Ebook Formatting Rant

Out now!

Out now!

Self-publishing is meant to be about control: you choose the cover, the content, the marketing and the final product. And mostly that’s true. But, when you publish ebooks, you have very little control over the finished article. Even with print on demand paperbacks you get some variances – I’ve had some printed beautifully and others not so hot. But at least the layout and pagination doesn’t change.

But today I spent eight hours fixing something – across all my kindle books – that possibly wasn’t even broken. I forgot to feed the kids and walk the dog. I was grumpy and horrible and teary. All because the books I downloaded to my iPad from Amazon kept losing their formatting, despite looking fine in the ‘look inside’.

I tried crazy things to fix it, like uploading the files to Smashwords and copying their mobi version to upload to KDP, rather than using an html file (Amazon’s recommendation), but that didn’t really work as Amazon and Smashwords have different formatting criteria.

It isn’t the first trauma I’ve had with formatting, particularly with my latest novel Class Act. It took 27 versions (that’s the actual number, not my usual hyperbole) before I got rid of a loose link in the epub version of Class Act which would then allow Smashwords to approve it for Premium distribution. It was a puzzle that even their tech guys couldn’t fix. And that’s just for one device. I can’t check Kindle or Kobo or Sony because I don’t have those devices. I preview online and it bears no resemblance to the downloaded version or the original.

I even bought copies of my own books today to see if that made a difference (At least I made one sale on Class Act! 🙂 ). One of them still had ‘draft’ on page one, despite the update going through days ago. Terrifying.

The worst part is the not knowing. Did 3,000 people download a free copy of Baby Blues  & Wedding Shoes and not read it because the text is all left justified and spaced out like in the version I see? When I use Kindle for PC it looks okay but how many people read on iPads like I do?

I try so hard to look professional without forking out money that I don’t have. I’d rather pay for structural editing than formatting. But if the formatting prevents people from reading, maybe that’s the wrong choice.

Anyway, I don’t know the answer, I just know it’s dampening my Hurrah that Class Act is finally live. It’s more a harrump! Now as well as praying for sales, dreading reviews and stressing over typos I have a whole new thing to worry about. Still, no one said self-publishing would be easy!

I Am A Writer

(Temporary) cover for hubbie's book

(Temporary) cover for hubbie’s book

Yesterday I took the day away from my latest WIP to do something I hoped would cheer up my husband: I published his children’s book, Max & Shady, on Smashwords. I spent the first three hours designing a cover for it, because (unfortunately) the one I did for him before used a photo I couldn’t find the rights to. Important note: if you grab an image for inspiration, make sure you know where it’s from. Unsurprisingly, hubbie preferred his original cover (I do, too) but at least this one is bought and paid for.

Then I dug out the word document I formatted for print as a present a few years ago (turning someone’s first draft into a readable document is quite a task!) I’m ashamed to say it was full of typos, despite it being me who proof-read it the last time.

The rest of the day was spent fixing the big stuff (formatting for Smashwords and inserting punctuation inside the quotation marks). By the time he got home from work (having had to hush the kids a few times to sort out the niggly formatting issues that always seem to crop up) the book was live.

It breaks all the rules. It’s a first draft so shouldn’t be anywhere near the light of day. It’s only been proofread quickly, mostly by Word rather than a human being. It’s probably full of inconsistenices and it certainly has pages of info-dump. No matter. It served it’s purpose. Hubbie smiled.

Two things came out of it that should give both me and hubbie a boost of confidence. Firstly, when I was researching covers and categories, I couldn’t find much in the way of space adventure in the middle grade market: that makes his book much more stand out than mine. So, if he ever finds the energy to write some more, on top of being the bread winner who is pounced on by two small children as soon as he walks in the door after work, there might be a new niche he can fill.

Secondly, I re-read my work-in-progress, after editing Max & Shady, and realised just how much I have learned about writing in the last two or three years. I can see my progress from what I would have written as a first draft (much as hubbie’s is – fun but flawed) to my current work: not perfect, but oh so much better. I got quite excited reading it and found it pleasurable rather than excruciating, as reading my own writing normally is (a bit like hearing your own voice on tape). I understand things like avoiding info-dump, developing a character arc, climax and lots of other useful / essential things, mostly from reading blogs on writing. All that staring at the iPad seems to have had an effect. Who knows, I might actually, finally, be able to consider myself a writer!

