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!