Feelin’ the Positive Vibe: 2013 365 Challenge #68

You can never beat the good ol fashioned cardboard box

You can never beat the good ol fashioned cardboard box

La Maison chez Martin had a more positive day today. We got some sleep (until daughter wet the bed for the first time at 4am but, hey, you can’t have everything). An old friend/colleague got in touch to say he might have some contract work for me (or hubbie if I get my way!) and we went out as a family. It was only to the supermarket and Costa but sometimes that’s enough. I even managed to walk the dog without getting lost in the fog, although I didn’t manage to make a start on my Claire post as we bumped into a friend of Kara’s – a crazy boxer-labrador cross called Beamish. He likes to collect 12 foot sticks and carry them home so Kara didn’t get to run with him that much but it was nice to have company.

I guess all the positive has to have an opposite and today it’s the writing. I didn’t really like my Claire instalment yesterday – I couldn’t seem to create the cave scene with any authenticity. It’s been a long time since I’ve visited a cave and I haven’t been to the Blue John Cavern at all. I relied totally on their website and good old Tripadvisor. I’m also at a complete dead-end for today. Claire has about a week before she picks up Sky for her Easter break and things get interesting again but I’m stuck with what to do in the meantime. There are only so many day trips and hostel descriptions you can do before it gets boring!

The bliss of sleep

The bliss of sleep

The other part of writing that wasn’t great today was picking up Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes for the first time in six months and realising it’s crap. I mean properly rubbish. I haven’t looked at it since writing and editing Dragon Wraiths in an intense seven-month period (for the Mslexia competition) and since writing 56,000 words of Two-Hundred Steps Home.

Of course it’s wonderful that the two projects in-between have obviously honed my craft but it makes me feel sick to think I sent out queries for Baby Blues and someone asked for a partial. Even if they take 8 weeks to get back I’m not going to be able to knock the rest of the manuscript into shape by then. Of course it’s unlikely they’ll ask to see any more but I do know the first fifty pages are better because they’ve had a lot more revision. I don’t know how much better as I’m scared to read them! 🙂

What I need to do, but somehow can’t manage to make happen, is join a critique group and/or locate a Beta reader in the business. It’s all very well having friends read – they’re great at spotting typos and continuity errors – but they don’t have the knowledge or desire to tell me the honest and brutal truth. I KNOW that good critique and beta readers are essential to a writer’s business, what I don’t know is how any writer ever brings themselves to give their unpolished work to someone. You’d think I would prefer it to sending my manuscript to a brutal agent but an agent is just going to ignore it or at worst send a pithy one-pager.They won’t tear apart a year’s work line by line without hope. You see I’ve had a mixed experience of critique and it’s left me doubtful.

I received one critique of the first chapter of Baby Blues (my first ever critique) and they didn’t find a single positive thing to say. I was ready to give up writing for good: not because I’m thin-skinned (although probably that’s true too) but because I figured they knew more than I did and I was just plain rubbish. Then I had a second critique on the same first chapter and received a nice balance of constructive criticism and positive praise on what was working well.

The question is: was the first critique right or the second? Am I a writer or a doomed-to-fail amateur. If two people can read the same chapter and have two completely different responses how can I find a beta reader or critique group to trust? And, more to the point, how on earth do I find time to do critiquing in return? Arrgghh so many questions. If I thought being a parent was tough, with too much conflicting advice and no clear path, then being a writer is just as hard. Actually I guess the two are pretty similar. Maybe I’ll write a blog about that! 😉

Anyway, enough rant. Time to go and search the brain-cells for that hidden inspiration…

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“Ruth? It’s Claire.”

“Claire? Why are you calling: Is everything okay?” Her sister’s voice rose in agitation. Claire buried herself deeper into the armchair, trying to ignore the heat in her cheeks and the defensive words bubbling up into her mouth. Besides, how could you defend the indefensible?

“I’m sorry. I’ve been a rubbish sister. I called to see how you are. I didn’t want to phone so soon after the operation, in case you’re resting, but I haven’t been able to get hold of Mum. I was worried.”

“Mum’s here with me and you know Dad; he never answers the phone if he’s by himself in case, God forbid, he might have to talk to one of us for more than a minute.” Ruth chuckled then coughed. The sound made Claire shiver.

“You are okay though?”

“You mean apart from having a hole drilled in my skull and some of my brain removed?”

Her voice was hard to read. Claire felt goosebumps rise along her arms and huddled deeper into her jumper. Maybe this was a bad idea. She sat without responding, unable to find anything adequate to say.

“Sorry, Claire, I shouldn’t joke. It’s driving Mum nuts. You know how she is. She thinks I’m being unduly frivolous. What can you do but laugh though?”

Claire thought privately that she’d probably be curled in a corner sobbing and hoped no one ever had cause to find out.

“You’re very brave. I’d be scared witless.” The words were out before Claire could censor them and she immediately regretted her lack of control. Ruth didn’t speak and Claire wondered if she was realising for the first time that she ought to be scared. Then her sister sighed; a low sound like a gust of wind on a deserted shore.

“Of course I’m scared. Terrified. And I’m not brave. I have to be strong for Sky. She doesn’t really understand. All she knows is that Mummy is poorly and had to have her hair shaved off and that Nana is looking after both of us. It will be harder for her when I have the chemo and I’m properly sick.”

Claire felt a lump in her throat and shook away the image of her sister with no hair. Somehow it brought home the reality of cancer more than any words had done. She tried to make her voice matter-of-fact when she spoke.

“That’s why I’m calling. How do you feel about Sky coming travelling with me for the school holidays? Give you a chance to have some peace and quiet in the house. Well as much as you can with Mum fussing round.”

“Travelling where? She doesn’t have a passport.”

Claire laughed. “The Fens can be a bit different but I don’t recall needing a passport to go there.”

“Oh. What’s in the Fens? Isn’t it just endless fields of flat nothingness?”

