2013 365 Challenge: Some Lessons Learned

Conquering mountains

Conquering mountains

For anyone new to the blog (where have you been? *grin*) I spent last year undertaking a writing experiment I called the 2013 365 Challenge.

I set myself a tri-fold task: I would write a blog post everyday, I would include pictures in every post (mostly from what I had been doing that day) and I would write an installment of a novel every day. Not just serialise a novel already written, or write 10,000 words at the beginning of the month and parcel it up, but sit down every single day and think of something new to happen in my novel.

I set myself rules, too. I would try and post by 10am every day (which I mostly did!) I would collate each set of installments into a free monthly ebook and publish it by the last day of the month (which I mostly did). And, most importantly, I would not go back and change things (which I didn’t, aside from typos and spelling mistakes, which slipped through due to tiredness, and – once – when I accidentally changed the name of a character to one in the novel I was also editing at the time. I changed that for the sake of readers’ sanity. But I never changed more than a word at a time).

I think reaching the end of my challenge, the end of Claire’s (my protagonist’s) story, and realising I had written 285,000 words in a year and published them, counts as one of my greatest life achievements.

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

It isn’t Pulitzer Prize winning fiction. In some places it rambles. In many places I’m sure the lack of editing is obvious. But, still, hundreds of people read it and enjoyed it (as far as I can tell, by almost as many copies of the later volumes being downloaded as the first one). I felt like I reached the mountain top and the view was amazing.

Most importantly, I learned so much about being a writer that, even if I hadn’t had a single download, I think I would consider it time well spent. (Although, if I hadn’t had a single download I probably wouldn’t have made it past January, as knowing people were expecting the next installment was often the only thing giving me the motivation to write when all I wanted to do was sleep.)

I’m still processing all the things I learned from my challenge, but I promised in yesterday’s post that I would write some of them down. So these are the things that occur to me right now:

  • It really is important to write every day. That is probably more true for the blogging than the novel challenge, actually. I’m working on my current novel only three days a week (as I used to before the 2013 365 Challenge) but writing something everyday keeps the words flowing
  • You can write great prose even when you’re tired and uninspired (in fact, sometimes having half my brain worried about other things kept my conscious brain busy and left my creative sub-consciousness to get on with it)
  • Writing to a deadline sharpens the mind. Knowing you have to write something, anything, in the next hour, frees you from restraint.
  • Writing to a deadline can also cause terrible writer’s block. Knowing you have to write something, anything, in the next hour can make the white screen the most terrifying thing in the world
  • If the white screen scares you, turn it off and write somewhere else. Tap out a text message, scribble on an envelope. Once the words start flowing, it’s easy
  • Walking sets a great rhythm for dialogue. If I ever got stuck with a scene of dialogue, getting outside and walking the dog helped the words come. The conversation would run in my head in time to my footsteps and all I had to do was write it down
  • Research can spark off new and exciting ideas. Many of my best installments were triggered from a Tripadvisor review. Reading about other people’s experiences can set off a train of thought that leads to a new story, character, or source of conflict.
  • Keep your characters moving. If they must have internal dialogue or introspection, having the protagonist physically moving can give interest and momentum. Claire did some of her best thinking while hiking along cliffs or driving country lanes. It also makes it easier to match scene to mood: a lashing thunderstorm made a great backdrop for a moment of angst
  • Weather is important. It isn’t always sunny. Using Google StreetView to look at different parts of the UK also gave me impetus to write about different types of weather. Now I know to think about the weather and make sure it’s appropriate both for the time of year and mood of scene (see above)
  • Character arcs are fun. Having Claire change from a shallow work-driven career woman into a nature-loving, child-hugging, self-aware woman was very satisfying.
  • Nasty characters can be fun, too. When Claire’s brother turned out to be an utter git (which I hadn’t completely anticipated) I absolutely loved writing his scenes. We don’t often get to say mean things in real life and not feel guilty afterwards. Writing is cathartic
  • Your own experiences are a limitless resource. I used many things from my own life, including (but not exclusively) my time in hospital having my second child; my father’s cancer; my breakdown and subsequent depression; my year living, working and travelling around New Zealand; summers spent in Swanage with my father; hiking holidays in the Lake District, my time working as a Marketing Manager
  • Friends are also great resources. Two examples that spring to mind are when I used emotional anecdotes (not the details) from my paediatrician friend to get inside Josh’s mind, and an accidental conversation with a friend who used to live in the Lake District that greatly enhanced my Grasmere episode.
  • The mind is a well that can run dry. Whether I write 1,000 words a day for a week or 8,000 words in a day, my overall work rate stays fairly level. I just can’t generate the ideas to write more than 10,000 words in a week. The brain needs time to refill and replenish
  • Coffee shops and town centres are great places to refill the mind. Eavesdropping on conversations and watching how people interact can help to create stories
  • Reading is just as important as writing. Immersing yourself in a well-written book can fill the word-well in the mind and reinvigorate an exhausted muse
  • Formatting for Smashwords and Kindle are really boring but actually fairly straightforward. It helps to format as you draft, if it isn’t too distracting. I’ve learned to do it when I’m waiting for the next idea to come, or while watching TV
  • People don’t leave reviews for free books

I’m sure there are loads more things I’ve learned and I’m equally sure that some of these things only apply to me and not to all writers. Looking at the list, though, it makes me realise how far I have come as a writer and how much my confidence has grown. Turning up to work every day, whether I wanted to or not, moved me from “aspiring writer” to “writer”. I just need to make sure I keep it going! This year’s (unofficial) challenge is to build on my learning and concentrate on the craft of writing. Quality over quantity. I’ll keep you posted.

