Art in August #31 – Knitted Cat

Knitted Cat

Knitted Cat

And so August comes to an end. My eternal thanks to Laptop on the Ironing Board for coming up with the Art in August challenge; I credit it with enabling me to survive the school holidays with some of my sanity intact (although, now the end is in sight, I seem to have entirely run out of patience!)

I thought I would end with another knitted toy, this time one of my own design (translation: I made it up.) Stuffed with the proper hollow-fibre filling (from a sacrificed pillow) it’s quite soft and cuddly, even if it does look a bit miserable (maybe because it doesn’t have any whiskers, as my daughter pointed out.)

It’s been nice to blog daily again, too, although it has made me wonder how I managed to write and blog every single day last year. I must have had a screw loose! 😉

Hopefully I’ll be back to writing in a week or so, after I’ve reclaimed my house from the marauding invaders (we have extra next week, as people with jobs go back to work and need childcare. I must be crazy!)

I will be working on my fifth novel, Finding Lucy. I’d love to finish it by Christmas, but I haven’t looked at it since I went into labour with my son, nearly four years ago, (where did those years go?!) so it might be Christmas 2015. I’ll keep you posted.

A Bio, A Synopsis and The Danger of Distraction

Back at Nursery Today

Back at Nursery Today

My son went back to nursery today (hurrah!) and I was able to get back to work. Unfortunately a night of broken sleep has left me a little dazed and I’m finding it hard to concentrate. So, rather dangerously, I decided to do something different. I’ve just read Julie Duffy’s guest post on Charlotte Rains Dixon’s blog, about 15 Fixes for Your Worst Writer’s Block (worth a read!) I decided to combine ‘Work On A Different Part Of The Project’ and ‘Change Projects’. So today I’ve been working on the extra stuff I need to enter my WIP in the Independent’s children’s novel competition – the bio and synopsis – and I got out an old manuscript that I want to work on next.

It was a shock looking at the old manuscript and realising I started writing it in 2008, before my daughter was born. That’s five and a half years ago! Where did the time go? It’s also tough reading something that you remember as being quite good and realising your writing has come on some way since then. Which is of course fantastic – I’d hate to think my writing had got worse – but as I wrote the manuscript whilst also studying a Creative Writing degree course with the Open University, I kind of assumed it might be okay. Actually the writing might be – I didn’t get much chance to go into it – but the formatting and grammar are awful!

I spent the morning roughly reformatting it because I’ve programmed myself to write ready-to-publish documents, after doing Two-Hundred Steps Home last year, when everything had to be ready to publish at the end of each month. Formatting and layout, styles and chapter headings, all have to be to Smashwords standards (easy enough to convert to Kindle formatting). It did mean that I noticed things like how many bits of dialogue start with, “So…” Which is how I speak, but no longer how I write fiction. It’s nice to know I have grown a bit as a writer in half a decade.

I had to quickly put the manuscript away before it dragged me further in. It’s probably a blessing that it needs so much work: I’m not tempted to start that particular challenge when I have two big deadlines looming: finishing this children’s book by the end of next week, and getting Class Act out by the end of June.

So I wrote my Author Biography (see! I started another sentence with ‘so’!) It was rather gratifying. I was able to put:

Amanda Martin is a self-published author and blogger, with a presence on Facebook and Twitter. Her blog, Writermummy, has accumulated 550 posts in two years, and she has published four novels. Amanda’s women’s fiction novel Two-Hundred Steps Home was written in daily instalments and published in monthly volumes in 2013 as part of a challenge on her blog. A section of the novel has been selected to appear in a Cambridge University Press study book. Amanda’s Young Adult novel, Dragon Wraiths, was long-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel award in 2013. George and the Magic Arch is her first Middle Grade novel, although MG fiction is her favourite genre.

All of which should hopefully be true by the time I put in the competition entry, or at least by the time someone comes to read it! It’s nice to feel I’ve been doing something with my time at home these last five years.  I even managed to write a one-page synopsis which, although it will need tweaking, takes a weight off my mind. I hate writing synopses (if that’s the correct plural?)

Anyway, distraction time is over. As the children have been off sick this week I’m marginally behind on my 15,000 word target, although it’s still in sights. I definitely do better working to a target. I must remember that.

Bringing Scenes to Life: 2013 365 Challenge #325

Satellite view of St Mawes Castle

Satellite view of St Mawes Castle

As part of my writing challenge this year, I have had to do a lot of research on the locations that Claire visits in Two-Hundred Steps Home, to make it plausible. Of course I could have made her journey entirely fictional, but that would have been considerably harder for me.

Because, while I can write dialogue in my sleep, I cannot visualise places. My brain, my imagination, doesn’t think in 3D or in colour.

Even when I’m reading a well-described fantasy novel, I struggle to picture the scene being described. And I’m okay with that.

I read for characters, for dialogue and stories and action. I’m not overly fussed about what a castle looks like, or how the armies are set out on the battlefield. Tell me a mystical city is beautiful and has spires and walkways, and that’s enough. No need to describe it in detail, I’ll only pull myself out of the story trying to build the picture in my mind, and get frustrated when I fail.

A house Claire could buy in Cornwall

A house Claire could buy in Cornwall

However, not everyone is like me, happy to exist inside a vague grey mist when they read. Some people like to be able to see the scene, to know the sea is visible in the distance, or whether the building is Georgian or Victorian or Modern.

