My Mini NaNoWriMo

Latest incarnation of Alfie

Latest incarnation of Alfie

I wasn’t going to do NaNoWriMo this year. I am desperately trying to get an entry together for the Chicken House/Times Children’s Fiction competition, so I’m all about the red pen, not the free-flowing first draft.

Except.

I gave the latest version of my Alfie Stanton manuscript to my husband, waiting for applause, or at least constructive feedback and got … Nothing.

The story is doomed. I started it two years ago, with a character called George. Resurrected it for Chicken House last year, but had the first chapter trashed by a children’s editor so shelved it and entered Dragon Wraiths instead. In fact, after being told by the editor that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be an author if I wouldn’t break my manuscript down to the smallest part, I nearly quit writing for good.

I don’t do ‘edit to death’. I find my work tends to get worse rather than better if I overthink it and let ‘analyst’ brain take the wheel. But anybody who’s anybody in the writing world will tell you to edit, edit, then edit some more. Even last year’s Chicken House winner gave that as her main piece of advice.

So this time I thought it was time to grow up and do it properly. I broke my manuscript down, looked at characters and themes, description, language, conflict. But mostly I got in a huge muddle and came to hate the story and everyone in it. The harder I tried, the flatter and duller my writing became.

It wasn’t a great surprise, then, when husband’s silence screamed, “this is shit!” although I thought it was just the first draft of anything that was meant to be that.

And do you know what, I think he’s probably right. By trying to be literary and funny and to incorporate all of Barry Cunningham’s advice, I broke my story.

What would once have killed me made me stronger. Seven days ago, I came up with a brand new character – Esmerelda Smudge. Six days ago I started writing, and two days ago I sent a 20,000-word lightly-edited brand new story to my (new) editor. 20k words in just over 4 days. That knocks the spots off NaNo.

Rough Cover

Rough Cover

Is it good enough to enter in the Chicken House competition? I’m not sure. I still think Alfie, for all his flaws, is more what they’re looking for, which is probably why I can’t quite get him right. My style has always been more mainstream than award-winning. But Esmerelda has a great story. I gave the first 14k words to hubbie to read, and he polished them off in an hour. Not that he’s the best judge, but at least he’s honest.

Maybe, instead of trying to follow all the advice, to force myself into a mold and mode of working that doesn’t fit, I should continue on my own deluded way. After all I wrote Two Hundred Steps Home that way and it’s proved popular. Dickens wrote in serial form – he can’t have analysed his story arc to death on every book.

And I do put in the work. When I’m drafting, my brain buzzes and sleep is scarce. I carry the story arc, character profiles, the motivation, the continuity and conflict and comedy, all around in my head and pour it into each chapter. But it’s written fast, with no time for fear. And, for me, it works.

Most of all, it produces books that I would choose to read. That at least is one piece of writing advice that I can follow!

 

Searching For The Next Novel Idea

A book of ideas

A book of ideas

I’ve decided to park Finding Lucy for now, as I need to start writing now to get back into the swing of things and the draft needs far too much analysing to write anything more on it yet. So today I ran through my scribbled list of projects looking for inspiration. I didn’t find it, even though the list is rather long!

Current Drafts:
Finding Lucy (needs too much work)
Bonds of Love (ditto, plus has overlap characters with Finding Lucy)
Annie and Phoebe (about a Georgette Heyer novel that isn’t in public domain, so a no go for self-publishing)
Dragon Wraiths part two (don’t have the energy to pick through the hot mess of the last few chapters)
Alfie and the Arch (don’t feel qualified to write kids’ fiction at the moment)

Pencilled in Sequels
Sequel to Two Hundred Steps Home (don’t have energy to re-read the 200k original to pick up the story thread)
Sequel to Baby Blues following Ben and Sharni (isn’t grabbing me, lots of cultural research required)

Totally New Ideas
The Pudding Club (an idea that floats around every time I catch up with my old colleagues – a novel or play written just through dialogue at regular catch-ups. Bit worried my friends will try out work out which one is them or take offence.)
Dad Starts Dating (a YA about a girl whose divorced parents start new relationships – based on personal experience; I worry I would end up offending my mum!)
Colony on Jupiter (YA? – one of the dream stories I actually wrote notes on rather than immediately forgot. A bit like the TV series 100, although my idea predates watching it, but where the space station is a functioning community with shops, school etc)

So far NONE of these is remotely grabbing me. I want to write something with a bit of pace; I’d love to write a series, to help sales and because I loved spending a whole year with Claire last year, and I’d love to write something fantasy/sci fi, even though that’s considerably out my comfort zone.

But a) I worry that straying from the stye of Class Act and Baby Blues will be a mistake (although I can’t give Class Act away, so there isn’t much to break) and b) I’m really not sure I have the imagination to pull it off without plagiarising something. It’s no coincidence that my characters are loosely based on me: my biggest fear is stealing someone else’s idea/style/world. I found it happened a lot with Dragon Wraiths, whereas it was easy to imagine the settings for Class Act and Baby Blues.

