Rather Prosaic Life Update

My submission pack

My submission pack

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

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

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

Mohair Brooches

Mohair Brooches

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

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

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

I made the blue one!

I made the blue one!

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

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

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

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

My NaNo top tips are here.

Self-Sabotage: 2013 365 Challenge #348

Origami Trees became giant snowflakes

Origami Trees became giant snowflakes

Why are Humans prone to self-sabotage? Or is it just me (and my husband!)? You know what I mean: picking at that dry skin on the edge of your nail, even though it’s going to hurt like anything and you KNOW it’s going to hurt.

Or being unable to sleep the night before an important meeting or exam, and staring at the ceiling stressing. Or (as was me this morning) waking up at 3.45am with a head buzzing with stuff and just not being able to get back to sleep. Even though both kids slept past 6am for the first time in weeks.

It always happens when I get anxious or overwhelmed and my brain is running at a hundred miles an hour in ten different directions. Christmas, Claire and now my car (which appears to be suffering from a terminal illness) are all taking up headspace. Little things like decorating a Christmas jumper for my daughter, or writing Christmas cards before the last posting date, run round in my head like escaped guinea pigs: irritating and hard to catch and cage.

So, on a day when I really needed to be productive, to write tomorrow’s post (we have hair cuts and birthday parties to fill our Saturday) I was utterly spaced, having finally crept downstairs at half five (desperately trying not to wake my daughter because I’d never live that down!) I tried to clear other irritants – messy house, buying final gifts – and hope that there would be time in the morning to get back to Claire and Conor, Kim and Helena.

My origami tree

My origami tree

But, again this morning, I was awake at 3.30am. Husband too. He went down to sleep on the sofa (although he didn’t sleep) and I lay in bed, with my brain like a toddler in a toy shop, running this way and that. Instead of trying to think through my next Claire post, my brain did this:

“I’d like some different lights in the garden this year. But I don’t want coloured lights as they won’t really go with our current white lights. A polar bear on the lawn would be fantastic. But they’re so expensive and I’ve already blown the budget this year. Oh yes, my step-dad’s brother made one out of willow. I could make one. I wonder where I could get some willow from.”

And before you know it, instead of writing posts or wrapping presents, I’m trying to work out how to make a bloomin’ polar bear. It happened with the Elf on the Shelf (after scouring the shops for two hours, instead of writing, and not finding an elf I thankfully gave up on that idea.)

And again, with my daughter’s Christmas party this week. I had agreed to print out some colouring sheets to keep the kids occupied. So, being the master of overkill, I had the bright idea of taking a craft activity for the older ones as well. A quick search of Pinterest revealed origami trees and before you could say “self-sabotage queen” I found myself spending an hour making trees, while my son watched TV, instead of doing something useful like cleaning. When we got to the party the trees were too hard to do, and they all became giant green snowflakes.

Production line making twelve trees

Production line making twelve trees

I’m like this all the time, particularly with writing projects. Signing up for a Children’s Book writing course, starting yet another NaNoWriMo novel, illustrating a book for my son, wanting to enter the Mslexia Chidlren’s Novel competition.

The daily blog has thankfully made most of these other ideas unworkable, but I dread to think what I’ll be like next year without it. There are just so many creative things I want to do, and tedious boring humdrum life gets in the way. To compensate, my brain seems to list all the possibilities and tell me they’re all doable. Now.

But, just like the toddler in the toy shop, more toys doesn’t mean more fun. There’s exponentially more pleasure to be had with one favourite toy, loved and cherished, than a room full of tat. (Which also puts pressure on my beleaguered brain to make sure my children get the perfect toys at Christmas, but that’s a whole other level of self-sabotage!) Just as there is exponentially more satisfaction (and use) in one finished project rather than fifty half done.

I don’t know what the answer is. If I had a boss it would be simple: I’d make them prioritise my to-do list and try to be good. Being my own boss? It comes down to a discipline I don’t have. And wanting to make polar bears. Sigh. Is it time for bed, yet?

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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 chewed her thumbnail and tried to concentrate on the screen in front of her. Attempting to write was proving futile, and she shut the laptop with a snap. Outside, the sun beamed down on the terrace and she let it lure her from the lounge. She felt fidgety and restless and longed to go down to the beach for a run.

