towards her, smiling, hand outstretched, ready to say hello.

'Don't talk to me,' she said, 'I'm pissed.'

I was speechless. I watched her go into the house. It didn't feel like a good start.

A few months later I came out of my front door and Bob was standing by their garden gate. He was wearing tracksuit bottoms, a loose brushed cotton shirt, and bedroom slippers. His hands were gnarled with arthritis and his smile was welcoming. I stopped to chat, and he was friendly. I can't remember what we talked about but I do remember that when we said goodbye, he walked away slowly and seemed to be in pain.

As time went by we found out a few things about them. Pam is a chronic alcoholic and spends most of her time in the pub. Bob is a retired policeman who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and rarely goes out. They have at least one son, possibly two.

The house looked dilapidated when we moved in, and we haven't seen any evidence of work being done since we've been here. They are quiet, and generally tolerant of our noise; we've had a couple of parties over the years, and have always gone round to tell them we're planning one and ask if they mind, and Bob has always said 'no problem'. Pam did come and complain about the noise one day when we were having some building work done, and my Paramour and I realised each of us thought the other had been round to speak to them about it. I went round the next day with a bunch of flowers, a bottle of wine and a card saying sorry, which seemed to go down well.

They had a dog which we occasionally saw but never heard. Then one day, about three years ago, we heard it howling. This worried us; we thought perhaps Pam was in the pub as usual and Bob had come to grief. We went round and knocked and peered through the windows, but there was no answer and we couldn't see anything, so we put a note through the door saying we were worried and asking them to let us know they were OK. Pam came round the next morning and told us they had had a new dog some time earlier because their old dog had died (they both looked identical to us!) and this was the first time they had left the new dog alone in the house. She said they wouldn't leave it alone again.

Bob and I chat occasionally when he's at the gate in warm weather. Pam will say 'hello' when I meet her on the street, if I say 'hello' first. We exchange cards at Christmas, and that's pretty much the sum total of seven years' neighbourliness. A friend who knows Pam slightly told us recently that Pam wanted to move to a bungalow, and I began to hope they might leave and perhaps we could have some more congenial neighbours.

The dog has been howling a lot in the last few weeks, and it's been driving us nuts. Some days it's howled all day. We couldn't think how they could stand the noise. Yesterday Pam appeared at my kitchen door in an agitated state. Part of the fence between our gardens had come adrift, and the dog was trying to escape. She asked whether my Paramour could fix it. I said he was out, but I was sure he could when he came back, in an hour or so. I explained that I couldn't do it myself because I'm still recovering from surgery. She said she was sorry to hear that. Then she told me that Bob has mesothelioma and is dying. She said he's just come home from hospital (which explains the howling; I guess Pam was out visiting Bob) and that she's finding it very stressful to care for him at home. I said if she needed any help, please to ask, as we're only next door.

After she left, I sat and thought about what might be happening on the other side of the dividing wall. It was a shock, really; Pam has never been pleasant to us, but Bob always has, and anyway, I wouldn't wish that on anyone. I told my Paramour as soon as he came home. We took a bag round again today with a nice flower arrangement and a card. This time we put our landline phone number in the card, and wrote that they should get in touch if they need any help. I don't know what will happen. There are many walls between us and them. It's not just the brickwork. But if they do need help, we'll do our best.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Not The Cruellest Month

TS Eliot got it wrong. April is a delightful month, bringing sunshine, space and time into my life. I've been longing for April since last September, as I knew by then that this would be the month when I could get back to working on my novel.

Today was the day. April 1st 2009, a day of pranks and protests, sun and sedition. I have been insulated from it all, at my familiar desk in my comfortable office, the sunshine visible through the window, the protests visible through my computer screen. But have I been working on the novel? Well, what do YOU think?

It's terrifying. I haven't touched it for a year. In that time I had a grant from my very supportive local arts officer (who I found out last week has just been made redundant, BOO to the council for that) to pay for a professional critique that was very helpful. The grant application process and then getting the critique done took six months - April to September 2008. By September I was poorly, then in November I had an operation, then I was recovering, and by 2009 I was manically busy reviving my bank balance which had dwindled alarmingly while I was off sick (one of the downsides of self-employment). And all through that time, I was telling myself how great it would be when it was April and I could get to the next draft of my novel.

So what did I do this morning? Emailed a few people... read a chapter of a friend's draft PhD thesis... wrote part of an application for some paid work... all stuff that needed doing, but by lunchtime I realised I was making excuses. So I dashed off an email to a writer friend wailing 'What if it's crap? What if crap is the best I can do? I've got to make major changes and I know what I need to do but I don't know hoooooooooooow...'

My writer friend is ace. Here's part of what she said:
You know you want to do this. You know doing it will make you feel better. You know all writers have crises of confidence, blocks and periods of procrastination... even the best. You know that your inner critic should be kept in a box until she's needed, and just now she's really not needed. Wait til the work is done, then let her out. She's a nasty bugger anyway. ;-) Of course you can write. But it's not a can/can't thing. It's something that can forever be worked at.
She is so right, bless her. My spine and my resolve are stiffened. I'm going to start work.