Descriptions That Breathe – Bringing Writing to Life

The Dream Thieves

The Dream Thieves

When I write, both in my blog and my novels, I know that my language is straightforward – no deviation between signifier and signified. No real stretch of the imagination necessary to obtain meaning. I gently lead the reader by the hand as they wander through my stories without minimal effort required on their part.

Thinking about it this morning, I’ve decided this is due to three things: My inexperience as a writer of fiction, my background as an analyst and academic, and my constant lack of sleep. Taking those in order, this is how I see it:

1. My inexperience as a writer means I lack confidence and bravery. I over-explain to make sure the reader understands my story, knows what my characters are thinking and feeling. I dread “I don’t get it” and as a result probably get “I don’t feel it.”  Any tendency towards being different is slashed so that I can find acceptance. Any flowery description is deleted as ‘purple prose.’ (The person who edited Baby Blues crossed-out half the similes, saying, for example, “Or just ‘he slept'”)

2. Similarly, my business and academic background have kept my language uncomplex. Actually, that isn’t true of the academic writing: what that did for me was ingrain the passive tense as an acceptable form of language usage. “One could argue that …” is a historian’s stock phrase.

But marketing was all about saying what you meant in easy words. There’s a phrase in marketing, summarised as the acronym KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. One of my jobs working in Internal Comms was to take complex business documents and ‘translate’ them into briefings for the staff. I was good at seeing through difficult ideas and getting to the essence of the message.

It’s a useful skill as a parent of young children. I am constantly trying to break abstract ideas down into basic language. Unfortunately, nothing kills vocabulary quicker than not using it. Oh, apart from lack of sleep.

3. I can barely remember the colours of the rainbow on fewer than six hours’ continuous sleep and I hardly ever get anything near that these days. I remember at university, when I would pull all-nighters to complete essays: I’d stumble into the communal kitchen at 7 a.m., bleary eyed, and ask my housemates, “What’s another way to say Stalin was pissed off?”

Bereft that I've finished it!

Bereft that I’ve finished it!

Why am I writing this defence of my unsophisticated prose? I finished The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater last night, and was as blown away as I was by The Raven Boys (and slightly less put out at the ending, having braced myself with the knowledge that it’s a quartet of books.)

Maggie Stiefvater’s writing is beautifully rich. Meanings have to be wrestled from the often dense and opaque prose. Motivations, character’s feelings, and even the basic plot, are often hard to fathom, despite the novel being written in omnipotent third person. It is not a passive read.

What I love most is the way the language is mixed up. I’m struggling to describe it (for all the reasons listed above!) but the closest I can come is to say the descriptions are alive. Just as Death is anthropomorphised in the Terry Pratchett novels, so is everything in The Dream Thieves. It seems appropriate, in a novel where the trees speak Latin and half the characters are psychics, that you can have an “ardently yellow” polo shirt or a “desolate” washing line (pp 7 and 57 respectively. All references taken from the paperback version, UK, 2013.)

Some of the language reminds me of my favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was known for stringing words together, like “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding | Of the rolling level underneath him steady air” (from The Windhover.”). Compare Maggie’s description of one of the characters visiting the family house:

“When Ronan opened the door, the car was immediately filled with the damp-earth, green-walled, mould-stone scent of home.” (p147)

All the senses invoked in one description, without apparent effort. You don’t have to analyse what the character feels, smells, sees, because it’s all there.

For the first time I wish I’d read the book in e-form, as I’m struggling to locate some of my favourite phrases. But here are a few (none of which, I hope, give any story away):

“Adam’s hand glided over her bare elbow. The touch was a whisper in a language she didn’t speak very well.” (p9)

“Gansey’s furiously orange-red ancient Camaro.” (p21)

“Blue Sargent was pretty in a way that was physically painful to him. He was attracted to her like a heart attack.” (p60)

“Then the engine expired … The engine ticked like a dying man’s foot.” (p122)

“Declan looked shocked and poisonous. He was always so alarmed by the truth.” (p411)

“The past was something that had happened to another version of himself, a version that could be lit and hurled away.” (p221)

“Cicadas sang madly from the trees. It was so impossibly summer.” (p340)

“She smiled at him. It was a tiny, secretive thing, like a bird peering from branches.” (p360)

“The crowd, drunk and high and gullible and desirous of wonders, screamed their support.” (p432)

“It was deadly like a cancer. Like radiation.” (p434)

It would be disingenuous to write in Maggie Stiefvater’s style. It is so clearly and unequivocally hers. But reading books like this stretch my vocabulary muscles and build up their strength. They encourage me to be braver and self-censor slightly less. Above all, they transport me to a place where words are everything, reminding me of their power. A place where emotions aren’t described as “her heart thumped like a hammer” (there are a lot of thumping hearts in my prose!)

