World Mental Health Day: 2013 365 Challenge #283

logo2As part of the Claire instalment for yesterday, I needed to research the aftermath of a suicide attempt.

I wanted to know the practical things, like how long someone would have to stay in hospital, would they automatically be moved to a secure ward, would they be discharged etc. It’s a difficult thing to research; the NHS doesn’t have a page on ‘so you’ve taken an overdose’. I’m fortunate that no one I know has taken their own life, or tried to (to my knowledge). I hadn’t intended for one of my characters to do so, but sometimes the story writes itself.

The difficulty as an author is how much you delve into the research, what it takes out of you, and how much of the dark detail to share (what is appropriate for the story genre)? Writing about Claire’s depression hasn’t been too hard, because I periodically suffer from depression myself, albeit mild in the grand scheme of things.

I also follow some amazing blogs written by people who suffer from depression or anxiety; courageous bloggers who offer up their story and share the hardest moments (Mummy Loves to Write, The Belle Jar to name just two). It is important to write about it, for me: to de-stigmatise mental health issues. But I do worry that my writing ends up too realistic, too dark and depressing, particularly the Two-Hundred Steps Home instalments, where I can’t go back through and edit some humour in to lighten the dark patches.

FoggyFieldBaby Blues and Wedding Shoes grew out of a need to be honest about the hard parts of being a parent, after finding myself surrounded by people putting on a brave face and telling me that I had to do the same (I had my mother, health visitors and doctors all tell me I was too honest. Thank goodness for blogging.) I did try and put in the funny stuff too, (Helen dropping her breast pad in the coffee shop was one of my experiences that I look back on and laugh) but the ‘baby blues’ part of the title is important.

As part of my research into suicide, I came across this on Reddit: Survivors of Suicide, what happens after you find yourself still alive? This was posted 20 days ago and there are 1857 comments.

Just reading through for an hour left me shaken and teary. My post ended up being three hours late because I became immersed in the lives of the people who had poured out their darkness onto the site. I deliberately skimmed through: I was emotional enough without getting dragged into the trolls and people who thought it was funny to be flippant. However I read enough to come away with a determination that, one day, I will write something about this awful subject. It won’t be chick lit. It might not even be publishable. But what I read left me so horrified I feel a need to tell somebody.

You see, what I came away with, from post after post, was how badly these people were treated. Either by the ambulance crew, who laughed at them or treated them roughly, or the hospital and psych ward staff, who treated them like animals. The friends who felt betrayed because they’d kept their depression a secret until it was too late. The people who said that suicide is the coward’s way out, or a cry for attention. So many stories of society’s failure to understand mental health illnesses and their repercussions.

BlueThere were uplifting stories too. One person wrote [sic]:

“The thing is.. if you talk about suicide people want to help you and talk you out of it. If you succeed they will talk about you as if you were the greatest guy on earth and they would’ve done anything to help you. If you try and fail… you’re nothing. A loser with a wish for attention. Or an ungrateful bastard wasting their time. Almost as if everybody’s angry for you failing to die.

I remember waking up the day after my half hearted attempt at roadkillness and realising that this would not have happened if I had died. That day I saw a nice show on TV. Later a movie came out that I really loved watching. I had sex, I stopped doing drugs, a girl told me I had a nice smile.. those little things did it for me. And still do.

I still think of ending it. Just end my meaningless speck of existence in a vast universe that will never know we were ever here after it all ends. Everytime that happens I try to think about something to do the next day. My boys waking me up, my wife hugging me naked before she hits the shower. Sometimes I look forward to a morning cup of coffee or a nice dinner. Weather forecasts are great, tell me the sun will shine and I want to see it.

I try to grasp those little things, because if I had succeeded that day, if I had tried harder, timed better or had less luck… I wouldn’t have lived those moments.

And God Dammit I love those moments more than I hate life.”

TheInvitation (2)How powerful is that? There’s a whole life there, in a comment on a forum. There were hundreds of stories like his. Other stories, too, about abusive relationships or ongoing problems. The physicality of taking charcoal to empty the stomach and the other things that are done when someone has taken an overdose. Or the difficulty of living with a mental illness when you are afraid the people around you can’t cope and so you don’t share it with them. Or having the people around you cut you off completely because they don’t know the right thing to say or do.

One commenter wrote:

“If you really love someone, don’t cut the cord. Go to NAMI support groups for people who love someone with mental illness. Read books. Go to therapy yourself if you have to. If you love them, don’t give up on them. And remember–no matter what a person is capable of, contentment with life is more important than any potential they’ve “squandered” by suffering from a mental illness.”

Today is World Mental Health Day. Last year’s focus was on raising awareness around depression and seeking to de-stigmatise mental illness.  This year’s theme is the positive aspects of mental health in later life. It was noticeable to me, reading the comments on the reddit forum above, that many of the people talking of having attempted suicide were young – teens and twenties. It comes as no surprise to me therefore that it says on the mental health website, “on average people aged 55 and over have greater life satisfaction than people aged 25-54”.

I’ve noticed as I get older that my ability to find perspective, to find the positive, and to be confident enough to enjoy life, is growing. Maybe if I do write a book on suicide, it will be a young adult one. Does anybody know of any books that have covered this subject? Sorry, this has turned into a rambling post. Thanks for listening.

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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 strode across the car park, muttering prayers under her breath. She could see Kim still slumped forward on the picnic bench and thanked the gods that at least she hadn’t run off or stepped in front of a lorry.

Pulling on her last reserves, Claire hitched on a smile and forced herself to walk slowly for the last few paces to her friend.

“Here you go,” she said brightly, hoping Kim couldn’t hear the fake smile in her voice. Kim glanced up to see what was being offered.

“I can’t drink caffeine,” she said, the words falling like autumn apples to smash on the floor.

Claire inhaled deeply. “It’s not coffee, it’s a hug in a mug.” She sat next to Kim and pushed the paper cup towards her. “Go on, you know you want to.”

Kim turned and stared suspiciously at the cup. Then the frown lifted and her lips turned up slightly at the edges.

“Hot chocolate? I haven’t had one in years. Hot chocolate is for kids.” But she took the offered cup and wrapped her hands around it, as if they were in the grips of winter rather than basking in a pleasant summer’s morning.

“It’s full of sugar and warmth and memories. It will make you feel better.” Claire took a gulp of her latte, burning her mouth.

Serves me right for suggesting depression can be fixed with a hot drink. Idiot.

The girls sat without talking. Claire saw from the corner of her eye that Kim took a sip of her drink and then another. The green pallor in her cheeks faded as the warmth and the sugar got to work. Claire felt one knot of tension unravel: it wasn’t much, but it was a start.

After half an hour, Kim sat up straight and looked around, as if surprised to find herself in a service station car park.

“Where are we?”

“Toddington Services.”

Kim managed a laugh. “I’m none the wiser.”

“Sorry. We’re on the M1, about a third of the way to Dorset. What do you want to do? Are you okay to go on, or do you want to go home?”

Kim released a pent-up sigh; puffing the air out from her cheeks as if she were trying to blow away the dark clouds.

“Fuck knows.”

The emptiness in her voice made Claire flinch. Without thinking, she put her arm around Kim’s shoulder, gripping her tightly and ignoring the unusual feel of bone under her hand. The shoulders began to shake, and she realised Kim was crying.

“Shhh. It will be okay, I promise. We’ll figure it out.”

“How?” Kim’s voice shot out through the tears. “How will it ever be okay? I can’t have kids. You don’t want children: you can have no idea what that means.” And she pulled away from Claire’s embrace.

“I’m trying to understand, Kim. And I don’t know about the kids anymore. A lot has changed for me, too.” She wanted to continue, but managed to hold the words in. Instead she tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t fan the flames of Kim’s grief.

“There are other ways. You could adopt: there are babies all over the world who would love to have you for their mummy.”

“But they wouldn’t be my babies.” Kim’s sobs grew stronger, her slender body shaking like a leaf in the wind.

“What about surrogacy, then?” Claire had no idea whether it was possible, but she wanted Kim’s tears to stop. They made her feel helpless.

“Jeff and I don’t have the money for something like that; we’re not rich like you.”

Claire laughed bitterly. “I was never rich. And now; now I don’t even know how I’m going to pay back the credit card company, before they try and find something to repossess. I’m broke.”

Kim looked over, one eyebrow raised in disbelief and Claire bit back the sudden desire to yell at her friend that she wasn’t the only one with problems. Her financial predicament was of her own making and paled into significance next to Kim’s woes.

