Not NaNoing: 2013 365 Challenge #318

My bargain book! :)

My bargain book! 🙂

I decided, finally, not to do NaNoWriMo this year. Despite all my protestations that I had no intention of doing it, I think I secretly thought in the back of my mind that, if I could get a bit ahead with Two-Hundred Steps Home, I might try and tap out 20,000 words of something new.

I have so many ideas for projects – a sequel to Dragon Wraiths, maybe a sequel to Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes, definitely a follow-up to Two-Hundred Steps Home – that I wanted to get stuck in to one of them. I’m advertising that Class Act will be out next year, and a Dragon Wraiths sequel really would need to be too, and yet one is half done and the other not even started.

Now, though, at 14th November, I have to accept that it isn’t likely to happen. And I’m okay with that. I’m not even reading all the NaNo motivational emails, as I would normally do, because I spend my spare time (such as it is!) reading the brilliant blogs I follow. Or at least as many of them as I can get to.

Why not visit Miss Fanny P?

Why not visit Miss Fanny P?

I’m particularly enjoying Miss Fanny P. Actually, enjoying isn’t the word, because she had some sad news: I think maybe supporting is closer. She feels like a Blogsphere friend and I want to support her. The dozen or so blogs I read and comment on regularly all feel like friends that I make a point of visiting as often as I can, just as I would if they were real friends. It’s important.

So, I’m not really missing NaNo. I mostly have the ‘thrill’ of hitting deadlines and churning out words by keeping up with the daily blog and Two-Hundred Steps Home. Although THSH is usually only around 22,000 words a month, the daily blog probably adds another 10,000 to that, so I’m two thirds to a NaNo total every month already. (Today’s combined post, for example, is only around 100 words shy of the 1,667 daily NaNo target.)

About the only thing I’ve done to celebrate NaNoWriMo this year is drop the price of my books. Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes was written as a first draft during 2011 NaNoWriMo, so it feels right to promote it during November. It’s currently a steal, because Amazon have picked up on my Smashwords price drop and are offering it for the bargain price of 75p (or $1.20 in the US)! You can’t buy a newspaper for that. So, if you haven’t read it and fancy a bargain read, do grab a copy. If Amazon stop price-matching, go over to Smashwords. As it isn’t in KDP, it will never be free, so this is the best deal. Who knows, I might even get a review or two if the offer takes off! 🙂 It all helps motivate me to keep writing. Bring on NaNo 2014….

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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 swore as she found herself in the one way system for the third time. Yanking the steering wheel round, she crossed a lane of traffic amidst blaring horns, and swore again.

What possessed me to take the SatNav out of the car? If I’d still had the iPad I wouldn’t have needed to use the SatNav to plan today’s activities. Why is it everything I do makes my life more difficult.

She shook her head at her own stupidity, peering out the window at the sign posts as she drove around the town.

Come on, Claire, it’s a castle! How hard can it be to find? And where are all the signs? Normally you can’t get within five miles of a tourist attraction without a plethora of brown rectangles telling you which way to go.

Mentally adding ‘sign posts’ to her report topics for successful tourism, Claire took a deep breath and tried to get her temper under control. At last she spotted a sign up ahead pointing to the castle, and then there it was, about a hundred yards from the sign.

Better late than never, I suppose.

Claire parked the car and grimaced at the long walk up to the castle entrance, wondering if the maritime museum would have been a better choice. Even with the sun warming her skin and the cool sea breeze caressing her face she couldn’t seem to shake the grumpy mood hanging around like a bad smell.

Her frame of mind didn’t improve when she arrived at the castle and an eager gentlemen tried to convince her that £1050 for a lifetime membership of the English Heritage was good value for money.

Look, if I can’t afford a few hundred quid to replace my treasured tablet, I don’t think I’ll be splashing out that much on a stupid membership and, funnily enough, I can’t see Conor signing that one off on my expenses.

She looked around at some of the other people also being pushed into taking membership.

And if I was over sixty and you were still trying to charge me £750 for lifetime membership I might ask if that constituted a sound investment? Although most pensioners I know have more money than I do. Which, to be fair, isn’t hard.

Trying to quash her surliness, Claire smiled sweetly, declined the membership offer and paid the entrance fee. She baulked slightly at the cost of the guidebook, wondering why it couldn’t be included in the ticket price, and decided to go on the free tour instead.

She walked into the castle behind a group of giggling children whose parents were also muttering about the price of membership and the slightly aggressive sales pitch. Claire made a note to review membership deals as part of her report, then tried to approach the venue as a tourist.

The views were spectacular, every way she looked. It wasn’t hard to see why they’d built the castle there in the first place. There would be no sneaking up the coast to invade. Claire wandered through the exhibits, enjoying the waxwork people and booming sound effects that brought the castle to life.

The boys would love this, all the noise and guns. Maybe I’ll take them to the one on the other side of the estuary; clambering all over a place like this for a few hours might wear them out.

Thinking of things to do with her nephews lessened the fear a tiny bit and made her feel like she might cope during their two-week stay.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t rain. I wouldn’t want to be here in a downpour: there isn’t much cover between the buildings. I must remind Robert to pack waterproofs.

Then she remembered they would be leaving in the morning to catch their flight, and pulled her phone out to send a quick text message. There was an unopened text that must have arrived while she was inside the castle, surrounded by firing guns. It was from Conor.

No problem with the nephews, although your family and friends do seem to take you for granted. Lunch tomorrow then? I’ll find somewhere suitable. Conor

She stood staring at the message, trying to understand the tone. It sounded much friendlier than his recent emails, but it was hard to tell in such a short note. She frowned and went to drop her phone back in her bag, before remembering the message she needed to send her brother.

Robert, make sure the kids have clothing for a British summer – shorts and waterproofs, you know the deal. I have a lunchtime meeting with my boss, so will catch up with you after that. Are you staying the night? I’ll be in St Austell for lunch or at the Boswinger hostel after that. I’ve booked beds for the boys. Let me know, Claire.

She hit send, put her phone away, then headed to the roof to take some photographs for the blog and to clear her head.