Not only that; having characters exist in a three-dimensional space makes the action work. If a character is moving, even if it’s only drinking a glass of wine, it pulls the story forward.

My inability to visualise places used to be a major cause of writer’s block. I’d try and figure out what a character’s house looked like, and whether the phone was in the lounge, or if the post fell on the mat or into a box, and it would paralyse me.

Then I discovered the wonders of research and stealing appropriation, and I’ve never looked back. In the UK the main property website is Rightmove (although there are others). If I need a house for a character, I pop on Rightmove and find one.

Reviews on Tripadvisor

Reviews on Tripadvisor

I usually have an idea whether my characters live in a cottage or an apartment, what they might be able to afford, and I generally have a city or town or village in mind. When I’ve found the right one, (and pulled myself away from dreaming about cottages in Cornwall or houses in Wales) I print out the details (important because they disappear off the website when the house is sold, and are gone forever), and put it in a scrap-book.

In Finding Lucy, (my first, though still unfinished, novel), I have the floor plans and everything for Lucy’s grandmother’s house. I know where the TV is, and the telephones. I don’t worry quite so much about that level of detail now, although it is useful for adding depth to a scene.

For example, instead of “Lucy ran down the stairs to answer the phone,” I can write, “Lucy took the steep stairs two at a time, knocking her hip against the breakfast bar as she reached for the phone. She kept forgetting her grandmother’s cottage was so darn small.”

Another thing I’ve found useful is Google Streetview. Looking at a two-dimensional photograph of a location is useful, but it can be misleading. If you go to streetview, though, (assuming the location is covered), you can literally walk down the road and spin round for a 360 view. You can see that there is a cemetery across the road, or that the bus stop is dirty, or that there are cars parked all along the street.

Streetview of St Mawes car park

Streetview of St Mawes car park

You can even get an idea about the weather. For a recent scene in THSH, it had been sunny all day in the story. Then I “drove” the road out to the hostel, as Claire did in a towering rage, and the streetview photos had stacked clouds along the horizon. Hey presto, her rage is mirrored by the approaching storm.

Incidentally, for Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes, which is set in London, I actually visited the street where I had located Helen’s apartment. I walked her route to the tube station and sat in the park where she first thinks she might be pregnant. It added extra detail, such as the smells and sounds, and how close the buses got to the pavement. You can’t beat first hand research, but I’d have to put in a lot of miles to follow Claire’s journey around the UK!

Hostel Claire's in currently

Hostel Claire’s in currently

The final site I go to often for internet research is Tripadvisor, particularly for the places that Claire visits. I’ve never been to the Eden Project, Pendennis Castle or even Cornwall for that matter.

The YHA website has a few reviews and things to do, but for variety it helps to read a lot of different perspectives. Tripadvisor is how I found out that the Eden Project has a problem with queueing because of gift aid or how the English Heritage will ask you if you want to pay a thousand pounds for lifetime membership.

There isn’t a single activity that Claire has done, or a café that she’s visited, in the UK or New Zealand, that isn’t based on fact. I’ve even been known to check the opening times of the Starbucks and write the story around it! If you wanted to, with some planning, you could follow in Claire’s footsteps for about 95% of the story.

I try and get two or three reviews that agree before I write something (I’m always a bit worried about libel!) but it would be easy enough to make the place fictional, just to be safe. Reviews are brilliant, because they’re genuine and colloquial and so very varied. Two people can visit the same place, in the same week, and have completely different experiences, based on how easy it is to get in, the weather, who they are with, and their expectations. There’s half your story written, right there.

The world is at your fingertips, with a good internet connection and some patience. Sometimes it feels like cheating. But I prefer to call it research! 🙂

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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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“Hello, how’s it going? I thought I’d call and make sure you’re still alive. Or, more to the point, that your brother is. The look on your face when you left the restaurant was something to behold.”

Claire cradled the phone to her ear and looked across to see if the boys were listening. They appeared to be engrossed in some car show on the TV. Even so, Claire kept her voice low as she replied to her boss’s question.

“We’re all still alive. Just. Have you any idea how far you have to go to find a McDonalds in Cornwall? Robert’s gone back to Geneva.”

“With a flea in his ear?” She could hear the grin in Conor’s voice.

“I never understood that phrase. But if you mean did I let him know I was cross with him: I tried. Might as well attempt to chastise an elephant for all the good it did me.”

“And the boys? Do you think you’ll cope?” The tone of concern in his voice was almost masked by the humour, but not quite. It made Claire’s stomach twist and squirm.

“Jack will be fine. He’s a nice lad; open and enthusiastic, if a little eager to emulate his brother.”

“And the other one?”

“Alex. Hmmm. Let’s say he’s practising hard for his teenage years. If the chip on his shoulder gets any bigger he’ll fall out of his bunk at night.”

“Must be tough, not having a settled home at that age. He might even have girl trouble.”

“At twelve?” Claire’s voice rose, and Jack glanced at her before turning back to the screen.

“Oh, yes. Didn’t you say they were at boarding school? Is it mixed? Not that that matters. Twelve was about when I, well, never mind.”

“Twelve?” Claire felt the blood drain from her face. “Seriously?” She tried to remember how old she was when she first even noticed boys. Then she realised it wasn’t the conversation to have with her boss, and she coughed. “Anyway, if that’s it, I’m sure it will blow over. They’re only here for a fortnight.”

“Did you want me to come out with you guys tomorrow, help you ease into it a bit? I’ve got brothers and nephews; I might be able to help.”

