2013 365 Challenge: Some Lessons Learned

Conquering mountains

Conquering mountains

For anyone new to the blog (where have you been? *grin*) I spent last year undertaking a writing experiment I called the 2013 365 Challenge.

I set myself a tri-fold task: I would write a blog post everyday, I would include pictures in every post (mostly from what I had been doing that day) and I would write an installment of a novel every day. Not just serialise a novel already written, or write 10,000 words at the beginning of the month and parcel it up, but sit down every single day and think of something new to happen in my novel.

I set myself rules, too. I would try and post by 10am every day (which I mostly did!) I would collate each set of installments into a free monthly ebook and publish it by the last day of the month (which I mostly did). And, most importantly, I would not go back and change things (which I didn’t, aside from typos and spelling mistakes, which slipped through due to tiredness, and – once – when I accidentally changed the name of a character to one in the novel I was also editing at the time. I changed that for the sake of readers’ sanity. But I never changed more than a word at a time).

I think reaching the end of my challenge, the end of Claire’s (my protagonist’s) story, and realising I had written 285,000 words in a year and published them, counts as one of my greatest life achievements.

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

It isn’t Pulitzer Prize winning fiction. In some places it rambles. In many places I’m sure the lack of editing is obvious. But, still, hundreds of people read it and enjoyed it (as far as I can tell, by almost as many copies of the later volumes being downloaded as the first one). I felt like I reached the mountain top and the view was amazing.

Most importantly, I learned so much about being a writer that, even if I hadn’t had a single download, I think I would consider it time well spent. (Although, if I hadn’t had a single download I probably wouldn’t have made it past January, as knowing people were expecting the next installment was often the only thing giving me the motivation to write when all I wanted to do was sleep.)

I’m still processing all the things I learned from my challenge, but I promised in yesterday’s post that I would write some of them down. So these are the things that occur to me right now:

  • It really is important to write every day. That is probably more true for the blogging than the novel challenge, actually. I’m working on my current novel only three days a week (as I used to before the 2013 365 Challenge) but writing something everyday keeps the words flowing
  • You can write great prose even when you’re tired and uninspired (in fact, sometimes having half my brain worried about other things kept my conscious brain busy and left my creative sub-consciousness to get on with it)
  • Writing to a deadline sharpens the mind. Knowing you have to write something, anything, in the next hour, frees you from restraint.
  • Writing to a deadline can also cause terrible writer’s block. Knowing you have to write something, anything, in the next hour can make the white screen the most terrifying thing in the world
  • If the white screen scares you, turn it off and write somewhere else. Tap out a text message, scribble on an envelope. Once the words start flowing, it’s easy
  • Walking sets a great rhythm for dialogue. If I ever got stuck with a scene of dialogue, getting outside and walking the dog helped the words come. The conversation would run in my head in time to my footsteps and all I had to do was write it down
  • Research can spark off new and exciting ideas. Many of my best installments were triggered from a Tripadvisor review. Reading about other people’s experiences can set off a train of thought that leads to a new story, character, or source of conflict.
  • Keep your characters moving. If they must have internal dialogue or introspection, having the protagonist physically moving can give interest and momentum. Claire did some of her best thinking while hiking along cliffs or driving country lanes. It also makes it easier to match scene to mood: a lashing thunderstorm made a great backdrop for a moment of angst
  • Weather is important. It isn’t always sunny. Using Google StreetView to look at different parts of the UK also gave me impetus to write about different types of weather. Now I know to think about the weather and make sure it’s appropriate both for the time of year and mood of scene (see above)
  • Character arcs are fun. Having Claire change from a shallow work-driven career woman into a nature-loving, child-hugging, self-aware woman was very satisfying.
  • Nasty characters can be fun, too. When Claire’s brother turned out to be an utter git (which I hadn’t completely anticipated) I absolutely loved writing his scenes. We don’t often get to say mean things in real life and not feel guilty afterwards. Writing is cathartic
  • Your own experiences are a limitless resource. I used many things from my own life, including (but not exclusively) my time in hospital having my second child; my father’s cancer; my breakdown and subsequent depression; my year living, working and travelling around New Zealand; summers spent in Swanage with my father; hiking holidays in the Lake District, my time working as a Marketing Manager
  • Friends are also great resources. Two examples that spring to mind are when I used emotional anecdotes (not the details) from my paediatrician friend to get inside Josh’s mind, and an accidental conversation with a friend who used to live in the Lake District that greatly enhanced my Grasmere episode.
  • The mind is a well that can run dry. Whether I write 1,000 words a day for a week or 8,000 words in a day, my overall work rate stays fairly level. I just can’t generate the ideas to write more than 10,000 words in a week. The brain needs time to refill and replenish
  • Coffee shops and town centres are great places to refill the mind. Eavesdropping on conversations and watching how people interact can help to create stories
  • Reading is just as important as writing. Immersing yourself in a well-written book can fill the word-well in the mind and reinvigorate an exhausted muse
  • Formatting for Smashwords and Kindle are really boring but actually fairly straightforward. It helps to format as you draft, if it isn’t too distracting. I’ve learned to do it when I’m waiting for the next idea to come, or while watching TV
  • People don’t leave reviews for free books

I’m sure there are loads more things I’ve learned and I’m equally sure that some of these things only apply to me and not to all writers. Looking at the list, though, it makes me realise how far I have come as a writer and how much my confidence has grown. Turning up to work every day, whether I wanted to or not, moved me from “aspiring writer” to “writer”. I just need to make sure I keep it going! This year’s (unofficial) challenge is to build on my learning and concentrate on the craft of writing. Quality over quantity. I’ll keep you posted.