As she stood on the roof, enjoying the panoramic view and trying not to get too close to the edge, Claire overheard a couple behind her in heated conversation.

“I tell you, it’s perfect. What better place to get married than in a real castle.” The girl sounded close to tears. “Just look at it, it will be amazing.”

“I know, darling, but we can’t afford it. Do you want to be broke and living at your parents’ house for years, just for one day?”

“Oh, you don’t understand.”

Claire heard running footsteps, followed by a loud sigh. She smiled wryly. It reminded her of a TV show she saw once, where someone explained to a perplexed groom that girls plan their ideal wedding day all their lives and it’s the groom’s job to catch up with the dream and run with it.

Not me. I don’t remember ever pretending to be a bride. Actually, I don’t remember what I wanted to be when I grew up, or what dreams I had.

The thought made her sad for some reason. Feeling as if clouds had swept over the brilliant sun, Claire turned away from the wall and headed back into the gloom of the castle.

***

Downtime: 2013 365 Challenge #299

I get my downtime when I'm asleep

I get my downtime when I’m asleep

One of the things I’ve discovered through doing the daily blog challenge is the psychological and physical effect of having no downtime. For probably 98% of the 299 days of blogging and writing this year, I have put the children to bed at 8pm, gone downstairs, cooked dinner, eaten it while catching up on social media and blog comments, then opened my laptop.

At some point between that point and 11am the following morning, between normal household duties – dog walking, dishwasher stacking, cooking, ironing, child hugging, sleeping – I find the time and energy to write my 1000-1500 words.

Sometimes, like today, they were written in a supermarket café with free WiFi while placating a whining small child with crayons and cookies. Sometimes, like now, I stand at the computer at 11.38 p.m, having just been woken up from a three-hour sofa doze by hubbie going to bed. On very rare and wonderful days I’ve actually written some of it in the day time and I only have to format the post, add photos and tags and publish. Those are good days.

I’m not saying this for sympathy or to have a moan. Well, maybe a little bit. 😉 I’m saying it because a) it’s 11.40pm and I have to think of something to waffle on about and b) I’ve realised that the lack of downtime is starting to send me slightly doolally. It isn’t the work: I don’t mind working hard. Plus, I get whole chunks of my day when I’m sat cuddling a child on the sofa, or walking the dog, or driving to and from school, when I’m free to just think. What struck me was the lack of guilt-free downtime and the effect that has on the mind.

This is my downtime!

This is my downtime!

When you work a paid job, you get a lunch break. You might not get to actually take it (I ate at my desk pretty much every day of my ten-year marketing career) although I think you should always make a point to try. As a contractor I made sure I took my full thirty minutes or an hour, every day, to eat a proper lunch, get some fresh air, and switch off. It’s guilt-free time. You’re being paid to take a break.

Then you get home, sometimes late, granted, (I think 2 am was the latest I got home from work after a particularly challenging deadline), and then that time is yours, until the alarm goes off in the morning and it starts again. And then there are weekends. Well, if you’re not working of course!.

Of course all that goes out the window when you have children, although they do sort of sleep at least some of the time, theoretically giving you an element of guilt-free downtime. Maybe.

When you’re self-employed, though, that guilt-free time is so much harder because, if you’re not working, you’re not earning. I’m not earning anyway, but that’s beside the point. I am trying to make money, and to do so I have to keep on working. Some days I check my sales reports obsessively, as if hoping to see something to make the pain worthwhile (I rarely do.) But all work and no play makes me a grumpy, tired, stressed bunny.

David Eddings' Belgariad

David Eddings’ Belgariad

Last week I re-read David Eddings’ Belgariad series and it felt like being on holiday. Reading = work for an author (well, mostly! It helps if you’re reading something brilliant or within your genre).

Spending a few hours every day curled up around my favourite book was a way to escape without feeling (too) guilty. Unfortunately I came to the end of book five yesterday and the next five books (the Malloreon) are at my Mum’s house. She’s asked to have a week of peace, after my sister and her family went back to the states, so I can’t go and get them until tomorrow.

Probably just as well, as I need to catch up with the writing. Except I haven’t. Instead I’ve been falling asleep on the sofa and waking up at midnight, blurry eyed and numb-brained, trying to make up words for the blog and Claire, trying to think up deep and meaningful tweets or FB status updates, trying to choose front cover images for Two-Hundred Steps Home (October is proving particularly challenging as it hasn’t had a ‘theme’ in the way the other months have).

All the while, in the back of my mind, I know I want to do NaNoWriMo (Hahahahaha falls on floor laughing), it’s half term next week, and I just discovered in my diary that I agreed to give a talk on abstract art to a local college on the first Monday after half term. Eek! There goes any chance of guilt-free downtime in the near future!

Anyway, apologies, this has just turned into a bit of a whinge. It wasn’t meant to be. It was meant to be an insightful discussion of the effects of life in the twenty-first century where we are never off work, we’re never switched off, we’re never free. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll file that one away to write about another day!

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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 smiled as the sun streaming in through the window gently woke her; warming her skin and sending sun fairies dancing across her eyelids. With a sense of impending adventure, she pushed back the covers and wondered what was causing the fluttering of anticipation in her stomach.

As she rose and walked to the window, Claire remembered where she was. The gorgeous hostel perched on the hillside with views to die for. It was still early and the other occupants of the room were sound asleep. Pulling on yesterday’s clothes, Claire crept from the room and headed for the kitchen.

The silence continued throughout the hostel, and Claire wondered just how early it was. The kitchen clock said 6 a.m. and Claire laughed, the sound echoing around the empty room.

When did I last wake at dawn without an alarm clock?

Her body felt alight with energy, and Claire thought she would burst if she didn’t do something with it. She wolfed down a quick breakfast, scalding her mouth on too-hot tea, then paced quietly back to her room to grab her boots and bag.

Her discussion with the manager the previous evening had revealed that the South West Coastal Path ran almost from the door of the hostel. The manager had raved so much about the spectacular views that Claire had decided to walk some of the route before driving to Plymouth to meet Conor.

