Terry Pratchett: Fact and Fantasy

Snuff - About Dickensian London

Dodger – About Dickensian London

Those of you who regularly follow this blog will know that I don’t generally write book reviews. In fact I subscribe to the view that it’s very difficult for a writer to review a book as a reader might.

However, partly because I want to carry on with the daily blogging, and partly through self-interest (as one of my most visited posts this year is a book review) I’m going to try and write a few on the blog in 2014. I want to concentrate on books where I have no connection to the author – those people I have met through the blog or who I have beta-read for – because I read those books differently. I don’t enjoy them less (probably more, actually) but I’m usually too close to be objective.

But books I’ve picked up at the library, or authors I’ve read for years, well I’ll happily pass on any observations that occur to me and we’ll see how it goes. I suspect it will be more a ramble than a review, such is my style! As a happy coincidence I’ve just finished two books by my favourite author of all time, Terry Pratchett, so that’s a good place to start.

Of the two books – Snuff, A Discworld novel, and Dodger – Snuff was by far the most enjoyable for me. I’ll admit I may not even have read Dodger if I’d bothered to check the blurb and seen that it wasn’t a Discworld novel. I’m glad I did read it, even though it was a struggle to finish, because it made me appreciate Snuff all the more. I also discovered that it isn’t just Terry Pratchett I love, but Fantasy as a genre; particularly his form of Fantasy.

Dodger is set in 19th Century London and includes characters such as Charles Dickens, Disraeli (former UK Prime Minister) and Henry Mayhew (a nineteenth-century English social researcher), based on their real life counterparts. One can then easily imagine that the lead protagonist is meant to be the model for the Artful Dodger and the story feels more about showing the inspiration for Dickens as a writer (at one point Dodger finishes his soup and asks for more), than exploring Dodger as a character, or what it really meant to live in Nineteenth-Century London.

For me, the novel lacked Pratchett’s usual flair for appealing characters, suspense-driven plot or great humour and dialogue. I struggled to finish it even though, as a super fan, I really wanted to like it. The novel felt like a vehicle for some ideas that had been bubbling in the author’s brain, that were then shoe-horned into a story. Or *shudder* like an Eighteenth-Century Bildungsroman novel, like Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. The book seemed to try too hard to be clever, with the references to historical figures and real places. But I may be biased in this view because, when it comes to blending fact and fiction in a novel, I hate it.

I consider myself something of a reluctant historian, as a result of doing both A Level and Degree History, despite discovering a real love for English Literature that resulted in me switching camps in my third year and then for my Masters. As a result I find historical fiction to be too much stuck in both camps. Do I suspend disbelief, as a reader and student of fiction, or do I concentrate on the factual representation, as a Historian? When I read books like this, I find the urge to check details and constantly ask “Is that true?” Or I feel ignorant for not knowing what is and isn’t historical fact.

Snuff - A Discworld Novel

Snuff – A Discworld Novel

Give me allegorical fantasy any day. Because the beauty of the Discworld novels is that they are also based on our society, albeit one that is viewed through some twisted prism (as a former Insurance Manager, the introduction of Inn-sewer-ants in Colour of Magic remains one of my favourites). Quirm for example is based on France, with it’s avec food and it’s rue de Wakening (read it out loud). Some of the best laugh out loud moments are due to recognising the parody, but the stories work without it and therefore don’t make you feel stupid.

That said, I found Snuff harder going than previous Discworld novels, and a bit darker and more heavy handed in the social commentary, focussing as it does on the race of Goblins, and whether they are considered sapient beings or vermin. This might be evidence of an author who despairs of the world, but it’s the social commentary in all the books that makes them so brilliant and poignant.

Samuel Vimes – the lead protagonist in Snuff – is a wonderfully complicated protagonist. Having read all the Discworld novels, I feel I have tracked his progress from a mere Captain of the Watch in Guards! Guards! to Commander Vimes, Sir Samuel, Duke of Ankh, married to Lady Sybil (also a brilliant character) in this book. Alongside my other favourite Discworld character, Granny Weatherwax, Vimes is fascinating for his level of self-awareness and his inner turmoil. Both are characters who battle with personal demons constantly and defeat the bad guys because they know (or at least fear) they’re no different underneath.

Although it took longer to get going, once I was immersed in the story I was swept along to the finish. Some of it was a little predictable (when you’ve read eight or nine books featuring the same character you do learn how they work) but being allowed inside Vimes’ head as he battled his past and his instincts resonated with me. Powerful, brave stuff.

Terry Pratchett has a writing style that doesn’t spell anything out. The nuances are there for the alert, and sometimes that can be frustrating (when you’re not alert, running on a few hours’ sleep!) As a writer, though, I feel it’s an important lesson in treating the reader as someone smart or, as one of my writing books puts it, Resisting the Urge to Explain (RUE). It also means you can interpret the characters and their actions, and be left wondering if you really know them all that well (particularly a character like Vetinari, the tyrant of Ankh-Morpork).

I find the Discworld novels always stay with me after I’ve finished them, with questions and challenges and difficult subjects (something I didn’t feel at all with Dodger). Snuff may not have been up there with the best, but it was still a rollicking good read. Bring on Raising Steam!

The Humans: 2013 365 Challenge #336

A very profound book

A very profound book

I finally started reading, and very quickly finished, The Humans by Matt Haig this weekend. If you haven’t come across the story (goodness knows how, as it flooded Twitter for a while during its release) it tells the story of an alien who comes to halt mathematical progress on Earth because Humans are deemed too violent to take the next step in technological evolution.

I was drawn to the book by its Twitter campaign and because I just happened to have read and enjoyed an early children’s book by the same author. The social media campaign was something truly incredible, with a lovely video trailer made by lots of different real people reciting lines from a part of the book called Advice for a Human (see picture below)

I started following Matt Haig’s blog, Twitter and Facebook, and found him to be a fascinating person, full of self-doubt and amazing insight, with a history of depression and attempted suicide. I couldn’t wait for the book to be released. I bought it in hardback (a thing I never do) and then bought the kindle version as well because I wanted to take it on holiday. That was in May of this year.

Since then I’ve tried to start it half a dozen times, but I just couldn’t get into it. The narrative voice is the alien, and the tone was so stilted and disinterestedly miserable, it put me off, even though I knew it was part of the story. Then, too, I started to feel pressure to love the book. Because the reviews were amazing, and because I liked the author as I came to know him through social media, I wanted to like the book, and felt bad that I didn’t. I had invested time and emotion into supporting its release and its author.

And then, worse of all, I started to disagree with some of what the author said on Facebook, and my faith took a wobble. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently, and is probably a topic for another blog post – about how our perception of a piece of art or literature changes when we come to know more about the author and was it maybe better when the author was hidden in mystery and unknowable. Anyway, as I say, that’s another post.

Some of the great advice (better read in context)

Some of the great advice (better read in context)

As a result of the emotional (and financial!) investment, though, I couldn’t give up on the book. So I started again on Friday, and couldn’t put it down. I read it with my fingers in my ears, while the kids decorated the Christmas tree. I finished it at 2am last night, leaving me groggy and grumpy for today’s family lunch. No matter: it was worth it. This is my (rather short) Goodreads review:

“It took me a long time to get into this story, after wanting to read it for months. I’m glad I persisted, it was so worth it. This is a deeply profound, yet funny and entertaining book, full of pearls of wisdom you’ll be desperate to share with people.”

As I read the story, I kept reading bits out to hubbie, much to his bemusement (that never works, especially when the recipient is playing Candy Crush or similar). It’s full of Tweetable bits of goodness. I could feel the author, and what I knew of his history, in every line, and it added to the authenticity, although I suspect it wasn’t necessary. The story rings true by itself. I wanted to find a nugget to share here, but there are so many. Instead I would say, read it. Even if, like me, you can’t warm to the alien and you find him annoying in the extreme. He grows on you. And it’s a book that will stay with you long after you read the last page. As an author I always think you can’t ask for more than that.

