2013 365 Challenge: Some Lessons Learned

Conquering mountains

Conquering mountains

For anyone new to the blog (where have you been? *grin*) I spent last year undertaking a writing experiment I called the 2013 365 Challenge.

I set myself a tri-fold task: I would write a blog post everyday, I would include pictures in every post (mostly from what I had been doing that day) and I would write an installment of a novel every day. Not just serialise a novel already written, or write 10,000 words at the beginning of the month and parcel it up, but sit down every single day and think of something new to happen in my novel.

I set myself rules, too. I would try and post by 10am every day (which I mostly did!) I would collate each set of installments into a free monthly ebook and publish it by the last day of the month (which I mostly did). And, most importantly, I would not go back and change things (which I didn’t, aside from typos and spelling mistakes, which slipped through due to tiredness, and – once – when I accidentally changed the name of a character to one in the novel I was also editing at the time. I changed that for the sake of readers’ sanity. But I never changed more than a word at a time).

I think reaching the end of my challenge, the end of Claire’s (my protagonist’s) story, and realising I had written 285,000 words in a year and published them, counts as one of my greatest life achievements.

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

It isn’t Pulitzer Prize winning fiction. In some places it rambles. In many places I’m sure the lack of editing is obvious. But, still, hundreds of people read it and enjoyed it (as far as I can tell, by almost as many copies of the later volumes being downloaded as the first one). I felt like I reached the mountain top and the view was amazing.

Most importantly, I learned so much about being a writer that, even if I hadn’t had a single download, I think I would consider it time well spent. (Although, if I hadn’t had a single download I probably wouldn’t have made it past January, as knowing people were expecting the next installment was often the only thing giving me the motivation to write when all I wanted to do was sleep.)

I’m still processing all the things I learned from my challenge, but I promised in yesterday’s post that I would write some of them down. So these are the things that occur to me right now:

  • It really is important to write every day. That is probably more true for the blogging than the novel challenge, actually. I’m working on my current novel only three days a week (as I used to before the 2013 365 Challenge) but writing something everyday keeps the words flowing
  • You can write great prose even when you’re tired and uninspired (in fact, sometimes having half my brain worried about other things kept my conscious brain busy and left my creative sub-consciousness to get on with it)
  • Writing to a deadline sharpens the mind. Knowing you have to write something, anything, in the next hour, frees you from restraint.
  • Writing to a deadline can also cause terrible writer’s block. Knowing you have to write something, anything, in the next hour can make the white screen the most terrifying thing in the world
  • If the white screen scares you, turn it off and write somewhere else. Tap out a text message, scribble on an envelope. Once the words start flowing, it’s easy
  • Walking sets a great rhythm for dialogue. If I ever got stuck with a scene of dialogue, getting outside and walking the dog helped the words come. The conversation would run in my head in time to my footsteps and all I had to do was write it down
  • Research can spark off new and exciting ideas. Many of my best installments were triggered from a Tripadvisor review. Reading about other people’s experiences can set off a train of thought that leads to a new story, character, or source of conflict.
  • Keep your characters moving. If they must have internal dialogue or introspection, having the protagonist physically moving can give interest and momentum. Claire did some of her best thinking while hiking along cliffs or driving country lanes. It also makes it easier to match scene to mood: a lashing thunderstorm made a great backdrop for a moment of angst
  • Weather is important. It isn’t always sunny. Using Google StreetView to look at different parts of the UK also gave me impetus to write about different types of weather. Now I know to think about the weather and make sure it’s appropriate both for the time of year and mood of scene (see above)
  • Character arcs are fun. Having Claire change from a shallow work-driven career woman into a nature-loving, child-hugging, self-aware woman was very satisfying.
  • Nasty characters can be fun, too. When Claire’s brother turned out to be an utter git (which I hadn’t completely anticipated) I absolutely loved writing his scenes. We don’t often get to say mean things in real life and not feel guilty afterwards. Writing is cathartic
  • Your own experiences are a limitless resource. I used many things from my own life, including (but not exclusively) my time in hospital having my second child; my father’s cancer; my breakdown and subsequent depression; my year living, working and travelling around New Zealand; summers spent in Swanage with my father; hiking holidays in the Lake District, my time working as a Marketing Manager
  • Friends are also great resources. Two examples that spring to mind are when I used emotional anecdotes (not the details) from my paediatrician friend to get inside Josh’s mind, and an accidental conversation with a friend who used to live in the Lake District that greatly enhanced my Grasmere episode.
  • The mind is a well that can run dry. Whether I write 1,000 words a day for a week or 8,000 words in a day, my overall work rate stays fairly level. I just can’t generate the ideas to write more than 10,000 words in a week. The brain needs time to refill and replenish
  • Coffee shops and town centres are great places to refill the mind. Eavesdropping on conversations and watching how people interact can help to create stories
  • Reading is just as important as writing. Immersing yourself in a well-written book can fill the word-well in the mind and reinvigorate an exhausted muse
  • Formatting for Smashwords and Kindle are really boring but actually fairly straightforward. It helps to format as you draft, if it isn’t too distracting. I’ve learned to do it when I’m waiting for the next idea to come, or while watching TV
  • People don’t leave reviews for free books

I’m sure there are loads more things I’ve learned and I’m equally sure that some of these things only apply to me and not to all writers. Looking at the list, though, it makes me realise how far I have come as a writer and how much my confidence has grown. Turning up to work every day, whether I wanted to or not, moved me from “aspiring writer” to “writer”. I just need to make sure I keep it going! This year’s (unofficial) challenge is to build on my learning and concentrate on the craft of writing. Quality over quantity. I’ll keep you posted.