To read is to learn and to learn is to grow. Bring it on.

And I Am Free

The view from my childhood home

The view from my childhood home

Did you ever run away from home, as a child? My childhood memories are sketchy at best. I recall the hullabaloo when my sister ran away, and was subsequently discovered hiding out in the neighbour’s garden.

I seem to remember a similar ruckus to do with me walking to or from Brownies by myself (it was several miles away along a deserted road) because Mum couldn’t take me.

My childhood comes back in vague flashes that I’ve learned not to rely on as the truth. But I do know that I was often away from the house. I roamed the fields, climbed trees, waded through rivers, either with friends or alone. Home was not a happy place and I avoided it when I could. (When a psychiatrist asked me to name a significant adult I remembered from childhood, I couldn’t, settling eventually on a neighbour who used to breed rabbits and whose house I used to haunt.)

The other place I escaped to was inside a book. No friends outside school? No matter. I had the Sweet Valley High twins, Nancy Drew and the Famous Five. No boyfriend? Never mind. I had a hundred romance stories, from Georgette Heyer and Mills and Boon, to Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. All the happy ever afters you could desire (what they did to my expectations of love and marriage is another post entirely.)

Roaming the fields near home

Roaming the fields near home

As an adult little changed. My roaming got further afield, to the Lake District and Scotland, Morocco and New Zealand. My reading switched, unfortunately, to Nineteenth Century Russian History, to be rescued by Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

And now? Now I long to run away. To roam the fields unfettered without rushing for the school run. I long to drive more than ten miles from home, to be by myself with wide open skies and roaring rivers. To not be ruled by the clock and the routine and the responsibilities. To get through a night without drawing on compassion that doesn’t come naturally or survive a day with no need for patience.

So I escape, into books, and discover that writing has become my salvation. Many writers I know have always been writers. They’ve known from the beginning that that is what they were meant to be. Not me. I wanted to an academic and control words, as I couldn’t control life. I had all the freedom I needed in the mountains I climbed and the books I read.

Escaping to the Lakes

Escaping to the Lakes

Then I became a mother, and my world contracted to a tiny point of endless worry. Even reading wasn’t always an escape (husbands and children don’t understand “this is a good bit” and are sure to interrupt at the climax, never mind my new inability to read anything where people suffer.)

I couldn’t find the books I needed, so I wrote them. I write of all I’ve learned, all the things I’ve done, the people I’ve been, to remind myself. I write of painting huge canvasses or taking photographs, hiking mountains and travelling far from home. I write to remember and I write to forget.

And I read, with my fingers in my ears. I hoard the last chapter until I know I can enjoy it uninterrupted. I read fantasy books by brilliant authors who let me live other lives for a while and make me want to be a better writer. I read at the school gate, and write in the supermarket, and plot and plan in the dark hours of coughing and crying and complaining and cuddles.

And I am free.

Revisions and The Raven Boys

My new workstation - the kids' homework desk!

My new workstation – the kids’ homework desk!

I finally managed to get back to some work today, having packed my almost-better children off to school and nursery. I felt guilty about it, because they probably should have been at home, but I needed the space and silence and absence of sick to start feeling human again.

It felt good to work on my manuscript for the first time in ten days, even though I failed at the numbers game. That’s the thing with revision: you write and write and cut and edit and, at the end of several hours, you have 200 words fewer than you started with.

It’s disheartening.

I’m editing and expanding with this novel, so there are still thousands of words to write to fill the gaps. It’s not uncommon for me. When I write my first drafts I tend to write the highlights; something like an extended synopsis. I write for the romantic ending, the big scenes, the turning points. Then, fifty thousand words later, I look through what I have written and think what?! How did I get from there to there? How did she go from hating to loving him? Why have I given all the secrets away in the first chapter? How much backstory? Then I have to go through and unpick the mess. Fill in the motivations, flesh out the hundred-word paragraphs that really should be two-thousand word chapters. It’s tiresome work, because I write to discover the ending. Once I’ve reached the end, I’m not that interested in filling in the spaces.

I read that way, too. I usually have to read a book twice because, the first time through, (if the book’s any good at story pace or suspense) I skim-read whole chapters to get to the essence, the plot point, the drama. I miss all the great language, the unfolding of characters and personalities, the subplots, the themes. I devour the book, barely tasting it, and then have to go back through and vacuum up the crumbs.

Revision leaves me feeling like this

Revision leaves me feeling like this

I’m reading the sequel to The Raven Boys – The Dream Thieves – at the moment (despite my rant about the abrupt and unsatisfying ending of the first one) and I’m utterly hooked. Now that I know it’s a four-parter, I’m not worrying too much about story resolution (although I’m still skimming ahead for the drama, of which there is plenty). I feel that I’m reading the book in a language other than my native tongue, as if it’s in Old English or something, because the writing is dense and complex and poetically beautiful, but for some reason that’s okay.

