Stuck and Sahara Dust

Under a dust cloud

Under a dust cloud

I got stuck on my WIP today, despite flying along this week. Yesterday was a 6,000 word day – my first for a year or so I should think – and I managed 2,500 in 90 minutes this morning. And then stuck. Not from writer’s block but from world-building block.

I don’t have a particularly active imagination – a funny thing to admit for a writer. Or, I should say, I don’t have a world-building imagination. I can do characters and dialogue, but scene building is tougher. When I wrote Dragon Wraiths the details of the world and its history kept me puzzled for weeks. I would wander round the fields walking the dog trying to figure out how it all worked; what happened to the body, how did the mind transfer to Taycee and so on. I’m not entirely sure I figured it all out but, shhh, don’t tell anyone!

And now I’m having the same problems with my children’s book. The world is a mishmash of all the books I’ve read recently – not intentionally I hasten to add. I never set out to steal an idea – I’m a pantser, I very much make it up as I go. But when I review what I’ve written, I can see the influences coming through my subconsciousness. A world covered in cloud? That’ll come from The Curse of The Mistwraith (Janny Wurts). A world like ours but different, where the animals can speak? That’s The Divide (Elizabeth Kay). A missing father? That could be The Extincts (Veronica Cossanteli) or To Be A Cat (Matt Haig). A bunch of boys who mess around? That’s probably from Johnny and The Bomb (Terry Pratchett).

We live in the purple bit...

We live in the purple bit…

But now we get to the nitty gritty of my story – where my characters are themselves, not parodies or plagiarisms – and I’m stuck. Merula’s a fairy who goes through blending when she’s twelve (or younger, haven’t nailed down ages yet), but what is blending? And when she’s banished she visits the wild ones, but who the hell are they? A baddy called Vulpini has cast the spell to cover the sky in cloud, but whatever for? And why have all the parents disappeared and where are they?

I love pantsing – I write to find out what happens next (as my husband often says) – but sometimes the drive in the dark is along a nice straight road and sometimes you sense there are cliffs and chasms either side. It’s the same road but one is easy and the other terrifying, even though you’re equally blind.

I tried my usual trick of wandering round the field with the dog, asking and trying to answer questions, but we’re currently sitting under a cloud of Sahara dust and the view is as hazy as my mind. With eyes full of grit and a throat clogged with dust, I returned home defeated. Maybe there’s a reason I write Chick Lit. World building? Give me one that’s already made, please.

Introducing George: 2013 365 Challenge #111

Planting Sunflower Seeds at Sacrewell Farm

Planting Sunflower Seeds at Sacrewell Farm

While lying in bed cursing the sore throat and stiff neck that have besieged me this afternoon, a germ of an idea planted in my mind and squirmed into the soil, like the sunflower seeds my kids planted at the Farm today.

I recently finished another great kid’s book and saw that, as with many of my other new finds, it was published by Chicken House. The name rang a bell and I realised it was the name of the publishers that were part of the competition I didn’t enter with Dragon Wraiths because the manuscript was too long.

I visited their website to see if they accept submissions and they’ve just launched the competition again, with a deadline of 1st November.

Ooh went my brain. It’s a long time to 1st November. There’s time to write something new. After all, I started Dragon Wraiths this time last year and had that finished by last November. And that was over 100k words. The maximum for The Chicken House / Times competition is 80k words. If I plan it out this time (at least a bit, I am a pantser after all) I could stay within word count.

On the Tractor Ride

On the Tractor Ride

Now of course this breaks all the rules of being a writer. You’re not meant to write for gain or fame but only for the love of writing. Thing is, I love writing but I need a goal and a deadline, at least to get me going. I’m proud of Dragon Wraiths and that was written for a competition (and ultimately prize money).

But I didn’t get up every nursery day and write 5,000 words just for profit (which would be a foolish aim anyway: everyone knows writers don’t make money). I wrote it to find out what happened to Leah, to find out how the story ended. But on dark days the thought of maybe winning £5000 did help keep me motivated.

So I lay in bed earlier this evening, feeling foggy and sore, and searched through my mind for a new idea. It felt a bit wrong, looking for an idea rather than waiting for one to arrive. But people who write hundreds of books must have to do that. I knew what genre at least: I’ve been aching to try my hand at a fantasy middle grade fiction since enjoying The Divide, The Extincts, Stone Heart, Shadow Forest, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, and now Ravenwood. And, after some throwing around of ideas, I tapped out the opening scene to a new novel. One I hope might generate characters that will survive to a sequel, since my favourite books are the ones with lots of volumes around the same central characters. I like characters to become my friends. My only dilemma right now is it might involve Time Travel. Again. According to some agents I follow on Twitter, Time Travel has been done to death already. Oh dear.

Penny the Chicken eating Lunch

Penny the Chicken eating Lunch

Is it bad, that I’m motivated by entering a competition? I hope not. I read Sally Jenkins lovely collection of short stories, One Day For Me, this morning because I couldn’t get the sequel to Ravenwood as an ebook. All of Sally’s stories were written for competitions. They’re still great. It’s accepted practice for short story writers to write for specific markets and hopefully financial gain. Why not novels? If it’s rubbish it won’t win so no one’s hurt.

