Enlightenment: 2013 365 Challenge #206

A lightbulb moment

A lightbulb moment

I had a great discussion with a fellow author recently. We discussed, among other things, my inability to be mean to my characters. In response to my saying, “I actually have a huge capacity to imagine the worst that can happen, especially since having children, I just don’t like to write about it.”

Vozey said,

“Then, look at yourself. Sometimes it isn’t that we are being mean to our characters, than that we are reliving and remember things that are important and painful to us.”

This was a lightbulb moment for me. This was my (slightly edited) response – Most of my Chick Lit protagonists are a version of me, in one form or another. My YA novel, on the other hand, has a lead protagonist that is nothing like me (not intentionally, anyway!) and it was easier to have bad things happen, particularly the kind of things that a 16 year old might think bad (boyfriends, parents and stuff). I really want to try my hand at Middle Grade Fantasy fiction – I love reading it precisely because the bad things that happen are more external than internal.

He also gave me a great pep talk: “Doubt. I’m sure at several points you’ve thought you wouldn’t finish a novel. You did didn’t you? I know I think that sometimes, but I know that I will.”

I’m back where I was five years ago when I thought I’d never write a novel, and yet now I’ve completed two. I can learn to plot, and structure, and be mean. I maybe need to stop using me, and people from my own life, as base templates. Or maybe I do need to stick to YA and MG. I’ve just had to leave the lounge because the programme hubbie is watching got too violent, and still the images linger in my brain. Since having children my (already minimal) stomach for anything violent, mean or nasty is non-existent. Becoming a writer has in some ways made it worse: I can write different endings, people in the real world can’t.

I think, the more fertile the imagination – the more acute the empathy – the harder it is to live in reality! The world can be a tough place to live, I want to make it better, not worse! Perhaps I should learn how to write endearing children’s picture books instead…

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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 stared at the email until the words blurred. Blinking fast, she checked it again. If this number isn’t set in stone, it means there could be even more on offer. The figure in Carl’s email was twice her current salary, with a bonus to make her eyes water, as and when she completed her tour of all the YHA hostels.

Speculation sprinted through Claire’s mind. This can’t be just because of writing a few blog posts. There must be something else going on.

With a few taps of the screen, Claire loaded up her blog stats. She hadn’t looked in a while, because the paltry figures were demoralising. The graph bore no resemblance to the one she had last viewed. The little bars built exponentially. The viewing figures for that day alone were in the thousands.

What the…?

Scrolling back, Claire tried to see which post had sparked the increase. It was impossible to make sense of the numbers on her tiny phone screen. Her heart fluttered like a new-born child, fast and shallow. Trying to jump down from the wall, the trembling in her legs gave a pre-warning before she collapsed into the sand. Sitting in a tangle of legs, Claire laughed until the tears ran down her cheeks.

What a mess. Why didn’t I check my stats before I resigned? She thought about it, as the chill of the sand seeped through her jeans. Would l have done it? Her eyes widened in horror. Does Carl think I only resigned to force his hand; to get more money?

She thought back to their conversation, when he had asked her why she was leaving, intimating that the lure of a fancy car had precipitated her resignation. All the mirth drained away, and she shuffled across the sand to lean her shoulders against the wall.

Her words came back to her, barely audible through the tinny sound of the amusement arcade music still playing behind her, only partially muffled by the wall. No man, no money, no shiny car or bigger office. Just an opportunity to make a difference; to be me. To live a little in the real world.

Claire shivered and pulled herself up, walking along the beach to the steps. This isn’t just a bigger car. This is a chance to save a significant amount of money, to fund my future. That amount of cash going into my account, while I live in hostels on expenses; that’s life changing. I could help Ruth, I could fulfil any dream, if I only stick it out for a year.

With a jolt Claire realised she didn’t have a dream. Aside from a vague interest in travel writing and an impulsive urge to visit the other side of the world, there was nothing in her future to pull her forward.

Walking blindly, Claire didn’t realise she was lost until the change in sound alerted her. The noise filling her ears was no longer the grating tone of the amusement arcade, but the mellow tones of a man singing, with the twang of an electric guitar.

Dragged from her reverie, Claire looked up and saw she was outside a pub. The sight reminded her of her intention to call Josh; that she’d only gone for a walk to kill time and to get something to eat. Carl’s phone call had driven the thought from her mind, and her gurgling tummy reminded her that she still hadn’t eaten.