But it hasn’t helped my revision. Because, when I put the book down and reluctantly get back to work, I read through my oh-so-obvious story line, with my two-dimensional, unintriguing characters, and I want to chuck the lot in the bin. My Alex and Rebecca are pale imitations (not imitations, because I wrote them before I read Maggie Stiefvater, but you know what I mean), pale shadows of Gansey and Ronan, Adam and Blue. And I want them to shine and live, like Maggie’s characters do. It’s exhausting.

No one says writing a novel is easy. Actually, writing it is the easy part. Making it make sense, making it shine: that’s the impossible task. Reading the words of a master is at once both inspiring and crushing. Never mind. I shall slog on, ignoring the expert sprinting past to the finish, and climb my own climb, one step at a time. It’s worked before. I have faith. I’ll see you at the summit!

Making a Change: It Starts Here

My Reason For Change

My Reason For Change

As a writer I know the power of words. Words can move, heal, hurt, destroy. Change the world. Think about Martin Luther King Jr’s speech “I have been to the mountain top”. Or the words in the bible. As a writer I should know to mind my words but, like any person of a certain profession, I don’t always follow my own beliefs.

A while ago I read a poem called powerful words on Chris McMullen’s blog and I said something in the comments about the words I use to my children being the wrong ones and how damaging that was and how I can’t take them back.

It’s something I’ve been worrying about more and more lately. Then, today, I read this article on Facebook called Ten Ways to Guide Children Without Punishment and I felt like I’d been whipped. It starts with these words,

“The reason a child will act unkindly or cause damage is always innocent. Sometimes she is playful and free spirited, and other times, when aggressive or angry she is unhappy or confused. The more disturbing the behaviour, the more the child is in pain and in need of your love and understanding”

Oh my it’s so true. I get most angry with my son when he’s at his happiest because that’s when he’s at his most destructive/deaf/irritating. Lately I’ve started hearing some of the terrible things I say to my children when I’m in a rage: things that were probably said to me, that I believe about myself deep down, that I’m teaching them to believe, and so the cycle continues.

“You’re lazy,” “You’re mean”, “You’re being selfish”, “You’re unkind”, “You’re trying to hurt me”.

These things are not true of children, certainly not two wonderful children under five. I excuse myself (or else I couldn’t live with myself a moment longer) by saying I’m exhausted, they don’t remember it, that I’m teaching them not to be bullies, and a load of other rubbish that just isn’t true.

My amazing kids!

My amazing kids!

To complete the trio of articles that have a) made me feel like ending my own life I hate myself so much and b) have forced me to see the need for change, is this one I found on Twitter called Why We Told Our Kids to Stop Saying “Sorry”. It discuss why the author has stopped her children apologising. She said to her child, after his umpteenth sorry, that, “Your sorries don’t mean anything when your behavior shows me that you aren’t sorry at all.”

I say sorry. All The Time. I’m sorry for living, I’m sorry for being a monster, I’m sorry it’s raining. Either it’s something I can’t control or it’s something I could change if I tried hard enough. Sorry doesn’t cut it. There’s a meme on Facebook about comparing a crumpled piece of paper to a bullied child: you can smooth the paper but the creases never go. You can say sorry but you can’t unsay the hurtful words.

As I write this I feel sick to my stomach. I feel like I have hurt my children beyond repair, beyond redemption. But the more I beat myself up about being a monster, saying the hurtful things I heard in my childhood, the more I give myself permission to continue because, hey, I’m a monster already.

I am not a monster. And, no matter how exhausted, overwhelmed, unhappy I am with being a parent, it is not my children’s fault. So, today, I have to make a commitment to stop. In my post yesterday I mentioned the book Happiness as a Second Language. The author, Valerie Alexander, stopped by to encourage me to read the book some more. So last night I did. I read all the way to Chapter Nine, although I need to read it again to take it in properly. The two chapters that really resonated were Chapter Eight – Adjectives and Chapter Nine – The Negative Form. Because these are the two I know I need to learn. Adjectives: the describing words I use on myself and my children, and learning not to be a negative person.

Because another thing I’ve learned from childhood is that sympathy = attention, that being broken means people try to fix you, help you, love you. That being happy means people resent you, ignore you, take you for granted. So I’ve learned to be miserable, so people ask “what’s wrong?” Except of course they stop asking after a while, or get bored of hearing the same ol same ol. So you up the ante. You think of taking your own life because then “That will show them I’m really miserable.” No, that just shows that you were too pathetic to help yourself.

