Saturday, 18 December 2010

I Guess I've Finished The First Draft

Although definitely with a whimper, not the bang I was hoping for. The odd thing is, most of the way through this draft I've been sure about how the story would end, but when I got there it didn't work as I'd expected, it just faded inconclusively away. I think that's because, as with most of my first drafts, the story isn't yet pulled tightly together. It's also shorter than I really wanted it to be, but I'm not particularly worried about that because I always underwrite in first drafts.

I stopped writing in the middle of last week and felt flat and frustrated for a few days. But now I'm getting used to the idea. The prospect of a few weeks off writing fiction (I won't be writing shorties either) really appeals, which is unusual for me, so I reckon I need a break. I can also feel a flicker of excitement at the thought of printing out, reading through and starting a proper edit. That'll be in mid-January.

I'm even, slowly, beginning to feel a little bit proud of myself. Looked at one way, I have a first draft which is a bit rubbish. But then, most first drafts are a bit rubbish. Looked at another way, I have a world, a cast of characters, a central storyline and 87,000 words which I didn't have nine months ago. And actually, I think that's pretty good.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Bad Blogger

Apologies for the lack of posts, but I'm concentrating on my WiP. I'm determined to finish it this side of Xmas, which is possible (barring calamities) but only if I stay focused. And anyway, I don't have any news! I'm trying to keep up with reading and commenting, at least, and will post again when I have both time and something to say.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Resources For Short Story Writers

I've had some lovely rejections of my memoir. Excerpts include:

'I was very impressed with the professional way you present this material and I enjoyed the chapters too.'
I do like your title and I do like what you've sent me so thank you.'
'You write well and have an appealing, warm style.'

So far, so encouraging, but there's always a 'but', and it's usually that they don't feel confident of being able to place the book with a publisher. So I've decided to see whether I can do that myself. As a result, I've been researching publishers to see who might be interested. Yesterday I was checking out Tindal Street Press (fiction only, boo hoo) and I discovered a page on their site with resources for writers of short stories. Ten of their authors have each produced a short essay, covering an aspect of short story writing, which are free to download. I've read them all and they're good: well-written, readable, informative. The only thing I didn't like is that they call them 'masterclasses' which seems a bit poncy. There aren't that many how-to books which cover short stories, so I was pleased to find these essays. They seem to be aimed at literary writers, but the advice they contain is equally relevant to commercial stories. Here's the link: if you're interested, go look!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Edited Highlights

The last two weeks have seen me in something close to perpetual motion, but what stays with me are a few moments of stillness. Looking at spiderwebs in my garden one morning:

Taking five minutes to have a shower at my parents' house, and appreciating the view (I do like a shower with a view):

Walking in the Lake District on a beautiful sunny autumn day:

Edinburgh is a visual feast, with its beautiful buildings, alleys, bridges, castle and hills, but I didn't take my camera. My strongest memory is walking over the bridge where Inverleith Row crosses the Water of Leith. I glanced over the parapet at the river. To my surprise, only a few yards away, standing in the water was a grey heron. Seeing this beautiful wild creature in the middle of the city was an astonishing experience.

Another good moment was when I hit 50K on the novel yesterday. Halfway!

Monday, 4 October 2010

Where Did That Week Go?

I can't believe it's a week since I posted about writing 1K a day - and then I made no progress for the rest of that week! I wrote a short story, though. It seems I can't do both at once, at least not when I'm at the first draft stage of the novel; I can only invent one set of characters and their situation at a time. This is a continual dilemma as I long to keep going with the novel but I also enjoy, and learn so much from, writing shorties and getting feedback from my wonderful online critique group. Anyway, I'm back on the novel today, and this will definitely be a 5K week. I'm off up north this morning to spend time with my family till Friday afternoon, so I may not be around much on the interwebs, but I'll read and comment on all your blogs whenever I get the chance. Have a good week, y'all!

Monday, 27 September 2010


Look at my word counter! *points to sidebar* Finally, I've hit 40K. The last 10K has been tortuous and interminable. I do hope the next 10K won't be so arduous, because then I'll be halfway.

I hit the mid-30Ks and floundered to a stop. Part of the problem was realising I didn't have enough plot for my intended word count. I needed quite a bit of mulling time to work out a load more plot, but now I'm happy with my story again, in fact I think it'll be a whole lot better as a result of the new sections. So I'm back to churning out the words - 1K per day, most days - and, if I don't stall again, I might have a first draft by Christmas. Here's hoping.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

By Special Request: The Pope

OK then, seeing as you were all teasing me in my comments box, here are my considered views (as opposed to the ill-considered ranty ones you would have got if I'd written this a week ago).

I was brought up as a Catholic. I'd like to say I was born into the faith, seeing as my parents were both observant Catholics at the time, but the church doesn't allow that, newborn babies being full of sin and evil as far as they are concerned. Needless to say, I'm not a Catholic any more - I parted company with the church in my early teens, and tried a couple of other religious/spiritual identities before settling down as mostly atheist with a side order of agnostic.

I have no quarrel with any individual Catholics - or individuals of any faith, come to that. Some of my family are Catholics, and I have friends of many faiths and none. I would never deny anyone the right to the happiness and comfort that faith can bring. However, I abhor many of the Catholic church's policies, such as those on women, gay people, condoms, and secrecy.

The Pope is not just an individual Catholic, he is the head of the church and its abhorrent policies. I have no objection to him coming to England - he is the spiritual leader of some of the people on this island, and they have every right to a visit from him. Also, I'm entirely in favour of freedom of speech. I do object to an expensive state visit. We don't extend this privilege to other heads of religious bodies, so I don't see why we should for the Pope.

I wish the Pope hadn't chosen atheists as the current enemy of the church. The whole atheists = Nazis thing has been covered extensively, so I'm not going to bang on about that. What worries me is that it seems the Catholic church always needs an enemy: infidels, Jews, Muslims, witches, Protestants, Communists, the list goes on. Just this month an official Catholic blogger was writing about 'the enemies of the Pope' and 'the enemies of the State'. Perhaps I have no right to say this, not being a Christian myself any more, but it doesn't seem very Christian to me to declare enmity on whole swathes of the population.

(Which reminds me of the Milton Jones gag I caught on TV the other night, which went something like this: A man at a festival sees a stall, run by Christians, giving away burgers.
Festival-goer: Can I have a burger please?
Stall-holder: Are you a Christian?
Festival-goer: Do you have to be a Christian to get a burger?
Stall-holder: Yes.
Festival-goer: How Christian is that?)

The official atheists aren't helping by embracing the position of enemy. I'm no great admirer of Richard Dawkins, and he made me really cross when he described the Pope as 'an enemy of humanity'.

So much of this seems so knee-jerk and un-thought-through. Which, of course, is one of the Catholic church's specialities. The church doesn't want its adherents to think about things, it wants them to follow its rules. Sadly, this also seems to apply more and more to the state we live in, at least if our education system is anything to go by (and this isn't a lone view: for example, the Society of Authors is so worried about the extent to which children in schools are taught by rote and procedure these days, that they are preparing to engage with the Secretary of State to advocate that children should once again be taught to think for themselves).

The media, of course, has a key role in all this. And they do think. Oh yes, they do. They think about how to sell newspapers, increase viewing/listening figures, and attract more advertisers. Fat lot of help that is. Yes, there are some excellent journalists and broadcasters, and at least we've still got a BBC which is independent of some influences. But most of our media is commercial, and commerce is its primary driver.

I am noticing more and more discontinuity between the messages from organisations which claim to speak for people, and my own experience of life in our society. I've blogged about this before in relation to the Government. It also applies to messages from religious organisations. It's not only the Pope who is positioning atheists as the enemy: the Archbishop of Canterbury was quite happy to join him there. Yet I'm getting on with my family and friends, of Christian and other faiths, as well as I ever have. I don't feel like anyone's enemy; do any of you feel like mine? Or anyone else's?

I'm not sure what is going on here, but I am sure I'm going to go on thinking about it, and that we all need to form our own views, discuss them with others, refine them and think again. And really, however unsatisfied I feel at times with the pronouncements of political and religious leaders and with their official policies, the good news is that I live in a part of the world where I can express my views without fear of repercussions in the name of religion or the state. That makes me very lucky.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Mostly Good News

Remember my lovely nephew and his pre-university woes? I'm delighted to report that he started at university last Sunday, had made friends by Monday, and was generally well settled in by Tuesday. He's busy and happy and generally loving the whole experience. Hurrah!