2013 365 Challenge Aftermath

Life Since Claire

Life Since Claire

Last night I realised it’s been nearly a month since I finished my 2013 365 Challenge (although I’m still blogging daily). Twenty-four days since I had to hold a story in my head every day; to remember who was in scene, all the strands of plot that needed completion, all the characters and their stories and flaws and mannerisms.

Four weeks since I had to format a word document for Smashwords, search for the perfect cover image or wonder what the weather was like on a random day last summer. To worry if I was taking Claire through a development arc as well as a physical journey.

I felt a bit sad, especially as I no longer get any downloads on Smashwords – checking my stats always picked up a gloomy day. I wondered if some of my sense of being adrift is due to not having that thread of continuity with me all the time. like leaving work or finishing a university course, or breaking up with a partner.

Then, in my new spirit of Happiness, I thought I would list all the great things about finishing Two-Hundred Steps Home.

  • Finally being able to read all the novels I’ve wanted to read for ages, rather than just reading Tripadvisor reviews and the YHA website
  • Catching up on blogs and actually leaving comments. Okay I’m still behind on my aim of three comments a day, but I probably managed fewer than three a month last year
  • Eating lunch while watching Bargain Hunt instead of researching tourist attractions or driving routes with Google Streetview
  • Going to bed before midnight
  • Getting stuck into crafting a novel, including all the pain of fixing continuity errors and plot holes, and being able to work on any chapter rather than having to stick to a strict linear timeline
  • Writing poor prose, just to write something, and knowing I can change it!
  • Walking the dog without tapping out dialogue into my phone: feeling the wind on my face and not falling into rabbit holes
  • Sitting down after dinner and the kids-to-bed routine without that lead weight in my stomach and the dread words “I have to write my post”
  • Spending time after the school run; getting my head straight, listening to the radio, drinking tea, and not feeling guilty that I’m not writing
  • Going out. I actually went to the cinema this evening for the first time in years, and afterwards talked about something other than my blog and Claire
  • Spending time with new characters and getting to know them

My work rate has dropped off as a result – I’ve only written around 12,000 words this month instead of the usual 20,000-25,000 (uncrafted words, too, whereas I proofread every Claire installment) – but I barely feel like I’ve done any writing and still the words pile up. I wrote 600 words on my iPad while waiting for an appointment yesterday. Before the challenge, I would have seen anything less than 5,000 words in a day a failure, but I could go days without writing anything. I have now learned that daily 600-word scenes quickly add up to a significant amount.

I learned so much from the challenge, although I’ll probably save that for another post. But, in some ways, I’m having to learn to live without it. It’s good to realise there are loads of positives. Mostly I feel there is time to breathe.

Now, time for another cup of tea.

The End. For Now. 2013 365 Challenge #365

The Final THSH Cover

The Final THSH Cover

Hurrah. I made it. Claire’s journey is finished, for now. She’s found a new home and what I suspect will be only the beginning of fresh adventures. Already the new characters intrigue me. Timothy, for example: he’s Maggie’s gentleman friend but for some reason I think he might lean the other way. Eddie is going to be a real handful. And the quiet Kayla might surprise everyone.

You’ll have to wait though. I have other novels to write, sleep to catch up on, books to read, before I even think about picking up Claire’s journey again. I want to start immediately, but I think we all need a break. I’ll be making notes, though, and any feedback is of course always gratefully received.

If you enjoyed the series, tell your friends. I hope to pull the entire 365 installments into one ebook at some point soon, although I won’t be editing it (except for any typos that I discover). The raw first draft (albeit one that was line-edited as I went along) is part of the challenge and should stand untouched. I’m proud of it as it is.

So, what’s next? After the sleeping and the reading and the hopefully shifting this cold finally because I’ve had it for weeks? Well, Class Act needs work. It’s currently a 50,000 word romance that I have plans to extend into a full length novel. Then there’s Finding Lucy. And a sequel to Dragon Wraiths. And of course a continuation of Claire’s adventures in Cornwall. I’m going to miss her and Conor, although it’s good to miss people!

The blog might be quiet for a while. Or it might not. I think stopping blogging might be like coming off the Christmas chocolate: both a challenge and a relief. I’ll see you when I see you. Please hang about and if you see only this post for a while, please understand! Maybe I’ll have more time to read and comment on some of your blogs now. That said, as it has been raining for the last two days, and my head is fizzing with blog entry ideas, it might not be quiet for all that long!

