How Critcal Reviews Are Making Me a Better Writer

Knitted Christmas Baubles

Knitted Christmas Baubles

When I released Class Act back in the summer I think I knew it was rushed. As a self-published author, the only way I see that you can make success (rather than it coming through luck or good fortune) is by writing more books. So I took an old manuscript, gave it a few months’ polish, paid for a light edit, and released it, happy that my Beta Reader loved it.

It bombed.

Okay, one or two people have enjoyed it, but the critics have been harsh and eloquent. And fair. Much as I would have preferred not to have the debate about my book in public, through Goodreads (and thank you to the critics for not writing their reviews on Amazon), it has been like having extra Beta Readers who don’t know me and are therefore not afraid to tell it as they see it.

Some of the criticisms I can answer – they’re a matter of personal taste – but others are completely valid. For example there is a general view that Rebecca is a cow, or at least unlikeable. I have been trying to work out why that is the case, when Helen (Baby Blues) garners sympathy. While walking the dog last night the answer came to me: I didn’t live with Rebecca long enough for her to become fully herself rather than a version of me.

Finished Rainbow Fairy

Finished Rainbow Fairy

All my characters start out from an element of my life and my experience. With Helen it was having postnatal depression, with Claire (Two-Hundred Steps Home) it was disillusionment with the corporate world and finding myself through travelling. Rebecca started out from a few instances in my childhood when I felt belittled by people who acted like they had privilege (someone saying to me at school ‘you’re my grandmother’s secretary’s daughter’ as if that made me scum).

The difference is I lived with Claire and Helen for a long time. Baby Blues took two or three years from start to finish, Claire racked up 280,000 words. They became people in their own right. Rebecca, not so much. I wasn’t even happy with the name Rebecca, changing it several times before deciding it was as good as any. Alex I loved, Alex was real, but Rebecca remained a character.

So I have learned not to rush Finding Lucy. It isn’t just the characters who need to find her – I do too. I think that’s why I find the male protagonists easier to relate to (and therefore probably they’re more likeable to the readers) – they might start out with a trait or two from people I know, but they quickly become three-dimensional in my mind. Despite it being six years since I started drafting Finding Lucy, I still don’t have her clear as a real person in my head.

The other, more specific, piece of feedback I’m following is the review that complained about Class Act opening with Rebecca’s father dying.

“I found that when our heroine, Rebecca, is introduced, the scene is not the best way to warm up to a character. Yes, her father had just died, so she is entitled to be upset. But perhaps this is not the best way to introduce a main character, one who is completely vulnerable and who is constantly sobbing in the scene, it unfortunately had me rolling my eyes and wanting to skip ahead. Not a great start for the character. Sorry. “

Don’t apologise! This is great feedback. Finding Lucy also opens with a death. It’s where the story starts. But I see now that it’s hard to feel sympathy for a character you don’t know. So I’ve had a shuffle and now it comes a few chapters in. I’m also working hard on making Lucy more likeable. It’s hard. I’ve decided to think about Pixie Lott. Watching her on Strictly Come Dancing this year I realised she is one of the few people I can look at and say they’re genuinely adorable.

Christmas Cookies for teachers

Christmas Cookies for teachers

The problem with writing for me is balancing the character’s flaws which make for conflict with the traits that make people love them. It’s not hard to see why – I’ve never managed it with myself. I’ll always feel like a bad mother, a bad person, no matter the evidence to the contrary. To quote Pretty Woman, “The bad stuff is easier to believe”.

I haven’t managed much writing this month – Farmville, knitting and Christmas have derailed me completely. But I have invited the characters from Finding Lucy to live in my head. Edan and Andrew are there, making themselves at home and squabbling over the remote. Lucy is still dithering at the door. “Are you sure you want me?” she says. Yes, come in! Let me get to know you. This novel could be my best yet, if only I take the time for it to mature.

In the meantime, have a great Christmas/Hanukah/Festive Season and here’s to a creative 2015.

