Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Best Laid Plans

Well, you see, it was like this. On Wednesday I had a client explosion which took two full days to clear up. Then on Friday afternoon I had an unexpected dental emergency which culminated in a surprise tooth extraction yesterday morning (infection draining away nicely now, mmmm, lovely). So I didn't quite make it to ten thousand words. But I have to say that, under the circumstances, I'm rather pleased with the five thousand words I did manage to turn out, particularly as I also wrote one short story and subbed another.

'But it's Sunday, Queenie,' I hear you cry, 'and it's only 8.30 am, surely you can get a bigger number into that word counter by the end of the day?'

Maybe I could if I didn't need to pack and do various other essential pre-holiday tasks. I'm going to France tomorrow, remember? I'll be staying with my lovely auntie and two of my equally lovely cousins, both in their 20s, at their farmhouse in a tiny village in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It's been their second home for around 20 years, and is very rustic, with basic facilities in small rooms and floorboards you can see through between the ground and first floors. The 'garden' is a tussocky orchard on a slope, but one year, when they had a windfall, my aunt and uncle put in a nice little swimming pool with a paved surround that holds table and chairs, sunloungers and hammock. The forecast is for temperatures around 30 degrees and not much chance of rain, so I'll give you one guess where I plan to spend my time. I am taking my laptop, because I can't bear to be parted from it, but I will only write if I feel in the mood; this is going to be a real, restful holiday, not a writing or sightseeing holiday.

Yes, I know it's my third holiday in six weeks. No, I don't care. I'm making up for last year when I lost months and months of fun to health problems and major surgery. I'm loving it!

I doubt I'll be able to access the Internet much, if at all, so I'll see you when I get back.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Dawn Chorus

It's very leafy where I live, especially at this time of year. We have a hedge around all three sides of our garden, which includes hazel, holly, beech and laurel. There are also many trees in our garden: a flowering cherry and a fruiting plum, a silver birch and a weeping birch, a red sycamore and several young apple trees. The surrounding gardens also have a variety of trees: from my office window I can see a willow, a copper beech and a Scots pine.

This means the area is a Mecca for birds. They nest in the hedges, the trees and the eaves of the houses. We have blackbirds and wood pigeons, song thrushes and great tits, blue tits and chaffinches, starlings and sparrows, robins and wrens. We also have rarer visitors passing through such as goldfinches, nuthatches and, once, a lesser spotted woodpecker.

My bedroom window opens onto the garden. In the spring and summer I'm happy to be woken by birdsong. As I sit here now I can hear a woodpigeon cooing, a blackbird trilling, a chaffinch chirping and, in the distance, a disgruntled crow cawing as if to protest the early hour.

I love the great range of sounds made by our British birds. But I would happily strangle the raucous feathered hooligan who has learned to be a perfect mimic of a car alarm.

Monday, 20 July 2009

My New Obsession

My dear friend Millie had a fab granny. Millie's granny crocheted lovely cosy multi-coloured blankets at a great rate. These blankets were handed out to Millie's family and their friends like bonbons. Here's a piece of mine:

I sometimes have to fight Sock Boy for it because he luuuuurves this blanket. And as is so often the case with Sock Boy, when he luuuuurves something (or someone) it (or they) can end up slightly damaged, because his loving is so vigorous. I don't know if you can detect him paddling here with his big strong long boy cat legs:

The trouble is, Millie's granny reached the point a couple of years ago where, for her, there was no tomorrow. So she's not around to fix the holes and snags caused by Sock Boy's affections. My friend Millie is also a cat-lover, and her fat tabby is also inclined to knead her blankets and pull out threads. Millie is sad because her granny can't make it better any more, so I figured I'd better teach myself to crochet. In the process, I discovered that the pieces my blanket is made of are named, appropriately, granny squares. I'm not a granny, nor ever likely to be, but I figured I could have a go. Here's my very first effort at doing a chain and some trebles:

I was so impressed with myself that I could hardly bear to unravel it, but then I decided it wasn't that good and would never be any actual use for anything, so I killed yet another of my darlings and had a go at a single square.