Back Again

Big Ben

Big Ben

Good morning and Happy New Year! I hope you all had lovely celebrations last night.

I saw in the new year as I’m sure many mothers of small children did: sleeping on the sofa from 9pm until 11.45pm, waking up for a glass of Baileys and a mince pie, watching the spectacular fireworks on the TV, then crawling in to bed.

Our daughter came in an hour or two later, after having a nightmare and, because it’s been a hectic week, I let her spend the night with us.

It seems appropriate that I spent the first few hours of 2014 in the position I suspect I will occupy all year: jammed between husband, children and my need to write. I lay awake thinking about what I really wanted to be doing – apart from trying to sleep in a space the size of a park bench – and I knew I wanted to be writing.

I have spent the last few days cleaning and being a (grumpy) parent. Tiredness and PMT have guaranteed the grumpy bit. It wasn’t really the best time to have extra children in the house, but my daughter was missing her friends so I duly invited some over. I tried to stay out of their way and do cleaning, which mostly worked. It’s wonderful to have a clean and tidy house, miraculous even, considering she had two friends for a four-hour playdate, almost immediately followed by another friend for a sleepover, and the rest of his family the next day for lunch. The phrase “Shovelling snow while it’s still snowing” springs to mind.

The ten-minute firework display is amazing

The ten-minute firework display is amazing

And now the new year is here. The house is clean (for now), the friends have departed, and it’s time to figure out what I want to do with the time I get in the week to ‘work’. Will that be housework or will it be writing? I suspect that, without the driving force of the daily blog and Two-Hundred Steps Home, it will be even more of a constant juggling act between want and need, duty and desire.

Last year, the blog and Claire became my duty, with a daily deadline to fulfil. That made it much easier to ignore the housework (and the family!) This year I won’t have that excuse. It will be interesting to see if I am strong enough to keep writing anyway.

So it seemed important to get up this morning and write. Even this little blog post is enough to keep the fires burning, I hope. I’m not sure what I’ll blog about. Looking at my most visited posts of 2013, it looks like book reviews and articles about self-publishing (with a little bit of kids’ craft thrown in) are what attract visitors. Not the writing and parenting posts that fill up 90% of this blog! So maybe a few more reviews and a bit less whinging. We’ll see.

What resolutions and plans do you have for 2014? How will you make them happen? I’m thinking some hard and fast commitments, written down, will help. So, I will publish two more books this year. And I will (try to) continue to blog daily, but without killing myself or neglecting my family (too much). There, it’s said. No going back now!

 

The End. For Now. 2013 365 Challenge #365

The Final THSH Cover

The Final THSH Cover

Hurrah. I made it. Claire’s journey is finished, for now. She’s found a new home and what I suspect will be only the beginning of fresh adventures. Already the new characters intrigue me. Timothy, for example: he’s Maggie’s gentleman friend but for some reason I think he might lean the other way. Eddie is going to be a real handful. And the quiet Kayla might surprise everyone.

You’ll have to wait though. I have other novels to write, sleep to catch up on, books to read, before I even think about picking up Claire’s journey again. I want to start immediately, but I think we all need a break. I’ll be making notes, though, and any feedback is of course always gratefully received.

If you enjoyed the series, tell your friends. I hope to pull the entire 365 installments into one ebook at some point soon, although I won’t be editing it (except for any typos that I discover). The raw first draft (albeit one that was line-edited as I went along) is part of the challenge and should stand untouched. I’m proud of it as it is.

So, what’s next? After the sleeping and the reading and the hopefully shifting this cold finally because I’ve had it for weeks? Well, Class Act needs work. It’s currently a 50,000 word romance that I have plans to extend into a full length novel. Then there’s Finding Lucy. And a sequel to Dragon Wraiths. And of course a continuation of Claire’s adventures in Cornwall. I’m going to miss her and Conor, although it’s good to miss people!

The blog might be quiet for a while. Or it might not. I think stopping blogging might be like coming off the Christmas chocolate: both a challenge and a relief. I’ll see you when I see you. Please hang about and if you see only this post for a while, please understand! Maybe I’ll have more time to read and comment on some of your blogs now. That said, as it has been raining for the last two days, and my head is fizzing with blog entry ideas, it might not be quiet for all that long!

Wishing you all an amazing New Year and here’s to a 2014 full of words.

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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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Her clothes filled the small wardrobe; her rucksack sat empty in the dark recess of the cupboard, tatty after its long journey. She could never have imagined, back when Carl had presented her with it as a leaving gift, that she could become so attached to a bag.

“We’ve come a long way, you and I. Time for a rest, for you at least.”

Claire laughed as she realised talking to an inanimate object was probably the first sign of craziness.

Maybe I am crazy. Do crazy people ever actually know that they are?

She thought about leaving Conor standing alone on the beach, and shivered. It had been two days and he hadn’t tried to contact her. She didn’t know if that made it easier or not. Dozens of unsent messages sat on her phone, taunting her. Her last words echoed continually in her mind, like a song stuck on repeat.

The man I love like breathing.

She considered it, as she walked across the tiny room to gaze at the ever-changing view of the sea. Was it true? Did she love him? Could you love someone on such a short acquaintance?

But it wasn’t short, was it? Four months is a long time, and he’s been there for me since day one. All the time in New Zealand and every time I needed someone since I returned.