After a blissful few days alone, wandering around the north coast of Devon, the weekend had finally arrived, bringing with it the anticipated arrival of her guests. Conor had texted to say he’d be there early evening. She hadn’t heard from Kim and her sister, but assumed they were due around the same time.

This is going to be a train wreck. What was I thinking? I should have gone to Kim’s house; at least I could have chatted with her mother or hidden in the garden. As their guest, I could do what I liked. Now they’re coming to see me, I’ll have to entertain them.

She leaned on the railing and looked out over Kipling Tor, shimmering blue in the hazy distance. If she left now, she could be walking up there in twenty minutes, enjoying the view of Lundy Island and the Bristol Channel. She’d done it at least once a day during her stay, and her feet could probably get there without her guidance.

Conor might just forgive me for not being here when he arrives, but somehow I doubt Kim will. She doesn’t seem to be in a forgiving mood these days.

Wishing she had a cool glass of gin and tonic in her hand, Claire perched on a seat and thought about her friendship with Kim. It wasn’t something she’d dwelt on before. It was a given, like having Ruth and Robert for siblings, or working at AJC. In the past few months all those things had shifted. Ruth and Robert weren’t the people she thought they were: her relationship with Ruth was much closer than it had been in years, while she wasn’t sure she’d cross the road to give Robert the time of day.

Where did that leave Kim? What did it mean to be friends, anyway, when you had known someone so long? Were they friends out of habit or to keep alive memories of childhood that only they shared. Until this year, they hadn’t been that close: catching up when Claire was in town, swapping stories of men and jobs while drinking a few bevvies.

Then Kim had got pregnant and everything had changed. Claire wondered if it was the first time Kim realised she didn’t have any close friends: only Jeff, and her fellow thespians.

A bit like me, really, discovering my work colleagues were more enemies than mates, and that Michael wanted some romanticised version of me.

She thought about the people she’d met during her travels: Josh, Maggie, Bethan. People she had little in common with, except the urge to be on the move. In her heart they felt more like friends than Kim did. The realisation hit her like a cold wave, and she gasped for air.

Her mouth felt dry as she realised she didn’t really want to be friends with Kim anymore. It felt like all give and no get. Kim needed her, she understood that. She’d had the most awful year; the ruckus at the wedding that Claire had inadvertently caused, losing the baby, depression and attempted suicide. Claire couldn’t leave her now but she didn’t know how to be the kind of friend Kim needed.

And what about me? I can’t talk about Conor; Kim sees it as some office fling. Maybe it is, but what if it isn’t. We’re not eighteen anymore. Claire rested her head against the railing and closed her eyes.

She started awake as something brushed her face. With hammering heart she opened her eyes, and saw Conor crouched next to her chair.

“Hello, sleepy head.” The smile he gave her made her catch her breath. She grinned back.

“Sorry, I must have nodded off. Have you been there long?”

He looked guilty. “A few minutes. You look adorable asleep, snuffling like a kitten.”

Blood rushed to Claire’s face and she covered her cheeks with her hands. “I was snoring? Really? God, I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay. I already know you snore.” He grinned and she took a playful swipe at his arm.

“I do not snore. Not like you do.”

They fell still, suddenly, and Conor leant forwards to kiss her. She let herself sink into the embrace and, for a moment, the hurried voices in her head fell mute.

“Aw, look at the lovers. Why don’t you guys get a room?” Kim’s voice cut through their embrace. Claire pulled away and Conor rose languidly to his feet.

“Hello, Kim, nice to see you again. You’re looking well.” Conor was at his urbane best, holding his hand out for Kim to shake. Claire was looking at Kim’s face and caught a flicker of a frown cross her features before she flashed her teeth and shook the outstretched hand.

“You’ve been busy since I met you last,” she said archly. Claire winced at the confrontational tone, wondering what Kim’s problem was. With a sick feeling in her stomach, she wondered if it was too late to run away.

“I don’t think you’ve met my sister, Helena,” Kim was saying. She turned and gestured for her sister to come forward.

Claire hadn’t seen Kim’s older sister in a long time, but she hadn’t changed. She was still tall and willowy, with long straight golden hair. The only difference was the round stomach stretching her designer top. With a demure smile and glowing skin, she looked like a model in a maternity magazine.

Poor Kim.

