My Brain Hates Me

This is my brain

This is my brain

My brain hates me.

Ever since I started back writing after the summer holidays, when I sit at my laptop and stare at the shambles that is my current work in progress, my brain shrugs and says, “nah, I got nothing.”

But 4 a.m. after a crazy day of laundry, school runs, home work sessions and Rainbows drop offs, it comes up with the most Technicolor, conflict-laden, heart-wrenching epic dreams.

Take last night: My dream included a man chasing me through a hotel, where the darn door locks wouldn’t work and I had to climb out the window, only to discover some pots by Tibetan Monks being sold as tourist junk, inscribed with, ‘free my people’ and ‘I live on one cup of rice every fourteen days’ (?!), and a journalist insisted on taking photos of me holding them in awkward poses, while in the background two people were uncovering a dead infant beneath the foundations of the hotel.

I mean, WTF? In the day time, I can’t decide if one of my lead characters in Finding Lucy is gay, but I can construct some warped version of an NCIS program in my sleep? Where’s the fairness in that?

I can only assume that my creativity is buried beneath Christmas shopping, school paperwork, reading homework, ironing, shopping, cooking and concern that hubbie is still between jobs, and it only manages to free itself from the shackles when my conscious brain is out for the count. I’m going to have to stop eating chocolate and reading Harry Potter at bedtime!

Oh for a virtual iPad to record my dreams, then I really would Be A Bestseller (I sent my entry in last week and now wait in terror for Friday, just in case by some scary freak accident I get selected and have to appear on TV!)

I Want to Be a Bestseller, Oh Yes (Oh No)

The judges don't look at all scary

The judges don’t look at all scary

This week I’ve been working on a competition entry, flagged up to me by fellow blogger and authors Pat Elliott and Helen Yendall.

The UK based competition is being run by ITV This Morning and Curtis Brown (an agency I’ve submitted to in the past). The entry has to be the first 3,000 words of a work in progress (I wonder how many NaNo first drafts will be entered) together with a one-page synopsis.

As my WIP has three POV characters, back story, tarot mysteries and hidden secrets, I found it almost impossible to write a coherent one-page synopsis. I’m also reliably informed that having three POV characters in the first four chapters is pretty confusing, so I don’t expect to go far.

And actually that’s fine with me, because even though one of the judges is my idol Marian Keyes, and the prize includes a six month writing course and representation by Curtis Brown, the idea of being shortlisted leaves me quivering like a cowardly jelly.

Why?

No desire to sit on these sofas!

No desire to sit on these sofas!

Because the five finalists have to go to London in a couple of weeks and appear on live TV. I think they might even have to read out some of their novel. I genuinely can’t imagine anything worse. Even meeting Marian doesn’t tempt me. I couldn’t get a book signed by Joanne Harris, even though I love her novels, because I was too embarrassed.

Shy, introvert, HSP, anxiety, whatever my affliction is, meeting new people terrifies me.

So, I’ve entered, I’ve worked hard on my entry and I’m reasonably pleased with it. But don’t wish me luck because I’m not sure I want it! Thankfully, having watched the launch program, I don’t think I’m in any danger of having to sit on that couch!

Oh for the days when writers sat in their drafty garrets and spurned the public!

Rather Prosaic Life Update

My submission pack

My submission pack

One of my regular blog followers/commenters, Hollis (thank you, Hollis!) suggested recently that my blog silence might be due to my being busy with the children or maybe even volunteering. I felt guilty, because my absence is due to nothing so altruistic.

I have been head-down this month, it’s true, but with the purely selfish motive of getting Dragon Wraiths ready for The Times/Chicken House children’s novel competition. The deadline is the end of October but, as it’s half term next week, I wisely posted my manuscript on Monday.

There’s nothing like printing off 265 pages of manuscript to make you realise you are a real author. Unfortunately I still struggle with cover letters and writing a synopsis. But it’s done. All I can do now is hope. My dream is to make top twenty. Fingers crossed.