Now I just need to work out who the bad guy is in my children’s book, what the plot and storyline are, and I can get on and finish it. I might be a better writer now, but I’m still pants at planning!

Formatting and Designing Covers (Again)

A possible cover for THSH the complete story

A possible cover for THSH the complete story

I spent today doing what I love best (ahem), formatting and editing a word document ready for uploading to Smashwords and Amazon. It frustrated me from the beginning of my 2013 writing challenge that I wasn’t able to put the Two-Hundred Steps Home volumes onto Amazon, because they don’t allow permanently free books.

It has therefore always been my intention to combine the twelve volumes into one book to put on Amazon. The dilemma is whether to spend time proofreading and checking for continuity errors and risk getting sucked into doing a full edit (which is not something I intend to get dragged into). Hubbie argues that the original instalments shouldn’t be altered (apart from fixing obvious typos as and when I see them or am told about them) as that was the purpose of the challenge: to write a first draft novel and publish as-is.

My compromise has been to put a short introduction at the beginning to explain the challenge. Writing that is also proving tricky: this is my first attempt:

Two-Hundred Steps Home was written during 2013 in daily instalments on Amanda Martin’s writermummy blog. She wanted to see if it was possible to write the first draft of a novel and publish it every day, much as a Nineteenth-Century Dickens novel might have been published.

Throughout a long year, with hours of painstaking research into the hostels and tourist attractions of UK and New Zealand, and with the endless support of her family, Amanda followed Claire on a journey of discovery from her life as a Marketing Director to someone searching for meaning on the beaches of Cornwall.

Unsure in the beginning whether she would complete her challenge, Amanda continued day by day because of the faithful followers on her blog. And so, 285,000 words, 365 posts and 12 novellas later, Claire’s journey reached the end.

This volume contains all 365 instalments, unedited and exactly as they appeared on the writermummy blog

One of the covers I'm considering

One of the covers I’m considering

It’s a work in progress! As is the front cover. After carefully choosing an image to fit with the theme of each volume, month on month, it has been impossible to come up with an image that sums up the whole of Claire’s journey. These are the two I’m playing with at the moment but I’m not entirely satisfied with either.

What I’d really love to do is have a proper cover designed by someone that knows what they’re doing, rather than me with some istockphoto images and Adobe Photoshop. But, again, it doesn’t fit in with the original challenge of doing it all myself and, besides, I can’t afford it!

When I think about it too much, I feel I should hold back on getting out a complete volume. Part of me wants to get something live this week, so I can get back to the proper job of writing when the children go back to school next week, while the rest of me knows that rushing into any self-publishing breaks all the rules and risks damaging an author’s reputation. But then so does writing a novel in chunks at 2am and publishing the first draft. However, 6,000 downloads later, it doesn’t seem to have done too badly.

My only other point of indecision is whether to call it “Two-Hundred Steps Home Volumes 1-12” or “The Complete Journey” to separate it from the individual volumes but also make clear it isn’t a sequel! I can write fast, but not that fast! 🙂 Ah well, knowing me I’ll make an impulsive decision at midnight and you’ll see something live shortly after. If no one buys it, I’ll come up with a Plan B.

iBook Madness: 2013 365 Challenge #342

This greeted me this morning. Lovely.

This greeted me this morning. Lovely.

I woke this morning to a message from Smashwords, saying that one of my Two-Hundred Steps Home volumes has been booted out of the Premium Catalogue because of a link to a competitor site, which is frowned upon.

I had already been alerted to the issue through a ticket opened by Apple, saying I had a link to Amazon in my book. I’d only reloaded the offending volume (which had previously been approved for Premium Distribution) because Barnes and Noble weren’t pulling through the front cover. As I may have mentioned in the past, formatting for Smashwords could drive you crazy!