It wasn't very square, so I had several more goes until I came up with one that satisfied me:

Rock and roll! that's getting on for square. Flushed with success, I decided to try the second row of trebles to make my little square into a bigger square.

I never was any good at geometry *sigh* and I think it'll be a while before I can hold my own over at Stitch 'n' Bitch. Oh well, if at first you don't succeed, sigh, sigh, sigh again.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Killing My Darlings

Continuation of previous post - see below if you haven't read it

The writers among you will have heard the term 'kill your darlings' (or 'murder your babies', or whatever) which means that at times you need to let go of words, phrases, sentences in which you take such pride because you crafted them so carefully that they have become objects of pure love. It's hard to let them go, in fact I never can, all mine are archived 'in case I need them one day'. But this kind of ruthless editing can be essential to enable you to show your story as clearly and evocatively as possible.

In the process of digesting feedback from the lovely Debi Alper and my eagle-eyed Dad, I realised that I needed to commit darlingicide. Yep - I'm killing the lot of them, letting go of the entire novel. (Well, archiving it, anyway.) I'm going to start all over again, writing the book I wanted to write in the first place but couldn't at the time, for various reasons, none of which still apply. The material will be the same, but instead of presenting it as fiction, I'll be presenting it as 'creative non-fiction', a memoir based on a particular part of my life and work.

It's been a difficult decision. I haven't written anything at all this week, apart from emails, mostly waily ones to Debi who has been enormously supportive. (In fact, if you ever want a critique, I'd recommend her without hesitation. She's written several novels, and does critiques for a well-regarded agency, but she also does them independently, really knows what she's talking about, puts in a lot of effort, knows the turf and is worth every penny. And, unlike going through an agency, you know who you're getting. Info here.)

The good news is that all the work I've put in on the novel over the last few years hasn't been wasted. All the writing skills I've learned can be put into practice in the new project, and I'll still be learning; I have so much still to learn. I don't think writing a good memoir is any easier than writing a good novel - in fact in some ways it's harder. I'll be drawing on support from my more experienced blogfriends, especially Pat who posted some timely and useful links on the subject only yesterday.

One thing I learned a long time ago is that nobody is a writer unless they actually write. I didn't enjoy last week much, not only because of the decision-related unproductivity but also because of various other minor hassles - my Paramour is overworked and stressed; several work and social plans are on hold pending possible cancellation; we were supposed to be going to our favourite festival this weekend, but it's been too wet (I would have gone anyway; he decided not to; we had a small argument; he was probably right). I did manage to re-read Sol Stein's excellent Solutions for Writers, which was useful, but I still woke up this morning feeling disappointed, fed-up, cross and miserable. Then I thought some thoughts and made some plans. If I write 1250 words a day for eight of the next nine days (Monday is too full of paid work to allow for writing) I'll have the first 10k under my belt before I go to France on the 27th.

I think I need to sort out one of those word counter thingies for my sidebar. If there's one there, you'll be able to see how I'm getting on. I'll be posting again soon, about my other new obsession, which I will not allow myself to play with each day until my 1250 words are in the bag.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Grabbing The Steering Wheel Of Life

I came back from Devon last Friday to find a critique and annotated copy of my MS from the lovely Debi Alper. Debi gave me some welcome praise: welcome not because I was looking for an ego massage, but because it was praise I felt I had earned and that helped my confidence in some useful ways. She also offered plenty of thoughtful criticism, which was every bit as welcome, particularly as it came with suggestions about how to address the problems she had identified. I knew immediately that I could use her input to improve my work. And she said she thought it would ultimately result in a novel of publishable quality.