Thinking about the meeting gave her butterflies, so she pushed the thought aside and stuffed snacks and a jumper into her bag. The manager had said a map wasn’t necessary, as the path followed the coast all the way round to Hope Cove. Having checked the map, she suspected she wouldn’t make it quite that far.

The hostel remained silent as she let herself out and into the tropical gardens of the National Trust property. With a deep breath Claire inhaled the scent of plant life soaked in dew, smiling as it sparked memories of the New Zealand bush. She shivered as the early morning air raised goosebumps across her skin, and set off towards the path.

The sun greeted her again as she left the trees and reached the path, and she soon settled into her stride. To one side lay the estuary, sparkling blue beneath her. That’s a long way down. Claire looked around, as if only just realising how high up the path was along the cliffs. I hope it isn’t too steep. She remembered being up near Old Harry Rocks and shuddered.

The path grew steadily steeper, until it was nothing more than a trail of rocks climbing vertically towards the azure sky. Forcing herself not to look back or down, Claire concentrated instead on keeping her footing on the uneven path.

It would be so much more convenient if I hadn’t discovered that I’m scared of heights.

She chanced a look at the view, and swallowed the bile that rose up her throat. Beneath her, crumbling rocks appeared to tumble in slow motion to the sea, as if frozen in the very act of falling. The sea itself rippled in a palette of blues and greens, darker and more foreboding than the sparkling strip of water seen in the distance from the hostel. On a sunny day it seemed merely stark. Claire couldn’t imagine what it would be like in a storm.

Encircled by the stunning vista, Claire wondered for a moment what had possessed her to fly half way round the world, bankrupting herself in the process, to admire the beauty of another country, when she’d barely scratched the surface of her own.

If I thought the Lake District was pretty in winter, that’s going to be nothing to what this place is going to be like in June.

As the sense of adventure built within her, Claire pushed on up the steep path towards the outcrop of rocks silhouetted against the sky above her. The change from light to dark left sunspots in her vision and she blinked to clear it.

Then the world went sideways. Slipping on loose shale, Claire lost her footing and began to slither back down the path towards the cliffs. Thrashing like a landed fish, Claire grabbed around at the grass in an attempt to slow her passage, as the rocks tore at her bare legs and arms.

At last her frantic attempts worked and she came to a halt at the very edge of the path. The rocks loosened by her passage continued on over the edge, falling away to the sea far below.

Claire lay panting, unable to process anything but the fact that she was still alive. Slowly, one piece at a time, her body began to yell out its grievances. Clawing her way back up to a flatter part of the path, Claire assessed the damage. Both shins and arms wept blood, and a tentative exploration of her face revealed a similar story.

Great. I look like the victim of a traffic accident.

She bit her lip against the pain and humiliation, glad no one had been there to witness her fall. Bad enough that she felt like a peeled plum and was going to be sore for days. Then another thought crept in unwelcome and she groaned.

Conor’s going to die laughing.

***

We Are Stories: 2013 365 Challenge #286

Happy birthday, sis

Happy birthday, sis

Yesterday my gorgeous sister celebrated her fortieth birthday with a gathering at our parents’ house. As the rain poured outside, a dozen children from four months to fourteen years old played together, while as many adults mingled and discussed the passing of the years.

Two of my sister’s school friends were there with their children: faces I haven’t seen in twenty years but that haven’t changed much. I remember other parties, two decades ago, with the same faces. More music than kids cartoons, back then, and significantly more alcohol. But just as much fun.

As I watched the kids unite in a universal game of balloon fight while disparate groups of my sister’s friends chatted about life, and an old friend who lived in our house even before we moved to the area commented on the same tiles still being there in the kitchen, I could almost see the passing of time happening in that room.

Balloon fights

Balloon fights

Story arcs and character arcs played out in my mother’s kitchen. Our family’s journey, from the day we arrived in the house nearly thirty years ago, when it was all yellow walls and brown carpet. My sister’s journey, from shy school girl to entrepreneur, mother, wife, international traveller. My life, from early heartache to sitting with my children on my lap, happy and content.

I’m often asked how I come up with stuff to write about in my novels: people complain of having no imagination. I used to say the same, until I started my Creative Writing degree, and discovered NaNoWriMo. Then I realised my brain is chock full of stories.

Stories play out around us endlessly. Happy ones, sad ones, stories with no endings, stories only just beginning. The babies in the room yesterday will live an entirely different adventure in a different world to the one I grew up in. Already I can say the same for my children, as they swing from the same apple tree I fell from as a child.

Balloon fighting

Balloon fighting

For character development we need look no further than our own experience: from bolshy or shy teenager to confident or unhappy adult. Whatever our journey, there is a universal truth held within it. Other people have experienced the same emotions, undergone the same changes, albeit in a slightly different way. Like a handmade dress or a home-baked cake, no two stories are quite the same.

My sister and I had almost identical upbringings, as much as can be the case when you’re three years different in age. We’ve lived similar lives, our children could easily be mistaken for siblings. But some of our views on life are worlds apart.

And, by virtue of marrying an American, she now lives in the States. Tiny choices that have huge repercussions. I might have married my Kiwi boyfriend (unlikely!) and my life would have taken a completely different path. To write a story, all I need imagine is one of those what ifs. There are little bits of me in every story, because writing what you know is the easiest place to start. It can be fun, too, exploring the lives I might have lived.

They say everyone has a novel in them. I believe we have as many as we can find the time and energy to write down. All around us, weaving in and out of every day, there are stories. If you want to, go and find them, capture and tame them. Make them your story. There’s no time like now.

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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 pulled into the car park with a sense of relief. Travelling in the car with Kim was beginning to stretch her nerves to breaking point.

I wonder if this is how Bethan felt, travelling with me around New Zealand?

With a guilty flush Claire decided that Bethan probably had more patience. Assuming her dark moods had been of equal blackness, and she suspected they had been, it was a bit like trying to run holding a fragile vase full of excrement. One careless step and the darkness slopped over the side, making everything awful. And all the while there lurked the constant fear that one misstep might shatter the vessel into a thousand pieces.