Wishing you all an amazing New Year and here’s to a 2014 full of words.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Her clothes filled the small wardrobe; her rucksack sat empty in the dark recess of the cupboard, tatty after its long journey. She could never have imagined, back when Carl had presented her with it as a leaving gift, that she could become so attached to a bag.

“We’ve come a long way, you and I. Time for a rest, for you at least.”

Claire laughed as she realised talking to an inanimate object was probably the first sign of craziness.

Maybe I am crazy. Do crazy people ever actually know that they are?

She thought about leaving Conor standing alone on the beach, and shivered. It had been two days and he hadn’t tried to contact her. She didn’t know if that made it easier or not. Dozens of unsent messages sat on her phone, taunting her. Her last words echoed continually in her mind, like a song stuck on repeat.

The man I love like breathing.

She considered it, as she walked across the tiny room to gaze at the ever-changing view of the sea. Was it true? Did she love him? Could you love someone on such a short acquaintance?

But it wasn’t short, was it? Four months is a long time, and he’s been there for me since day one. All the time in New Zealand and every time I needed someone since I returned.

Dwelling only intensified the pain. She cast one last look around her room and felt a glimmer of a smile through her grief. Her room. It felt good.

Downstairs, the children were finishing dinner. Claire hadn’t spent much time with them over the weekend. Timothy seemed to instinctively know she needed space to settle in, and had quietly assured her that she had no duties until Monday morning. She attended meals and sat in the shared lounge to read and think. Sometimes she nestled in the window seat she’d discovered along a corridor, overlooking the sea, and listened to the children giggling in their rooms. The sound of laughter rang constantly throughout the old building.

Outside, the sky hung overcast. She wandered through the bushes and trees until she reached the rolling lawn that led down towards the sea. Within minutes she had scrambled down the rocky path to the private beach.

A group of children clambered amongst the rock pools under the watchful eye of Eddie. He raised his hand in greeting and she nodded in return before heading to the other end of the sand.

Thinking she really needed to buy a surfboard, Claire found her favourite rock and climbed on it. Sitting with her arms clasped around her knees she stared out at the horizon and let the peace wrap around her like a blanket.

*

A tapping at the door roused Claire from a doze. She checked the time and was surprised to discover she’d been asleep for an hour. Thinking it must be Timothy wanting to remind her about something for the morning, she rolled off the bed and went to open the door.

She grasped the frame for support as her questioning gaze met a pair of familiar green eyes.

“Hello, Claire.”

“What? How did you know where to find me? How did you get in?”

“A bit of research found the centre and a chat with your man Timothy meant he let me in. Seems he’s a sucker for a romance.”

“You could be a stalker or a murderer.” She frowned, unsure how she felt about the invasion of her privacy.

“I showed him this.” Conor held up his phone to show a photograph of the two of them in bed, tangled in the sheets.

Claire stepped back into the room to hide the blood rushing to her cheeks. “You’d better come in.”

Uncomfortably aware that the room held only a bed, she waited for Conor to perch on one end of it, before going to stand, arms folded, by the window.

“Why are you here?”

“To ask why you keep running away from me without letting me speak, woman. I had something to add to your marvellous speech, you know.”

He stood up and crossed the room, coming to a stop only inches away from her. He leant in until his lips brushed the hair near her ear, sending flurries of heat across her skin.

“I love you, too.”

*

Claire rested her head against Conor’s shoulder and stared out the window at the multi-hued sky. They had talked long into the night, until the dawn light began to paint the horizon in stripes of silver and pink. Her head ached with the fog of missed sleep, and she knew her first day at work was going to be a disaster, but her heart felt like a bird floating on an updraft.

She looked around the tiny room, listening to the heartbeat and slow, sonorous, breathing of the man beside her. It wasn’t ideal, agreeing to a long-distance love affair, but she didn’t care. He loved her and she loved him; that was all that mattered. The rest was just geography.

As she lay in his arms and watched the sun rise, she realised she had finally found what she had searched for through two hundred long days – through a lifetime – something that wasn’t outside the window, or even in the room, but rather in her heart. A contentment; a sense of belonging and of peace.

She was home.

***

Nearly There: 2013 365 Challenge #364

My sister bought me this for Christmas!

My sister bought me this for Christmas!

Oh my goodness, here we are, my penultimate post of 2013. When I started the 365 Challenge back in early January, I wasn’t sure I’d make it to the end of the month, never mind the end of the year. By Day 4 I was just beginning to realise what was involved.

It wasn’t merely committing to writing 1,000 words a day (on average: some days a post can be nearer 2,000 when both parts are combined) but also finding time to edit and proofread those words; to make sure each post entry and each novel installment made sense; then adding photographs, tags, categories and getting it live.

I feel like I’ve come a long way.