Without hesitating to wonder whether going into a local pub alone was a good idea, Claire pushed through the door and found herself in a dim, cosy interior that smelt of sweat and beer. The low-ceilinged room felt crowded, but she was able to get to the bar without making eye contact with any of the punters. The entertainment was set up in a corner, and most eyes were focussed on the singer.

Shouting over the music, Claire asked if the pub served food. With a shake of his head, the barman indicated that crisps and pork scratchings were all he could offer. Cursing her stupidity, Claire ordered a gin & tonic and two bags of crisps. While the barman prepared her drink, she looked around to find an empty table. Her heart rose when she spied one in the corner, shielded from the live music.

Claire wove her way to the secluded corner, praying no one accosted her. When she reached her destination unmolested, her overwhelming sensation was surprise. Are people really polite in Swanage, or are they ignoring me because I’m not a local?

Glad of the anonymity and the loud music drowning out her troubled thoughts, Claire ate her meagre dinner and tried to formulate a plan. Was a dream essential, to enjoy life? She was pretty certain no-one she knew had a burning ambition to do anything more than pay the bills and buy the things that made working bearable. Now she thought about it, the fact struck her as sad. Aside from Ruth, who at least had Sky to focus on, the only person she knew with a dream was Kim, with her ambition to become a famous actress. As unlikely as it was, at least it was a tangible goal.

Thinking about Kim increased Claire’s sadness. She would see her friend in two days, but what kind of greeting would she get? Kim hadn’t answered any of her calls or messages since the wedding. She couldn’t believe their friendship was irrevocably broken, but it was starting to look that way.

If Josh’s wife forgave him for running away to the other side of the world, surely Kim can forgive me for revealing her secret to Michael? It wasn’t my fault he blurted it out to everyone.

All the elation from earlier seeped away, as Claire drained the last of her gin. She was still contemplating whether to drink another and drown her sorrows completely, when a familiar voice hailed her from near the door. With a start she looked up, unable at first to see who had recognised her in this backwater place.

Her searching gaze met a smiling pair of glass-green eyes, and her heart gave a lurch. Conor, that’s all I need. As if I haven’t got enough to think about. She was tempted to drop her head and ignore his hail, but knew it was too soon to burn any bridges. Tempting as Carl’s offer was, it wouldn’t hurt to keep the options open.

She raised her hand in greeting, and Conor threaded his way through the crowd to her table.

“Enjoying yourself? I told you Swanage was a great place.” He leant close, to allow his words to be heard over the music.

Claire inhaled the overpowering scent of his aftershave and leaned back slightly as the man filled her personal space.

“Can I get you another drink?” Conor nodded at her empty glass.

Claire didn’t want to stay; her mind was jumbled enough without being on friendly terms with the man who wanted to be her boss. Unable to think of an excuse without appearing rude, Claire nodded her head.

“Yes, please.”

As she watched him take her glass back to the bar, Claire fought an overwhelming urge to cry.

***

Breaking the Rules and the See-Saw of Self Doubt: 2013 365 Challenge #88

My new YA cover

My new YA cover

Well, here it is. My new cover. Apologies to everyone bored to the back teeth of my self-publishing adventures. I have to make sure this blog is about my writing as well as my parenting journey!

Actually today has been a watershed sort of day in my personal journey as an author. I’ve been oscillating between hope and doubt since breakfast. First off I flexed the credit card and bought this gorgeous photograph – isn’t it stunning? Oh to take a picture like that. It reminds me of a bit in Baby Blues, when Helen takes an amazing photograph that leaves everyone stunned. It’s hard to imagine how one image can have that impact until you see one.

I asked the photographer if he had a vertical version better suited to a book cover (the original of this one is horizontal) and he sent me another from the shoot. It wasn’t the same at all. The expression was more sulky than vulnerable, as if the model was saying, get me out of this damn rain, I’m cold. So I had to work with this horizontal one and create a ‘rainy’ background for it to sit on.

That was my high (working with beautiful photographs is like a drug).