The town rose around them up into tree-lined hills where white villas sat majestically overlooking the bay. She’d never been to Lyme Regis before and her only knowledge of the town came from a TV adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

“Apparently Jane Austen loved this town,” she said, as Kim joined her on the pavement.

“I guess someone has to,” Kim responded, staring round with distaste.

Claire bit back a retort and looked instead for somewhere they could get a cup of coffee and some cake. She definitely needed cake.

*

After Kim had turned down the first two cafés for being too busy or too twee, they’d finally settled in a small independent coffee shop that featured a display of divine looking cakes.

Claire wrapped her hands around her mug and read the sign on the wall out loud; “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy tea which is the same kind of thing.” She laughed. “Substitute that for coffee and I couldn’t agree more.”

“I wouldn’t have thought you’d be laughing about money, if you’re as broke as you claim you are.” Kim’s voice cut through Claire’s happiness like a cheese wire.

Claire inhaled sharply, and the words came out before she had time to think. “Give it a rest, Kim. Your life sucks, I get that. Mine’s not exactly rosy either. It’s not going to get better if you stomp around thinking your cup is half empty all the time.” She stopped, her face flaming, and immediately reached out her hand in apology. Kim stared at her through round eyes.

“God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean that.” She tried to lay her hand on her friend’s, but Kim snatched her hand off the table and crossed her arms.

“I’m not sulking, Claire. I’m not choosing to be low. I have depression. The doctor explained it; it’s an imbalance of chemicals in my head. I can’t control it. You wouldn’t ask me to just get up and walk if I had a broken leg.”

The heat continued to pound in Claire’s face as Kim’s words hit out at her. She hung her head. “I know. I understand, really.” She wanted to add that she felt the same; that the world had closed in around her in the past weeks, but suspected Kim wouldn’t appreciate her saying, oh yes, me too.

They sat in silence and Claire sipped at her coffee, more for something to do than out of any enjoyment.

This was a mistake. What was I thinking?

She tried to think of a way out, but nothing presented itself. The idea of travelling with Kim for even a few days, never mind the weeks it would take to get around Cornwall, filled her with dread. And she was meant to be working, not babysitting. How was she supposed to research the tourist activities and compile her recommendations – how was she even going to think straight – with Kim pouring her woe on them all the time. But she couldn’t send Kim home, even though they were in her car. She wasn’t sure Kim was safe by herself and it was a long way back to her apartment.

Claire felt like she was back in Puzzling World, stuck in the maze, lost and confused. Only now she couldn’t climb a tower and figure the way out.

Draining her coffee, she stood up and shouldered her bag. “Come on then, let’s get moving.”

One foot forward, that was the only way.

***

Tips for NaNoWriMo: 2013 365 Challenge #285

My NaNoWriMo Baby

My NaNoWriMo Baby

Okay, confession time: I’m going to steal most of today’s post, from myself!

With my sister and her family over at the moment, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to write my Claire installment and find something to say for this top part (unless you want to hear how totally cute my niece and nephew are!)

So, today’s thoughts originally appeared back in October 2012 in this post.

NaNoWriMo Thoughts

It’s almost that time of year again when people kiss goodbye to their families, put the takeaway numbers on speed dial, stock up on coffee and chocolate, and launch themselves into NaNoWriMo.

For those of you who have never heard of it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writers Month, and is about “Thirty days and nights of literary abandon” (or writing 50,000 words in the month of November, but that doesn’t sound as poetic or inspiring!)

Most of my novels started life in November. Two years ago, whilst also running my first solo art exhibition and looking after my two young children, I took part in my fourth NaNo and wrote the first fifty thousand words of what (eventually) became Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes.

There are thousands of posts written about NaNoWriMo every year (and chances are, if you’re not a writer or you’re not taking part, you’re a bit sick of hearing about NaNo already!) I’m not qualified to discuss how to plan your NaNoWriMo adventure so your first draft doesn’t become a hot mess. As a Pantser I don’t do much planning; although if I do find time to take part this year, I will definitely reread Jami’s post and take notes. It’s much easier to fix a first draft if it actually has a vague story or character arc to carry it through.

I guess everything to do with NaNoWriMo has been written about already, given what a phenomenon it is. However, for those that have no idea what NaNo is, or are contemplating trying it for the first time this year, I thought I would tap out my thoughts on how to get the most out of your thirty days.

My first NaNo novel (not yet finished)

My first NaNo novel (not yet finished)

My NaNoWriMo Top Tips:

1. Write something on Day One. Anything. Even if you’re a Pantser and your mind is blank, make up a character from five items in your work space and think of something awful that might be happening to them. The longer you leave it before getting words on the page the less likely you are to start at all.

2 Try and keep up with the word-count chart but don’t panic if you fall behind. Once you get some momentum you can do astounding things (I wrote something like 17k words in my last 36 hours last year.)

3. Do not re-read more than your last line (just to see where you got to) when you sit down to write. Even better, end your writing session with a couple of notes about what might happen next so you can start writing the minute you sit at your desk.

4. DO NOT EDIT. If you can handle it by all means leave spell check on and fix as you go. If that causes you to re-read, worry, and question the quality of your work, turn spell check off or – better still – write in Notepad or equivalent.

5. Engage with the community. Read some Facebook posts, follow on Twitter. If you can afford it, donate to NaNo and get all the motivational emails. They’re the reason I come back each year.

At the end of November you won’t have a finished novel. As most novels are nearer 100k than 50k you won’t even have a finished first draft. (If possible, carry on writing until you reach the end of your story, even if it means leaving out chunks to fill in later. If you don’t at least sketch out the ending while the NaNo momentum is carrying you, it’s much more likely to remain unfinished.).

Your fifty thousand words will represent an amazing achievement. Even if you bin half, or put the whole thing in a hidden folder on your computer, you will still have something to be proud of.