I couldn’t find any Amazon links, so I went through and removed all the links except my blog, Facebook and Twitter ones. Considering that the whole purpose of writing THSH this year, to the detriment of my other projects (not to mention sleep and sanity) was to promote the blog and hopefully sell books, I figured that was fair. I offer the books for free, after all.

Then I got this message from Smashwords telling me the link that had Apple in a tizz was the writermummy blog link because my blog has links to my novels on Amazon. I mean, seriously? That would be like telling me to remove my twitter and facebook links because I occasionally promote my books through these channels. Paranoid, much? I wouldn’t mind if I’d actually sold a single book through Apple when my novels were available there. I don’t even get many free downloads from them.

Volumes 10 and 11 missing from Apple

Volumes 10 and 11 missing from Apple

Unfortunately Smashwords doesn’t offer the ability to have different versions for Premium Distribution and their own store. I can take my books out of iBook distribution, but I have at least one reader I know who downloads from there and it doesn’t seem fair for her not to have access to the final volume. But taking off my blog link is absurd. The books are intrinsically linked to the blog.

I read around the subject this morning, after writing a ranty message to Smashwords (a shame in itself because I’ve been a huge advocate up to now) and it seems there is no other way to get free books into Barnes & Noble (my biggest source of downloads) other than through Smashwords. I hate being cornered like that. To be fair, I don’t think many of those 2,800 B&N downloads have resulted in blog traffic (I wish!) but it isn’t the point.

I don’t understand the paranoia (particularly about a free book). Either you have a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad. You will buy your ebooks through the route your device dictates. No one is going to rush out and buy a kindle merely because my novels aren’t available through iBook.

Anyway, I don’t have the time to change anything now. If that means all my books end up not available through B&N or iBooks, then so be it. If anyone wants a copy and it isn’t available, then you can download the volumes in all formats directly from Smashwords (or I’ll email you a copy!). I have a long memory, though. I’ve already unpublished from Kobo because of their stunt earlier in the year. One day these retailers will realise that, without authors, they have nothing. I won’t be missed but maybe, just maybe, an author with sufficient clout will become annoyed with them. Or perhaps I’m naïve and big business does call all the shots. What a shame.

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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 head whirled as she downed the drink on the table in front of her. She remembered now why she hated pub crawls. It wasn’t just getting drunk too quickly, and trying to move in a straight line when the world was spinning, it was the bloated tummy and the sloshing sensation as yet another quantity of liquid was consumed too fast.

She reeled and felt a steadying arm wrap round her shoulders. “Whoa, there. You don’t have to keep up, you know. The real race is over. This is just the lads from the office now: no need for bravado.” The voice whispering in her ear seemed hardwired to other, more intimate, parts of her body. She focussed on staying upright and turned to him with a bright smile.

“I’m fine, Conor. I’m a bit out of practice is all. Not much call for getting drunk on your own. No good reasons at any rate. It’s been a while.”

Conor gave her back a quick rub, then dropped his arm. He didn’t move away, however, and Claire found his presence at her side comforting. She looked around blearily, trying to see who was still with them. She recognised most of the faces, although they all looked a little worse for wear.

“I think maybe I should push the wheelbarrow on the next stint,” she said to Conor. “If I climb back in, I might fall asleep.”

“My poor Claire,” Conor said with a smile. “You have been a good sport.”

“Well, after you went to all that trouble to find me a cushion I could hardly refuse, could I? Just please tell me there’s no photographic evidence.”

Conor raised his eyebrows and said nothing. Claire groaned. “Great. I guess that was inevitable. Maybe no one will remember who I am.”

Her boss let out a loud laugh. “Sorry, m’darling, not much chance of that. Your pouting and liberal blowing of kisses have been the highlight of the evening, although my personal favourite was your attempt at the iconic fanned skirt image in the pub before last.”

The groan was louder this time, and Claire dropped her head into her hands. “I thought I’d imagined it. Please tell me I didn’t really put their fan on the floor and stand above it? I didn’t even think I was that drunk.”

“You are and you did.” He grinned. “Kept your modesty quite well though. Until you fell over at least.”