Chatting to my sports massage friend yesterday she says it frustrates her when people refuse to help themselves get better. That’s me. I’ve had an injured knee for eighteen months but will I do the exercises to get better? No. I make excuses that they hurt, or I’m tired, or I don’t believe they’re working. Instead of growing up and just getting on with it. The only person that suffers from that is me (and my dog and my family.)

I want to learn how to be happy

I want to learn how to be happy

So I don’t want to be a negative person anymore. I don’t want to steal other people’s happiness to make myself feel better. An “Indirect Negator” in Valerie’s words, someone “whose own unhappiness is so palpable that it risks becoming contagious.” Equally I don’t want to be around people like that (and I know a few).

The next thing I am going to do is choose five adjectives I want to describe me: five things I want people to think when they think about me, and live those values. This is an exercise I think I can do because I obsess about what people think about me all the time. That probably needs fixing too, but at least I can use it to my advantage.

Being a wordy sort of person I came up with alliterative adjectives so they’re easier to remember. There are many traits I’d like to be: successful, funny, strong, gracious, social, but I have to be realistic about what is in my control and what fits with my personality. So the five I have chosen are:

  • Calm
  • Confident
  • Caring
  • Compassionate
  • Clever

Calm: Since becoming a parent I am never calm. I rush around saying “we’re late” or I’m yelling or sniping at the kids, or I’m trying to do one hundred things at once. Yet, way back when, I used to work for a man who said “You’re always calm.” I said, “I’m a swan, I’m paddling furiously underneath.” But what mattered was that, on the exterior, I was calm. As a parent that’s the important bit. Honesty is great, but I am too honest about my feelings with the kids. They will feel calmer and happier if Mummy is calm. So, back to being a swan. This great article on Aha! Parenting will help.

Confident: My lack of self-confidence is something I wear like a badge. I second and third guess myself on everything. I dither, I ask for opinions. I change my mind, or let my mind be changed. I cry. I negotiate with the kids. I let other people’s parenting affect how I feel about mine. And yet the one thing I want for my children is self-confidence. To the point where I want to put them in a private school to learn it, because I know they can’t learn it from me. And yet the private school I visited was not right for my children.

I did use to have the courage of my convictions, when I worked for a living. I knew my stuff and I would argue my case (not always calmly!) and stand my ground. Against clients, against directors. No wonder I never got promoted. Now, though, as a writer and a parent, all I read are articles telling me how I’m doing it wrong, how I should do it better, and I believe every contradictory word. (Read this post by Ava Neyer for an hilarious summary of how contradictory parenting advice can be). So, I’ll start with the mask and hopefully confidence will come.

Learning Kindness from my Kids

Learning Kindness from my Kids

Caring: This would have been a given, once. I considered myself an empathetic person, someone who cared about others. I seem to have lost that at the vital moment. Now I’ve become a monster. I say to the kids all the time “I don’t care” when they’re whinging about something. Arrgghh. Enough said. I will care. I will listen. I will kiss the grazed knees and listen to the fights and try not to get involved but still be present and caring.

Compassionate: Similar to above, but more about seeing other people’s points of view. I can be very judgemental and it has only got worse since becoming a parent. Part of my defence mechanism against feeling like a terrible parent is seeking out instances of other people’s terrible parenting to make myself feel better. I have probably made other people feel bad in the process. I want to learn to be more compassionate to other people (especially my family).

Clever: This used to be the one thing I knew I was, back when it was easy, when it was about exams and studying and stuff. The longer I’ve lived the more I’ve realised I know nothing. But the brain is still in there, beneath the lack of sleep and the low self-esteem and the self-doubt. I know stuff about writing, but through modesty, humility or fear, I can’t present myself as an authority here on the blog or to others. Yet I probably know more than I realise. Ditto for marketing, history, literature and some other stuff. I don’t want to bore the pants off people but remembering I have a brain and using it sometimes might help the other stuff.

Anyway, sorry for the long, self-indulgent post. When I finished writing it at 6am this morning I nearly hit delete. But then, for me, much of the beauty of the blogsphere is learning from others, seeing others experiencing pain and surviving it. Regular followers know my demons. By declaring to you all that I’m going to do this, I have made it a real thing. I will try and some days I will fail. But by trying to live the values of Calmness, Confidence, Caring, Compassion and being Clever, I hope to make a difference before it’s too late.

Essential Empathy

Sherlock Series 1 Finale

Sherlock Series 1 Finale

Sat with hubbie watching Sherlock this evening, for only the second time (the finale to series 1 it seems and yes, I know; we’re always behind the times!), and I’m not enjoying it as much as the first episode I watched (which I think was series 3).

In this episode, Sherlock is tracking down someone who has set him puzzles to solve in a set time or he will blow up random strangers strapped to explosives. (Sorry, loglines have never been my forte!)