Mohair Brooches

Mohair Brooches

It shows the cyclical nature of writing and trying to get published, as it was almost exactly two years ago that Dragon Wraiths (in it’s original format) was longlisted for the Mslexia competition and I was polishing final edits before posting the manuscript. Let’s hope it’s second time lucky.

I have also been knitting like a demon. I want to have enough things to run a stall at the children’s Christmas Fair, with little things at pocket money prices. So I’ve put cats, monkeys and dogs on hold, and I’m making mohair brooches with the gorgeous wool my mum gave me on my birthday. Great fun, if not great for the hands.

It’s been a creative month, all in all. I have taken up piano again, in an effort to get the children interested in music, and work is progressing on Finding Lucy. I solved my writer’s block by adding in two extra points of view, for the two lead males. I’m enjoying getting inside different heads.

I made the blue one!

I made the blue one!

It was also my daughter’s first Learning Conversation (parents’ evening) since starting school proper in September. She’s nicely middle of the road although I did have to confess to her teacher how hard I find it to not correct her spelling (they let them spell phonetically)!

And, of course, as November approaches, I have the annual NaNoWriMo dilemma. Finding Lucy started life in my first NaNoWriMo attempt, six years ago. But the only child I had then was growing in my tummy, not demanding my twenty-four hour attention.

Now November means half-term, early starts after the clocks go back and the terrors start getting up at 5am, and pitch-black school pick ups. Not really conducive to creativity for me.

So I think I’ll plod on with my WIP and let others with more energy sprint for the 50,000 word finish line! If you’re NaNoing this year, good luck!

My NaNo top tips are here.

Learning Characterisation from Humans Of New York

HONY Facebook Page

HONY Facebook Page

I’ve talked about the Humans of New York Facebook page many times before, mostly in passing. Today I wanted to discuss what an amazing resource the page is for writers.

For me, one of the hardest parts of being a writer is coming up with three-dimensional characters. When I start a first draft my characters are usually pretty vague. I know their motivation or I know the key story problem (Helen getting pregnant, Rebecca’s dislike of the upper class, Lucy’s need for a family and to fit in), but the character starts out as a hazy version of me at some earlier point in my life. They move on from that, and by the end of the first draft they become living, breathing, talkative people in my head. But I think one of the reasons I like my male characters better is because the starting point for them is more often men I know and admire or love, rather than versions of me. (There’s a lot of hubbie in Marcio!)

The problem now is that my novels are starting to have mirror scenes. I’m stuck with Finding Lucy because it starts with a death and a funeral – as does Class Act (although Finding Lucy came first.) Now, it’s unlikely many people will read both, as Class Act bombed, but I can see the reviews now. “Amanda Martin’s latest novel is dull and repetitive, with chunks lifted directly from her previous release.” Oh joy.

Similarly, the protagonists often have similar upbringings and backgrounds because I write more authentically when I can really live it (or have lived it!)

Brandon's Latest Post

Brandon’s Latest Post

So where does HONY come in? I’ve been editing Dragon Wraiths this week for one final time before entering it in the Chicken House/Times competition, after having had the lovely lady who proofread Class Act run through it. She pointed out the bits where I lose the sense of Leah being a teen (my editor has teenage kids, which is fantastic). But she also pointed to the bits where I evoke Leah’s backstory well, when she was in foster care.

I did a lot of research online for the care scenes, and the snippet of Leah’s time on the streets. I wanted it to be realistic but not sensationalist, genuine but not too gritty. A fine line. But then I read a HONY post yesterday which gave an insight into care in one paragraph. In fact it created a whole story and three-dimensional character in a couple of hundred words. Each HONY post does.

When Brandon Stanton (the amazing man behind Humans Of New York) was on his UN tour, the stories were beyond my ability to visualise, but now he’s back in New York the wealth of material is incredible. Not just for main characters. I think one of the reasons Baby Blues resonates with people is because all the characters have stories of their own. I chose not to develop the bit-characters in Class Act, because some reviews of Baby Blues said it was crowded with people, but I’m learning you can’t please everyone!