I feel like when I can’t decide on a new book to read, which ironically is also a problem I’m having. I have three or four good novels half-finished on the kindle and have reverted to the failsafe of Harry Potter just to keep reading. It feels like I poured all my creativity into loombands and knitting and art in August and now I’m empty (and have RSI!)

Arrgghh. Writers out there, where do you get your ideas from when you’re stuck? How do you choose your next project? I have been working on old manuscripts for so long I’ve forgotten how to start something new, and I’ve never started something without a glimmer of an idea from a dream or a character or an idea how the story ends. Maybe it’s time to get an early night and hope I remember my dreams!

Blog Post Revisited: Using Life’s What Ifs

My Three Darlings

My Three Darlings

I finally sent a complete draft of Class Act to my fabulous Beta Reader yesterday, and found myself at a loose end. I know it needs more work but, quite frankly, I’m sick of the sight of it and am starting to doubt whether it even works as a story. Time for a change.

I want to start something new, rather than working on one of the three or four half-finished manuscripts I have on my laptop, courtesy of years of NaNoWriMo. But I’m a bit all chick-litted out, after Two-Hundred Steps Home and working on Class Act. So I got to thinking about other ideas I’ve had, and I remembered the Middle Grade Novel idea I had nearly a year ago. This is a bit on how it started.

A few days after writing that post, I wrote the one below. A little insight into where some of my writing ideas come from.

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Writing out some of the background for my new novel today I realised I was inadvertently writing a ‘what if’ about my own life, or one tiny aspect of my life. I think sometimes that’s what writers do. They use their words, their imaginations, to explore different lives they might have lived. Mine is a little thing that might have been huge.

Close Siblings

Close Siblings

I was late for my period this month: second month in a row. Now, we’re careful. We have two beautiful children and I’m in my late thirties. My first child was born at 37 weeks, the second at 35 weeks. My pediatrician friend said that a trend to premature babies could easily continue.

So, even if we wanted more children (which we don’t – only when I get occasionally broody) the risks are far too high. And I KNEW I wasn’t pregnant. I’m more likely to be menopausal, as early menopause runs in the family. But, still, you start putting two and two together and making five. I was tired, grumpy, teary and, above all, late.

The protagonist in Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes gets pregnant against the odds. These things happen. I worried. I read up about menopause at 2am on my phone. And, being me, I re-planned my future with a third child in it. I needed to be prepared, just in case. I worked out the age gap, when the third would start school. I decided it would be nice for my son to have a play mate when my daughter starts school in September. I tried to decide whether I’d prefer a boy or a girl. I’m a writer: I wove stories.

Drove hubbie nuts.

Then I decided I ought to actually get a test and part of me was actually a bit excited (damn you, breeding hormones). I didn’t need the test, as it turned out. As if just buying it was enough, I knew before I got home that it was no longer required. In a tiny way I felt as if I’d lost a baby, even though no baby existed. Because I had made the scary future so plausible.

I wasn’t going to talk about it on the blog – it seems to come under the ‘too much information’ category. Until I started writing out my character list for the new book this morning:

George: 11. Two siblings, Ben (14) and Susie (16). George suspects he wasn’t planned. His sister tells him their mother used to say ‘I’ve only got two hands’ or ‘one of each, job done’. George feels unwanted and an outsider. Susie is academic, Ben is musical. They’re close. George likes football and computer games and being lazy.

My Little Bean

My Little Bean

I realised, half way through writing it, that George is my imaginary third child. The things I worried about at 2am were all there: that any other children born into our family would feel left out because my two are so close in age; that my eldest would remember me saying ‘one of each, job done’; that a third child would feel alienated, like my Uncle and my Mum – both the last of three kids.

The loss of my imaginary child, that hurt for a day, doesn’t hurt so much now. When I see the kids needing another play mate I do wish I had started my family earlier, so more children was a possibility. But now I can write them in to existence instead.

So much cheaper and no need for cots, bottles, stretch marks, swollen ankles and endless dirty nappies. Hurrah.

Reblog: “All Retch and No Vomit”

Freedom: From the Alan Watts video

Freedom: From the Alan Watts video

Things are still hanging on by a feverish thread here in the Martin household, with little man peeling away my last layers of patience with his fractious, “Mummy, but..” “Mummy, can we just…” “Mummy, I’m bored / tired / miss Daddy” and “Mummy, I’m hungry…” followed by a refusal to eat anything, on eternal loop.

I  decided to look back twelve months to see if this is normal January/February stuff. It is. We need to holiday somewhere hot in the winter to avoid this annual decimation of the family health and happiness and to preserve my ongoing sanity.

In the meantime, as I have no words, I’ve decided to steal a post from back then, 9th February 2013 to be exact, to keep the blog alive in my absence. The title seemed very fitting, as it describes the coughing noise that’s become the soundtrack to my life! (Sorry, too much info!). Joking aside, the Alan Watts speech resonated with me back then and, listening to it again, now my daughter has started school, it has even more meaning now. This is the original post:

________

The Alan Watts video, What if Money Didn’t Matter?, came my way today via Facebook. It’s been around a while so I’m sure most people have seen it. If you haven’t, check it out on YouTube.

