The ‘What For?’ Week

IMG_8039For about a week every month, although it might be a fortnight and feels like a year, I hit a point where hormones and brain chemistry clash and the anti-depressants don’t quite do their job.

I always know, thankfully, because I can count contraceptive pills left in the pack, and the point at which I start feeling super-low is always when there are just five left.

Who’d be a woman?

That first day I am aware of the descending gloom. I start taking vitamin B supplements and eating fish and brazil nuts in an effort to stave off the dark cloud of ‘what’s the point?’

But by day two or three it’s easy to forget it’s chemical. Life has no meaning, just getting up and moving is a struggle. The sun can be beating down, like it is today, and I’m just hot and bothered. My world narrows and I feel like I’m stuffed with clouds of misery. I genuinely can see no point in going on. I have a copy of Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig but I haven’t read it, because the only time I remember I have it is when I’m so low reading it seems too much effort.

It sucks.

The What For? week is when I wish I had a job. I need to have to do something, because I have zero motivation. I can feed the kids and the guinea pigs and the husband and the dog. Dog gets walked too, albeit a fairly short ploddy amble. But that’s it. I spend the rest of the time asleep, because I have no drive to do anything else.

It sounds pathetic now I write it down. Such a white middle class privileged nonsense of depression. Who can’t find the motivation to mow the lawn or stack the dishwasher or hang out the laundry?

Even on a good week I struggle to get stuff done. I’m managing to get about an hour of writing planning and research done a day before I’ve (almost literally) lost the will to live.

I guess the problem with being a stay-at-home/self-employed/unemployed parent (whatever I am) is that everything is a choice. Sleep or paint the garden fences, sleep or vacuum the carpets, sleep or tidy the kitchen. Given that choice, how many would find it easier to choose sleep?

Anyway, it is only a week (or maybe a fortnight – it’s hard to tell when I start feeling better, it’s a bit like getting over a cold). And on the plus side I have started running again. When my legs can manage it I slot a run in between the bouts of sleep, so at least I feel like I did something vaguely productive, if only to my body.

And at least I have started planning a new novel. It’s taken a long long time to make that choice. It’s going slower than a hungover snail, and I don’t have much enthusiasm for writing any more, and I feel like everything I’ve ever written is complete pants, but in the back of my mind is still the hope I’ll pull something together that will make an agent not chuck it in the bin. One day.

In the meantime, I’m off to have some more vitamin B supplements and eat some salmon.

See you on the other side.

 

 

Random Reasearch and Character Naming

Photo inspiration

Photo inspiration

I started work on my Middle Grade novel this morning. Well, I wrote 300 words this time last year, but never got further with it than that. I only added 2,000 words today, but as I’m a Pantser, the beginning of a story is always slow. Once it gains momentum, and I have a clue what the story is about, it should hopefully pick up speed. The start of a new novel is always time consuming as well because there is an element of necessary research. I try not to jar the flow too much when I’m writing, as it’s easy to lose hours to internet research, but I do like to check facts as I go. I always have the iPad next to me for quick searches like “When do skylarks nest?” and “When are potatoes harvested?” (Both from this morning.)

I also like to have some photographs of my story setting to help me make it more three-dimensional. The 300 words I wrote last year were all dialogue, with no setting at all. If I don’t have something to prompt me, I do tend to only write dialogue and feelings. This story is set on a traditional small farm, starting in the kitchen, so I looked for a few images to help me. Once upon a time I would have searched until I found the perfect property, so I could steal all the photos, layout, floor maps, street view images, the works. But I’ve lost valuable hours and chunks of sanity to that task in the past, so now I look for general images and piece them all together into one page that I can have beside me when I’m working.

Character names made easy

Character names made easy

As this book will be fantasy, I wanted to come up with an easy way to generate names: I really struggle with character names and often find the same ones cropping up time and again (I have two Daniels as main roles in different manuscripts, for example, even though – or possibly because – I don’t know anyone called Daniel.)

I wanted quirky names for my ‘other world’ people, but ones still more or less easy to pronounce. I find, reading fantasy, that I get irritated if the names are too complicated.

Anyway I came up with the idea of using latin bird names, using a little pocket book that used to belong to my dad (that I think I’ve rescued from hubbie’s charity shop pile more than once!)

So far I have my female protagonist Merula, from Turdus Merula – Blackbird. Naevia, her friend, from Locustella Naevia – Grasshopper Warbler. Otus, from Asio Otus – Long-eared owl, and Alba, from Tyto Alba – Barn Owl. How easy is that? 🙂

I’m quite nervous starting something completely new, and in a new genre (middle grade fiction). It’s been two years since I wrote Dragon Wraiths, and I had such a strong sense of the story when I started it. This time I’m driven more by a desire to try my hand at the genre and hopefully write something my children might like to read before they’re twenty! It’s daunting and exciting at the same time. I know so much more than I did two years ago, and I write more self-consciously, having done a LOT of editing in that time. I don’t know if I can lose myself in a story and just write. Time will tell, I guess! In the meantime, I’m just keeping my fingers crossed and tapping out the words.

What’s Your Character’s Love Language?

Do you know your characters' love languages?

Do you know your characters’ love languages?

It’s no secret, here on the blog, that I was strongly affected by reading The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, and coming to understand mine and my husband’s particular languages. It has strengthened our relationship and helped us communicate. I’m also now looking at the children and trying to understand how they feel love.

But, being me, I never miss an opportunity to put my life lessons to work on my writing.

Today, at the end of walking the dog – it taking that long for my drugged brain to start working – I turned my mind to the dilemma of my current writer’s block. I’m trying to pen an emotional scene in Class Act, to get my protagonist Rebecca past a difficult experience in her life, without having any direct knowledge of the issue.

I don’t want to belabour the point. Like the postnatal depression in Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes (which I do have experience of), the issues in Rebecca’s past are important for the effect they have on her character and relationships, but I don’t want them forming the be all and end all of the novel. I’m writing genre fiction not literary fiction and aiming for a happy ever after, albeit a plausible one that survives challenges.

So I wondered how I could help Rebecca get through the difficulty most quickly, and whether that could be done genuinely with the right man without it all seeming too convenient and unrealistic. It made me ponder what her Love Language might be and I realised that – for her – the love language has to be Words of Affirmation. Therefore Alex, the love interest, needs to talk to her, reassure her, convince her of his sincerity. I’m not sure what his Love Language is yet. I think his might be Quality Time. That’s the thing lacking from his childhood and the thing he yearned for in his failed relationship at the start of the novel.

I feel as empowered in my writing as I did in my marriage by looking at things this way. I have also realised that I know my characters better than I might give myself credit for. I think I’ll use the five love languages again when considering my romantic protagonists. It’s a new, interesting and simple way to ensure coherent, three-dimensional characters, particularly in the Romance genre.

Just goes to show, you can learn from the strangest of sources. As a friend of mine used to say, “Every day’s a school day.”

World Mental Health Day: 2013 365 Challenge #283

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One commenter wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we?”

“Toddington Services.”

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

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

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

“Fuck knows.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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.

***