What Brandon shows is that a person’s whole life and character can be depicted in half a page. He has a way of getting under people’s skin to their very essence. He gets them to tell the core of their life story succinctly but with feeling. I read his posts to keep me grounded in the stories of the world, but also I read them to learn from a master.

Big Blog Giveaway

A knitted cat

A knitted cat

It’s been a long time coming but my blog is slowly approaching 500 followers. It feels like time for a celebration, so I’m planning a giveaway of sorts.

I haven’t decided what or how yet, but it might involve free books, knitted cats and quite possibly chocolate.

Watch this space.

Spread the word!

(Pssst! Any ideas on how to do a giveaway?! I guess rafflecopter is the way but I haven’t used it before. Or do I give a prize to the 500th follower? Any tips? How does it work internationally? And what would you rather have? Books, toys, chocolate or all of the above?!)

Autumn Already?

Smiley Son

Smiley Son

What happened to September? Someone stole it while I wasn’t paying attention. I can’t believe it’s October already (and nearly my birthday!) Despite the glorious warm and sunny days we’ve had recently, autumn is still in the air as we shiver our way to school in the morning, through rainbow coloured leaves and fallen conkers.

I love autumn, I think it’s my favourite time of year. Misty mornings, crisp afternoons, riotous colour everywhere and an excuse to wear jeans again.

My daughter has Harvest Festival today and I feel that I also want to celebrate the abundance and beauty around me. It’s been a year of ups and downs but, despite everything, we’re still muddling through, still smiling.

I’ve recently altered the time of day I take my meds and have realised just how much they give me. Returning to the twitchy, ranty insomniac for even a few days was enough to be grateful for the change. I might have become a little more dozy, a little more befuddled, since starting on SSRIs, but I’m definitely happier.

My challenge for this month is to concentrate on finding things to be happy about rather than things to worry me. Good enough parenting, good enough housework. I’m taking up piano again and knitting like a demon. I even enjoyed spending time with my son yesterday, as he took a break from being a whiny, greedy, annoying four-year-old and (briefly) became my little boy again.

October is also about getting Dragon Wraiths entered into the Times / Chicken House competition (the deadline is sneaking up fast. Thank goodness for my editor who has agreed to proofread it in a hurry). I’m almost convinced I shouldn’t waste my time and money, having had another half-dozen rejections on it in the summer. Almost, but not quite. Got to be in it to win it, isn’t that what they say? 🙂

Meanwhile, Finding Lucy is slowly taking shape and Baby Blues is doing well on the new Kindle Unlimited. I have no idea yet if that earns me any money, but it’s nice to see the numbers ticking over.

That’s life in the Martin household at the moment. What does autumn mean to you?

Losing My Mojo

By Amber Mart, aged 5

By Amber Martin aged 5

I have spent the last few months trying my hand at writing a children’s book, to enter into the Chicken House competition in October. I tried to start last year, but didn’t get past an idea and an opening. This year I managed to complete the first draft (including writing 30,000 words in two weeks).

Unfortunately my idea stinks.

I began to feel it during drafting, and it was confirmed as I started editing. Chicken House are looking for a fresh new voice and, in the words of the editor I lined up to help me, my writing is, “flat, almost formal, and not successful for Middle Grade fiction.” Apparently the tone is more Enid Blyton than J K Rowling. Much of that is because my fantasy world is dismal and boring, my baddies two-dimensional and my protagonists predictable.

It’s all very obvious. Just because I love reading kids books, from great picture stories all the way to young adult, doesn’t mean I have what it takes to write them. I could learn, of course.

The editor suggested I perhaps didn’t have the work ethic to draft and draft until I had the story I wanted. Maybe that’s true. It isn’t that I’m afraid of hard work, but I have to confess that extensive editing leaves me demotivated and exhausted. The more I work at something the more stilted it feels and the harder it is to remain objective. Eventually everything stinks, or everything is bland or derivative.

It happened to my paintings. The abstract my daughter did this weekend might be a bit whacky but it’s much more vibrant and original than mine these days. They used to be like that. But then I overworked them, trying to make them into something that wasn’t me, and they became so bland and boring I didn’t want to paint anymore. But I couldn’t recapture that unselfconscious freshness.