The surge of gratitude warmed Claire from her toes to the tips of her fingers. Then she realised what impression it might give and the words of acceptance died on her lips.

“Think of it as a work assignment,” Conor added, apparently as an afterthought. “We can go visit a castle or something and take notes together.”

“Are you checking up on me?”

“Would I? No, you’d be doing me a favour, actually. I’m meant to be going to Mass in the morning, for the baptism of some random cousin in Birmingham. I can live without it. Mum thinks because I’m in the same country I should go.”

“Same country, yes, but Birmingham is miles away. Is that why you came to St Austell; to hide? You don’t have a work appointment at all, do you?”

“You’ve found me out, I confess,” he said, then fell silent.

Claire’s mind filled with conjecture. Escaping a Baptism seemed a flimsy excuse to drive all the way to Cornwall. She didn’t want to think about it too deeply, so she said, “Well, if you’re sure, that would be great. Thanks.”

They agreed a time and place to meet in the morning and hung up the phone. Claire curled into the corner of the sofa and let her mind wander.

*

Claire’s heart gave a little hiccup when she saw Conor strolling towards them. It had been a difficult morning already and it wasn’t yet ten o’clock. Alex and Jack had bickered non-stop over breakfast, and then Alex had refused to come with them to the castle, insisting he was old enough to stay at the hostel by himself. He tried to hide it, but Claire saw him with a phone clutched in his hand, and she began to suspect that Conor might have been right.

Damn him.

The boys had moaned all the way up from the car park and now, looking at the site from the outside, Claire thought they should probably have gone back to Pendennis Castle, on the other side of the water.

“Top of the morning to you.” Conor said in greeting as he approached, and Claire recognised the jovial Irish man act he’d put on for her mother, what felt like months ago.

She rolled her eyes at him, then gave him a meaningful look, trying to convey some sense of the morning they’d had. He gave a tiny wink, barely more than a crinkling of one cheek, and turned to face the children.

“Hello, I’m Jack.” Claire’s youngest nephew said brightly, holding out his hand. Conor shook it formally then turned to face Alex.

“And yer man must be Alex. Pleased to meet you.” Conor had the sense not to hold out his hand to be left hanging. Alex stood with his hands buried deep in his jeans pockets and stared at the ground. With a twinkle in his eye, Conor winked at Claire again.

“Shall we go in?” Claire said, leading the way to the entrance and trying to ignore Alex’s fit of the sullens. She’d hidden most of Robert’s money at the hostel, retaining enough to pay for their tickets and lunch. When she handed over the fifty-pound note to a suspicious cashier, Conor sidled up behind her.

“Big brother flashed the cash then? At least you haven’t got to pay for his grumpy kids as well.”

“You mean Alex? I think you might have been right,” she murmured. “He’s been clutching his phone like a lifeline all morning.”

“Ah, love’s sweet torment.”

She blushed hotly and she turned away in confusion. With a throaty chuckle, Conor moved to stand by Jack. She heard him ask about the boy’s home town and school, and felt able to breathe again.

Just what game is he playing?

Whatever it was, she wished she knew some of the rules.

***

Tips for NaNoWriMo: 2013 365 Challenge #285

My NaNoWriMo Baby

My NaNoWriMo Baby

Okay, confession time: I’m going to steal most of today’s post, from myself!

With my sister and her family over at the moment, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to write my Claire installment and find something to say for this top part (unless you want to hear how totally cute my niece and nephew are!)

So, today’s thoughts originally appeared back in October 2012 in this post.

NaNoWriMo Thoughts

It’s almost that time of year again when people kiss goodbye to their families, put the takeaway numbers on speed dial, stock up on coffee and chocolate, and launch themselves into NaNoWriMo.

For those of you who have never heard of it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writers Month, and is about “Thirty days and nights of literary abandon” (or writing 50,000 words in the month of November, but that doesn’t sound as poetic or inspiring!)

Most of my novels started life in November. Two years ago, whilst also running my first solo art exhibition and looking after my two young children, I took part in my fourth NaNo and wrote the first fifty thousand words of what (eventually) became Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes.

There are thousands of posts written about NaNoWriMo every year (and chances are, if you’re not a writer or you’re not taking part, you’re a bit sick of hearing about NaNo already!) I’m not qualified to discuss how to plan your NaNoWriMo adventure so your first draft doesn’t become a hot mess. As a Pantser I don’t do much planning; although if I do find time to take part this year, I will definitely reread Jami’s post and take notes. It’s much easier to fix a first draft if it actually has a vague story or character arc to carry it through.

I guess everything to do with NaNoWriMo has been written about already, given what a phenomenon it is. However, for those that have no idea what NaNo is, or are contemplating trying it for the first time this year, I thought I would tap out my thoughts on how to get the most out of your thirty days.

My first NaNo novel (not yet finished)

My first NaNo novel (not yet finished)

My NaNoWriMo Top Tips:

1. Write something on Day One. Anything. Even if you’re a Pantser and your mind is blank, make up a character from five items in your work space and think of something awful that might be happening to them. The longer you leave it before getting words on the page the less likely you are to start at all.

2 Try and keep up with the word-count chart but don’t panic if you fall behind. Once you get some momentum you can do astounding things (I wrote something like 17k words in my last 36 hours last year.)

3. Do not re-read more than your last line (just to see where you got to) when you sit down to write. Even better, end your writing session with a couple of notes about what might happen next so you can start writing the minute you sit at your desk.

