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...

...so 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.