Sherlock has no empathy for the lives of the strangers, barely even registering them as people. It is difficult to watch. He explains to Watson that sympathising with the suffering of the victims wouldn’t help him solve the cases. I find his lack of emotion disturbing and, for me, it makes his character hard to relate to. The clever language and problem solving still make it compelling viewing, but empathy is essential to me. It’s interesting that, under ‘strengths’ in my character crib sheets, my female protagonists generally list empathy first.

Sherlock reminds me of Psych, another problem-solving drama, where the lead has exceptional powers of observation (which he explains away as being due to psychic powers). Psych, however, is much more lighthearted and the lead character, for all his occasional idiocy, has a big heart.

My latest read

My latest read

Maybe I am noticing it more because I have started reading The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. The story is written from the perspective of a fifteen year old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. It offers a unique insight into the mind of someone who understands “very little about human beings.”

Thinking about the characters in books and films that I love the most, they are all people with huge hearts (often despite hard exteriors): Gibbs in NCIS, for example, or Daniel in SG-1. People who understand people and not just so they can manipulate them.

Maybe Sherlock has a journey to go on. Perhaps I liked the series 3 episode better because he showed some heart. Certainly the hardest thing in fiction is portraying growth in a character and still being able to make them sympathetic characters before they start on their journey. Many a chick lit book has started with a protagonist I wanted to slap.

It’s a great excuse to keep watching Sherlock: to see if he grows, to see if he finds some empathy. To learn to write better fiction. And of course because you can’t beat clever TV.

Not Cool, Maggie…

Amazing book, disappointing ending

Amazing book, disappointing ending

Speechless, I am utterly speechless. After a week of living on my nerves, pouring adrenalin into my reading of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys, of dealing with the dreams and the nightmares and stealing moments to read when I should be parenting or sleeping, I snuck upstairs to read the last chapter this afternoon and WTF?

I have no words.

The damn book just stops. It’s like there are four chapters missing. No explanation, no nothing. Even the tagline “If you kiss your true love, he will die” isn’t remotely or vaguely explained. What a crock of poo.

I’ve never been so distressed at the end of the book. It took me so long to get into the story, to get around the complicated viewpoints, the multiple lead protagonists, the magic and the history and the different cultures. The writing is deep and opaque and quotable and the characters so real I feel like they’re following me around. I couldn’t guess the ending and that excited me. I didn’t know how it was going to resolve itself, how the tagline would be answered, but I knew it would be good.

And then it just ended. Nothing. The last time I felt remotely this bad was at the end of The Knife of Never Letting Go, although at least there was some resolution before it went straight into the next drama. At least I knew there was a sequel, when I read Patrick Ness’s book. With The Raven Boys there is nothing on my copy to indicate that it is part of a series, so my expectation was for a resolution.

The sequel

The sequel

As my ire cools, I have managed to discover that there is a sequel. The Dream Thieves was thankfully released in September last year, so I can try and get hold of a copy this week. Except I probably won’t. Because, here’s the thing, if the first book in a series doesn’t have some sort of cathartic resolution, I don’t have the energy to read the sequel straightaway.

I will probably never read The Ask and the Answer – the sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go. I was too exhausted from the first book to read the second one immediately, and knowing that the story follows on continuously I would have to re-read the first book before reading the second to remind myself of the story. And I don’t have the energy to do that.

It may be the same with The Raven Boys. Except I liked Blue and Adam and Gansey, Ronan and Noah far too much to abandon them. I’m not even bothered about resolving the tagline anymore, I just want to hang out with them some more. Only the next book is about my least favourite character, Ronan, and as a result I’m not drawn in as I would have been if it had been someone else.

So, Maggie, you might be forgiven, because your writing is just awesome. I feel like I can learn so much from you about characterisation, setting, story, plot, mood and use of language. But maybe not how to write a satisfying ending.

Because ending a story without resolving the tagline? Not cool.

Research and The Raven Boys

What Alex's London flat might look like

What Alex’s London flat might look like

I miss Claire. There, I’ve said it. I miss writing an installment of her journey each day, with a reasonable idea of where she was in the world, at least, and where her story was going. I miss guaranteed word count.

I’m in redrafting hell at present, trying to rescue two characters I love from a badly plotted and planned novel awash with backstory. The problem with loading a first draft with backstory is that changing one thing has a rippling effect across the entire manuscript, especially if you’re trying to rewrite two lines of throwaway history into a whole chapter or even two.

My lead man Alex has a friend called Philip who is essential to the story. Starting In Media Res I didn’t have to worry too much about their relationship before; where they first met, how they met, considering they’re so different. Now, though, we first see them catching up down the pub, setting up the rest of the story’s action, and I have to understand all these things. How do people from different backgrounds meet? How do their different careers and incomes affect their friendship? What’s the age difference? I managed 700 words of stilted dialogue today and gave up in disgust.