________________________________________________________________________________

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:

________________________________________________________________________________

“Thank you for letting us stay, Nana.” Alex’s voice wobbled between child and adult, as he gave Claire’s mum a rather formal embrace.

His face still showed the pallor of expended emotion; pale and drawn despite the tan he’d gained during his time in the South West. Claire wanted to pull him into a proper hug, one with feeling. The greeting they’d got from her parents was lukewarm at best.

I guess I wouldn’t like it if someone turned up on my doorstep and asked me to take in house guests. She thought about it and her lips twisted into a wry smile. Mind you, it’s no more than both my siblings have done to me this year. Suddenly Auntie Claire is the only one with all the time in the world.

She pushed away the bitter feelings, and turned to make sure Jack was alright. He’d been less affected by their father’s announcement, chattering excitedly on the long journey from Cornwall to Cambridgeshire. As they had neared their destination, however, he had become more subdued and, since their arrival, he had hovered in the background.

A quick glance showed her he wasn’t in the room and she went in search of him, leaving Alex to forge a stilted conversation with his nana. Her father, Claire noted, had also disappeared and Claire felt disappointed at his cowardice.

She found them both, eventually, hidden in her father’s study.

“There you are!”

Her voice made them jump and their faces flushed with guilt. She concealed a smile at how like naughty schoolboys they both looked, despite a gap of half a century between them.

“What are you two up to? You’ve left Alex battling on with Nana.”

“He’ll be fine,” Jack said brightly, “he’s good at charming the old biddies.” Then he realised what he’d said, and blanched.

Claire’s dad laughed – a loud guffaw – as much at Jack’s stricken expression, it seemed, as at his words.

“Don’t worry, son, your secret is safe with me. Your nana can be a tough nut to crack, but she’s soft underneath.”

Claire privately wondered if that were true, but said nothing. “So, what are you two doing?” She perched on the edge of the desk and looked at them with one eyebrow raised, her arms folded across her chest in an expression of severity that was all act. Seeing Jack locked away with her father gave her a warm glow of satisfaction, but there was a game afoot and she was prepared to play her part.

“Pops was showing me his book. Did you know he’d written a novel, Auntie Claire?”

Claire switched her gaze from Jack’s eager excitement to the look of sheepish guilt on her Dad’s face. “Is it finished then? I thought it was a thriller? It doesn’t sound like something a young boy should be reading.”

“Oh, Claire, I’m not a baby. I’ve read James Herbert and Stephen King.”

“Really?” Claire was genuinely shocked. Even she didn’t have the stomach for some of the more gruesome horrors. She wondered if she should forbid Jack from reading books liable to give him nightmares. Then she looked at his face and had a flash of realisation. Whatever difficulties in Jack’s life, he had yet to experience real fear and horror and so the stories were just stories. They probably had less impact on him than on an adult who could read the truth behind the fabrication.

Suddenly she grinned. “That’s amazing, Dad. I’m so proud of you. Can I read it, too?”

Her dad’s grin was as wide as hers. “I thought you’d never ask.”

*

Back in the lounge, Claire saw that Alex was manfully trying to engage her mum in conversation, and her heart went out to him. Even she struggled to find a topic of interest when talking to her mum.

As she walked in, her mum looked up, and her expression was honey-laced venom. Startled, Claire took a moment to gather herself, then said,

“Jack and Pops are in the study, Alex. Why don’t you go and see if they’d like some tea and cake? It’s been a long time since lunch.” They had been offered nothing on arrival. If her mum wasn’t going to play host, then she would show her how it should be done.

Alex jumped up like a man given a reprieve on death row, and practically ran from the room.

“Okay, Mum, out with it,” Claire said, as she heard his footsteps retreating down the hall. Her words took the wind from her mum’s anger, and Claire had to swallow a laugh.

“I’m surprised you have to ask. You turn up, unannounced, with Robert’s boys in tow, and without so much as a by-your-leave tell me that they’re staying here for an undetermined length of time, because you saw fit to send their father home. I think you have some explaining to do, young lady.”

“I’m not a child, Mum, you don’t need to take that tone. Robert’s behaviour was unacceptable. He arrived two hours late, with a chit of a girl on his arm, and announced he was engaged to her. His treatment of the boys is disgusting and he’s so far up his own arse they have to ship in daylight.”

“Claire! Really!” Her mother’s face went pale. Then her expression changed and she became a frail old woman. When she spoke, her voice was querulous “I don’t know why you’re shouting at me; it isn’t my fault.”

For a moment Claire was almost fooled. But not quite. “Oh, give over, Mum. Quit playing games, I’ve had enough of that from Robert.” She wanted to add that yes, it probably was her fault, at least in part. If she’d taken time to teach Robert some manners he might not be a total git. Realising such a discussion with her mother was an exercise in futility, she took a deep breath and controlled her temper with effort.

“Jack and Alex are your grandsons. You should be proud of them; they are amazing boys. If I could, I would keep them with me longer, but I have trespassed on Conor’s goodwill enough already. I’m only asking you to let them stay for a week; take them to see Ruth and Sky. Poor Jack doesn’t remember his cousin at all. They won’t be any trouble. I have money to buy their tickets, and I’ll contact Francesca and ask her to meet them at Stansted.”

Her mother’s face remained petulant and Claire snapped. “For God’s sake, Mum, don’t be such a cow. I know you couldn’t give a monkeys about me or Robert, and I doubt Ruth gets a look in now she’s got her life back on track, but this is your chance to make amends and be a decent human being. Why don’t you give it a try, you might find you like it?”

Before her mum could answer, Claire stalked from the room.

***

Perfect Procrastination: 2013 365 Challenge #334

A potential front cover (though fonts are always a challenge)

A potential front cover (though fonts are always a challenge)

Sometimes I’m so easily distracted I think I’m no better than a three-year-old! Instead of getting stuck in to writing today, particularly important on a Friday to give me a head start for the weekend, I spent two hours designing a cover for a potential entire Two-Hundred Steps Home volume, even though I haven’t even written December’s installments yet, never mind getting November’s finished and up on Smashwords.

There is method in my madness.

Partly I thought it might be nice to produce a printed volume for my hubbie for Christmas. (He reads this post, so it won’t be a surprise even if I get it done!) It’s not likely to happen, though, because it would mean finishing December’s posts by around the 10th, in order to get it all uploaded and ordered. Hahaha, excuse me while I roll around laughing. I have no doubt that, despite the best intentions, the last installment will actually be written on New Year’s Eve, when the kids are in bed and hubbie is trying to drink in the new year with me.

The second excuse idea was that I could put the book out for pre-order, to see if there is any interest in buying the complete set of twelve volumes, even though you can download the individual ones for free.

More important, the cover for November

More important, the cover for November

It would be around 275,000 words, which is substantial for any novel, and of course would have to come with the HUGE disclaimer that it is a first draft and hasn’t been edited or proofread. I would hate people to buy it under any illusions. That said, I think a lot of the people who download the free copies don’t follow the blog, and no one has left me an awful review yet. (Ignoring the fact that I’ve only had a handful of reviews!)

Of course it would be lovely to edit it all and have it proofread, but part of me thinks that would defeat the point of the exercise, which was to produce something in installments without planning or the ability to go back and change things. Aside from the odd typo I’ve spotted (and once when I changed a character’s name in one installment) I haven’t gone back and amended anything. What you get in the downloaded volumes is what I wrote, day by day, through 2013.