Claire had no idea. She hadn’t thought that far. A glance at the YHA map had shown the nearest hostels to be around the east coast and she’d figured that small children liked the seaside. There were only a handful of hostels so they’d have to stay a few days in each or travel a bit further afield. It seemed hostellers were more interested in the Peaks and Lakes than the Fens.

“It’s got sea and sand and space, what more do kids want?” Claire heard the doubt in her voice and hoped Ruth didn’t notice.

She did.

“Are you sure you’re going to cope with a small child for two weeks? Sky is quite… full-on you know. Besides, I’m not sure about her being away. She’s only little.”

“She stays with Mum and Dad doesn’t she?”

“That’s different. It’s just down the road and she’s used to them.”

“I am her Auntie.”

There was a pause and Claire smiled ruefully as she imagined the thoughts going through Ruth’s mind. I haven’t been much of an Auntie up until now. She decided to get the attack in before her sister did. “Look, I know I haven’t spent as much time with Sky as I should have done. See this as my chance to make it up to her.”

“Well. If you’re sure. Have you booked? It’ll be rammed. And the first weekend is a bank holiday: The whole world will be off work.”

Claire felt a hollowness form in her stomach. She hadn’t thought to book. So far she’d stayed in whichever hostel had space: the hostels had all been clustered together.

“I. Er. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry.” She pulled out her iPad and opened a new note.

Book hostels for me and Sky ASAP.

Otherwise we’ll have to stay with Mum and Dad for Easter. Claire remembered last Easter, when she had taken Michael to her parents’ house for the long weekend. It had been a disaster.

They’re going to remind me of that every minute. Bugger that.

“Leave it with me. It’ll be fine.” She repeated the words, as much for her own benefit as for Ruth’s. Then she said her goodbyes, hung up the phone and pulled out her YHA guide. She began dialling immediately and prayed for a miracle.

***

Lazy Day and Lego: 2013 365 Challenge #61

Lego: Lots of Adult Patience Required

Lego: Lots of Adult Patience Required

Had a lazy day at home today. I’m still struggling with awful insomnia, averaging 2-3 hours’ sleep a night. I’m taking St John’s Wort so hoping that will kick in soon and let me sleep.

Husband had work and DIY to do so I had planned to take the children into town (I have new paintings to drop at Art in the Heart) but Aaron was in full stomping NO territory and it just didn’t happen. I didn’t actually manage to get him dressed until 10.30am and then I forgot to make sure he was ‘pointing down’ in his nappy so had to change his entire outfit an hour later when he peed all over it at the lunch table.

The only thing I managed to do all day was pull together a 50-page partial manuscript to send to an agent who had requested it (for Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes ironically) and I only managed that by sitting the kids in front of the TV for an hour and ignoring shouts of “come sit with me Mummy.”

I feel like this is a good opportunity to reset the balance and fess up. In case anyone thinks I’m some kind of super-mum because my kids do craft and baking and go to the Farm and the Zoo: I only do those things to survive. I get bored if I can’t do something creative from time to time (hence painting and craft), I go crazy if I’m stuck in the house with them for more than two hours together (hence Zoo/Farm) and some days the only way not to yell is to be out in public where I’m likely to try harder to keep my mouth shut! Sometimes my kids beg to spend the day at home and I just can’t. I look at the clock and see twelve LONG hours until bedtime. Driving to the supermarket uses an hour up just in the car there and back. A trip to the Farm eats into three or four, maybe even five if they sleep on the way home.

From Here You Can Almost See The Sea - the picture I'm meant to be taking to the Gallery

From Here You Can Almost See The Sea – the picture I’m meant to be taking to the Gallery

Today, though, I was too tired to even drive. I lay in the paddling pool with them and read stories. I sat on the sofa with them for two hours after lunch while Aaron fell asleep watching Peppa Pig and Amber played on the iPad. I managed to crawl off the sofa and build Lego with Amber while Aaron slept some more (I never normally let him sleep for more than an hour as it makes bedtime hard, but today he slept for 2-3 hours). So, no super-mummy in this house! Just a normal SAHM getting on and getting by.

I went to bed last night without even starting my post. I think the insomnia might be partially due to using my creative brain from 8pm to midnight and then expecting it just to switch off. Also I’ve been working hard at Twitter and my mind flashes like a strobe light with all the snippets of information. Time to take a step back and let the brain rest.

Even so, I wrote two pages of notes just as I lay down in bed last night as I had the next post floating in my brain. Typical, as normally I have no idea what is going to happen to Claire next. I guess leaving her hanging off a cliff as it were does help the creative flow! Kids had me up every two hours between them so actually I needn’t have worried about setting myself up for a good night’s sleep! Thankfully it’s Saturday (hurrah!) and they’re watching TV with Daddy this morning so I can play catch up.

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The Skoda closed in around Claire like a coffin. She looked out across the damp, grey Castlefield car park and wondered how far she could run before he caught her. This has gone from Miss Marple to bloomin Diagnose Murder. Her brain screamed Get out of the car before you’re next. Her body remained stubbornly glued to the plastic seat, all control over her muscles gone. Josh sat mute and still, the echo from his words still reverberating round them.

Claire inhaled slowly, filling her lungs with the scent of smoke and fear. It calmed the racing thoughts and brought her logic to the fore. Killed a child. Not murdered a child. An accident. Maybe he ran a child over or something. It doesn’t make him a bad person.

She wanted to ask but was afraid to hear the answers. She forced her head to turn and face him and the sight of his slumped body, of the tears dribbling down his stubbled cheek, drove everything but sympathy from her mind.

“Tell me.”

The words made them both jump; her voice sounded impossibly loud in the silence.

Josh began to speak, slowly at first, then faster and faster as the pent-up words rushed forth like a burst riverbank.