I feel the same with my writing. I used to write multi-pov stories that had a bit of whacky freshness, but I trained myself to write strict limited POV with accurate grammar and not too many similes. All the things that kill children’s stories. And now I can’t write anything else.

Working Hard

Working Hard

What’s the answer? Hubbie asked me, as I sobbed yesterday that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a writer, whether it is really what I want to do. I had to pause. What I want is a creative job that fits in with the school-run and might eventually make money. I hoped it was paintings – it wasn’t. I tried web design and marketing services to small businesses, but didn’t have the enthusiasm or skills.

Is writing one more fancy and unrealistic dream to avoid getting a real job? I’ve stuck at it much longer than the other ideas (though it’s made less profit) and have published half a million words. I’ve even sold 200-300 books (although not a single copy of Class Act!) But it’s not earth-shattering and certainly not a career.

Parenting is such a thankless, soul-destroying pass time (for me) that I need to feel good at something, to feel successful. Something to offset the endless criticism and contrariness of a three and a five year old. Part of that includes making money and getting positive feedback. Feeling like I’m actually good at something I enjoy.

To be honest I probably need an agent, a publishing deal. But if my writing is flat, formal, clichéd, I’ll never get one. And if I ‘m not prepared to tear a manuscript apart to its bones and rebuild it, am I just another delusional wannabe?

Don’t answer that.

Writing Research and Pre-Holiday Blues

Birthday boy (a week early)

Birthday boy (a week early)

I’m supposed to be packing for holiday this morning but I am beyond exhausted. In the last two weeks I’ve written 30,000 words, done four hours of live art, spent a whole day arranging a fundraising site for a friend with much more on her plate than I have. I’ve had children home poorly from school, sourced an editor for my children’s book, had the edits back for Class Act and lost a day’s childcare to a ‘bonus trip to the zoo’ to which I had to escort my own child and pay to get in. (Don’t get me started…)

And to top it all off I spent Friday chasing prescriptions and getting lost when I was meant to be finalising my Montegrappa Scholastic competition entry and doing ten loads of laundry and ironing for the holiday. Saturday was out because we celebrated hubbie’s birthday a week early so the house had to be found under the weeks of accumulated dirt, and lunch for six needed cooking.

The only upside of the chaos was that getting lost was great research for my children’s novel. A large part of the action is set in an over-grown bramble-buried forest, and that’s not far off where I ended up for an hour on Friday. I only stopped to let the dog have a run. She’d had to sit in the car for an hour after I ‘popped in’ on the way back from the vets to get hubbie’s prescription and discovered it hadn’t been ordered.

Ready for editing...

Ready for editing…

I decided to try a new walk I’d seen before, that looked like a straight forward walk across fields into a wood. When I got there it was beautiful – all meandering tracks shaded from the hot sun, with bracken and woodland flowers. So off we went. But I have NO sense of direction and before long I was starting to panic. I headed in the direction I thought would take me to my car, but ended up at what looked like a disused quarry. Unlike Claire, in Two-Hundred Steps Home, I don’t have a smart phone with GPS. So I rang hubbie and he tried to work out where I was and to give me directions. Unfortunately he couldn’t work out my location (turns out he was looking at the wrong quarry.)

In a panic I hung up and decided to follow the dog in case, you know, she turned out to be Lassie or something. She led me towards the flooded quarry so I climbed a barbed wire fence and headed in. Of course I forgot she loves puddles and hates trees and her only motivation was to get out in the open. When we got in she jumped in a puddle and looked at me as if to say, ‘now what?’

The disused quarry looked remarkably like an off-road course and after I’d scrambled up and down a few sheer muddy tracks (in a skirt and sandals) I realised where I was. And it was a long way from the car.

Panic was escalating: being lost terrifies me, especially when I have a zillion things to do and the kids to pick up in three hours. So I ran back across the land-rover off-road course, having realised it was a dead end. I climbed through a bramble bush, catching my long skirt and nearly falling down the bank, and badly stinging my arm. I raced across a sheep field, realised I couldn’t get out, and walked the full length to the gate.