Trying Not to Quit

Waiting for Ears

Monkeys Waiting for Ears

September was crazy, October is turning out to be (tries to think of a PG word) challenging. Despite having a lovely birthday, with lots of new wool to tempt me, so far the reasons to smile are becoming harder to find. The kicker is I can’t even blog about most of it.

The bit I can talk about is probably more a symptom than a cause. I want to quit. Again. It’s not the first time I’ve found myself all done with trying to be an author, but it’s the first time I’ve found something else (temporary I’m sure) to fill the creative void. Knitting.

Not that I don’t get frustrated with that as well. If I have to make another monkey (especially for the children) I might weep. Again! There were tears of frustration when I sewed a leg on back to front. But I am loving the creativity of inventing patterns as I go, seeing what I can create with my extremely basic skills and having something to hug at the end of it.

Critical as my children are (“Mummy, why doesn’t the bottom on my monkey squish like my brother’s does?” “Because Mummy used the wrong material to enclose the beads and, no, I’m not unpicking it to change it.”) it’s much easier to ignore. I can see the end product and decide if the critics are right. Same with my paintings.

But you can’t ‘see’ a novel. You can’t swiftly and dispassionately judge it against the criticism or the praise and decide if the comments are fair. I’m struggling as much with the five star reviews for Baby Blues as the two-star ones for Class Act. With the former, I feel I can’t write with that freedom and passion any more. It was a story close to my heart and one I rewrote many times.

Knitty Cats

Knitty Cats

Many of the good reviews talk about the emotional roller-coaster, and I know Class Act and now Finding Lucy lack that. Partly because I’m drained and medically subdued and partly because I’m writing much more self-consciously. It happened with my paintings. I started to try too hard to paint ‘right’ or ‘professionally’ and lost the spark that made them special.

I know I won’t quit. Writing is in my blood. Life will (hopefully, eventually) settle down, and I’ll find a way through. Find a story that needs me to tell it, so I can ignite the passion again. Maybe I’ll be brave and join a writing group, get more feedback to help me find that objectivity. But not right now. I need a layer of armour before I subject myself to that.

In the meantime I’ll go back to my Knitty Cats, and carpel tunnel pins and needles. Christmas is coming. If I can’t sell books, maybe I can sell cats (and definitely not monkeys!)

The It’s-All-Shit Stage of Writing

I just want to sleeeeeep

I just want to sleeeeeep

I’m currently going through what I’m coming to recognise as the I’m-feeling-low-because-I’m-editing-my-book-and-it’s-shit phase.

Symptoms include sleeping or wanting to sleep all the time. Eating comfort food and then wondering why I have no energy and my wobbly bits are a bit wobblier. Feeling emotional, crying and wanting to hug my kids loads (look, someone loves me, look I created these amazing people, I did something right.) Checking my kindle sales figures and despairing that I haven’t sold a book in three days (damn you, new kindle sales graph). Checking Goodreads and Amazon for new reviews and seeing the new critical three-star review as confirmation that I can’t write, even though I have five star reviews and even the three star review isn’t that bad.

I know this will pass. I went through it with Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes (less so with Dragon Wraiths because I edited it for a competition deadline and the urgency pushed me through the pain).

I know the editor will come back with some great suggestions and, even if the novel is currently a steaming pile of poo, it can be fixed. I know I’m stressing because I’ve discovered paragraphs – okay even whole chapters – that need work. I’m stressed because Kristen Lamb recently wrote three posts on the evils of flashbacks and my novel has two and, try as I might, I can’t think how to write them out.

I know my book doesn’t have enough pace and conflict and humour. At 85k words (when my previous novels both came in at 110-115k words) I’m worried it doesn’t have enough of anything. Right now I’m 50% through final pre-editor line edits. I’m averaging more hours sleeping than working every day. (Today’s work day = 1 hour school assembly, 1 hour editing, 2 hours’ time wasting, 2 hours’ sleeping.) I want to abandon editing and get back to my children’s book, only that’s a steaming pile of poo too.