However, her main concern was that the identity of the book wasn't clear; I didn't always focus on the central area of the narrative; I was holding back in some way. This was depressing because I knew she was right. I knew what I could do about it, too - but thinking about my proposed solution made my palms break out in hives, caused nightmares and insomnia, and left my head feeling like a plastic water bottle in a descending aeroplane.

Luckily I had another reader, my beloved father, a fine wordsmith and discerning critic. Maybe he would say something different, something that could take me in another direction. I got his feedback on Tuesday. It was different - in a few details. Mostly he said the same things as Debi, particularly about identity and focus.

Damn and blast.

Perhaps I was missing something. I talked it all through with my sister, who is also my best friend, and very good at spotting things I don't see. She's read part of an earlier draft, so she knows the turf. I told her about my proposed solution.

'Brilliant idea,' she said.


I decided to tell my dad next. He has an excellent bullshit detector. Surely he'd talk me out of it.

'Great plan,' he said.


Debi was my last hope. I worded my email carefully and checked for a reply every minute on the minute, willing her to come up with a reason why I should carry on as before. Finally, after, ooh, a whole couple of hours, her name popped up in my inbox.

'My feeling is that this is the right track,' she said.

Oh dear, oh no, oh help! My bluff has been well and truly called.

To be continued...

Monday, 13 July 2009

Delightful Devon

We had a wonderful few days running around the South Hams last week. The B&B we stayed in was one of the best I've been to. The hosts were very friendly and helpful; their garden is extensive and gorgeous; and they did the most copious breakfasts ever: fresh fruit salad (pears, grapes, melon, tangerines, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries etc, a slightly different mix each day), dried fruit compote, muesli and other cereals, fresh home-made bread and rolls every day, sliced cold meat, cheeseboard, home-made marmalade and two kinds of home-made jam, proper butter, freshly squeezed orange juice, and all the cooked options: local bacon, sausages and smoked haddock, kippers, free-range eggs, baked beans, mushrooms and tomatoes. Most days we didn't bother with lunch, just stopped for a coffee somewhere and maybe a piece of fruit or a scone.

The first day it rained heavily, so we pottered around the shops in Totnes in the morning and at the Cider Press Centre in Dartington in the afternoon. The next day it was showery, so we went to Buckfast Abbey and then on up to Dartmoor. We drove through the village of Holne, hoping to find the cafe we used to visit 30 years ago, but it didn't seem to be there any more so we carried on to Dartmeet and had drinks and snacks at Badger's Holt, still as good as it ever was. A short walk by the river inbetween the showers was very pleasant, then we drove back through Ashburton to Totnes.

The following day was fine so we had a nostalgia-fest, wandering around several places where we used to spend time as children, with many loud squeals of triggered memory. And the last day was my favourite, because the sun shone and we took the boat down the river from Totnes to Dartmouth, a journey I used to do regularly as a child when I lived near Totnes and my grandparents lived in Dartmouth. It is a stunningly beautiful stretch of river with plentiful wildlife: lots of seagulls and Canada geese, of course, but we also saw several egrets and herons, shoals of small fish being driven to the surface by underwater predators, two of the seals which come up the river after the salmon, a pair of shelduck with their shelducklings, and a curlew flying.

We made up for the lack of lunches at local restaurants in the evenings. Our favourite was a lovely riverside pub where we ate twice, including our last night. My trousers feel a little tight, so it's a good thing I've got two whole weeks at home now before I go on holiday again!

Saturday, 4 July 2009

I'm Off Again!

South Devon this time, with my oldest friend and her mum, I've known them both since I was 10 years old. My friend and I grew up in south Devon, she now lives in Canada so this is a rare chance to spend a few days together. Her mum is a star, very fit at 88, now lives in Scotland so she's flying down and I'll pick her up at Exeter Airport. She books assisted travel when she flies or uses the trains, not because she actually needs it but because 'I'm 88, you know, it's the time of life when you appreciate having someone else to carry your bag, plus I do love whizzing around on those little golf cart thingys, it always makes me want to wave to onlookers like the Queen.' She does yoga and tai chi, can place her palms flat on the floor without bending her knees (something I don't think I've ever been able to do), is outspoken, enjoys music, food, wine and conversation, can't be bothered with tedious things like cooking and cleaning, and is my role model for how to have a good time while growing old disgracefully.