When I began a year ago, I thought the daily novel would be the main part. I hoped to get blog followers from people who wanted to carry on reading what I was writing. That didn’t happen on the blog, but rather over on Smashwords, where the downloads across all volumes number in the thousands. Here on the blog, while the increase in followers hasn’t been massive, I feel more like I have made some really great friends. I’ve met fellow writers, artists and parents, I’ve discovered one or two amazing Beta Readers, I’ve felt – like Claire – that I’ve found my way home.

I’ve also grown as a writer. My confidence in my ability to write is significantly greater now, after the countless hours I’ve invested in Two-Hundred Steps Home. I know, now, that I can write and polish a 500-word blog post, or a 750-word scene in a novel, in under an hour.

Thank you to my amazing kids!

Thank you to my amazing kids!

I can research anything I feel the need to discuss, from a remote pub in New Zealand to what it really means to survive suicide. I can format and self-publish a novella in a few hours and get it through Smashwords’ Autovetter first time (although I haven’t resolved my issue with their Premium Catalogue!)

Best of all, I’ve learned how to edit my own stuff and Beta-read for others. When I began my journey I was trying to proofread Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes (or Pictures of Love, as it was back then). I couldn’t do it. Line-editing left me cold. Now I know that I have to do it in chunks, and then there is a delight in crafting the words and making the sentences flow.

Let’s not leave out that I’ve written 285,000 words of fiction this year, and will have published it as 12 separate volumes, each with a cover designed by me. On top of that, I estimate that I’ve written a further 200,000 words in blog posts. That’s nearly half a million words. In one year. If they were novels, I would have drafted out five. Five! During 2 or 3 days of childcare and lots of late night sessions.

I couldn’t have done it without my family. My husband has been amazing. He’s my best critic and my biggest fan. He’s taken the children when I’ve needed to write (I couldn’t have done the challenge if he hadn’t been had home for most of the year), he’s put up with me sleeping on the sofa then prising my eyes open at 10pm to tap out five hundred words. He’s put up with a dirty house and takeaway pizza.

My poor children have dealt marvellously with a tired and grumpy Mummy who constantly has her laptop open or is always taking pictures “for the blog”.

My amazing family

My amazing family

Their recompense is that they have this unique diary of a year of their lives. Reading back through my posts is to read through some of the highs and lows of being a parent (and a human being).

None of my posts are likely to see me Freshly Pressed: I may have learnt to write fast, but I haven’t learned to write profoundly. Still, it’s all been written truthfully and from the heart.

And so I thank you all for listening. Without readers, followers, this would all be me shouting into the wind. Knowing people cared about me, about Claire, about the story, has kept me going.

The support of people on this blog has also led to me releasing two of my novels this year also; something I still find incredible.

To anyone thinking about undertaking a writing challenge in 2014 I say, “Do it!” And, so you don’t quit, get out there and tell people. Get support. Face humiliation for failing. Because some days the only thing that got my tired body up and at the laptop was the fear of failure. Not that failing is bad. I love the Samuel Beckett Quote “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Don’t be afraid to fail. As I said to my daughter, when she threw a tantrum for losing at her second-only ever game of checkers this evening, “It’s not winning or losing that counts, it’s having fun along the way.”

And it’s been fun. Mostly. 😉 See you tomorrow for the final installment!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire could barely swallow the food. Her throat felt as if it was lined with grit. She put down her fork and sipped at her water. Across the table, Conor’s plate was equally full. They’d exchanged only pleasantries since arriving at the restaurant. The longer they sat, the harder it was to speak the words that hovered between them like a flock of hungry seagulls.

“Walk with me.” Conor’s eyes pleaded with her and she nodded. While she retrieved her cardigan and bag he went to pay the bill. They left the restaurant in silence and she followed him down through the high street towards the shore.

The sun had sunk below the horizon and streetlights cast shadows across the empty beach. Out on the water a few boats bobbed like ghosts, but it was a far cry from the crowds of the Carnival only weeks before. With the children back at school there was an air of ending about the town; a sadness that tugged at Claire like a riptide and pulled her under.

What must it be like to live in a seaside town, where the passing of the seasons takes a back seat to ebb and flow of the tourist trade?

She wondered if she would feel the same at the activity centre, but knew that she wouldn’t. Timothy planned to take children all year round, with summer camps in the long vacation and school trips for the rest of the year. While the nearest town was a tourist resort, it also had a harbour and a university. Different blends of life intertwining to provide a tapestry of endless change.

And where will I fit in, in that tapestry? She didn’t know the answer, but knew it didn’t matter.

They walked along the shore, to the mournful sound of the tide sucking at the stones only to fall away. Conor took her hand loosely in his and the touch of his skin sent sparks across her body. She yearned to turn and yield to his embrace.

“When do you start?”

Claire jumped as his voice came loudly out of the dark. She didn’t need to ask what he meant.

“Monday.”

“So soon?”

She heard the pain and hardened herself against it. “The first school group arrived this week. They need me.”