The End. For Now. 2013 365 Challenge #365

The Final THSH Cover

The Final THSH Cover

Hurrah. I made it. Claire’s journey is finished, for now. She’s found a new home and what I suspect will be only the beginning of fresh adventures. Already the new characters intrigue me. Timothy, for example: he’s Maggie’s gentleman friend but for some reason I think he might lean the other way. Eddie is going to be a real handful. And the quiet Kayla might surprise everyone.

You’ll have to wait though. I have other novels to write, sleep to catch up on, books to read, before I even think about picking up Claire’s journey again. I want to start immediately, but I think we all need a break. I’ll be making notes, though, and any feedback is of course always gratefully received.

If you enjoyed the series, tell your friends. I hope to pull the entire 365 installments into one ebook at some point soon, although I won’t be editing it (except for any typos that I discover). The raw first draft (albeit one that was line-edited as I went along) is part of the challenge and should stand untouched. I’m proud of it as it is.

So, what’s next? After the sleeping and the reading and the hopefully shifting this cold finally because I’ve had it for weeks? Well, Class Act needs work. It’s currently a 50,000 word romance that I have plans to extend into a full length novel. Then there’s Finding Lucy. And a sequel to Dragon Wraiths. And of course a continuation of Claire’s adventures in Cornwall. I’m going to miss her and Conor, although it’s good to miss people!

The blog might be quiet for a while. Or it might not. I think stopping blogging might be like coming off the Christmas chocolate: both a challenge and a relief. I’ll see you when I see you. Please hang about and if you see only this post for a while, please understand! Maybe I’ll have more time to read and comment on some of your blogs now. That said, as it has been raining for the last two days, and my head is fizzing with blog entry ideas, it might not be quiet for all that long!

Wishing you all an amazing New Year and here’s to a 2014 full of words.

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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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Her clothes filled the small wardrobe; her rucksack sat empty in the dark recess of the cupboard, tatty after its long journey. She could never have imagined, back when Carl had presented her with it as a leaving gift, that she could become so attached to a bag.

“We’ve come a long way, you and I. Time for a rest, for you at least.”

Claire laughed as she realised talking to an inanimate object was probably the first sign of craziness.

Maybe I am crazy. Do crazy people ever actually know that they are?

She thought about leaving Conor standing alone on the beach, and shivered. It had been two days and he hadn’t tried to contact her. She didn’t know if that made it easier or not. Dozens of unsent messages sat on her phone, taunting her. Her last words echoed continually in her mind, like a song stuck on repeat.

The man I love like breathing.

She considered it, as she walked across the tiny room to gaze at the ever-changing view of the sea. Was it true? Did she love him? Could you love someone on such a short acquaintance?

But it wasn’t short, was it? Four months is a long time, and he’s been there for me since day one. All the time in New Zealand and every time I needed someone since I returned.

Dwelling only intensified the pain. She cast one last look around her room and felt a glimmer of a smile through her grief. Her room. It felt good.

Downstairs, the children were finishing dinner. Claire hadn’t spent much time with them over the weekend. Timothy seemed to instinctively know she needed space to settle in, and had quietly assured her that she had no duties until Monday morning. She attended meals and sat in the shared lounge to read and think. Sometimes she nestled in the window seat she’d discovered along a corridor, overlooking the sea, and listened to the children giggling in their rooms. The sound of laughter rang constantly throughout the old building.

Outside, the sky hung overcast. She wandered through the bushes and trees until she reached the rolling lawn that led down towards the sea. Within minutes she had scrambled down the rocky path to the private beach.

A group of children clambered amongst the rock pools under the watchful eye of Eddie. He raised his hand in greeting and she nodded in return before heading to the other end of the sand.

Thinking she really needed to buy a surfboard, Claire found her favourite rock and climbed on it. Sitting with her arms clasped around her knees she stared out at the horizon and let the peace wrap around her like a blanket.

*

A tapping at the door roused Claire from a doze. She checked the time and was surprised to discover she’d been asleep for an hour. Thinking it must be Timothy wanting to remind her about something for the morning, she rolled off the bed and went to open the door.

She grasped the frame for support as her questioning gaze met a pair of familiar green eyes.

“Hello, Claire.”

“What? How did you know where to find me? How did you get in?”