Before discovering NaNoWriMo I was convinced I couldn’t write a novel because I had no imagination. I was wrong. I may not have the sharpest literary mind in the world but I can spin a yarn. I’ve discovered I’m more Pantser than Plotter and my main weakness is generating conflict. I know I can write good dialogue and that I can churn out 50k words of reasonable first draft in 4 weeks, even when it isn’t November. Without my NaNo training I would never have survived so far in my daily novel-by-installments challenge this year. (Each monthly Two-Hundred Steps Home volume is a half-NaNo, and that doesn’t include the blog post words written each day).

I may not take part this year. Something has to give in my busy schedule. But I still want to hear about everyone else’s adventures, so please stop by and let me know how you’re getting on. If you’re still dithering about whether or not to sign up: do it. What have you got to lose? You never know what might happen. In a year or two you might be looking at your novel, there on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and get to say, “I wrote that.” It’s a great feeling.

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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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“So, ladies, where will you be off to in the morning?”

As Conor smiled at them, Claire noticed that the wary expression was beginning to leave his face when he looked at Kim. Since their first introduction, an hour or two before, he had acted as if her friend were a bomb about to explode.

Kim had said very little through dinner, although Claire was relieved to see her eat some of her food. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

She turned to Conor to answer his question. “I think we’ll aim for somewhere in Devon, tomorrow. The weather is meant to get better, and it would be a shame to spend too much time in the car. I thought we might head along the coast to Exeter: then I can get a feel for some of the local Dorset towns before we leave the county.”

Conor nodded, but Claire got the impression he wasn’t really listening. They hadn’t talked much about the job during dinner. It unnerved her. A job was meant to come with a contract and a start date and, most importantly, a sense of how much and when she would be paid.

As if reading her mind, Conor caught her eye. “As I said before, we can’t do much in the way of expenses, but you will be getting paid. As it’s on contract for six months, I can pay you weekly if that would help?”

Claire nodded, wondering if it was so obvious that she was completely skint. It was hard to read her new boss. Sometimes, such as during her travels when he texted her, he felt almost like a friend or a benevolent uncle. At other times, like this evening, he was every inch her boss; keeping his distance and maintaining a flow of polite, neutral conversation. It made her feel like an idiot.

Did I imagine the tone of friendship in his texts, or read more into them? And what about picking me up from the airport: what was that all about? What on earth is it going to be like, working for him every day?

She shivered. For the first time she felt a sense of apprehension. In some ways it was easier to manage a boss like Carl, who made it his mission to keep her on her toes. What did you do with someone who seemed like your friend one minute and your master the next?

Claire glanced at Kim, hoping to be able to pick her brains later, to see what she made of Conor. Kim had her hands wrapped around her mug of hot chocolate and was staring into the dark liquid as if it held the secrets of the future.

If only.

Noticing the darkening bags beneath her friend’s eyes, Claire decided it was time to head back to the B&B. She had hoped finally sitting down with Conor to discuss work would leave her feeling more settled and sure that she had made the right decision. Instead it felt similar to waiting in the aircraft, trying to anticipate when the man strapped to her back was going to jump out and drag her with him.

Maybe I shouldn’t have burned my bridges quite so emphatically with Carl. Perhaps they’re right when they say better the devil you know.

She looked up and caught Conor staring at her, his eyes glittering in the low light of the restaurant. Her mouth felt dry. Reaching for her drink, she nearly knocked it flying across the table. Glad for an excuse to look away, Claire tried to ignore the hot flush rising up her cheeks.

***

Daily Blogging has taught me to say, “Bring it on”: 2013 365 Challenge #284

Happiest on the mountain top

Happiest on the mountain top

I wrote a couple of days ago about how I am content with life and was surprised to realise that, beneath the depression and the tiredness, it’s true.

After our discussion on the importance of a five-year plan, hubbie commented on how much I’ve changed over the last few weeks. I don’t think I have, or if I have it isn’t over weeks but months. But I do feel a change in me: an increase in confidence, in self-belief and in courage. I believe in my choices – both as a writer and a parent – and I’m starting to be able to take life in my stride.

I happened to mention to a friend recently that I have a first class degree. She immediately joked, “Oh, I only have a 2:1, but I had a life at university.” And I didn’t get upset and defensive. It’s true: I didn’t have much of a life outside study at university. It used to bother me, like I did it wrong somehow. That university should have been about making amazing life-long friendships, drinking until two in the morning, or winning at hockey.

Conquering mountains

Conquering mountains

I spent university in the library. Sometimes in the gym (to avoid being in the library). In my second year I had terrible depression and I remember spending most of the year in my dark and damp uni accommodation, listening to Metallica, not sleeping much and feeling miserable.

During the vacation before my third year I worked in a bar and made some great friends. I met a lad and thought all I wanted to do in life was be a bar manager.

I realise now that was because I found somewhere I belonged. Behind a bar I could be me: I didn’t have to keep up with the pretty girls or the brainy academics. People were nice to me because they wanted me to serve them and not throw them out. It was fun. When the lad dumped me at New Year (in hindsight, thank god!) I thought my life was over. It took until Easter (and the support of my amazing flatmates, bless you), for me to put my world back together. I then worked twelve hours a day for six weeks to get my dissertation written and still get my first.

Knee agony but still smiling

Knee agony but still smiling

I seem to have spent my whole life since then trying to fit, trying to work out why I don’t have life-long friends; why I don’t want to go drinking or talk about fashion. I found my place, briefly, when I joined the Guide Association as a leader and realised hiking mountains is in my soul (if not in my knees!) But I lost that connection through depression, when I quit everything and went travelling (and climbed some more mountains!)

Since having kids I’ve tried to be the perfect parent: to get the right mix of love and discipline, together-time and independence, crafty mess and tidying up. Mostly I felt like I was doing it wrong.

Then, I started the daily blog challenge, and everything changed. I found my place in the world. Through writing every day I found that I like and I’m good at it. Not brilliant, not amazing, but good enough. I discovered how to edit, and to find a pleasure in editing. I met some amazing friends: friends who see the world the way I do. Through sharing my parenting highs and lows, and reading the stories of other mums, I’ve discovered I’m doing okay.