My low came after reading a post on Catherine, Caffeinated‘s blog, by an editor, about why you must have an editor if you intend to self publish. I posted a comment along the lines that I just plain can’t afford one and her response was, well then you mustn’t self-publish. I’ve thought that before and I don’t blame her for saying it. However if I listen to that advice I’m back to querying agents and wondering everyday if I’m meant to be an author. It took the edge off my excitement about the new cover. Especially as hubbie confessed to hating the type font of my novel (I do too, so that’s okay) and to finding another typo. I’m sure the manuscript is littered with them and I do intend to have another run through with fresh eyes. Only now I’m scared to look in case there are hundreds!

Sneak Preview of 200SH March Cover

Sneak Preview of March Cover

My see-saw of self-doubt tipped upwards again with a lovely comment on my blog from someone who is also self-publishing (albeit with the use of a professional editor!). She stopped by to tell me not to be disheartened by Catherine’s comments and that people will forgive a badly edited book for a good story. Well, they did with Twilight so I know that’s true.

I’ve ended the day somewhat level on my see-saw. I know I’m breaking the rules by self-publishing without paying for the services of an editor or proof-reader and without going through my manuscript again the minute someone spotted a typo.

I will do. One day.

But if I wait for the right time I might never get anything done because by the time the kids have started school, or left home, or whenever is a good time to focus, I will have talked myself out of doing it. I have a short attention span and a small amount of self-belief so I have to carpe diem.

There’s been a song floating round my head for weeks (hubbie has it on his ipod playlist I think) and I heard it on the radio today while working on my front cover. It sums up where I am nicely:

You’ve got the words to change a nation
but you’re biting your tongue
You’ve spent a life time stuck in silence
afraid you’ll say something wrong
If no one ever hears it how we gonna learn your song?
So come on, come on

I don’t think my words will change a nation but I do so love Emeli Sandé’s song and I love the concept of Our Version of Events. Everyone has an opinion on the right way of doing things – be it writing, parenting or anything else. Our job is to discover our version of events and stick to 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. You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire looked up at the hills towering either side, blocking out the sun. Bloody typical. It was almost spring-like back at the hostel. I could be sitting in the lounge ignoring the awful floor covering, reading my book and drinking tea. An image of the scene she’d left behind floated into her mind: Fiona and Josh entwined on the sofa, chatting to baby Lily, while Sophie and Lucas played snap on the bright blue carpet. Even though she was pretty certain the domestic bliss had lasted approximately five minutes before one of the children was screaming or sobbing, the sight had still left an odd taste in her mouth. I’m better off out of it. A morning spent in the Hall grounds with Josh’s kids was sufficient to convince her peace was rare and fleeting.

I certainly didn’t need to come out on a five-mile-hike to escape. Although I guess I do need something for the blog. I can’t coast on the concussion excuse forever.

Her rough research had suggested a walk along Wolfscote and Beresford Dales would be picturesque and easy-going. Unfortunately the website’s estimate of a two-hour circuit hadn’t allowed for the snow. The path was hidden and she had slipped several times on the crunchy ice-crystals that had formed in the heart of the dale.

To her right the river Dove gushed along, swollen and grey from the melting snow water. On the internet pictures the brook had sparkled in summer sunshine. You’d think an Advertising Director would be trained not to believe everything she sees, especially online.

The footpath snaked through tightly packed hills, making Claire feel like she was walking between a giant pair of breasts.  Lovely. Josh will piss himself when I tell him. He’ll be gutted he didn’t come. Then she remembered Fiona’s expression as she announced her afternoon plans, and her smile dropped away. Josh had glanced at his wife and met a blank stare, as if she had decided not to influence her husband’s decisions. Claire hadn’t been so lucky. The woman had flashed her a micro-glance that had slapped her across the face. It wasn’t necessary. I wouldn’t have let him come. Wandering around with a single man is one thing, but hiking alone with a married man – even one who is just a friend – isn’t my style.

Lost in her thoughts, Claire didn’t realise she had left Wolfscote Dale and entered Beresford Dale until she saw the looming pile of limestone ahead of her. Ah, the Celestial Twins. Look like lumps of rock to me. The Twins didn’t seem as impressive as they had in the pictures. Claire guessed it was because they blended into the dirty-grey snow lying thickly on the Dale floor.