Dwelling only intensified the pain. She cast one last look around her room and felt a glimmer of a smile through her grief. Her room. It felt good.

Downstairs, the children were finishing dinner. Claire hadn’t spent much time with them over the weekend. Timothy seemed to instinctively know she needed space to settle in, and had quietly assured her that she had no duties until Monday morning. She attended meals and sat in the shared lounge to read and think. Sometimes she nestled in the window seat she’d discovered along a corridor, overlooking the sea, and listened to the children giggling in their rooms. The sound of laughter rang constantly throughout the old building.

Outside, the sky hung overcast. She wandered through the bushes and trees until she reached the rolling lawn that led down towards the sea. Within minutes she had scrambled down the rocky path to the private beach.

A group of children clambered amongst the rock pools under the watchful eye of Eddie. He raised his hand in greeting and she nodded in return before heading to the other end of the sand.

Thinking she really needed to buy a surfboard, Claire found her favourite rock and climbed on it. Sitting with her arms clasped around her knees she stared out at the horizon and let the peace wrap around her like a blanket.

*

A tapping at the door roused Claire from a doze. She checked the time and was surprised to discover she’d been asleep for an hour. Thinking it must be Timothy wanting to remind her about something for the morning, she rolled off the bed and went to open the door.

She grasped the frame for support as her questioning gaze met a pair of familiar green eyes.

“Hello, Claire.”

“What? How did you know where to find me? How did you get in?”

“A bit of research found the centre and a chat with your man Timothy meant he let me in. Seems he’s a sucker for a romance.”

“You could be a stalker or a murderer.” She frowned, unsure how she felt about the invasion of her privacy.

“I showed him this.” Conor held up his phone to show a photograph of the two of them in bed, tangled in the sheets.

Claire stepped back into the room to hide the blood rushing to her cheeks. “You’d better come in.”

Uncomfortably aware that the room held only a bed, she waited for Conor to perch on one end of it, before going to stand, arms folded, by the window.

“Why are you here?”

“To ask why you keep running away from me without letting me speak, woman. I had something to add to your marvellous speech, you know.”

He stood up and crossed the room, coming to a stop only inches away from her. He leant in until his lips brushed the hair near her ear, sending flurries of heat across her skin.

“I love you, too.”

*

Claire rested her head against Conor’s shoulder and stared out the window at the multi-hued sky. They had talked long into the night, until the dawn light began to paint the horizon in stripes of silver and pink. Her head ached with the fog of missed sleep, and she knew her first day at work was going to be a disaster, but her heart felt like a bird floating on an updraft.

She looked around the tiny room, listening to the heartbeat and slow, sonorous, breathing of the man beside her. It wasn’t ideal, agreeing to a long-distance love affair, but she didn’t care. He loved her and she loved him; that was all that mattered. The rest was just geography.

As she lay in his arms and watched the sun rise, she realised she had finally found what she had searched for through two hundred long days – through a lifetime – something that wasn’t outside the window, or even in the room, but rather in her heart. A contentment; a sense of belonging and of peace.

She was home.

***

Nearly There: 2013 365 Challenge #364

My sister bought me this for Christmas!

My sister bought me this for Christmas!

Oh my goodness, here we are, my penultimate post of 2013. When I started the 365 Challenge back in early January, I wasn’t sure I’d make it to the end of the month, never mind the end of the year. By Day 4 I was just beginning to realise what was involved.

It wasn’t merely committing to writing 1,000 words a day (on average: some days a post can be nearer 2,000 when both parts are combined) but also finding time to edit and proofread those words; to make sure each post entry and each novel installment made sense; then adding photographs, tags, categories and getting it live.

I feel like I’ve come a long way.

When I began a year ago, I thought the daily novel would be the main part. I hoped to get blog followers from people who wanted to carry on reading what I was writing. That didn’t happen on the blog, but rather over on Smashwords, where the downloads across all volumes number in the thousands. Here on the blog, while the increase in followers hasn’t been massive, I feel more like I have made some really great friends. I’ve met fellow writers, artists and parents, I’ve discovered one or two amazing Beta Readers, I’ve felt – like Claire – that I’ve found my way home.

I’ve also grown as a writer. My confidence in my ability to write is significantly greater now, after the countless hours I’ve invested in Two-Hundred Steps Home. I know, now, that I can write and polish a 500-word blog post, or a 750-word scene in a novel, in under an hour.

Thank you to my amazing kids!

Thank you to my amazing kids!

I can research anything I feel the need to discuss, from a remote pub in New Zealand to what it really means to survive suicide. I can format and self-publish a novella in a few hours and get it through Smashwords’ Autovetter first time (although I haven’t resolved my issue with their Premium Catalogue!)

Best of all, I’ve learned how to edit my own stuff and Beta-read for others. When I began my journey I was trying to proofread Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes (or Pictures of Love, as it was back then). I couldn’t do it. Line-editing left me cold. Now I know that I have to do it in chunks, and then there is a delight in crafting the words and making the sentences flow.

Let’s not leave out that I’ve written 285,000 words of fiction this year, and will have published it as 12 separate volumes, each with a cover designed by me. On top of that, I estimate that I’ve written a further 200,000 words in blog posts. That’s nearly half a million words. In one year. If they were novels, I would have drafted out five. Five! During 2 or 3 days of childcare and lots of late night sessions.