Flatlined sales chart

Flatlined sales chart

Even though I know this will pass, I do worry that the more books I write, the more craft advice I read, the more I work at this writing thing, the harder it is getting to come up with good ideas. The idea for Dragon Wraiths – my favourite (although flawed) book – came in a dream and the words flowed. Not without effort, but mostly without doubt. I wasn’t trying to write someone else’s book, I was writing my book. Now though, especially with the children’s book, I’m trying to recreate the brilliant middle grade fiction books I adore to read. And as a result I can’t seem to come up with a story and I don’t have faith in myself to just write and see what happens. Being stuck in the editing doldrums with Class Act is not helping!

As with my paintings, the more I try to be a professional the more I feel I’m losing the part that made it fresh and fun and exciting. I wonder if your third complete novel is a bit like the third year in a relationship, when the heady romantic days have settled into a comfortable routine and you have to work a bit harder at the compromises? Or maybe authors feel like this about every book. Certainly Matt Haig said The Humans is the book he is most proud of, the “one I will never be able to write again.” (Facebook) and he’s written LOADS of books! (I thought he also said it was the only one he enjoyed reading, but I can’t find that quote on Facebook…)

Writing, like parenting, is full of highs and lows, successes and doubts, and the best mantra you’ll ever hear, even though it doesn’t help at all at the time is, “This too shall pass.”

Let’s hope so.

A Curious Novel

My latest read

My latest read

I finished reading The curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon last night and I really want to capture my thoughts on this interesting novel. I began reading it with no expectations. I’d heard of it, that’s all, when I saw it in the library. I had no notion of what it was about, or the author, or anything (including the fact that the title comes from a Sherlock Holmes quotation.) I merely selected it as part of my aim, this year, to read more and select a wider range of books.

I’m glad I did. It is a strange novel, about a fifteen-year-old boy with Aspergers Syndrome. I feel privileged to have read it. Yes, that’s my overwhelming impression. It wasn’t a rip-roaring read, a heart-warming romance, or an unputdownable thriller, but still it dragged me through to the end with little effort (which is a big ask of a book these days because I’m very quick to give up on something that doesn’t keep me awake!)

It is funny, quirky and endearing, but mostly it’s a clever book. Written in the first person, from inside the mind of an autistic teenager, it presents the world in a new way. It also gave me a new respect and understanding for autistic children and their parents. But not in a way that demanded sympathy or forced ideas on me.

Instead, through an evolving set of anecdotes and an unravelling mystery story, it revealed immense detail about the character, his family, his life and his interpretation of the world. Some of the apparently peripheral discussions, for example about God, or time, or the universe, were both enlightening and profound.

As a writer, the book is a master class in RUE (resist the urge to explain). The reader is left to put the pieces of the jigsaw together in a way that the main character often isn’t able to. And, despite it being written in the first person, an entire world is unveiled surrounding the main character. I can’t begin to explain how so much was revealed with so little being said (certainly not without giving away spoliers.)

I think the enjoyment came from this, though. The reason the novel kept me awake was because I was actively involved in constructing the text, fleshing out the story, connecting the dots. The same was true of The Raven Boys, now I come to think about it. I’m starting to think of it as the art of secrets. Not glaringly obvious secrets, of the kind I might clumsily put in a novel – like Josh’s big secret in Two-Hundred Steps Home, or why Claire broke up with Michael. But more a subtle revelation of the bigger picture, like panning out in a movie and seeing the full context.

It is a goal I intend to aim for in my own novels, although I know I’ve got years of practice ahead of me before I get there. I don’t think it’s something that can be taught, but something that has to be learned through hard effort. I suspect it will also require me to become more a planner than a pantser. My natural writing style is to reveal everything as soon as it occurs to me (I’d make a rotten poker player). Instead I need to play it more like chess. Think fifteen moves ahead, prepared to change my plans if necessary, but keeping the moves secret for the reader to discover at the best moment.

I feel like my daughter; only just learning to read but wanting to be able to read adult books. I’m only just learning to write and I want to be able to write like that. Now! Now! Now! *Pouts*. Time to read a few craft books, consume a stack of fantastic novels, dip into a load more blogs and, more importantly, practice, practice, practice. I can feel (another) rewrite of Class Act coming. Bring it on.