She took some snaps of the edifice for the blog, before hurrying on along the path. The valley narrowed, enclosing her like a rumpled duvet, until she was striding along a gorge. Despite the blue sky and hints of invisible sunshine, the gorge was lost in shadow. Claire felt the air temperature drop even lower, but sighed with relief as the blasting wind fell away. It wasn’t late but it felt oppressive in the gorge and Claire was glad when the footbridge came into sight.

She stood at the edge of the bridge, listening to the roar of the river beneath her. The water was only inches from the bridge, although the planks were still dry. I wonder how low the water is normally and how long before the bridge is complete submerged. As if she feared that might happen imminently, Claire forced herself to plant one boot on the wood and then another. Closing her ears to the thunderous noise, she scuttled as fast as she could across the bridge and only breathed when her boots landed in snow again.

At last the valley opened out and the sun twinkled on the horizon, dazzling Claire’s eyes even though it no longer held any warmth. The field stretched ahead of Claire and she realised she had no idea which way to go. In the dales and the gorge the path had been obvious, despite being mostly buried by snow. Now, out in the open, there were no obvious markers to follow and no footsteps to show the way.

Fear tightened in Claire’s chest until her ribs ached. She tried to keep calm but memories of the mugging tugged at her mind and wound up her pulse. Great. I’m lost. The hostel is only a mile or so away. I can almost taste my cuppa and feel the warmth of the wood burner. She shook her hands in an attempt to bring life back into them. Her fingers tingled with the loss of sensation caused by the wind penetrating her flimsy gloves. Mental note to buy some fleece-lined gloves at the next opportunity.

Claire fumbled through her pockets for her new phone, praying there was signal. Eventually, with nerveless hands and thudding head, she managed to load up her satnav system and find out what direction would take her to the village.

I hope the drive to Cambridgeshire tomorrow is easier than this, or I’m going to be late to collect my niece. And Ruth will kill me.

***

‘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.

 ***

The Knife of Never Letting Go ~ All about conflict

I have just finished reading The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness – part of the reason why I have been quiet on the blog for a while. That and I have been writing a guest post for Findingmycreature, which will hopefully be on her blog sometime in November.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is a stunning book, one that drags you along from the first sentence to the last. I have learned a great deal from reading it, as it consolidated some of the lessons I have been taught through reading blog posts such as Kristen Lamb’s on the role of conflict and Annie Cardi’s on the importance of voice in Young Adult literature.

The voice of Patrick Ness’s main character, Todd Hewitt, is so well realised I almost wept with envy. It has made me revisit my Young Adult book, Dragon Wraiths, and realise there is little distinction between my voice and my lead protagonist’s voice, despite Leah being 20 years younger than I am. I have a lot to learn about creating the voice of a teenager and I may have to wait a decade until my daughter is one before I can recreate the voice as authentically as Ness has.

The book also has conflict in bucket-loads. There is conflict in every scene right through to the very last line. The pace is relentless and the story so compelling it made me sit up until 2am to finish it, even though I knew there was a chance the kids would then kept me awake the rest of the night (they did).

However the book also left me bereft and unsettled because (for me) there was too much conflict. Even when there was the occasional scene without conflict, I knew it was just creating the calm before storm, setting up the irony for when it all went pear-shaped again.

I’m a Libra, we like balance and harmony. My inner peace is wrenched apart by too much conflict. As a result, even though I accept the advice from people like Kristen Lamb about the importance of Goal – Conflict – Disaster, I find it very hard to write. My attempts either become terribly predictable: Oh look, my character is happy, let’s throw some crap at them and make them feel rotten, or I shy away from the places where I could ratchet up the tension and let my protagonist off far too easily.

Reading through Dragon Wraiths I found myself noting again and again – Make more of this, build up this scene, make it harder for Leah. When there’s a sentry in Leah’s way he doesn’t chase her for a league making her terrified and sweeping us up in her fear. Instead he’s distracted by his grumbling tummy and she sneaks past. Another security guard is conveniently on the floor above when she needs to avoid detection. She’s running from the authorities but not once is she approached by a policeman or gets accosted by some busybody in the street who has seen her face on TV. The entire book has less conflict than an episode of Noddy.