Maybe, with a decent blurb and introduction, it would work. People might pay to have it all in once place, or as a reminder of the year, if they enjoyed it. Who knows, they might even recommend it to others. Certainly if I publish a sequel it would be handy for people to be able to catch up. Anyway, there’s my justification for two hours of my day wasted. And I’m sticking with that! 🙂

_______________________________________________________________________________

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:

_______________________________________________________________________________

Alex paced across the room, picked up the iPad, put it down again, then walked back to the window to stare out across the lawn to the sea, as if expecting to see his father striding across the grass.

“He’s late,” he said, without turning round.

“I’m sure his flight was delayed, that’s all.” Claire tried to be the voice of reason, concealing her irritation that Robert hadn’t even sent a text to confirm that he’d arrived at the airport. Keeping her voice level, she added, “He had to connect at Brussels and Birmingham to come down here, and then he’ll need to get a taxi from the airport. There’s a lot to go wrong.”

“He wouldn’t have been late if this was a business meeting. Even some minor client grossing less than ten grand a year would have ensured his punctuality. But for his sons, well, why bother?”

The tone of disgust in Alex’s voice tore through Claire. She wanted to tell the boy not to speak about his father like that, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. He had a point.

“He came to Cambridge when Auntie Ruth was poorly,” she said, instead. “He was brilliant at the hospital. I’m sure his delay is something outside his control.”

“Father probably only did that so he could feel important. You know, showing that he was better than you and Auntie Ruth. Or to get away from Mother for a week.”

The words were unanswerable. Claire realised she didn’t know her brother at all. Even during that awful week, when she’d thought Ruth was going to die, she had barely spoken to Robert. When he hadn’t been talking to the doctors he was on his phone, discussing business, or buried deep in emails. She wondered when her brother had become a stranger.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to see Ruth and Sky,” Jack said, breaking into her thoughts. “I haven’t seen Auntie Ruth since I was little, and I’ve never met Sky.”

Guilt washed over Claire, as she realised that was true. Ruth didn’t have the money for travel to Europe, and it was years since Robert and his family had come home for the holidays. They usually went skiing.

I should have taken them up for the weekend, to see Mum and Dad and Ruth. It’s not that far away.

“Why don’t you ask your dad if you can go, before you fly back to Geneva? I’m sure your flights can be changed.”

Alex snorted, but said nothing, merely turning to gaze out the window again. Jack shrugged and picked up his iPad, and was soon lost in a game.

Claire looked at them both and felt helpless. Two weeks ago she didn’t know or care about her nephews. Now, though, they were real people; people she didn’t want to see suffer. Despite his eagerness to go, it was clear Alex only wanted to return to his friends and girlfriend. Jack had been subdued all morning, his silence speaking of his unhappiness far more than words.

I wonder if Conor would let me take a few days leave to run up to Cambridgeshire with the boys. I can’t see Robert taking them. She thought through the logistics, and suppressed a sigh. I guess it’s a bit late for that. Robert would have a fit if I suggested it, after he’s flown all this way to pick them up. Assuming he hasn’t forgotten.

Claire chewed at her lip and tried to concentrate on the book in her lap. The words blurred as her mind filled with thoughts too muddled to be processed. Behind her attempt at calm, a wave of anger was building: rage at her brother’s thoughtlessness, and remorse at her own previous neglect. Who was she to take the moral high ground? How often had she spent time with the boys or gone to visit them in Geneva?

Maybe we have no capacity to love, in our family. Perhaps that’s it. Maybe Ruth got it all, and is using it all on Sky. The rest of us: what do we know of family and loyalty and trust?

She closed her book and followed Alex’s gaze out the window, losing herself in the relentless blue of the uncaring sky.

*

The sound of a car pulling up the driveway echoed loudly in the silence of the dining room. Both boys turned to face in its direction, as if hoping to see through walls and confirm it was finally their father.

Tension twisted Claire’s stomach like the shift in pressure that heralded a storm. Shaking off the feeling, she rose to her feet and turned to face the door. She could hear voices in the corridor, as the manager gave directions to the dining room, as Claire had requested earlier.

Her brother’s form filled the doorway, and Claire could see a second person standing just behind him, clutching his arm.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me.”

Claire shot an angry glance at Alex, about to admonish him for his language. Before she could speak, she registered his white face and the pursed and bloodless lips. She turned back to the door to see what had made her nephew so angry. Hanging on Robert’s arm was a young woman, younger than herself. In her late teens or early twenties, Claire guessed. The woman clung on to Robert as if he were a life raft, staring up at him with wide brown eyes.

Claire wondered if Robert had brought the au pair to look after the boys on the trip home.

That would be like him. Can’t even look after his boys for a few hours.

That didn’t explain Alex’s outburst though, not really. From what she had gathered from Jack, the au pair was a sweet German girl, with limited English. Not someone to be treated with such loathing.

As realisation dawned, Claire felt the blood drain from her own face.

Not even Robert could be that stupid and cruel, surely, to bring his new girlfriend with him?

As far as he was aware the boys didn’t even know he’d met someone new. Even if they weren’t close to him or their mother, it was still neither the time nor place to introduce a replacement.

Robert stood motionless in the doorway, surveying his sister and sons, a faint sardonic raise of one eyebrow his only expression.

“Hello Claire, boys.” He nodded in their direction, as if stumbling across a casual acquaintance, rather than coming to collect his sons after a two-week absence. The girl hanging on his arm gave them a timid glance, before turning back to gaze at Robert. He seemed to feel her stare, because he pulled her into the room and put his arm around her.

With a broad smile he said, “I’d like you to meet Gabriella. My fiancée.”

Silence reverberated round the room like an aftershock. Then Claire sensed sudden movement to her left. Alex strode across the room to stand in front of his father.

Staring up into his face, he hesitated, then said distinctly, “You utter bastard.”

He pushed past his father and Gabriella and left the room.

***

Book Reviews Again: 2013 365 Challenge #279

What I'm currently reading

What I’m currently reading

For a stubborn person I can be easily led. Present me with a reasoned argument, or merely an impassioned one, and I may well come round to your way of thinking. It’s not that I don’t have my own opinions, more that I don’t have faith in them. If you tell me I’m wrong, there’s a strong chance I might agree with you just because I’m used to being wrong.

That’s why I don’t read book reviews, especially for books I’ve read. I remember researching a post for this blog, and looking up Memoirs of a Geisha. I loved the book, but most of the reviews I read said it was historically and culturally inaccurate, yada yada. I felt bad for liking it – as if I had been fooled, gullible me, by the writing and led like a mindless sheep to an understanding of a culture that was inaccurate. (I’m a history graduate and I hate getting the facts wrong, even though I know there is no such thing as one right version of events)

I came across the problem again when I listed the book I’m currently reading on Goodreads – Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings – and happened to see some reviews.

I’ve read the book – the entire set of ten it is from – a dozen times. The characters were my friends when I had no others, (in the days before Facebook, Twitter and WordPress, when friends were found in books rather than online).

I’ve chosen to read it now to break me out of my critiquing cycle, like putting on a comfy sweater. So reading reviews calling it formulaic and lacking in originality was not what I needed to hear. What if it’s true? Does that make me somehow inferior for loving the book and being totally engrossed by the characters? What if I start picking faults? Like when someone points out your favourite actor has a funny nose (Buffy) and then you can’t see anything else and your favourite show is ruined forever.

Goodreads' change of policy post

Goodreads’ change of policy post

I read a post on Kristen Lamb’s blog a while ago about authors not writing reviews and it supported why I don’t like leaving reviews unless I loved, loved, loved a book. I do still write them for the indies that I enjoyed reading, particularly because indies need the support (and because I hope the karma will pass round to me one day!) But I do feel reviews are not all that helpful for books.

Shannon Thompson wrote a post on Facebook on Friday about the new Goodreads’ change in policy, saying she was upset to see people defending their right to be trolls. If all you want to do in a review is insult the author, then really what are reviews worth? (If you want to see our discussion on the subject, visit Shannon’s FB page.)