“A bit of research found the centre and a chat with your man Timothy meant he let me in. Seems he’s a sucker for a romance.”

“You could be a stalker or a murderer.” She frowned, unsure how she felt about the invasion of her privacy.

“I showed him this.” Conor held up his phone to show a photograph of the two of them in bed, tangled in the sheets.

Claire stepped back into the room to hide the blood rushing to her cheeks. “You’d better come in.”

Uncomfortably aware that the room held only a bed, she waited for Conor to perch on one end of it, before going to stand, arms folded, by the window.

“Why are you here?”

“To ask why you keep running away from me without letting me speak, woman. I had something to add to your marvellous speech, you know.”

He stood up and crossed the room, coming to a stop only inches away from her. He leant in until his lips brushed the hair near her ear, sending flurries of heat across her skin.

“I love you, too.”

*

Claire rested her head against Conor’s shoulder and stared out the window at the multi-hued sky. They had talked long into the night, until the dawn light began to paint the horizon in stripes of silver and pink. Her head ached with the fog of missed sleep, and she knew her first day at work was going to be a disaster, but her heart felt like a bird floating on an updraft.

She looked around the tiny room, listening to the heartbeat and slow, sonorous, breathing of the man beside her. It wasn’t ideal, agreeing to a long-distance love affair, but she didn’t care. He loved her and she loved him; that was all that mattered. The rest was just geography.

As she lay in his arms and watched the sun rise, she realised she had finally found what she had searched for through two hundred long days – through a lifetime – something that wasn’t outside the window, or even in the room, but rather in her heart. A contentment; a sense of belonging and of peace.

She was home.

***

Nearly There: 2013 365 Challenge #364

My sister bought me this for Christmas!

My sister bought me this for Christmas!

Oh my goodness, here we are, my penultimate post of 2013. When I started the 365 Challenge back in early January, I wasn’t sure I’d make it to the end of the month, never mind the end of the year. By Day 4 I was just beginning to realise what was involved.

It wasn’t merely committing to writing 1,000 words a day (on average: some days a post can be nearer 2,000 when both parts are combined) but also finding time to edit and proofread those words; to make sure each post entry and each novel installment made sense; then adding photographs, tags, categories and getting it live.

I feel like I’ve come a long way.

When I began a year ago, I thought the daily novel would be the main part. I hoped to get blog followers from people who wanted to carry on reading what I was writing. That didn’t happen on the blog, but rather over on Smashwords, where the downloads across all volumes number in the thousands. Here on the blog, while the increase in followers hasn’t been massive, I feel more like I have made some really great friends. I’ve met fellow writers, artists and parents, I’ve discovered one or two amazing Beta Readers, I’ve felt – like Claire – that I’ve found my way home.

I’ve also grown as a writer. My confidence in my ability to write is significantly greater now, after the countless hours I’ve invested in Two-Hundred Steps Home. I know, now, that I can write and polish a 500-word blog post, or a 750-word scene in a novel, in under an hour.

Thank you to my amazing kids!

Thank you to my amazing kids!

I can research anything I feel the need to discuss, from a remote pub in New Zealand to what it really means to survive suicide. I can format and self-publish a novella in a few hours and get it through Smashwords’ Autovetter first time (although I haven’t resolved my issue with their Premium Catalogue!)

Best of all, I’ve learned how to edit my own stuff and Beta-read for others. When I began my journey I was trying to proofread Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes (or Pictures of Love, as it was back then). I couldn’t do it. Line-editing left me cold. Now I know that I have to do it in chunks, and then there is a delight in crafting the words and making the sentences flow.

Let’s not leave out that I’ve written 285,000 words of fiction this year, and will have published it as 12 separate volumes, each with a cover designed by me. On top of that, I estimate that I’ve written a further 200,000 words in blog posts. That’s nearly half a million words. In one year. If they were novels, I would have drafted out five. Five! During 2 or 3 days of childcare and lots of late night sessions.

I couldn’t have done it without my family. My husband has been amazing. He’s my best critic and my biggest fan. He’s taken the children when I’ve needed to write (I couldn’t have done the challenge if he hadn’t been had home for most of the year), he’s put up with me sleeping on the sofa then prising my eyes open at 10pm to tap out five hundred words. He’s put up with a dirty house and takeaway pizza.

My poor children have dealt marvellously with a tired and grumpy Mummy who constantly has her laptop open or is always taking pictures “for the blog”.

My amazing family

My amazing family

Their recompense is that they have this unique diary of a year of their lives. Reading back through my posts is to read through some of the highs and lows of being a parent (and a human being).

None of my posts are likely to see me Freshly Pressed: I may have learnt to write fast, but I haven’t learned to write profoundly. Still, it’s all been written truthfully and from the heart.

And so I thank you all for listening. Without readers, followers, this would all be me shouting into the wind. Knowing people cared about me, about Claire, about the story, has kept me going.

