Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Being Singleminded

I have thought of several blog post topics recently, but a topic no sooner comes to mind than it goes away again. My head is too full of my book, and the work I have to do to earn a living (which also involves a lot of writing), and what needs to be done to maintain the essentials of life. There isn't room for anything else.

Anyone got a Boring Blogger Award for me? I think I deserve one!

Talk amongst yourselves. I'll be back when I have more headspace.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

I Think I'm Nearly There

After six drafts of this book as a novel and two drafts as a memoir, I think I'm really, finally, getting somewhere. This week I've had feedback from two readers who I know will tell me exactly what they think. And they have. I've had comments like 'clunky', 'not good enough', 'YUCK', and even 'Please see me!' with an arrow that led to a long diatribe on the back of the page ending '...you're going to have to rewrite that scene.'

Eight drafts in, I'm entirely used to comments like this - in fact, I welcome them, because I need to know where I'm going wrong. There's no point having critters who don't crit. The thing is, though, in this draft, there aren't actually that many comments. And most of the critical ones are easily fixed. Plus, in places, there were chunks of several pages with no comments at all. And my readers also made rather a lot of lovely comments. One was a first-time reader, because I wanted some fresh eyes on my work. She laughed out loud in places, welled up in others and, once, was moved to tears. I couldn't ask for more.

The book still needs some structural and thematic work, but not a huge amount. My 'to do' list isn't very long. Which feels odd. I know there's still work to do, and it's important that I do it as well as I can, but you know what? I think most of the work, taken overall, is done. I remember this feeling from my PhD days: there was a point, two or three months before I submitted my thesis, when I realised I was over the hump, that it was, in a sense, all downhill from now on.

I do so hope that, when this book is finally as good as I can make it, I can get the damn thing published!!!

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Ideas Wanted

I've been to two hen nights in my life. The first was about 20 years ago, in Hertfordshire, for Debbie, the neighbour of my good friend Jill. I knew Debbie slightly from my regular weekend visits to Jill; her hen night was set at fairly short notice for a weekend when I was due to visit again; Jill asked Debbie if I could go along, and Debbie said 'yes'. Jill wanted me there for moral support, because she didn't know any of Debbie's friends and didn't know what to expect.

We started in the pub. Debbie was festooned, by her friends, with all sorts of additions to her outfit, from chains at her wrists (apparently for her husband to chain her to the kitchen sink) to tampon earrings (I never understood the reason for those). Then the strippergram arrived, a young man liberally coated in baby oil who did an act that had Jill and I cringing and wishing we could run away. Debbie and her friends thought it was great. After a lot of drinks for them - Debbie was downing Southern-Comfort-and-lemonades by the dozen - and a couple for us, we went on to an Indian restaurant with a sigh of relief. But we sighed too soon, as Debbie and her friends delighted in making bawdy jokes about and to, and even pinching the bums of, the gentle, polite, well-mannered Indian waiters. Jill and I escaped as soon as we decently could. It was one of the most cringeworthy evenings of my life.

The second, six years ago, could hardly have been more different. It was in Edinburgh and involved an afternoon at the spa of the Balmoral Hotel, followed by dinner at one of the fish restaurants in Leith. As several of the guests had flown in from other continents, it was held just two days before the wedding. The bride-to-be, an international academic, was delighted to have all the important women in her life in the same place, and took pains to ensure everyone had the chance to speak to everyone else: 'And then you'll know each other on Saturday,' she said. I enjoyed it enormously.

Next month I'm going to my third hen night. This one will be different again. For a start, I know all five of the other women who will be there, three of whom are good friends of mine. We're kicking off with a matinee of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, and then going for an earlyish dinner at a bistro.

So far, so civilized. But I have a mischievous streak. In this case, I also know the husband-to-be, and yesterday I enlisted his help in devising a set of ten questions for his fiancee, to test her knowledge of him in a teasing, tormenting kind of way; like a personalised version of the 'Mr and Mrs' game. It seems to me that she should pay a forfeit for every one she gets wrong. Now I don't actually want to go the whole cringe hog, and make her, say, ask a stranger for a kiss, or down a strong drink in one go. So my current idea is to get some big bright badges made with a range of appropriately embarrassing statements, such as 'I Am Bad, And Not In A Good Way' or 'My Husband-To-Be Is Smarter Than Me', and make her wear one for every wrong answer. But those are really lame ideas, and my creativity well is running dry, and I need ten good ones (in case she gets every single question wrong - unlikely, I know, but I want to cover all the bases). So: any thoughts?

