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.