4. DO NOT EDIT. If you can handle it by all means leave spell check on and fix as you go. If that causes you to re-read, worry, and question the quality of your work, turn spell check off or – better still – write in Notepad or equivalent.

5. Engage with the community. Read some Facebook posts, follow on Twitter. If you can afford it, donate to NaNo and get all the motivational emails. They’re the reason I come back each year.

At the end of November you won’t have a finished novel. As most novels are nearer 100k than 50k you won’t even have a finished first draft. (If possible, carry on writing until you reach the end of your story, even if it means leaving out chunks to fill in later. If you don’t at least sketch out the ending while the NaNo momentum is carrying you, it’s much more likely to remain unfinished.).

Your fifty thousand words will represent an amazing achievement. Even if you bin half, or put the whole thing in a hidden folder on your computer, you will still have something to be proud of.

Before discovering NaNoWriMo I was convinced I couldn’t write a novel because I had no imagination. I was wrong. I may not have the sharpest literary mind in the world but I can spin a yarn. I’ve discovered I’m more Pantser than Plotter and my main weakness is generating conflict. I know I can write good dialogue and that I can churn out 50k words of reasonable first draft in 4 weeks, even when it isn’t November. Without my NaNo training I would never have survived so far in my daily novel-by-installments challenge this year. (Each monthly Two-Hundred Steps Home volume is a half-NaNo, and that doesn’t include the blog post words written each day).

I may not take part this year. Something has to give in my busy schedule. But I still want to hear about everyone else’s adventures, so please stop by and let me know how you’re getting on. If you’re still dithering about whether or not to sign up: do it. What have you got to lose? You never know what might happen. In a year or two you might be looking at your novel, there on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and get to say, “I wrote that.” It’s a great feeling.

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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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“So, ladies, where will you be off to in the morning?”

As Conor smiled at them, Claire noticed that the wary expression was beginning to leave his face when he looked at Kim. Since their first introduction, an hour or two before, he had acted as if her friend were a bomb about to explode.

Kim had said very little through dinner, although Claire was relieved to see her eat some of her food. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

She turned to Conor to answer his question. “I think we’ll aim for somewhere in Devon, tomorrow. The weather is meant to get better, and it would be a shame to spend too much time in the car. I thought we might head along the coast to Exeter: then I can get a feel for some of the local Dorset towns before we leave the county.”

Conor nodded, but Claire got the impression he wasn’t really listening. They hadn’t talked much about the job during dinner. It unnerved her. A job was meant to come with a contract and a start date and, most importantly, a sense of how much and when she would be paid.

As if reading her mind, Conor caught her eye. “As I said before, we can’t do much in the way of expenses, but you will be getting paid. As it’s on contract for six months, I can pay you weekly if that would help?”

Claire nodded, wondering if it was so obvious that she was completely skint. It was hard to read her new boss. Sometimes, such as during her travels when he texted her, he felt almost like a friend or a benevolent uncle. At other times, like this evening, he was every inch her boss; keeping his distance and maintaining a flow of polite, neutral conversation. It made her feel like an idiot.

Did I imagine the tone of friendship in his texts, or read more into them? And what about picking me up from the airport: what was that all about? What on earth is it going to be like, working for him every day?

She shivered. For the first time she felt a sense of apprehension. In some ways it was easier to manage a boss like Carl, who made it his mission to keep her on her toes. What did you do with someone who seemed like your friend one minute and your master the next?

Claire glanced at Kim, hoping to be able to pick her brains later, to see what she made of Conor. Kim had her hands wrapped around her mug of hot chocolate and was staring into the dark liquid as if it held the secrets of the future.

If only.

Noticing the darkening bags beneath her friend’s eyes, Claire decided it was time to head back to the B&B. She had hoped finally sitting down with Conor to discuss work would leave her feeling more settled and sure that she had made the right decision. Instead it felt similar to waiting in the aircraft, trying to anticipate when the man strapped to her back was going to jump out and drag her with him.

Maybe I shouldn’t have burned my bridges quite so emphatically with Carl. Perhaps they’re right when they say better the devil you know.

She looked up and caught Conor staring at her, his eyes glittering in the low light of the restaurant. Her mouth felt dry. Reaching for her drink, she nearly knocked it flying across the table. Glad for an excuse to look away, Claire tried to ignore the hot flush rising up her cheeks.

***

Pantser and Proud: 2013 365 Challenge #202

Riding on the mini train today

Riding on the mini train today

One of the blogs I follow – Write on the world – had a post today about structure in novels. The author, Mandy Webster, referred to another post called How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending.

I was seduced.

I don’t have a huge problem wrapping up my stories: it’s the flabby beginning – drowning in back story – and the soggy middle that I struggle with. By the time I get to my climax and happy ever after I’ve hit my writing stride. However I know I don’t put enough conflict in my writing so I’m always eager to read about how it’s done.

When I read the post, however, I didn’t come away with a plan to write a killer ending so much as a view that Pantsers (those of us who write by the seat of our pants, rather than plan and outline) only write that way because we’re too lazy or stubborn to do otherwise. That may be true. It may be true for me. Particularly as I’m about to make excuses for why I write that way.

Like a million and one other people, I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I tried, as a teenager, and again in my twenties. I couldn’t get past the first page. Not for want of trying but for want of ideas. No matter how hard I tried to come up with a story, it just wouldn’t happen. It was all boring and predictable.