Being a field for livestock there was no way the dog was scrambling under the wire. So I picked her up – all 28kg of her (the vet told me off for her being overweight) – and I threw her over a four-foot barbed-wire topped gate. She landed on her back and for a moment I thought we’d be going back to the vets. Thankfully she was fine. We were about a mile from the car in 25 degree heat and inappropriate clothing. But we made it. My ‘quick walk’ took over an hour.

No wonder I find myself too tired to get out of bed and deal with the hyped-up mega whining children this morning.

I need a holiday.

Bridport and Baby Blues

My Goodreads Giveaway

My Goodreads Giveaway

I wrote a long rambling post for the blog today about parenting, love and life, following on from a spectacularly low point on the school run this morning, that started with yelling in the traffic jam and ended up with daughter and I both in tears. But, if I’m tired of thinking about my failings as a parent then I’m sure you’re tired of reading about them. So I’m going to talk writing instead.

I finally listed a Giveaway on Goodreads this week to win a paper copy of Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes. It’s open to all the countries I can ship to easily from Amazon, so if you fancy reading it, or just like a chance at a freebie, do pop over to Goodreads and sign up, and tell your friends! 🙂

Continuing on a writing theme, I spotted a couple of my Baby Blues bookmarks in a stand at the library today in what turned out to be a rack of leaflets on the Bridport Prize. For those who don’t know, the Bridport Prize is one of the most well-known short story (plus flash fiction and poetry) competitions in the UK, with a first prize of £5000. I think about entering every year, but I haven’t written anything shorter than 100,000 words in years. If you have, and fancy your chances, the closing date is 31st May 2014. (I can’t put any more details at present because the website doesn’t seem to be working, but this is the link).

Brittle Star Competition

Brittle Star Competition

Next to the Bridport flyer was another writing competition with a March 2014 closing date, again for short stories and poetry. This is the Brittle Star inaugural poetry and short fiction competition closing on 12th March 2014. The prizes are much more modest (£250 per genre) but all winners will be published in Brittle Star and invited to a launch and prize giving event in London (a great chance for networking!)

Incidentally, if you want to keep up to date with UK writing competitions, I recommend visiting (and following) the Sally Jenkins – Writer blog. Sally Jenkins’ frequently lists details of writing competitions both big and small as well as lots of hints and tips and great resources. I learned about the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition from her and, if I hadn’t, I might never have finished Dragon Wraiths. I’m very grateful!

Self-Publishing Teaches you to Ship: 2013 365 Challenge #355

None of this would have existed if I'd given up in January

None of this would have existed if I’d given up in January

I’ve discussed before about the importance of learning to ship. It’s a term I’ve learned from Kristen Lamb‘s blog. As a writer (or any kind of artist) you can’t stress over a piece of work forever. At some point you have to release it into the world, because otherwise you never start on the next project. This is so true for me.

This time last year, I was waiting to hear if Dragon Wraiths had been shortlisted for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition. My life was on hold. Having been long-listed, there was a part of me that really believed I would get shortlisted (because what is life without a pipe dream?) When I wasn’t, everything crashed in for a moment. Not because I thought Dragon Wraiths would win – I wasn’t that deluded – but because the shortlisted authors got to meet agents.

After the initial mourning (which wasn’t long) I decided to seize the moment and send out queries to as many agents as possible, while my belief was still high. I know myself so well. Of course none of those queries resulted in anything – I didn’t really expect them to, because the slush pile is huge, my opening chapter weaker than it should be, and my query letter dull. That was why I’d pinned my hopes on getting shortlisted, because getting an agent to pay attention is the hardest part of writing.

Without self-publishing, Dragon Wraiths would still be this

Without self-publishing, Dragon Wraiths would still be this

Then I started the daily challenge, and had other things to think about. I kept writing (part of the reason for doing the challenge). My family encouraged me to self-publish Dragon Wraiths and, as my belief in the book was still high, I did.