“And what about me? What if I need you?” Before she could respond, he spoke again. “Sorry, that’s unfair. God knows you’ve done enough for other people this year. I don’t want to be another duty.”

He dropped her hand and ran his fingers through his hair as if trying to stop himself flying apart. She could just make out his face in the gloom and saw him give a wry smile.

“I tried. Really I did. I wanted to support you in whatever decision you made. But then it was so perfect, spending time with you, and I couldn’t imagine letting you go. I still can’t.”

He reached up to stroke her face, before letting his arm fall again. “Why?” The word hung in the dark and she didn’t know how to respond. “Why is it so important to you to go?”

She searched her thoughts for answers. “Honestly? I don’t know. All I know is that I have to do this. If it means losing you, being lonely forever, then that’s the price I have to pay.”

Once she started speaking, the words wouldn’t stop. They rushed on relentless, like the incoming tide. “I’ve spent my life living the role I thought was expected of me. At home, at school, at work. I have to find my own path, even if that means slipping down the odd cliff.”

She saw him smile at the memory; a sad, nostalgic smile as they both pictured a bedraggled woman covered in grazes. She tore her gaze away and looked over his shoulder at the ocean, glimmering in the dusk. Memories would only imprison her in a life she wasn’t ready to live.

As if answering a question he hadn’t articulated, or maybe a question from her heart, she continued, “Yes, it’s worth it. Yes I’ll sacrifice having an iPad and a shiny car, a career with prospects, even the man I love like breathing, if it means I can be true to myself.”

The word love reverberated around them. When he reached for her, she saw the longing in his eyes and felt herself waver. She had to escape before her resolve crumbled into dust, eroded like the limestone cliffs that anchored his heart in a town which would never be home.

Stretching up on tiptoe, she brushed a kiss across his lips, then turned and ran up the beach, before he could see the tears falling down her cheeks.

***

Sea Life and Cbeebies: 2013 365 Challenge #363

Giant Sea Turtle

Giant Sea Turtle

We went to Sea Life today, as a family day out before Daddy goes back to work. It’s a bit of a trek from us, so we loaded up the iPad with Cbeebies programmes and set off before 9am.

Thankfully the children chose to watch Room on the Broom and Gruffalo’s Child, rather than the usual Octonauts and Charlie and Lola. I think I know every episode by heart, although I haven’t actually watched many of them.

I’m grateful for Octonauts, though, because I think it’s a large part of the reason why a trip to the aquarium was their choice of destination.

Being a Cbeebies programme, you know it’s mostly educational and fits as much in the ‘good’ screen-time category as the ‘mind-numbing TV’ one. However, it isn’t until you wander around Sea Life that you realise how great it is.

Stroking a star fish

Stroking a star fish

I saw a lion fish in one of the tanks and immediately identified it and knew it was poisonous. My daughter wanted desperately to see an octopus (like Professor Inkling) and we were as interested in the tiny creatures, like sea horses and jelly fish, as we were the sea turtles and sharks.

Aside from the lead characters in Octonauts (which, if you don’t know, include a polar bear, a penguin and a cat, living in an underwater pod saving creatures big and small) the programme appears to be both realistic and factual.

I do wince at the sight of a huge-headed polar bear working alongside an octopus and a rabbit of exactly the same size, and some of the other crazy things that happen in kids’ cartoons. But for the love it has given my children of the underwater world, I am truly grateful. I for one am not someone who ever complains about the cost of my BBC licence fee.

Mesmerising Jelly fish

Mesmerising Jelly fish

I also learned some great facts at the aquarium that I’m determined to use in my writing at some point, for their poignancy and humour. These are my favourites:

Female octopus lay up to 100,000 eggs and starve to death during the 6 months spent guarding and tending them.

Clownfish [think Nemo] start life as males and live inside a sea anemone, together with a female clownfish. The female prevents the males from changing sex by bullying them. When she dies, the largest male changes sex and takes her role.

Brilliant observations on the roles of women / mothers in nature. There has to be a story there, right?

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire’s shoulders prickled as she walked across the car park. In her memory she could see Conor hurrying to catch up with her, as he had done four months before, after her interview. Now she was away from the room she realised she was shaking.

How could he just sit there and act like we’ve never met? Just because I don’t want to come and live in this backwater town and be the little wife?

The vehemence of her thoughts shocked her. Conor had never suggested that she play second fiddle to him, or sacrifice her own career for the sake of his. In fact he’d suggested nothing at all except that he wanted to be with her.

Is that so bad?

She reached the relative safety of her car and her resolve crumbled. With her head slumped forward against the steering wheel, and her heavy hair creating a shield, she gave in to the grief that had swollen inside her chest. Despite the days of silence, she hadn’t really believed he would ignore her so emphatically.

At the edge of hearing, a tapping infiltrated her misery. Before she could analyse it, it stopped. She sank her head further into her hands, her sobs growing louder. With sudden violence, she smacked the steering wheel in frustration and jumped when the sound was followed by the click of the passenger door opening.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, you’ll break something. Your hand, probably. These old cars are built like tanks.”