“I’m serious,” was all she said. “I’d barely cleared my debts by the time I decided to pack in my job and fly to New Zealand. Those weeks as a gullible tourist, spending money left and right, has maxed out both my credit cards. If I don’t start work for Conor this week I’m totally in the shit.”

Kim’s eyes narrowed, as if she found the concept of a poor Claire too hard to fathom. Then she wrapped her arm around Claire’s waist and squeezed.

“Then we’re both in the shit together. We’d best get shovelling.” And she smiled.

It’s true, Claire thought wryly, as she returned the embrace, misery does love company.

***

Don’t Wait for your Muse: 2013 365 Challenge #274

Waiting for a walk

Waiting for a walk

Is there anything worse than waiting?

We’re waiting to find out if hubbie got a job, waiting to find out if someone wants to buy his car, waiting for the insurance company’s verdict on the car that’s apparently not ours. I’m waiting for books to be premium catalogue approved, waiting for Barnes and Noble to realise I increased the price on Baby Blues two weeks ago, so that Amazon will stop price matching them and losing me a dollar on every sale. I’m waiting for reviews, waiting for sales, waiting for inspiration.

The last one used to be the worst but now it’s the one I can handle best. I read a great post on the Write Practice blog this week, called What do you do when your Muse is on Vacation?. It discusses something called sitzfleisch, a German word which apparently means “to sit still and get through the task at hand.” (Actually I think it translates as “sit on your bottom” but you get the point!) The post explains that this ability to persevere at a task until it’s compete “is often the difference between a wannabe writer and a professional writer.”

The Write Practice post then discusses various ways of getting the writing juices flowing, including this quote from author Peter S. Beagle: “My uncle Raphael was a painter, he used to say, ‘if the muse is late for work, start without her.'”

My daily blog challenge this year has taught me it’s possible to write 1000 average words without one scrap of help from the Muse. They are hard words to squeeze out, harder to read back and feel the flatness and mediocrity of them. But at least they’re words. Unfortunately, the downside to publishing the daily installments in monthly volumes is that people read them without realising it’s an unedited first draft.

Turning up to work what's important
Turning up to work what’s important

I had a fabulous critique on volume one from a follower of the blog and it included comments on foreshadowing, character development etc. Much of that has had to be accidental as I’m not a planner. Most days I’m lucky if I know which hostel Claire’s staying in or what activity she’s doing. The conflict, setting, story, character arc, that I’d usually hone (add in!) in a second draft, has to be eeked out, often while the Muse is off on a jolly somewhere without me.

When the critique pointed to installments that were flat or lacked conflict it made me want to go back and read about what else was going on that day. Was I writing five hundred desperate words at 1 am with coffee keeping my eyes open? Were the kids sick or just at home all day with their endless demands? The flat words were probably the ones dredged out one awful adverb at a time, because the Muse was at a spa having her nails done.

But some days, when I’m up against the clock, knowing hubbie is minding the kids or the darlings are trashing the playroom to get my attention, the Muse sneaks in and offers me her best work (the post a few days ago, with Kim’s suicide attempt, is a classic example.)

What’s the message in my ramble? You have to wait for lots of things in life. Don’t wait for your Muse. She might be there already, waiting to see if YOU show up to work.

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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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The check-in clerk blanched as Claire’s despair swelled into a crescendo. Words piled up behind the sobs, until they spilled out unstoppable. Claire gripped the desk and stared at the woman through her tears.

“Help me, please. I’m out of cash, my best friend just tried to kill herself and I’m meant to start my new job next week. I have to get home. Don’t get me wrong, you have a beautiful country, but it isn’t home.” Her voice trailed off into a wail on the last word.

The clerk silently produced a tissue then picked up the phone on her desk.

“Get me flight number EK419. Now. Yes, I have a late passenger here, can we get her on? … I know the gate it closed. It’s an emergency.”

The clerk looked up at Claire. “Is that your only luggage?”

Claire nodded.

“Any liquids?”

Claire rooted through her rucksack and pulled out her washbag. Looking around for a bin, she dumped the contents in it, before stuffing the washbag in a pocket. After a second’s hesitation, she dropped her water bottle in the bin too.

While she was emptying her bag of liquids the woman was in quick discussion on the phone. She hung up as Claire came back to the desk.

“Come with me.”

Claire grabbed her bag and ran after the retreating form moving surprisingly fast in four inch heels.

She pulled out her passport and tickets as she ran, and had them in her hand in time to show the bewildered security official as the clerk swept her past the queue to the front.

The same happened at the X-ray machine. Watching the force of nature in front of her, Claire suspected she could have been smuggling out a kiwi bird and the guards wouldn’t have challenged her. Claire didn’t know which part of her sorry tale had inspired the woman to fight on her behalf; she just knew she wanted to give the woman a hug. Or a medal.

Within minutes they were at the gate, arriving as the rear stairs were withdrawn from the aircraft. Face burning from exertion and embarrassment, Claire followed her champion to the foot of the remaining ladder.

“Here you are. You’ll have to check your luggage into the hold at Sydney. For now one of the stewards will store it for you.” And, producing her first smile since Claire had arrived at her desk, the woman gestured up towards the plane. “Good luck. I hope your friend is okay.”

As she climbed into the aircraft, Claire wondered if any other nation of people would have stuck their necks out so far for a total stranger.

I hope she doesn’t get into trouble.

A few passengers began a slow handclap as she boarded the plane. Claire ducked her head and tried not to cry. Something in her expression must have told of her grief, as the clapping stopped and a steward ushered her to her seat just as her colleague began the safety briefing.

Claire slumped into the vacant space and fastened her belt. As the reality dawned that she was actually on her flight, Claire felt her limbs begin to shake.

I’m going home.

***

A Need to Read: 2013 365 Challenge #269

A fraction of the unread books on my Kindle

A fraction of the unread books on my Kindle

Apologies if this post is a little late today: I finally hit ‘approve proof’ on the print version of Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes this morning, after ploughing through the online proofer (I can’t afford to get another physical proof).

I had a small scare last night, as I downloaded the PDF on my iPad as soon as I got the email from CreateSpace to say it was ready, and half the letters were missing. For example “William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116″ read ”  illi   Sh  ke  re, So    et 116″. I didn’t have time to fire up the laptop last night, so the first thing I did this morning was check it all on the big PC. It was fine. Phew.

However, all the weeks and months I’ve spent on editing and formatting recently has resulted in my creativity taking a holiday. Oh, not the creativity that formats book covers or designs bookmarks: that’s fine. But the right-brain creativity that lets me think up an ending to Two Hundred Steps Home, both for this month and for the entire year, is missing in action.

Books that gripped me

Books that gripped me

All the proofreading and editing I’ve done (including a couple of novels for someone else) has also resulted in me being unable to read a book without critiquing it as I read. Even with old beloved books (or maybe especially those, because I know the story), I find myself checking for typos or grammar errors, or rewording sentences that feature the same word twice. It’s no fun.

Reading used to be my downtime, my lifeline, my escapism. It also used to be the source of my creativity – filling the well of ideas that gets exhausted with writing thousands of words every week.

I have probably two dozen books on my iPad that I want to read, or that I’ve started and can’t finish. I don’t want to take books apart. I wouldn’t even mind if I was analysing them as I did as an English Literature graduate: looking for character motivations or themes. At least then I would still be immersed in the story. But questioning the word choice or the grammar and punctuation is just plain anal. And rude.

After all, who am I to judge someone else’s book when I know mine aren’t going to win any literary awards? I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe I need to read a paperback rather than on the kindle. Or maybe I need to read a fast-paced thriller, that won’t give me time to analyse because I’ll be desperate for the story. It needs to grip from beginning to end, but without any blood or dead bodies (I don’t do gore, even in books).

Any ideas? How can I put my left-brain back in its box and get back to enjoying reading once more?

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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 stared at the underside of the top bunk and searched her brain for ideas. This was harder than the worst pitch Carl had ever thrown her way. Harder than choosing an apartment or selecting which shoes to wear for Kim’s wedding. How to raise several hundred dollars in a few hours, so she could fly to Queenstown and catch the bus to Christchurch to get her flight home?

The list of people who might lend her the money was less than one. Those with the resources – Michael, Josh, her brother, her parents – were not the ones she wanted to approach in an emergency. The people who might take pity on her – her sister Ruth was the only one who came to mind – couldn’t afford it. Even if her best friend Kim was still speaking to her, their financial relationship existed on the fact that Claire was the one with a well-paid job and Kim, as the newbie actress, didn’t have two pennies to rub together.

How ironic that it’s me who is stranded in the back of beyond without the resources to get home, even though – assuming I do get back – I will have a salary coming in soon enough to clear the debt.