Grooming Elsie the Shetland pony

Grooming Elsie the Shetland pony

Years of academia has taught me how to plan. I can write an essay outline blindfolded. Well, probably not now, but then, easily. Even in exams I would structure essays rather than just writing whatever came into my desperate brain. I’d been taught how to do it and I did it, and did it well.

With fiction, though, it wasn’t until I turned off that left brain thinking, put my editor in a box with some chocolate and told her to stay there for a while, that anything came. It was a freewrite during my OU creative writing class that sparked my first (and still my favourite) protagonist, Lucy. Nanowrimo came shortly after and Finding Lucy flew from my fingers. I couldn’t stop to think.

As a result I still don’t know how the novel ends. I’m looking forward to finding out, when I finally finish it. I genuinely don’t know which of the two male protagonists, if either, she’ll choose. I don’t entirely know the big secret her gran was hiding, though I have my suspicions. As a result, I don’t over explain or drop massive hints. No need to write RUE over this manuscript – even I don’t know what’s going on. But that’s what’s exciting. I write to find out. If I knew beforehand, I’d be bored and so would the reader.

My Pantser writing has come out most in Two-Hundred Steps Home. For example I don’t yet know what job Claire’s being interviewed for today. When I’ve figured it out you’ll be the first to know (hopefully by 10am!)

The problem, of course, as the author of How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending explains, is that:

“If you engage in story planning through a series of drafts, rather than an outline, you’ll need to write enough drafts to finally understand what Part 4 [the killer ending] should be. Same process, different tolerances for pain.

But there’s risk in that. If you are a drafter instead of a blueprinter (notice I didn’t say outliner—that’s a different process yet, one of several viable ways to plan a story), the likelihood of you settling for mediocrity is orders of magnitude greater. The prospect of rewriting the first 300 pages does that to a writer.”

Model boats at the farm

Model boats at the farm

So if you don’t write to a structure, one of two things happens. You have to do a LOT of rewriting or (more likely) you end up with a mediocre novel because, quite frankly, who wants to rewrite 300 pages. Not me. However, he goes on to say:

“Make no mistake, a rewrite is always a corrective measure. Nothing to brag about”

I’m not sure I agree with that. Redrafting is still writing. Not something to brag about, but something that is necessary for most of us.

As I suggested in my comment on the original blog (it’s probably as well I couldn’t comment on the killer ending one as I’d have embarrassed myself!) I hope that, one day, I’ll understand structure, conflict and stakes as well as I once understood writing a good essay. Maybe one day I will be able to outline without killing my muse, or maybe the blueprint for structure will be in my subconscious and will come out in my right brain first drafts. Either that or I’ll have to be able to afford a damn good editor!

Here’s hoping.

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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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“Do come in, Miss Carleton, sorry to have kept you waiting.”

Claire looked up at the careworn woman holding open the door and felt her palms prickle with sweat. Reaching for her bag, she headed towards the room, nearly tripping over a low table lurking unnoticed in front of the uncomfortable fake-leather sofa she had been perched on for forty minutes.

With a wobbly smile in greeting, Claire followed the woman into the room. She let her gaze take in the full horror awaiting her, and had to mask a sharp intake of breath with a cough. A pungent cloud of aftershave caught at the back of her throat and the cough became genuine. It was several moments before she could stop.

“Would you like some water? I apologise for not bringing you tea or coffee while you were waiting; I’m afraid we’re a bit short staffed at the moment.”

Short staffed? There are enough people here to play doubles tennis and have an umpire.

Claire turned away from the row of blank-faced men and nodded at the woman who had ushered her in. She wondered if she was the secretary, then admonished herself for the sexist thought.

Sipping gratefully at the water, Claire allowed herself two or three deep breaths to calm her agitation.

Come on, it isn’t the first time you’ve had to present to a gaggle of stern suits who last smiled in 1962.

The words were no comfort. Yes, she’d given presentations before, but not in an interview about something she knew nothing about.

“Please take a seat.”

The low voice issued from the second man from the left. He gestured at a single plastic chair, facing the long desk and the seated men. It felt more like a court hearing than a job interview.

Forcing herself to walk slowly, Claire crossed the room and sat in the chair. There was a small table for her water but, as it was at elbow height, Claire viewed it suspiciously. Placing her glass as far away as possible, she retrieved her notes from her bag and rested them on her lap.

Eventually, hoping her make-up hid the worst of the panic, Claire raised her eyes to face her interrogators. No wonder the last interview over-ran. How can you learn anything with five people asking questions?

She glanced at the woman who had shown her in, hoping for some female support, and realised her first assumption about her role was the right one. So, five stiff suits and a secretary. And they want me to work for them? I don’t think so, somehow.

Except she didn’t have the luxury of walking back out, head held high. Not since resigning from her job at AJC. Stupid girl.

“Good afternoon, Miss Carleton. Thank you for joining us. I understand you are here for the role of marketing director?”

No, I’m your stripagram. Biting back the retort, Claire nodded.

The man addressing her was in the centre of the five, and she guessed he must be the boss. Grey streaks speckled his short black hair, and her first impression was that he was in his fifties. His face was unlined, however, and something about his demeanour suggested to Claire that he was ten or twenty years younger than that. He oozed presence.

With a shiver she dragged her eyes away from him and tried to differentiate the other men. It wasn’t easy. They all wore dark suits, some grey, some navy. The man second from the left, who had asked her to take a seat, wore a pink shirt.