“It was a patient. A child. The same age as my eldest. The young children are the hardest. They’re so accepting of their fate. So cheerful. Uncrushable.” He paused as if trying to decide where to start. “I missed something. I should have ordered a test and I didn’t. I was cocky, I was sure. My Registrar overruled me and ordered the test but it was too late.”

Claire felt her stomach twist and her breathing speed up. She forced herself to listen without comment.

“The parents were so…. nice. Accepting. They’re worse than the ones that rail and rant. They thanked me. Thanked me. For doing everything I could to save their child. But I didn’t. I failed them. I missed something.” He ran his hand through his hair and sighed loudly. “There’s this fear, when you’re a doctor. It keeps you awake at night. Did I do something wrong? Have I done everything I can? It’s good. It keeps you on your toes, keeps you focussed. But I’d lost the fear. We had a new baby at home and there wasn’t much sleep.”

How many kids has he got, Claire thought but pushed the irrelevance aside.

“I was trying to help Fiona, trying to be a good father. Sick kids just make me want to hold mine tightly and never let go. But I keep thinking, was my judgement impaired? The inquest cleared me but, in my heart, eating me up like the cancer that killed that child, I’m to blame.”

“But if they cleared you?”

Josh turned suddenly, his skin mottled and red. He leant towards her and shouted, the words raking at her like claws. “You don’t get it. I blame me. Every night I see that tiny face, those enormous eyes gazing into mine. The mother looking to me for answers, certain she would find them. And I failed them. I let their child die.” He slumped back into the car seat and dropped his head into his hands. His words were muffled. “I had to leave. I couldn’t look at my own children any more. I don’t deserve them.”

Emotions swam around Claire like darting fish. Gut-wrenching sympathy, confusion, panic at Josh’s outburst. Mostly she felt sorrow. Sadness for Josh and his pain. Distress for the family who lost their child. Grief at her own insignificant meaningless life. How could I ever stress about clients and deadlines, about Carl and getting sacked? It was all pointless. No one will die if I don’t do a good job.

She reached across and stroked the side of Josh’s hand, unable to find any words of comfort that wouldn’t sound paltry and pathetic. She wanted to tell him he would always be one of the good guys. That working to save lives, even if he didn’t always succeed, was a noble thing. That Fiona was lucky to have him for a husband and his children needed their Daddy back. Her throat remained closed and all she could do was send silent support.

She thought about Fiona, left with at least two children to care for, wondering where her husband was. Getting on a plane to fly half way round the world, just her and the children. And I worry about taking Sky in a hostel for a week. Honestly girl, you’re pitiful.

Claire dredged her mind for the right words. Her job was all about finding the right phrase but her brain remained blank. In the end there was only one thing to say.

“Let’s go get drunk.”

***

Dragon Wraiths Dreaming: 2013 365 Challenge #53

New cover design for Dragon Wraiths - almost ebook ready

New cover design for Dragon Wraiths – almost ebook ready

I had an unscheduled filling in my tooth this morning so have spent my nursery day curled up on the sofa feeling pathetic. My dentist is 38 weeks pregnant and will be off for six months so she offered to fill the hole she discovered at my routine check up right then. Unfortunately I had breakfast early today (woke at 5.30am when the baby alarm went off because son’s bedroom was so cold) and the numbing injection gave me the shakes. Bless them they were rushing round trying to find me a glucose tablet. Note to self: eat fewer sweeties! (I eat all the ones the kids get in party bags and don’t like. You know, the sticky ones that you don’t want them eating anyway because they’re so bad for their teeth!)

Actually I’ve put my need to huddle under a blanket to good use by working on formatting Dragon Wraiths for self-publishing. I have had long debates about whether to self-publish it or not and in the end I ran out of reasons not to. I still want an agent and a publisher’s deal but in the meantime I may as well see if anyone actually wants to read it! Besides, I had a lot of fun working on the front cover. It isn’t perfect but better than my previous two designs.

The need to do the marketing has put me off in the past but if I’m not worried about it being an overnight success there is no pressure. If it sells a few copies great. If people borrow it from the libraries (I’ve set it as free to libraries) and are moved to leave feedback, well that will be marvellous. If nothing else it is all great formatting practice. Who knows, I might end up making my money earning $40 a time editing books for Smashwords (although I can think of easier ways to make $40!)

Anyway, as a result of my early start, aching jaw and editing frenzy, today’s post is likely to be another short one rather than my normal meaty nursery-day fare. I want to write some witty banter between Beth, Chloe and Josh for Claire to witness but I can’t recall any Canadian and Irish idioms so I may not manage it. I find it really hard writing dialogue in any other ‘tone’ than my own middle-class-white-English.

[Apropos nothing it turns out there’s a new Rolls Royce called a Wraith. Better than the Microsoft Office 365 that keeps appearing in my suggested related articles list!]

Update: Dragon Wraiths is now live, hurrah! Anyone interested in reading it can download it free for the next week, using the following promotion code:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/287131

Promotional price: $0.00
Coupon Code: NM53X
Expires: February 28, 2013

You have to sign up to Smashwords to download it I think but you can read the 20% sample without logging in.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

“Come on Claire, keep up.”

Claire glared at the V-shape of people in front of her as Beth, Chloe and Josh powered across the lake. Training hadn’t been so bad and Claire had been thrilled with how quickly she had mastered the art of propelling the craft strapped to her hips. Her bubble of happiness quickly deflated when they reached the open water and her so-called companions left her rocking gently in their wake.

Refusing to capsize through trying to catch up, Claire concentrated on getting her technique right and on ignoring the blisters forming across the pads of her palms.

“That’s it Claire, great, you’re getting the hang of it. For a first-timer you’re doing brilliantly.”

Claire turned to smile at the instructor and her paddle stuck in some weed. It wrenched sideways, nearly tipping her out of her kayak.

Eyes forward, Claire. Josh will pee his pants laughing if you take a dip in this freezing pond.