A tiny thought that Conor might advance her first month’s salary was quickly quashed. Not only had he already put his neck out for her by making the job a short-term contract, she didn’t want to start out beholden to her boss.

Come on Claire, think. There must be a way of raising some cash. An online loan, a new credit card.

The ideas came only to be dismissed. Even if she could get the internet to work, such things took time. And she wasn’t entirely convinced she’d pass a credit score anyway, with no home address or job and her credit card full to the max.

A dark lassitude crept over her and she had to push away the tears. Escaping to New Zealand had seemed the only option at the time: a chance to flee the mess her life had become and enjoy a fresh start. Instead had never felt so alone.

Through the black, a glimmer of light sparkled. Something someone had said to her in passing, a joke to be laughed off, crept into her mind. Something Bethan had said. What was it? Claire searched through her brain, wishing Bethan were there to come up with an amazing solution or fill the room with her endless optimism. Then it came to her. “Sell your fancy boots if you have to.”

I’m going home, hopefully, so what does it matter if I sell some stuff. I have boxes of clothes back home.

The thought made her uncomfortable, nonetheless. Could she sell of her second hand stuff to the other people in the hostel? Would they buy it? It seemed a bit icky. But what choice did she have?

Running through her possessions in her mind, Claire realised the thing of most value was her tablet. Selling it felt like cutting off her right arm, especially as it was full of data she wouldn’t be able to back up without access to a computer. Was it worth losing all her photos, her memories of the trip across New Zealand, to get home?

With a heavy sigh, Claire rolled off the bed and pulled her rucksack over. Searching through, she found the iPad and charger, some jewellery and her Helly Hansen boots. Ignoring the trembling in her hands, Claire gathered them together and left the room.

***

It’s all in the Voice: 2013 365 Challenge #236

My gorgeous son

My gorgeous son

Today is my 300th post! Wowee I can’t believe it! Thank you to everyone who takes the time to read, like and comment: it makes it all worth it. Here’s to 300 more! 🙂

I had a wonderful hour this afternoon with a good friend (and one who obviously reads my blog from time to time) and I realised something important.

A while I go I wrote on this blog about how my friends never laughed when I spent time with them. It concerned me, because I don’t want to be Miss Bates (Emma by Jane Austen), rattling on without humour and driving everyone crazy.

After a lovely time with my friend today, talking about my books, my blog, my love of writing, I felt on top of the world, despite feeling rubbish all day due to lack of sleep. I sent a thank you text with a quick apology that we were late meeting – I’d forgotten about the bank holiday traffic.

Yo Ho Ho Pirate Daughter

Yo Ho Ho Pirate Daughter

In response my friend said “I had a great time you are on fine form and I laughed loads”. An odd thing to comment, which is why I think she reads the occasional blog post (and if you’re reading this, thank you! You have no idea how much it means to me!) as it felt like a direct response to my previous post about making friends laugh.

When I got home I also read a post on Kristen Lamb’s blog about author’s voice. Putting the two together, I realised that friendships are like novels: either you relate to someone’s voice or you don’t. The enthusiastic five-star reviews of the novel you couldn’t stand? The one-star diatribe against your favourite author?: it’s all about voice. Genre too, and characters and plot, of course. But, underneath it all, is the voice.

Poor grammar, typos, even bigger problems, are all forgiven in a book that captures our interest. But the most polished, crafted, well written novel in a style you can’t stomach is unlikely to be read to the end, certainly not more than once.

And you can no more say why you love an author’s voice than you can explain why an hour with one person will have you both laughing, and with another can feel like the first time you’ve met.

So, as an author, if someone doesn’t like your book when most people do (not just your doting Great Aunt Maude) don’t change your voice, change your audience.

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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 rolled off her bunk and groaned. A day’s hiking followed by grade five white water rafting for three hours meant her muscles had turned to mush and her bones to jelly.

All I want to do is crawl on the bus and sleep. Next stop Wellington.

The smell of fresh bread wafted through her room, and Claire paused in her packing to soak it in. A gurgling response from her tummy made her speed up her progress and, before long, she was striding down the corridor with her rucksack bouncing on her bruised shoulders.

“Good morning.”

Claire looked up and smiled at the girl eating breakfast by herself in the kitchen. She recognised her from the Tongariro Crossing and had a vague feeling she had been on the rafting expedition too, although not in her testosterone-laden vessel. The last thought made her scowl and she had to force the feelings away before her fellow traveller took offense.

“Feeling sore?”

The girl interpreted her grimace as one of pain. Nodding in agreement, Claire helped herself to some food before sitting gingerly at the table.

“Me too,” the girl mumbled around her toast. “Name’s Bethan, by the way.”

Claire introduced herself and gave off her companionable silence vibes. They didn’t work.

“Are you going on the horse trek this morning, before we leave?”

With a shake of her head, Claire tried to kill the conversation. A combination of pain and memories had kept her awake for too much of the night and now it felt like someone was trying to deliver her brain by ventouse.

“I thought I might try the spa,” Bethan continued, oblivious to the wall of silence on the other side of the table. She flicked her long black hair over her shoulder and looked around the room with a grin. Claire hated people who were happy before 8 a.m.

“I didn’t know they had a spa,” she murmured. Actually a spa sounded perfect, to ease the muscles with some hot water and a massage. But money was getting tight and she couldn’t afford to be frivolous.

“No, I think it better be the horse riding,” Bethan continued, debating her options out loud. “I can go to a spa at home, but I can’t ride an unbridled horse across the hills.”

“Bareback riding? You’re brave.” Claire had struggled enough with the pack pony in the New Forest and that had been a slug.

She flushed as Bethan laughed. “No, not without a saddle, just without a bit and bridle.”

“How do you steer?” Claire looked around, desperately hoping a vat of steaming coffee might appear from nowhere.

“They have rope halters to guide them. Apparently you get to canter if you want to and everything. It sounds awesome.”

Claire wasn’t convinced, although the scenery around them was beautiful. Unfortunately she hadn’t realised how expensive all the extras would be, on top of the coach ticket. She was starting to feel that hiring a car and finding her own way round, able to choose her own activities and accommodation, might have been a more frugal and sensible option.

At least I can write authentically for the backpacker market. I can’t afford it this trip, even with my salary: how do the youngsters who’ve never worked a day in their lives, apart from pulling pints in the student bar, afford their gap year? She thought for a moment, and shrugged. Same way as me, I suppose. The not-so-flexible friend. I think my plastic my snap if I bend it any further.

She finished her breakfast and wandered out to find what time the coach was leaving, and to see if it was possible to pass a couple of hours without spending any money. Some how she doubted it.

***

My Day Off: 2013 365 Challenge #235

My 'out and about' paint kit: I didn't feel up to getting the big box out!

My ‘out and about’ paint kit: I didn’t feel up to getting the big box out!

I took the day off today. I didn’t really have any choice. Despite skipping writing my post so I could have an early night, I barely got any sleep. Instead I lay awake half the night, interspersed with having bad dreams (ironically stressing that I wouldn’t be able to finish my edit today – my second-to-last nursery day before school starts).

As a result I barely managed to write my post when I woke up, suffering from a splitting headache and eye strain. When I finally published it at 11am – an hour later than I aim for – I felt done in. I have no idea what I wrote about!

It seems I have spent too much time staring at a screen recently: reading on the iPad, editing, writing, even working on cover designs. My eyes feel like they’re being sucked out of my head by a plunger.

Rough title page

Rough title page

I tried to sleep. But I’m not very good at sleeping in the daytime. Even if I manage to nod off I wake feeling like I’ve got the hangover from hell. In the end I decided to do some more work on my sketches for the picture book I want to write for my son for Christmas.

After getting hubbie out of the office to find my paints in the loft, where they have lain unused for five years, I sat myself down in front Sense and Sensibility and had a wonderful, creative afternoon.

I think it will take a lot more work, but I feel like I might be able to come up with something passable as a gift. Now I just need to work on the words. This is my current opening:

Aaron and the Cow Pirates

Aaron walked along the beach kicking at shells. He was bored. It was the school holidays and there was nothing to do.

My son! :)

My son! 🙂

“Boring!” he said, as he looked across the flat blue sea. “Boring!” he moaned, as he stomped along the flat white sand. “Boring!” he muttered as he kicked at an old plastic spade lying abandoned on the beach.

“Oi! That’s my spade!”

Aaron turned to see who was shouting and jumped.

Peering at him from behind a rock, tears and snot running down his miserable green face, was a dinosaur. 

“Argh!”

“What?!” The dinosaur searched fearfully around to see why Aaron had screamed. “Are they here? Are they back?”