Only the gentle affection in his voice stopped Claire from running out the room. In fact he’d been the perfect date: attentive, supportive and encouraging. There had been a hint of distance to begin with, but as the alcohol flowed and the eyes blurred that had dissipated. She felt the warmth of his body next to hers, through the thin fabric of her dress, and suddenly shivered.

“Are you cold? I can get your cardie, although it feels pretty warm in here. Would you like some fresh air?”

“I’m fine.” Something in his expression caught her attention. “Though yes, now you mention it, some fresh air might be a good idea.”

Conor grasped her elbow and led her from the room. She heard him tell their colleagues that she was going to be sick and their friendly laughter followed them out. It was on her lips to tell him she didn’t feel ill, when it occurred to her that he might be protecting her reputation, as the two of them left the pub together.

Ever the gentleman. Nothing like the man I took him for at my interview.

Claire shivered again as the cool night air brushed her skin. It wasn’t cold, although the oppressive heat of the day had eased with the setting of the sun. Despite the bustling noise of the pub spilling through the open doors and windows, it felt eerily quiet out in the night.

They were somewhere away from the High Street, having left the hubbub of the carnival behind. The race proper had finished much earlier and Conor had led his colleagues on a longer tour with the drinks on him, as a thank you for all their hard work. Above them, inky blackness stretched away, punctuated by thousands of pin-pricks of dazzling light. The sheer expanse of the sky made Claire dizzy, and she leant against the whitewashed stone wall for support.

“You’re not really going to be sick, are you?”

Claire shook her head, regretting it immediately. “No, I’m fine. You might need to push me back to the hostel in that wheelbarrow though; I can’t see me making it up the hill.” She looked around. “Not that I have any idea where I am.”

“We’re not that far away. We’re in the Muddy Duck. Swanage isn’t a big place.”

“I’m none the wiser. Besides, we’re in the Black Swan.” She gestured at the sign above their heads. “And you think I’m drunk!”

Conor leant back against the rail, propped up on his elbows, and smiled tolerantly. “Muddy Duck is what the locals call it. You know, a black swan is just a muddy duck? At least I think that’s where it comes from. I’m not really a local.”

“Don’t tell me, your kids’ kids would just about be accepted?”

“Not that bad, but you have the general idea.”

They stood together in silence, listening to the sounds of revelry from inside the building. People came and went through the door to Claire’s left, but they seemed to have a pocket of unbreakable stillness around them.

Claire felt tension build like an approaching storm. Suddenly all her senses were on overdrive: her ears picking up every sound, her nose taking in the scent of Conor’s aftershave and the stink of stale beer and cigarettes. Despite the gloom, she could see Conor as if he stood beneath a spotlight. He was watching her, his eyes and teeth shining in the darkness, competing with his brilliant white suit.

The silence took on texture. Conor pushed away from the railing, and the movement tightened the knot in Claire’s stomach and caused her heart to race uncontrollably, like the wheelbarrows had along the High Street earlier. Conor came to stand directly in front of her, looking down with a question in his eyes.

Claire raised her gaze to meet his. She flinched as his eyes narrowed slightly. He reached forwards and gently pulled off the wig, letting her hair tumble down around her face.

“That’s better.”

His eyes sought hers again, still asking the unanswered question. She didn’t need to search hard for a reply. It was a question she’d been waiting for. With a quivering smile, Claire gave a nod. At her response, the tension seeped out of Conor’s face, and he leant forwards slowly to brush his lips against hers.

Claire let herself sink into the kiss. Conor’s hands tangled into her hair, cupping her face and pulling her close. She wrapped her arms around him, running her hands over the contours of his back, feeling the lithe body beneath his costume. A gentle breeze blew up the street and across their skin, bringing with it the scent of night and the salty tang of the sea. Claire inhaled deeply and lost herself in the moment.

***

Style hell Sunday: 2013 365 Challenge #273

A nice moody monochrome cover seemed right for Volume 9

A nice moody monochrome cover seemed right for Vol9

Word styles are going to be the death of me. After all the issues with Baby Blues and Normal vs Style2, I’ve had problems today that made that look like child’s play to fix.