“This is grand!” Beth’s voice floated back across the water as she and Chloe prodded at each other with their paddles, each trying to put the other in the lake.

“Your friends seem a right craic, how long have you been travelling together?”

Claire looked back carefully, trying to locate the source of the new voice without tipping herself over.

“I’m not travelling with them. As far as I can tell they all met yesterday on the bus over from Keswick. I met Josh last week a bit further north.”

“Really? They seem like buddies from way back. That’s travelling for you, I guess.” The man deftly paddled forward until he was alongside Claire’s red kayak. He waved a salute and said, “name’s Charlie.”

“Claire.” She nodded in return and tried not to clash her paddle against his.

The void of conversation yawned between them, demanding to be filled. She didn’t feel like chatting but it was obvious that the man wanted to talk and, besides, Josh and the girls were too far ahead for anything but a bellowed exchange of words. She groped for something to say.

“Are you travelling with friends?”

“Nah I’m going solo. Just a month or three before I head back to Ireland to find a job. It aint easy right now, specially not in Dublin. Thought I’d have a bit o’ fun before I have to get me hands dirty.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a chef. Or leastways that’s what I’m trained fer. What I’ll be doing back in Dublin is anyone’s guess.”

“Is there not much work in catering?” Claire listened to her words and wanted to Eskimo-roll into the lake. No wonder the others have buggered off. Could you be any more boring?

If her new friend found her question obvious or dull he was either too polite or too shocked to let on.

“There’s not much work of any sort. Times is hard. Not a great time to be looking for paid employment.”

Claire shivered beneath her waterproofs. I hope that doesn’t apply to me. Her head was already full of images of starting a new job since her arrival at the activity centre with Josh and his mini-harem. Claire wasn’t sure how much more adrenalin-seeking, or rubbing shoulders with strangers, she could willingly do, no matter how much she wanted not to fail.

“What is it you do?” The man threw out the question between puffs as he paddled to keep up with Claire who had veering off to the left.

“I work in… marketing.” She hoped he hadn’t notice the tiny hesitation. Lord only knows what it is I do these days?

As often happened when Claire told someone in a vocational career what she did for a living, the man’s face went blank. His lips opened and shut slightly as he sought something interesting to say in response.

“That’s nice.”

Claire chuckled under her breath and held her paddle aloft as a wake from a passing boat rocked the kayak. I guess no one knows what people in marketing actually do, least of all people in marketing. Play with pretty pictures and read papers, I think that’s the general consensus. What about kayaking across a freezing lake in the north of England, or dangling from a tree suspended by a rope and harness? Abseiling down a waterfall? Sharing a room with five other women, some of whom have only a passing relationship with shower gel. Are they things I can puff-off on my CV?

The sound of splashing shook Claire from her reverie and she looked up just in time to get a face-full of water from Josh’s paddle as he swung round beside her.

“Thanks. As if I wasn’t cold enough.”

“Lighten up cranky, what’s eating you? You’ve been chillier than a penguin’s arse since we pitched up yesterday. If you really wanted to ditch me you should have headed to Liverpool like you said.”

“Would that be better? Am I cramping your style?”

“Ha, it’d take more than a jealous Sheila to cramp my style.”

“Jealous? I’m not jealous. If you choose to hook up with every woman under the age of fifty that passes your way that’s no concern of mine.”

Claire dipped her paddle in the water and pushed her craft forwards, concentrating on her technique so Josh had nothing else to sneer at. The sun shone overhead but didn’t penetrate the waterproof and life-jacket she was bundled in. Claire lowered her head and pictured the mug of hot chocolate waiting for her when they returned to the activity centre.

Josh paddled alongside her in silence for a few minutes before clucking his tongue and digging his paddle in deep. He was soon several lengths ahead and the sound of his laughter mingled with Chloe and Beth’s as the three of them splashed each other like naughty schoolchildren.

***

A daughter’s rejection and 2013 365 Challenge #22

Jungle Party Prep box

Jungle Party Prep box

So far I seem to be taking the agent rejection thing in my stride. I’ve sent out about ten submissions and had two or three rejections. That’s fine, I expected it. Occassionally if I really liked the agency I’m disappointed but I certainly haven’t taken it personally. However I have discovered a type of rejection today that does hurt.

My daughter’s.

I spent the afternoon painting props for my daughter’s Jungle party, which we’re having in our house this weekend. Nothing fancy just a giant palm tree, a pin-the-tail-on-the-zebra and some leaves for Musical Leaves (think musical chairs). I showed them to her after nursery and her first response was “that one isn’t quite covered. You missed some.” And that was it.

And it HURT.

Jungle Leaves for Musical Leaves

Jungle Leaves for Musical Leaves

I wanted to yell all sorts of rude things at her. Analysing my over-reaction afterwards I realised that I wasn’t (that) bothered that she didn’t like my jungle leaves. It was more that she was being exactly like me. When my husband does house DIY I’m much more likely to say, “what about this bit?” than “well done that’s amazing.”

Breeding a mini-me has forced me to come to grips with my worst habits and traits and it’s HARD. I’m also worried that she won’t enjoy her party because of something I haven’t managed to get right. She has talked about her birthday party pretty much every day since the last one and it’s become a big thing in her mind. Settling on having a zebra party (which I have expanded to be a jungle party) has put my ingenuity to the test. So far I have only failed to source a zebra cake (and I don’t do baking) so not sure what I’m going to do about that. Hoping I’ll find a store that will do one of those print-from-picture things.

Anyway, as today has been mostly party prep and a couple of query letters I haven’t done any research on Alnwick Youth Hostel. I’m trying to decide whether to send Claire to the castle or focus on her first night in a dorm. You’ll find out in a minute which I chose!

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Claire put her key in the lock, opened the door,  and peered into the room as if someone might jump out and attack her. It was dark so she reached inside for a light switch, hoping no one was asleep. Surely no one will be in bed at 8pm?