The support of people on this blog has also led to me releasing two of my novels this year also; something I still find incredible.

To anyone thinking about undertaking a writing challenge in 2014 I say, “Do it!” And, so you don’t quit, get out there and tell people. Get support. Face humiliation for failing. Because some days the only thing that got my tired body up and at the laptop was the fear of failure. Not that failing is bad. I love the Samuel Beckett Quote “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Don’t be afraid to fail. As I said to my daughter, when she threw a tantrum for losing at her second-only ever game of checkers this evening, “It’s not winning or losing that counts, it’s having fun along the way.”

And it’s been fun. Mostly. 😉 See you tomorrow for the final installment!

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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 could barely swallow the food. Her throat felt as if it was lined with grit. She put down her fork and sipped at her water. Across the table, Conor’s plate was equally full. They’d exchanged only pleasantries since arriving at the restaurant. The longer they sat, the harder it was to speak the words that hovered between them like a flock of hungry seagulls.

“Walk with me.” Conor’s eyes pleaded with her and she nodded. While she retrieved her cardigan and bag he went to pay the bill. They left the restaurant in silence and she followed him down through the high street towards the shore.

The sun had sunk below the horizon and streetlights cast shadows across the empty beach. Out on the water a few boats bobbed like ghosts, but it was a far cry from the crowds of the Carnival only weeks before. With the children back at school there was an air of ending about the town; a sadness that tugged at Claire like a riptide and pulled her under.

What must it be like to live in a seaside town, where the passing of the seasons takes a back seat to ebb and flow of the tourist trade?

She wondered if she would feel the same at the activity centre, but knew that she wouldn’t. Timothy planned to take children all year round, with summer camps in the long vacation and school trips for the rest of the year. While the nearest town was a tourist resort, it also had a harbour and a university. Different blends of life intertwining to provide a tapestry of endless change.

And where will I fit in, in that tapestry? She didn’t know the answer, but knew it didn’t matter.

They walked along the shore, to the mournful sound of the tide sucking at the stones only to fall away. Conor took her hand loosely in his and the touch of his skin sent sparks across her body. She yearned to turn and yield to his embrace.

“When do you start?”

Claire jumped as his voice came loudly out of the dark. She didn’t need to ask what he meant.

“Monday.”

“So soon?”

She heard the pain and hardened herself against it. “The first school group arrived this week. They need me.”

“And what about me? What if I need you?” Before she could respond, he spoke again. “Sorry, that’s unfair. God knows you’ve done enough for other people this year. I don’t want to be another duty.”

He dropped her hand and ran his fingers through his hair as if trying to stop himself flying apart. She could just make out his face in the gloom and saw him give a wry smile.

“I tried. Really I did. I wanted to support you in whatever decision you made. But then it was so perfect, spending time with you, and I couldn’t imagine letting you go. I still can’t.”

He reached up to stroke her face, before letting his arm fall again. “Why?” The word hung in the dark and she didn’t know how to respond. “Why is it so important to you to go?”

She searched her thoughts for answers. “Honestly? I don’t know. All I know is that I have to do this. If it means losing you, being lonely forever, then that’s the price I have to pay.”

Once she started speaking, the words wouldn’t stop. They rushed on relentless, like the incoming tide. “I’ve spent my life living the role I thought was expected of me. At home, at school, at work. I have to find my own path, even if that means slipping down the odd cliff.”

She saw him smile at the memory; a sad, nostalgic smile as they both pictured a bedraggled woman covered in grazes. She tore her gaze away and looked over his shoulder at the ocean, glimmering in the dusk. Memories would only imprison her in a life she wasn’t ready to live.

As if answering a question he hadn’t articulated, or maybe a question from her heart, she continued, “Yes, it’s worth it. Yes I’ll sacrifice having an iPad and a shiny car, a career with prospects, even the man I love like breathing, if it means I can be true to myself.”

The word love reverberated around them. When he reached for her, she saw the longing in his eyes and felt herself waver. She had to escape before her resolve crumbled into dust, eroded like the limestone cliffs that anchored his heart in a town which would never be home.

Stretching up on tiptoe, she brushed a kiss across his lips, then turned and ran up the beach, before he could see the tears falling down her cheeks.

***

Boxing Day and Family: 2013 365 Challenge #361

Decorating the box boat

Decorating the box boat

Today is Boxing Day in the UK. For many it’s Christmas Day Mark 2, when the rest of the rellies visit or are visited. As a child and into adulthood it was my ‘Other Christmas’, as I alternated between divorced parents year after year.

I think sometimes that’s why Christmas has never been uber exciting for me: it was always “whose Christmas is it, where are we this year?” and visiting my Dad was never easy.

Now he’s gone, of course I wish nothing more than to be travelling down the A1 with my children to see the grandpa they never got to meet.

That said, I have enjoyed having a day home with my immediate family today. A quiet morning watching Princess and the Frog (well, I watched it, the kids gave up and played on the ipad) followed by a trip to get coffee and magazines.