I couldn’t have done it without my family. My husband has been amazing. He’s my best critic and my biggest fan. He’s taken the children when I’ve needed to write (I couldn’t have done the challenge if he hadn’t been had home for most of the year), he’s put up with me sleeping on the sofa then prising my eyes open at 10pm to tap out five hundred words. He’s put up with a dirty house and takeaway pizza.

My poor children have dealt marvellously with a tired and grumpy Mummy who constantly has her laptop open or is always taking pictures “for the blog”.

My amazing family

My amazing family

Their recompense is that they have this unique diary of a year of their lives. Reading back through my posts is to read through some of the highs and lows of being a parent (and a human being).

None of my posts are likely to see me Freshly Pressed: I may have learnt to write fast, but I haven’t learned to write profoundly. Still, it’s all been written truthfully and from the heart.

And so I thank you all for listening. Without readers, followers, this would all be me shouting into the wind. Knowing people cared about me, about Claire, about the story, has kept me going.

The support of people on this blog has also led to me releasing two of my novels this year also; something I still find incredible.

To anyone thinking about undertaking a writing challenge in 2014 I say, “Do it!” And, so you don’t quit, get out there and tell people. Get support. Face humiliation for failing. Because some days the only thing that got my tired body up and at the laptop was the fear of failure. Not that failing is bad. I love the Samuel Beckett Quote “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Don’t be afraid to fail. As I said to my daughter, when she threw a tantrum for losing at her second-only ever game of checkers this evening, “It’s not winning or losing that counts, it’s having fun along the way.”

And it’s been fun. Mostly. 😉 See you tomorrow for the final installment!

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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 could barely swallow the food. Her throat felt as if it was lined with grit. She put down her fork and sipped at her water. Across the table, Conor’s plate was equally full. They’d exchanged only pleasantries since arriving at the restaurant. The longer they sat, the harder it was to speak the words that hovered between them like a flock of hungry seagulls.

“Walk with me.” Conor’s eyes pleaded with her and she nodded. While she retrieved her cardigan and bag he went to pay the bill. They left the restaurant in silence and she followed him down through the high street towards the shore.

The sun had sunk below the horizon and streetlights cast shadows across the empty beach. Out on the water a few boats bobbed like ghosts, but it was a far cry from the crowds of the Carnival only weeks before. With the children back at school there was an air of ending about the town; a sadness that tugged at Claire like a riptide and pulled her under.

What must it be like to live in a seaside town, where the passing of the seasons takes a back seat to ebb and flow of the tourist trade?

She wondered if she would feel the same at the activity centre, but knew that she wouldn’t. Timothy planned to take children all year round, with summer camps in the long vacation and school trips for the rest of the year. While the nearest town was a tourist resort, it also had a harbour and a university. Different blends of life intertwining to provide a tapestry of endless change.

And where will I fit in, in that tapestry? She didn’t know the answer, but knew it didn’t matter.

They walked along the shore, to the mournful sound of the tide sucking at the stones only to fall away. Conor took her hand loosely in his and the touch of his skin sent sparks across her body. She yearned to turn and yield to his embrace.

“When do you start?”

Claire jumped as his voice came loudly out of the dark. She didn’t need to ask what he meant.

“Monday.”

“So soon?”

She heard the pain and hardened herself against it. “The first school group arrived this week. They need me.”

“And what about me? What if I need you?” Before she could respond, he spoke again. “Sorry, that’s unfair. God knows you’ve done enough for other people this year. I don’t want to be another duty.”

He dropped her hand and ran his fingers through his hair as if trying to stop himself flying apart. She could just make out his face in the gloom and saw him give a wry smile.

“I tried. Really I did. I wanted to support you in whatever decision you made. But then it was so perfect, spending time with you, and I couldn’t imagine letting you go. I still can’t.”

He reached up to stroke her face, before letting his arm fall again. “Why?” The word hung in the dark and she didn’t know how to respond. “Why is it so important to you to go?”

She searched her thoughts for answers. “Honestly? I don’t know. All I know is that I have to do this. If it means losing you, being lonely forever, then that’s the price I have to pay.”

Once she started speaking, the words wouldn’t stop. They rushed on relentless, like the incoming tide. “I’ve spent my life living the role I thought was expected of me. At home, at school, at work. I have to find my own path, even if that means slipping down the odd cliff.”

She saw him smile at the memory; a sad, nostalgic smile as they both pictured a bedraggled woman covered in grazes. She tore her gaze away and looked over his shoulder at the ocean, glimmering in the dusk. Memories would only imprison her in a life she wasn’t ready to live.

As if answering a question he hadn’t articulated, or maybe a question from her heart, she continued, “Yes, it’s worth it. Yes I’ll sacrifice having an iPad and a shiny car, a career with prospects, even the man I love like breathing, if it means I can be true to myself.”

The word love reverberated around them. When he reached for her, she saw the longing in his eyes and felt herself waver. She had to escape before her resolve crumbled into dust, eroded like the limestone cliffs that anchored his heart in a town which would never be home.

Stretching up on tiptoe, she brushed a kiss across his lips, then turned and ran up the beach, before he could see the tears falling down her cheeks.

***

Self-Sabotage: 2013 365 Challenge #348

Origami Trees became giant snowflakes

Origami Trees became giant snowflakes

Why are Humans prone to self-sabotage? Or is it just me (and my husband!)? You know what I mean: picking at that dry skin on the edge of your nail, even though it’s going to hurt like anything and you KNOW it’s going to hurt.

Or being unable to sleep the night before an important meeting or exam, and staring at the ceiling stressing. Or (as was me this morning) waking up at 3.45am with a head buzzing with stuff and just not being able to get back to sleep. Even though both kids slept past 6am for the first time in weeks.