My favourite line (describing schooling and how we raise our kids to want the things we want) is

“it’s all retch and no vomit.”

You can’t beat that for an image with impact.

Actually the line that truly resonated was this:

“Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.”

What if Money Didn't Matter?

What if Money Didn’t Matter?

Now I know if you have kids, responsibilities, mortgages and so forth, this is a difficult thing to fit into your life. Many of the less positive comments beneath the video are along the lines of “that’s all well and good but I’m a single mum / I have a mortgage / I have bills to pay, I can’t afford to do what I want.” Or my favourite, “what; do I tell my kids not to bother with their homework?”.

To me that has missed the point. It doesn’t have to be so black and white. We can knuckle down to hard work and try to direct that towards something we will love doing in the future. And if in some ways we are already caught in the trap, stuck in a career that’s more about money than happiness, it doesn’t mean we can’t try and pass a different ethos onto our children.

Yes kids still need to do their homework.

Having aspirations doesn’t mean it won’t take hard work to realise them. I think the message is to find something you love and put it nearer the centre of your career than the need to get rich.

When my husband first watched the video he realised he didn’t know what he would do if he didn’t have to earn money. That’s a sad realisation at forty. He’s given it some thought and come up with some answers but I think it’s important to know what you love doing even if it isn’t possible to do it.

I’m probably rambling making no sense: it’s been a long day on little sleep and too much coughing. I might revisit this topic when I’m feeling more lucid. In the meantime I love the first screenshot I captured, I think it encapsulates the journey Claire is on as she realises life is about more than earning enough money to buy the next must-have designer shoes.

P.S. Why did I never have Claire parascend into a cave? That would have been amazing! One for the sequel maybe…

Start as You Mean to Go On

The final cover for Two-Hundred Steps Home The Complete Journey

The final cover for Two-Hundred Steps Home The Complete Journey

There’s nothing like starting the year as you mean to go on! Publishing a book on Amazon on day four of the year, even if it is one I wrote last year, and one that probably should be proofread first, feels good. You can find it here: Two-Hundred Steps Home: The Complete Journey.

I have added the disclaimers and hopefully no one will buy it and trash me for finding the odd inconsistency or typo (of which I’m sure there are plenty). I am fixing the typos as they’re discovered (thank you hubbie, and anyone else letting me know about them) but a writing challenge is a writing challenge: I didn’t set out to write a Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel in 2013, just a novel that people might enjoy reading. Which, from the reviews I’ve had, it seems they did.

My only dilemma now is whether to take down the first volume from Amazon. It gets the occasional sale, but when you search for ‘Two-Hundred Steps Home’ it presents both books as versions of the same work, even though they have different ASIN numbers. Ah well. A small dilemma.

I’m also enjoying my new resolution to read more, both books and blogs, and write more comments (although I’m not sure I’m keeping up with that target quite as I should. I still feel jetlagged from holiday, illness and Claire!)

I’m reading The Radleys by Matt Haig at present and really enjoying it. I won’t divulge anything about the story, as I’ll write a review post when I’ve finished it. What I am enjoying is how Matt Haig breaks the rules in his writing: there is plenty of head-hopping and change of perspective. I think there’s even a change from writing in the past to the present tense, but I’m trying not to analyse, just get swept up in the story. It might be hard to write a review without spoilers, which I hate, so I’ll have to give that some thought. Maybe read some reviews on other blogs and see how it’s done. What’s your view on reviews? Spoilers or no spoilers? Where do you draw the line?

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.

The End. For Now. 2013 365 Challenge #365

The Final THSH Cover

The Final THSH Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man I love like breathing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

“Hello, Claire.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you here?”

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

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

“I love you, too.”

*

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

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

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

She was home.

***

Nearly There: 2013 365 Challenge #364

My sister bought me this for Christmas!

My sister bought me this for Christmas!

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

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

I feel like I’ve come a long way.

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

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

Thank you to my amazing kids!

Thank you to my amazing kids!

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

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

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

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

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

My amazing family

My amazing family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When do you start?”

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

“Monday.”

“So soon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Sea Life and Cbeebies: 2013 365 Challenge #363

Giant Sea Turtle

Giant Sea Turtle

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

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

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

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

Stroking a star fish

Stroking a star fish

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

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

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

Mesmerising Jelly fish

Mesmerising Jelly fish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that so bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conor flinched but didn’t move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait.”

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

“Are you staying in town tonight?”

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

“Come for a drink? Or dinner?”

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

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

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

*

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

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

“I’ve missed you, too.”

***

Kind or Creepy: 2013 365 Challenge #362

Dogs and their toys

Dogs and their toys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready for Ms Carleton?”

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

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

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

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

Come on knees, don’t fail me now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You bastard.

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

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

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

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

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

***