Claire’s irritation vanished as she realised how hard it must be for her friend. She’d always competed with her sister, who was the more financially successful and, some argued, the more attractive of the two. Now she was also the one who could carry a child, when Kim couldn’t.

While Conor chatted to Helena about Hong Kong and the journey down from her parents’ house, Claire sidled up to Kim and put her arm around her.

“How are you holding up?” she whispered.

“I haven’t murdered her in her sleep, if that’s what you mean.” Kim’s voice was somewhere between angry and rueful. Claire caught a glimmer of her old friend, the one she used to have fun with, before life became complicated.

“Look at it this way: she’ll have saggy boobs and stretch marks, and will look fifty by the time she’s thirty five.”

Kim giggled and put her arm around Claire, pulling her close. “Thanks, I needed that.”

***

Not NaNoing: 2013 365 Challenge #318

My bargain book! :)

My bargain book! 🙂

I decided, finally, not to do NaNoWriMo this year. Despite all my protestations that I had no intention of doing it, I think I secretly thought in the back of my mind that, if I could get a bit ahead with Two-Hundred Steps Home, I might try and tap out 20,000 words of something new.

I have so many ideas for projects – a sequel to Dragon Wraiths, maybe a sequel to Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes, definitely a follow-up to Two-Hundred Steps Home – that I wanted to get stuck in to one of them. I’m advertising that Class Act will be out next year, and a Dragon Wraiths sequel really would need to be too, and yet one is half done and the other not even started.

Now, though, at 14th November, I have to accept that it isn’t likely to happen. And I’m okay with that. I’m not even reading all the NaNo motivational emails, as I would normally do, because I spend my spare time (such as it is!) reading the brilliant blogs I follow. Or at least as many of them as I can get to.

Why not visit Miss Fanny P?

Why not visit Miss Fanny P?

I’m particularly enjoying Miss Fanny P. Actually, enjoying isn’t the word, because she had some sad news: I think maybe supporting is closer. She feels like a Blogsphere friend and I want to support her. The dozen or so blogs I read and comment on regularly all feel like friends that I make a point of visiting as often as I can, just as I would if they were real friends. It’s important.

So, I’m not really missing NaNo. I mostly have the ‘thrill’ of hitting deadlines and churning out words by keeping up with the daily blog and Two-Hundred Steps Home. Although THSH is usually only around 22,000 words a month, the daily blog probably adds another 10,000 to that, so I’m two thirds to a NaNo total every month already. (Today’s combined post, for example, is only around 100 words shy of the 1,667 daily NaNo target.)

About the only thing I’ve done to celebrate NaNoWriMo this year is drop the price of my books. Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes was written as a first draft during 2011 NaNoWriMo, so it feels right to promote it during November. It’s currently a steal, because Amazon have picked up on my Smashwords price drop and are offering it for the bargain price of 75p (or $1.20 in the US)! You can’t buy a newspaper for that. So, if you haven’t read it and fancy a bargain read, do grab a copy. If Amazon stop price-matching, go over to Smashwords. As it isn’t in KDP, it will never be free, so this is the best deal. Who knows, I might even get a review or two if the offer takes off! 🙂 It all helps motivate me to keep writing. Bring on NaNo 2014….

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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 swore as she found herself in the one way system for the third time. Yanking the steering wheel round, she crossed a lane of traffic amidst blaring horns, and swore again.

What possessed me to take the SatNav out of the car? If I’d still had the iPad I wouldn’t have needed to use the SatNav to plan today’s activities. Why is it everything I do makes my life more difficult.

She shook her head at her own stupidity, peering out the window at the sign posts as she drove around the town.

Come on, Claire, it’s a castle! How hard can it be to find? And where are all the signs? Normally you can’t get within five miles of a tourist attraction without a plethora of brown rectangles telling you which way to go.

Mentally adding ‘sign posts’ to her report topics for successful tourism, Claire took a deep breath and tried to get her temper under control. At last she spotted a sign up ahead pointing to the castle, and then there it was, about a hundred yards from the sign.

Better late than never, I suppose.

Claire parked the car and grimaced at the long walk up to the castle entrance, wondering if the maritime museum would have been a better choice. Even with the sun warming her skin and the cool sea breeze caressing her face she couldn’t seem to shake the grumpy mood hanging around like a bad smell.

Her frame of mind didn’t improve when she arrived at the castle and an eager gentlemen tried to convince her that £1050 for a lifetime membership of the English Heritage was good value for money.