He was the only one who looked under 35. Claire guessed he was her age, maybe even younger, although with men it was hard to tell. As she gazed at him, he flicked his eyelid in the merest hint of a wink, and Claire felt the warm flood of gratitude spread through her limbs.

An ally. Thank god.

“In your own time, please present to the group your vision of the future for Isle of Purbeck Tourism, and the unique elements you will bring to the role.”

Claire wrenched her gaze back to the man in the centre, who she was fast thinking of as Mr Mean. He hadn’t even introduced himself or his colleagues. How could she present to the faceless five, without knowing their roles in the organisation?

Fear ran through her limbs, until it met rage bubbling the other way. No. I won’t. I won’t sit here and be humiliated by yet another self-satisfied stuffed suit who thinks he can treat me like crap because I’m a woman.

Sitting up straighter in her chair, Claire fixed her gaze on the dark eyes four feet in front of her. “Of course, it will be my pleasure. I wonder if, first, I could know whom I am addressing? It is easier to present when one knows one’s audience, I find.”

Where did that posh plummy accent come from? Behind her mask, Claire quailed, waiting for annihilation. It didn’t come.

Flicking her gaze at the man she’d dubbed Mr Cheeky, she saw a twitch at the corner of his mouth. Realising he was trying hard not to laugh, Claire exhaled through her nose, releasing the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding. She felt her own lips twitch in response, and dragged her eyes away to gauge the reaction from the rest of the group.

The two men to the right of Mr Mean looked bored. Finance and maybe IT she decided, assuming a tourist company had an IT Department. Her expectation for the interview had been a quiet chat with some lovely harassed woman who needed an extra pair of hands. In her scariest nightmares she couldn’t have imagined that the people in charge of tourism could be so humourless.

The last person, to the left of Mr Cheeky, was taking notes, alongside the secretary. HR, definitely. Strange to have a bloke. HR personnel are usually women. What a boys club. Oh well, New Zealand it is then.

She heard Mr Mean clear his throat and was gratified to see a faint blush of embarrassment. Is he bothered because I’ve pulled him up for being rude, or because he just got outplayed by a woman? Honestly, guys, this is the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth.

With the knowledge that she definitely wasn’t going to be given this job, Claire sat back in her seat and prepared to have some fun.

***

My Problem with Pinterest: 2013 365 Challenge #161

My scrapbook for Finding Lucy. All images are from istockphoto © David Meharey

My scrapbook for Finding Lucy. All images are from istockphoto     © David Meharey

Last year I wrote a post about my love affair with Pinterest. I discovered it fairly late and immediately saw the potential for writers: a way to explore characters, connect with readers and a means to replace the scrapbook for storing ideas.

I quickly filled several boards with all the images I had on characters, locations etc for my novels. Then I started reading about people being sued for breach of copyright, And I got cold feet. The boards were stripped of all but photographs I had taken, or ones with a Creative Commons licence. I had assumed (wrongly) that, because Pinterest links back to the pinned source, copyright wouldn’t be an issue.

I was gutted, as it made scrap-booking much easier. No printing, copying, storing: just a quick click and a note and there it was for everyone to see. But, as someone who has worked in compliance before, the idea of breaching copyright terrifies me. So I went back to saving bookmarks and putting images in Word files. For a while I did post blog images on Pinterest (most pictures on the daily blog are mine or CC) but I’ve forgotten my logon and now my boards are dormant and bereft.

Cover and key story line of Finding Lucy

Purchased Cover Image and key story line of Finding Lucy

Then, today, I found the scrapbook I made for my first (unfinished) novel, Finding Lucy, and it occurred to me that Pinterest would never replace a decent scrapbook.

Instead of mourning a missed opportunity I need to stop being lazy and keep up with my scrapbooks. I look at the detail of my original scrapbook and realise having the same for all my other novels would be amazing. Because it’s all there.

All the stuff that ensures continuity and depth and three-dimensional characters. Birthdays, star signs, house layouts, what characters look like – not just one look but many different looks (stock photography is great for that. All the images in my scrapbook above are the same girl as my cover image).

When I get the time to go back and finish Finding Lucy, (the first draft was caught short by the early arrival of my second child), I won’t have to trawl through Word files to remember who everybody is. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m not 100% certain even how old some of my protagonists are for my later novels. For Finding Lucy their birthdays pop up in my phone like real people (It’s Andrew Finch’s birthday today – one of the leading men from Finding Lucy!). I do have notes and character maps for all my books, but they’re buried in Word files. You can’t beat flicking through pages, scribbling notes in the margin. Time to turn my back on digital and do it the old-fashioned way. Pass me the glue..

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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 wrist throbbed by the time the Sat Nav announced her arrival. I had to sprain my left hand, didn’t I? It doesn’t really matter, these days, hurting the hand you write with. Who writes with a pen anyway? I can type as quick with both hands. Changing gear, though, that I can only do left-handed.

She curled her good hand around the swollen wrist and wondered if the hostel manager would be able to procure her some ice. What did the Doctor say? Something about rest, ice and elevation. Well, I’ve buggered the Rest part, let’s see what we can do about the other things.

Raising her wrist across her chest, Claire kicked the car door shut and headed into the building. As she took in the wide, white walls, the geometric lines and tall sash windows, Claire felt some of the pain ebb away. I might indulge myself and stay a day or two. What is it about these old buildings that exudes calm? Maybe I was born in the wrong century. I hope it’s as nice on the inside.