Start as You Mean to Go On

The final cover for Two-Hundred Steps Home The Complete Journey

The final cover for Two-Hundred Steps Home The Complete Journey

There’s nothing like starting the year as you mean to go on! Publishing a book on Amazon on day four of the year, even if it is one I wrote last year, and one that probably should be proofread first, feels good. You can find it here: Two-Hundred Steps Home: The Complete Journey.

I have added the disclaimers and hopefully no one will buy it and trash me for finding the odd inconsistency or typo (of which I’m sure there are plenty). I am fixing the typos as they’re discovered (thank you hubbie, and anyone else letting me know about them) but a writing challenge is a writing challenge: I didn’t set out to write a Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel in 2013, just a novel that people might enjoy reading. Which, from the reviews I’ve had, it seems they did.

My only dilemma now is whether to take down the first volume from Amazon. It gets the occasional sale, but when you search for ‘Two-Hundred Steps Home’ it presents both books as versions of the same work, even though they have different ASIN numbers. Ah well. A small dilemma.

I’m also enjoying my new resolution to read more, both books and blogs, and write more comments (although I’m not sure I’m keeping up with that target quite as I should. I still feel jetlagged from holiday, illness and Claire!)

I’m reading The Radleys by Matt Haig at present and really enjoying it. I won’t divulge anything about the story, as I’ll write a review post when I’ve finished it. What I am enjoying is how Matt Haig breaks the rules in his writing: there is plenty of head-hopping and change of perspective. I think there’s even a change from writing in the past to the present tense, but I’m trying not to analyse, just get swept up in the story. It might be hard to write a review without spoilers, which I hate, so I’ll have to give that some thought. Maybe read some reviews on other blogs and see how it’s done. What’s your view on reviews? Spoilers or no spoilers? Where do you draw the line?

The Humans: 2013 365 Challenge #336

A very profound book

A very profound book

I finally started reading, and very quickly finished, The Humans by Matt Haig this weekend. If you haven’t come across the story (goodness knows how, as it flooded Twitter for a while during its release) it tells the story of an alien who comes to halt mathematical progress on Earth because Humans are deemed too violent to take the next step in technological evolution.

I was drawn to the book by its Twitter campaign and because I just happened to have read and enjoyed an early children’s book by the same author. The social media campaign was something truly incredible, with a lovely video trailer made by lots of different real people reciting lines from a part of the book called Advice for a Human (see picture below)

I started following Matt Haig’s blog, Twitter and Facebook, and found him to be a fascinating person, full of self-doubt and amazing insight, with a history of depression and attempted suicide. I couldn’t wait for the book to be released. I bought it in hardback (a thing I never do) and then bought the kindle version as well because I wanted to take it on holiday. That was in May of this year.

Since then I’ve tried to start it half a dozen times, but I just couldn’t get into it. The narrative voice is the alien, and the tone was so stilted and disinterestedly miserable, it put me off, even though I knew it was part of the story. Then, too, I started to feel pressure to love the book. Because the reviews were amazing, and because I liked the author as I came to know him through social media, I wanted to like the book, and felt bad that I didn’t. I had invested time and emotion into supporting its release and its author.

And then, worse of all, I started to disagree with some of what the author said on Facebook, and my faith took a wobble. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently, and is probably a topic for another blog post – about how our perception of a piece of art or literature changes when we come to know more about the author and was it maybe better when the author was hidden in mystery and unknowable. Anyway, as I say, that’s another post.

Some of the great advice (better read in context)

Some of the great advice (better read in context)

As a result of the emotional (and financial!) investment, though, I couldn’t give up on the book. So I started again on Friday, and couldn’t put it down. I read it with my fingers in my ears, while the kids decorated the Christmas tree. I finished it at 2am last night, leaving me groggy and grumpy for today’s family lunch. No matter: it was worth it. This is my (rather short) Goodreads review:

“It took me a long time to get into this story, after wanting to read it for months. I’m glad I persisted, it was so worth it. This is a deeply profound, yet funny and entertaining book, full of pearls of wisdom you’ll be desperate to share with people.”