Dragon Wraiths came out of KDP select as of this morning, so I put it back on Smashwords, thinking I’d fixed all the formatting issues last month. Wrong. So at 8 am, when I should have been writing my Claire post, I was desperately trying to fix formatting issues. Then during the morning, between ironing uniform and doing laundry, I spent hours trying to fix the index.

Five versions later I admitted defeat and copied a working index in from an old file. Then, as we were about to leave for the in-laws’, I desperately tried to fix the tiny text-and-indenting issues.

Arrived at father-in-law’s to discover that hadn’t worked so spent the journey home fixing them on my laptop in the car. While cooking sausage and mash and folding laundry this evening I made one last attempt and – fingers crossed – it looks okay now. On iBooks at least. I’m too scared to check the other versions.

I tweaked a few other formatting issues too, so I’ll now have to upload a new version to Amazon and redo my CreateSpace version. Formatting never ends! I begin to understand why people pay companies to do it for them! Although there is a sense of satisfaction when it all comes good.

On a happy note, tomorrow is the beginning of October (scary, I know!), which means it’s nearly my birthday, my sister comes home for a visit in a week, and we survived the manic month of September! Hurrah

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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 jumped down from the coach and waved vaguely in the driver’s direction. She’d already checked which bus would take her to the airport and the driver had pointed out the stop.

If only the tour still stopped in Christchurch overnight, I could have booked a taxi to pick me up from the hostel. Bloody earthquake.

Standing at the stop, Claire tried to remember the last time she’d caught a bus. Back in Manchester she’d stuck to the trams, if public transport had featured at all. Mostly she used her car.

Please let NZ buses run punctually.

Claire chewed the side of her nail and stared along the road, willing the bus to appear amidst the traffic. She was surprised how many cars there were on the street on a Saturday evening.

I wonder if the Kiwis come into town for a night out. I wish I was heading to a bar for a double gin and tonic. Hopefully there’ll be enough money to buy one on the plane, assuming I get there.

Claire could almost taste the cool refreshing tang of tonic with a slice of lime, and she took a swig of water to wet her throat. Her tummy rumbled but she didn’t dare leave the stop to look for food. Plenty of time to worry about eating when her luggage was checked in and she had her boarding pass.

At last the bus appeared down the street. It seemed to take forever to reach her in the traffic. Claire jumped on almost before the doors were open.

“Airport, please.”

The driver nodded and named the fare.

“How long will it take?”

“Half an hour, assuming we don’t hit traffic. Don’t worry, chook, we’ll get you there for your flight.”

Claire took a seat, wondering how much panic was visible on her face to get a pep-talk from a complete stranger.

Outside the window, she was able to get a true sense of the devastation caused by the earthquake and began to realise the traffic was not caused by volume of people, but the need to negotiate streets still closed off by piles of rubble.

Gazing at the buildings along the central business district, Claire realised they were actually shipping containers, stacked up and painted. It made her sad to think of the once beautiful city in such a state of disrepair, however much it matched her mood.

As the bus drove along suburban streets lined with bare trees, Claire felt increasingly like she was on her way home.

It’s not winter there, though. How odd to go from spring to summer to autumn and back to summer again.

She tried to imagine travelling around Cornwall in the sunshine, back in her own car and in control of her travel plans. The thought raised a flicker of happiness deep inside, but it was soon extinguished by her concern for Kim and her need to get home.

At last there were signs to the airport and Claire felt her heartbeat quicken. Before they were even close to the building she rose and walked to the front of the bus.

“Where do you drop us?”

“At the arrivals hall.”

“Damn. How far to departures?”

The driver laughed. “Not far. It’s not exactly Singapore. You’ll be fine.”

“My flight leaves in half an hour.”

“Ah, you are cutting it close. No worries, we’ll get you there.”

Claire clung on to the nearest seat as the driver put his foot down. She wished she’d told him earlier that she was in a hurry.

I can’t imagine a bus driver in the UK going faster because I’m late for my flight. He’d be more likely to berate me for my bad planning.

“Here you go. Through there, you can’t miss it. I’d get a move on though. Good luck.”

With a wave, Claire jumped down from the bus, shouldered her rucksack, and ran.