“Who?” Aaron recovered from his fright and took two steps towards the dinosaur.

“The Cow Pirates. They stole my bucket.”

The Cow Pirates and the Bucket

The Cow Pirates and the Bucket

The dinosaur, whose name was Jack, began to cry. Big, wet tears rolled down his cheeks and landed with a plop on the sand.

“Cow Pirates?” Aaron’s eyes widened. “Here? Nothing that cool ever happens here. It’s bor-ing.”

“The Cow Pirates aren’t boring, they’re scary. They go Yo Ho Moo! and steal stuff. They stole my bucket.” Jack said again, sniffing loudly.

“Then we will steal it back!” Aaron declared bravely.

“We?” Jack cowered behind the rock. “Not me. They make me wobble like a jelly.”

Jack the Dinosaur

Jack the Dinosaur

“I will get back your bucket.”

Aaron climbed onto the rock and looked out to sea. “Where did they go?”

“They wanted my bucket to carry their treasure. They said they were going to bury it at pebble beach.”

Aaron knew the way to pebble beach. He went there with his grandma and grandpa to look for crabs in the rock pools. “There’s no time to lose.” He climbed up Jack’s tail and sat with his legs around Jack’s broad neck. “Come on!”

Still sniffing and grumbling, Jack took Aaron along the shore to pebble beach.

Aaron jumping in fright and the cows at Pebble Beach

Aaron jumping in fright and the cows at pebble beach

“I hope they’ve gone,” Jack muttered. “I don’t want my bucket back anyway. I want my Mummy.” And he began to cry again.

That’s about as far as I’ve got. When I tell the story to my son, it tends to end, “So Aaron and Jack went to the beach and stole back the bucket, the end.”

He always introduces a character called “Berty Werty Pooey Berty” so I might have to incorporate that too. Let’s just say, the money I spent on the Writing Children’s Stories study course for next year was probably well spent! 🙂

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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 fidgeted with her wetsuit as she waited by the shore. The neoprene was getting rather intimate and the life jacket felt like an unwelcome hug from a frisky drunk. There had been too much time to regret her hasty decision, since signing up and arriving at the river. She blamed Josh. Ten minutes after a text from him and she had agreed to risk her neck in a crazy activity.

I could have been hacking across the hills, letting the horse take the strain. I must be nuts.

The way the guide had described it, the rafting seemed like a fun way to spend the afternoon, with a chance to see some different scenery and have a story to tell. She’d figured they wouldn’t let a tourist get hurt. The river apparently boasted grade five rapids, but the number hadn’t meant much to Claire. If anything, she had figured, on a scale of one to ten, five sounded quite mild.

Then she’d seen a sign in the literature describing what Grade Five meant.

 Very powerful rapids with very confused and broken water, large drops, violent and fast currents, abrupt turns, difficult powerful stoppers and fast boiling eddies; with numerous obstacles in the main current. Complex, precise and powerful sequential manoeuvring is required.

A definite risk to personal safety exists.

The words had made her feel sick, but it was too late to turn back. She could almost hear Neal’s hated voice whispering “chicken” in her ear. Besides, there were other girls there; women that looked less fit than she was.

If they can do it, so can I.

Standing next to the rushing torrent of the river, watching the other rafts drop over rapids and skim the jagged rocks along the canyon, she was swiftly changing her view.

Looking around, Claire realised she was the only woman in her raft. The five other crew members gathered by the bank were not all hulking athletes, but they were all men. She stood slightly separate from them, as they were given instructions by their guide.

In a bored voice the guide, who looked about twelve years old to Claire, explained what to do if she fell out, how to protect herself from the rocks, how to swim to safety, Claire’s nausea grew. She liked swimming but it wasn’t her strongest suit. Deciding that, if necessary, she would cling to the raft rather than paddle, Claire focussed all her energy on listening to the lecture.

Once in the raft, with her close-fitting helmet blocking out a chunk of the noise, the river didn’t seem so wild. The rushing water played a constant background accompaniment as the guide yelled out orders.

The first task was to discover how they all pulled together. The four of them at the back of the raft, with Claire in the middle on the right, pulled in unison. The two guys at the front, however, rowed to a syncopated rhythm all of their own. Claire sensed the guide’s growing frustration. Eventually he ordered Claire to swap places with one of them so that the weakest person was surrounded by strong oars.

And then they were off. Time lost all meaning and Claire had no chance to take in the scenery. Her whole world closed down to two things: following the guide’s commands to the letter and concentrating on staying in the raft. She dug her oar in on demand, she held onto the rope and ducked, she raised her paddle into the air and cheered.

During the brief respites between the swirling rapids, Claire drank in the scenery. Sometimes the banks dropped low, and she could see the dark hills all around. Other times the canyon walls closed in and it felt like they were drifting through a craggy, moss-encrusted tunnel. She could imagine she was floating on an Elven vessel along the Anduin river.

With still half of the trip to go, Claire felt she had found her stride. The oar fitted into the palm of her hand, her body seemed to understand what she was asking it to do. Despite the spray stinging her face and the wetsuit clinging to her body, her skin fizzed with energy.

A yell from beside her caused her to look across. The man next to her had dropped his oar, and a quick turn of the head showed it floating away behind them. The guide didn’t hesitate. He gestured to Claire to give up her oar, and told her to sit and enjoy the rest of the ride.

You stupid, misogynistic, chauvinist pig. I am pulling my weight as much if not more than him. How dare you!

All her enjoyment vanished in an instant. With a face full of freezing water and nothing to do but hold on and seethe, Claire felt every endless minute of the rest of the journey. Her face burned with anger and humiliation. She’d heard that Kiwi men had a tendency towards chauvinism. This was her first experience of it and it left her blood surging like the rapids of the Rangitikei River.

***

Children’s Stories and Other Projects: 2013 365 Challenge #230

Why my first attempt at a children's novel is about pirates!

Why my first attempt at a children’s novel is about pirates and dinosaurs!

Brrr. As I write this, I am walking around a muddy ploughed field in completely inappropriate footwear (sandals because it’s still summer, right?) racing the rain clouds back home: I’m wet already as we’ve been swimming but I don’t really want the dog muddy and wet.

As is my habit, I’ve been searching my mind for today’s blog topic. It usually comes to me before I let the dog off the lead, giving me twenty minutes of walking and texting to get it written.

Today, instead, my head is full of projects (oh and now my ankle full of nettle venom, ouch. Texting and walking can be bad for your health)

This morning I signed up to an online course on writing children’s stories. I had to get my husband’s permission not because of the cost but because of the time. I’m not allowed to start the course until January. Because he had to take the children from 7am until 1pm today (it was bliss) so I could write yesterday’s post and get a tricky scene rewrite from Baby Blues out of my head.

The kind of illustrations I'd love to do!

The kind of illustrations I’d love to do!

I miss having my nursery days together: having one day to spend on editing followed by two or three days’ break in between is a nightmare because I only just about get going when it’s time to pick up the kids.

The problem today was that I worked until 1pm and then I didn’t want to stop. Not only have I got extra changes I want/need to make to Baby Blues draggng at my mind, I’ve got a dozen other projects clamouring for attention. I’m not really a completer finisher more a start and move on sort of person! Some projects I’ve managed to avoid starting, such as my overwhelming desire to try my hand at writing a children’s book.

Well today I gave into that desire, after reading to the kids for twenty minutes.

My attempt at illustrations

My attempt at illustrations

I’ve always wanted to see if I could write and illustrate something, although I’m pretty certain my current artistic skills are not of the children’s illustrator variety. Still, these things fill your mind when you read Tim, Ted and the Pirates for the hundredth time.

The project in my head isn’t there because I want to try and break into the picture-book market so much as because I want to write something for my children. I’ve had an idea floating in my head for ages, and I thought it wouldn’t be too hard to write it down. So I tried. Oh dear. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to starting my Writing Children’s Stories course in January.

And – If you’re based in the UK – the course was £12 on Groupon or I never would have bought it. I’ve got a bad track record with online study courses that don’t have deadlines. It’s hard to motivate yourself to work on something if nothing is driving you forwards. In this instance, it’s just as well that it’s an unrestricted course, as I can’t start for another five months! 🙂

Still, I know what next year’s blog is likely to be all about. You have been warned! Hee hee

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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 stared wide-eyed as the Māori dancers thumped their feet and waggled their tongues. It was her first taste of aboriginal New Zealand and it was something to behold. From the moment the coach had collected them from the hostel they had been immersed in Māori culture. She glanced over at Neal, who had been appointed Chief of their group by general consent. From the way he stood absorbed in the ceremony, with his head high and his chest thrown out, it was clear he’d fully inhabited the role.