As I read the story, I kept reading bits out to hubbie, much to his bemusement (that never works, especially when the recipient is playing Candy Crush or similar). It’s full of Tweetable bits of goodness. I could feel the author, and what I knew of his history, in every line, and it added to the authenticity, although I suspect it wasn’t necessary. The story rings true by itself. I wanted to find a nugget to share here, but there are so many. Instead I would say, read it. Even if, like me, you can’t warm to the alien and you find him annoying in the extreme. He grows on you. And it’s a book that will stay with you long after you read the last page. As an author I always think you can’t ask for more than that.

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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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“Thank you for letting us stay, Nana.” Alex’s voice wobbled between child and adult, as he gave Claire’s mum a rather formal embrace.

His face still showed the pallor of expended emotion; pale and drawn despite the tan he’d gained during his time in the South West. Claire wanted to pull him into a proper hug, one with feeling. The greeting they’d got from her parents was lukewarm at best.

I guess I wouldn’t like it if someone turned up on my doorstep and asked me to take in house guests. She thought about it and her lips twisted into a wry smile. Mind you, it’s no more than both my siblings have done to me this year. Suddenly Auntie Claire is the only one with all the time in the world.

She pushed away the bitter feelings, and turned to make sure Jack was alright. He’d been less affected by their father’s announcement, chattering excitedly on the long journey from Cornwall to Cambridgeshire. As they had neared their destination, however, he had become more subdued and, since their arrival, he had hovered in the background.

A quick glance showed her he wasn’t in the room and she went in search of him, leaving Alex to forge a stilted conversation with his nana. Her father, Claire noted, had also disappeared and Claire felt disappointed at his cowardice.

She found them both, eventually, hidden in her father’s study.

“There you are!”

Her voice made them jump and their faces flushed with guilt. She concealed a smile at how like naughty schoolboys they both looked, despite a gap of half a century between them.

“What are you two up to? You’ve left Alex battling on with Nana.”

“He’ll be fine,” Jack said brightly, “he’s good at charming the old biddies.” Then he realised what he’d said, and blanched.

Claire’s dad laughed – a loud guffaw – as much at Jack’s stricken expression, it seemed, as at his words.

“Don’t worry, son, your secret is safe with me. Your nana can be a tough nut to crack, but she’s soft underneath.”

Claire privately wondered if that were true, but said nothing. “So, what are you two doing?” She perched on the edge of the desk and looked at them with one eyebrow raised, her arms folded across her chest in an expression of severity that was all act. Seeing Jack locked away with her father gave her a warm glow of satisfaction, but there was a game afoot and she was prepared to play her part.

“Pops was showing me his book. Did you know he’d written a novel, Auntie Claire?”

Claire switched her gaze from Jack’s eager excitement to the look of sheepish guilt on her Dad’s face. “Is it finished then? I thought it was a thriller? It doesn’t sound like something a young boy should be reading.”

“Oh, Claire, I’m not a baby. I’ve read James Herbert and Stephen King.”

“Really?” Claire was genuinely shocked. Even she didn’t have the stomach for some of the more gruesome horrors. She wondered if she should forbid Jack from reading books liable to give him nightmares. Then she looked at his face and had a flash of realisation. Whatever difficulties in Jack’s life, he had yet to experience real fear and horror and so the stories were just stories. They probably had less impact on him than on an adult who could read the truth behind the fabrication.

Suddenly she grinned. “That’s amazing, Dad. I’m so proud of you. Can I read it, too?”

Her dad’s grin was as wide as hers. “I thought you’d never ask.”

*

Back in the lounge, Claire saw that Alex was manfully trying to engage her mum in conversation, and her heart went out to him. Even she struggled to find a topic of interest when talking to her mum.

As she walked in, her mum looked up, and her expression was honey-laced venom. Startled, Claire took a moment to gather herself, then said,

“Jack and Pops are in the study, Alex. Why don’t you go and see if they’d like some tea and cake? It’s been a long time since lunch.” They had been offered nothing on arrival. If her mum wasn’t going to play host, then she would show her how it should be done.