She walked through the door, and her soul lifted higher. It’s a refurb. God bless the YHA for investing in their properties. All through the building to her room it felt like a new hotel, not a Georgian mansion or a youth hostel. Everywhere she looked there were new fixtures and bright colours.

A bit too bright, she thought, as she headed for the bunk-beds, with their lime-green duvet covers and pillows. She gave the frame a rattle, as she claimed the last available bed. I’m glad I’m on top. It’ll be like sleeping on a boat, but I pity the poor person beneath me. This is going to shake like a bouncy-castle if I have a restless night.

With a look round the empty room, Claire decided it was time to ignore doctor’s orders and visit the bar. A whole weekend of wedding planning and baby talk had left her in dire need of a drink. At least it’ll help me sleep soundly. That should please the girl underneath.

 *

“What’ll it be?”

“Gin and tonic, please.”

Claire looked round the lounge, surprised to see it so full. “Busy, for a Sunday night?”

“It’s quiz night. Most of these are locals.”

Claire scanned the tables again and realised most people were huddled in groups, whispering together. A young Asian man caught her eye, and grinned. “Come and join our team, we could use some fresh blood. Then we might come better than last!”

There was a ripple of laughter from the surrounding tables, and Claire felt herself smile in response. She turned as the barman placed her drink on the counter and told her how much. As she retrieved some money from her purse, she tried to think of a polite way to decline the man’s invitation, should he renew it. For some reason her brain seemed unwilling to come up with an excuse.

Sure enough, as she turned, G&T in hand, the man gave a small wave and patted the seat next to him. Not for the first time, Claire’s feet moved of their own volition, and she found herself hovering in front of the man’s table. He was sat with two other men and a young girl who looked like she might faint if asked to speak.

“Hi, name’s Mizan.” The man who had invited her over half-rose from his seat and held out his hand.

Claire shook it quickly, unsure what to make of the greeting. Is he trying to chat me up, or just being friendly. Deciding it didn’t really matter either way, Claire perched on the spare seat.

She smiled round at the group and was relieved when the others nodded in greeting. Clearly inviting random women to join them wasn’t an unusual occurrence.

“What’s your topic then and, more importantly, what’s your name?” The man next to Mizan spoke, in the soft burr of the Scotsman.

With a flush, Claire ignored the heat generated by the sexy voice, and replied a little too loudly, “Claire, my name’s Claire. I don’t have a specialist subject, I’ve never been to a quiz night before.”

There was a babble of words as all three men exclaimed at her confession. She wondered if she would be ejected from the team, but her value now seemed to be as a curiosity, rather than a participant. Really, is it so amazing that I’ve never joined in a pub quiz? They don’t have them in wine bars and pubs aren’t really my thing.

She sat back, as the quiz master arrived at the front of the room, and supped her drink. The alcohol fizzed its merry way to her brain and spread warmly through her body, carrying with it a wave of contentment.

I won’t be able to contribute, but it beats talking about babies.

***

Tarot Cards, Dragons, Babies and Georgette Heyer

My novel Finding Lucy is all about Tarot

Tarot Cards, Dragons, Babies and Georgette Heyer: What do these things all have in common? They’re the main themes of my last four novels. Just as I have an eclectic taste in books and music (Metallica and Einaudi currently my car-CDs of choice) I appear also to have a varied set of themes and genres for my writing.

I’ve heard it’s wise to settle on one genre and writing style that represents your voice and stick to it. But when in your writing career do you do that? I’ve enjoyed writing Young-Adult-first-person-paranormal as much as writing third-person-contemporary-woman’s-fiction and now (hopefully) a romantic comedy. Who is to say which one is really my style?

Except they’re all romances. Gotta have a love story.

I guess maybe the market decides, by what you manage to get accepted by an agent or what sells online. Georgette Heyer, the subject of my NaNoWriMo this year, wrote forty odd Regency romances and something like a dozen detective stories, together with a historical novel or three. By all accounts she despised her romances and the people who read them and her best book is considered to be one of her historical novels. Yet her witty and well-researched historical romances still bring pleasure to millions. Even Stephen Fry counts her as one of his guilty pleasures.

I guess the thing to accept is that unpublished fledgling authors like me won’t know what their voice, their style, their genre is until it’s validated externally. If I’m extremely lucky I might get one of my styles published. I’m not fussy which one!

Until then, in my best Strictly Come Dancing Bruce Forsyth voice, “Keep writing!”

Life, recycled

www.amanda-martin.co.ukBefore I decided to try my hand at writing, and discovered an overwhelming need to pen novels, I took various other paths to a creative future.

I worked in marketing, designing the horrible colourful mailing packs that arrive on your doormat, which you chuck in the bin. I worked in PR, writing the internal communications magazines and announcements that make you chuckle and shake your head in disbelief, when you get them from head office.

I went self-employed and tried to make money selling my abstract paintings. I took a study course with the Open University to improve my photography and tried to make that my next endeavour. I set up a small company, Daisy Chain Marketing, and built websites for small businesses.

Nothing really took off, mostly because they all required me to sell myself, and it turned out that was the one thing I was rubbish at.

When I found creative writing, and nanowrimo found me, my whole world changed. Writing was what I wanted to do. That self-selling part is still a sticking point, but in terms of time, I only have to worry about it at the end. I can write merrily for nine-months before I have to poke my head out my shell and worry about what to do with my work.

Having found writing, I then berated myself for not finding it sooner. All those years, pre-kids, when I was farting around trying to be an artist, a photographer, a marketer, I could have been writing novels.

What a waste.