I've been writing and editing: not my novel, or short stories for my group (naughty me), but other stuff, some perhaps for publication, some for competitions. And I've been enjoying it enormously.

Life has been rather busy, what with one thing and another, and pleasant for me, but not all that interesting for you to read about, I suspect. MOT fail leading to a new car, quick trip to London leading to a possible new client, OU assignments leading to a new course... yes, quite a bit of new stuff, but not new new as such; each a new version of something I'm familiar with. So, nice, but not particularly exciting.

I decided I would blog again next time I had something thought-provoking or entertaining to say, or simply something I want to get off my chest. But the days rolled by and it hasn't happened. So I thought I'd just pop in and say hi.


How are you?

(and don't get me started on the Pope, OK?)

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

A Teeny Weeny Rant

You know something that bugs me? When non-religious people say, 'It was meant to be.' Because that statement almost always seems to be evidence of lazy, sloppy thinking.

I'm not trying to pick a quarrel with people's beliefs. Some people believe in a Grand Designer Of The Universe (other titles may be used) who has a Plan for Everything. I don't believe that myself, but I'm very happy for other people to hold such beliefs. They may be right; I don't know, and I don't mind not knowing.

However, I often hear the 'it was meant to be' refrain uttered by atheists. And I think, hang on a minute, what are you saying here? 'Meant' by whom, exactly?

For example, I recently came across a woman, at an exploratory business meeting, who I'd known socially some years before and who I knew to be an atheist. As soon as she saw me, she clapped a hand to her heart and declared that the business would definitely go ahead because 'it was meant to be' (presumably, in some kind of not-very-atheist mystical way, because of our previous relationship). In fact, the business didn't go ahead, because she decided to work with one of my competitors instead. So what was 'meant to be'? I submit, your Honour: nuffink.

I think what people may be saying, when they use this phrase, is something like: ooh, look, a coincidence, maybe even a pattern. We are naturally good at recognising patterns, and have been describing them in terms of fate, destiny etc for centuries, so perhaps the phrase isn't so surprising. But it still grates. 'Meant to be.' Not for me.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Shrewsbury Folk Festival

So, from Friday at 8.30 am to Monday at 8.30 pm I was away at a festival. The website said there would be full wifi coverage, so I decided to blog from the festival, but in the event I couldn't get on the Internet for more than a couple of minutes at a time. So here's a rundown from very recent memory, using Carol's 'six senses' approach. Imagine me sitting in the food tent (like a huge marquee with no sides full of rectangular eight-seater tables and folding chairs) in a grassy field surrounded by morning sunshine, tempting food outlets, interesting people, enjoyable music, and wasps.

I can see:

Stalls advertising all kinds of food: Thai, Indian, a couple of excellent veggie outlets, baked potatoes and baguettes, Welsh, English, Mexican, ice-cream, paella, fuffle (a very sweet confection between fudge and truffle), and the awesome Pie Minister.

A short queue of relaxed people, chatting happily with each other, at every stall.

A portly man in a straw hat, orange shirt, creased dark green linen shorts, black socks and black Morris shoes, talking on a mobile phone.

An boy of 11 or 12, riding a unicycle slowly, with one hand on the saddle and a look of intense concentration.

A lively little blonde girl aged four or five in a pink fairy dress and fairy wings and bare feet, dancing on the grass.

I can hear:

A trio behind me - accordion, fiddle and flute - practising tunes steadily and well (the little blonde girl is dancing to their music)

Three wasps buzzing around my breakfast plate

My eco-friendly wooden knife snapping as I try to cut a fried egg

Chat and laughter

The whirr of a mobility scooter passing by

I can feel:

The heat of the sun on my left shoulder and the cool of the shade on my right thigh

The warmth of the good intentions of other festival-goers

Love for, and from, my friends who are here with me, even the ones who are still asleep

Excitement about the dancing I plan to do, and the gigs I intend to see, today

Everyday cares dissolving in the festival solution

I can touch:

The smooth formica top of the table in front of me

The familiar keys of my laptop

The eco-friendly wooden cutlery, strangely rough to my fingertips

My own smooth sun-warmed shoulder

The wasp taking a swim in my orange juice, if I want to flirt with danger

I can smell:

Barbecue smoke from someone's home-cooked sausages

The brown sauce I poured onto the edge of my veggie fry-up

Shampoo from the freshly-showered head of a passer-by

Bacon frying from the Welsh food stall (free range of course)

Fresh air

I hope that's given you a sense, in a very real way, of my experience. It's a tiny fragment of an enormously stimulating whole. I could tell you so much more: about the delight of exchanging banter with my friends under their gazebo on the bank of the Severn as stately swans floated by; learning Cajun dancing with a good friend (although I have to say the Crippled Chicken nearly crippled me); how glad I was that my Paramour had encouraged me to pack a hot water bottle (I will never camp in England without one again); baked potatoes with goat's cheese and caramelised onions; Gilmore and Roberts and Chuck Brodsky making me cry; Belshazzar's Feast and Chuck Brodsky making me laugh; pogoing in the mosh pit to Bellowhead. It's hard to come down from the festival high and return to everyday life.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

A Tale Of Woe With A Happy Ending

Last Thursday was a remarkably stressful day, even though I don't have any children.

The first distraught teenager was on the phone at 8.30 am in floods of tears. She knew from the UCAS website that she hadn't got good enough results to get into either of her chosen universities. 'I don't know what to do,' she kept wailing. I managed to calm her down and convince her that she couldn't even start thinking about what to do until got to school and found out what her results were. As it turned out, she'd missed it by a whisker, getting A*, A and C instead of two As and a B, and she soon found a place through clearing at her second choice uni for a similar course to the one she'd originally chosen.

The second teenager was very upset because, despite being a diligent student, she only got a B and two Cs. Luckily this was enough to get her into her first choice of uni so she was easy to console. The third, despite getting two As and a B, wasn't happy because he needed three As for his first choice of uni (Leeds), and is now waiting for a remark on the B because apparently nobody from his school got an A in that subject even though several people were predicted to.

By late afternoon it felt as if I'd been fielding phone calls all day, but by then all necessary decisions had been made, resilient youngsters were coming to terms with their situations, and it seemed I could relax. But then I got the worst phone call of all.

Background: my nephew J didn't have an easy time in education. He is an only child and since he was 8 years old he has been a carer for his mother, my sister, who has a long-term disability and until 5 years ago was a single parent. J was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 11; struggled through his secondary school years with undiagnosed coeliac disease and dyspraxia, both of which were finally diagnosed when he was 16; managed to get three good GCSEs (English, Maths and Chemistry), but couldn't cope with A levels at the same time as coming to terms with the lifestyle changes required by his multiple health problems. He's now nearly 24 and has been working for the last 6 years, the last 4 doing shift work in a video rental shop, and over the last 2 years has done a part-time access course at a local FE college. Earlier this year he got a place at university, with an unconditional offer, and at the beginning of last week he left his shop job to concentrate on work experience and academic preparation for going to uni next month. A room in halls had been reserved for him (he needs one of the larger ones, because he has to have a fridge for his insulin) and his step-father had secured it with a deposit of several hundred pounds.

Then on Thursday, just after he'd received his welcome pack in the post, the university rang to say his unconditional offer had been withdrawn because they'd had too many applicants.

J was devastated, but - luckily - determined to fight. He persuaded the administrator to give him a stay of execution, and wrote her a heartfelt email arguing his case. She said he'd get a definite answer within a week. Then on Friday she emailed him to say a letter was in the post, and on Saturday he got the letter. It said the extended foundation course wasn't running this year so he couldn't attend - but that wasn't the course on which he'd been offered a place.

By this point he was both upset and angry. 'I probably shouldn't be, auntie Queenie,' he said. 'Actually, I rather think you should,' I said, feeling pretty damn upset and angry myself. I suggested it was time to email the college Principal, setting out the whole situation and asking her to intervene. He was reluctant at first, fearing that he could be labelled a nuisance before he even got to uni ('if I ever do get there,' he said), where he knows he will need extra support. (This particular uni is very good at that - one reason he chose it in the first place.) But in the end he agreed, and worked on an email through the weekend, with input from other friends and family, until it was really impressive: mature, enthusiastic and business-like.

