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.

***

Preparing a Farewell, For Now: 2013 365 Challenge #332

Vol Ten is only just arriving at B&N

Vol Ten is only just arriving at B&N

It seems ironic that the part of my country I most want to visit – Cornwall – is the part I haven’t been able to fully explore with Claire. I have an idea of all the places she’s been to with the boys – St Michael’s Mount, St Ives, Penanze – but the month of November slipped away from me and Claire needs to be back in Dorset for December’s volume.

The Two-Hundred Steps Home story has developed a languid pace to it which I quite enjoy, although I imagine if you read the volumes without realising how and why they were written it must feel like some 18th Century epistolary novel. A Tristram Shandy or a ClarissaStories where they got paid by the word. Unfortunately I need to try and increase the pace and the conflict if I want to get Claire’s journey to a satisfactory ending.

It’s going to be hard to step up the story to have a climax by New Year, though, particularly as I don’t know what that showdown will be. Thankfully, I’m pretty certain it will only be a hiatus until I find the time and energy to write the next, full length installment. I thought I’d be sick of Claire after 332 days, but I feel her journey hasn’t finished yet. In the meantime the Muse is still hiding her cards as to what the end of December will look like. I guess I’ll have to wait and see like everyone else!

On the logistical side, I tried to set December’s volume up for preorder, in case they aren’t taking submissions over the holidays (and to get into the Affiliates earlier as apparently they stop around mid December, and November’s volume is only just arriving at Affiliate sites) but unfortunately you can’t set up a preorder for a free novel. While I will probably stop giving the books away free from January (so I can load them all to kindle, if nothing else) it goes against the aim of the 2013 Challenge to have one of the volumes not free on release.

I feel surprisingly sad, now my crazy challenge is coming to a close, even though it’s been impossibly hard at times. I’ll miss Claire and dropping in on her every day. Maybe I’ll put the plan to finish Class Act on a back burner and start that sequel on January 1st. But, shhh, don’t tell my husband. Poor soul I think he’s looking forward to getting his wife back. He might have to have Claire instead.

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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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“Did you know this place was pretty much built by a single woman?” Claire said, fanning herself with her hand against the heat of the day. As she looked around the theatre she was blown away by the immensity of Rowena Cade’s achievement.

“It looks like it was built by the Romans or the Greeks.” Jack said. “We did the Romans at school last year. Did a woman really build this? Why?”

Claire laughed. “I have no idea. Because she could. Because it’s a beautiful location? Why don’t we buy a guide book and find out?”

Looking round, she suddenly realised she couldn’t see Alex, and her mind went blank. “Where’s your brother?” Jack shook his head, to indicate he had no idea. Claire scanned the terraces beneath them, searching for the familiar face in the milling crowd of people, all waiting until the last minute to sit on the stone seats for the performance.

Behind them, the terraces climbed up steeply, and Claire felt her head spin as she looked frantically round. The wispy clouds scudding overhead seemed to make the cluster of stone pillars loom towards her, as if they might fall and crush her. Dragging her gaze away, she span full circle, ignoring the beauty of the scene in her search for her nephew.

Damn you, child, where are you?

Then she spied him, threading his way through the throng. She inhaled, ready to yell at him for disappearing, when she noticed that he was carrying something. In his hands were three cardboard cups, and he had something else tucked under his arm.

“Sorry it took so long, the queue was a nightmare.” Alex offered a cup to Claire without meeting her eyes. “I went to get you a coffee. I thought you might like one, even though it’s been so hot. I didn’t think they’d let me buy wine.” He passed a cup to his brother and, before Claire could remonstrate, he added quickly, “I got me and Jack hot chocolate. And I got a programme. We’ve done some opera at school, but I don’t know Marriage of Figaro.”

Claire felt her jaw drop as she looked at her normally surly nephew. He’d made an effort that evening, putting on a clean polo shirt and smart, dark jeans. He looked older than his twelve years and Claire felt a swell of pride build inside, even though she could take no credit for the raising of this bundle of contradictions.

Robert and Francesca must have done something right.

“Thank you for the coffee, Alex, that was very thoughtful.” He flushed under her attention, and she turned away to conceal a smile.

Jack rifled through the programme, reading out details of how the theatre had been built up year after year.

A real labour of love, Claire mused, wondering what it might be like to have that kind of dedication to something. I guess at least you’d never be bored.

“You should have asked Conor to come,” Alex said suddenly, as he sipped his drink. Claire searched his face for any hint of ridicule or taunting but his expression appeared guileless.

“It’s a long way to come to go to the opera.” Claire said in a level voice.

“He could have flown down, I saw a sign for the airport on the way here.”

Claire wondered how to explain that not everyone had their father’s ready cash and that most people had to save up all year to afford even a cheap vacation.

“Besides,” Alex continued before Claire had managed to frame a suitable answer, “It would have been nice to say goodbye. I like him.”

Me, too.

Claire tried not to dwell on the unwelcome thought that her realisation had come too late.

*

Claire shifted in an attempt to relieve the numbness in her bottom. Beneath her the performers were taking a bow, to fervent applause. The sun had dropped below the horizon and the sea glowed opalescent blue behind the stage. A single yacht drifted in the bay, white against the dark embracing arm of the cliffs in the distance.

A cool breeze blew in from the sea, and Claire sensed the collective sigh of the closely packed audience, as the clapping died away. The weather had been hot all week and, even outside, she felt sticky and uncomfortable.

“Well, boys,” she said, as the audience began to stir, “what did you think?” She looked at their faces in the dusk, trying to work out if they had enjoyed it or were being polite. They all stood, glad to stretch their legs, and retrieved their cushions, ready to return them.

“It was amazing.”

Claire turned at the sound of Alex’s voice. “I didn’t really follow the story all that much, but the singing was cool.” Then, as if embarrassed at his candour, he hung his head and slouched off along the aisle to the exit.

***