Look, if I can’t afford a few hundred quid to replace my treasured tablet, I don’t think I’ll be splashing out that much on a stupid membership and, funnily enough, I can’t see Conor signing that one off on my expenses.

She looked around at some of the other people also being pushed into taking membership.

And if I was over sixty and you were still trying to charge me £750 for lifetime membership I might ask if that constituted a sound investment? Although most pensioners I know have more money than I do. Which, to be fair, isn’t hard.

Trying to quash her surliness, Claire smiled sweetly, declined the membership offer and paid the entrance fee. She baulked slightly at the cost of the guidebook, wondering why it couldn’t be included in the ticket price, and decided to go on the free tour instead.

She walked into the castle behind a group of giggling children whose parents were also muttering about the price of membership and the slightly aggressive sales pitch. Claire made a note to review membership deals as part of her report, then tried to approach the venue as a tourist.

The views were spectacular, every way she looked. It wasn’t hard to see why they’d built the castle there in the first place. There would be no sneaking up the coast to invade. Claire wandered through the exhibits, enjoying the waxwork people and booming sound effects that brought the castle to life.

The boys would love this, all the noise and guns. Maybe I’ll take them to the one on the other side of the estuary; clambering all over a place like this for a few hours might wear them out.

Thinking of things to do with her nephews lessened the fear a tiny bit and made her feel like she might cope during their two-week stay.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t rain. I wouldn’t want to be here in a downpour: there isn’t much cover between the buildings. I must remind Robert to pack waterproofs.

Then she remembered they would be leaving in the morning to catch their flight, and pulled her phone out to send a quick text message. There was an unopened text that must have arrived while she was inside the castle, surrounded by firing guns. It was from Conor.

No problem with the nephews, although your family and friends do seem to take you for granted. Lunch tomorrow then? I’ll find somewhere suitable. Conor

She stood staring at the message, trying to understand the tone. It sounded much friendlier than his recent emails, but it was hard to tell in such a short note. She frowned and went to drop her phone back in her bag, before remembering the message she needed to send her brother.

Robert, make sure the kids have clothing for a British summer – shorts and waterproofs, you know the deal. I have a lunchtime meeting with my boss, so will catch up with you after that. Are you staying the night? I’ll be in St Austell for lunch or at the Boswinger hostel after that. I’ve booked beds for the boys. Let me know, Claire.

She hit send, put her phone away, then headed to the roof to take some photographs for the blog and to clear her head.

As she stood on the roof, enjoying the panoramic view and trying not to get too close to the edge, Claire overheard a couple behind her in heated conversation.

“I tell you, it’s perfect. What better place to get married than in a real castle.” The girl sounded close to tears. “Just look at it, it will be amazing.”

“I know, darling, but we can’t afford it. Do you want to be broke and living at your parents’ house for years, just for one day?”

“Oh, you don’t understand.”

Claire heard running footsteps, followed by a loud sigh. She smiled wryly. It reminded her of a TV show she saw once, where someone explained to a perplexed groom that girls plan their ideal wedding day all their lives and it’s the groom’s job to catch up with the dream and run with it.

Not me. I don’t remember ever pretending to be a bride. Actually, I don’t remember what I wanted to be when I grew up, or what dreams I had.

The thought made her sad for some reason. Feeling as if clouds had swept over the brilliant sun, Claire turned away from the wall and headed back into the gloom of the castle.

***

We Are Stories: 2013 365 Challenge #286

Happy birthday, sis

Happy birthday, sis

Yesterday my gorgeous sister celebrated her fortieth birthday with a gathering at our parents’ house. As the rain poured outside, a dozen children from four months to fourteen years old played together, while as many adults mingled and discussed the passing of the years.

Two of my sister’s school friends were there with their children: faces I haven’t seen in twenty years but that haven’t changed much. I remember other parties, two decades ago, with the same faces. More music than kids cartoons, back then, and significantly more alcohol. But just as much fun.

As I watched the kids unite in a universal game of balloon fight while disparate groups of my sister’s friends chatted about life, and an old friend who lived in our house even before we moved to the area commented on the same tiles still being there in the kitchen, I could almost see the passing of time happening in that room.

