Sunday, 24 January 2016

They're not coming, you know

Today I feel as if I'm thinking through a fog. You know when you dream that you're being chased, and yet your legs won't move fast enough to run away? Like that, only in my head. I'm thinking through treacle. Trying to have an original thought is difficult, let alone writing it down.

...... continued over at the Association of Christian Writers' More than Writers blog, where I post on the 23rd of each month.

This post sort of explains why Badger on the Roof has been sadly neglected for the last few months. Reasons, not excuses!

Or maybe excuses.

Either way, do nip over and read the rest. 
Hope to be back here very soon. 

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Ideas like buses

I had an idea earlier on today.  I was in the middle of writing something - I was concentrating, and then this idea sneaked up and wanted my attention. I pushed it away, fobbing it off with ' a minute...' and it was so offended that it disappeared and hasn't been back.

I knew I should have written it down. I should have made a mental (or physical) note of what I was doing, suspended that thought process for a moment or two and scribbled down the idea before resuming task one.

Silly me.

Now I'm left with a nagging sense that it was a Great Idea. One of the best. And now it's gone.

Two ideas came at the same time, you see, and I was flummoxed. Like waiting for ages and ages at a bus stop (in the rain) and then two buses come at once. As I clamber on the first, fumbling for my bus pass, the second sails on by. I will never know what it might have been like to ride on that bus; who I might have met, what I might have seen - because I got on the first one.

That's what happened to me this morning.

Can't think why I didn't make a note. I am such a note-writer that my desk, every handbag I own, the kitchen counter and bedside drawer all house multiple notebooks. I have scraps of paper all over the place. I keep a notepad by my bed and several nights a week I attempt to capture something that comes to me in the hours of darkness; a dream, an idea, a snatch of dialogue, or some vague and random thought that I don't want to let go of.

This Notebook By The Bed technique has been met with variable degrees of success. I have tried not putting the light on, to avoid waking the husband, or indeed to avoid waking myself up too much, but this is not to be advised. You can very easily find that you've written a paragraph, but with each line overlaying the first and rendering them unintelligible. Or the first three words are on the notepad, the rest on the bedside table. Or, as a friend of mine shared, it turned out that the pen had no ink and you're left trying to decipher the indentations.

Very often my nocturnal scrawling are illegible come the clear light of day; whatever it was that was burning in my brain did not translate well to my hand. Of the messages I could read, however, I have captured some remarkable insights in my night time notebook. Consider the possibilities of the following:
'The lard in the bushes is too eggy. But THIS WILL BE ALRIGHT. It will be ALRIGHT.'
'Try putting ALL of them in.' 
Alternatively, this could be a fascinating story prompt:
'He asks her, and she just stares at him. It was too late.'
No idea who he is, or who she is, or what he asked her, but the drama of those two sentences. Breaks your heart, doesn't it?

For sheer frustration value, I can't beat the following:
What?! What?! I really need to know..... Or then there's the terror of waking to find this written large on the notepad next to you:
"Don't do it."
On a lighter note, my husband once told me that I stirred as he came to bed after watching a late film. Without waking completely, I grasped his hand and said with some urgency:
'The blue ones. You've got to watch the blue ones.'
He wrote that one down, after he'd finished laughing.

Then there are the myriad of notes that I can't read. Excerpts include (and this is just what they look like - could be accurate, knowing my propensity to scrawl things that make no sense):
'Lemons. All of them used to be fussy lemons but now they're aggressive, unpleasant.' 
'Get your act together.'
Yes indeed.

My absolute favourite, however, is the time I awoke and reached for the notepad, and wrote the following:
'No worries.'
I even underlined it, and added a smiley face. It was clearly discernible as a smiley face, even though the eyes were slightly offset in a cubist kind of way.
'No worries. :-)' 
I like to think that one was from God.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Getting into gear

I was following a thread on a Facebook page for authors the other day and the discussion was about daily word count. Several people aim for a number of words each day - 1000 seems a popular number. Others don't count words at all but aim to write for an hour. One day this might produce a paragraph, other days a chapter.  When they've done their allocated word count, or time, they might carry on to exceed it, or do something else, but it's a measurable, organised way of ensuring that forward progress is made regularly.