I lived my life after uni

I lived my life after uni

The support, community and daily contact of the blog has built a wall of confidence around me that I never had before.  The amazing thing is, even though I can feel the depression pulling at me: even though I’ve had days recently when I wanted to end it all, I can see that it’s mostly caused by lack of sleep. On a day, like today, when I managed to get five hours’ sleep in a row, I feel like I could sprint up Mount Everest. (Except I’m still so goddamn tired!)

My daily blog challenge has pushed me to the limits. But it’s stretched me open and connected me to a whole world of like-minded people. Ones I didn’t necessarily come across at school or university or even in my day-to-day life. Not that I don’t love the friends I’ve made in all those places. Now I’m more confident I love the differences, too. I love that I can have someone tell me I didn’t have a life at university and I can nod, and think quietly, “I had my life. I had the life I like to live: I read, I slept, I ran, I studied. It was enough. I did all that other stuff after I graduated.” I’m no longer making excuses for who I am or where I’ve come from. I feel empowered.

Blogging daily is a bit like therapy. A bit like life. Sometimes it hurts and you don’t want to do it: but those are the times when you learn the most about yourself and what you are capable of. To anyone considering taking on this crazy challenge next year, or to anyone thinking of taking part in NaNoWriMo, or any other challenge where you push yourself and commit yourself to finding out what’s beneath your skin, I’d advise you to say, “Bring it on.”

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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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“So, this is the place that’s lured you away from city life?” Kim looked out the window at the painted houses, dull beneath the clouds covering the summer sky, and snorted. “It’s not really your style. Is there even a Starbucks in this town?”

Claire tried to ignore the mockery in Kim’s voice. “I won’t be living here, at least not for a while. And, for your information, I no longer need to live within five minutes of a decent cup of coffee. I’ve broadened my horizons.” She dropped her prim voice and added, “Besides, there’s  Starbucks in Poole, so I can nip over on the ferry.”

The girls laughed and, for a moment, it felt like the old days. Then Kim sighed. “You’ll be so far away. I feel like I’ve hardly seen you since you left home.”

“That was nearly ten years ago. We’ve never seen much of each other – we went to different schools and different universities. You moved in with Jeff, I went to Manchester. We don’t have to be in walking distance to be friends you know.”

“It’s not the same. I wanted to bike over and talk to you, and you weren’t there.” Her voice held a hint of accusation and Claire braced herself for further attacks.

Kim sighed again. “Sorry. I know this isn’t your fault. Jeff says I accused you of causing the miscarriage – when you came to see the play. I don’t really remember; everything is foggy. If I did, I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay. I’m sorry I thought Michael could be trusted to keep his big gob shut.”

“Things are definitely over between you two, then?”

Claire thought about all the things her friend didn’t know about; Josh and the unnamed Scottish man and even Neal. For the first time it felt like a hundred years had passed since they’d last spoken.”

“Definitely.”

“I can’t say I’m disappointed. He never seemed right for you. Too boring. You need someone to make you laugh.” She stopped. “Poor Jeff, I’ve made his life a misery and he must be grieving as well. Even though it was only early on, it was his baby too.”

She fell silent again, and Claire glanced over, worried she was crying. Her face revealed dark thoughts, but she seemed in control of her emotions.

Turning her attention back to the road, Claire followed the SatNav’s instructions to take them to their B&B. They hadn’t managed to get beds in the hostel and Claire had to admit she wasn’t disappointed. She wasn’t entirely sure Kim was up to staying with strangers.

*

The B&B overlooked the bay. Claire looked out at the slate grey water, topped with white. The skies had grown darker and darker as they drove south and now they hung ominously overhead. Claire hoped it wasn’t a sign that they should have stopped driving and turned back.

“What do you want to do?” She looked over at Kim, who was also staring out across the sea. “Are you hungry?”

Kim looked blankly at her and the gloomy light from the window highlighted her sunken cheeks and the flatness of her eyes. She turned her face back to the window without speaking.

When she didn’t answer, Claire filled the silence with bright and brittle words. “Well, I’m hungry. Plus I need to contact Conor, see if we can catch up tonight. Then we can carry on into Devon and Cornwall tomorrow. You’ll like Conor, he’s full of Irish charm.”

She ran out of words. It felt like trying to get through to Sky when she was having a tantrum. Only much worse. All the emotions in Kim were raging on the inside; like watching a storm through thick glass.

“Do you want me to take you home?”

“I want to go to sleep and never wake up.”

Kim’s words poured like ice water over Claire. Her mind went blank. She wanted to bundle Kim in the car and take her back to Jeff, or the hospital. To people better suited to deal with the despair. Instead she took a deep breath, letting the air fill her lungs, and forced her lips to smile.

“Well, I’m not going to let you do that. Let’s go for a walk along the beach, spend some coppers in the amusement arcade then let Conor buy us dinner. It will all seem better tomorrow.”

She tugged her friend gently and was relieved when she allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. As she led her from the room, Claire looked one last time at the wind-tossed sea and hoped she was right that it would be better in the morning. It couldn’t be worse.

***

NaNoWriMo and The Stalking Muse: 2013 365 Challenge #277

To NaNo or not NaNo?

To NaNo or not NaNo?

Earlier in the week I wrote about the importance of writing even when your Muse is missing in action. Well, my darling muse seems to have come back from her spa break invigorated and enthused and is now stalking me, mostly in my dreams.

Twice this week I’ve woken out of an exhausting dream with a full-length story in my head. That has only happened once in my life before and resulted in me writing Dragon Wraiths. I’m grateful for the input but, really Muse, I don’t have the time to start two brand new novels just now. I think maybe my Muse knows NaNoWriMo, which I hadn’t intended to do this year, is just around the corner.

The first dream story was in the chick lit strain and all a bit predictable, to do with cheating fiances and manipulative best friends. I think there was even a gay friend: how many chick lit tropes can you get in one plot? Easy NaNo fodder, but likely to result in a lot of hard work to make it original.