Balloon fights

Balloon fights

Story arcs and character arcs played out in my mother’s kitchen. Our family’s journey, from the day we arrived in the house nearly thirty years ago, when it was all yellow walls and brown carpet. My sister’s journey, from shy school girl to entrepreneur, mother, wife, international traveller. My life, from early heartache to sitting with my children on my lap, happy and content.

I’m often asked how I come up with stuff to write about in my novels: people complain of having no imagination. I used to say the same, until I started my Creative Writing degree, and discovered NaNoWriMo. Then I realised my brain is chock full of stories.

Stories play out around us endlessly. Happy ones, sad ones, stories with no endings, stories only just beginning. The babies in the room yesterday will live an entirely different adventure in a different world to the one I grew up in. Already I can say the same for my children, as they swing from the same apple tree I fell from as a child.

Balloon fighting

Balloon fighting

For character development we need look no further than our own experience: from bolshy or shy teenager to confident or unhappy adult. Whatever our journey, there is a universal truth held within it. Other people have experienced the same emotions, undergone the same changes, albeit in a slightly different way. Like a handmade dress or a home-baked cake, no two stories are quite the same.

My sister and I had almost identical upbringings, as much as can be the case when you’re three years different in age. We’ve lived similar lives, our children could easily be mistaken for siblings. But some of our views on life are worlds apart.

And, by virtue of marrying an American, she now lives in the States. Tiny choices that have huge repercussions. I might have married my Kiwi boyfriend (unlikely!) and my life would have taken a completely different path. To write a story, all I need imagine is one of those what ifs. There are little bits of me in every story, because writing what you know is the easiest place to start. It can be fun, too, exploring the lives I might have lived.

They say everyone has a novel in them. I believe we have as many as we can find the time and energy to write down. All around us, weaving in and out of every day, there are stories. If you want to, go and find them, capture and tame them. Make them your story. There’s no time like now.

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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 pulled into the car park with a sense of relief. Travelling in the car with Kim was beginning to stretch her nerves to breaking point.

I wonder if this is how Bethan felt, travelling with me around New Zealand?

With a guilty flush Claire decided that Bethan probably had more patience. Assuming her dark moods had been of equal blackness, and she suspected they had been, it was a bit like trying to run holding a fragile vase full of excrement. One careless step and the darkness slopped over the side, making everything awful. And all the while there lurked the constant fear that one misstep might shatter the vessel into a thousand pieces.

The town rose around them up into tree-lined hills where white villas sat majestically overlooking the bay. She’d never been to Lyme Regis before and her only knowledge of the town came from a TV adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

“Apparently Jane Austen loved this town,” she said, as Kim joined her on the pavement.

“I guess someone has to,” Kim responded, staring round with distaste.

Claire bit back a retort and looked instead for somewhere they could get a cup of coffee and some cake. She definitely needed cake.

*

After Kim had turned down the first two cafés for being too busy or too twee, they’d finally settled in a small independent coffee shop that featured a display of divine looking cakes.

Claire wrapped her hands around her mug and read the sign on the wall out loud; “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy tea which is the same kind of thing.” She laughed. “Substitute that for coffee and I couldn’t agree more.”

“I wouldn’t have thought you’d be laughing about money, if you’re as broke as you claim you are.” Kim’s voice cut through Claire’s happiness like a cheese wire.

Claire inhaled sharply, and the words came out before she had time to think. “Give it a rest, Kim. Your life sucks, I get that. Mine’s not exactly rosy either. It’s not going to get better if you stomp around thinking your cup is half empty all the time.” She stopped, her face flaming, and immediately reached out her hand in apology. Kim stared at her through round eyes.

“God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean that.” She tried to lay her hand on her friend’s, but Kim snatched her hand off the table and crossed her arms.

“I’m not sulking, Claire. I’m not choosing to be low. I have depression. The doctor explained it; it’s an imbalance of chemicals in my head. I can’t control it. You wouldn’t ask me to just get up and walk if I had a broken leg.”

The heat continued to pound in Claire’s face as Kim’s words hit out at her. She hung her head. “I know. I understand, really.” She wanted to add that she felt the same; that the world had closed in around her in the past weeks, but suspected Kim wouldn’t appreciate her saying, oh yes, me too.

They sat in silence and Claire sipped at her coffee, more for something to do than out of any enjoyment.

This was a mistake. What was I thinking?