It always happens when I get anxious or overwhelmed and my brain is running at a hundred miles an hour in ten different directions. Christmas, Claire and now my car (which appears to be suffering from a terminal illness) are all taking up headspace. Little things like decorating a Christmas jumper for my daughter, or writing Christmas cards before the last posting date, run round in my head like escaped guinea pigs: irritating and hard to catch and cage.

So, on a day when I really needed to be productive, to write tomorrow’s post (we have hair cuts and birthday parties to fill our Saturday) I was utterly spaced, having finally crept downstairs at half five (desperately trying not to wake my daughter because I’d never live that down!) I tried to clear other irritants – messy house, buying final gifts – and hope that there would be time in the morning to get back to Claire and Conor, Kim and Helena.

My origami tree

My origami tree

But, again this morning, I was awake at 3.30am. Husband too. He went down to sleep on the sofa (although he didn’t sleep) and I lay in bed, with my brain like a toddler in a toy shop, running this way and that. Instead of trying to think through my next Claire post, my brain did this:

“I’d like some different lights in the garden this year. But I don’t want coloured lights as they won’t really go with our current white lights. A polar bear on the lawn would be fantastic. But they’re so expensive and I’ve already blown the budget this year. Oh yes, my step-dad’s brother made one out of willow. I could make one. I wonder where I could get some willow from.”

And before you know it, instead of writing posts or wrapping presents, I’m trying to work out how to make a bloomin’ polar bear. It happened with the Elf on the Shelf (after scouring the shops for two hours, instead of writing, and not finding an elf I thankfully gave up on that idea.)

And again, with my daughter’s Christmas party this week. I had agreed to print out some colouring sheets to keep the kids occupied. So, being the master of overkill, I had the bright idea of taking a craft activity for the older ones as well. A quick search of Pinterest revealed origami trees and before you could say “self-sabotage queen” I found myself spending an hour making trees, while my son watched TV, instead of doing something useful like cleaning. When we got to the party the trees were too hard to do, and they all became giant green snowflakes.

Production line making twelve trees

Production line making twelve trees

I’m like this all the time, particularly with writing projects. Signing up for a Children’s Book writing course, starting yet another NaNoWriMo novel, illustrating a book for my son, wanting to enter the Mslexia Chidlren’s Novel competition.

The daily blog has thankfully made most of these other ideas unworkable, but I dread to think what I’ll be like next year without it. There are just so many creative things I want to do, and tedious boring humdrum life gets in the way. To compensate, my brain seems to list all the possibilities and tell me they’re all doable. Now.

But, just like the toddler in the toy shop, more toys doesn’t mean more fun. There’s exponentially more pleasure to be had with one favourite toy, loved and cherished, than a room full of tat. (Which also puts pressure on my beleaguered brain to make sure my children get the perfect toys at Christmas, but that’s a whole other level of self-sabotage!) Just as there is exponentially more satisfaction (and use) in one finished project rather than fifty half done.

I don’t know what the answer is. If I had a boss it would be simple: I’d make them prioritise my to-do list and try to be good. Being my own boss? It comes down to a discipline I don’t have. And wanting to make polar bears. Sigh. Is it time for bed, yet?

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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 chewed her thumbnail and tried to concentrate on the screen in front of her. Attempting to write was proving futile, and she shut the laptop with a snap. Outside, the sun beamed down on the terrace and she let it lure her from the lounge. She felt fidgety and restless and longed to go down to the beach for a run.

After a blissful few days alone, wandering around the north coast of Devon, the weekend had finally arrived, bringing with it the anticipated arrival of her guests. Conor had texted to say he’d be there early evening. She hadn’t heard from Kim and her sister, but assumed they were due around the same time.

This is going to be a train wreck. What was I thinking? I should have gone to Kim’s house; at least I could have chatted with her mother or hidden in the garden. As their guest, I could do what I liked. Now they’re coming to see me, I’ll have to entertain them.

She leaned on the railing and looked out over Kipling Tor, shimmering blue in the hazy distance. If she left now, she could be walking up there in twenty minutes, enjoying the view of Lundy Island and the Bristol Channel. She’d done it at least once a day during her stay, and her feet could probably get there without her guidance.

Conor might just forgive me for not being here when he arrives, but somehow I doubt Kim will. She doesn’t seem to be in a forgiving mood these days.

Wishing she had a cool glass of gin and tonic in her hand, Claire perched on a seat and thought about her friendship with Kim. It wasn’t something she’d dwelt on before. It was a given, like having Ruth and Robert for siblings, or working at AJC. In the past few months all those things had shifted. Ruth and Robert weren’t the people she thought they were: her relationship with Ruth was much closer than it had been in years, while she wasn’t sure she’d cross the road to give Robert the time of day.

Where did that leave Kim? What did it mean to be friends, anyway, when you had known someone so long? Were they friends out of habit or to keep alive memories of childhood that only they shared. Until this year, they hadn’t been that close: catching up when Claire was in town, swapping stories of men and jobs while drinking a few bevvies.

Then Kim had got pregnant and everything had changed. Claire wondered if it was the first time Kim realised she didn’t have any close friends: only Jeff, and her fellow thespians.

A bit like me, really, discovering my work colleagues were more enemies than mates, and that Michael wanted some romanticised version of me.

She thought about the people she’d met during her travels: Josh, Maggie, Bethan. People she had little in common with, except the urge to be on the move. In her heart they felt more like friends than Kim did. The realisation hit her like a cold wave, and she gasped for air.