A quick scan of the bunk beds showed them all unoccupied. Claire released a breath she didn’t realise she had been holding and stepped into the room. It looked like only one or two of the four beds were taken, as there were only two bags in the room. Relieved to be alone Claire shut the door behind her and had a proper look at the room. The walls were blue and cream and there were stripy curtains in similar colours.

It’s not about to win any décor or luxury awards but at least it’s clean.

She looked closely at the beds and realised that both bottom bunks had been claimed by the current occupants. Maybe I should have come straight to the room this morning, I might have been able to claim a bottom bunk. She didn’t fancy the idea of climbing up and down a ladder in the night. I haven’t slept in a top bunk since I was about eight and I got concussion falling out in the night. Thank god mum thought it was time for me and Ruth to have our own rooms.

The memory brought others to mind. How Ruth used to wriggle, shaking the bed as she shifted position every fifteen minutes. How her snoring that would resonate up through the mattress when she had a cold. Claire felt a chill prickle her skin. She hated sharing her space with people. Except Michael. The words entered her mind only to be shoved away.

Claire chose the bunk furthest from the door and tucked her bag in the corner. She removed her nightie and wash-bag from the rucksack and threw them on the bed to stake her claim. Then, with nothing else to keep her, she decided it was time to go and have dinner. She hesitated before taking her iPad from its position stuffed between cashmere sweaters. She had avoided having it on display in the hostel in case it marked her as different, but she needed to spend some time on Twitter and the other social media sites and it would prevent her from looking like an idiot by herself at dinner.

The hostel dining room reminded Claire of school dinners at primary school, before she was whisked away to join the same school her father had attended. Not that there had been girls there in his day. The dining hall there had been rather more opulent.

Claire chose a seat in the corner and prayed no one else would join her. There were a few people in the dining room but it wasn’t crowded. Claire ordered the most palatable thing on offer, then loaded up her blog and tried to think of something interesting to write. She had spent the day in a giant second hand bookstore – largely because it was warm and she didn’t have to walk anywhere. She wasn’t a big reader, but had found herself caught up in some silly romance with a bright cover. The book was in her bag upstairs. Purely for research purposes, so I can embody the backpacker spirit.

“Hello, may we join you?”

Claire looked up from her iPad to see two blonde girls standing in front of her holding trays. A swift glance confirmed what she already knew – that there were empty tables in the dining room. Claire hesitated. She couldn’t bring herself to tell the women no, feck off. But at the same time she didn’t fancy being crowded in by a couple of strangers. She noticed a flicker of consternation whisk across one of the girl’s faces and relented.

“Of course, please.” She gestured to the empty seats and sat back so her iPad wasn’t taking up table space. There are two of them, it’s not like I need to make conversation. Claire resolutely stared at her screen, giving off her best Metro-travelling vibes, the ones that created an area of blank space around her even when the trains were crushed with commuters. It failed.

“Hi, my name is Ola, this is my sister Francis. We are from Sweden. The nice man at reception said you were staying in our room, so we come to say hello.”

Claire looked up and stifled a sigh. She couldn’t ignore them now, no matter how tempting it was to pretend she didn’t speak English. “Hi, I’m Claire, nice to meet you.”

“You are English yes? You travel long?”

The one Claire thought was Ola was clearly puzzled that someone would choose to travel solo round their own country in the middle of winter. Or that’s what I would think anyway. Who knows what she’s thinking under that beautiful Scandinavian mask. Claire tried to decide whether to come up with a story more interesting than the truth, but she couldn’t find the energy. She settled for a slight twisting of the facts.

“I’m a writer. I’m researching a piece on hostelling in Britain.”

The girl who hadn’t yet spoken, Francis, lit up at the words. “You write for Lonely Planet?” She spoke the words reverentially, as if Lonely Planet were on a par with the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

“No, sorry, it’s an independent piece.” She finished speaking then gazed away, signalling that she had no more conversation. The girls took the hint and began talking quietly to each other in their own language.

I wonder if they’re talking about me? Claire eyed up the lasagne and garlic bread the girls were eating and wondered if it was too late to change her order.

If one of us is going to reek of garlic all night, I want it to be me.

***

Silly Mistakes and 2013 365 Challenge #18

Dewar's Lane Granary (The Berwick YHA building prior to coversion) from Sallyport to Barbara Carr

Dewar’s Lane Granary (The Berwick YHA building prior to coversion) from Sallyport. Photograph by Barbara Carr

I made a basic error yesterday when sending out a query email. I have a track sheet with all submission guidelines (length of synopsis, how many chapters to send etc) for my shortlisted agencies and I spent three hours compiling a cover letter and pack for The Blair Partnership (I’m working through the list in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, approaching agencies that seem a good fit and will take email submissions). I hit send in time to go and collect the kids, feeling happy with a job well done. Until I started looking at the next name on the list and realised (oh no…) that I’d accidentally followed their submission guidelines for The Blair Partnership. So I’d sent a long synoposis and 3 chapters instead of a one-page synopsis and one chapter.

IDIOT.

What a waste of three hours. I resent my submission but I can’t help but feel that has plonked me directly in the reject pile. A tweet I read from an agent yesterday said

“Am ruthless when there’s loads of submissions to read: If they can’t be bov to read our guidelines, I might not be bov to read their book.”

Good advice which I tried very hard to follow today when I sent my next batch of query emails.

The quote was reweeted by someone I follow and I didn’t pay any attention to who wrote the original message. When I went to copy it into this post I noticed that the message was written by Julia Churchill of the Greenhouse Literary Agency. The same woman I sent a submission to earlier today! It’s a small world. I wish I’d noticed the connection, I could have mentioned reading her tweet in my submission and how it made me double and triple check that I sent her the right stuff.

Another missed opportunity.

It doesn’t matter how many blogs, books and articles you read on how to send query letters it’s still a huge learning curve!