Anyway, I’m not sure of the point of my ramble except I’m trying hard to ignore the world and enjoy the book I have loved each of the last ten or eleven times I read it (though I am noticing the ‘telling rather than showing’ and the adverbs. It was the first book in the series, so I’m being tolerant!) I might even write a review explaining why I love it so much, but I can’t advise you to read it: what if you hated it? 🙂

________________________________________________________________________________

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 brushed the curtain aside and peered round into the bay. Kim lay with her eyes closed and Jeff sat beside her, gripping her hand with both of his. He looked up at the movement.

“Claire! Welcome home.”

She pulled the curtain closed behind her and took a step forward. “Thanks, Jeff. I think you’re the only person pleased to see me.” Then, realising this wasn’t her drama, she forced a smile on her lips. “Kim’s looking better this morning.”

“Yes, your visit really helped. The nurse said she slept well for the first time last night. Just as well, someone from PLAN is coming in to see her soon.”

“PLAN?” Claire wondered for a moment if that was what Dotty had said she was working for, but couldn’t remember. She prayed the young girl wasn’t about to turn up here as well. An hour in the car had been more than enough time with her endless enthusiasm.

“Psychiatric Liaison people. To see if Kim is safe to come home, or whether she needs to go to a secure ward.”

“Oh.” Claire looked around for another chair and carried it over next to Jeff’s. “What do you think?”

Jeff dropped his head, although he didn’t let go of his wife’s hand. “I don’t know.” He exhaled loudly, as if breathing out his doubt. “What a mess. Who knew an accidental pregnancy could have such awful repercussions.”

Claire sat in silence, unwilling to probe. The weeks she’d spent gallivanting around New Zealand felt dirty, somehow, when she considered what Kim and Jeff had been going through in her absence.

As the silence stretched on, Claire tried to sift through the questions in her mind to find one that was safe to ask. How’s married life, or How’s work? weren’t exactly appropriate. She was just grateful that Jeff apparently felt no blame towards her for her own role in the catastrophe.

As if sensing her thoughts, Jeff raised his head finally. “It was never your fault, you know. I wish Michael had kept his stupid mouth shut, of course. It wasn’t the end to the wedding we had hoped for. Kim’s boss went off on one, with the whole cast taking sides. Kim took it well, though. Fought her own: said she’d sue him for being a misogynistic bastard if he took her role away.” He paused and a smile flickered across his face. “She was magnificent: you’d have been proud.” He sighed.

“It was all fine for a few days. Then she got cramps; she was in agony. When we got to the hospital they said it was too late.” His face crumpled and Claire realised, for the first time, that Kim wasn’t the only one who had lost a baby.

Jeff’s eyes were red when he raised his head to look at her. “And then when they said she couldn’t have any more kids. It broke her, you know. I didn’t realise she really wanted to be a mother – we never talked about it that much. Maybe you don’t realise you want something until someone tells you you can’t have it.”

He fell silent and they sat listening to the sound of Kim’s breathing. When Jeff spoke again his voice was low. “After that, she wasn’t Kim anymore. She cried all the time, at the tiniest thing: TV adverts, pictures of kids, pregnant women in the street. The doctors diagnosed her with depression and gave her some pills but she wouldn’t take them. Said they made her feel worse. And then …” He stopped.

Claire knew what happened next; she’d been there, in a manner of speaking. Her mind was full of words but none seemed adequate. How could you relate to someone who had been through so much? She wanted to do something to help. Whatever Jeff said, it was still partially her fault.

“If it helps with the psych assessment, I’m happy to come and stay for a while, look after Kim.”

“What about your job? I thought you were starting a new job this week?”

Claire thought guiltily about Conor, everything she owned him and how much he’d put his own neck on the line to hire her. She thought about how much she was looking forward to getting back to work, having a purpose again. Not to mention some money to pay off her credit cards.”

She shrugged. “It’s just a job.”

***

Proofreaders and Professors: 2013 365 Challenge #175

Another blog post written while walking the dog!

Another blog post written while walking the dog!

I’ve had an interesting day thinking about writing (to the point of brain ache!).

This morning I finished a book I got for free off Amazon (I won’t say which book, for reasons that will become obvious) and it was an interesting experience. I shall compare it to a G&T- enjoyable without it being clear why, because it had a taste both lovely and bitter. That bitterness was caused by editing, or lack of.

Followers of this blog will know my history with editing: the fact I can’t afford a proof-reader, never mind a copy-editor, and that it worries me.

Well, I finished this book, littered with missing words, random grammar, escapee-commas, poor structure (not starting a new line for each person speaking for example) and that’s saying nothing about the number of characters and points of view (though, to be fair, I never got lost). I had two immediate thoughts: My first thought was that I should drop the author a line to say I loved the book but found a bucket load of errors (obviously worded better than that). This was prompted by Kirsten Lamb’s recent posts about writing reviews when you’re an author (i.e. don’t, especially if it’s more a critique than a review). She suggests sending an email instead.

The Findaproofreader website

The Findaproofreader website

My second thought was, ‘I need a proofreader. I really don’t want to be that person who has that book littered with typos.’ So I did some research and came across a site called findaproofreader.com. They have a facility whereby you list your project and budget and people contact you with quotes if they’re interested.

I don’t have any budget, and I know even a proofread costs £500-£1000 for a book as long as mine, but I thought, why not? I put in my requirements and a budget of £100-£200, just to see if there were any takers.

The first response, almost immediately, told me I was being unrealistic and no one would proofread for under £2 per thousand words (and that’s with me saying Baby Blues is 112k words, which still leaves me 4,000 to cut out!) I might have been disheartened, but the next three messages all said, Yes, I’ll do it. I had two more people tell me my budget was too low, but I have ten people willing to take it on, provided my later chapters are as clean as my sample three (More work required there!) in the interests of building a relationship for future novels (when, presumably, the price will go up!)

Spot the dog!

Spot the dog!

My head is now whirring with thoughts on how to choose between them. I have a feel for ones I don’t think would fit, but I can’t really tell from a short email. (A few are unpublished authors, can’t decide if that’s good or bad). I think my plan is to pick a bad paragraph or two from Baby Blues and ask them to sample edit, to give me a feel for what their work is like.

The first respondent suggested if I pay peanuts I’ll get monkeys. Maybe. However, I’m encouraged by another person who said they’d normally charge £500 but the English in my sample chapters was so good they were happy to do it for less. Here’s hoping.

Oh, and the first thought? Sending the unnamed author an email? A little internet search revealed that his book has five star reviews and he’s a university professor, teaching fiction. I don’t think it’s my place to suggest he visit findaproofreader.com! Besides, I’m off to download book two. Sometimes (as someone said of Dragon Wraiths) a story can be great despite the typos. Whether I’d let him teach my children is another matter!

________________________________________________________________________________

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:

________________________________________________________________________________

“Llwyn-y-celyn. Someone should introduce the Welsh to the vowel.”

Claire walked up from the car park to the hostel and looked at the latest whitewashed farmhouse on her Welsh adventure. Something told her this one might be less luxurious than her previous night’s accommodation.

Inside, sofas huddled round a blackened fireplace, where a wood-burner held centre stage, and long wooden tables crowded in the dining room. I hope it isn’t full. Could get a bit cosy.

She walked through the building to her dorm room, passing a tiny dorm that felt like a broom cupboard, with painted stone walls and a sink just inside the door. Her heart sank, and she hoped her dorm had a little bit more space.

When she reached her room, Claire felt her cheeks lift in a smile. A bed. A proper bed, with no-one asleep above me. Glorious.

The room had a sloping ceiling, with a dark beam across the heads of the two single beds. Curtains framed a small window that might otherwise have been mistaken for a photograph. Claire went to take in the view, and felt herself relax. Wooded hills lured her out to explore. Flexing her sore shoulders and conscious of the bruise on her thigh from her tumble, Claire laughed ruefully.