Her mouth felt dry as she realised she didn’t really want to be friends with Kim anymore. It felt like all give and no get. Kim needed her, she understood that. She’d had the most awful year; the ruckus at the wedding that Claire had inadvertently caused, losing the baby, depression and attempted suicide. Claire couldn’t leave her now but she didn’t know how to be the kind of friend Kim needed.

And what about me? I can’t talk about Conor; Kim sees it as some office fling. Maybe it is, but what if it isn’t. We’re not eighteen anymore. Claire rested her head against the railing and closed her eyes.

She started awake as something brushed her face. With hammering heart she opened her eyes, and saw Conor crouched next to her chair.

“Hello, sleepy head.” The smile he gave her made her catch her breath. She grinned back.

“Sorry, I must have nodded off. Have you been there long?”

He looked guilty. “A few minutes. You look adorable asleep, snuffling like a kitten.”

Blood rushed to Claire’s face and she covered her cheeks with her hands. “I was snoring? Really? God, I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay. I already know you snore.” He grinned and she took a playful swipe at his arm.

“I do not snore. Not like you do.”

They fell still, suddenly, and Conor leant forwards to kiss her. She let herself sink into the embrace and, for a moment, the hurried voices in her head fell mute.

“Aw, look at the lovers. Why don’t you guys get a room?” Kim’s voice cut through their embrace. Claire pulled away and Conor rose languidly to his feet.

“Hello, Kim, nice to see you again. You’re looking well.” Conor was at his urbane best, holding his hand out for Kim to shake. Claire was looking at Kim’s face and caught a flicker of a frown cross her features before she flashed her teeth and shook the outstretched hand.

“You’ve been busy since I met you last,” she said archly. Claire winced at the confrontational tone, wondering what Kim’s problem was. With a sick feeling in her stomach, she wondered if it was too late to run away.

“I don’t think you’ve met my sister, Helena,” Kim was saying. She turned and gestured for her sister to come forward.

Claire hadn’t seen Kim’s older sister in a long time, but she hadn’t changed. She was still tall and willowy, with long straight golden hair. The only difference was the round stomach stretching her designer top. With a demure smile and glowing skin, she looked like a model in a maternity magazine.

Poor Kim.

Claire’s irritation vanished as she realised how hard it must be for her friend. She’d always competed with her sister, who was the more financially successful and, some argued, the more attractive of the two. Now she was also the one who could carry a child, when Kim couldn’t.

While Conor chatted to Helena about Hong Kong and the journey down from her parents’ house, Claire sidled up to Kim and put her arm around her.

“How are you holding up?” she whispered.

“I haven’t murdered her in her sleep, if that’s what you mean.” Kim’s voice was somewhere between angry and rueful. Claire caught a glimmer of her old friend, the one she used to have fun with, before life became complicated.

“Look at it this way: she’ll have saggy boobs and stretch marks, and will look fifty by the time she’s thirty five.”

Kim giggled and put her arm around Claire, pulling her close. “Thanks, I needed that.”

***

Busy, Busy, Busy: 2013 365 Challenge #346

My Angel

My Angel

Phew I haven’t stopped yet today, and it’s only 12.30pm. I was up at 5am again (see yesterday) but as daughter needed the toilet, I was good, kind Mummy. I used the time to get the tattoos off her arms ready for today’s Nativity (they’ve been on for two weeks, and only scrubbing with vaseline removed them!)

I then sat down and finished formatting yesterday’s post, completing it nicely at 7am ready to start the breakfast run. (Only to notice, at 11am, that I forgot to schedule it properly, so it hadn’t gone live. Doh!)

Packed lunches made, washing on, children dressed and fed, school run completed, free coffee from Waitrose acquired, crackers purchased for meal out tonight and back home again by 9.20am. Then a mad dash round to wrap my Secret Santa gift, test and wrap the gifts for the kids from Grandad, so I could get them out from underfoot (dancing speakers, very cute!) and a search in the loft for something to wear this evening. That yielded a massive haul of clothes I haven’t seen since they were packed away over a year ago, when hubbie decided to redo our bedroom wardrobe. I’ve been living in jeans and fleece jumpers ever since. And low and behold there were skirts and tops galore. I felt like I’d been shopping, without the expense. Marvelous.

My view!

My view!

Then I had to be good and sit down to write tomorrow’s installment, as I have the dentist in the morning, and my son home all day. Quick piece of toast for lunch, while chopping vegetables for hubbie’s dinner (I’m such a good wife!). Then just enough time to walk the dog now before I go and collect my mum, who is coming to the matinee Nativity performance with me.

Hubbie is attending tonight’s performance with our son, while I go out and celebrate Christmas with my good ex-colleague friends. After being up since 5am I’m not sure I’m going to last all that well. Pass the coffee, please! 🙂

P.S. The Nativity was adorable. Reception children played a silent tableau while older children narrated and everyone sang. My view was limited but we had a chance at the end to take decent photos, which thankfully stopped all the adoring parents and grandparents from snapping away during the show. Genius.

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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 gritted her teeth and dived into the waves. It was essential to get fully wet immediately. Wading out slowly just prolonged the agony. Flicking back her wet hair, she tugged at the board tethered to her ankle and climbed onto it, ready to paddle out into the surf.