Except it turns out not to have been a waste at all. Because I’m at the sticky end now: I am thinking about selling my first novel. And I am discovering that I can recycle all those old skills I learnt. Skills I didn’t know I had, or took for granted.

Need a book cover? Easy. Source an image online, using all the marketing sites from old. Need to put it in the right format? No worries. Use the adobe photoshop software from my photo-editing course. New website? A doddle. All that time building simple websites with Mr Site meant I could knock one up on a Saturday afternoon, while watching the kids build sandcastles in the garden. Need to send out a press release for the forthcoming publication of Pictures of Love? Not a problem. I have press release templates a-plenty.

Okay, so nothing looks quite as good as it would if I had paid a professional to do it. My front cover probably screams self-designed/self-published. My website is a bit sparse and basic (I don’t do html). The press release may well get consigned to the waste-paper basket. But it hasn’t cost me anything, and I have had a lot of fun.

And who knew those old redundant skills could be recycled so effectively?

Another by-product of my sporadic career is subject matter. In Pictures of Love, Helen wants to be a photographer. In The Real Gentleman, my leading lady has a painting exhibition. Sam, from In bonds of love, travels around New Zealand, and a chunk of Finding Lucy  is set at the kind of corporate events I used to help organise during my time in Internal Comms.

I guess write what you know is easier if what you know and what you’ve done covers a lot of ground. So, there you go, when I thought I was being flaky, I was actually building up a stock of experiences to write about later and a whole bunch of skills to promote it afterwards.

What skills from your former life have you found to be useful during your writing/publishing?

P.S. you can find my website at www.amanda-martin.co.uk. If it would be useful I would be happy to write a post about any or all of these ‘skills’, such as designing book covers or building easy websites.

 

Pinteresting

Amanda Martin's Pinterest board for Pictures of LoveI’m always late.

I was late getting the kids to nursery this morning. We were late to a Christening yesterday, although, thankfully, so were the baby’s parents. I am always sliding into the chair at the doctors or the dentist hoping that they, too, are running late.

The thing I am usually proud of being late for is getting on a band wagon.

Who wants to jump on a band-wagon too quickly? 

Sometimes it’s because it’s a band wagon and I don’t want to climb on until rush hour has past and it’s a bit less noisy and smelly : I didn’t read any Harry Potter until the third book was out. I only saw Avatar last month and I’m resisting the urge to see what all the fuss is about with Fifty Shades of Grey.

Sometimes I’m late on a band wagon because I’m stupid. I don’t think something will work for me or I don’t see the point. Like Twitter and Pinterest. Now I’m still there with Twitter: I have an account and tweet occasionally (see, I know the terminology, just about) but I can’t get into it. I think maybe you need to be able to see it all the time on your phone or computer to make sense of it. My technology isn’t there yet. It leaves me feeling like the person arriving late at a party, who comes in mid-conversation and doesn’t understand the punch-line to a joke because they didn’t hear the beginning.

Pinterest though, now that’s a different matter. I originally dismissed Pinterest as not useful or relevant to me, although I enjoyed seeing my friends’ posts; links to lovely crafty things that I might have the time one day to do with my children. I hope. Then I read an article, sent to me by LinkedIn, about how photographs can help people engage with your brand. I don’t have a brand, but I am about to self-publish my first novel. So I thought I’d better see what Pinterest was all about.

And oh my how much do I love it?

I love photos anyway, photography being a former attempted-career. And I have always had scrapbooks for my novels (usually on my laptop but sometimes actual physical cut and paste ones.) For my first novel, Finding Lucy (currently unfinished because I inconveniently went into labour before completing the first draft) I have a giant scrapbook of pictures of the main characters, taken from stock photo sites. There are also biographies, timelines, star signs, pictures of their houses including floor plans for ease of writing scenes. It is my treasured possession.

I haven’t done a scrapbook for Pictures of Love, my current WIP, because if I get scissors or selotape out now, the kids are on me like ants on jam. So I have a file on my computer, full of photographs I took when I went to London to visit my locations in Fleet St, Earl’s Court and so on, as well as headshots of people I have found that look like my characters do in my head.

And now I can pin all those pictures in one place and carry it around with me anywhere I can get internet access. I can share it with my friends, show my beta readers what I think my characters look like and see if they agree.

I can put pictures on a site without worrying about copyright, as everything is sourced. [Update: it turns out this isn’t enough to stop you worrying about copyright. Since writing this post I have deleted most of the content from my Pinterest boards for fear of infringing someone’s copyright. I may be over-reacting, but better to be safe than sorry. You can read about someone who has learned this the hard way here and here (comment #76).]

And because everything is sourced I erase another problem – file location. For some of the images in my scrapbooks I wasn’t organised enough to keep internet URLs.

Idiot.

I have spent the last two days trying to track down all the images online (sorry family). And thankfully I have found most of them. My husband is not so lucky. I designed a fab (if I say so myself) front cover for his children’s novel Max and Shady, and got a copy printed for Christmas a couple of years ago. Only now he wants to publish it online and we can’t use the cover because we can’t find the image in order to purchase usage rights.

So Pinterest I thank you: for keeping me in tune with the zeitgeist, for giving me something fun to do while watching Euro 2012 (not that I need to worry about that so much now) and most of all for keeping me organised.

If you want to check out my Pinterest boards, to see what my sexy leading men (and women) look like, you can find them here.

Have you used Pinterest to plan out your novels or create your universes? How has it worked for you?