“Thanks for the invitation, but I think I need something more gentle today. Kim won’t forgive me if I turn up to her wedding covered in bruises or with a plaster cast on.”

*

Boots laced onto sore feet, Claire decided to follow the footpath from the hostel to the glaciated crag and the Cerrig y Glesiad Nature Reserve. A few hours watching buzzards and admiring the view and she could cosy up on the sofa with her book. She hoped they still lit the wood-burner, even though it was nearly May. Huddling into her coat, Claire thought it didn’t feel like spring, never mind halfway to summer.

Claire stopped, as the path turned from the horizontal and headed skywards. She looked up at the sharp climb and groaned. Time slowed, while she contemplated the path and tried to reach a decision.

After some time, her ears picked up a new noise in the near-silence. A scuff, followed by a cough. She turned her head, and saw a man walking up behind her. Trying to ignore the lump of ice that dropped into her stomach, Claire forced herself to breathe.

This is a footpath. There are bound to be other people walking. Not everyone is trying to mug you.

She made herself smile in greeting at the newcomer, and wondered if she could pretend she’d just come down from the hillside and was heading back to the hostel.

“Morning.”

The man smiled, revealing even, white teeth. “Well, hello. I didn’t expect to meet anyone along here. You coming or going?”

“Undecided.” The word was out before Claire had time to consider.

The stranger laughed. “Bit steeper than you expected?”

Claire bristled at the hint of sarcasm in the man’s rich voice, She took in his well-worn boots and hiking clothes and knew this man thought she was a tourist.

“Just aching from my hike over at Talybont Reservoir yesterday. It turned into a bog-trot and I have bruises on my bruises.”

As she watched, his face shifted almost imperceptibly from disdain to respect. He gazed up at the climbing path and shrugged.

“View will be amazing. Why don’t you just climb to the top and take some pictures? They serve excellent local beer at the hostel, assuming you’re staying there? You can curl up with a bottle and ease your aches away.”

Without waiting for an answer, the man gave her a nod and continued on the path, reaching out to steady himself on the rock as he began to scramble up.

Oh, what the hell. Claire ignored the screaming protest from her back and her thighs, and followed the man upwards.

***

Busy or Fruitful: 2013 365 Challenge #165

Son's first strawberry

Son’s first strawberry

Kirsten Lamb wrote a post today called, “Are you Being Busy or Fruitful?” It was timely, as I spent four hours working on something I didn’t think was due until next month, until the person emailed me and asked for it last night. What I should have been doing was writing Claire posts, because I’ve promised hubbie a weekend off to work on his new car.

Having the kids solo for the extra two days is likely to leave me exhausted and uncreative (there have been too many uncreative Claire posts recently… Re-reading the earlier volumes to brush up on Maggie, I realise I need to step it up.)

The gist of Kirsten’s post was identifying the difference between being fruitful and doing too much all at once. She explains that multi-tasking needs to be “one ‘thinking activity’ and one ‘mindless’.” Such as making the beds while phoning someone, or folding laundry while watching a movie. I write blog posts while walking the dog (not this one, it’s hammering with rain outside!), but that’s about the only one.

My biggest mistake is working on several things at once to ‘save time’ because my internet connection is so slow. I often sit with my iPad and my laptop, so I can check emails while a document is saving or loading. Unfortunately that just means I get distracted and wander off to read an interesting blog post or answer a message.

Daughter's first fruit

Daughter’s first fruit

I also have the same lack of focus with my writing. The task I did today (the one which meant I didn’t eat lunch until 3pm) was an author interview for the blog Susana’s Morning Room. I realised, when discussing my writing, that I have too many projects on the go. I’m trying to edit Baby Blues, write Two-Hundred Steps Home and promote Dragon Wraiths and the blog.

I tend to concentrate on the things I want to do, rather than have a structured plan. At the moment that means giving too much time to Baby Blues, because I want to get it fixed. I received a lovely five-star review for it today, so I’m even more motivated to set it free.

Unfortunately I also got my second set of Beta Reader feedback, and there is a lot to fix. More than I will manage to get done in a few hours twice a week, which is all I have right now. I’ve set myself a silly deadline, too, because I’m offering a free copy to commenters on my guest blogs, which go live on 5th and 12th July. A little over a month to change POV issues, a soggy middle and more grammar bugs than I care to think about!

Kirsten recommends lists to help us focus. I think I need more than lists: I need a personality transplant!

________________________________________________________________________________

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:

________________________________________________________________________________

“What brings you to the National Forest, Maggie? I thought your heart belonged to Cumbria.”

Claire looked across at the woman over the top of her tea. She caught a flicker of consternation, before Maggie’s customary smile shone out.

“A group of garrulous girls!”

Claire raised an eyebrow, and Maggie laughed. “I’m here with some school children. They’ve come on a two-day visit.”

“Oh God, are they staying here?” The words were out before Claire could stop and think. She exhaled in relief when Maggie’s smile didn’t waver.

“They are, but don’t be concerned, I make sure they don’t cause any disturbance after hours. It isn’t the quietest hostel, I’m afraid. These new-builds don’t have the sturdy thick walls of a Victorian structure. You hear a lot of doors clattering; it seems to echo through the woodwork.”

Claire took a mental note to ensure her headphones were close at hand at bed time although she was so exhausted, sleep was unlikely to be a problem with even a hundred girls tramping along the corridors.

“Where are you taking them? I would have thought you’d be out and about by now?”

“The girls are. We arrived yesterday and I was on duty for the journey and settling in. Thankfully they’ve given me the morning off to recuperate. I’m only a volunteer. The teachers aren’t so lucky, poor things.”

“What marvellous activity are you missing out on?” Claire’s eyes twinkled in mischief.

“A visit to Conkers.” In answer to Claire’s questioning glance, Maggie added, “It’s the adventure play centre next door. They’ll be quite happily driving their teachers crazy, getting lost and falling off the climbing frames.”

“What exciting activity do you get to do then?”

Maggie sank her chin onto her hands. “Llama trekking,” she said, her voice low. Claire laughed.

“The manager tried to get me to do that today!”

Her friend’s head raised and she met Claire’s eyes. “Why not join with us tomorrow? The more the merrier, as long as you don’t mind doing the odd headcount and taking them to the toilet?”

Immediate words of denial formed on Claire’s lips. She swallowed them. I have to do something crazy soon, otherwise I’ll have Julia on my case again.

“Okay, why not?”

Maggie grinned. “What about you? What have you been up to? The last time I saw you, you were taking that charming Australian man to the airport. And how is your sister?”

Claire was impressed at Maggie’s memory. “Josh is happily back in Australia with his wife and children. Ruth is okay, we hope. The cancer had spread further than we thought, but she’s responding well to treatment.” I must call her, Claire added privately, realising she hadn’t called home in a few days.

“And what about you, Claire? Are you happier in your skin?” Maggie’s words wormed into the ebbing hangover-fog in Claire’s mind.

“That’s a strange thing to say.”

“Please don’t be offended: I’m not prying. I merely had the impression you were unhappy, particularly when that lovely young man came to meet you.” There was a pause, as if Maggie was considering her words. “Was he… Did you know he was married?” She looked around the hostel lounge, not meeting Claire’s eye.

Claire’ first reaction was to put the interfering woman in her place. But it was hard to see Maggie as anything other than sincere.

“No, I didn’t know he was married. But, in answer to your other question, no we weren’t lovers. He tried to kiss me once, but I pushed him away, and he never tried again.”

“You sound disappointed.”

Damn. Claire laughed reluctantly. “I guess. He is charming. But I look like his wife, that’s all.”

Something in her tone put an end to Maggie’s questioning. It hurt to talk about Josh, more than she would have expected. The realisation crept in slowly through the haze.