I guess the problem for me is that my life is full of enough (generally internal) conflict that I read to escape. At times in The Knife of Never Letting Go I found myself skipping ahead during the most tense and dramatic scenes, to find out the end result, because they were so drawn out I couldn’t sustain that level of suspense for so many pages. It was so expertly written, and I was so caught up in Todd’s exploits, particularly as a result of the very intimate first-person-present prose, that I had to metaphorically hide behind a cushion for some of the scenes. Only Doctor Who ever normally makes me do that (and the only characters in Doctor Who that have made me do that since I was eight are the Angels).

All that aside, Patrick Ness has written an amazing novel with a brilliant concept, 4D characters (my favourite being Manchee the talking dog) and enough things to get me thinking about my own characters’ voices and motivations to keep me re-writing Dragon Wraiths for a decade. It’s just a shame about the cliff-hanger ending. The characters were left in danger. I hate that. And I’m not ready to read the next one in the series yet. After a novel that edgy I need at least three Georgette Heyers to restore my equilibrium. Now, where did I put Friday’s Child?

Learning to row and little ones growing up

Turns out rowing is in my family’s blood!

I must apologise for my prolonged silence. When my babies were born a childminder I met said, “As a parent of very young children your world will shrink to a tiny point where the only things that matter are whether they eat and sleep and are happy. As they grow older you will begin to remember that there’s a whole other world out there.”

As my son’s second birthday approaches (this Friday – I can’t believe it) that prophecy has become true. All of a sudden I have re-joined the human race. As a result, some things – like my writing and this blog – have been forced into the background, despite my best intentions that that wouldn’t happen. I’m particularly concerned that I have entered my young-adult novel Dragon Wraiths into the Mslexia competition without the final draft being completely finished. I’m taking a gamble that I’ll be able to at least fix any continuity errors before I might have to submit the full manuscript, which they estimate as being in November for the short list. To be honest I don’t really expect to make the short list so it will be a nice dilemma to have.

For those paying attention to my on-going ramblings about my young adult book I have had to forgo entering the Chicken House competition, as the final first draft came in a third over their word count limit of 80,000. I’m not an enthusiastic (or experienced) enough editor to lop off thirty-five thousand words in a month.

So what have I been doing in the real world?

Learning to row

I married into a family of rowers and always vowed I would learn one day. I vowed I’d learn Italian too (my husband is half-Italian) but that’s proving more tricky. My husband planned to teach me to row after our second child was born, but a premature baby and postnatal depression put paid to that idea.

Then this summer our local Adult Education brochure arrived and I read it cover to cover, as I always do. I’m an academic junkie as well as always being on the lookout for local Italian classes. No joy on that front but there was a five-week Ladies Only Learn to Row course. Fate.

I changed the kids’ nursery days, swore my husband to secrecy, and signed up. Three weeks in and I’m loving it: Now I can actually propel the boat without facing the prospect of a cold bath that is. The first two weeks were HARD. My brain wasn’t used to concentrating for two hours at a time and I got very cross with my lack of coordination. The lady from British Rowing seemed to think I was the antithesis of a natural.

Today, though, the boat flew. It was amazing. I rowed with my eyes closed. Literally. To start out rubbish and get better – to feel myself improve and to get instant feedback (if I sense I’m about to join the ducks I’m doing it wrong) – is exhilarating.

If only writing was like that. Or parenting.

After nearly four years of feeling like a failure it was fantastic to be proud of myself for once.

Little ones growing up

The other thing we’ve been doing this week is looking at primary schools for my daughter. Scary stuff. I’ve thought about where I would like my children to go to school pretty much since my daughter was born. Several of my friends are teachers and my sister moved her family to America partly because of a school she wants them to attend. Education is important.

I think back to the various schools I went to as a child and I can see the different shifts in my personality that came with each one. To make that decision now, when my daughter is not even four and my son (who will hopefully go to the same school) is not quite two, seems madness. Thankfully we are blessed with an array of great state schools around us so the choice is more small village school versus larger town school, and whether to take current friendships into account. No decisions yet. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime I am trying to get my head back into writing, to plod on with editing Dragon Wraiths (harder than I hoped it would be) and writing query letters for Pictures of Love (which I still intend to self-publish but, as I haven’t got time to do the final proof-read at the moment, I may as well rack up a few more rejection letters!)

Have any of you recently sent your first child to school or started a new hobby? What keeps you away from editing and blog writing?

Renewing my love affair with dragons (and editing)

Still from Stefen Fangmeier’s 2006 film Eragon.
Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Allstar

I find myself in the unprecedented position that I am itching to start editing my work in progress, Dragon Wraiths.