I’m also trying not to be overly influenced by the book I’m reading – The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – as her novel contains a character that could be, or at least have known, Alex as a public school boy. Maggie Stiefvater’s character is so convincing I’m finding parts of him creeping into my prose: except Raven Boys is set in America, whereas Alex would have gone to an English boarding school (which I know very little about, another fact that wasn’t especially important before.)

As each of these random strands of research crop up, I keep losing the flow of writing because I need to research the role of a stage hand or investigate pubs in North London or apartments in Chelsea. I might even have to watch an episode of Made in Chelsea – *shudder* – to try and understand Alex’s present girlfriend Paige more, as again she has moved from a paragraph of explanation to a speaking part.

I swear this is the last time I rescue an old manuscript by moving the timeline back a few months. Next time it starts where it starts and that’s that!

Start as You Mean to Go On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading as a Writer: 2013 365 Challenge #350

A fraction of the unread books on my Kindle

A fraction of the unread books on my Kindle

I read an article today, on Sally Jenkins’ blog, about reading as a writer and how it can destroy the magic of reading. I have to agree. These days, reading feels like a lot like work rather than pleasure.

Back when I was at university I read very little for fun. During my history degree it was lack of time, combined with strained eyesight, after reading dry historical works all day. During my English courses and Masters degree it was because I analysed everything, wondered about the author’s intention or tried to map character motivations. (And after reading the entirety of Clarissa, I never wanted to see a novel ever ever again!)

But at least that still kept me within the story: thinking about the action and the people. I was on the stage with the puppets. Now I’m a puppet master, above it all, seeing the strings, if not always understanding fully how they all work. And it has lost its magic. Like knowing how a illusionist’s trick is done I am super analytical and, if I’m honest, critical. It isn’t confined to the characters, plot or flow of the story either, but right down into the nuts and bolts of word choice, dialogue, even consistent formatting.

I’m reading two books at the moment that I’ve been looking forward to and I’m struggling to get swept away by either. It makes reading painfully slow and hard work, although whether it’s improving my craft remains to be seen. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I’m not enjoying them, so I don’t know how much I’m learning. At the moment I feel like the only time I’ll enjoy a story again is when I’m drafting it for the first time (because, quite frankly, if reading the well-crafted stories of masters like Terry Pratchett is giving me a headache, reading my own efforts is excruciating!)

Thank goodness I don’t write music is all I can say.

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

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“Hello, Jeff speaking.”

Claire listened to the deep voice answering her call and went blank. Blood rushed loudly in her ears. What was she doing?

“Hello?”

The voice now held a tinge of irritation. If she didn’t speak she would only have succeeded in making things worse

“Jeff, hi, it’s Claire.”

“Claire! I was starting to think I had some creepy stalker. How are you? Are you still in the UK?”

The warmth in his voice helped to lessen the quivering in her knees. She wondered whether to chat or jump straight in with what she wanted to say, before she chickened out.

“I’m fine, thanks. Good. I’m in Devon. With Kim and Helena, actually.”

“Kim and Helena?”

“Your wife and her sister?” Claire injected a humour she didn’t feel into her voice. This wasn’t going to plan at all. When she’d rehearsed the conversation in her head, during her surfing session with Conor, there had been no awkward silences and unanswerable questions.

I guess it’s easier when you provide both sides of the dialogue.

She wondered whether to abandon the attempt and make up some reason for her call. Jeff was going to think her an interfering cow at best, and if she made things worse between him and Kim, her friend was likely to fly off the rails again.

“I know who they are, I just didn’t realise Helena was back from Hong Kong.”

“When did you last speak to Kim?” Her voice was wary now.

“A week or so, I guess. Maybe a bit more. I’ve been very busy at work.”

“Maybe you should take time to speak to her now and then. She is your wife. Then you would know that her pregnant sister is home.”

“Helena’s pregnant?”

Jeff’s shock was palpable and Claire felt relieved that it meant he missed the antagonism in her voice. She hadn’t meant to pick a fight with him; but to find out he hadn’t spoken to Kim for weeks really stunned her. They were married. Surely husband and wife spoke every day? At least that’s how she’d always imagined it would be.

“Yes, apparently some indiscretion meant she was sent home under a cloud. Kim needed moral support, so she and Helena are staying with me in Devon for the weekend.” She stopped, unsure what to say next. She didn’t think she needed to spell out to Jeff why spending time with her pregnant sister was hard on Kim, but then she didn’t think she’d have to tell him anything.

Is this what it means to get married: to drift apart at the first crisis? I think I’d rather stay single and know that no one is there for me, rather than find out at the worst possible time.

She tried to picture Conor abandoning her, and smiled. He’d proved already that he was the most reliable friend: collecting her from the airport, taking her to see Kim in hospital. The memory pulled her back to the purpose of her call, and she pushed the pictures of Conor away.