The need to concentrate finally drove the thoughts from her cluttered mind. On the long drive down from Swanage, and during the endless night at the hostel, her head had hummed with words. Was she doing the right thing, leaving Conor so quickly? Should she call it off for good? And if she didn’t go to work for him, what was she going to do at the end of the contract, which really wasn’t that far away. There was no rainy day money in her bank account: she couldn’t afford to be out of work even for a few weeks. The leftover money from Robert, which her conscience told her she ought to return, and her temper said was hers by rights, was put aside to hopefully replace her much-missed tablet.

Icy water crashed over Claire’s head, as her brain returned to the problems it had been tousling with, instead of focussing on remaining upright on the speeding board. She brushed the foam from her face and laughed, feeling the tension leave her with the joyous sound. You couldn’t be angry or grumpy or sad in the ocean. It didn’t care. The sheer expanse of indifference put the world into perspective.

Dragging the board up the beach, Claire toyed with having one more run. Guilt pricked at her, as she remembered the report. Thoughts of her assignment led to thoughts of Conor and she flicked them away with a toss of her tangled hair. Instead she concentrated on another idea that had popped into her mind during her surf. She needed to call the boys. With everything that had happened during the Carnival, and afterwards, it had slipped her mind that she didn’t even know if they were still in the country.

She stomped up the beach, angry with herself for letting Conor fill her head when she had responsibilities. I took those boys to Mum’s house, the least I could do was make sure they were alright.

A familiar wave of sadness washed over Claire, as she towelled herself dry and pulled on some clothes. Even though she wanted to do something for herself, there were still people who relied on her, who had expectations.

Will Conor just be one more person wanting something from me?

The words left a bad taste in her mouth and her heart grew heavy. She retrieved her phone and scrolled through for the number, waiting for it to connect as she headed back to the car.

“Hello?”

“Mum? Hi, it’s Claire.”

“Well, it’s about time you called. That’s just like you, to dump your nephews here and then disappear off the face of the earth for weeks.”

Claire bit her lip. “I haven’t disappeared, I’ve been working, and it’s only been two weeks. Besides, the phone works two ways, you know. You could call me.”

There was a tiny pause, and Claire wondered if her mum would retaliate. Instead she huffed a sigh and said, “If you’ve called to talk to the boys, you’re too late. They’ve gone home, thank goodness.” She seemed to realise that wasn’t what a grandmother said of her grandsons and quickly added, “Not that I haven’t enjoyed having them, but they’ve eaten me out of house and home.”

“Oh, I’m sorry I missed them. Did Francesca come and collect them.”

“Ha! If you can call it that. She refused to leave the airport. Checked into a hotel and told us to take the boys there to her. That woman. No wonder Robert left.”

That was too much for Claire. “She might not be the easiest woman to get along with, Mum, but in case you’ve forgotten, your precious son left to get engaged to a girl half his age. He’s not really the victim in all this.”

“Well, we don’t know the full story,” her mum blustered. “Anyway, it doesn’t pay to interfere.”

Claire snorted and coughed to cover it up. There was no point getting into a row with her mother. She said goodbye and hung up the phone, vowing to Skype the boys that evening. She felt bad to think they’d left the country without her being able to say goodbye.

If that’s what dating Conor does to me, then I’m better off without him.

***

When Not to Chat to Strangers: 2013 365 Challenge #338

Controlled crying worked for one

Controlled crying worked for one

I had one of those discussion today that made me review my parenting decisions over the last four years and I almost came away not feeling awful. I say almost. I haven’t come that far!

Even as the conversation continued, and I realised I was trying to defend my choices against people who thought I was a soft parent, I wondered why I was bothering.

I mean, does it matter if two people I see once a week at gymnastics think I was a bad/easy/ lazy/hippie parent because I wouldn’t continue with controlled crying for my second child? Because I try and cajole (threaten/bribe) them into eating their dinner, rather than following the eat it or starve approach? Does it matter that I still get up in the night to them, and neither child showed any inkling to sleep through at 11 months, never mind 11 weeks?

Aside from the eating thing, these are decisions I made that no longer have any relevance. Yes, I tried controlled crying with my son. I took advice from anyone and everyone, including the sleep specialist from the clinic. I sat outside his room sobbing while he cried himself hoarse and then threw up. I persisted until he got to the point where he was crying hysterically before he even got into bed, and then I stopped. I tried again a few months later, and again stopped. For the first two years of his life he was either breastfed to sleep or held onto my hand (for thirty minutes to an hour). And now? He sleeps fine. He’s better than my daughter in some ways. Except when he’s ill, and then he goes back to needing constant reassurance. But we survived (just).

My sleeping son, day one

My sleeping son, during our long hospital stay

Same goes for the small age gap. I agreed with them that there probably was a negative impact on both children, that I didn’t get to give them both undivided attention and all that. But they’re great friends, which is what we hoped would happen, and I’m not the kind of parent that does undivided attention well anyway. Besides, I get to do that for the next two years, and they’re much more interesting at three and four than they were as babies (If harder work.)

Still, the forty minute conversation left me with a vague sense of disquiet that has build over the day, until I actually feel quite teary. I don’t know why. I think it’s the lack of empathy; seeing in their eyes (or thinking I see, which is maybe not the same thing) judgement and disapproval. Or knowing that if I’d had the conversation two years ago it would have broken me, as so many similar conversations did.

Not all children are the same, even siblings, and what works brilliantly for your child isn’t going to work for someone else’s. When will we get that as parents? (Because of course I still get a bit judgy about some parenting things I see!)

All grown up and sleeping now!

All grown up and sleeping now!