At least it takes his attention off me.

Claire had refused to give up her position at the front of the bus, but her profile among the other travellers had risen since the Shweeb challenge. Dealing with mostly good-natured ribbing wasn’t beyond her skills, but she had preferred her lonely anonymity.

The Māori warriors in front of them gathered to perform a haka challenge. Claire had only seen the haka on the TV before, at the beginning of the rugby matches she had endured to please Michael. The performance was much more powerful when the ground vibrated with every stomp and it was possible to look into the fearsome eyes made alien by dark tattoos.

Eventually something was laid at Neal’s feet. A peace offering, from what she could remember of the information they were given on the bus. Neal picked up the token and the atmosphere shifted, as the Māori people welcomed them into their village.

A high, long note sounded, raising the hairs on Claire’s neck. She searched for the source of the noise and saw someone blowing into a conch shell. As if waiting only for the signal, the women began an echoing call that resonated across the surrounding forest.

Claire shivered and wrapped her arms around herself, as the hairs continued to rise across her skin. She wished she’d thought to bring a jacket.

“I’ll keep you warm.”

Before she could protest, Neal was behind her, enclosing her in a bear hug. He radiated heat and Claire was soon able to push him away and admit, truthfully, that she was no longer cold. No need to tell him that the shivering had increased with his contact.

“This doesn’t count as dinner, by the way,” Neal said with a sly grin, as he dropped his arms in response to her shove. “You still owe me.”

Claire nodded and walked away without speaking, attempting to lose herself in the details of the village. She wandered through the various dwellings as if it were a living museum, taking pictures for the blog and mentally filing notes to write about later. Her mind cast back to some of the places she visited in the UK; the plague village, the Victorian town.

No wonder people would rather come here. Although some of these excursions are a bit pricey. At least I wandered around Eyam for free.

*

Claire’s tummy gurgled loudly and she blushed, thankful that the music from the stage mostly drowned it out. Neal, sat three seats over on her right, turned round and smirked at her and her blush deepened.

Claire wrenched her gaze back to the performance, watching the semi-clad men and women perform intricate dances that seemed to involve much thrusting of the hips and tongue. Although not overtly sexual, it made her skin hot and she was acutely conscious of Neal’s presence, despite the people sitting between them.

Glad when the performance was over, Claire gratefully followed the others to find the hangi food they had helped raise earlier from the pit. Tantalising smells of smoked meat and vegetables drifted on the evening breeze and she felt the saliva pool in her mouth.

She hesitated as the guests found their seats. She didn’t want to end up next to Neal but she couldn’t see him anywhere in the room. Not wanting to look like an idiot, at last she took a seat in the far corner and prayed he wouldn’t see her.

Why am I avoiding him? I have to take him out to dinner tomorrow, more fool me.

Claire pondered whether it was worth staying an extra night in Rotorua just to shake him off. She had a horrible feeling that he would stay too, just to torment her.

“You can’t hide from me.”

As if voicing her thoughts, the words cut through Claire’s reverie. Her heart plummeted at the sound of the too-familiar voice drawling behind her.

“Hiding in the corner isn’t going to put me off. I will have my wicked way with you.” His voice was jocular but the words cut directly through to Claire’s groin. Right then she would have followed him to the nearest bed. Sense fought with lust and sense won a temporary victory.

“You can try,” she spat at him. “I’m not yours for the taking. I’m not some gullible teenager. I don’t know why you don’t turn your attention where it’s wanted.” She ripped at some bread with her teeth.

“Oh, please. Those children? I’m old enough to be their father. Besides, where’s the fun in easy game. Like shooting fish in a barrel. Although I’ve never understood that phrase. Why would you shoot fish?”

He selected some food and chewed thoughtfully, as if they were engaging in normal dinner conversation.

Claire felt torn between following his lead and maintaining her icy silence. She realised she didn’t know anyone else at her table and it was Neal or nothing. Even as she resolved to speak to him, she realised she had nothing to say.

Have I lost the art of small talk? Have I been on the road so long I don’t know how to speak to people anymore?

She thought of all the things that weren’t to be talked of. Her sister’s illness, Michael’s blind infatuation, Kim’s anger, Josh; The jobs she didn’t want. Her family’s rejection on her last visit home.

No wonder I can’t do small talk. My life’s a wreck. Even here, on the other side of the world, I can’t get it right.

Claire stared at her plate and fought back tears.

***

Using a Thesaurus: Good or Bad?: 2013 365 Challenge #229

Can't have too many craft books

Can’t have too many craft books

Sometimes an idle reading of a blog post (or just about anything, to be honest) can lead me off on an hour-long internet search.

The post inspiring such a search today was Charlotte Rains Dixon’s post, Kaizen (Sort of) for Writers. I was drawn to the article because my husband used to have Kaizen days (Japanese for improvement or change for the better, according to Wikipedia) at a former place of work.

Charlotte’s post discusses ways that writers can introduce small changes for the better into their writing.

One of her suggestions was “Learn a few new vocabulary words” and included a link on ‘strong verbs’ which sent me off to read some of Charlotte’s posts from 2008 about improving writing using a thesaurus and a personal word book.

I use the online thesaurus in Word a great deal, mostly when I find the same word twice in a sentence (which happens often with something like ‘road’ – street/lane). As I edit my Claire instalments every day, and I am editing Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes at the moment, I seem to be searching for alternative words all the time. (And Word is often not much help!)

One of the many versions of Roget's Thesaurus

One of the many versions of Roget’s Thesaurus

Charlotte’s second post on the subject talked about a particular thesaurus called Roget’s International Thesaurus, which apparently arranges the words thematically (as Roget originally intended) rather than alphabetically. It sounded great, so I went off to find a copy to buy (not that I’m impulsive or need instant gratification or anything). There began my search, as that version appeared to be quite pricey and hard to come by in the UK. I started looking round for something similar, reading reviews to understand the differences.

Then I came across an essential review pointing out that International meant American. I already struggle with distinguishing between English and American spelling, spending too much time with a dictionary to ensure consistency in my writing. The last thing I need is an Americanised thesaurus.

So then I started looking for other versions of thesauruses, reading reviews which appeared to mostly complain that the type was too small or the book too huge. Kindle versions seemed a good idea until I realised they aren’t always searchable.

And then I came across an article on Daily Writing Tips called Hint to Writers: Use the Thesaurus with Caution. It discusses the dangers of using a thesaurus too heavily, resulting in over-complicated writing or the use of words that don’t quite fit (not all synonyms are created equal). The article mentioned Stephen King’s advice in On Writing (paraphrased, I’m guessing), that‘wherever your vocabulary is at today is fine.’

The comments on this article were as informative as the original article and ranged from complete agreement to disagreement. Philip Dragonetti suggested that, “A Thesaurus is to be used only to transfer words from one’s passive vocabulary into one’s active vocabulary.” That’s exactly it: I know the words I want to use, but sleep deprivation and too much time spent watching Cbeebies, has reduced my vocabulary considerably since my student days.

One craft book I haven't read yet

One craft book I haven’t read yet

Another article that my morning of internet searching produced was called Is the Thesaurus Your Friend? This interesting post discusses how writers are divided over the value of the thesaurus (as I had already seen in the comments on Charlotte Rains Dixon’s post above).

The post’s author, K. M. Weiland, explains that, “Some consider it their secret weapon; others regard it as a crutch.” She goes on to cite Stephen King’s opinion from his 1988 essay, Everything you need to know about writing successfully – in ten minutes:

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

She explains that King believes the best word is the one which flows from our creative subconscious and if you have to look up a word you probably don’t know it well enough to use it.

I’m not sure I agree with that view, even from as celebrated an author as Stephen King. As I’ve already said, sometimes I know the word and can’t find it. My creative subconscious is working hard on the plot and story and isn’t too concerned with the words it uses to get the idea on the paper. As someone famously wrote (though my Google search has not revealed who – maybe even Stephen King!) A first draft is the version we write for ourselves.

I think Stephen King’s advice is about not using words we have never heard of, just because they’re a synonym for a word we do know. I would like to think writers wouldn’t do that, not least because if a writer doesn’t know the word, chances are the average reader may well not know it either, and so it ceases to function as a means of communication.

I’m still determined to get a paper thesaurus, although I might just wait until I find one kicking about in a charity shop. My sleepy brain needs all the help it can get. Besides, Stephen King probably has a much wider vocabulary than I do!

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

________________________________________________________________________________

Claire sat at the front of the coach and chewed her lip.

This is ridiculous. I feel like a twelve-year-old on a school trip, wondering if the boy at the back of the bus will come and hold my hand while we both ignore each other.