“Anyway, I wondered if you wanted to come down and stay with us for a day or two. I realise it’s short notice, but it would mean the world to Kim.”

The line remained silent, and Claire wondered if Jeff had hung up or put the phone down and walked away. She held her breath; the pulse throbbing in her temples keeping time, counting down the seconds.

Eventually he inhaled audibly and said in a stilted voice, “I would love to, Claire, but I have to work.”

“On a Sunday? I know it’s a long way, but you could be down and back in the day, or you could come tonight.”

“It’s just not possible.” His tone indicated the conversation was over.

Hot blood flooded beneath Claire’s skin. “That’s utter bollocks, and you know it. You guys have been married three months. Three months! Kim needs you. What happened, Jeff? When I last saw you, you couldn’t do enough for her. And now you barely talk? What gives? Are you having a bloody affair, is that it? Your wife is broken and instead of trying to put her back together you sod off and bed someone new?”

Claire ran out of breath and stopped, panting, wondering what had come over her. She waited for Jeff to start shouting, or hang up, but he did neither. She could hear him breathing and it sounded as if he was labouring under strong emotion. When he spoke, his voice wavered.

“It was my child, too. I never knew I wanted to be a dad until that damned blue line. And then the wedding, and the uproar, and the miscarriage. No, I’m not blaming you, before you think I am. The doctors said the pregnancy wasn’t viable. And now they think she can’t get pregnant again. But there are doctors that will help, I’ve looked into it. I spent hours reading up, while Kim was low, and then after she tried to kill herself.”

He took a deep breath, and Claire waited, stunned.

“When you took her to her mother’s, it meant I could do something about it. I’ve got another job, evenings and weekends, to raise money for the procedures. I didn’t want to tell Kim, get her hopes up only to have them dashed again. I didn’t think she could handle that. I didn’t mean not to call, but I’m so tired: if I’m not working I’m asleep.”

He went silent, suddenly, as if his outburst had cost him too much. Claire’s mind whirled while she processed the words.

Poor Jeff.

“You have to tell her,” she said, quietly. “Please. She needs something to live for, to hope for. Otherwise you’ll raise the money, turn around, and she’ll be gone.”

“Oh God, she isn’t depressed again, is she?” Jeff sounded stricken.

“No, not really. But sharp, edgy, brittle. Spending time with Helena is not doing her any good. The girl is glowing and, although she doesn’t say much in front of me and Conor, I know the relationship the two of them have. I don’t doubt she makes little digs. If Kim could reassure herself that she has a solid marriage and hope for the future, she’ll have one over on her sister.”

Jeff sighed. “What a bloody mess.”

Claire could imagine him running his hands through his hair, and she yearned to give him a friendly hug. How lonely must it be, in the flat alone, working all hours.

“Just give her a call. You don’t need to mention we’ve spoken. She and Helena are downstairs with Conor. They think I’m working.”

“Okay, I will. And thank you, Claire.”

“Don’t mention it. I just want my friend back.”

She hung up the phone and hoped it was that simple.

***

Relax: 2013 365 Challenge #339

Doggy comes to McD

Doggy comes to McD

Today has been a surprisingly restful day. It always starts well, when I’ve managed to get my post finished before the school run. Plus, too, it’s a nursery day, which means the little one is dropped off first. Amazing how much that reduces the stress, even if we have to leave the house earlier.

We had a slight hiccup when hubbie came down and asked if we could redo the bathroom and boiler system. I still have nightmares from having our kitchen redone three years ago and my answer was rather short and snappy (and my misdirected bad mood resulted in a crying child who had to be placated)

Apologies and hugs all round and tranquillity was soon restored. I left a smiling child at nursery and another one at school, then wandered down to the charity shop to get some books and puzzles as stocking fillers (knowing that quantity is as important as quality for my children, and they don’t mind if Father Christmas buys second hand!)

Sunny cafe

Sunny cafe

I managed to be home and writing by 9.30am, successfully ignoring the rubbish tip that is my house, the towering pile of laundry waiting to be sorted and ironed, and the hundred and one other chores all around.

Hubbie rang mid-morning and asked if I could run a favour for him in town. As the sun is shining today, it’s a good time to be out and about, and doing it to help out someone else stops me feeling guilty for not writing.

I rushed out to walk the dog first, because she asked me so very nicely, then headed off in the car, singing Michael Bublé at the top of my voice. I love driving in the sunshine, with blue skies over head and great music on the stereo. If I’m not in a hurry I’m quite happy to drive for miles.

Chore completed, I took the car to the car wash next door and finally got rid of the two inches of road dirt on my boot that the kids have been drawing in in the mornings. Well, to be precise, some lovely people cleaned it while I sat inside and read All in the Leaves by Pat Elliott.