She found the international check in desks and looked for her flight. All the signs were blank and she felt the panic begin to rise up her throat. One desk had a woman behind it and she ran towards her, bumping the barriers with her rucksack.

“Hi,” she panted, dropping her bag to the floor. “I need to check in for my flight to Sydney.”

The woman behind the desk looked up and frowned. “You’re too early, check in isn’t open yet.”

“What do you mean? My flight leaves in thirty minutes.”

The frown deepened. “Sorry, Ma’am, you’re too late to check in for that fight. I can put you on standby for the next flight, but it doesn’t leave until the morning. You’ll have to find accommodation for the night.”

“What do you mean I can’t check in? I’ve still got at least twenty minutes before the flight leaves. I can’t get one in the morning, I’m connecting to Dubai.”

The check-in clerk looked at Claire with a mixture of pity and frustration. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, you should have allowed more time to get to the airport. I can’t get you checked in and through security in twenty minutes. The gate is already closed.”

Claire stared at the perfectly made-up face, the immaculate hair, the clean and ironed clothing, and knew hatred. After everything she had been through to get here, to miss the flight because this woman wouldn’t let her through was too much. She wanted to scream and rant, to barge through and run for the gate. To do something desperate.

Instead she stood, numb and defeated, and let the tears fall.

***

Reclusive Paperback Writer: 2013 365 Challenge #271

Up at sunrise to write today

Up at sunrise to write today

How cool – my husband just bought a paper copy of Baby Blues off Amazon. I only made about 50p but that’s not the point! It’s there; a real book (free delivery, too, which is better than paying for proof copies to be shipped from the US.)

I’m much more nervous than I have been about anything to do with the self publishing journey so far. Not only is a paper book more permanent than an ebook, it’s also a much bigger investment from a reader (though less profit for me – I couldn’t bring myself to charge more. It’s already double what I’d pay for a paperback!)

I’ve been formatting Dragon Wraiths for print today and it was really tough rereading the book. I’d love to rewrite it, armed with 270 days of writing and editing every day. I feel I am a stronger writer now, and I want to bring my first novel up to my current standard. But if an author did that for every book, would they ever get around to writing any more?

As an aside, someone mentioned today that I seem a little like a recluse with my online presence. I was surprised because I feel like I spend half my life trying to increase my online presence. That said, I think it’s in the nature of a writer to hide in a cave. I guess that’s why social media can be a struggle.

Gorgeous Day

Gorgeous Day

I think it’s time I got a copy of one of Kristen Lamb’s books on social media – We are not alone: The writer’s guide to social media or Rise of the Machines (her latest one). I’ve resisted so far only because I already have dozens of books I haven’t read on writing and marketing. Hers are meant to be among the best though, so a good investment of my time. Has anyone read either of them? Which should I get?

(As an aside, I went to Kristen Lamb’s blog to see how much Rise of the Machines is, and it’s not available to buy on her page as far as I can see. Isn’t that a social media fail? 🙂 )

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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: 

THIS POST CONTAINS SOME STRONG LANGUAGE

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Claire read the text message again and frowned, the movement exacerbating the headache she’d had all afternoon. Glancing up at the window, she saw only the reflection of the empty dorm room. At 8 o’clock in the evening in Queenstown, it seemed everyone was out partying.

I should be on a bus to Christchurch. My flight leaves in 24 hours.

She’d tried to get a bus to the airport as soon as the tiny plane carrying her from Milford landed, but it turned out all the buses left early in the morning. With no choice but to wait in the hostel, and with no iPad or money, Claire felt like she might burst.

And then the text from Kim had arrived. Claire read it for a third time, but it still made no sense.

Sorry, Claire. I’ve been a bad friend. But it won’t matter anymore. Have a nice life. Kim.

Every time she read the words, Claire felt the knot tighten in her stomach. If it hadn’t been from Kim, she would have worried that it was a goodbye note from someone intending to do something foolish. But Kim was the most resilient person she knew.

The nagging worry continued to worm under her skin. At last Claire had to do something or go mad.

Hi Kim, lovely to hear from you. If anyone’s been a bad friend it’s me. I’ll be home in two days, please say we can catch up and be friends? I’ve missed you so much. Claire.