Alex jumped up like a man given a reprieve on death row, and practically ran from the room.

“Okay, Mum, out with it,” Claire said, as she heard his footsteps retreating down the hall. Her words took the wind from her mum’s anger, and Claire had to swallow a laugh.

“I’m surprised you have to ask. You turn up, unannounced, with Robert’s boys in tow, and without so much as a by-your-leave tell me that they’re staying here for an undetermined length of time, because you saw fit to send their father home. I think you have some explaining to do, young lady.”

“I’m not a child, Mum, you don’t need to take that tone. Robert’s behaviour was unacceptable. He arrived two hours late, with a chit of a girl on his arm, and announced he was engaged to her. His treatment of the boys is disgusting and he’s so far up his own arse they have to ship in daylight.”

“Claire! Really!” Her mother’s face went pale. Then her expression changed and she became a frail old woman. When she spoke, her voice was querulous “I don’t know why you’re shouting at me; it isn’t my fault.”

For a moment Claire was almost fooled. But not quite. “Oh, give over, Mum. Quit playing games, I’ve had enough of that from Robert.” She wanted to add that yes, it probably was her fault, at least in part. If she’d taken time to teach Robert some manners he might not be a total git. Realising such a discussion with her mother was an exercise in futility, she took a deep breath and controlled her temper with effort.

“Jack and Alex are your grandsons. You should be proud of them; they are amazing boys. If I could, I would keep them with me longer, but I have trespassed on Conor’s goodwill enough already. I’m only asking you to let them stay for a week; take them to see Ruth and Sky. Poor Jack doesn’t remember his cousin at all. They won’t be any trouble. I have money to buy their tickets, and I’ll contact Francesca and ask her to meet them at Stansted.”

Her mother’s face remained petulant and Claire snapped. “For God’s sake, Mum, don’t be such a cow. I know you couldn’t give a monkeys about me or Robert, and I doubt Ruth gets a look in now she’s got her life back on track, but this is your chance to make amends and be a decent human being. Why don’t you give it a try, you might find you like it?”

Before her mum could answer, Claire stalked from the room.

***

Book Reviews Again: 2013 365 Challenge #279

What I'm currently reading

What I’m currently reading

For a stubborn person I can be easily led. Present me with a reasoned argument, or merely an impassioned one, and I may well come round to your way of thinking. It’s not that I don’t have my own opinions, more that I don’t have faith in them. If you tell me I’m wrong, there’s a strong chance I might agree with you just because I’m used to being wrong.

That’s why I don’t read book reviews, especially for books I’ve read. I remember researching a post for this blog, and looking up Memoirs of a Geisha. I loved the book, but most of the reviews I read said it was historically and culturally inaccurate, yada yada. I felt bad for liking it – as if I had been fooled, gullible me, by the writing and led like a mindless sheep to an understanding of a culture that was inaccurate. (I’m a history graduate and I hate getting the facts wrong, even though I know there is no such thing as one right version of events)

I came across the problem again when I listed the book I’m currently reading on Goodreads – Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings – and happened to see some reviews.

I’ve read the book – the entire set of ten it is from – a dozen times. The characters were my friends when I had no others, (in the days before Facebook, Twitter and WordPress, when friends were found in books rather than online).

I’ve chosen to read it now to break me out of my critiquing cycle, like putting on a comfy sweater. So reading reviews calling it formulaic and lacking in originality was not what I needed to hear. What if it’s true? Does that make me somehow inferior for loving the book and being totally engrossed by the characters? What if I start picking faults? Like when someone points out your favourite actor has a funny nose (Buffy) and then you can’t see anything else and your favourite show is ruined forever.

Goodreads' change of policy post

Goodreads’ change of policy post

I read a post on Kristen Lamb’s blog a while ago about authors not writing reviews and it supported why I don’t like leaving reviews unless I loved, loved, loved a book. I do still write them for the indies that I enjoyed reading, particularly because indies need the support (and because I hope the karma will pass round to me one day!) But I do feel reviews are not all that helpful for books.