She tried to think of a way out, but nothing presented itself. The idea of travelling with Kim for even a few days, never mind the weeks it would take to get around Cornwall, filled her with dread. And she was meant to be working, not babysitting. How was she supposed to research the tourist activities and compile her recommendations – how was she even going to think straight – with Kim pouring her woe on them all the time. But she couldn’t send Kim home, even though they were in her car. She wasn’t sure Kim was safe by herself and it was a long way back to her apartment.

Claire felt like she was back in Puzzling World, stuck in the maze, lost and confused. Only now she couldn’t climb a tower and figure the way out.

Draining her coffee, she stood up and shouldered her bag. “Come on then, let’s get moving.”

One foot forward, that was the only way.

***

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.

***

Daily Blogging has taught me to say, “Bring it on”: 2013 365 Challenge #284

Happiest on the mountain top

Happiest on the mountain top

I wrote a couple of days ago about how I am content with life and was surprised to realise that, beneath the depression and the tiredness, it’s true.

After our discussion on the importance of a five-year plan, hubbie commented on how much I’ve changed over the last few weeks. I don’t think I have, or if I have it isn’t over weeks but months. But I do feel a change in me: an increase in confidence, in self-belief and in courage. I believe in my choices – both as a writer and a parent – and I’m starting to be able to take life in my stride.

I happened to mention to a friend recently that I have a first class degree. She immediately joked, “Oh, I only have a 2:1, but I had a life at university.” And I didn’t get upset and defensive. It’s true: I didn’t have much of a life outside study at university. It used to bother me, like I did it wrong somehow. That university should have been about making amazing life-long friendships, drinking until two in the morning, or winning at hockey.

Conquering mountains

Conquering mountains

I spent university in the library. Sometimes in the gym (to avoid being in the library). In my second year I had terrible depression and I remember spending most of the year in my dark and damp uni accommodation, listening to Metallica, not sleeping much and feeling miserable.

During the vacation before my third year I worked in a bar and made some great friends. I met a lad and thought all I wanted to do in life was be a bar manager.

I realise now that was because I found somewhere I belonged. Behind a bar I could be me: I didn’t have to keep up with the pretty girls or the brainy academics. People were nice to me because they wanted me to serve them and not throw them out. It was fun. When the lad dumped me at New Year (in hindsight, thank god!) I thought my life was over. It took until Easter (and the support of my amazing flatmates, bless you), for me to put my world back together. I then worked twelve hours a day for six weeks to get my dissertation written and still get my first.

Knee agony but still smiling

Knee agony but still smiling

I seem to have spent my whole life since then trying to fit, trying to work out why I don’t have life-long friends; why I don’t want to go drinking or talk about fashion. I found my place, briefly, when I joined the Guide Association as a leader and realised hiking mountains is in my soul (if not in my knees!) But I lost that connection through depression, when I quit everything and went travelling (and climbed some more mountains!)

Since having kids I’ve tried to be the perfect parent: to get the right mix of love and discipline, together-time and independence, crafty mess and tidying up. Mostly I felt like I was doing it wrong.

Then, I started the daily blog challenge, and everything changed. I found my place in the world. Through writing every day I found that I like and I’m good at it. Not brilliant, not amazing, but good enough. I discovered how to edit, and to find a pleasure in editing. I met some amazing friends: friends who see the world the way I do. Through sharing my parenting highs and lows, and reading the stories of other mums, I’ve discovered I’m doing okay.

I lived my life after uni

I lived my life after uni

The support, community and daily contact of the blog has built a wall of confidence around me that I never had before.  The amazing thing is, even though I can feel the depression pulling at me: even though I’ve had days recently when I wanted to end it all, I can see that it’s mostly caused by lack of sleep. On a day, like today, when I managed to get five hours’ sleep in a row, I feel like I could sprint up Mount Everest. (Except I’m still so goddamn tired!)

My daily blog challenge has pushed me to the limits. But it’s stretched me open and connected me to a whole world of like-minded people. Ones I didn’t necessarily come across at school or university or even in my day-to-day life. Not that I don’t love the friends I’ve made in all those places. Now I’m more confident I love the differences, too. I love that I can have someone tell me I didn’t have a life at university and I can nod, and think quietly, “I had my life. I had the life I like to live: I read, I slept, I ran, I studied. It was enough. I did all that other stuff after I graduated.” I’m no longer making excuses for who I am or where I’ve come from. I feel empowered.