Assembling the trampoline

Assembling the trampoline

In the afternoon Grandpa popped over and he and Daddy assembled the giant 14ft trampoline which is ostensibly the kids’ Christmas gift but might become Mummy’s new workout place. We’ll see how the knees cope.

We were lucky enough to catch up with most of our extended family on Christmas Eve and yesterday. Hubbie’s sister and nephew Skyped from Italy on Christmas Eve and my sister and Family Skyped from the States 9am Christmas morning to show off their gifts. Grandad called from a cruise ship in the middle of the Tasmanian sea, on the other side of the world, without even a hint of delay on the line. I shared pictures and videos on Facebook as gifts were opened.

With my family at the end of an internet connection, there was no need to be in the car today. Though I’ll be the first to admit it isn’t ideal. The best Christmas ever was when they were all around my kitchen table (and my amazing mother still did the cooking); but it isn’t lonely.

Bouncing high

Bouncing high

With an afternoon in the chilly sun with excited children watching their gift being built, without a sale or a shop in sight, it was a perfect Boxing Day. They even managed to get in a quick bounce before the setting sun spread dew across the surface and it became more an ice rink than a trampoline.

Of course at 4.30pm, having been up since 6am on five hours’ sleep, with the kids still going strong, I am about ready for the day to be over. I’m walking the dog instead. Only 2 hours of board games and rock guitar until bedtime (for them at least: I still have to get Claire home!)

A little PS as a writer – the weather has totally defined this Christmas. It wouldn’t have been half as magical without the blue skies and lack of predicted stormy weather. Something to think about.

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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 scanned the posts on her blog again and opened her eyes wide. According to her calculations, her first Monday at her new job working for Timothy would mark two-hundred days since she left for Berwick-Upon-Tweed. All those months of thinking the two-hundred steps signified the two hundred hostels, and in the end it meant something completely different.

And will I be home? Not the home I started from, that’s for sure.

She thought back to her apartment in Manchester, her car, her job. It wasn’t just another lifetime away, it belonged to another person. She would no more fit in that world now than that Claire would be comfortable here, sitting on a red velour sofa by the fireplace in an Edwardian villa, looking out the window at Lyme Bay and wondering if there was any surf.

Her previous life felt meaningless, frivolous. Working to buy things to make up for spending so much time working. With all her possessions in storage she felt unfettered and able to fly. But she also felt an emptiness that frightened her. Without the need to strive for success, what was there? Where was life’s meaning? What was the point of getting up every day?

She put down her laptop and rubbed her eyes. Despite knowing the presentation backwards, her stomach still bubbled like a hot spring when she thought about delivering it in the morning. She knew the real reason for her nerves, and pushed the unwelcome thought away. Walking over to the window, she tried to look past the fenced-in  scrubland directly in front of the hostel, to see the endless shingle of Chesil beach. All she could make out was a line of blue, back lit against dark storm clouds.

Suddenly she needed to be outside, under the moody skies. She grabbed the laptop and hurried back to her room. She cursed as she tangled the laces on her hiking boots, tugging at them until they threatened to snap. Tied at last, she pulled on her waterproof jacket, pocketed her phone, and headed out.

*

From a distance, Chesil beach had appeared to be a golden arc of glorious sand. After walking along it for an hour, Claire could testify that it was anything but. Her ankles ached from trying to keep balance on the endless pebbles, and she wondered why she hadn’t turned back. Did she intend to walk the full eighteen miles? What then; walk eighteen miles back? What was she trying to prove?

With no answers, Claire continued on. The sea talked to her endlessly as she walked; the waves rushing in only to fall back with a hissing sigh. Over and over the waves caressed the indifferent shore, and each time they uttered a drawn-out exhalation on the futility of life. It was a mournful sound but , at the same time, it provided comfort. The ticking clock of nature.

The waves grew higher, stronger. Great plumes of white foam swirled up the beach at an angle, surging towards Claire’s feet as if seeking to drag her back into the frothy deep. She’d read in the guide book that the waves created a lethal undertow and that surfing and swimming were only for the suicidal.

Now and then she passed fishermen and women, staring out to sea next to a stationary rod.

I wonder if they catch anything. Or if they even want to.

She stopped once, some distance behind one of the solitary figures, and followed their gaze out to sea. The quiet roar of the ocean became the only sound and, as she stood motionless, Claire felt herself swaying with the pulse of the universe. A sudden surge of water broke the stillness and – like the lightning at the festival earlier in the week – reminded her of the power of nature and the insignificance of man.

After all, what is a failed romance to the infinite universe? A spec of sand on an eighteen-mile beach.

Claire stooped and scooped up a handful of wet pebbles. They glistened in bright hues of red and brown, orange and grey. She knew the beauty would disappear when they dried and they would become ordinary stones, unremarkable. But drenched by the engulfing waves they shone like gemstones.