Usually I only enjoy the writing part and approach revision and editing much as I would a trip to the dentist. This time, though, I am having to force myself to finish the four or five chapters in the final section before I start taking it all apart. Thankfully I decided on a structure of nine 3,000-word-ish chapters per section (although I have added a whole extra section in my usual scope-creep), otherwise I would take the easy way out and decide the first draft is done already.

For most of my novels I am aware that I have underplayed the climax because I ran out of steam, or ideas, or a new book lured me away. So I am determined to battle through my battle scenes before I let myself review the whole and start drawing out the themes.

This time I think my last-chapters-lethargy is caused by things other than exhaustion or boredom (although with an average word count of 10,000 a day on the two days a week I get to write, exhaustion of ideas is definitely a factor. Hence no blog posts for a couple of weeks – all out of words!)

Firstly I’ve already closed out the love story and written the final scene. A mistake, but an unavoidable one. The final scene presented itself while I was walking the dog (see next post) and I never look gift words in the mouth. As a result I have written the bit of the story I’m interested in and skimmed over the same parts I often skim-read, namely the battle scenes.

The other problems are more positive. I am nervous, elated and excited about this book. It feels good. I have ideas about themes, character development, setting and so on that I want to build on during revision. All the wonderful blogs I read have clearly had an influence and I am eager to put them into practice.

I have also been reading some excellent and varied middle grade and young adult books about dragons, including Eragon by Christopher Paolini (written when he was fifteen!) and The Dragon’s Eye by Dugald A. Steer. These were complemented by an interesting blog post from 2009 that I discovered when searching for an image for this post: Dragons in Literature by Imogen Russell Williams, adding yet another great blog writer to my growing list.

As well as my eagerness to get going on revision I am also conscious of my deadlines. I am writing this book to enter in two Children’s Novel competitions, with deadlines of 10th September and end October. Clearly there is not enough time to revise properly so I need to get started as soon as I can or face a difficult decision: Whether to forget the competitions and focus on finishing the novel to the best of my ability or do a rush job (including reducing word count from 110k to 80k) and hope for the best.

What are your views on dragons in literature?

Have you ever had to rush revision to hit a deadline? All advice gratefully received. 

This interview with Christopher Paolini contains some great advice for writers.

Planning and pesky characters

 

Artwork by Amber Martin

I don’t write plot plans or outlines and this blog explains why.

If you follow regularly you’ll know I’m rubbish at planning what I write, preferring instead to let the story develop as the words (hopefully) flow from subconscious to computer screen.

However after writing my post about the Chicken House / Times children’s book competition, I decided to write a plot plan for my young adult novel, Dragon Wraiths. I had an idea where the story was going, haven written half of it, so it seemed a safe, logical thing to do, particularly as I haven’t got long to draft and redraft before submission in September / October. I hoped that a plan would help me get all the continuity right first time and save some long-term pain. All good.

Except the pesky characters won’t do what they’re told.

I’m two chapters into my ‘plan’ and already I’ve added a whole new section to the novel, extending it from 3 parts to 4. I’ve changed a good character into a barrier and rewritten the whole ending. Twice.

So far my adherence to the plan resembles my children’s colouring: The lines are there only to be scribbled over. As a parent I have tried to let my kids colour how they like, seeing it as too controlling to tell them to colour inside the lines. Am I giving a free-rein to my own creativity by scribbling all over my own plot plan, or am I just scatty?

I have also discovered that, while I find it almost impossible to summarise a chapter into one line, it is easy for one line of planned plot to become two or three chapters.

I have written 7,000 words today and covered only two lines of plot plan.

They find the missing girl and she agrees to help takes no account of how hard it turned out to be to find the girl or the fact that she was rude and uncooperative when they did find her. My whole story depends on the girl being helpful: I didn’t expect her to have a mind of her own. In twenty words of dialogue, written while walking the dog, she has destroyed my whole plot outline with her rudeness. Grrr.

So I am ploughing ahead without worrying too much about the plan. It is still useful as a guide for key plot developments, particularly for the sciency bits that are not my strong point. As for the rest, even I don’t know if the darn woman will help out in the end, or finish up being written out of the book entirely.

That’ll show her.