Blogging daily is a bit like therapy. A bit like life. Sometimes it hurts and you don’t want to do it: but those are the times when you learn the most about yourself and what you are capable of. To anyone considering taking on this crazy challenge next year, or to anyone thinking of taking part in NaNoWriMo, or any other challenge where you push yourself and commit yourself to finding out what’s beneath your skin, I’d advise you to say, “Bring it on.”

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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, this is the place that’s lured you away from city life?” Kim looked out the window at the painted houses, dull beneath the clouds covering the summer sky, and snorted. “It’s not really your style. Is there even a Starbucks in this town?”

Claire tried to ignore the mockery in Kim’s voice. “I won’t be living here, at least not for a while. And, for your information, I no longer need to live within five minutes of a decent cup of coffee. I’ve broadened my horizons.” She dropped her prim voice and added, “Besides, there’s  Starbucks in Poole, so I can nip over on the ferry.”

The girls laughed and, for a moment, it felt like the old days. Then Kim sighed. “You’ll be so far away. I feel like I’ve hardly seen you since you left home.”

“That was nearly ten years ago. We’ve never seen much of each other – we went to different schools and different universities. You moved in with Jeff, I went to Manchester. We don’t have to be in walking distance to be friends you know.”

“It’s not the same. I wanted to bike over and talk to you, and you weren’t there.” Her voice held a hint of accusation and Claire braced herself for further attacks.

Kim sighed again. “Sorry. I know this isn’t your fault. Jeff says I accused you of causing the miscarriage – when you came to see the play. I don’t really remember; everything is foggy. If I did, I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay. I’m sorry I thought Michael could be trusted to keep his big gob shut.”

“Things are definitely over between you two, then?”

Claire thought about all the things her friend didn’t know about; Josh and the unnamed Scottish man and even Neal. For the first time it felt like a hundred years had passed since they’d last spoken.”

“Definitely.”

“I can’t say I’m disappointed. He never seemed right for you. Too boring. You need someone to make you laugh.” She stopped. “Poor Jeff, I’ve made his life a misery and he must be grieving as well. Even though it was only early on, it was his baby too.”

She fell silent again, and Claire glanced over, worried she was crying. Her face revealed dark thoughts, but she seemed in control of her emotions.

Turning her attention back to the road, Claire followed the SatNav’s instructions to take them to their B&B. They hadn’t managed to get beds in the hostel and Claire had to admit she wasn’t disappointed. She wasn’t entirely sure Kim was up to staying with strangers.

*

The B&B overlooked the bay. Claire looked out at the slate grey water, topped with white. The skies had grown darker and darker as they drove south and now they hung ominously overhead. Claire hoped it wasn’t a sign that they should have stopped driving and turned back.

“What do you want to do?” She looked over at Kim, who was also staring out across the sea. “Are you hungry?”

Kim looked blankly at her and the gloomy light from the window highlighted her sunken cheeks and the flatness of her eyes. She turned her face back to the window without speaking.

When she didn’t answer, Claire filled the silence with bright and brittle words. “Well, I’m hungry. Plus I need to contact Conor, see if we can catch up tonight. Then we can carry on into Devon and Cornwall tomorrow. You’ll like Conor, he’s full of Irish charm.”

She ran out of words. It felt like trying to get through to Sky when she was having a tantrum. Only much worse. All the emotions in Kim were raging on the inside; like watching a storm through thick glass.

“Do you want me to take you home?”

“I want to go to sleep and never wake up.”

Kim’s words poured like ice water over Claire. Her mind went blank. She wanted to bundle Kim in the car and take her back to Jeff, or the hospital. To people better suited to deal with the despair. Instead she took a deep breath, letting the air fill her lungs, and forced her lips to smile.

“Well, I’m not going to let you do that. Let’s go for a walk along the beach, spend some coppers in the amusement arcade then let Conor buy us dinner. It will all seem better tomorrow.”

She tugged her friend gently and was relieved when she allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. As she led her from the room, Claire looked one last time at the wind-tossed sea and hoped she was right that it would be better in the morning. It couldn’t be worse.

***

NaNoWriMo and The Stalking Muse: 2013 365 Challenge #277

To NaNo or not NaNo?