Still crouched by the edge of the tide, Claire looked along the beach as far as she could. Despite the ache deep inside where her affection for Conor lay broken, she felt a sense of peace, of oneness with something greater than herself. She felt refreshed, as if she too had been washed clean by the never-ending waves. As if it was her time to reveal her true colours.

She stood and put her shoulders back. Turning to face the way she had come, Claire walked back to the hostel and whatever the morning would bring.

***

Time Slipping Away: 2013 365 Challenge #356

Cobh Cathedral West Side by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Cobh Cathedral West Side by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

I must apologise to regular Claire followers if this month’s installments are a bit jumpy and disjointed (and longer than usual!) I’ve never been much good at writing to a word count, and my darling characters do have a habit of wandering off on their own.

I always knew it couldn’t be a month of real time writing, with only a day covered by each installment, because I needed Claire to get to the end of her three month assignment by the end of book twelve. Having only covered four or five months since the beginning of the year, it was always going to be a tricky ask.

Then Claire had so much fun with her nephews in volume eleven that not enough time passed, and now I’m having to dip in on the story to make sure it doesn’t all drag on into the New Year. It’s only meant to be a 365 day challenge, not 400. Still, there are so many things I want to write about. The B&B she stays in with Conor in Ireland. The hotel in Plymouth. Her adventures with the Brownies in Exmoor. I still know everything she’s doing, most of the places she is going to. Does it feel rushed? If so, I’m really sorry.

I’ve caught myself out a couple of times, too, by speeding through – for example moving Claire on to meet Maggie before Conor had a chance to invite her to the christening – and it’s frustrating not to be able to change it. But I’ve always had a rule that, aside from typos, I won’t go back and edit a post once it’s live. What you read is what gets published every month.

I’m trying to pace it, to keep it authentic, to tie up all the loose ends. Ah but it’s hard! Especially as I’m full of cold and writing anything is taking twice as long as normal. I can barely remember my kids’ names, never mind how many siblings I might have given Conor earlier in the story. Ploughing back through 275k words, even with a search function, is time consuming to say the least.

So this is an apology. To Jane and Angela and anyone else reading along as I furiously scribble out an ending amidst wrapping paper and snotty tissues. If it isn’t the ending you hoped for, and deserve, I’m sorry. I hope there will be a sequel. This is only the start of a new life for Claire. And maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll find time to turn Claire’s story into what I believe it has the potential to be.

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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 felt the ground shift beneath her feet as Conor led her towards the church.

No, not church; cathedral. Nothing that big can be called a church.

She looked up at the spire stretching towards the clear blue sky, with the water and hills as a backdrop behind it. Painted buildings lined the streets, their colours vibrant in the afternoon sunshine. All around them, people in suits and smart dresses streamed towards the building. Claire looked down at the outfit she’d found in a charity shop the day before, and grimaced.

What is the point of the boxes of gorgeous clothes I’ve got sitting in storage, if they’re not accessible when I need them?

She’d thought about driving home to find a suitable outfit, but part of her didn’t want Conor to think she was making too much effort, and part of her didn’t want to give her mother another excuse for an ear-bashing.

The flight over to Ireland with Conor had been short and uneventful. The last time she’d flown with anyone, it had been to go skiing with Michael, and the memories jarred in her mind. Conor was the opposite of Michael. He seemed to enjoy the flight; looking out the window, paying attention to the safety demonstration, chatting to the people sitting around them. He had none of the air of jaded traveller that Michael had. She guessed Conor hadn’t been around the world much, although he didn’t talk about life before moving to Swanage.

The inside of the cathedral was equally overwhelming. Claire stared up at the ceiling that seemed to reach the heavens, then down at the Celtic patterns dancing across the floor. All around, the soft Irish lilt of a hundred voices filled the air like the sound of waves on a pebbly shore.

She leaned in to Conor and whispered, “These aren’t all family are they?”

“Oh no, would you imagine? No there’ll be three or four babies getting their heads wet today, plus the normal mass service.” Conor laughed as she pulled a face. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you from snoring. Come and meet my brothers and sisters.”

As he led her deep into the building he added, “And don’t let them wind you up. They’re full of stories; most of which aren’t true.”

Something in his tone made her shiver. She pulled her shawl around her shoulders and trotted after him.

*

Time moved like treacle as Claire tried to follow the service. When Conor stood to take his part as Godparent it felt like someone had opened a door and let in an icy draft.

One of his numerous relations gave her an encouraging smile but it only served to remind her she still had the ordeal of the party afterwards to endure.

At last they were back out in the sunshine with kisses and laughter, greetings and photographs. They walked en-masse to a nearby hall that was laid out with buffet and dance floor. It was clear the party was intended to last well into the evening. Conor stood with his fingers laced through hers, as he responded to hails and answered questions in a broad Irish brogue she hadn’t heard since he’d tried to charm her mother.

Conor seemed to be able to morph from role to role without conscious effort and she wondered if even he knew who the real man was underneath. Feeling like a child on her first day at school, she hovered behind his shoulder and aimed for invisible.