I miss him. Damn him.

***

Editing Frenzy: 2013 365 Challenge #162

A busy day editing and scrapbooking

A busy day editing and scrapbooking

The lovely Pat Elliott has made me doubly happy today. She has reviewed Dragon Wraiths, over on her blog, saying – in her candid way – “There are a few minor editing errors, but you know, they didn’t stop me loving the book. I’d definitely read another by this author.” Big grins.

Pat has also, very kindly, read my chick lit novel Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes, and provided feedback. Despite having no intention of spending time on the novel this year, it galvanised me to work on it today, incorporating the suggested changes (unsurprisingly mostly to do with grammar.)

The frustrating part, for me, is that all three of the main formatting changes suggested by Pat involve reverting back to the way the text was before I began editing it last year! One is to do with commas: I know I don’t really understand commas, so I purchased a book on punctuation and learned as much as I could. As a result I removed a whole heap of the little buggers, figuring it was better not to have them than to put them in the wrong place. Pat’s main formatting suggestion? More commas!

I never quite found the right image for Helen

I never quite found the right image for Helen

The second one is to do with layout: putting *** where the text breaks and there is a shift in time or location. I did that originally, but it looked messy, so I took them out and left just a paragraph break.

I’ve spent today putting them all back in.

They are more important in an ebook, as you have no idea what the pagination looks like. With a print book you can put them in only where it isn’t clear that there has been a shift, such as over a page break.

The third grammar point has me puzzled. Pat informed me (and I trust her judgement) that modern publishing no longer uses double quotes for dialogue. Apparently standard form is now to use ‘ rather than “. This poses a problem. Partly because that, too, would involve changing the entire manuscript back to the way it was originally – before an early Beta Reader told me to use double quotes (preferably smart quotes), as that was standard form.

Sharni, Derek and Maggie

Sharni, Derek and Maggie

It also poses a dilemma for me personally, because I have come to prefer smart/double quotes. A quick flick through the other ebooks on my iPad showed most of them to still use double quotes.

I Googled it, but still haven’t discovered a definitive answer. The best I can tell is that it is a UK/US thing, with the UK using single quotes and the US double quotes. As the majority of my sales are in the US, I think I will leave the double quotes. (Plus, that means less work!) I’m definitely going to keep Googling for publishing standards, though, as Pat raised a point I hadn’t previously considered. Self-publishing is full of hidden pitfalls and, thankfully, lots of lovely people with maps and compasses to help guide the way through!

The final style point was that my writing has too much internal thought in italics. I agree that such is probably the case, and I spent a chunk of today toning it down. It does make me worry about Two-Hundred Steps Home, though, as it’s probably 20% in italics! I’m not sure where it came from as a writing style, but if it is mentioned by other Beta Readers I’ll have to train myself to write a different way. This is the amazing thing about good Beta Readers – they don’t just help you with that novel, but with all your creative endeavours!

All this has a) given me a headache and b) reiterated that I need a copy editor. As I can’t afford to pay for one, that takes me back to my original plan: trying to find an agent to publish traditionally, so I get that stuff as part of the deal. In the mean time, it’s back to the Penguin book on Punctuation and some paracetamol.

_______________________________________________________________________________

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:

________________________________________________________________________________

The steel light of dawn crept in through the curtains and lit the room. It took Claire a moment to realise where she was and what had woken her at such an ungodly hour. Loud, rasping snores resonated through the room. They sounded as if they were coming from behind her, which wasn’t right.

The acoustics in this place must be crazy. That woman needs to consider getting a single room; I feel like something’s sawing at my skull.

The next thing Claire noticed was how narrow the bed was. She felt precariously close to the edge of the bunk, with only a short rail separating her from a four-foot drop. The third fact permeating her foggy brain, seeping through the thudding pain, was the arm around her waist.

Bugger.

Like a movie on fast forward, the events of the previous evening sped past her eyes in brutal clarity. The gin. The quiz. The random questions she’d got right, to much applause. The congratulatory hugs from the group when they came third.

The Scotsman.

Bugger.

The weight of the arm pinned her to the bed. Claire tried to work out if either of them were naked. As far as she could tell, she was still wearing her t-shirt and pants from the day before.

Phew, that’s something at least.

A brush of warmth against her back informed her that the Scot wasn’t so well clad.

Oh, Christ. This is a single-sex dorm. I’m going to be in so much trouble.

Claire lifted the heavy arm and slid it behind her, holding her breath as the man murmured something unintelligible and rolled over to face the wall. Claire clung on to the foot of remaining bed, not wanting to fall in a heap and wake her room mates.

She peered over the bunk, looking for the ladder, and saw a girl asleep on the floor.

What?

Remembering how unsteady the beds were, Claire flushed as she imagined being in the bottom bunk with any sort of shenanigans going on above.

Crap. Poor woman.

Fully awake, adrenalin pushing the alcohol from her fuddled mind, Claire surveyed the room below. She hadn’t unpacked, so that helped. All she had to do was climb down from the bunk and retrieve her bag and clothes, without waking the girl on the floor or the naked man hogging most of her bed.

With the stealth of a ninja, she moved, one limb at a time. A loud creak filled the room and she stopped, breath held, listening. Ever nerve zinged like a live wire under her skin. She felt she might hear a mouse breathing or the trees growing outside the window. No sound of censorious women could be heard.

Deciding all or bust might be the better option, Claire flipped down from the bed, narrowly missing the sleeping woman. In one movement she grabbed her jeans, handbag, rucksack and shoes. Anything else would have to be marked up as lost through misadventure.

Cheeks flaming and ears ringing, Claire fled the room. Pausing only to pull on her jeans and shoes, she strode along the clean, silent, corridors and headed for the car park.

So much for an extended stay.

With her phone confessing that it was only 5am, Claire was behind the wheel and on her way.

***

Advice for Amazon: 2013 365 Challenge #157

I'm relaxed about reviews

I’m relaxed about reviews

I have been amazed at the discussion sparked by my post Getting Stronger two days ago, talking about my one-star reviews on Amazon. The support has been incredible, even though I wasn’t really upset by the review. As I mentioned in the post, and the comments, I was low because I inadvertently made someone else sad/cross/irritated (I don’t like upsetting people) rather than by the comments themselves.

What it has demonstrated, however, is the depth of emotion generated by Amazon’s reviewing system. Several other blogs have had a similar discussion this week, including:

http://greenembers.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/why-amazon-thinks-youre-stupid-opinion-piece/ reblogged on readfulthingsblog.com

http://rinellegrey.com/reviews-do-you-read-them-or-not/

http://dclozeau.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/review-or-not-to-review/

Amazon's arbitrary review system leaves me exhausted

Amazon’s arbitrary review system leaves me exhausted

The debate my post (and others) generated got me thinking – I rarely pay attention to reviews for books. I read them avidly for other products – cameras, ipads, vacuum cleaners. For any purchase, big or small, you’ll find me on Reevoo, trying to find a balance between the one-star and five-star comments.

With books, however, even though I do read the reviews sometimes, I don’t think I’ve bought a book just on reviews. I buy online the same as I do when in a bookshop – read a few pages and decide if I like the cover (yes I’m that shallow!).

The importance of reviews for a self-published author is more to do with promotion and sales than critique on the actual text. Which is probably just as well. Maybe it’s time Amazon came up with a different system for rating books. I’ve come up with one for them:

Would read again – (five-star)

Would recommend – (four-star)

Read it to the end but can’t remember what happened – (three star)

Read half, intended to finish, but didn’t – (two-star)

Didn’t get past chapter two – (one-star)

[The last section of this post came from a comment I left on Rinelle Grey’s post about KDP Select. Did I mention that I started writing today’s post at 9am with a 9.45am deadline. Oops.]