Whatever the cause, when added to a discussion I sparked off on Facebook about Christmas gifts for the children (from Santa or from the parents?), with one friend saying it should be about more than gifts (which I agree with, but makes me feel guilty, cos I love buying presents) it all makes me want to crawl into a corner and rock.

Yet my kids sat and ate Mediterranean egg fried rice for dinner (one of Mummy’s concoctions), and they’re setting up snakes and ladders in the lounge (which will be fine as long as my daughter wins). They will mostly go to bed on time with acceptable levels of fuss. They’ll get up ridiculously early, but they’ll get themselves dressed and play in their rooms more or less until their ‘suns’ are up. I’ll only get out of bed two or three times between 5am and 7am.

They’re good kids which means, somehow, I must be a good parent. So why do those conversations always leave me feeling full of doubt and self recrimination? About stuff that’s water so far under the bridge it’s out to sea by now. As if life isn’t hard enough? Sigh. Never mind. Each time it will get easier, I’ll defend my case better and not get emotionally involved. Or I’ll learn not to chat to strangers! 🙂

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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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The motorway stretched endlessly ahead of her, and Claire’s mind wandered over the events of the night before. Despite the temptation to grill her sister about the mysterious Mark, for once she had held her tongue. It was entirely possible that her sister was unaware of a nascent attraction and teasing her about it now might break it completely.

It had been an interesting twenty-four hours with her family. It felt like everyone had changed so much in such a short time. Well, maybe not her mum. But her dad was no longer the distant, reserved, businessman she remembered from childhood. As if retirement had freed him from a role he wore with reluctance, he’d become more approachable; more human. She had left him and Jack chatting about their favourite authors.

Claire glanced over at the passenger seat, where a proof copy of her dad’s book sat on top of her handbag. It felt odd to think her father had written it.

Then there was Ruth. No longer the needy, miserable, sister she’d been only months before, she now carried herself with a quiet confidence and a security that she said knew her place in the world and was content. Although she felt less able to relate to the new Ruth, Claire was glad she’d found a path she was happy with.

And what about me? Have I changed? What do they see, when they see me? I don’t feel any different, but I suppose a few months ago I wouldn’t have been driving to the middle of nowhere in a rusty car with anything other than horror.

The trill of the phone cut through her thoughts. Claire glanced down to see who was calling. No name came on the screen, but the number looked familiar. Thinking it might be Conor, she grabbed the handset.

“Hello?”

“Claire, hi, it’s Kim.”

“Kim! How great to hear from you. Listen, I’m driving at the moment, and this clapped out old car doesn’t have anything as posh as hands-free. Can I call you back in,” she looked out the window and saw a sign for a service station in ten miles, “say, twenty minutes? I’m due a stop.”

“Sure, no problem. I’ll go and make myself a cup of tea.”

Claire hung up the phone and tried to work out why Kim had sounded strange. And then she realised what was different. She’d sounded happy.

*

“So, what’s the gos?” Claire cradled the phone to her ear, and sipped at the hot latte in her other hand.

“Are you safe to talk now?”

“Yes, I’m at the services, coffee at the ready.”

“Good.” Kim fell silent, and Claire wondered if she’d imagined the happiness in her voice earlier. As the silence stretched out, Claire tried to think of something harmless to say.

“How are you?” She didn’t want to say more than that, but it was enough.

“You mean, am I still nuts? No, the doctor thinks I’m making good progress. I’m hoping to go back home soon. Jeff’s still busy, so they want me to stay with Mum until they’re sure I’m safe to be by myself, but I feel okay.”

“You sound great.” Claire smiled, aware of a real sense of relief to hear her friend on the road to recovery.

“Helena is coming home.” Kim blurted the words out and it took Claire a moment to process them.

“Your sister? I thought she’d put down roots in Hong Kong? She didn’t even come home for your wedding.”

“Yes, well, I don’t think it’s entirely her idea.” Kim’s voice bubbled with suppressed mirth. “I shouldn’t laugh, but it’s so out of character for Helena.” She giggled.

“What happened?” Claire tried to remember what Kim’s sister was like. She was older than Kim, and was the driven, business orientated one, full of ambition.

“We don’t know.” Kim laughed. “But it’s got to be pretty bad. I’ve got bets on her having slept with a client. Mum’s saying nothing, but I think she’s worried that she’s up the duff.”

Silence fell again, and Claire wondered if Kim was dwelling on her own lost baby.

“Be bloody typical if she is.” Kim’s voice had lost some of its humour. “Maybe I could convince her to give it to me and Jeff.”

Claire winced and took a gulp of coffee, cursing as she scalded her mouth. Her brain hummed with useless words and she pictured Kim sinking back into the dark place.

“Whatever the cause, it’s brilliant that she’s coming home under a cloud. It’ll take the heat off me as the useless one. Anyway, I wondered if you’re around? She’ll be home next week; it’d be great if we could all catch up.”

With a frown, Claire tried to read beneath Kim’s request. She hardly knew Helena. There was a four-year age gap, from what she could remember, and Helena had been a shadowy figure at school, one who refused to associate with her younger sister.

“I’m in Cornwall, or I will be soon.” She heard Kim’s intake of breath, and quickly added, “But I’m sure I could shoot up to yours one weekend. After the Carnival though. Conor would kill me if I wasn’t around for that. I can do early August.”

Kim agreed somewhat reluctantly and Claire felt a pang of guilt for bursting her happy bubble. She wondered why Kim needed moral support to face her sister, and filed it away under things to worry about.

***