She found it hard to follow the conversations, as hurried words flew over her head like a flock of startled starlings, impossible to grasp. After a while she went to find a plate of food and a chair and took her phone out to take pictures. A young woman in a two-piece navy suit came to sit beside her and Claire searched her brain for a name.

The woman took pity on her. “Laura. I’m Conor’s youngest sister. It’s so lovely to meet you. We were all surprised when he said he was bringing a date. You know, after–”

She stopped and seemed to realise she’d been indiscreet by the look of bewilderment on Claire’s face.

“After what?” Claire prompted.

Hesitant, but encouraged by Claire’s nodding, Laura said, “Well, you know, after his wife left him and went to America.”

She seemed to take Claire’s wide-eyed expression as interest, as she continued to talk, learning in towards Claire. “Everyone said they married too young. Not that I remember; I was only a child. They said she was only interested in being a director’s wife so when he refused to join the Board she found someone new.”

The room span around Claire as if she were drunk. It was worse than some lurid romance. The questions tumbled one over another and her face felt numb. She saw Laura look up guiltily and followed her gaze. Conor stood in front of them, but he didn’t look angry.

Reading his expression, Claire realised it was the whole reason they were there. Unable to tell her about his past himself, he’d let his baby sister do it. With her cheeks flaming and her hands in fists she stalked past him and left the room.

*

Claire sat in the dark hotel bar with her head in her hands. The ringing in her ears muffled all sound. In her mind she pictured a young Conor, hand in hand with a faceless beauty, wandering happily down the streets of Cobh. She found if she focussed on it, she couldn’t feel him sitting next to her, trying to explain: couldn’t hear his cherished voice trying to find justification where there wasn’t any.

“I’m sorry,” she heard him say for the fifth time, and ignored it with all the rest.

“It was stupid of me.”

When she didn’t respond he said in a louder voice, “Please, Claire, at least talk to me. Yes I was married, but it’s not important, it’s ancient history

“Then why not tell me yourself?” she hissed, conscious of the other people in twos and threes around them. The double gin she’d downed on arrival slurred her words and she regretted the need to drink it. It was hard enough figuring through the mess without muddled senses.

“What is it with you blokes and your secrets?” She spat, running her hands through her hair.

“Claire, I’m not a saint, I have a past, just as you do.”

“I’ve never been married.”

“What if you had? Would that change you as a person? There were no children.” He stopped and Claire wondered if that was a lie. She gave him a penetrating stare and he ducked his head. His words were mumbled but she heard them as if they’d been yelled.

“She said she was pregnant when she left, but that she lost the baby. We were divorced inside a year of signing the register.”

A baby, too.

The world lurched sideways. She tried to hold on to something. “You loved her,” she said, hearing the truth in his voice. “Laura pretty much said you’d been pining ever since.”

“Yes I loved her.” He emphasised the past tense. “And, no, I didn’t find anyone I liked half as much, or anyone I dared trust, until I met you.”

Claire thought of her doubts, of Maggie’s job proposal, and realised she had her own secrets. It wasn’t a comfortable thought. Now wasn’t the time to discuss it, but it did make her recall something else Laura had said. “And the Company? That you didn’t want to be a Director for?”

“The family business. Mum and Dad always hoped I’d take it on but it’s not my thing. I prefer something on a more personal level. A bit like you decided, when you turned down the counter proposal from AJC.”

“How did you know about that?” Claire glared at him, feeling wrong-footed by the revelation.

“Carl put something snide in the email when he sent your reference.” He looked at her as if to say, we all have secrets.

“That hardly compares,” she said, turning away from his green eyes.

“I didn’t say it did.” He sighed. “Please don’t be mad. I’m sorry; I made a mistake in not telling you myself. I just didn’t want anything to come up later that might break us. I couldn’t go through that again.”

She looked into his eyes, shining turquoise in the gloom, and felt the sincerity in his words. Reaching a decision, she took his hand. No more secrets.

“I might have a job in Cornwall after I finish your assignment. Nothing certain, but as we’re being honest, you probably should know.”

The pain welled in his eyes, turning green to black.

***

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.

***

We Are Golden: 2013 365 Challenge #327

My Daughter as Golden Child

My Daughter as Golden Child

Today is a day of marking achievements. I went to my daughter’s celebration assembly at school this morning, where she received her Bronze merit certificate and was Golden Child.

God bless the children, their patience is amazing: the assembly was three quarters of an hour of hearing about how well the ten children selected had done, and what they had earned their Golden Child status for.

I was immensely proud to be there, and thought I would blub (it doesn’t take much to make me cry these days) but I was fortunately sat next to a good friend and her little jibes kept me tear free.

I also didn’t feel like crying because, while I was very proud of my little girl, the things she was praised for set off alarm bells in my mind. Other children were praised for skill at hockey or gymnastics, for using their brains, for being enthusiastic or helpful or cheerful. My daughter was praised for trying so hard at her studies. And I think that’s wonderful. Except I don’t.