This evening is all about researching the first hostel on my list – Berwick. I still haven’t received my YHA membership card so I can’t send off for a hostel guide. Google it is then. It has reminded me that Claire doesn’t have YHA membership so might incorporate that into today’s post somehow.

P.S. After three hours of wandering around the web I have an excessive amount of information about Berwick YHA in my head and on my computer. My brain is too full to write my post! This level of research is new to me and I am learning that you can know too much, it stifles your creativity. What I can’t find is a picture of the front entrance so I’m going to have to put Claire somewhere in the hostel… Right, let’s write.

Usual disclaimers apply – I haven’t visited this hostel, my writing is part fiction part research and no offence is in anyway intended.

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Claire peered through the dark at the place her sat nav had decided was her Final Destination. It looked like a small car park surrounded by an eclectic mix of buildings. Her ears rang with the silence of the evening as she pulled into a bay and turned off the ignition. Every part of her body ached.

I’m not going to have to worry about how to stay fit without my annual gym membership; this car is a workout all by itself.

Claire looked through the windows for the green YHA sign that she thought would greet her arrival but all she could see were cars and walls. She pulled out her iPad and loaded up the hostel page but there was no more information.

Bugger. I guess I’ll just have to wander around until I find it. Claire got out and looked around the car park. She didn’t welcome the prospect of staggering about in the dark. I wish I’d managed to get here in daylight. She turned and glared at the car.

“We would have done too if you hadn’t overheated three times in that traffic jam. Stupid car.”

She could hear a clock chiming the half-hour and realised she had no idea which hour it was. The last fifty miles had passed in a daze of exhaustion and misery. It was one thing travelling around the country in a modern Audi, knowing you were staying in a four star hotel when you got there. A bit different hauling this heap of shit three hundred miles up the country to stay in a flea-infested hostel.

Claire dragged her rucksack from the passenger seat, not willing to leave it in the car even though she barely had the strength to lift it onto her shoulders. Please God let this damn place be close by.

“Are you lost my dear?”

Claire looked round but couldn’t locate the source of the voice.

“Are you staying at the hostel, perhaps? The YHA one?”

Claire caught a faint scent of perfume, the kind her grannie used to wear. She looked down and saw a petit lady standing in the shadows smiling at her.

“I guessed by the rucksack. I’m staying there too, would you like me to show you how to get in? It’s easy to miss in the dark.” When Claire didn’t answer the lady walked a bit closer. “Do you speak English my dear?” She enunciated the words as if talking to someone hard of hearing.

“I’m English,” Claire managed. “And yes, thank you, I am looking for the YHA.” Claire was too tired to question why someone who looked the wrong side of seventy was staying in a Youth Hostel. I guess I don’t really count as youth either if it comes to it. She followed the lady a short distance to a building which loomed four or five stories above them, blocking out the star-spattered sky.

“I’m Hattie, I’m in one of the dorms. Are you staying long?”

Claire forced her scattered mind to focus on the voice. “Er, no, two nights.”

“That’s a shame. Lovely hostel this.” When Claire didn’t respond Hattie peered up into her face. “You look done in. Get yourself checked in and get some sleep. I’ll probably see you at breakfast?” She made the statement into a question but turned and scurried away before Claire could answer.

Claire let the rucksack drop from her shoulders and gazed around without seeing, unsure what to do next.

“Can I help you?” Another voice hailed her, male this time. “I’m the hostel manager. Are we expecting you?”

Claire turned and smiled at the man. “Yes, my name is Claire Carleton.”

“Ah yes, you’re booked into a twin room for two nights. Come with me I’ll get you checked in and you’ll be snuggled under your duvet in no time. You look like you could sleep standing up.”

Twin room? Claire’s mind latched onto the only part of the sentence that mattered. By myself? No sharing, no strangers snoring? For the first time in weeks Claire was conscious of a feeling of gratitude towards AJC. She stood waiting by her rucksack but the man didn’t offer to carry it, just walked off without checking whether she was following. Claire felt her cheeks flush red as she stooped to retrieve her bag.

The next ten minutes were a blur of forms and questions. Claire had a vague recollection of being shown a bistro which seemed just a sea of lime green. Very on-trend was Claire’s only thought. She was then ushered into a lift and escorted to her room on the third or fourth floor, she didn’t notice which. This doesn’t seem right for a hostel. I thought they chucked a key at you and handed you a sheet? They certainly don’t carry your bag. Claire felt the straps digging into her tired shoulders and gave up trying to make sense of it all..

As the hostel manager opened the door to her room Claire felt she might weep. It was bright and neat, if slightly like a posh prison with its grey wall and grey metal beds. Not a plush hotel by any means but the duvet looked thick and comfortable and she could spy an en-suite through another door.

The hostel manager handed Claire a sheet. “You’ll need to make up your bed and you can hire towels if you haven’t brought any. You’re booked in for breakfast and if you want dinner you can go down to the Bistro, or there’s a pub and an Indian not far away. I can’t imagine you’ll want to cook tonight but, if you do, the guest communal area is on the fifth floor.”

He stood for a moment as if waiting for Claire to respond. When it was clear she had no words he nodded a farewell, handed her the key, and left the room. Claire’s senses were overwhelmed by twelve hours of new experiences. Her body fought conflicting needs: a shower, coffee, dinner and sleep all seemed equally important. Half-heartedly flicking the sheet over one of the beds Claire collapsed full length and dragged the duvet over her head.

Sleep first, everything else could wait.

***

Brrrrr – 2013 365 Challenge Day #17

It's very cold here today but also very beautiful

It’s very cold here today but also very beautiful

We sent the kids off to nursery this afternoon. The youngest is teething, and the eldest is going through a period of nightmares, which means sleep is a rare commodity. With my husband looking for work it’s tough having clingy/grumpy/tantrumy kids in the house, so it seemed fairer to all of them to have them go play with their friends for the afternoon. I spent my bonus four hours sending out just one query letter (have I mentioned how long a process it is?) Hopefully it’ll be worth it one day.