Best decision ever.

Even though it’s had some bad reviews, and sells only a handful of copies, it gave me the impetus to get Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes self-published too. That hasn’t had any reviews in the UK and only one in the US and has sold even fewer copies. But it’s out there.

The important thing with writing is to keep writing. I could not have done that if I was still trying to get an agent for Dragon Wraiths. My brain would have been on hold. I would have spent all my energy and used up all my fragile confidence sending out queries, waiting for replies, getting excited, getting depressed. It would not have suited me at all.

Yes, I think the ability to ship is too easy with Self-Publishing. Books are released too early, when perhaps they’re not as good as they could be. But I don’t really think it matters (as long as, you know, they’re not awful. With no grammar and full of typos. There has to be a minimum level!)

Lovely reviews make it all worth while

Lovely reviews make it all worth while

I believe you can over-work something: I definitely did with my artwork, towards the end. Made my paintings into what I thought others expected them to be, rather than just going with the artistic flow. My pictures became bland and lost their edge.

I’m not saying my novels wouldn’t be better for a strict edit, for going through the write and rewrite process of being traditionally published. But they might not be my books anymore. And, knowing me as I do, my faith in my writing might not survive the journey.

Besides, we live in a throwaway culture. I’m not writing books to last forever. If someone reads my book, shrugs, says “meh?” and moves on, so what? I do that to traditionally published books all the time (even books by favourite authors like Terry Pratchett. More on that in another post). At least they haven’t spent a fortune on it.

And for every person who leaves me a one-star review that says I wasted hours of their life, there will be someone eagerly hanging on my next release. And there will be a next release, because of those people.

I would have given up on Claire months ago, if I didn’t know people were reading it. I would have given up after three months of querying Dragon Wraiths and gone searching for a day job, if I hadn’t had enthusiastic reviews. I certainly wouldn’t have thought about writing a sequel.

Self publishing isn’t for everyone. I read for and against arguments all the time (usually by interested parties, arguing for their own chosen route!) But, for me, it has been a salvation. Reading posts like these (Are you waiting for permission?) about the waiting and worry of the traditional route, I know now that I would have given up too soon. My self belief was a tiny spark in the dark and, with nothing to fan it into life, it would have died out completely.

Only time will tell if I will make it as an author. All I know is, without my blog, without self-publishing, without getting some kind of positive feedback, I wouldn’t have come even this far. Everyone knows the key to becoming a better author is writing more books. What they forget to say is that you need to ship them too! 🙂

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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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“How do you like the south west?”

Maggie’s question sounded innocent enough, but Claire frowned at her, wondering if she had somehow picked up on her dilemma: Dorset or Cornwall?

“It’s a beautiful part of the world,” she replied in a noncommittal voice. “I think of all the places I’ve been too, Cornwall feels most like home.”

Maggie’s face became wistful. “I was like that with the Lake District.” Then she brightened. “You can always find a new home, though.”

Claire wondered at her meaning and a memory surfaced in her mind. “I thought you hated moving away from the Lakes? Didn’t you say you moved south to be with your husband – Steve, was it? But you went back to the Lakes whenever you could.”

Maggie’s eyes opened wide. “You have a good memory! Yes, that’s true, I missed the Lake District. Kent is pretty, but it lacks the drama of the northern counties. Cornwall has its own drama though, as I’m sure you’ve discovered.”

With a nod, Claire took a sip of her Earl Grey and tried to understand the change in Maggie. There was a radiance about her that she didn’t remember from before.

“Tell me about your friend and her activity centre. It sounds like a big project?”

“His.”

“Sorry?” Claire looked puzzled.

“My friend is a he.” Maggie flushed and looked down at the table, her hands cupped around a steaming mug of teak-brown tea.

Claire stared at Maggie and a suspicion began to seep into her consciousness. But how to ask? Suppressing a smile she said nonchalantly. “So, he is opening this activity centre. Where do I come in?”

“Like I said, Timothy needs assistance with the marketing and promotional side of things. He’s done all the set up and renovations himself. You should see the place, it’s amazing.” Her eyes glittered with enthusiasm. “It really is a wonderful thing he’s doing. He has lottery money to help get him started, but there is so much to do.”