He still didn't have much hope, and was getting really stressed out. The email was finally sent at about 7.30 pm on Sunday. Within an hour he had a response from the Principal saying she could see there was a problem and would investigate, and giving him her phone number. That was reassuring - at least she was taking him seriously, and was on the case. But it was another 24 nail-biting hours before he got confirmation that there had been an 'administrative error', a full apology from the Principal and the administrator, and an assurance that the place was there for him after all.

Huge relief all round. But it left me thinking, as these situations so often do: what if he'd just accepted the administrator's word in her phone call last Thursday? A different person might well have done so. The papers were full of tales of people not getting into universities, so it seemed quite plausible that his place could be withdrawn. There was some small print on his offer letter which said 'subject to availability'. We tried to console him by saying 'next year', but he said gloomily (and accurately) that it will be even more competitive next year. He could so easily have given up and spent the rest of his life feeling as if he was a reject, on the scrap heap, worthless. I know he's already struggled with those feelings throughout his education for a whole variety of reasons.

I'm so glad he decided to fight for his place. In fact, his refusal to accept rejection is something of an inspiration to me right now. He has a bright future ahead, and I'm very proud of him.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Not much to say... I am going to refer you to an excellent post by an old blog-friend of mine who writes about how readers can help authors. She makes some very good points which are not made often enough. Go, read, come back, tell me what you think. (Or click away and do something else instead!)

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Character Problem

I've been experiencing a kind of paralysis with my WiP. One-third of the way in at 33,500 words, and with a fair idea of some of the scenes up ahead and a good plan for the ending, I should be churning out 1000 words a day with no trouble at all. But I have found myself to be somewhat stuck.

I had a bit of a re-read and realised I'd committed POV slippage in one chapter. I have three main characters and, for the first draft, they are getting a chapter each in turn. Two are girls and one is a boy. The slippage was in a chapter that should have been from the boy's POV, and somewhere in the middle I began writing in one of the girls' POVs without realising what I was doing.

This began to worry me. I thought maybe the whole thing was complete crap (you know how easy it is to slip into that mindset, right?). So I set up a spreadsheet and did a full re-read of what I'd written so far, and a scene-by-scene analysis of POV and tension levels.

Actually, it's not complete crap. It is a first draft with all the holes and saggy bits you'd expect, but it also has some great ideas and some really good writing. It's not boring, either: there's one chapter which has low tension throughout, so that will need addressing, but I know what to do to make it better. And the pacing is already quite good in the other chapters.

However, I did find another POV slippage, again in a chapter that should have been from the boy's POV, this time into the other girl's POV. This began to worry me. I started thinking about my boy character. Why couldn't I get him to stay in his POV? He is the third of the three characters to arrive 'on stage' - did I not know him well enough? I did some freewriting about him, which was helpful, and a character questionnaire, which was also helpful. But I was still struggling to write from his POV.

I began to feel as if I didn't like him. Really, really didn't like him. Which was daft. He's not a bad lad, although he can be annoying: he's stubborn, wary, fidgets, and tells lies. A slippery customer, so perhaps it's not surprising he slipped out of his own POV chapters. But he's also caring, kind to humans and animals, and he's had a really shit deal from life in the last few years. So why would I not like him? Just because he kept pushing me out of his POV?

Eventually I realised that this is a form of writer madness. My boy was created by my own imagination. He is entirely mine to do with as I please. I can write him out of the book, kill him off as horribly as I like, torture, maim and mutilate him if I want to. Or I can cherish him, surprise him with treats, make his wishes come true. But most of all, I can make him damn well behave and stay in his own damn POV!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Dance Your Way To Psychic Sex

Alice Turing is a friend of mine who has written a book. I don't usually do book reviews on this blog, but I'm making an exception for Alice, for two reasons.

First, she's had a lousy run of luck lasting several years. Her first novel was published some years ago by a small press who then went bust. She got an agent for her second novel, and he did get her a deal with a big publisher in Germany, but then he turned out not to be very professional so she had to end that relationship. So her first novel is out of print and her second novel is only available in German. The whole experience demoralised her so much that she's given up writing and taken up a new career.

But Alice still felt terribly frustrated that her second novel, although published, couldn't be read by any of her friends or family. So she's publishing it herself. I read and commented on an early draft for her, so I knew it was much better than her first novel. That's the second reason I'm willing to review it here: because it is a really good book.

Dance Your Way To Psychic Sex is a difficult book to categorise. It's a contemporary novel which is neither literary nor commercial, as those terms are generally understood. It is anarchic, hilarious, and very readable. The characters are unusual, their relationships convoluted, and they spend most of their time misunderstanding each other. The book contains a strong element of farce, yet it also makes serious points about belief, cults, religion, happiness, lies and truth. It's clever without being pompous or patronising; funny without being puerile; thought-provoking without being hard work. I enjoyed it enormously.

A great deal of effort has gone into the production of this book. It will be a beautiful object to own, containing a memorable, compelling story. All that for only a tenner. I strongly recommend that you head over to Alice's website and get yourself a copy. And if you can't justify the expense for yourself - or even if you can - it would make an excellent gift for anyone who likes an entertaining read that is a bit out of the ordinary.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Drive To Succeed

Despite my gender, I'm good at navigation. My father taught me to read and use maps when I was very young, and I soon became the family navigator. I don't think it ever occurred to him that I might not be able to navigate, so I guess he transmitted that confidence to me. Thanks, Dad!

Despite his gender, my Paramour is a bit rubbish at navigation. Not completely hopeless, but inclined to make mistakes, and his sense of direction isn't great. He had no ego problems about handing over the task to me, and early in our relationship he dubbed me his 'demon navigatrix'.

When sat navs became commonplace, neither of us was particularly bothered about getting one. My smug view was that they were for people who couldn't find their toilet without a 'sat lav', and his smug view was that he didn't need one because he'd got me. A little while ago, when I was stuck on the sofa for a few months with health problems, he kept getting lost and decided to order a sat nav - but the company he chose to order from couldn't find our house to deliver the sat nav (yes, really!) so he gave that up as a bad job.

A couple of months ago my Paramour decided he had to get a sat nav for work reasons (not to find his way to places - some techie thing to do with one of his clients and some software, and that's all I know). This coincided with our trip to France, so we decided to get one which included the French road system. I was very dubious about the idea of surrendering control to a machine, but the sat nav quickly proved useful in helping tired people negotiate French town centres at the end of a long day's driving.

We tried various voices and decided the Irish man had the most soothing tones. He's very deadpan and repeats himself a lot, so our sat nav is now called Dougal, after the character in Father Ted. My relationship with Dougal is developing differently from my Paramour's. I'm happy to let Dougal help, but I don't entirely trust him - quite often I know better than he does, like when I can see the roundabout in front of me that he doesn't think exists - and I won't use a route he suggests without cross-checking its sensibleness with a map, some real-time traffic information, and my own knowledge of road systems. So when Dougal suggested going from the Midlands to south-east London via Camden and the West End of London, he was immediately over-ruled, because I know from experience that the M25 and the Blackwall Tunnel is a much quicker route.

My Paramour, on the other hand, is happy to let Dougal decide his route. But I discovered yesterday that he has his own point of resistance. We were travelling together, chatting, with Dougal making pronouncements in the background. At one point Dougal said 'keep in the left-hand lane.' My Paramour was driving in the right-hand lane. I looked at the road sign we were passing, and saw that if he didn't change lanes we'd end up going the wrong way.

'Sweetheart,' I said, 'Dougal says you need to be in the left-hand lane.'

My Paramour continued to drive in the right-hand lane.

'He was very firm about it,' I said.

'That's the trouble,' my Paramour said. 'When Dougal gets firm about things, it makes me feel rebellious.'

On that basis, I don't think having a sat nav is going to help him much.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Catching Up With Myself

Life seems to have been non-stop since I came back from holiday. Work deadines, family obligations, friends in need for all sorts of reasons, not to mention domestic trivia and various bits of socialising, have all conspired to fill every waking moment. I've felt hugely frustrated about the lack of time to get on with writing and studying, aka what I really want to do.