Shannon Thompson wrote a post on Facebook on Friday about the new Goodreads’ change in policy, saying she was upset to see people defending their right to be trolls. If all you want to do in a review is insult the author, then really what are reviews worth? (If you want to see our discussion on the subject, visit Shannon’s FB page.)

Anyway, I’m not sure of the point of my ramble except I’m trying hard to ignore the world and enjoy the book I have loved each of the last ten or eleven times I read it (though I am noticing the ‘telling rather than showing’ and the adverbs. It was the first book in the series, so I’m being tolerant!) I might even write a review explaining why I love it so much, but I can’t advise you to read it: what if you hated it? 🙂

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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 brushed the curtain aside and peered round into the bay. Kim lay with her eyes closed and Jeff sat beside her, gripping her hand with both of his. He looked up at the movement.

“Claire! Welcome home.”

She pulled the curtain closed behind her and took a step forward. “Thanks, Jeff. I think you’re the only person pleased to see me.” Then, realising this wasn’t her drama, she forced a smile on her lips. “Kim’s looking better this morning.”

“Yes, your visit really helped. The nurse said she slept well for the first time last night. Just as well, someone from PLAN is coming in to see her soon.”

“PLAN?” Claire wondered for a moment if that was what Dotty had said she was working for, but couldn’t remember. She prayed the young girl wasn’t about to turn up here as well. An hour in the car had been more than enough time with her endless enthusiasm.

“Psychiatric Liaison people. To see if Kim is safe to come home, or whether she needs to go to a secure ward.”

“Oh.” Claire looked around for another chair and carried it over next to Jeff’s. “What do you think?”

Jeff dropped his head, although he didn’t let go of his wife’s hand. “I don’t know.” He exhaled loudly, as if breathing out his doubt. “What a mess. Who knew an accidental pregnancy could have such awful repercussions.”

Claire sat in silence, unwilling to probe. The weeks she’d spent gallivanting around New Zealand felt dirty, somehow, when she considered what Kim and Jeff had been going through in her absence.

As the silence stretched on, Claire tried to sift through the questions in her mind to find one that was safe to ask. How’s married life, or How’s work? weren’t exactly appropriate. She was just grateful that Jeff apparently felt no blame towards her for her own role in the catastrophe.

As if sensing her thoughts, Jeff raised his head finally. “It was never your fault, you know. I wish Michael had kept his stupid mouth shut, of course. It wasn’t the end to the wedding we had hoped for. Kim’s boss went off on one, with the whole cast taking sides. Kim took it well, though. Fought her own: said she’d sue him for being a misogynistic bastard if he took her role away.” He paused and a smile flickered across his face. “She was magnificent: you’d have been proud.” He sighed.

“It was all fine for a few days. Then she got cramps; she was in agony. When we got to the hospital they said it was too late.” His face crumpled and Claire realised, for the first time, that Kim wasn’t the only one who had lost a baby.

Jeff’s eyes were red when he raised his head to look at her. “And then when they said she couldn’t have any more kids. It broke her, you know. I didn’t realise she really wanted to be a mother – we never talked about it that much. Maybe you don’t realise you want something until someone tells you you can’t have it.”

He fell silent and they sat listening to the sound of Kim’s breathing. When Jeff spoke again his voice was low. “After that, she wasn’t Kim anymore. She cried all the time, at the tiniest thing: TV adverts, pictures of kids, pregnant women in the street. The doctors diagnosed her with depression and gave her some pills but she wouldn’t take them. Said they made her feel worse. And then …” He stopped.

Claire knew what happened next; she’d been there, in a manner of speaking. Her mind was full of words but none seemed adequate. How could you relate to someone who had been through so much? She wanted to do something to help. Whatever Jeff said, it was still partially her fault.

“If it helps with the psych assessment, I’m happy to come and stay for a while, look after Kim.”

“What about your job? I thought you were starting a new job this week?”

Claire thought guiltily about Conor, everything she owned him and how much he’d put his own neck on the line to hire her. She thought about how much she was looking forward to getting back to work, having a purpose again. Not to mention some money to pay off her credit cards.”

She shrugged. “It’s just a job.”

***