The smooth voice slipped in between her ribs like a knife. She inhaled deeply, but kept her hair shielding her face, unsure how to react. She felt him brush the hair behind her ear, felt the heat of his breath on her face as he leant in close to look at her.

“It’s not advisable to wear mascara if you’re going to have a good cry, you know. You look like an 80s rock star.”

With a swish of hair she turned to face him, fury igniting inside like a raging fire. “Get out!”

Conor flinched but didn’t move.

“I mean it. Who the hell do you think you are, coming in here, cracking jokes like you haven’t ignored me for a fortnight? All because I want to have a life of my own. You’re pathetic.”

His face paled but he held his ground. “I’m sorry. I handled it badly. You surprised me, that’s all, and everything sort of crashed in.”

“You knew I was going to leave: I made no secret of the fact that I wasn’t going to stay after the end of the assignment.”

“I know.” His voice barely crossed the space between them. “But wanting to leave is different to actually getting a job offer somewhere else. It was so final, and you hadn’t even mentioned it.”

“I’d only just found out about it! Conor, you act like we’ve been together for years. I’ve known you precisely four months; we were dating for a few weeks, if that. I don’t owe you anything.” Her anger surprised her and she wanted to apologise, but the car rang with her hot words.

“I’m sorry that’s how you feel.” Then, almost to himself, he added, “It seemed longer than that.” He paused, as if he wanted to say more, and then moved to open the car door.

“Wait.”

He hesitated. Claire didn’t know what else to say. She just didn’t want him to leave, not like that. They sat in silence for a hundred years.

“Are you staying in town tonight?”

Claire nodded. “At a B&B. I couldn’t face the hostel again.”

“Come for a drink? Or dinner?”

A dozen different responses warred in her head and eventually her mouth formed round the word, “Okay.”

He reached for the door. “Text me your location; I’ll pick you up at 7pm?”

She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Without looking, she heard him open the door and close it softly behind him.

*

She saw the text flash to say he was outside, and checked her reflection in the mirror one last time. A pale, worried, face looked back at her and she forced herself to smile. Whatever happened, at least there would be resolution.

They walked in silence down to the town, without touching. The air crackled between them with all the charge of the lightning strikes she’d seen at the concert. Looking across at him she saw the tension in his face and knew that he felt it too. He turned towards her as she scrutinised him, and his eyes were a stormy sea. He opened his mouth to speak and she felt goosebumps trickle across her skin.

“I’ve missed you, too.”

***

Kind or Creepy: 2013 365 Challenge #362

Dogs and their toys

Dogs and their toys

When I walk the dog round the village I often see things that mildly concern me – things I think I should do something about – like an open car boot, a loose dog, or an unlatched front door.

Mostly I worry and dither and do nothing, because I’m fearful of interfering. Not worried for my safety, because this is a country village, but disinclined to be considered a busybody or to embarrass myself.

Today I saw a cuddly toy on someone’s lawn after dark. I worried, I dithered, then I decided if it was my child’s favourite toy getting wet and mouldy I’d want to know.

So I picked up a soggy giant Tigger and knocked on the door. A bewildered woman and an excited dog answered and bedlam ensued as my mutt tried to get in and theirs tried to escape. I held up the sodden toy and explained my mission. Turns out it was the dog’s toy. I beat an embarrassed retreat as the confused woman said thank you for the fifteenth time. No relieved parent or happy child, just an interrupted evening and a sense of bafflement. Was it still a good deed? Maybe.

Hubbie is all for paying it forward, and goodness knows our daughter’s favourite toy has been rescued more times than Peppa Pig’s teddy. But hubbie doesn’t believe in such a thing as true altruism. To him, all things have an ulterior motive, if only that we feel good about ourselves.

I say, Who cares? A good deed is just that; a desire to do the right thing. What does it matter if our motivation is to feel better about ourselves, as long as the person’s needs come first. Of course I might think twice about knocking on a stranger’s doors at night bearing a dripping teddy, because sometimes an urge to help looks just plain creepy. But then again I probably would do it again. You can’t beat a random act of kindness, however small.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire tugged at her skirt, as it clung to her tights, chafed by its restriction. Instead of striding into the building with her head high, she was forced to mince like a Geisha. She wobbled on unfamiliar heels and wondered how she’d ever thought office attire anything other than a bloody nuisance.

Trying not to hold her laptop in front of her like a shield, Claire stepped up to the reception desk and announced her arrival. The middle-aged woman facing her seemed startled at the ringing note in her voice, as if people didn’t normally approach her desk with such confidence. She gave a nod of acknowledgement and reached for the phone.

With a glance round Claire located the fake leather sofa in the corner, where she’d perched nervously four months before, and went to wait. She sat with her knees together, turned demurely to one side, and her hands folded in her lap. She knew he wouldn’t collect her from the lobby, but it paid to be prepared and she was damned if she was going to betray any nerves. She could fall apart later; for now she needed to be every inch the consultant he had billed her as.