But in the last 36 hours, life has eased up. I had a lovely weekend in Oxford, staying with a dear friend who was on top form because she's just landed the job of her dreams. We celebrated on Saturday night at Jamie's Italian restaurant, pushing out every boat we could find. I know you like a good menu, so here it is. We started with prosecco (for me) and a Bellini (for her). Then we shared gorgeous huge green olives on cracked ice with tapenade and flatbread; a mixed veg starter (various titbits of perfect cheese, salad, and marinaded grilled veg); and fabulous polenta chips with rosemary and sea salt. We started a bottle of excellent Merlot with that lot, and finished it with prosciutto, pear and pecorino salad, with truffle chips, for her; char-grilled free-range chicken, garlic and parsley chips, and Swiss chard with garlic and capers for me. Then she had an affogato (vanilla ice-cream with a hot espresso poured over it - she asked for a decaff one) and I had a perfectly silky pannacotta with seasonal fruits (mostly strawberries, which was fine by me) and a glass of dessert rose wine. My friend asked for a sip, and then promptly demanded a glass for herself. After that we rolled gently back to hers, and finished the evening with her housemate, a bottle of fair-trade sparkling wine, some scrumptious goodies from Hotel Chocolat, and a Dennis The Menace board game.

I slept like a log, woke inspired, and wrote 1000 words before breakfast. Then another 1000 on the train home in the afternoon, and another 1000 this morning. Not only that, but I've made good progress with both my OU courses today, as well as meeting a work deadline and getting a few other jobs ticked off my list including subbing a short story. I love times like this! It's like the bit on the motorway where you've been stuck in the traffic jam for ages and suddenly it all frees up and you can zoom along at 70 mph again. (I could offer a more scatological analogy but, ever mindful that this is a family blog, I shall resist the temptation.)

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

A Thing I Don't Understand

Yes, I know this could be the first in a series of 493826473892837 posts. But don't worry, it's a one-off.

Here's the thing. Why do politicians work hard to become governors of this country, and then slag it off?

I'm so fed up with hearing about 'broken Britain'; that we're all passive people living in soulless communities; that our communities need organisers who will chivvy us all into doing voluntary work and taking control of our neighbourhood services.

You know what? In the Britain I have lived in all my life, my family members, friends, and neighbours have mostly been active, powerful people, doing large quantities of formal and informal voluntary work, and running lots of neighbourhood services themselves. Everything from sports clubs to play and stay groups, fund-raisers for - or in memory of - individuals to big community events. But this seems to count for nothing where the politicians are concerned.

It's odd that Britain has such a miserable image to its residents. I'm not saying it's a perfect society. How could it be? It's made up of human beings, and none of us are perfect. Yes, there are problems: unemployment, anti-social behaviour, domestic violence - the list goes on. But, the whole country, 'broken'? When we have a world class national health service, an excellent education system, a thriving third sector, reasonable public transport in most places, good and mostly well maintained roads... yes, again, I know none of these things are perfect. Everyone has their stories of a doctor who didn't listen, or a nurse who didn't care, or a teacher who couldn't teach, or a school that wasn't user-friendly, a charity that couldn't help, a village where there are no buses, or a great big pothole. But that doesn't mean the whole of our society is broken. Look at Zimbabwe, Yemen, Somalia. Those are, arguably, broken societies. Bits of our society may be dented - the bodywork needs attention and it could do with a full oil service - but it's not broken; in fact, it's still driving along, and shouldn't have any trouble getting through its next MOT.

What I see in our society is people living effective lives and helping each other in a myriad of ways. I see single parents, people with illness and/or disability, and those who are out of work getting support from all quarters. I see people who would help each other in a heartbeat, and do - and who don't think that's anything special. I see organisations offering help for practically everything, much of that help free to the people who are most in need.

I'd like to see our politicians acknowledging some of the many, many positive aspects of our society. Apart from anything else, the way they've been talking over the last few months is hardly motivational. Imagine the MD of a big business saying to the staff, 'this business is broken, you're all passive and soulless, and your work is useless crap.' Would that encourage staff to work much harder, or demoralise them so they make less effort? Bit of a no-brainer, really.

But this is just my view. What do you think? Is Britain 'broken' and full of miserable, alienated people, or do we live in a society that functions really quite well for most of its members, most of the time?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

My Holiday

This was our estate

with beautiful gardens

and stunning walks from the front door

and a National Park ten minutes' drive away

full of beautiful mountains and valleys and waterfalls and rivers

Blimey, but the Alps are big! Which is not great when you're scared of heights, and depths, and tunnels, and anything precipitous. So beautiful, though, and we had a great time: very relaxing. I did no writing, because I didn't want to, but am pleased to announce that, since I got back, I've hit the 30,000 word mark. Yay for me!

Monday, 14 June 2010

Having Too Much Fun To Blog

Last weekend my house was full of writer friends, laughter and sunshine. Next weekend it's my birthday, and the weekend after that I'm going on holiday with my Paramour for ten days of self-indulgence in France. This month is packed with treats, I'm not sure I deserve it but I'm certainly not complaining. And among it all, I have managed to hit 25K on the WIP. Progress feels slow but, hey, at least it's progress.

Can't stop, gotta go do more fun stuff! Hope you're all having as much fun as me. Will be back at some point - probably in early July for a whinge about how all the fun is over!!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Second Highlight Of My Holidays

I spent a fabulous sunny day at Predator Experience with my nephew. He's due to start an Animal Management degree course in the autumn, so they tailored the day to cover aspects of falconry care as well as experience of handling and flying. It was fascinating! They're not a standard-issue falconry centre, they work by appointment only, so you get the undivided attention of the very experienced and knowledgeable falconers. My nephew asked questions ALL DAY and they didn't seem fazed or irritated, in fact they welcomed all our questions, even the ones which must seem really dozy to them. The only drawback was that the weather was so hot and sunny that some of the birds didn't want to fly - but then none of them fly in the rain, and they have such a variety of birds that there are always some which will fly in any dry conditions. I'd recommend them highly for anyone who fancies having a go: it's not cheap, but it really is an astonishing way to spend a day. So here are some pictures of hot birds for your enjoyment!

Me and Johnny the Caracara

Can't remember this one's name or type, but she was an old bird (don't say 'which one?', cheeky!) and very friendly. To either side of us you can see two baths, put out for the harrier hawks on the adjacent perches.

It's not every day you get to run a bath for an arthritic steppe eagle called Gorby.

And this is Ben, the golden eagle, taking a day-old chick from my glove. I needed support from the falconer because the eagle glove alone weighs a pound, then the eagle with his six-foot wingspan adds another eight pounds to that, which is a lot to hold on your outstretched wrist when you're not used to it.

What an amazing day that was! I shall never forget it.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

The First Highlight Of My Holidays

I had a great time hanging out with my family in the sunshine last week, and there were two real highlights. The first was the amazing bookshop in Carnforth, with new books on the ground floor and over 100,000 second-hand books on the first and second floors. The second-hand books are housed in a warren of small rooms with uneven floors and labels like Poetry; Railways And Transport; Religion And Spirituality; Science Fiction, Fantasy And Crime. They even have a section for sheet music. I can't believe my family have lived in the area for almost 30 years and I've never been to this bookshop before.

I browsed for a while, going 'ooh!' and 'aah!', as you would, then I thought about my addiction to how-to books. I couldn't work out where they might be, so I asked the gentle, bearded, bespectacled man at the desk. He led me through several rooms to a dusty shelf by a window. There were several books I recognised from my collection and, whoop-de-whoop, a few that were new to me. Among these I found two gems.

The first has a garish colour, with the title How to Write a Mi££ion in big gold writing, then subtitle The Complete Guide To Becoming A Successful Author in red and a banner proclaiming 'Methods that Really work! Yeah, what a load of crapola, I thought, but couldn't resist having a look anyway. Inside were three separate books: Plot by Ansen Dibell, Characters And Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and Dialogue by Lewis Turco. Attentive readers of this blog will remember that Orson Scott Card is a writer for whom I have huge respect, but what excited me most, even though I'd never heard of the other two authors, was the 163 pages on Plot.

I find plotting one of the most difficult aspects of writing. It seems many other people do too, even experienced writers, even writing tutors: the thousands of pages in my how-to collection only contain a handful on plot. I'm reading my new book avidly, and it's fascinating and instructive. It's also available for 1p on Amazon if anyone's interested (plus the £2.75 postage charge, of course). I paid £3, so was 24p down on the deal, but I don't care because (a) it's important to support independent bookshops and (b), oh wait, you need the backstory for (b) so here goes.