Enjoying my Earl Grey

Enjoying my Earl Grey

Then a cheeky McD lunch, while I did some more writing and surfed the free WiFi; I even remembered to take a picture of Doggy in the café, as requested by my son this morning, when he asked me to take his favourite toy to work with me.

I decided to drive straight to town, rather than go home and come back for the school run. So I’m currently in the supermarket café drinking my free cup of Earl Grey and making up new adventures for Claire, while the sun slips slowly to the horizon outside the window. Shortly I shall head off and walk across town to school, rather than screeching in late having legged it round with the dog at a zillion miles an hour. This calm and organised lark is rather pleasant.

Ah well, normal chaos will resume tomorrow I’m sure.

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

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Claire’s stomach began to squirm as she drove the almost familiar road into town.  Conor wasn’t expecting her for two days and she wasn’t sure how he would greet her early arrival. When she’d finished her conversation with Kim she’d realised how stupid it was driving all the way to Cornwall only to have to travel back to Dorset two days later for the Carnival.

How did it creep up on me so quickly?

The fortnight with the boys had passed in a blink, despite each day feeling a hundred hours long. How did time work like that? Being both fast and slow?

She let her mind drift over the unsolvable problem, ignoring the mounting tension as she headed into the centre, wondering where she was going to find a room for the night. Her accommodation was booked for the Carnival week, but she had no idea if there would be space at the hostel for the two extra nights. The idea of telling Conor she had nowhere to sleep did strange things to her tummy.

The car park at the side of the hostel wasn’t full and Claire took it as a good sign. She’d forgotten how gothic the building looked, all grey stone and higgledy-piggledy windows. Looking around at the tired hostel, with the grimy details she hadn’t noticed on her last stay, she began to have second thoughts about arriving early. In her mind she saw the clean and bright hostels of southern Cornwall, with the crisp sea breeze and the rolling surf calling her out to play.

In the distance she could see Swanage Bay glistening in the afternoon sun, with the barrow climbing up behind. It reminded her of a phone call with Conor, what felt like light-years ago, when she’d hiked along that barrow into town. The day he’d called and offered her a job. With the knowledge she possessed now, would the outcome of that day been different?

*

Claire looked around the tiny room that would be home for the next week or so, and sighed, hoping she would be so busy with whatever Conor needed her to do that she wouldn’t be in the hostel all that much. The darkness of the building felt oppressive and it smelt like mouldy carpet.

As soon as she’d left her bag on the only available bed, Claire headed out into the fresh air and followed the long road down the hill to town, in search of coffee. She knew she should call Conor straight away, but her mind went blank every time she thought of it.

It felt strange, wandering through Swanage again. During her time travelling around the South West, she had remembered the town through Conor’s eyes; through his passion and sense of belonging. Coming again, unannounced and fresh from the very depths of Cornwall, the town felt small and dated. The endless grey stone hemmed her in and the shops seemed insufferably twee.

She tried to compare it dispassionately with St Ives or Penzance. The former was similar in a way, with the same steep, winding streets and small shops, surrounded by the beach and the ocean. If anything the streets were more narrow and the stone buildings just as forbidding in wet weather. But, inside, one felt welcoming and the other didn’t.

Without realising where she was going, Claire’s footsteps took her down to the shore near the pier. The sun dipped behind a cloud and a shadow fell over the concrete slip, where a father and two sons were pulling their canoe out of the sea. The air felt cooler by the bay, relieving some of the oppressive heat of the day. Claire ordered a coffee and sat on the picnic table staring out at the boats on the water.

Forcing herself to dial without thinking, she called her boss and waited for him to answer. Her heart beat loudly in her throat.

“Hello, Conor speaking.”

The deep Irish voice made Claire jump when it came suddenly on the line. She didn’t answer immediately, and felt foolish when Conor said, “Hello? Claire is that you?”

“Yes, sorry, hi Conor. I had a mouthful of coffee.”

He laughed, but it was a tight sound and he spoke again immediately. “Is everything okay? I’m rather busy.”

“Yes. Sorry to disturb you. I just wanted to let you know I’m in town. For the Carnival.”

“I thought you weren’t coming until Friday?” The flatness of the question drove Claire’s heart into her stomach.

“I had to take the boys to my mum’s house and it seemed daft to drive right past the door back to Cornwall.” Her titter made her cringe. “So, I’m here ready to help. What can I do?”

The line went quiet, and Claire sipped at her coffee. Her hands shook and she dropped the cup with a clatter back into its saucer.

Eventually Conor spoke again. “Great. That’s great. Listen, we’re not really ready for you. Can you hang fire and I’ll give you a buzz?”

Claire murmured her assent and disconnected the call. Wrapping her hands around the warm coffee cup, she shivered as she stared out across the sea.

***