Claire watched the phone, waiting for a response. As the minutes ticked by, the tightness in her chest became unbearable.

“Damn it!”

Grabbing the phone, Claire strode from the room and down to reception.

“Hi, I need to call the UK, do you sell phone cards?” Claire looked at the girl behind reception sat reading a magazine. She turned her head slowly and gazed at Claire without speaking.

“Do you sell phone cards, please? I need to call England.”

The girl nodded, and reached into a box under the desk.

“Five bucks will give you twenty minutes to the UK, is that enough?”

Claire nodded. It would have to be; she needed to save every last bit of money to get to the airport and buy something to eat on the way home.

Tapping her foot, as the girl wrote something down in a book before handing over the card, Claire snatched it and span round to locate the phone. She spotted it in the corner, but it was in use. Judging by the body language of the girl curled around the handset it was likely to be in use for some time.

Claire froze. She was loathe to ask the girl on reception anything, suspecting any answer would take too long. Her mind felt blank with indecision. Looking left and right, as if a phone might materialise on the blank walls, Claire was about to run out into the street when she heard the phone click.

Hand outstretched, Claire reached the handset just as a teenage boy was about to pick it up.

“Please, this is urgent. I think my friend’s in trouble. I need to make this call?” She turned pleading eyes on the boy and he shrugged and wandered back into the lounge.

The instructions on the back of the phone card seemed impossibly complicated. Claire scratched off the silver paint to reveal the code, then typed in the long string of numbers and waited.

After a long pause, the phone began to ring. Each note of the ringing tone made her heart beat faster. The phone felt slippery in her clammy hand and she twisted the cord round and round.

“Answer, Kim. Come on. You only sent that text half an hour ago. Answer, Goddamnit.”

Ten rings, twenty, then the phone went dead. A metallic voice came on the line.

“You have four dollars twenty cents remaining. Do you wish to make another call?”

Scrolling through her phone book with numb fingers, Claire found Jeff’s number and dialled it in. Again the phone rang, five times, ten. Claire was wondering who she would call next when she heard a click.

“Yes?”

“Jeff? It’s Claire.”

“Claire. Cricky, how are you? I thought you were in New Zealand.”

“I am. Listen, is Kim with you?”

“No. She said she needed a night by herself, so I’m staying with mates. Why?” His voice rose slightly. “Have you guys spoken at last?”

“No. She sent me a text. Look it might be nothing, but it sounded like she was saying goodbye. You don’t think she’d do something stupid, do you? It’s not like her, but I’ve tried ringing and she’s not answering.”

“Fuck.” Jeff’s voice came out like a bullet. Then Claire could hear movement and panting, as if Jeff was running.

“How long ago did you get the text?” His voice sounded distant.

“Half an hour. Jeff, you’re scaring me. Why would Kim kill herself?” Claire fought the wave of nausea threatening to overwhelm her. She leant against the wall and held the phone with both hands.

“She’s had depression, since the miscarriage. Oh Claire, it’s been awful. I wish you guys hadn’t fallen out. She’s on medication but I’m not sure she’s been taking it. Look I have to go. Thanks for calling me.”

“Wait. Jeff. I’m sorry. Tell her I’m sorry.” The phone was silent, and Claire wondered if Jeff had gone, or if he thought she was too much to blame.

“It’s not your fault, Claire. We’ll sort it out when you get home. If I’m not too late.”

The phone went dead.

***

A Need to Read: 2013 365 Challenge #269

A fraction of the unread books on my Kindle

A fraction of the unread books on my Kindle

Apologies if this post is a little late today: I finally hit ‘approve proof’ on the print version of Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes this morning, after ploughing through the online proofer (I can’t afford to get another physical proof).

I had a small scare last night, as I downloaded the PDF on my iPad as soon as I got the email from CreateSpace to say it was ready, and half the letters were missing. For example “William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116″ read ”  illi   Sh  ke  re, So    et 116″. I didn’t have time to fire up the laptop last night, so the first thing I did this morning was check it all on the big PC. It was fine. Phew.