Since the kiss that morning, Neal hadn’t renewed his attentions. She could hear him somewhere up the aisle, entertaining his fellow travellers with an anecdote about a Soho nightclub at 2am. She knew if she turned around it would look something like the sermon on the mount, as the teenagers hung off his every word, as much impressed by his experience as snared by his charisma.

I should be flattered that he pursued me through the forest, although I could wish that he hadn’t. She could wish it, but did she? There was no doubt that it was flattering to have a man like him chase her down. If only she could figure out what he was after. Surely there were easier conquests.

There are probably a dozen girls on this bus only too happy to massage his ego, among other things.

Staring at her iPad, Claire tried to concentrate on the notes she was compiling on the morning’s activities. After the walk around the Ruakui Reserve, they had stopped for breakfast before heading to Rotorua. She’d managed to stay out of Neal’s way at the farm show and during the zorbing. No one was going to get her inside an inflatable hamster ball and throw her down a hillside.

Carl and Julia would’ve had a field day finding activities for me in this damned country. Everybody seems hell-bent on killing themselves one way or another. If it isn’t jumping off something it’s dropping into a hole in the ground or flinging themselves down a hillside. Crazy people. Crazy country.

Their next stop wasn’t likely to prove any better. Agroventures Adventure Park. I don’t even need to read the brochure to know I’m going to spend the next few hours hiding.

The only provocation Neal had offered at the zorbing place was a raised eyebrow.

Maybe he’s given up on his Chicken crusade and has accepted that I am, in fact, a coward.

Even as she thought the words she felt the heat rising in her chest. Why was it so hard to let a man like him think she was afraid?

*

“Right, peeps, here we are. Knock yourself out. There’s the jet boat, the freefall, the swoop, you can bungy or you can take on a friend in the Schweeb challenge.”

The driver grinned at them as they gathered in the car park. Claire felt like punching him and wished she’d paid more attention to the details of the tour before signing up. Surely there was a trip around New Zealand that didn’t involve being guilt-tripped into crazy adventures every five minutes. The old fogies tour or something. Although some of the people she’d seen climbing into the plastic zorb balls earlier that day hadn’t exactly been spring chickens.

“So, Claire. You and me on the Shweeb, how about it?”

Claire felt hot breath on her neck and shivered as the low voice penetrated into her gut. She drew air deep into her lungs before turning round. Neal stood far too close and she took a step back, causing his eyes to crinkle in amusement.

“I don’t even know what a Shweeb is. I don’t think it’s something I want to do with you.”

The primness of her tone made him chuckle and Claire cursed. That damned chuckle was going to be her undoing. It made her legs wobble.

“Come and see, fair maid. No contact required: just a straight fight, you and me. The loser buys dinner.”

He grinned and Claire felt a responding flutter deep in her stomach.

“Or if your muscles aren’t up to the challenge, you can always come swoop with me.”

Claire had seen the swoop. Plunging to earth in a sleeping bag with her arm wrapped round Neal’s was not going to happen, ever.

She wanted to walk away. The urgent message to her feet wasn’t getting through; they remained stubbornly stuck to the ground as Neal turned on his most sardonic stare.

“You’re the type of girl who does Spinning, right? An hour in the gym before work? This should be a doddle.”

Claire bristled at the accuracy of his barb. So, the Shweeb was a bike? How hard could that be? A quick glance down at Neal’s legs revealed the contours of an athlete.

The look didn’t go unnoticed and Neal put his hands on his hips before turning in a slow pirouette. “Like what you see? Think you can beat me?”

No. But, after all, it was only dinner. What harm in that? And she had to do something worth writing about on the blog. A bike ride sounded easy enough.

*

Claire looked up at the suspended monorail pods hanging like giant fruit on a silver vine.

Crap.

She traced the rail with her eyes, noticing the curves and corners and shuddered. Numbly following the chattering group into the launch area, she allowed herself to be guided into the glass pod.

“Your handle bars are there. The gears are here, click up and down. Stay in a low gear or you’ll burn your muscles beyond the point of recovery. Lean into the corners and good luck.”

Claire listened to the instructions as best she could through the buzzing in her ears. Glancing to her left she could see Neal grinning at her through the window.

The cage shook as someone slammed the door shut. Then she felt a shunt as she was pushed out towards the exit.

“Three, two, one, go!”

Claire almost forgot to peddle, but the forward momentum kick-started her legs without applying to her brain for permission. Clinging onto the handle bars she peddled furiously, muscles burning in reminder of the months since her last spinning class.

Just as she was about to relax and enjoy the physical sensation the pod swung out sideways, leaving her stomach somewhere behind on the curve. Claire swallowed the nausea and focussed on her breathing. She didn’t dare try and locate Neal, although she sensed the pods crossing over each other as the monorails weaved and twisted. Even though she knew there was no chance of beating him, Claire dug in as hard as she could.

Claire had lost all sense of how many laps she’d done, until she saw a flag waving to indicate it was her final time round. Dropping into a lower gear she pushed hard, determined not to be humiliated. She pictured the smug expression on Neal’s face were he to win and pedalled harder.

As the pod slid into the finish point, Claire let her legs drop from the pedals. Someone opened the door and Claire turned, relieved to be able to escape her torture chamber.

“Here, let me help you.”

Claire looked up into the face of her nemesis. His skin glistened, but there were no other visible signs of exertion. He’d finished in enough time to come and help her out her pod.

Bastard.

Ignoring the outstretched hand, Claire climbed out of the machine. Her knees buckled and she felt Neal’s arms around her, keeping her from falling.

“Good effort,” he breathed into her ear. “I believe you owe me dinner.”

He waited until she was standing upright, then brushed his hand down her sweaty back; leaving it lingering on her bottom.

Before she could protest he stepped away and was gone.

***

Running out of Words: 2013 365 Challenge #222

Shooting hoops in a makeshift basket

Shooting hoops in a makeshift basket

The challenge part of my daily blogging adventure is now starting to bite. Finding something new and interesting to write about every single day, then finding something new and interesting for Claire to experience, is proving tricky.

When my life is a monotony of childcare, writing, editing, housework and dog walking, it’s tough to find the new. I’m re-reading old familiar books (Pride and Prejudice at the moment) because I don’t have the time, energy or mental space to start any of the dozens of new books on my ipad. Between editing Baby Blues and staying on top off Two-Hundred Steps Home, I’m full.

It seems even I have a finite amount of words. Me! The girl whose mother still complains she talks too much, and now thinks the same of her children. Me, the girl who famously accompanied her father on a road trip from Sussex to Scotland (around twelve hours), talked non-stop and apparently didn’t repeat herself once. Until the day he died my father wouldn’t let me forget it. Ironic now that it’s my children’s incessant talking that drives me batty.

Football girl

Football girl

It seems strange that it took me so long to realise my career needed to be built around words, rather than numbers. Thousands upon thousands of words are always in my head, jostling for space, clamouring to be heard. But it seems that, finally, the well is dry. Maybe not of words but certainly of ideas.

It’s a common piece of advice for writers that the well must be replenished. Rest, holidays, reading, getting out and experiencing new things, are all essential to a writer to keep them fresh. I long to take a break from blogging, a break from Claire. But with Baby Blues clogging up my free days (it has to be finished by the end of August or it won’t happen this year) I barely have time to research each daily post, never mind getting ahead.

So apologies if this blogging challenge is dragging for you, too. I’ve reached the soggy middle, with 143 posts left to reach the end. I don’t regret starting it for a moment, anymore than I regret getting married or having children. That doesn’t mean that, sometimes, a break (or a full night’s sleep) wouldn’t be welcome.

Maybe it’s time to take a leaf out of Claire’s book and run away to a hostel for a bit. Call it research. Ah, if only! Still at least I can write about it and re-live the time I did just 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: 

_______________________________________________________________________________

The alarm rang through Claire’s pillow and she let out a groan. The barbeque had gone on until late the night before and, although she’d observed the shenanigans over the top of her iPad, it had been entertaining after a fashion; watching the bronzed and beautiful people from the bus slowly drink themselves out of their clothes and into the hot-tub.

She’d torn herself away when the spectacle threatened to become x-rated. Despite only drinking one or two stubbies, as the Kiwi’s called their small cans of lager, her head still felt like it was wrapped in bungee-cord.

Beneath her and across the room two more alarms set up their caterwauling. One a thumping beat of a pop song, the other a clanging bell. More groaning and fumbling around to silence the evil machines followed, and Claire smiled.

If my head hurts this morning, that’s going to be nothing to what those guys are going through.