Monday, 18 January 2010


1. Back in 1999 I'd fallen into working as a self-employed social researcher, and needed to update my skills, so I enrolled for a Masters degree in Social Research Methods. I was told the course had been approved by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) so I would be able to apply for funding from them if I chose to go on and do a PhD. Two years later I wanted to do that very thing, so I sorted out the paperwork and took it to my course tutor for him to complete. He contacted me a few days later and shamefacedly told me that someone at his university had failed to fill in a form, which meant in practice that the course had not been approved by the ESRC, and so I could not apply for funding from them unless I did another year of full-time study of social research methods. As nobody else funds social science PhDs, I had to either do the extra year or fund my own PhD. At the time, this was a major blow.

2. Even longer ago, when my sister was a young single parent with a four-year-old son, she decided to do a degree at a university which promised lots of support for single parents: full-time childcare in a registered nursery; accommodation on campus throughout; all lectures and tutorials during nursery hours; and several other family-friendly policies. When she got there, she found that much of this wasn't true: accommodation on campus was only guaranteed for the first year; several of her lectures and tutorials were in the evening, when her son needed her to be at home; and so on. She lasted for two years of a four-year degree, during the second of which she lived off campus, and then gave up the struggle.

3. Just this year, my nephew, now all grown up, is about to finish a two-year further education course. At the start, he was told that it would provide a qualification equivalent to A levels, which would enable him to get onto a degree course with a foundation year. Last week, as he was finishing his UCAS form, he was told that this was not the case. Due to someone's administrative error, he will now have very little to show for two years of hard work and poverty. He is understandably angry and feels that he has been lied to - which, effectively, he has - and, with universities' funding being cut, he is now wondering whether he has any chance of a place at all.

So has my family simply been unlucky? Or is this kind of bums-on-seats-at-any-cost, administratively inefficient, misleading way of 'selling' courses actually endemic throughout the further and higher education systems in the UK?

Thursday, 14 January 2010

I Am So Impatient!

I've never been good at waiting for things, or uncertainty. My book has been out for critique since a week before Christmas. It's due back by the end of next week, which is only an interval of a month or so, but it feels like aaaaaaaages. I want my baby back! I want to tweak it, and chip off sticky-out bits, and add enhancements to make it more beautiful. (Do you think it might be a good thing I never had an actual baby?)

It's supposed to be good to put a book down for a few weeks, inbetween drafts. Sometimes I've been perfectly content to do this, aware that I needed the rest. I know I needed a break this time, too, but I've had enough of one now. This is partly because I feel excited about my book again, which is lovely. I'm not worried about what my critters will say - yes, their feedback is bound to lead to more work, but I'm ready for it; I really feel as if I'm getting somewhere this time.

I have cheated a tiny bit: I sorted out my synopsis over New Year, with help from some of the lovely women in my short story group (you know who you are, and thanks again!). Writing synopses makes me sweat and swear, but at the same time I've always found synopsis-writing to be a useful exercise for helping to clarify the story's priorities. Plus it helped with the withdrawal symptoms. I hope Debi won't be cross with me...

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Such Fun!

We had a fabulous time, despite train delays and breakdowns, and severe weather. Antwerp was delightful. We figured we'd be able to find an Italian restaurant for dinner, then were astonished to discover there are about 15 of them around the cathedral, so it took us a while to choose, but we decided on Da Giovanni and were pleased with our choice as the food was terrific and the staff very friendly. The cathedral itself was stunning - it's gone straight into my Top Five Cathedrals of All Time - and the print museum, oh my goodness, anyone who has any interest whatsoever in anything to do with books or writing needs to go there immediately. It is set in the large town house which belonged to the family who ran one of the world's earliest printing businesses for the around three centuries, and they ran it from their house so you can see where and how they lived and worked, and stand in one of the world's first bookshops, and next to the world's oldest surviving printing presses, and see where the proofs were corrected - using marks we still use today - and many, many other fascinating things. Fascinating even to me, and I'm not usually interested in things historical.

The best thing about Amsterdam was the excellent bar 'In De Wildeman' which was a few doors along from our hotel. It's housed in a former distillery dating from 1690, has around 200 beers available, is non-smoking and has no music but lots of very sociable locals. By our second visit we were treated as regulars, and one of the bar staff from Friday night greeted us like old friends when we found her drinking in there on Saturday night. (It has to be a good sign when people choose to spend their leisure time in their workplace.)

We did some culture, too: The Hermitage, with its exhibition of artefacts from nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy, which was interesting and nauseating in equal parts. My Paramour and I would both have liked some social commentary, some recognition that there were other facets of society - merchants got the occasional look-in, but that was all. We went on to see the Rodchenko photographs, in the hope that they might provide an antidote, but they didn't, really, although they were still worth seeing.