However, all the weeks and months I’ve spent on editing and formatting recently has resulted in my creativity taking a holiday. Oh, not the creativity that formats book covers or designs bookmarks: that’s fine. But the right-brain creativity that lets me think up an ending to Two Hundred Steps Home, both for this month and for the entire year, is missing in action.

Books that gripped me

Books that gripped me

All the proofreading and editing I’ve done (including a couple of novels for someone else) has also resulted in me being unable to read a book without critiquing it as I read. Even with old beloved books (or maybe especially those, because I know the story), I find myself checking for typos or grammar errors, or rewording sentences that feature the same word twice. It’s no fun.

Reading used to be my downtime, my lifeline, my escapism. It also used to be the source of my creativity – filling the well of ideas that gets exhausted with writing thousands of words every week.

I have probably two dozen books on my iPad that I want to read, or that I’ve started and can’t finish. I don’t want to take books apart. I wouldn’t even mind if I was analysing them as I did as an English Literature graduate: looking for character motivations or themes. At least then I would still be immersed in the story. But questioning the word choice or the grammar and punctuation is just plain anal. And rude.

After all, who am I to judge someone else’s book when I know mine aren’t going to win any literary awards? I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe I need to read a paperback rather than on the kindle. Or maybe I need to read a fast-paced thriller, that won’t give me time to analyse because I’ll be desperate for the story. It needs to grip from beginning to end, but without any blood or dead bodies (I don’t do gore, even in books).

Any ideas? How can I put my left-brain back in its box and get back to enjoying reading once more?

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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 stared at the underside of the top bunk and searched her brain for ideas. This was harder than the worst pitch Carl had ever thrown her way. Harder than choosing an apartment or selecting which shoes to wear for Kim’s wedding. How to raise several hundred dollars in a few hours, so she could fly to Queenstown and catch the bus to Christchurch to get her flight home?

The list of people who might lend her the money was less than one. Those with the resources – Michael, Josh, her brother, her parents – were not the ones she wanted to approach in an emergency. The people who might take pity on her – her sister Ruth was the only one who came to mind – couldn’t afford it. Even if her best friend Kim was still speaking to her, their financial relationship existed on the fact that Claire was the one with a well-paid job and Kim, as the newbie actress, didn’t have two pennies to rub together.

How ironic that it’s me who is stranded in the back of beyond without the resources to get home, even though – assuming I do get back – I will have a salary coming in soon enough to clear the debt.

A tiny thought that Conor might advance her first month’s salary was quickly quashed. Not only had he already put his neck out for her by making the job a short-term contract, she didn’t want to start out beholden to her boss.

Come on Claire, think. There must be a way of raising some cash. An online loan, a new credit card.

The ideas came only to be dismissed. Even if she could get the internet to work, such things took time. And she wasn’t entirely convinced she’d pass a credit score anyway, with no home address or job and her credit card full to the max.

A dark lassitude crept over her and she had to push away the tears. Escaping to New Zealand had seemed the only option at the time: a chance to flee the mess her life had become and enjoy a fresh start. Instead had never felt so alone.

Through the black, a glimmer of light sparkled. Something someone had said to her in passing, a joke to be laughed off, crept into her mind. Something Bethan had said. What was it? Claire searched through her brain, wishing Bethan were there to come up with an amazing solution or fill the room with her endless optimism. Then it came to her. “Sell your fancy boots if you have to.”

I’m going home, hopefully, so what does it matter if I sell some stuff. I have boxes of clothes back home.

The thought made her uncomfortable, nonetheless. Could she sell of her second hand stuff to the other people in the hostel? Would they buy it? It seemed a bit icky. But what choice did she have?

Running through her possessions in her mind, Claire realised the thing of most value was her tablet. Selling it felt like cutting off her right arm, especially as it was full of data she wouldn’t be able to back up without access to a computer. Was it worth losing all her photos, her memories of the trip across New Zealand, to get home?

With a heavy sigh, Claire rolled off the bed and pulled her rucksack over. Searching through, she found the iPad and charger, some jewellery and her Helly Hansen boots. Ignoring the trembling in her hands, Claire gathered them together and left the room.

***