I had a lovely surprise yesterday when I found out that someone wrote about my 2013 365 challenge on their blog. One Wild Word mentioned my challenge in relation to a post on a daily writing routine. I left a comment on the post about the writing routine that I am starting to develop and thought I’d repeat it here.

My writing routine has settled into starting the post as soon as the children are in bed, while cooking dinner for me and my husband. I then polish the writing during the evening (with my fingers in my ears if what’s on the tele is more interesting!). If I get it finished by bedtime I schedule it for the next morning (I work a day behind so I always have a slight buffer in case I don’t finish it). If I’ve had to go up to the kids two or three times during the evening I have the next morning to finish my post by my self-imposed 10am deadline. It’s kind of working so far, although some days my mind is blank after 10 hours of tantrums and I don’t really know what I’ve actually written! This is the first time I’ve ever written every day and it’s a very new experience. I think I actually prefer writing just on nursery days (2 days a week) but now I have committed to the challenge I must continue. There’s nothing like announcing something on the web to force you to get on with it…

Blyth Services in the snow. Spot the Costa sign. Photo taken on 06/12/2010 by Ian Sykes

Blyth Services in the snow. Spot the Costa sign.
Photo taken on 06/12/2010 by Ian Sykes

So, now you know! (You also now know that when I say things like “it’s been really cold today” that’s actually the day before because of my built-in buffer. As many of my readers are in the USA the time zones are all mashed anyway.)

Anyway on to today’s post. I have been Google-Mapping today to work out Claire’s journey to Berwick. Have found this useful site http://motorwayservicesonline.co.uk to help me decide which Services she might stop at. As one blog I follow puts it Have Internet, Will Travel(I also discovered that a large coffee at Starbucks is a Grande but at Costa it’s a Massimo. The things you learn doing online research!)

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Claire looked at the white shape on the road and shivered. There had been a heavy frost overnight and the Skoda looked like an igloo recently teleported from the North Pole.

“Great. Just what today needed.”

She pulled her jacket tighter and scurried back to her parents’ house to get some warm water. This was beyond what could be battled with de-icer.

The house was dark and silent as she let herself in through the kitchen door. All goodbyes, such as they were, had been said the night before as Claire had gone up to bed. Her mother had managed a muttered “Good luck” and her father had told her half-heartedly to call. Not once in the two days she had spent at home had either of them asked what her assignment was. Of course she hadn’t wanted to tell them so that was fine by her.

At last Claire was inside the car staring out through the only part of the windscreen that hadn’t immediately refrozen. My Audi would have told me how cold it actually is out there, warned me to drive carefully and heated my seat for me. The Skoda seats were freezing and she couldn’t hold the steering wheel with her bare hands. Please start, Claire prayed as she yanked out the choke and turned the key. She raised her eyebrows as the Skoda fired up immediately.

I guess being designed for Eastern Europe must have some advantages. Who knew?

The sat nav was already programmed to take her to Berwick-Upon-Tweed so Claire stuck it to the windscreen and tried not to dwell on the five-hour journey time. The current estimated time of arrival was 11am but Claire knew it was going to be nearer twelve hours on the road by the time she had coaxed the car three hundred miles north.

Claire had been driving for nearly three hours when her gurgling tummy prompted her to take a break. The sat nav said she had travelled only a third of the distance to Berwick. Despite most of the driving being on the dual carriage way or motorway Claire was exhausted. Driving the Skoda was much more involved than driving the Audi. Remembering to turn on the fan when the engine got hot; pushing the choke back in when the car coughed and spluttered; trying to judge the gaps in traffic with wing-mirrors that moved out of position when the car went over fifty miles per hour; overtaking with zero acceleration. Claire sighed and began looking out for Services signs.

A sleek black BMW pulled up behind her in the outside lane and immediately began flashing his lights. Claire looked down at the speedometer: she was doing 72 miles an hour.

“I’m doing the speed limit you arsehole. Can’t you see I’m overtaking?” She looked left at the articulated lorry doing 56 in the inside lane. As she pulled ahead of the lorry it also flashed its lights and Claire wondered what he had to be grumpy about. Then she realised he was telling her it was okay to pull in. Her cheeks flushed hot as she swung her car in front of the lorry and raised a hand in thanks.

At last she saw a sign for the Services and gratefully took the exit. “Robin Hood Airport? I want to go there!” Claire smiled for the first time that day as she headed for the roundabout. She was tempted to drive into Bawtry and have a proper stop but she wanted to get nearer to her final destination before she relaxed. She followed the signs for the Services instead and heaved a huge sigh as a Costa billboard filled her vision.

“Coffee, hurrah.”

Claire sat at wobbly metal table, surrounded by harassed families and focussed business men. She looked at her phone and was shocked to see it was only ten o’clock. Hey, maybe I will be in Berwick by lunchtime.

She gazed out the window, her massimo skinny latte clasped between her hands for warmth. It wasn’t quite Starbucks, and there were more calories in a Costa, but after three hours of driving it was extremely welcome. A strange feeling settled over her. Claire tried to analyse it. It was a soft feeling, the kind associated with snuggly duvets and the Sunday papers in bed. She felt… relaxed.

“Oh my goodness, Claire? Is that you? What are you doing in this hell hole?”

Claire didn’t register the voice immediately. There was no reason for anyone to know her here. The hail was accompanied by the tip-tapping of heels across the polished floor. The voice spoke again, nearer this time.

“It is Claire, isn’t it?”

Claire turned and saw a wave of blonde hair surrounding immaculate red lips and an insincere smile. Her stomach plummeted as the snuggly feeling evaporated.

“Linda. How lovely to see you. Apologies, I was miles away.”