________________________________________________________________________________

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 looked at her friend and swallowed the hard lump in her throat. Don’t cry, that’s too much of a cliché. She reached into her bag for her phone to take a photograph, blinking hard.

“You’re not going to put a picture on the blog, are you?” Kim’s voice was low with concern.

Claire shook her head. “Don’t be silly, of course not. I might post pictures from the day, if that’s okay? But more of the venue than you and Jeff. It’ll be a great advert for the YHA.”

Kim twirled in her floaty frock and beamed. “You can fill the entire blog with pictures once Jeff has seen it. I want it to be a surprise, that’s all.” She smoothed the bodice over her bump. “I hope this doesn’t get any bigger in a fortnight.”

“I’m sure you’ll be fine. Are you going to buy it then?” Claire looked round the charity shop, sure everyone must be watching Kim’s performance. They had the room to themselves, however. I guess closing time on a Saturday isn’t their busy period.

“I can’t believe you managed to find the perfect dress in a charity shop. You’re so jammy.”

“Research, my dear. People on my salary learn to be frugal. I get most of my clothes from these shops. If you visit the right town then other people’s cast-offs are as good as new. Good labels, too. My coat is Boden and those jeans are from Marks & Spencer. Besides, you don’t get an item of clothing that’s less worn than a wedding dress.”

She gave one last twirl then reached round to try and free herself from the dress. “Can you unhook me, I think I’m going to pull a muscle if I try.”

Claire walked over and helped Kim take off the ivory dress. It was beautiful. I can’t imagine being that lucky, to find the perfect dress in a charity shop. Never mind one that doesn’t even need altering. She sighed. Kim gets all the luck. Fun job, gorgeous fiancé, understanding mother and now the perfect budget wedding.

“What are you going to wear?” Kim’s voice shook Claire from her reverie.

“You want me to get something from here?” Claire didn’t quite manage to keep the horror from her voice. Realising how rude that was, her eyes raised to Kim’s, concerned that she might have offended her friend.

Kim was smiling, but there was a faint line between her brows. “Of course not. If you can afford to buy something that costs more than I earn in a month, then that’s your prerogative.”

Claire bristled at the sarcasm laced through her friend’s words. It was unlike Kim to care about the difference in their salaries. It had been that way for so long, it was more a joke between them than a cause for bitterness.

I’ve never flouted my money. Have I? Sudden concern that she had been insensitive hit Claire, and she felt tears prick at her eyes. Bugger. Have I? Have I made her feel bad for earning less than I do? Her job is just as hard, it’s not my fault it isn’t as well paid.

With a glance around the charity shop, and another back at her friend, Claire made a decision.

“If it’s good enough for the bride, it’s good enough for her maid of honour. Show me the frocks!”

Kim shimmied out of the wedding dress and pulled her jeans back on. Carefully arranging the dress back on its hanger, she laid it over the counter and then took Claire’s hand, leading her to the rail of gowns sparkling at the back of the shop.

***

All about Expectation: 2013 365 Challenge #155

Swimming

Swimming (from our holiday snaps)

I went to a spa with my Mum this afternoon. I bought her the experience for Mother’s day and she asked if I would come too as she didn’t want to go by herself. It was only local, meaning I could get my post written this morning and cook dinner before picking her up after lunch.

Summer has finally arrived here and it’s a gorgeous day. Thankfully the swimming pool had sky lights so we didn’t feel cut off from the sun.

I swam 25 lengths, relaxed in the sauna and had a back massage. Gorgeous.

But it wasn’t Ragdale Hall, the place I go with my friends. It was a third of the cost so I didn’t expect it to be, except our vouchers were half price, so at full price our 4-hour visit (without lunch) would have been expensive. After my recent discussions about reviews, it got me thinking about the importance of expectations. From the full price of the experience, and based on my visits to Ragdale, I had a certain expectation – one that wasn’t met:

The changing rooms were small and basic. In a travel review I’d called it Tired. There were no towels or robes, because the delivery driver had broken down, so we had a small hand towel each. When the delivery did arrive I went to reception to ask for a robe and was told they’d be brought out, even though I was standing there wet and dripping. Mum says her massage was marred by the sound of taps running in the next room. My ‘relaxing music’ was Indian sitars with lots of Indian men chatting in the background, as if they were playing at a street festival. I tried so hard to ignore it. To be happy. To practice gratitude. I even politely asked the girl to turn it down, but it didn’t help. Despite that, and the therapist’s long nails, I came out content and revived.

Relaxation

Relaxation

I met Mum in the relaxation room, but as there was no door shutting it off from the noise of the jacuzzi or the happy shouts of the young kids in the pool, it wasn’t terribly relaxing. After a short while, with still an hour left until we had to leave, I suggested we go for coffee. Then said, “Let’s save the eight quid and have coffee at home.”

Mum agreed.

I dropped her at her house – feeling only slightly guilty for shortening our visit – drove home and had a free cup of tea and read my book. And there was still time to walk the dog in the sunshine and write this post on my phone.

This isn’t meant to be a rant. I very much enjoyed my afternoon and would go back at the reduced cost. But it was interesting to see how critical I was because my expectations weren’t met. I’m afraid to say I even left negative feedback on the comments card.

Someone responded to my post yesterday by saying one-star reviews are more about the reviewer than the book. That’s probably true. But I think it’s also about expectations. Something in my cover image and blurb may have set the wrong expectation and the reader never managed to overcome that. I think getting the cover and blurb right on a book is essential – whatever we say, we all judge a book a little bit on its cover.

I have two covers for Dragon Wraiths and they represent the book differently. I’m very attached to them both but maybe they set the wrong expectation. Similarly for the blurb. For a marketer I’m rubbish at writing blurb, for Dragon Wraiths or the Claire books. Maybe I should run a competition for people who loved the book to write the blurb for me, though not sure what I could offer as a prize.

The other thing I need to establish is the price. I dropped it to see if I would shift more copies (I haven’t yet). Maybe people make a more considered buying decision if it’s more expensive. It’s all fascinating stuff I don’t have answers to. In the mean time I’m off to get the kids. Relaxing day over then!

________________________________________________________________________________

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:

________________________________________________________________________________

“How’s your Mum?”

“She’s great. Thank you so much for suggesting I talk to her. You were right – she’s been so worried about being the pushy parent, she’s been biting her tongue. Now I’ve given her the green light she can’t wait to get stuck in. I wouldn’t be surprised if she came to stay next week. What is it with mothers and weddings?”

Claire shrugged, unwilling to answer. I can’t imagine what mine would be like with a wedding to plan, and I doubt she’ll find out. She didn’t get a look-in on Robert’s and, from what I remember, Ruth’s was a paltry registry-office affair.

“You didn’t tell me what venue you managed to book for the wedding.”

“Wilderhope Manor, in Shropshire. It’s not too far from Mum and Dad, and the building looks amazing. We’re having to accept a sub from Jeff’s parents, as it isn’t dirt cheap, but even they must approve of the building, if not the bunk beds. Have you been?”

“No. Milton Keynes was the furthest south I managed to get to, and look how well that turned out.”

Kim pouted. “Oh, I was hoping you might be able to have a word with the manager, make sure everything is perfect.”

Claire’s laughter rang loud in Kim’s kitchen. “Kim, none of the YHA managers in the hostels I’ve visited even know I’m doing the assignment. The more places I stay, the more I know Carl is making the whole thing up. I haven’t had anything to do with Coca Cola either.”

Kim’s expression made Claire snort with laughter again.

“What are you laughing at?”

“You. You look so shocked.”

Kim shook her head. “Well, I am. I can’t imagine a boss lying to me on that kind of scale.” She gave her friend an accusing stare. “I can’t believe you’re okay with it, either. It’s not like you.”

Claire took a sip of coffee, then put her mug back on the table, while words churned through her mind. “I’m not okay with it.” She looked up at Kim. “I’m spitting mad, if you want to know the truth.”