We've booked into a B&B that looks delightful. I do intend to write one short story while I'm away, but that's all, and I won't have any Internet access. So I'll see you next weekend. Have a good week, everyone!

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Meeting Bloggers

During my trip to north Devon I met up with two other bloggers, an old acquaintance and a new. I've been reading Pat's blog for ages and I knew she lived somewhere around there, so I emailed her to suggest a meet. It turned out that the most practical plan was to meet for lunch on the day I travelled down. Pat is rather more beautiful in the flesh than she is in her photos. She's great company, very chatty, and enjoys good food and wine (just a glass, nothing outrageous - anyway, I was driving). It was a hot day, so we both chose cold homity pie and a range of salads followed by strawberries and cream - yum! The conversation flowed, much of it about books and writing, also travel, voluntary work, tennis, music, footwear, gardening, families, and probably several other topics too. I felt very comfortable in Pat's company; she seems to have a knack for accepting people just as they come. She also has a slightly wicked sense of humour! It was a great way to break my journey, and I hope we can do it again sometime.

The other blogger was Martin of Combe Martin, who has an even more wicked sense of humour than Pat. I only found his blog when I was researching the area, I read most of the archives and his evident love of the village persuaded me to go there. I dithered about whether or not to email him, but as we weren't online friends already, it felt a bit cheeky. There are pictures of Martin and his distinctive dog Bandit on his blog, so I decided I'd say 'hello' if I saw him in the village and leave it at that.

I saw him the minute I got out of my car. I'd parked in front of the flat and he was on the beach with Bandit and some friends. I was tired and hot, with lots of unpacking to do, and I'd already met one blogger that day. Also I thought if I accosted him straight away I might look like a stalker. I didn't even watch him from the flat window - it felt wrong, somehow, like a voyeur. I figured I was bound to see him again, so introducing myself could wait for the next time.

For the next few days I concentrated on writing, with a quick foray into the village each morning for provisions. The weather wasn't great and I was happy to hole up, work, and rest. By midweek I was feeling the need of company, so I went to one of the local pubs for a drink and a meal. While I was there, I was adopted by a couple of friendly locals, had a great chat with them, and ended up weaving my way back to the flat, several glasses of wine inside me.

As I passed the beach I saw Martin and Bandit watching the sun set. Suddenly it seemed like a great idea to introduce myself, so I wobbled over and said something along the lines of 'hello, you're Martin, and you must be Bandit, what a lovely dog, I've read your blog and I'm a blogger too and I'm staying here mostly because of your blog and I'm not a stalker honestly and I've just been up the pub and I saw you and it seemed like a good idea to come and say hello, and I did think about emailing you but it seemed a bit cheesy and I bet you get this all the time don't you?'

'No,' Martin said.

Luckily he didn't seem fazed by being accosted by a rambling drunken blogging woman, and we had a good chat. Later in my visit he kindly invited me to drink wine with him on his gorgeous veranda overlooking the sea. We drank rather a lot of wine, in fact we reached Dwarf 4 of the Seven Dwarfs of Drunkenness (Thirsty, Drinky, Tipsy, Giggly, Maudlin, Fighty and Pukey, in case you haven't come across them before) (which you probably haven't because we invented them that night). It was a great evening and, as with Pat, I hope we can do it again one day.

And you know what else both these lovely bloggers did? They both worked out, from my blog, that it was my birthday while I was away, and they each gave me a present - Pat gave me a great big box of chocs and Martin gave me a framed original picture of a black-and-white cat very like my own Sock Boy.

Bloggers are ace!