Last night’s story, possibly as a result of being woken by my pumpkin son every hour, was a spectacular science fiction drama with explosions, space ships and more action than I could understand or describe this morning. I don’t have any intention of writing a science fiction novel – I struggled enough with the fantasy world building for Dragon Wraiths – but at 7am, if I could have done a ‘print screen’ on my mind, it would have been easy. Maybe reading Rinelle Grey’s blog, over on Coffee Time Romance, about writing scifi romance has rubbed off.

So, who is up for some NaNo this year? I have no idea how I will fit it in – I’m barely keeping up with the daily blog as it is. Not to mention how hard it would be to write two stories simultaneously. But I will have an extra few hours’ childcare, as our extra day comes into play at half term (the kids do more childcare in the winter to stop us all getting cabin fever) so it might just vaguely be possible. If only to keep my stalking muse quiet!

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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! What are you doing here?”

“Hi, Mum. Lovely to see you, too.” Claire dropped her bag at her feet and ignored the look of barely veiled horror on her mum’s face.

“And who is this?”

Her mother’s tone, a mixture of suspicion and approval, made Claire wince.

“This is Conor, he’s my new boss. He gave me a lift home from the airport.” She didn’t want to explain; to talk about Kim or her own dire finances or anything. She wanted to crawl into her own bed and sleep.

Raising weary eyes to her mother’s face, she released a sigh. “Can I stay? I know I haven’t given you notice. If you’ve got people visiting, I’ll sleep under the stairs. Or in the bath. I don’t really care. I can’t afford a hotel.”

Her mother looked over her head, presumably at Conor, and flushed. “Of course you can stay. You are always welcome. And does your friend want to stay too?”

Claire snorted at the blatant matchmaking, then flushed, worried that Conor would take it seriously.

“It’s grand of you to offer, Mrs Carleton, but I must be getting back. It’s a long journey I’ve got ahead of me.” He seemed to take it as his signal to leave. Walking forward, he turned to face Claire. “I’ll call you tomorrow, to discuss when you’ll be free to start work.”

Holding his hand out towards her mother, he said, “It was nice meeting you, Mrs Carleton. Bye Claire.” Nodding at them both, he turned and walked back down the path towards his car.

Claire felt as if a protective force had been taken away from her. Once he was in his car and driving down the street, her mother’s forced grin dropped from her face.

“What on Earth is going on? I don’t hear from you for weeks. Some men come and take away that rusty heap you left outside and now you’ve turned up out of the blue looking like death.”

“Can I come in, Mum? It’s a long story.”

Her mother stepped back to let Claire into the hallway, before closing the door behind her with a bang.  “And why did your boss pick you up from the airport? Are you sleeping with him? What happened to Michael?”

“Enough, already!” Claire’s voice came out louder than she intended and she heard her mother suck air in between her teeth.

“Sorry. I’m tired. I’ve been travelling for weeks, I haven’t slept for two days and I need a shower and some clean clothes. I’m sorry for not calling you first but I had– ” she hesitated, “–other things to deal with. I’ll explain it all tomorrow, okay?”

Without waiting for an answer, Claire picked up her rucksack and forced one foot in front of the other, along the hall and up the stairs. She reached her old room and paused in the doorway as she saw the suitcase by the bed, the perfume and make-up on the dressing table.

Claire walked numbly down the corridor to the spare room. With an in-held breath she pushed the door open, but the tiny room showed no evidence of being in use. Claire dropped her rucksack by the door, kicked off her shoes and crawled under the covers.

***

Pantser and Proud: 2013 365 Challenge #202

Riding on the mini train today

Riding on the mini train today

One of the blogs I follow – Write on the world – had a post today about structure in novels. The author, Mandy Webster, referred to another post called How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending.

I was seduced.

I don’t have a huge problem wrapping up my stories: it’s the flabby beginning – drowning in back story – and the soggy middle that I struggle with. By the time I get to my climax and happy ever after I’ve hit my writing stride. However I know I don’t put enough conflict in my writing so I’m always eager to read about how it’s done.

When I read the post, however, I didn’t come away with a plan to write a killer ending so much as a view that Pantsers (those of us who write by the seat of our pants, rather than plan and outline) only write that way because we’re too lazy or stubborn to do otherwise. That may be true. It may be true for me. Particularly as I’m about to make excuses for why I write that way.

Like a million and one other people, I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I tried, as a teenager, and again in my twenties. I couldn’t get past the first page. Not for want of trying but for want of ideas. No matter how hard I tried to come up with a story, it just wouldn’t happen. It was all boring and predictable.

Grooming Elsie the Shetland pony

Grooming Elsie the Shetland pony

Years of academia has taught me how to plan. I can write an essay outline blindfolded. Well, probably not now, but then, easily. Even in exams I would structure essays rather than just writing whatever came into my desperate brain. I’d been taught how to do it and I did it, and did it well.

With fiction, though, it wasn’t until I turned off that left brain thinking, put my editor in a box with some chocolate and told her to stay there for a while, that anything came. It was a freewrite during my OU creative writing class that sparked my first (and still my favourite) protagonist, Lucy. Nanowrimo came shortly after and Finding Lucy flew from my fingers. I couldn’t stop to think.

As a result I still don’t know how the novel ends. I’m looking forward to finding out, when I finally finish it. I genuinely don’t know which of the two male protagonists, if either, she’ll choose. I don’t entirely know the big secret her gran was hiding, though I have my suspicions. As a result, I don’t over explain or drop massive hints. No need to write RUE over this manuscript – even I don’t know what’s going on. But that’s what’s exciting. I write to find out. If I knew beforehand, I’d be bored and so would the reader.

My Pantser writing has come out most in Two-Hundred Steps Home. For example I don’t yet know what job Claire’s being interviewed for today. When I’ve figured it out you’ll be the first to know (hopefully by 10am!)

The problem, of course, as the author of How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending explains, is that:

“If you engage in story planning through a series of drafts, rather than an outline, you’ll need to write enough drafts to finally understand what Part 4 [the killer ending] should be. Same process, different tolerances for pain.