Kim’s face became serious. “Then why do you put up with it? I hate to see you being taken advantage of.”

“Being taken for a fool, you mean? No, don’t apologise: you’re right. It must look like that from the outside.”

“But..?”

“But, I don’t think I’m doing this assignment for Carl anymore.” Claire sat back in the chair and laced her fingers, careful not to pull at her sprained wrist. “Can I tell you a secret?”

Kim nodded, sitting forward to give Claire her full focus.

“I had no intention of sticking it out. I was going to travel for a couple of weeks and then use my holiday and the salary they’re still paying me to jet off to Maldives. I’m not sure what I planned to do then, I never thought that far ahead. Send Carl a rude email, probably.”

“What stopped you?”

Claire sighed again, and ran her fingers through her hair. A scent of daffodils wafted in through the open window and somewhere a blackbird was singing.

“Josh, I guess. To begin with. He made travelling fun. Then it all went wrong, and I got mugged. I wanted to leave at that point.”

“I’ll bet!”

“But, somehow, there was always something stopping me. I had to look after Sky, and now, with Ruth sick…” She stopped, but Kim’s face showed her understanding. Claire couldn’t leave the country not knowing whether Sky might need her again.

“What will you do, then? Will you finish the assignment?”

Claire gazed out the window at the clouds scudding past, foretelling the arrival of another rain shower.

“I don’t know, Kim, I really don’t. I’m only on hostel number thirty or thirty-one. That leaves so many still to do. Plus the stupid activities Julia keep sending me. Did I tell you, she emailed me to suggest I learn to windsurf? She has no idea. Stuff like that isn’t for an idle afternoon. It takes time and commitment. It’s all very well trying to make the blog interesting – not to mention humiliate me – but it does hurt.” She looked at her wrist as if the pain was entirely Julia’s fault.

“Maybe you could sell your story to a newspaper, have them sponsor your blog. It’s a great adventure. I can’t be the only one loving it.”

Claire was going to dismiss the idea as foolish, but something stopped her. That’s actually not entirely crazy. What if I approach the YHA myself? Or a paper could work. Get a travel column. Claire looked over at her friend and wondered when she suddenly had all the answers.

***

Getting Stronger: 2013 365 Challenge #154

Just keep smiling

Just keep smiling

Yesterday I received my first one-star review for Dragon Wraiths. Aside from being aggrieved at the effect on my average rating, because I still don’t have many reviews, I was okay about it because the reviewer said ‘not my style’. Fair enough.

But, as if one-star reviews are buses, low and behold there’s another one today.

And this one’s a proper attack from someone who has read the book (as they’re quick to point out, possibly in retaliation to the five-star reviewer who reviewed while still reading.)

I’m obviously a bit low about it, but only because I’ve inadvertently wasted hours of a person’s life (as they were also quick to point out!). I’m appreciative that they read my novel to the end – I certainly wouldn’t have done if I’d disliked a book as much. And I’m grateful for the honest feedback. I’ll particularly take note of the bit that suggests the climate change theme is preachy and inaccurate.

But I’m not devastated by the review.

Hard to be sad here: The Mill House at Sacrewell Farm

Hard to be sad here: The Mill House at Sacrewell Farm

Which isn’t like me at all. Lost keys or finding a typo can leave me sobbing. I’ve been trying to work out why I’m not upset. I think some of it comes from the fab support I got on my Facebook page in response to the first low review. There are other factors too: Partly it’s because I’ve come to believe in my writing, partly because I’ve thought books and films were awful and been in the minority, and partly because at least it got a reaction. At least someone bothered to tell me what they thought.

Surely every artist wants to know what the world thinks of their work, good and bad.

Not that I want every person who buys or downloads a free copy of my book to leave a one-star review. But at least this person bothered to give a reason, unlike some of my one-star reviews on Goodreads. Now that is annoying. I cannot learn and grow as a writer if I can’t accept criticism, and I certainly can’t learn what to fix if no one tells me what’s wrong in the first place.

Ironically I’ve never been strong enough to join a critique group, because my low self-esteem hears critique of my writing as an attack on me as a person. Having such an attack come from someone who doesn’t know me at all makes it much easier to keep the two separate.

Besides, I was also nominated for a Very Inspiring Blogger Award today, (thank you astridcook.com) and, as an author, you take the good with the bad and Just Keep Writing…

________________________________________________________________________________

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:

________________________________________________________________________________

“Morning, sleepy head.”

Claire turned towards the noise and prised open sticky eyes. Kim was standing beside the bed, a cup of tea in one hand, a plate of toast in the other.

“I thought you might be hungry, as you said you didn’t eat dinner yesterday.” Kim slid the cup and plate on the bedside table, then perched on the edge of the bed.

“How are you feeling this morning? How’s the wrist?”

Claire wriggled upright, blinking her eyes into focus. “How are you so fresh and awake? What time is it?”

“It’s around 11am.”

“What?” Claire jerked, as if to leap out of bed. Kim held out a restraining hand, and smiled.

“Shhh don’t get up. It’s fine, you needed sleep. Sleep is the best healer.”

“Kim, I haven’t slept in until lunchtime in years.” Well, not without an incentive to stay in bed at any rate.

“You’ve had an accident, you need to rest.” She tilted her head, and grinned. “Besides, I need you awake to discuss wedding plans with me later. My concern is purely selfish.”

Claire looked up at her friend, noticing for the first time the blonde roots showing through the bright red hair. As if sensing her scrutiny, Kim put a hand to her head and smiled sheepishly.

“I had to stop dying it, when I found out I was pregnant. Looks like I’m going to have to wear a wig after all. Not sure what I’m going to do for the wedding. I can’t decide whether to get a blonde wig and look like me, or get you to pin it up so the roots don’t show.” Kim stopped abruptly. “Sorry, I’m wittering on again. I talked your ear off last night, when you arrived, didn’t I?”

Claire shook her head, hoping it seemed sincere. She reached for her tea, to mask any expression on her face that might give her away.

“I did, I know. I’m sorry. It’s just I seem to be bottling words at the moment. There’s so much going on in my life, in my head, and Jeff isn’t here all that much. We’re in rehearsals stage at work, so there’s no time to chat…” She trailed off, as if unwilling to explain her need to talk with yet more words.

“What about your Mum, can you talk to her? Not that it isn’t nice to talk to you.” Claire’s words slurred with tiredness, and she took another gulp of hot tea.

“I don’t really feel comfortable talking to Mum. I know she isn’t thrilled about the pregnancy, and the wedding being all rushed.”

“I thought it was Jeff’s parents insisting you get married before the baby arrives.” Claire cradled the mug and let the steam warm her face.

“They didn’t insist, we guessed. No one has really said anything, it’s all just dark looks and sharp intakes of breath.”

Claire tried to remember Kim’s parents. From what she could recall, Kim had a great relationship with them. Much more open and loving than hers. She remembered hearing Kim’s mother call, ‘I love you’ as Kim ran in to school. Kim would yell her answer over her shoulder, long hair flying, face bright with joy. I don’t think I’ve ever told my parents I love them, or heard them say it to me.

“Maybe you need to sit and have a good chat with your Mum. She doesn’t seem the disapproving type. Perhaps she’s worried about saying the wrong thing, or getting in your way, over-stepping the mark. It must be tough for her, too.”

Kim stared at the floral duvet cover, a crease between her brows. The girls sat silent for a few moments, the only sound the slurp of Claire’s tea.

“You’re right.”

Kim’s sudden words made Claire jump, and she was thankful the mug was empty.

“I need to call her. I don’t want to plan this wedding, or have this baby, without my Mum. Will you excuse me?”

Claire nodded, envious of Kim’s decisiveness. Her friend disappeared from the room, leaving Claire to eat her cold toast alone.

***