The woman adjusted the strap of her handbag and took a seat opposite Claire without asking. Stifling a sigh Claire hitched a smile on her face and tried to remember all the pertinent facts about the woman sat beaming in front of her. She was marketing director for an electronics company but the name of the business eluded Claire. I’ve never forgotten details like that before. What’s happening to me?

“So, what brings you this side of the country? I thought your stomping ground was Cheshire.” Linda looked Claire up and down, taking in her jeans and hiking jacket. “Holiday?” The sneer was palpable.

“In a manner of speaking.” Claire had no intention of giving anything away to this woman. It would be all over Twitter before her coffee got cold. Claire’s tone of voice would have silenced lesser beings but Linda was made of more impenetrable stuff.

“How… novel.”

Claire ground her teeth and tried to think of a way to get rid of the woman without being rude. Thankfully Fate intervened in the guise of Linda’s ringing phone. Signalling her apology, the woman got up from the table and trotted to the door to get a better signal.

I hadn’t factored in meeting people I know. I haven’t really thought this through at all. Even with a new Twitter Handle, Facebook page and blog, people are going to find me. This is so not cool. Carl I am going to make you wish your sorry arse never crossed my path.

***

Rejection and the 365 Challenge Day #16

This was actually taken a few years ago when I had time to do such things! It looked like this outside today though...

This was actually taken a few years ago when I had time to do such things! It looked like this outside today though…

I received my first rejection for Dragon Wraiths today. I’m quite happy about it. I’ve sent out about a dozen query emails for the novel (did I mention just how long it takes to research an agency, choose the right agent, pitch the query letter as close as possible to what they want and then send it?) and this is the first reply I’ve had. So it was a rejection, so what? Aren’t you meant to get about forty rejections before you’re accepted? So that’s one step nearer.

Our dog Kara enjoying the snow

Our dog Kara enjoying the snow

It reminded me of a bit in Clare Balding’s great autobiography My Animals and Other Family where she and her brother are told a jockey isn’t a real jockey until he’s fallen off his horse a certain amount of times (I think it was sixty but if I go and check I’ll start reading the book again and I already have no idea what I’m writing for today’s Claire post so that will scupper it entirely.) Anyway, the kids keep falling off their horses deliberately, in order to build up to the magic number. Their frustrated mother points out that it doesn’t count if you do it on purpose. I’ve sent out query letters before but I haven’t put my heart and soul into them. This time I’m doing it properly so this is my first genuine rejection. Only 39 to go.

IMG_9930 (2000x1333)

Taken in the field across from our house. I get to walk this every day (when my knee isn’t playing up as it is now!)

As mentioned above I don’t know what I’m writing about today for my novel. I’ve spent the last twelve hours with two fragile, screaming, over-tired preschoolers, taking them to play with their friends and then going sledging. My nerves are zinging and I’m only fit for bed. So I’m just going to write and see what happens. Apologies if it stinks! I have joined the YHA and am just waiting for my membership card in order to be able to send off for a guide to the hostels. Once that arrives I’ll be able to start my proper research, plan out Claire’s travel route and get on with the novel proper. Until then it’ll probably be another post introducing characters which hopefully won’t be as boring as it sounds.

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“Please pass the salt.”

Claire located the salt pot amidst the silverware on the table and handed it to her father. He thanked her without making eye contact and returned to demolishing his lamb roast.

Chewing the slightly over-cooked meat, Claire looked up at her parents’ bowed heads and wondered when they got so grey. And boring. I remember when they used to talk at dinner. Maybe I’m making them feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t a nice thought. Claire was used to not getting a prodigal-son welcome when she came home but the constraint surrounding her at the dinner table that evening was suffocating.

“Kim’s dyed her hair red for a role in a Shakespeare play.”

“Hmmm.” Her mother speared a green bean and put it in her mouth.

“She looks great, like a life-size pixie.”

“Hmmm.” This time it was a baby carrot that felt the fork.

“She’s having her nipple pierced and leaving Jeff for the cleaning lady.”

“Hmmm… I beg your pardon?” Her mother’s face whipped up and she looked at Claire for the first time since they sat at the table.

“Joking. Just wondered if I was actually here.”

“It’s not healthy to talk and eat, it causes you to take in too much air. Your father suffers from heartburn so we have silence at the table.” She spoke the last words pointedly and returned to the massacre of the vegetables.

Sighing quietly, Claire focussed on eating her dinner as swiftly as possible. She had had plenty of time to regret coming to visit her parents in the two days since she’d arrived. She had barely shared three words with her mother and tonight at the dinner table was the first time her father had even appeared. She was shocked to see how old he looked.

Has it really been so long since I visited, or has he been aging in double-time since he retired?

Claire tried to turn her mind away from the mausoleum of the dinner table and think nice thoughts. Her future wasn’t exactly swimming in them. In the morning she had to load her hated rucksack into her loathed old banger and drive 300 miles to stay in a flea-ridden youth hostel. She had taken the decision to invest in a Sat Nav, having found it difficult to even get home to her parents’ house without the inbuilt one in her company Audi. It had taken until an hour ago for her to bring herself to plot in the route to Berwick and she was shocked to find out it was going to take at least five hours to get there when she left in the morning.

Probably six or seven in that stupid car, it only manages seventy-miles-an-hour downhill with the wind behind it. I’m going to have to leave at 5a.m. to get there by dinner time. She looked around the table at the chewing waxwork figures of her parents and gave a tiny shrug. That’s not going to be a hardship. I might not want to go to Berwick but I can’t wait to leave here.

As she tried to get comfortable in the z-bed her mother had deigned to put up for her, claiming the linen in the spare room was in the laundry, Claire mused that at least she’d had some practice sleeping in a lumpy bumpy bed. That was the only prep she had done for the big adventure that was due to start in a mere twenty-four hours.

It’ll be fine, she thought sleepily. I’m good at winging it.

***