The second book I bought is even more fabulous. It's The Short Story by Sean O'Faolain. For those who haven't come across him, Mr O'Faolain (1900-1991) was a marvellous exponent of the literary short story, with a terrific command of language, a great sense of humour and a wonderful narrative voice. I had no idea he'd written a how-to book. His writing style seems old-fashioned, but in a charming, gentlemanly way which, for me, is a pleasure to read. I have a couple of recent how-to books on short stories, both of which are useful but they concentrate more on the commercial than the literary story. That's fine, because I see myself more as a commercial than a literary writer, but I'm sure Sean O'Faolain has a great deal to teach me.

This book was priced at £3.50, but when I got to the desk with my two books, the lovely beardy man said 'We'll call that six quid then.' Apparently this is their usual practice. Which brings us back to (c), because The Short Story is available used on Amazon from £17.96 (plus postage of course). So not only did I find two books that I'm very pleased to have in my collection, but my newly-acquired mathematical skills enable me to work out that I've beaten Amazon Marketplace by £17.47!

Details of the second highlight will come in the next post and, for the first time in ages, there will be photos.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Three Credits And A Debit

Well, it's been an up-and-down few days. On the plus side, I've written another 5000 words and am now up to 20K or one-fifth of the planned first draft. I do hate cranking out the words, though - I much prefer editing and re-structuring and polishing. But I can't have one without the other, so it's got to be done.

On the minus side, our new Government has pulled the funding from one of the longer-term work projects I'm doing. This is its second year and the project was supposed to run until the end of next March, but they've now said it has to finish by the end of June. It's a project which was set up as a pilot by the previous Government, in a handful of deprived areas around the country, to gather information about why some of the most disadvantaged families don't use free public services such as doctors, schools, libraries etc. I'm only involved in one area, but they've been doing some terrific work and gathering some really useful information; I think it's a great shame it's closing. I know there's a big deficit and many cuts have to be made, but you can't fix a deficit quickly, the project was due to finish next March anyway, and I think it's shortsighted to cut it sooner which effectively wastes the money that's already been spent on it because it won't have time to realise its full potential. The effect on me personally isn't that bad - I'm only losing promised work, and I expect something else will come along to fill the gap - but it's absolutely dreadful for all the people who are going to be out of work in a month's time instead of in 10 months' time.

On the plus side, I've caught up with the backlog of work on my OU accounting course, and am now in the week I'm supposed to be in. Which is just as well, because I start the maths course this week, so will be running the two together for the next couple of months. I'm doing OK on the accounting course - have only been reduced to tears once so far - although some of the language perplexes and confuses me. For example, when you receive money from a debtor you debit the bank to increase it and credit the debtors to decrease, but when you refund money to a debtor you credit the bank to decrease and debit the debtors to increase. After a few rounds of 'credit the debtors and debit the creditors' I start to feel as if I'm in some kind of nightmare Gilbert and Sullivan world.

And a third plus is that I've been invited to a friend's daughter's 18th birthday party this evening, and I'm off up north first thing tomorrow to spend a few days with my family. I'm really looking forward to having a few days off, starting any minute now. I'll be taking my laptop away with me, but I won't be online much and I'm only going to write if I feel like writing. A proper break! Hurrah!

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Della Galton: Critique And Speak

When I was going through my recent writing-related doldrums, I decided I needed to take some positive action. So, quaking in my boots at my own temerity, I approached the rather terrifying doyenne of womag writing, Della Galton, about her Critique and Speak service. To my surprise, she seemed happy to take me on, so I chose a story that I knew wasn't working very well, sent it off with a cheque, and waited for her response.

I wasn't sure what I'd signed up for. I knew I was going to get a critique, but given that no critique I've ever had of a book-length work has run to more than 8 pages, I figured a short paragraph was all I was likely to receive. And probably quite a stern paragraph, at that.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Two full pages of critique arrived, with headings covering every aspect of the story including its title. Della praised some aspects of my writing, and gently explained where she thought I might be able to make improvements. Each of her suggestions made perfect sense.

Then we had the 'speak' part. I was nervous all over again, but you know what? Della's not scary at all! She's really friendly, and kind, and helpful! It was fantastic to be able to ask her questions, and she is certainly an expert.

Della's input has given me a boost and increased my confidence. She's helped me work out that I need to take more time over my stories: my fortnightly short story group deadlines are great for helping me churn out first drafts, but the impulse to follow up with submissions sometimes gets in the way of me polishing stories enough. She also suggested that I need to create more multi-dimensional characters, raise the stakes for my characters, and use more scenes in my stories. She gave me some great tips about how to generate ideas in the first place, how to build on those ideas, and how to come up with endings that have real impact. Our chat was relaxed and unhurried: we discussed the market, writers' groups, novels and non-fiction, and dogs versus cats. I'm sure we'd have got onto shoes, food, holidays etc if we'd been on the phone much longer.

I may well use Della's service again in the future, with a different type of story. The people in my short story group give excellent critiques and I couldn't do without them, but I did find it useful to have an independent and more detailed view of one of my stories, and a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of my writing. So if any of you are feeling unconfident, or have a story that's not really working and you're not sure why, or just want a second (or twenty-second) opinion, I would highly recommend Della's Critique And Speak.

Monday, 24 May 2010

I Sold A Story!

I haven't had a sale since early autumn, so the email telling me The Weekly News wants to buy one of my stories was very welcome indeed. I know rejection is part of the writer's lot, but rejection after rejection after rejection, from editors and agents, can be tough at times. I'm a fairly confident person, determined to persevere, and I expect many more rejections than acceptances - but even so, at times over recent months I've felt really down and wondered what the world would lose if I gave up writing altogether. As it happens, the world would lose very, very little - but I would lose a lot, because really I love writing for its own sake, and can't stop doing it, even when quitting seems like a good idea. Remembering that is the key, I think - but a little external validation now and then is SUCH a help. So now I feel all happy, and pleased with myself, and cheerful.

My workload has calmed down, too, so life is sweet right now, especially as the sun is shining. Although apparently it's going to be much cooler tomorrow... when my new barbecue is due to be delivered... typical!!

Friday, 21 May 2010

Bit Pete Tong

This week didn't go according to plan, because I got two lurgies at once (good organisational skills, great time management!) and had to take to my bed for the best part of two whole days. Most unusual for me. Then of course I had a backlog of work, when I still wasn't really fit, so the writing had to go by the board. Apart from the 1000 words I managed on Monday morning, before I succumbed, and the short story I drafted last night. Not much output for a working week - but then again, not bad in the circumstances.

Also not bad in the circumstances is the contract I won this morning (hurrah!) and the other piece of work a long-standing and much-loved client has asked me to do, which isn't in the bag yet, but there's nobody else in the frame so it should go ahead unless they change their minds or develop budget difficulties or something (has been known to happen, but rare). As a self-employed person, it's always good to have a few months of job security ahead, even if it does mean less time for writing.

I've got a busy weekend ahead with friends and family, but will be back on my 1000 words a day next week, and will keep you up to date with my progress.

Monday, 17 May 2010

A Thing About Agents

Over the last few years of submitting my work to agents, I've made it my business to learn as much as I can about how they work. I read agents' blogs, listen carefully when I meet them at courses or events, and question other authors about their experiences with agents. Among other things, I know that not all agents will read unsolicited submissions; those that do will always give priority to their existing clients; and even when your work shows promise, if they don't want to take it on - whatever the reason - you are most likely to get a standard rejection letter. I also know that different agents have different submission requirements and that it's best to comply with whatever they ask for, even if you think your work would be better presented in a different way.

I'm fine with all of that. Agents are businesspeople and have every right to run their businesses in the way that works best for them. But there's one agent who has a policy that rankles. This agent accepts email submissions (hurrah) but states that if you haven't had a reply within eight weeks, you can take that as a rejection.

The more I think about this, the more it seems both lazy and discourteous. I regularly have to send out email rejections in the course of my own business. The wording is something like 'Thank you for the opportunity to tender for this interesting piece of work. Unfortunately we don't have the necessary capacity to undertake the project, but please do think of us again in the future. We wish you the very best of luck in finding a researcher to meet your needs.' It takes less than 10 seconds to copy, paste, and send.

I know that people who ask me to tender for work have often invested a lot of time and energy in finding the funds and preparing the brief. OK, sometimes the email is more of a lie than a truth, and if I was being honest, I'd say something like 'There is no way I'm tendering for your rat's nest of a project. The brief looks as if it was the result of an argument, you clearly have no idea what you actually want a researcher to do, it will end up being a nightmare project with tentacles that will take over my life, and what's more your budget is woefully small, so please go away.' Similarly I'm sure if agents were always honest, some of their rejections would say something like 'For goodness' sake stop writing immediately because you have no hope of ever getting published, and if you won't take my advice, at least stop sending submissions to this agency.' Others might be more positive. In fact, I know they are, because I've had kindly personalised responses from agents, both on this book and on previous ones.