The same harassed-looking secretary collected her from reception twenty minutes later. Long enough that she’d begun to look around for a toilet and regretted not asking at the desk. Surreptitiously smoothing her palms on her red skirt, Claire followed the woman through the building, praying they wouldn’t be in the same stuffy, windowless, room they’d used for her interview.

Her prayers went unanswered as the woman knocked feebly at a hollow door and opened it just wide enough to peer round.

“Are you ready for Ms Carleton?”

Claire heard a strong affirmative in a voice she recognised as Jason’s and steeled herself for combat. She put out a hand to stop the receptionist from entering the room and said, “Is there a projector set up for my presentation?”

The woman shook her head and looked as if she’d like to scuttle into the shadows.

“No matter. I can present from the laptop.” Claire radiated an ease she was far from feeling and followed the secretary into the room.

Déjà vu washed over her, as she saw the same single desk and chair, facing the row of five faceless suits. Not faceless now; not all of them. There he was, second from the left, as he’d been before. The seat next to him was taken not by the HR representative from her interview, but by a steely-eyed woman who looked like she would happily swallow Claire whole and spit her out. Claire wondered if that was her replacement.

Come on knees, don’t fail me now.

The walk across the room to her chair felt longer than Chesil Beach and she resolutely avoided looking at her audience as she did so. Placing her bag on the chair, Claire stood beside the small table and opened her laptop. She doubted they would see much of the screen from four feet away, but that was their business. If they couldn’t find a projector, she couldn’t give a damn.

The fighting talk helped still the nerves, as she faced Mr Mean in the middle and began to speak. All the while her eyes kept dragging towards Conor and she fought and fought against her body’s instinct.

Listening to her presentation from a safe distance in her mind, Claire felt a strange sense of pride at the steadiness of her voice and the confidence in her delivery. She noticed that the woman to the left of Conor took notes in a languid fashion, while Jason span a pen on his thumb and managed to look bored and disapproving at the same time.

And then it was over. Three months of work and worry, of chatting to landlords and wandering through tourist attractions, and her recommendations were complete. She wondered if they would have offered her the full-time position if she hadn’t already declined it.

“Thank you, Ms Carleton. We will consider your findings and implementation plan, and consult with you further when you take up your full-time role in the office.”

Ice slithered down her skin at Jason’s words, and her gaze flew to Conor’s face for the first time. His blank features held the tiniest hint of defiance and there was a faint blush on his cheeks.

You bastard.

He hadn’t told them. He had let them think she was coming to work for them on Monday. What did he hope to achieve? That she’d have to work out her notice, or wouldn’t be able to start her new role. Disappointed at the low blow, Claire hardened her gaze and saw his eyes narrow in return.

She turned her attention back to Jason and said, in a cool voice, “I’m sorry you appear to have been left out of the loop,” she threw a challenging glance at Conor, “but I am unable to take up the full time position now my contract has expired. I had informed Mr O’Keefe of my intention not to renew. I will, of course, be more than happy to discuss plans with my successor, as well as providing the 150 page report that accompanies my presentation.”

Jason’s expression was inscrutable but Claire kept her gaze firmly on him, refusing to give Conor the satisfaction of her attention. Inside, her heart crumbled at the animosity and she wondered where exactly it had gone so badly wrong.

After an interminable pause, Jason took a breath and smiled for the first time. “I’m sorry to hear that, Miss Carleton. We thank you for your contribution and wish you well in your future endeavours.”

Summarily dismissed, Claire stood motionless for a moment, before pushing down the screen on the laptop. The click echoed loudly in the loaded silence. Leaving the machine on the table, glad that she’d deleted all personal files from it earlier, she shouldered her bag and quietly left the room.

***

Boxing Day and Family: 2013 365 Challenge #361

Decorating the box boat

Decorating the box boat

Today is Boxing Day in the UK. For many it’s Christmas Day Mark 2, when the rest of the rellies visit or are visited. As a child and into adulthood it was my ‘Other Christmas’, as I alternated between divorced parents year after year.

I think sometimes that’s why Christmas has never been uber exciting for me: it was always “whose Christmas is it, where are we this year?” and visiting my Dad was never easy.

Now he’s gone, of course I wish nothing more than to be travelling down the A1 with my children to see the grandpa they never got to meet.

That said, I have enjoyed having a day home with my immediate family today. A quiet morning watching Princess and the Frog (well, I watched it, the kids gave up and played on the ipad) followed by a trip to get coffee and magazines.

Assembling the trampoline

Assembling the trampoline

In the afternoon Grandpa popped over and he and Daddy assembled the giant 14ft trampoline which is ostensibly the kids’ Christmas gift but might become Mummy’s new workout place. We’ll see how the knees cope.