But there’s risk in that. If you are a drafter instead of a blueprinter (notice I didn’t say outliner—that’s a different process yet, one of several viable ways to plan a story), the likelihood of you settling for mediocrity is orders of magnitude greater. The prospect of rewriting the first 300 pages does that to a writer.”

Model boats at the farm

Model boats at the farm

So if you don’t write to a structure, one of two things happens. You have to do a LOT of rewriting or (more likely) you end up with a mediocre novel because, quite frankly, who wants to rewrite 300 pages. Not me. However, he goes on to say:

“Make no mistake, a rewrite is always a corrective measure. Nothing to brag about”

I’m not sure I agree with that. Redrafting is still writing. Not something to brag about, but something that is necessary for most of us.

As I suggested in my comment on the original blog (it’s probably as well I couldn’t comment on the killer ending one as I’d have embarrassed myself!) I hope that, one day, I’ll understand structure, conflict and stakes as well as I once understood writing a good essay. Maybe one day I will be able to outline without killing my muse, or maybe the blueprint for structure will be in my subconscious and will come out in my right brain first drafts. Either that or I’ll have to be able to afford a damn good editor!

Here’s hoping.

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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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“Do come in, Miss Carleton, sorry to have kept you waiting.”

Claire looked up at the careworn woman holding open the door and felt her palms prickle with sweat. Reaching for her bag, she headed towards the room, nearly tripping over a low table lurking unnoticed in front of the uncomfortable fake-leather sofa she had been perched on for forty minutes.

With a wobbly smile in greeting, Claire followed the woman into the room. She let her gaze take in the full horror awaiting her, and had to mask a sharp intake of breath with a cough. A pungent cloud of aftershave caught at the back of her throat and the cough became genuine. It was several moments before she could stop.

“Would you like some water? I apologise for not bringing you tea or coffee while you were waiting; I’m afraid we’re a bit short staffed at the moment.”

Short staffed? There are enough people here to play doubles tennis and have an umpire.

Claire turned away from the row of blank-faced men and nodded at the woman who had ushered her in. She wondered if she was the secretary, then admonished herself for the sexist thought.

Sipping gratefully at the water, Claire allowed herself two or three deep breaths to calm her agitation.

Come on, it isn’t the first time you’ve had to present to a gaggle of stern suits who last smiled in 1962.

The words were no comfort. Yes, she’d given presentations before, but not in an interview about something she knew nothing about.

“Please take a seat.”

The low voice issued from the second man from the left. He gestured at a single plastic chair, facing the long desk and the seated men. It felt more like a court hearing than a job interview.

Forcing herself to walk slowly, Claire crossed the room and sat in the chair. There was a small table for her water but, as it was at elbow height, Claire viewed it suspiciously. Placing her glass as far away as possible, she retrieved her notes from her bag and rested them on her lap.

Eventually, hoping her make-up hid the worst of the panic, Claire raised her eyes to face her interrogators. No wonder the last interview over-ran. How can you learn anything with five people asking questions?

She glanced at the woman who had shown her in, hoping for some female support, and realised her first assumption about her role was the right one. So, five stiff suits and a secretary. And they want me to work for them? I don’t think so, somehow.

Except she didn’t have the luxury of walking back out, head held high. Not since resigning from her job at AJC. Stupid girl.

“Good afternoon, Miss Carleton. Thank you for joining us. I understand you are here for the role of marketing director?”

No, I’m your stripagram. Biting back the retort, Claire nodded.

The man addressing her was in the centre of the five, and she guessed he must be the boss. Grey streaks speckled his short black hair, and her first impression was that he was in his fifties. His face was unlined, however, and something about his demeanour suggested to Claire that he was ten or twenty years younger than that. He oozed presence.

With a shiver she dragged her eyes away from him and tried to differentiate the other men. It wasn’t easy. They all wore dark suits, some grey, some navy. The man second from the left, who had asked her to take a seat, wore a pink shirt.

He was the only one who looked under 35. Claire guessed he was her age, maybe even younger, although with men it was hard to tell. As she gazed at him, he flicked his eyelid in the merest hint of a wink, and Claire felt the warm flood of gratitude spread through her limbs.

An ally. Thank god.

“In your own time, please present to the group your vision of the future for Isle of Purbeck Tourism, and the unique elements you will bring to the role.”

Claire wrenched her gaze back to the man in the centre, who she was fast thinking of as Mr Mean. He hadn’t even introduced himself or his colleagues. How could she present to the faceless five, without knowing their roles in the organisation?

Fear ran through her limbs, until it met rage bubbling the other way. No. I won’t. I won’t sit here and be humiliated by yet another self-satisfied stuffed suit who thinks he can treat me like crap because I’m a woman.

Sitting up straighter in her chair, Claire fixed her gaze on the dark eyes four feet in front of her. “Of course, it will be my pleasure. I wonder if, first, I could know whom I am addressing? It is easier to present when one knows one’s audience, I find.”

Where did that posh plummy accent come from? Behind her mask, Claire quailed, waiting for annihilation. It didn’t come.

Flicking her gaze at the man she’d dubbed Mr Cheeky, she saw a twitch at the corner of his mouth. Realising he was trying hard not to laugh, Claire exhaled through her nose, releasing the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding. She felt her own lips twitch in response, and dragged her eyes away to gauge the reaction from the rest of the group.

The two men to the right of Mr Mean looked bored. Finance and maybe IT she decided, assuming a tourist company had an IT Department. Her expectation for the interview had been a quiet chat with some lovely harassed woman who needed an extra pair of hands. In her scariest nightmares she couldn’t have imagined that the people in charge of tourism could be so humourless.

The last person, to the left of Mr Cheeky, was taking notes, alongside the secretary. HR, definitely. Strange to have a bloke. HR personnel are usually women. What a boys club. Oh well, New Zealand it is then.

She heard Mr Mean clear his throat and was gratified to see a faint blush of embarrassment. Is he bothered because I’ve pulled him up for being rude, or because he just got outplayed by a woman? Honestly, guys, this is the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth.

With the knowledge that she definitely wasn’t going to be given this job, Claire sat back in her seat and prepared to have some fun.

***