“And are you helping too?” Claire drew circles on the wooden table with one finger.

“Yes, I go when I can. I still have commitments at home.” She seemed to realise where the questions were leading and looked up sheepishly at Claire, who wondered if she was brave enough to pry.

Trying to pour all her curiosity into her gaze, Claire rested her eyes on Maggie and waited.

“Oh, alright then, if you must!” Maggie exclaimed, as if Claire had spoken. “Steve and I broke up. I couldn’t take it anymore. Then I met Timothy, and he told me about his dream.”

Claire sat back and listened as Maggie explained all about her new romance, about how amazing it was to have something to pour herself into, now her children had left home. How Steve had seemed relieved when she ended their thirty-year marriage and how she felt they had never really understood each other.

Claire thought about Conor. Who hated silence, who would rather be in a crowded bar listening to loud music than striding across empty hills. Conor who had invited her to a weekend in Ireland for a family celebration, a thought she was desperately trying to forget. There was nothing like going to a church to give an eager man ideas.

Eventually Maggie seemed to sense Claire’s lack of attention and her flow of words trickled to a halt. “I’m so sorry, wittering on like this. You must be bored stiff.”

With a stab of guilt, Claire sat forward. “Sorry, Maggie, I am listening. It’s just I have a new man, too, and he’s invited me to a Baptism on Saturday. In his home town, near Cork. My mind wandered for a moment, because I don’t know if I should go.”

And it all poured out. Everything that had happened since she’d last spoken to Maggie. About Conor not wanting to leave Swanage, and her urge to stay in Cornwall. How she didn’t want to work for him, and wasn’t sure they had enough in common to be together.

“My goodness,” Maggie said, when Claire had finished. She looked as if she was about to say something else when a general commotion around them heralded the arrival of the Brownies for afternoon tea. With a look that said, we’ll talk later, Maggie rose and went to serve juice and cake.

*

“Hey gorgeous, are you all set for the weekend?”

Claire heard the hesitation in Conor’s voice, as she cradled the phone to her ear and tried to block out the sound of endless chatter from the room next door.

“Where are you?” He added before she could answer; his tone somewhere between amusement and frustration. “I can barely hear you.”

“Sorry, I’m staying with Maggie at the hostel in Exmoor National Park. Don’t you remember? I said I was coming up here to pick her brains about the Guide Association. The children are currently getting ready for bed, if you can call it that!” She laughed. For all her initial horror, she’d enjoyed spending the afternoon with the Brownies. They were at a nice age, between childish dependence and teenage sass.

“Yes, I remember. Will you be back to catch the flight on Friday night? Only the service is Saturday afternoon so we need to be there in time.”

Claire chewed her cheek. Conor had mentioned the Baptism in passing on Sunday, before he returned to his apartment. It hadn’t sounded a big deal, more an excuse to go away together for the weekend. She wasn’t sure she was ready for it, but didn’t have a good excuse to say no. Now, though, he sounded anxious.

“Am I missing something?” She asked, deciding honesty was the only way. “The last time your family tried to get you to go to a Baptism you chose to take two boys out to a castle instead. I thought you avoided these family affairs?”

“That was some distant cousin. This is my niece and I’m one of the godparents.”

Claire gasped. “You didn’t mention that on Sunday.”

There was silence followed by Conor clearing his throat. “I was afraid to. I thought you wouldn’t come if you knew we’d be right in the middle of it. My family can be a bit full on. But I’ve been thinking about it, and it didn’t seem fair to spring it on you when we got there.”

He sounded like a small boy explaining the muddy footprints on the white carpet. Claire was forced to smile, although she still felt sick.

“I don’t have to do anything, do I? As your guest? I thought godparents were usually couples?”

“No and not always. You just sit in the pew and try to stay awake. You might want to wear a frock.”

Claire slumped back on the bed and groaned. A formal meet the family affair, two weeks into a new relationship. Just what she needed.

***