Trying to remind herself why she’d opted for such an early start, Claire crawled out from beneath her covers and made her slow way down the bunk bed ladder.

Thank goodness I thought to pack last night.

She pulled on the clothes laid on top of her rucksack and stuffed her night things into a pocket. Within five minutes of her alarm waking her, she was outside the room and ready to search for coffee.

*

The queue for the bus was the sorriest sight Claire had ever seen. A dozen ashen faced, subdued, teenagers stood with heads low and earphones in. As she’d already consumed one coffee and was on her second, Claire was able to smile indulgently at their suffering. She was looking forward to the day trip: twelve hours of doing exactly as she was told sounded perfect after a night of little sleep.

Claire climbed on the bus and sat near the window, ready to be wowed by the scenery she had read so much about. Caffeine kept her eyes open, even though the motion of the bus did its best to lull her to sleep. Looking around, she could see that most of her fellow passengers were already snoozing.

What a shame, to miss out on so much.

At the first stop some people didn’t even make it off the bus. Claire walked past them to visit the forest where they were going to “hug a tree”. It seemed a bit hippy, but she’d given herself permission to be a tourist sheep for the day.

Walking through the forest, Claire felt the muscles in her neck straining as she continually gazed up at the enormous kauri trees towering above her. Their trunks stretched smooth all the way to the sky, forming a canopy of leaves high above. Behind her, she heard the guide tell them that hugging a tree would bring good luck.

I’m not hugging a tree; I’ll look like an idiot.

Glancing round, Claire saw people wrapping their arms around the giant kauri trees, their hands not even reaching halfway round the circumference. Soon, she was the only person not embracing the rough bark.

Oh, what the hell. I could do with some luck.

Claire stretched her arms wide and inched her fingers across the ridges in the tree’s surface. Closing her eyes, she rested her face briefly against the bark and listened to the sounds of the woodland. Behind the chattering of the tour group, she heard the busy silence of a forest living a life separated from people. She could almost feel the sap rising under her fingers and the pulsing life of the soil beneath her feet.

Surprised to find tears under her eyelashes, Claire pushed herself away and hurried after the group, who were already heading back to the bus.

*

At last they reached the Cape at the top of the peninsular: the place where the Tasman Sea met the Pacific. Climbing up to the summit, Claire felt as if she were ascending right into the heavens. The sea stretched all around, only slightly darker than the sky. A tiny white lighthouse and a signpost showing how far away they were from the places of the world, were the only evidence of human life.

Beneath them, the two oceans crashed and fought, one light aquamarine, the other royal blue. A long line of white waves marked the clash of their meeting and Claire could feel the power from where she stood, high above the sea.

Leaving the group, she walked towards the point where the grass fell away into nothing. Near the edge, a narrow footpath wound down the cliff side. It reminded her of the tiny path above Old Harry, where she had seen the family gather to say their last farewells to a loved one.

Something drew Claire’s feet forward and she inched her way to the edge, swallowing hard at the sight of the steep drop. She was about to walk further when she heard the sound of someone coming up from below. As she waited the English man from the bus came into view, pulling himself up with his hands on the grass.

“I wouldn’t go too far, it gets pretty lethal down there.” He smiled and, before she could respond, was gone.

Claire sat on her bottom and scooted down the path far enough to be out of sight of the cliff top. The man was right; she could see the dust and rubble of the path below her. Settling herself on the grass, Claire made do with her little place of seclusion. She stared at the sea and allowed herself to get lost in her own thoughts.

*

It was the silence above that alerted her. With a fluttering heart, she turned round and scrambled back up to the top of the bluff. The lighthouse stood alone and proud with no people in sight. Her heartbeat picked up, and she ran to the other side of the building and all the way down to where the bus had been parked. She looked frantically left and right, and ran a little further down the road. But it was pointless.

The bus was gone.

***

I Had a Brain Once: 2013 365 Challenge #211

The notebook page for my Life Writing

The notebook page for my Life Writing

I was recently invited to read a collection of short stories by author Pat Elliott. Another blogger that I follow, Sally Jenkins, also has a collection of short stories that I read and reviewed earlier in the year.

I’ve never been a short-story writer. Followers of this blog will know that I tend to the verbose, and so keeping a story to 1000 or 2000 words is almost impossible. Only once did a story come fully-formed in my mind in short format. I wrote it to see if I could break into the impenetrable womags market and, when it failed to do so, I abandoned the idea (much as I did with my attempts to write Mills & Boon).*

However, reading these collections of short stories made me wonder if I had any stories from my time studying Creative Writing at the Open University that could be worked on, partly for editing practice, and partly as a project to slot in between publishing Baby Blues and Class Act. (Have I mentioned before my short attention span? Or how addictive publishing books can be?)

Sally Jenkins Short Story Collection

Sally Jenkins Short Story Collection

So I had a gander through my assignments and did find one or two stories that I was proud of. There’s a piece of life writing, too, although I recall that I gave it to my students, when I taught Creative Writing for a couple of terms, and they tore it to shreds, so I’m guessing that needs some work (I wish I’d thought to take notes on their critique!).

There’s also an issue with the life writing in that it talks about people I know, and not always in a positive way. I have to decide whether to cut those bits out, hope those people never read my stuff, or rewrite it as fiction.

I found a collection of five poems I wrote as my final assignment in my work folder – again life writing, but this time addressed to my father after his death. Does poetry sell? Could I include them in a collection of short stories? Should I scrap the whole idea as too commercial, and stick to novels, or is it good to show your versatility as a writer? Who knows.

The other thing I discovered, going through my old study notes, is how much I actually knew (or sounded like I knew) about writing. The notes that went with the poems for my final assignment said things like this:

I believe poetry should ‘happen between tongue and teeth’ [Dunn, CD2], and I write to that end.  I like to include alliteration and enjambment to move the poem forward.  When I read these poems out loud, some of the enjambment seemed to jar the rhythm.  However I decided I liked the effect, as it mimicked the suddenness of death and how it jolts the familiar. For example ‘Like hands they wave goodbye.’ and ‘Already they are dying’ (May, lines 8 and 16).

Pat Elliott's New Collection

Pat Elliott’s New Collection

And this –

Feedback highlighted some trochees that disturbed the rhythm, so I reworked those lines. It was also suggested that I change the many 11-beat lines, but I like feminine endings [Herbert, ‘Form’, 2006, p.240] and so left these in place.

Huh?

Oh my, I used to know stuff. I had a brain, once, before it turned to fromage frais through lack of sleep. I enjoyed writing poetry, too, yet I never write it now. I doubt I would have the vocabulary for it, as the first thing that disappears when I haven’t slept is my command of the English Language. Still, it was a fun trip through memory lane, and add another line to my very long list of projects to do ‘one day’.

*Please don’t take from this that I’m a quitter: I know my forte is full-length novels, but there are bills to pay, so I have tried to find enthusiasm for the more commercial routes. I failed.

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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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Sky skipped alongside Claire as they walked from the car to the theatre. Dark clouds gathered in Claire’s mind, the closer they got, despite the clear twilight sky. Claire looked up at the deep blue overhead. Thank God for small mercies. Even though the seats were covered, she knew the stage was in the open, and it wasn’t likely to improve Kim’s mood if she got drenched during the performance.

Eyes darting left and right, Claire followed the throng of people, trying not to be irritated by jostling picnic baskets and raucous laughter. The intention had been to bring a picnic and come early with Sky, but Jenny hadn’t returned her until six o’clock, by which time it was too late.

As it was, they’d only managed to find a parking space by grace of the Skoda’s narrow width, squeezing in between a Range Rover and a Lexus. The car looked ill at ease, as if intimidated by its neighbours. Claire had given it a pat, and vowed to be either the first or last to leave.

“Auntie Claire?”

Looking down, Claire realised her niece had been talking to her. “Sorry, darling, I didn’t catch that.”

“Will we see Jeff? You said your friend Kim is in the play, so will Jeff be here? I liked him, he was funny.”

Claire’s stomach plummeted to her feet. Crap. It hadn’t occurred to her that she might bump into anyone she knew, never mind Kim’s husband. She shivered. The word husband raised unwelcome images of the last time she had seen her friend.

“I guess so, poppet. We’ll keep an eye out for him.” And duck behind the nearest tree if we see him.

They took their seats and Claire arranged a blanket across Sky’s knees. The girl sat wide-eyed in the dark, taking in all the details of the stage beneath them, where painted scenery nestled amid real trees.

The performance began and Claire forgot to be anxious, as the unfolding story pulled her in. Glancing sideways at Sky, she wondered if her niece would manage to follow all the complicated language or if she would be bored. The girl sat forward in her chair, one hand on her chin, the other cupping her elbow in support. With her long golden hair around her shoulders she wouldn’t have looked out of place flitting between the trees with the Queen of the Fairies.