Matt Haig, author of Shadow Forest, says otherwise and I respect his opinion but I hope there are grades of love versus money. Writing for love is a given or I wouldn’t have survived to episode #111 of Claire, through insomnia and flu and dearth of ideas. But bills need to be paid and everyone wants to think their novels might be read one day. Therefore, alongside trying to find new adventures for Claire, I’ll be creating George and his new world. Hopefully Claire won’t suffer (I’m actually hoping a new project will kickstart my imagination as I’ve been really struggling with Claire recently).

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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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“Auntie Claire, I don’t feel very well.”

Claire looked down at her niece and recoiled slightly at the green tinge of her skin.

“Are you going to be sick? Lean over the side for heaven’s sake. But not too close! I don’t want you falling in.” She looked around at the other passengers and prayed Sky didn’t vomit on any of them. Something of her reaction must have come through her voice, because a clammy little hand sought out hers. “Sorry, Claire. I don’t mean to feel poorly. I’ve never been on the sea before.”

Patting the frozen hand, Claire tried to remain calm. The white tips of the choppy waves weren’t helping. It hadn’t seemed that windy on the shore, but here in the harbour the small craft was rocked by gusting blasts that whipped the waves to froth. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea. I might have known Sky would get sea sick, especially as she’s still recovering from her fever. When she remembered Sky’s amazement as they first arrived at the coast, Claire couldn’t feel it was a bad move. Her mouth had dropped into a perfect ‘o’ of wonder at the grey sea spreading out before them to the horizon.

“It’s so big,” she had said quietly, her eyes wide and staring.

The tour guide called out, interrupting Claire’s thoughts. “You can see grey seals now, if you look towards the shore. There are still some youngsters playing if you look closely. We’ll get in as near as we can.”

“Look, Sky,” Claire said brightly, “baby seals.” Sea spray soaked her skin and she knew it was frizzing her hair to an impossible mess. Snuggling deeper into her jacket, she felt Sky’s hands and face to ensure she wasn’t getting too cold.

Sky raised her head to look at the slick grey animals frolicking in the sea near the boat. Her complexion was still green and Claire hoped the distraction would help her keep breakfast on the inside. I wonder if I dare get out my phone and take some pictures for the blog. If Sky is going to throw up I might not get another opportunity. The boat pitched suddenly and she felt her own stomach lurch. I might even be joining her.

“If you look closely you can see common seals as well as grey seals. The common seals are actually rarer than the grey seals so we’re fortunate to see both today.”

The Guide’s words rolled over Claire like the sea as she focussed on getting a few snaps before another gust of wind sent her or her phone overboard. Feeling a tug at her sleeve, Claire could sense Sky trembling beside her. Tucking the phone back in the safety of a pocket, she pulled her niece onto her lap and hugged her close.

“Alright, sweetie. Just keep breathing through your nose and concentrate on the seals.”

“Here, love, give her one of these.”

Claire looked up to see a kindly face peering out through a fur-lined hood. Glancing down, she saw a pack of polo mints nestled in the woollen glove reaching out towards her.

“Thank you,” she said with real gratitude. Pulling off her gloves, she retrieved a mint and handed it to Sky. She was rewarded by seeing the distress on Sky’s face ebb slightly, like the outgoing tide.

Flashing a smile at the stranger, Claire hugged Sky close again. “That’s it, poppet. You’re being very brave. Well done.”

After a few more days with me, the poor girl isn’t going to want to see her Auntie Claire again. Somehow the thought made her sad.

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‘The Extincts’: Resurrecting my Love of Reading: 2013 365 Challenge #69

Roelant Savery [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Roelant Savery via Wikimedia Commons

I was lucky enough to grab a free copy of a children’s book (MG I would guess) from our local book shop today, while taking the kids in to spend their World Book Day vouchers.

I always find it odd taking a free book and my daughter exclaimed in horror when I didn’t pay for it. Funny because I happily give my own books away for free. Maybe that says something about how I rate my writing or how I perceive the difference between an ebook and a paper copy.

The book, an uncorrected proof, is called The Extincts  and is by Veronica Cossanteli. The proof copy says it will be published in May 2013. When I got home I found it on Amazon here.Looks great.

I read some of the book this afternoon while Daddy took the kids to buy me a mother’s day gift (and after I’d ordered my mum a spa day and printed and laminated the voucher). I was hooked, as much as I have been by any book recently. I have three half-finished novels under my bed – Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman, The Real Thing by Catherine Alliott and Rowling’s Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets which I’m reading because I’m finding the others too much at bedtime. I never used to leave books half-read and couldn’t understand how my husband would have three or four on the go but these days I have to be in the right frame of mind. When I’m not I re-read something that’s so familiar I can open it at any page. I feel I can happily read this book, The Extincts, to the end not just becuase it’s great but because it isn’t emotionally taxing.