But no response at all? Why? Surely even writers whose submissions are utterly dreadful deserve a few seconds of someone's time to send them two lines of acknowledgement of their effort, their hopes, their dreams.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Looky Looky Look!

At my word counter, that is - 1000 words/day this week, 15,000 total. Go me!

It's been a much saner week, on the whole. I did have two unexpected disputes to deal with, in different areas of my work, that I could have done without. I wasn't on the receiving end of either dispute, but in both I was in a position to help with conflict resolution, which meant I had to deploy tact. I don't really do tact, and I now know that it's particularly hard when I want to bang people's silly heads together.

The other thing that's been slightly taxing is that a number of my friends seem to be having horrible problems and are in need of support and TLC. I've got two relationship breakdowns (and in one, I'm friends with both people), two dying fathers, two major health problems, one imminent redundancy, and a family rift. There are probably others but those are the people I'm providing most support to right now. Odd how these things come in phases, isn't it?

On the plus side, it's Friday, and I have three girlfriends coming for dinner tonight, all of whom are happy right now. I've planned a fab menu: smoked salmon and cream cheese canapes (with extra-dry Prosecco to drink); mixed vegetable gratin (leek, butternut squash, cauliflower and spinach) with ricotta custard and Parmesan, and steamed new potatoes with fresh mint (and organic Shiraz); chocolate chunk lemon drizzle cake with creme fraiche (and Muscat de Beaumes de Venise). Ooh I'm so looking forward to it!

Then I have a quiet weekend ahead. I have a meeting tomorrow afternoon, and I need to go to the gym at some point, but the rest of the time will be spent writing and studying. I'm hoping to churn out another 5000 words of my book this weekend, 2500 per day; not sure whether I can, but it's worth a try. I also need to do one book submission and several short story submissions; critique six short stories for my short story group; and critique two chapters of a book for a friend. And I would like to make a start on my OU accounting course, as the course materials arrived on Wednesday - I'm trepidatious about this, but I know I'll feel better once I get going.

A weekend which is mostly devoted to writing and studying is my idea of a good weekend. What's your idea of a good weekend? Whatever it is, I hope you've got one coming up.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Ooh That Was A Lovely Weekend

So I went off to London last Thursday afternoon, as tired as I've been in a long time. I landed at Good Friend's house at around 5.30 and had a cup of tea with her before she had to go to a meeting. GF's Teenage Daughter was back from school, so I made some food while TD revised for her A levels, then we ate and gossiped together until GF came home.

On Friday GF had a couple of meetings during the day so I met another old friend for a gorgeous south Indian lunch and more gossiping. Then in the evening, to recover from the elections and their aftermath, GF, TD and I indulged ourselves in pizza and profiteroles. (TD made us laugh by warming her profiteroles in the microwave. They go soggy and sad. Not recommended.) GF and I made copious plans for Saturday, involving Oyster cards, art galleries and cafes, and went to bed feeling all anticipatory.

Only on Saturday we both overslept, and it was cold and rainy, and we went through the motions of getting up and dressed and breakfasted, and then we looked at each other and admitted we didn't really want to go out or, indeed, do anything. So GF popped to the shop for a newspaper, then came back and lit her fire, and we declared it an honorary Sunday - complete with afternoon naps and long-drawn-out roast dinner. It was very restful and just what I needed.

On Sunday morning I began writing this fortnight's short story, and I finished it on the train home in the afternoon. I haven't done any work on my WIP over the weekend, but you know what? I don't care, because I was so very tired that I needed to rest more than I needed to write.

Next week, however, will be a different story.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Prophetic? Moi?

Two book rejections this week, with a short story rejection thrown in, which makes me feel a little like Cassandra, the ancient Greek prophet who went around intoning 'Doom, Danger and Woe!' But still, in the spirit of keeping on keeping on, I've sent off two more submissions. And if I run out of agents, I'll submit my work to publishers. And today, I'll be boosting the word count on the WIP again. Yesterday I read through what I've written so far and decided it was a load of garbage, so it must be a proper first draft. Since then my characters have been taking on their own lives in my head again which, for me, is one of the fun parts.

The last chunk of manic paid work is almost over - just this morning to finish up a few odds and ends, then I'm off to London for a long weekend to hang out with friends, dear friends who get up late so I can write in the mornings (my best time) and I also have two train journeys which I often find good for writing. So I should be back to my 1000 words a day, most days, habit from now on.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Keeping On Keeping On

The thing about this writing business is, you have to know you're in it for the long haul. Yes, there are people who write a book in three months and sell it in three weeks, but they are very rare. Five agents have now had my submission for a month or more, and in one case over two months. I wasn't surprised not to hear from anyone in April, what with Easter, the London Book Fair, and that pesky volcano. But now I'm starting to watch my inbox again: I reckon I should hear something from someone this month, if only another of those nice rejections. Most of all, though, I know I need to keep on keeping on. And as my paid work recedes, towards the end of the week, I'm hoping to get back to churning out some more words for my current WIP.

This week, I read an inspirational tale about one writer's amazing tenacity. I'm hoping it won't take me quite so long - but his story has made me more determined than ever to keep going, not to give up, to persevere.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

I've Done It Now

I had a chat with my Paramour about my mathematical incompetence (remember?). He kindly helped me work out that one of the things I'd like to achieve is a better understanding of my company accounts. (Yes, it is perfectly possible to run a successful business while being numerically inept - especially if you have a handy Paramour to help you with that side of things, as mine does for me.) Then he pointed out that learning about maths isn't terribly helpful in getting your head around company accounts; for that, it would make more sense to learn about accounting and book-keeping. To which I am equally allergic.

Finding myself with a spare few minutes this afternoon, I did some more investigation of OU courses. Lo and behold, they offer an introduction to book-keeping and accounting as well as their introduction to maths. What's more, the accounting course starts next week, and the maths course starts a month later. So guess who's just signed up for TWO courses for the numerically challenged?


Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Busy Busy Busy

This week is so full that I have no time to write. (Yes, I could squeeze in half an hour here and there, but am not prepared to put myself under that much pressure when work is so demanding.) But I keep having ideas. At the gym... in the bath... driving between assignments... almost any time I'm not actively thinking about other things.

Write your ideas down, wise people will say. But you know what? I never actually do that. I don't own a paper notebook. I tried writing ideas down for a while, way back, because all the proper writers seemed to do it. But it doesn't work for me. Last week's idea seems trite, while last month's idea doesn't even make sense any more. Even a paragraph mapping out a short story will seem unappetising if I return to it after a few days - like going to the kitchen, hungry for a sandwich, and finding only mouldy bread.

Perhaps this is partly why I'm not a great planner. Having said that, some ideas stick in my mind over months, even years, until I want to use them. I don't worry about non-stick ideas because I can usually generate new ones. Then again, maybe I re-generate old ones that just feel like new ones, who knows? Who cares!

Do you write down your ideas and use them later, or trust your creativity in the moment, or a bit of both?

Friday, 23 April 2010

Walking The Writer's Tightrope

I read somewhere this week (I'm sorry I can't remember where - if anybody knows, please leave a comment and I'll add a credit) that writers have to be able to hold two contradictory ideas in their heads at all times. These are, to the best of my remembering:

1. I am a good writer, good enough that it's worth me working hard to write and to submit my writing for publication.
2. I am a bad writer, I need to be working hard to improve my writing and my submissions for publication.

Notice the phrase that's the same in both ideas? Yep - it's "working hard."

This resonated with me. I need to believe I'm good at writing to give me the confidence to keep writing and sending out story and book submissions in the teeth of regular rejections. I also need to believe I'm bad at writing, so I don't think my first drafts consist of deathless prose and therefore develop hideous arrogance which would mean I NEVER get an agent - and so that I keep working to improve my skills and abilities. Maintaining both beliefs feels a bit like walking a tightrope: I wobble between one and the other.

Working hard at writing involves further balancing acts. It's not as much of a struggle for me to prioritise writing as it is for many people. I don't have children, or adult dependents; I work for myself, so I can take time to write during office hours if I'm not too busy with jobs for clients; I don't have to work full time, so sometimes I can award myself whole writing days or weeks. I'm good at time management, organisation, motivation. Yet still, sometimes, it's difficult.