As Act I ended, Claire felt the tension tighten beneath her ribcage. It was a long time since she’d seen or read the play, but she was certain Puck came on in the second act. Her breathing shallow, she turned her face back to the stage in time to see a red-haired puck swing down from a tree to accost a fairy.

“How now, spirit! Whither wander you?”

The voice cut through Claire, and she realised for the first time that she hadn’t been sure Kim would be on the stage. Her friend’s words from what felt like eons ago came back to her. If the director finds out I’m pregnant, he’ll give the role to the understudy. Glad that Michael’s outburst hadn’t cost Kim her job, Claire settled back to enjoy her performance.

Their seats were about twenty rows from the stage. Far enough away that Claire felt able to watch without fearing that Kim would see her in the audience. She sensed a movement next to her, and felt Sky turn to face her.

“Look, Auntie Claire, there’s Kim!”

The girl’s whisper penetrated the auditorium, and was greeted with chuckles and a few whispered demands for silence. Claire’s heart thumped loudly as she added her request to her niece to be quiet. Returning her attention to the stage, she realised that Kim was looking directly at her, and the expression on her face was unmistakeable. Her eyes burned with a fury that stopped Claire’s heart.

***

Enlightenment: 2013 365 Challenge #206

A lightbulb moment

A lightbulb moment

I had a great discussion with a fellow author recently. We discussed, among other things, my inability to be mean to my characters. In response to my saying, “I actually have a huge capacity to imagine the worst that can happen, especially since having children, I just don’t like to write about it.”

Vozey said,

“Then, look at yourself. Sometimes it isn’t that we are being mean to our characters, than that we are reliving and remember things that are important and painful to us.”

This was a lightbulb moment for me. This was my (slightly edited) response – Most of my Chick Lit protagonists are a version of me, in one form or another. My YA novel, on the other hand, has a lead protagonist that is nothing like me (not intentionally, anyway!) and it was easier to have bad things happen, particularly the kind of things that a 16 year old might think bad (boyfriends, parents and stuff). I really want to try my hand at Middle Grade Fantasy fiction – I love reading it precisely because the bad things that happen are more external than internal.

He also gave me a great pep talk: “Doubt. I’m sure at several points you’ve thought you wouldn’t finish a novel. You did didn’t you? I know I think that sometimes, but I know that I will.”

I’m back where I was five years ago when I thought I’d never write a novel, and yet now I’ve completed two. I can learn to plot, and structure, and be mean. I maybe need to stop using me, and people from my own life, as base templates. Or maybe I do need to stick to YA and MG. I’ve just had to leave the lounge because the programme hubbie is watching got too violent, and still the images linger in my brain. Since having children my (already minimal) stomach for anything violent, mean or nasty is non-existent. Becoming a writer has in some ways made it worse: I can write different endings, people in the real world can’t.

I think, the more fertile the imagination – the more acute the empathy – the harder it is to live in reality! The world can be a tough place to live, I want to make it better, not worse! Perhaps I should learn how to write endearing children’s picture books 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: 

________________________________________________________________________________

Claire stared at the email until the words blurred. Blinking fast, she checked it again. If this number isn’t set in stone, it means there could be even more on offer. The figure in Carl’s email was twice her current salary, with a bonus to make her eyes water, as and when she completed her tour of all the YHA hostels.

Speculation sprinted through Claire’s mind. This can’t be just because of writing a few blog posts. There must be something else going on.

With a few taps of the screen, Claire loaded up her blog stats. She hadn’t looked in a while, because the paltry figures were demoralising. The graph bore no resemblance to the one she had last viewed. The little bars built exponentially. The viewing figures for that day alone were in the thousands.

What the…?

Scrolling back, Claire tried to see which post had sparked the increase. It was impossible to make sense of the numbers on her tiny phone screen. Her heart fluttered like a new-born child, fast and shallow. Trying to jump down from the wall, the trembling in her legs gave a pre-warning before she collapsed into the sand. Sitting in a tangle of legs, Claire laughed until the tears ran down her cheeks.

What a mess. Why didn’t I check my stats before I resigned? She thought about it, as the chill of the sand seeped through her jeans. Would l have done it? Her eyes widened in horror. Does Carl think I only resigned to force his hand; to get more money?

She thought back to their conversation, when he had asked her why she was leaving, intimating that the lure of a fancy car had precipitated her resignation. All the mirth drained away, and she shuffled across the sand to lean her shoulders against the wall.

Her words came back to her, barely audible through the tinny sound of the amusement arcade music still playing behind her, only partially muffled by the wall. No man, no money, no shiny car or bigger office. Just an opportunity to make a difference; to be me. To live a little in the real world.

Claire shivered and pulled herself up, walking along the beach to the steps. This isn’t just a bigger car. This is a chance to save a significant amount of money, to fund my future. That amount of cash going into my account, while I live in hostels on expenses; that’s life changing. I could help Ruth, I could fulfil any dream, if I only stick it out for a year.

With a jolt Claire realised she didn’t have a dream. Aside from a vague interest in travel writing and an impulsive urge to visit the other side of the world, there was nothing in her future to pull her forward.

Walking blindly, Claire didn’t realise she was lost until the change in sound alerted her. The noise filling her ears was no longer the grating tone of the amusement arcade, but the mellow tones of a man singing, with the twang of an electric guitar.

Dragged from her reverie, Claire looked up and saw she was outside a pub. The sight reminded her of her intention to call Josh; that she’d only gone for a walk to kill time and to get something to eat. Carl’s phone call had driven the thought from her mind, and her gurgling tummy reminded her that she still hadn’t eaten.

Without hesitating to wonder whether going into a local pub alone was a good idea, Claire pushed through the door and found herself in a dim, cosy interior that smelt of sweat and beer. The low-ceilinged room felt crowded, but she was able to get to the bar without making eye contact with any of the punters. The entertainment was set up in a corner, and most eyes were focussed on the singer.

Shouting over the music, Claire asked if the pub served food. With a shake of his head, the barman indicated that crisps and pork scratchings were all he could offer. Cursing her stupidity, Claire ordered a gin & tonic and two bags of crisps. While the barman prepared her drink, she looked around to find an empty table. Her heart rose when she spied one in the corner, shielded from the live music.

Claire wove her way to the secluded corner, praying no one accosted her. When she reached her destination unmolested, her overwhelming sensation was surprise. Are people really polite in Swanage, or are they ignoring me because I’m not a local?

Glad of the anonymity and the loud music drowning out her troubled thoughts, Claire ate her meagre dinner and tried to formulate a plan. Was a dream essential, to enjoy life? She was pretty certain no-one she knew had a burning ambition to do anything more than pay the bills and buy the things that made working bearable. Now she thought about it, the fact struck her as sad. Aside from Ruth, who at least had Sky to focus on, the only person she knew with a dream was Kim, with her ambition to become a famous actress. As unlikely as it was, at least it was a tangible goal.

Thinking about Kim increased Claire’s sadness. She would see her friend in two days, but what kind of greeting would she get? Kim hadn’t answered any of her calls or messages since the wedding. She couldn’t believe their friendship was irrevocably broken, but it was starting to look that way.

If Josh’s wife forgave him for running away to the other side of the world, surely Kim can forgive me for revealing her secret to Michael? It wasn’t my fault he blurted it out to everyone.

All the elation from earlier seeped away, as Claire drained the last of her gin. She was still contemplating whether to drink another and drown her sorrows completely, when a familiar voice hailed her from near the door. With a start she looked up, unable at first to see who had recognised her in this backwater place.

Her searching gaze met a smiling pair of glass-green eyes, and her heart gave a lurch. Conor, that’s all I need. As if I haven’t got enough to think about. She was tempted to drop her head and ignore his hail, but knew it was too soon to burn any bridges. Tempting as Carl’s offer was, it wouldn’t hurt to keep the options open.

She raised her hand in greeting, and Conor threaded his way through the crowd to her table.

“Enjoying yourself? I told you Swanage was a great place.” He leant close, to allow his words to be heard over the music.

Claire inhaled the overpowering scent of his aftershave and leaned back slightly as the man filled her personal space.

“Can I get you another drink?” Conor nodded at her empty glass.

Claire didn’t want to stay; her mind was jumbled enough without being on friendly terms with the man who wanted to be her boss. Unable to think of an excuse without appearing rude, Claire nodded her head.

“Yes, please.”

As she watched him take her glass back to the bar, Claire fought an overwhelming urge to cry.

***