I worked just as hard at school – I was top of every year, more or less, the typical straight-A student. But I didn’t really have friends (no one likes a teacher’s pet) and when I left school the only thing I knew how to do was get good grades.

My Golden Child

My Golden Child

I’d almost like to see my daughter get into trouble, or be praised for her happy personality (she is a bubbly, happy child) or her empathy for her friends (which is great) or her willingness to try things; to fall over and get back up again.

Being praised for working hard at her studies reinforces a behaviour that doesn’t need reinforcing. Ah, well, it’s a nice problem to have. 🙂

The other achievements today are that this is my 400th post since I started the blog, and Two-Hundred Steps Home passed 250,000 words in today’s instalment.

They say you have to write a million words of rubbish before you write anything good. If I add the eleven THSH volumes to the two published novels I have (another 250k words before editing) and the four unfinished NaNo novels on my laptop (another 200k words) and probably 150k words of blogging since last year, I’ve only got one more full length novel and a few blog posts to go and I’m at the million mark! Hurrah, it’s all upwards from here. 😉

To have written a quarter of a million words of prose this year, on top of blogging (which is probably around half that) feels amazing. That’s like writing three full length novels in eleven months. One of the things I love about blogging is reaching milestones, and how that can show you that you are achieving things even when it doesn’t feel like it. Every number reached – 300 followers, 13,500 views, 1337 likes – is like going to a celebration assembly and holding up a certificate to show the world and say “I did that, and I’m proud.”

Maybe one day my milestone will be “Number 1 Bestseller”. 🙂 I can dream.

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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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“Has your boyfriend gone back home, Auntie Claire?”

Jack’s face shone with sincerity but Alex’s barely audible snigger suggested the innocence was feigned.

She glared from one boy to the other, feeling the heat rising up her neck. “Did your father put you up to that?” She spoke without thinking and regretted it immediately, as Alex’s face dropped into the stony mask she was coming to dread.

Jack glanced at his brother, confusion clouding his open face. Claire wished she could unsay the words. Better some harmless banter than the freezing atmosphere that appeared to be Alex’s natural state. Despite their fragile truce, Alex had barely spoken three words since they’d returned to the hostel.

“Sorry, guys, I don’t mean to be touchy. Conor is my boss and a friend of sorts but we’re not involved. Your father and I had words about it before he left, that’s all. I didn’t mean to bite your heads off.”

The impenetrable mask remained on the elder brother’s face but Jack smiled. “Will we see him again?”

“Probably not,” Claire replied, wondering if Conor would find another excuse to drive the hundreds of miles from Dorset to Cornwall. “Right, what shall we do today? I’m guessing the Lost Gardens of Heligan aren’t going to be your cup of tea. What about surfing; either of you lads any good with a board?”

Alex looked as if he’d rather spend the day at the dentist, but Jack bounced in his seat like a toddler.

“Really? That would be super. I’ve done snowboarding and I have a wave board at home, not that Mother likes me to use it. I think she’s worried I’m going to break my arm and get sent home from school like Alex did.” He rattled on enthusiastically.

When he drew breath, Claire turned to Alex. “What about it?” When she got no response she said, “How about you humour me this morning and I let you spend the afternoon playing Candy Crush or texting your friends, while I write up some notes?”

Alex gave an indifferent shrug and Claire decided that was probably as positive as it was going to get.

*

“Wow, Auntie Claire, that was amazing.” Jack’s grin matched hers, as she rode the board into the beach.

“How about we drop the Auntie, Jack, you’re starting to make me feel ancient. I’m barely old enough to be your mother.”

“Okay, Claire,” he called, as he ran back into the waves. “Last one on their feet’s a wet fish.” He threw a mischievous look at his brother and the sound of his laughter echoed behind him as he ploughed through the surf.

Alex scowled but said nothing. So far he hadn’t managed to get on his knees without toppling in the water.

“You’re taking it too seriously, dude,” the instructor said, clapping a friendly hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about your brother, he said he was a snowboarder. I hear you’re a demon black run skier?”

Alex glared at Claire and she shrugged. “Jack told me. He’s proud of you, for all your endless bickering.”

In answer to an unspoken signal from the instructor, Claire followed Jack into the sea. As she looked back, the instructor was earnestly explaining something to her eldest nephew. She hoped it worked. Then she pushed all thought of the troublesome pair from her mind and surrendered to the waves.

*

“Hey brother, way to go!”

Jack’s voice tore through Claire’s concentration, and she lost her balance. When she surfaced, spitting out sea water, her board tether tugging at her ankle, she saw Jack walk over to give Alex a high five.

Alex’s face split in a beaming smile and it was the first time she’d seen him look genuinely happy. Without the scowl he seemed younger, more like his father: the brother she had looked up to as a child, back when he knew how to have fun.

A tiny spark of hope ignited in her breast and she curled herself around it to keep it alight.

***