To NaNo or not NaNo?

Earlier in the week I wrote about the importance of writing even when your Muse is missing in action. Well, my darling muse seems to have come back from her spa break invigorated and enthused and is now stalking me, mostly in my dreams.

Twice this week I’ve woken out of an exhausting dream with a full-length story in my head. That has only happened once in my life before and resulted in me writing Dragon Wraiths. I’m grateful for the input but, really Muse, I don’t have the time to start two brand new novels just now. I think maybe my Muse knows NaNoWriMo, which I hadn’t intended to do this year, is just around the corner.

The first dream story was in the chick lit strain and all a bit predictable, to do with cheating fiances and manipulative best friends. I think there was even a gay friend: how many chick lit tropes can you get in one plot? Easy NaNo fodder, but likely to result in a lot of hard work to make it original.

Last night’s story, possibly as a result of being woken by my pumpkin son every hour, was a spectacular science fiction drama with explosions, space ships and more action than I could understand or describe this morning. I don’t have any intention of writing a science fiction novel – I struggled enough with the fantasy world building for Dragon Wraiths – but at 7am, if I could have done a ‘print screen’ on my mind, it would have been easy. Maybe reading Rinelle Grey’s blog, over on Coffee Time Romance, about writing scifi romance has rubbed off.

So, who is up for some NaNo this year? I have no idea how I will fit it in – I’m barely keeping up with the daily blog as it is. Not to mention how hard it would be to write two stories simultaneously. But I will have an extra few hours’ childcare, as our extra day comes into play at half term (the kids do more childcare in the winter to stop us all getting cabin fever) so it might just vaguely be possible. If only to keep my stalking muse quiet!

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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! What are you doing here?”

“Hi, Mum. Lovely to see you, too.” Claire dropped her bag at her feet and ignored the look of barely veiled horror on her mum’s face.

“And who is this?”

Her mother’s tone, a mixture of suspicion and approval, made Claire wince.

“This is Conor, he’s my new boss. He gave me a lift home from the airport.” She didn’t want to explain; to talk about Kim or her own dire finances or anything. She wanted to crawl into her own bed and sleep.

Raising weary eyes to her mother’s face, she released a sigh. “Can I stay? I know I haven’t given you notice. If you’ve got people visiting, I’ll sleep under the stairs. Or in the bath. I don’t really care. I can’t afford a hotel.”

Her mother looked over her head, presumably at Conor, and flushed. “Of course you can stay. You are always welcome. And does your friend want to stay too?”

Claire snorted at the blatant matchmaking, then flushed, worried that Conor would take it seriously.

“It’s grand of you to offer, Mrs Carleton, but I must be getting back. It’s a long journey I’ve got ahead of me.” He seemed to take it as his signal to leave. Walking forward, he turned to face Claire. “I’ll call you tomorrow, to discuss when you’ll be free to start work.”

Holding his hand out towards her mother, he said, “It was nice meeting you, Mrs Carleton. Bye Claire.” Nodding at them both, he turned and walked back down the path towards his car.

Claire felt as if a protective force had been taken away from her. Once he was in his car and driving down the street, her mother’s forced grin dropped from her face.

“What on Earth is going on? I don’t hear from you for weeks. Some men come and take away that rusty heap you left outside and now you’ve turned up out of the blue looking like death.”

“Can I come in, Mum? It’s a long story.”

Her mother stepped back to let Claire into the hallway, before closing the door behind her with a bang.  “And why did your boss pick you up from the airport? Are you sleeping with him? What happened to Michael?”

“Enough, already!” Claire’s voice came out louder than she intended and she heard her mother suck air in between her teeth.

“Sorry. I’m tired. I’ve been travelling for weeks, I haven’t slept for two days and I need a shower and some clean clothes. I’m sorry for not calling you first but I had– ” she hesitated, “–other things to deal with. I’ll explain it all tomorrow, okay?”

Without waiting for an answer, Claire picked up her rucksack and forced one foot in front of the other, along the hall and up the stairs. She reached her old room and paused in the doorway as she saw the suitcase by the bed, the perfume and make-up on the dressing table.

Claire walked numbly down the corridor to the spare room. With an in-held breath she pushed the door open, but the tiny room showed no evidence of being in use. Claire dropped her rucksack by the door, kicked off her shoes and crawled under the covers.

***