I think this is partly because I'm impatient. Eight thousand words into my first draft (in ten days! Lookee lookee at the word counter!!) and I can't wait to be finished. Yet I know it's no good rushing (and if I ever forget this, Debi's voice kindly appears in my head to remind me). But I had such a lovely plan. I was going to write 1000 words per day, up to and including today, which would give me 10,000 words. Then this weekend, when I have no work or social commitments, I was going to write 2500 words each day, to make up for next week when I won't have time to write anything. That would give me 15,000 words to leave alone for a week and then review.

So why is the word counter still at 8000 words? Because yesterday I had an email outage which required several hours of extra work to deal with, and there was no slack in the system. And I was completely knackered. And today has been very full-on, so I haven't written any words today either. Instead, I revised my plan to 1000 words a day over the weekend, and ending up a week behind schedule on the WIP, with only 10,000 words to review after a week.

It really doesn't matter. Looked at objectively, the world would lose nothing if I stopped writing altogether. In fact, it might gain: I'd have more time for my family and friends (although I'd be so crabby that they probably wouldn't be very appreciative), for myself, for my paid work and for my voluntary work. If being a week behind my (self-imposed) schedule leaves me less knackered and better able to face the Week From Hell next week, that will be a good thing. After this weekend, I won't be back to my WIP until Monday 3rd May at the earliest, as I have to work straight through next weekend. And I worked straight through last weekend. So this weekend I think I need a break more than I need the satisfaction of an enormous word count.

This again necessitates holding two more completely contradictory ideas in my head:

1. I must work hard to finish my WIP in a timely manner.
2. It doesn't matter how long I take to write my WIP.

I often find it hard to get the balance right between these two ideas. I'm sure impatience is partly to blame here, too. I spent so many years writing my last book, I can't bear to think it'll be that many again for this one - even though I know it might. Judging from the experiences of friends, if I ever get published, I'll need to write a book a year, so it would be useful to get the hang of writing more quickly. But here's another writerly paradox:

1. I must set myself deadlines and stick to them
2. I must be flexible about my deadlines when the need arises

Aarrgghh!!!!! All of these are doing my head in!

How do you walk the writer's tightrope?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Feeling Lucky

My retired parents take several holidays a year. They're on holiday right now - in Scotland, where they went by car.

A couple of months ago, my Paramour and I decided to try to arrange our own holiday. 'What would your choice be?' I asked. 'Greece, end of April or beginning of May,' he said. We consulted our diaries, couldn't find a mutually acceptable week till June, had an argument about whose fault that was (his, obviously), sulked for a bit, and eventually decided on France at the end of June, by car.

My brother-in-law was due to fly into the UK from his home in Canada today, to spend a week with the family before attending a work-related conference over here the following week. Of course we're sorry not to see him, but he's much better off stuck at home than stuck abroad or in transit as so many other unfortunate people are.

We are so, so lucky.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Taking A Plunge

Academically, I've always been a high achiever at the arts and humanities end of the curriculum, and hopeless at maths and science. I enjoyed maths and science till I went to senior school. I dropped all three science subjects when it was time to choose my O levels, but I had to do maths. I was in the O level class with a teacher who was undoubtedly a very nice woman, and probably a fine mathematician, but not a good teacher. If I asked for help with something I didn't understand, she would explain it exactly the same way as she'd explained it the first time, only louder. The volume wasn't the problem, so this didn't help.

Once when she was off sick, the CSE teacher took our class. He was great! If I didn't get something, he explained it as many different ways as it took for me to grasp the concept! I asked if I could move to the CSE class. No, they said, you're a high achiever, you're capable of O level. Not with this teacher, I muttered, and anyway, grade 1 CSE is supposedly equivalent to an O level so what's the difference? That didn't get me anywhere.

I developed a fear of maths, and a conviction that I couldn't do much beyond basic arithmetic. So I failed maths O level. Several times. The last time I sat the exam, I used the time to catch up on my letter-writing. I told myself I didn't care: I knew enough to work out my change, read a timetable, divide a restaurant bill. That was all I needed.

Fast forward 29 years and you find me beginning to feel slightly interested in science. I had a look at OU introductory science courses, but they all say you need basic maths. Eek. Gulp. The OU also offers a basic maths course. I had a look, in some trepidation, and found that the student reviews were helpful. 'Did you feel stupid in maths classes at school?' Yup. 'This course doesn't make you feel like that.' Really? 'The tutor was so helpful.' Hmmm. 'The course makes maths relevant to everyday life.' Ooh!

So I think I'm going to sign up. It's scary, though.

My father was always afraid to learn to swim. (Stay with me, this is relevant.) He didn't like to go in water if it was more than knee deep. I have an abiding memory of childhood holidays where he would sit in the sea up to his chest, put on my swimming mask and crane his face forward into the water to look at the fish. After he retired, he decided to face his fear, and signed up for a course at the local swimming pool. He was in there with a load of kids, holding on to a polystyrene float and kicking his legs behind him. The day he swam a width unaided, he rang to tell me of his achievement. I was, and am, hugely proud of him.

My brain tells me I should be equally proud of myself for facing my fear of maths. But I don't feel proud, I feel silly and nervous and frightened of failure. Which is daft! What's the worst thing that can happen? Nobody will tell me off, or dock my salary, or stop being my friend, or sack me from my job.

And still, and still.

People, eh? What Are We Like?!

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Guess What I Did Today

Another writing day today. Three short stories edited and subbed, then a trip to the gym, and then it was time to think about my new WIP.

I did some more work with the Snowflake Method on Monday. I'd done the first three steps fairly diligently, so I started on step 4, but found myself unable to follow the instructions. I wanted to write more than a paragraph per sentence. Much more. So I did, and found that within a couple of hours I'd sketched out the first half, maybe two-thirds of the book.

Also on Monday, I found myself in a large and seductive branch of Waterstones. I gravitated, as always, to the creative writing section. Did you know I'm a 'how to' writing book addict? I must have read dozens. Thing is, I learn something from each book. I re-read the best ones, too, and learn something new every time. I find them immensely useful if I feel stuck, a few pages of a good one usually gets me going again in no time.

Monday wasn't too bad; I only bought two. One was 'No Plot? No Problem!' by Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. I've never done NaNo, but I've followed the progress of those who do, and always find it fascinating. Chris Baty's book is excellent. He argues eloquently in favour of planning - but against overplanning, which he says can block writers. This was really useful for me.

The other book I bought was 'How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy' by one of my heroes of the genre, Orson Scott Card. I'm halfway through this and it's inspiring.

Some of your answers to the questions in my previous post were also very helpful. Beleaguered Squirrel said 'My current thinking is that it's best to plan a broad outline but avoid getting too mired in detail, which then gives you room to breathe and be inventive within secure boundaries.' SueG, who has tried the Snowflake method, said 'I thought it was helpful, but I had to be very flexible with it. I had to use some bits of the process and not others, I had to be willing to make changes while I was going, etc. And that worked fine.' And Cathy said 'I guess it's a case of playing around to see what works best for you.'

So do you know what I did today? I wrote the first 1000 words of my new WIP! Word meter over on the right, thanks to the lovely Leigh. I thoroughly enjoyed it, too. Such a feeling of satisfaction - not better than chocolate, or sex, or selling a story, but a kind of calm excited completeness that is different from anything else. I hope I can sustain that feeling for a while, although previous experience leads me to suspect that at some point I'll be back here wailing that my story doesn't make sense, the characters are misbehaving, writing books is too hard, and so on. But for now - I'm happy.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Writing And Planning

Today is a lovely, lovely writing day. Not an enormously productive one but nevertheless very enjoyable. I began by finishing the first draft of a short story for my writers' group to look at this week. Then our overnight guests got up, so I stopped writing and joined them in a leisurely sociable breakfast. After they left I went back to bed, re-read a short book from cover to cover (my very favourite way to read), and then had a nap. I should have been born in a siesta country, warm weather and afternoon naps suit my constitution perfectly.

Since then I've been tinkering with my WIP. This time, I'm planning, and I've started using the Snowflake Method which was brought to my attention by the estimable Spiral Skies. Up to now I've always been pretty much a seat-of-the-pants writer, rarely planning more than a few scenes ahead. I've always thought it would probably be more efficient to plan a whole book in advance, but I couldn't, before; I didn't know enough about plotting, story structure, narrative arcs etc, and I had to work it out by writing and rewriting. I read lots of how-to books, and learned about the three-act structure; the need for each character to have their own narrative arc; the differences and relationship between plot and character; and so on. But I only seemed able to relate the theory to my own work in retrospect. Now I think I can do it in advance, because I understand it well enough.