Then on Sunday we were off to Brussels. Neither of us had ever visited the city before, and I'd done no background research, so we stopped at the tourist information point at the station and a very helpful woman explained the metro system, gave us a map, and showed us the locations of some museums and the cathedral. We took a metro into town, left our bags at the hotel (walking open-mouthed through the Grand Place on the way), and headed for the musical instruments museum. They have a fabulous collection, although we would both have liked more information about it, as there was very little. Then we went to the cathedral, which had a good crypt but wasn't a patch on Antwerp's. A delicious hot waffle from a van provided interim sustenance, then back to the Grand Place for a drink at the Roy d'Espagne. This had been recommended by a friend of a friend, and we were glad, mainly because it has just become a non-smoking bar which was a relief as there doesn't seem to be a smoking ban in Belgium.

After dinner we went to a bar which we had seen advertising live music, and sat by the door in case it was dreadful and we needed to escape. Two musicians came on, a singer and a guitarist, and did three sets of some of the best jazz I have ever heard. We shot up to the front after the first track and spent the rest of the evening there, enthralled. The singer's name is Mariana Tootsie, and she was terrific. The guitarist was Jerome Van den Bril, and he was excellent too. It was a wonderful, unexpected end to a really good trip.

Monday, 4 January 2010

May The Fourth Be With You

Debi said recently, in a comment on her blog, that there can't be too many dreadful puns in the world. So I thought I'd add one to the global total.

We had a fab Christmas! And New Year! It was all such fun. Christmas with our friends was lovely from start to finish, apart from the slight hangover I somehow managed to acquire on Christmas Day, but that was soon despatched with a couple of paracetamol and a Buck's Fizz. Then on Boxing Day we went home via my Paramour's family party, which was equally delightful, as everyone seemed to be on good form.

On the 28th, a pair of much-loved old friends from London came to stay for a couple of days. They arrived exhausted from work, Christmas, and their terrible teenager (she's lovely, actually, but only if you're not one of her parents) so we spent a couple of days slobbing out by open fires, eating, drinking, playing silly games, chatting and laughing.

Then on the 31st we had a small soiree with a bunch of live musicians and yet more food and drink, which was utterly delightful. And inbetween all that socialising, I did so much work that I've arrived at today with a very small to-do list. Which is great because on Thursday, all being well, my Paramour and I are off on Eurostar for a long weekend in Belgium and Holland. Apparently it's going to be warmer in Amsterdam than it is here, or should that be 'less cold' - only minus 3 instead of minus 8...

Friday, 1 January 2010

Blog Takeover Day

I must say, it is a relief to be able to be oneself for a change. Marvellous invention, though, the Internet. It's been jolly interesting to pose as an ordinary person who lives in a house with a number and opens one's own front door.

I was talking about it to my Prince Consort over our cocoa and organic digestives the other night (we have to have organic these days, or our eldest gets terribly tiresome). PC said he couldn't think why I would want to impersonate one of the great unwashed. I said any more of that kind of talk and he'd find some of his special privileges withdrawn. He said surely I didn't need to be so picky when it was just the two of us. I said his track record showed I did, and gave him the Look which reminds him who is the monarch around here. He shut up then, so one thinks one won that one.

Anyway, I believe most houses in streets have indoor bathrooms these days, so I'm sure my people do wash. I'm very fond of my people. I imagine them going about their daily lives, at home, at school, at work, wherever they are, doing all the funny little things they do, and every single one of them belonging to me. PC thinks we'd be better off without them. Then again, some of them seem to think they'd be better off without us, the silly billies! They're awfully sweet, really, and so easily pleased; all one has to do is wave now and then, cut a ribbon here and there, and try to remember not to scowl at the cameras.

I really do feel the new media has helped me to understand my people. It's not just the blogging, it's the tweeting, the status updates, the whole ballyhoo. I gave my PC an XBox for Xmas a few years ago, in the hope that would have the same effect for him, but he only seems to want to use it to kill people.

That reminds me, I had planned to write down my New Year's resolutions. Here goes:

1. Stop arguing with Mr Brown, he can't help it (and hope for an old Etonian replacement soon).
2. Take more exercise: walk the Corgis every day, even when it rains.
3. Remember it's bad form to bet heavily in a recession - maximum £500 on any one race.
4. No gin before 6 pm on weekdays.
5. Be nicer to old Horse-Face.
6. Replace those shabby velvet curtains in the banqueting hall.
7. Spend more time with our youngest now the children have reached a more acceptable age (maybe watch X Factor with him next time round, he likes all that theatrical stuff).
8. Smile for the cameras.

Wishing you all an Annus Magnificus. ERself x