My eclectic half-read pile of books

My eclectic half-read pile of books

Veronica Cossanteli’s book has the strongest opening and voice of anything I’ve read in ages. There are bits that don’t flow but partly that’s shifting pace to Middle Grade fiction after reading YA and Women’s lit. The pace, the language, the imagery and the plot concept are all great. It has reminded me how much I love Middle Grade fiction (probably one reason it is Harry Potter I turn to in times of trial.). MG fiction tends to be entertaining without being too close to home emotionally (like the Catherine Alliott book) or too challenging in subject matter (like the Blackman book).

It’s like the TV my husband and I watch these days: it has to be safe, preferably funny, definitely non-emotional and (for me) non-violent. We have enough struggle in the real world, our entertainment is a time to escape. We couldn’t even watch the nature programme on penguins recently because the chicks were being attacked by cormorants.

I was drawn to the Cossanteli proof because the publisher is Chicken House, who ran a competition I wanted to enter last year. Funny how life can throw you random choices that have significant results. The book has entertained me, broken my dry-spell of reading and reminded me that reading can be fun as well as challenging and stretching. It brought to mind a quote I read on Twitter the other day:

“One must own that there are certain books which can be read without the mind and without the heart, but still with considerable enjoyment.”
― Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader

It’s also reminded me that I would love to write Middle Grade fiction if only I had the imagination for it. Maybe one day.

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Claire dumped her rucksack on a bottom bunk and went to stand at the bay window. There were bars in front of the glass, presumably to stop small children falling out. Claire opened the window wide and leaned out as far as she could. She was in the turret at the front of the hostel and the hillside dropped away, falling down to Eyam village. Weak rays of sun prodded through the heavy cloud and highlighted buildings beneath her. She turned and looked at the bunk where her rucksack lay, conscious of an urge to lie down and close her drooping eyelids. She’d barely slept after her frantic evening ringing hostels trying to arrange her two weeks with Sky.

The door opened and the hostel warden poked her head round. “Not really meant to let you stay, love. Checking in isn’t really til five.” She smiled apologetically.

“That’s okay. Thank you for letting me in to leave my bag. I’m trying to decide whether to walk into Eyam village or drive to Chatsworth house.”

Eem Miss.”

“Sorry?”

“It’s pronounced ‘Eem’ not E-yam’. E-yam sounds like a cheese.”

Claire flushed. “Oh. Sorry.”

“That’s alright. Southerners never get it. Walk into the village, it’ll be pretty when the sun breaks through. There’s a nice bakery and a tea room.”

Claire thought privately that it was a bit early in the day for tea and cake. She didn’t want to offend the woman so she merely nodded and went to get her things from the rucksack.

“If you’re wanting to walk into the village take the path rather than the road. It’s real pretty, winding past a llama farm. Comes out behind the church.” The lady shone a bright grin then ducked back out, closing the door behind her.

Eem it is then,” Claire said to the empty room. She let herself out and followed the signs for the footpath.

Halfway down the hill Claire regretted her decision to walk. Down is fine but I don’t fancy the climb back up.  The sun’s attempts to break through looked like they might be scuppered by the surly clouds and Claire could feel moisture gathering on her hair.

By the time she reached the village Claire was sweaty and irritated, knowing she had the return climb to contend with after whatever delights Eyam had to offer. The footpath took her into the village past the church. She turned right and stopped at a sign proclaiming the ‘Plague Cottages’. I thought the whole village suffered from the plague, not just a few cottages?

A dark green sign promised illumination and Claire stopped to scan it. The notice told of Mary Hadfield, who lost her sons, aged 4 and 12, early on in the plague and her husband nearly a year later. Just when she must have thought the worst was over. I can’t believe she lost thirteen relatives in total. Claire felt the grey of the day seeping into her soul.

I don’t think I even have thirteen relatives, never mind that many all living within the same clutch of houses. She tried to imagine living that close to her parents and Robert. I don’t know what’s more depressing: that she had them or that she lost them.

Claire took a quick snap with her phone then walked on towards an impressive high stone wall and black cast iron gate on her right. The board said it was Eyam Hall, Historic House and Craft Centre. Whatever it is, it’s closed. Clearly they don’t expect many visitors in March. Can’t imagine why.

She wandered on past a Post Office and some more cottages, following signs for the museum. May as well get some facts for the blog, then I can get out of here and go somewhere less depressing. Like maybe a morgue.

The museum looked like a school house or a village hall, hulking opposite the car park and public toilets. When she got closer she could tell it, too, was closed.

Seriously? No wonder they had no problem separating themselves off from the world. Who the hell would want to come here? It’s dark and dreary and half of it isn’t even open.

Claire spotted a map urging her to ‘Discover Eyam at a Glance.’ I think I’ve done that. It wouldn’t take more than a quick peek. Having located the YHA hostel on the map Claire realised it was a short walk up the road from the museum. For a second she contemplated heading into the village for an early lunch and a better look around. Or I could walk back to the hostel and drive to Chatsworth for some civilisation. Her eyes scanned the featureless museum building staring blankly at her and decided on Chatsworth House.

That’s assuming it’s open.

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