We were lucky enough to catch up with most of our extended family on Christmas Eve and yesterday. Hubbie’s sister and nephew Skyped from Italy on Christmas Eve and my sister and Family Skyped from the States 9am Christmas morning to show off their gifts. Grandad called from a cruise ship in the middle of the Tasmanian sea, on the other side of the world, without even a hint of delay on the line. I shared pictures and videos on Facebook as gifts were opened.

With my family at the end of an internet connection, there was no need to be in the car today. Though I’ll be the first to admit it isn’t ideal. The best Christmas ever was when they were all around my kitchen table (and my amazing mother still did the cooking); but it isn’t lonely.

Bouncing high

Bouncing high

With an afternoon in the chilly sun with excited children watching their gift being built, without a sale or a shop in sight, it was a perfect Boxing Day. They even managed to get in a quick bounce before the setting sun spread dew across the surface and it became more an ice rink than a trampoline.

Of course at 4.30pm, having been up since 6am on five hours’ sleep, with the kids still going strong, I am about ready for the day to be over. I’m walking the dog instead. Only 2 hours of board games and rock guitar until bedtime (for them at least: I still have to get Claire home!)

A little PS as a writer – the weather has totally defined this Christmas. It wouldn’t have been half as magical without the blue skies and lack of predicted stormy weather. Something to think about.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire scanned the posts on her blog again and opened her eyes wide. According to her calculations, her first Monday at her new job working for Timothy would mark two-hundred days since she left for Berwick-Upon-Tweed. All those months of thinking the two-hundred steps signified the two hundred hostels, and in the end it meant something completely different.

And will I be home? Not the home I started from, that’s for sure.

She thought back to her apartment in Manchester, her car, her job. It wasn’t just another lifetime away, it belonged to another person. She would no more fit in that world now than that Claire would be comfortable here, sitting on a red velour sofa by the fireplace in an Edwardian villa, looking out the window at Lyme Bay and wondering if there was any surf.

Her previous life felt meaningless, frivolous. Working to buy things to make up for spending so much time working. With all her possessions in storage she felt unfettered and able to fly. But she also felt an emptiness that frightened her. Without the need to strive for success, what was there? Where was life’s meaning? What was the point of getting up every day?

She put down her laptop and rubbed her eyes. Despite knowing the presentation backwards, her stomach still bubbled like a hot spring when she thought about delivering it in the morning. She knew the real reason for her nerves, and pushed the unwelcome thought away. Walking over to the window, she tried to look past the fenced-in  scrubland directly in front of the hostel, to see the endless shingle of Chesil beach. All she could make out was a line of blue, back lit against dark storm clouds.

Suddenly she needed to be outside, under the moody skies. She grabbed the laptop and hurried back to her room. She cursed as she tangled the laces on her hiking boots, tugging at them until they threatened to snap. Tied at last, she pulled on her waterproof jacket, pocketed her phone, and headed out.

*

From a distance, Chesil beach had appeared to be a golden arc of glorious sand. After walking along it for an hour, Claire could testify that it was anything but. Her ankles ached from trying to keep balance on the endless pebbles, and she wondered why she hadn’t turned back. Did she intend to walk the full eighteen miles? What then; walk eighteen miles back? What was she trying to prove?

With no answers, Claire continued on. The sea talked to her endlessly as she walked; the waves rushing in only to fall back with a hissing sigh. Over and over the waves caressed the indifferent shore, and each time they uttered a drawn-out exhalation on the futility of life. It was a mournful sound but , at the same time, it provided comfort. The ticking clock of nature.

The waves grew higher, stronger. Great plumes of white foam swirled up the beach at an angle, surging towards Claire’s feet as if seeking to drag her back into the frothy deep. She’d read in the guide book that the waves created a lethal undertow and that surfing and swimming were only for the suicidal.

Now and then she passed fishermen and women, staring out to sea next to a stationary rod.

I wonder if they catch anything. Or if they even want to.

She stopped once, some distance behind one of the solitary figures, and followed their gaze out to sea. The quiet roar of the ocean became the only sound and, as she stood motionless, Claire felt herself swaying with the pulse of the universe. A sudden surge of water broke the stillness and – like the lightning at the festival earlier in the week – reminded her of the power of nature and the insignificance of man.

After all, what is a failed romance to the infinite universe? A spec of sand on an eighteen-mile beach.

Claire stooped and scooped up a handful of wet pebbles. They glistened in bright hues of red and brown, orange and grey. She knew the beauty would disappear when they dried and they would become ordinary stones, unremarkable. But drenched by the engulfing waves they shone like gemstones.

Still crouched by the edge of the tide, Claire looked along the beach as far as she could. Despite the ache deep inside where her affection for Conor lay broken, she felt a sense of peace, of oneness with something greater than herself. She felt refreshed, as if she too had been washed clean by the never-ending waves. As if it was her time to reveal her true colours.

She stood and put her shoulders back. Turning to face the way she had come, Claire walked back to the hostel and whatever the morning would bring.

***