Of course, I may be wrong about this, but if I am, as usual, I'll find out by giving it a try. I don't think there's anything wrong with seat-of-the-pants writing, as such, and I know some very experienced writers who I admire enormously use this method. Alan Garner, for example. But I prefer to manage many things in my life through organisation and planning, so I suspect I might enjoy writing even more if I could plan a story first, really thoroughly. My own theory is that I could then write a good first draft without worrying or wondering what's going to happen next and how it will all end. Will it work? Who knows? I'll keep you posted!

But in the meantime, I have a question for you. Are you a planner or a seat-of-the-pants writer? Why? (OK, that's two questions. So sue me!)

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

About Stories

Sometimes us writers forget that stories aren't all made from writing. For example, we had a family staying with us for Easter, two parents and their two young daughters. The girls love written stories, read avidly, and the older one enjoys writing stories of her own. They also enjoy telling stories, and told me many stories of school trips, sleepovers with friends, and amusing family incidents. These last were added to when the family went off together to the local water park one afternoon, while my Paramour and I stayed at home to do domestic jobs. When they came back, I asked if they'd had a good time. The girls were jumping up and down, fizzing with a new story to tell, their words falling over each other:

'We went on the big big flume...'
'And I zoomed down first...'
'And then Mummy went next...'
'And afterwards she took ages to get up...'
'I was watching her and wondering why she was taking so long...'
'And then we saw why, it was because...'

Cue for much hilarity all round. This story was told and re-told all weekend (much to poor Mummy's embarrassment), and will no doubt become part of that family's oral story archive.

Some events are reliable story-makers: social rituals such as weddings and funerals; individual rites of passage; random acts of kindness. Friendships are often based on shared stories. I have a small group of newish writer friends who are bonding around stories involving things like catching the wrong train and putting up a tent indoors - trivialities that wouldn't mean much to others, but which create mirth and solidarity for us.

Looked at one way, people's lives are made of stories, and people turn into stories when they die. However, something I have learned in my writing career is that, while there is of course some overlap between life's stories and written stories, they are often more different than they are similar. I remember, as a novice writer, wailing 'But life isn't really like that,' when helpful tutors gently tried to explain the demands of narrative. I've got a much better handle, now, on how to create a written story that will work for a reader. I know that simply writing stories is not enough; I have to design an experience, create a world.

Which is fine. But I reserve the right to hear, tell, and make stories in my life as well as in my computer. In fact, I think it's essential, for writers as for everyone else.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Waiting Room

The last few weeks have been particularly difficult on the writing front, mainly because I haven’t had time to do any. I’ve found that this is really unhelpful when waiting to hear from agents. I go to sleep thinking about agents, wake up thinking about agents, and in between, well, I spend a lot of time thinking about agents. When I’m not checking my emails. It’s possible to obsess for several hours about whether the fact that I haven’t heard from Agent Q for four weeks now is a good sign or a bad sign. Even though I know it’s not a sign at all.

So I was very happy, last Saturday, when I was able to make a start on my next book. I could have started work on a sequel to the one currently doing the rounds, but that seems pointless unless someone picks up the first book. And, actually, I’m finding it fun to work on something completely different. I’ve learned so much about writing in the last few years, which doesn’t mean I’m a mistress of the craft or anything – far from it – but it does mean that I start further up the ladder than I used to. I have much more idea about how to build characters and plot; the importance of stress and conflict; ways to make dialogue and description really effective – lots of things, which make writing much more enjoyable, even at first draft stage. And you know what? As my crystal-ball-wielding mentor Debi so presciently foretold, writing something new takes my mind right off the whole agent/submission thing. It’s great!

Monday, 29 March 2010

The Age Of Uncertainty

So, my book has been doing the rounds of agents for five weeks now, and in that time I’ve had three quick standard rejections and two slower nice ones.

The first nice one said this:

Thank you for writing to me about your book enclosing proposal and three sample chapters.

I was very impressed with the professional way you present this material and I enjoyed the chapters too. Unfortunately, though, I'm not convinced the British publishing industry and buying public are ready in enough numbers for a book which is essentially all about funerals, as engagingly as you write.

I'm so sorry not to be more encouraging. This is just my subjective opinion and, since you write so well and present your book so convincingly, you will no doubt find someone else who will have more confidence in the market for this book than I do.

I wish you the best of luck.

Isn’t that lovely?

The second rejection was terse, but then it was from the CEO of a large prestigious agency, while the message above came from an agent in a small newish agency. The second one said:

I have now had a chance to read your work and have also shown it to a colleague. However, neither of us are confident in being able to place this successfully with a major publisher, so we are unable to offer you representation.

This pleased me too, for two reasons. First, the CEO wouldn’t have bothered to show my work to a colleague if it had no merit. Second, it reinforced the message from the first one, i.e. that the problem is with the marketing.

I also read an excellent interview with the eminent literary agent Carole Blake on The Literary Project blog. The combination of all three has inspired me to rework my cover letter and synopsis, to place less emphasis on the funerals and more on the characters and their personal relationships. Whether that will make any difference or not, I really have no idea, but I’ll be sure to let you know.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Crazy Busy

Things are proper manic around here. Ever seen a wasp go mad in a jar? That's my life right now. It's often like this in the run-up to the end of the financial year, and I may be working 70-80 hours a week but I'm getting paid for most of them so I'm not complaining. But this blog may be a bit quiet for a while, and I may not be commenting on yours much either. I'll do what I can, when I can, over the next month or so, and 'normal service' *cough* will be resumed in April.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Hen Night

You may remember that, a few weeks ago, I was asking for forfeit ideas for a bride-to-be on her forthcoming hen night. I'd had the idea of getting badges made with (slightly) embarrassing personalised messages, but wondered whether anyone could come up with anything better. Clever Womagwriter did just that, suggesting that I could "get some embarrassing early photos of her (perhaps from her husband or parents if possible) and/or embarrassing anecdotes (from other friends and family). For each wrong answer, an anecdote is read out or a photo handed round or pinned to her outfit." The only trouble was, her fiance had already helped me work out the questions, I've never met her parents, and I only know two of her friends well enough to ring and ask for anecdotes. So, while that was a great idea (which I have filed away in my brain for future reference), it wasn't going to work in this case. I decided to go with the badges, spent a happy hour coming up with slogans that I thought might hit the mark, and - after some research on the web to find a good price - ordered them from Big Dog Badges who provided excellent quality, service and price.

On the day, I met the others in central Birmingham. Most of them had travelled in by train, already wearing their haloes. As a result, the train manager decided to begin his announcements 'Ladies, Gentlemen and Celestials,' which apparently caused much hilarity throughout the train. We met at the Hippodrome for Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake which was an astonishing, beautiful, funny, sad, thought-provoking production that I would highly recommend. The plan was then to go for dinner, but the woman organising the meal had booked the table for 6.30, and the ballet was finished by 5.30, and it was only a ten-minute walk from the theatre to the restaurant. Which, when we got there, wasn't even open yet. Luckily there was a bar next door so we ordered a bottle of wine and settled in to wait.

The hiatus provided me with a perfect opportunity to whip out my quiz. I'd been a little nervous about when (or even if) to do this, as I hadn't told anyone else my plans. Luckily everyone fell in with the idea with great enthusiasm and the questions went down well. I was very strict with the bride-to-be about getting the answers exactly right, or else she had to wear a 'badge of shame'. She managed to get two out of the ten questions right, so only had to wear eight badges in the end, but she liked the badges so much that she demanded the full set! They said silly things like 'Bridezilla', 'Lights On, Nobody Home,' and 'I Like Blokes Dressed As Birds' (given the ballet we'd just seen, that one seemed particularly appropriate), but she loved them, and texted me the next day to say 'I shall wear my badges of shame with pride.'

By the time the quiz was done, the bottle was empty and the restaurant open, so we moved next door and enjoyed a sumptuous meal. I won't bore you with the entire menu, I'll just say 'bitter chocolate torte with Drambuie-soaked strawberries' (and dribble on my keyboard). The bride-to-be was very happy, I had a great time, and I think everyone else did too.