I like organised. I like forward progress as well.

What's my method? What do I do?


I need to do some thinking about this, especially as I have such limited time to write. I have two days a week that I try to protect for writing, and that's just the hours between school runs, say, 9.30am until 2.30pm.  Some days I find that I can get down to things straight away and manage a blog post, a couple of scenes from the book, and still have time to surf Facebook and check out the headlines. These days are rare.

More common are the days where I start with the surfing (bad idea), try to appease the irritable Blog Monster and then find that I can't get my story into my head at all. I am distracted, and distracted by the most ridiculous things, like the need to clean windows, or check whether I should put out the black bin or the green one for the bin-men in the morning. I make endless cups of coffee before deciding that there is insufficient time left for actually...ahem...writing. Too late.

Then I sit in the car waiting outside school berating myself for wasting such wonderful empty hours with trivia when I want to get this thing written.

I'm told this is not uncommon, but I need to get over it. It's not going to write itself, and I am determined that I'm not going to give up on it. I need to be more disciplined. Maybe the 1000 words a day would do. One thousand words each day and I'd have a 90,000 word first draft in three months.

May, June, July. In time for the summer holiday, I'd have a draft to begin working on.

Except that there's no way of writing every day. There simply isn't time, or peace. I so envy those people with lots of space and time to spend on their work in progress, but at this point in my life I have school runs and a husband who is only home at weekends and more than enough swimming practices to deliver my children to every weekday evening and Saturday and Sunday too.

One thousand words twice a week when I do have the opportunity, and it'll take the best part of a year.

What I do know is that when I get in the right frame of mind, in the zone, I can write 3,000 words in a couple of hours. So I have hope.

Well, it's like this. I'm revving in neutral. I'm not getting anywhere. Time to get into gear.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Hard work and jigsaw puzzles

There's a definite slogging aspect to this novel writing. A sort of daily grind kind of hard work thing that you know about, but don't fully realise.

I knew that writing a book was likely to be hard work; it stands to reason. A blog post of 600-1000 words can take me anything from half an hour to a whole morning, so piling up 80,000 - 100,000 words and trying to make something out of them was going to be a challenge. What I failed to grasp was that there would be parts of the book that I couldn't wait to get my hands on, and other parts, necessary parts, that would need to be written whether I want to or not.

Some scenes are exciting (to me, at least!) and others are a bit mundane. There are parts of the story that I like better than others, to be honest. My heroine has a back-story and a present-day story, and so do the other characters, and these need to be woven together. Some parts of their stories I am longing to write - indeed often the temptation is too much and I skip around, writing scenes as they come to me, rather than telling the story in a linear manner.

It feels a little like emptying a jigsaw puzzle out of the box onto the table and looking at the pieces. Some of them you can see, and some are still blanks because they landed upside down. Some are identifiable - look! this is a picture of a greengrocer's shop, and there are some oranges! Other pieces are much more subtle - they must be parts of the background.
Not exciting, perhaps, but necessary; the picture would be incomplete without them.

So I start to order the pieces. First turning them all over so I see what I have to choose from, then organising them into sections. Finally, when it looks as if everything is there, I begin to join them together. When I do, it's easiest to start with the edge pieces, to make a frame, so to speak.

So writing a book is like doing a jigsaw. Brightly coloured areas and background. Parts that seem to come together easily - I can see the rest of the box of oranges; they stand out - and those bits that are hard to pull together.

I wonder if this will come back to bite me, this piecemeal approach. I've already joined together different segments of the book only to find that a character's name changed at some point, and so I know that I shall have to be on the ball for continuity issues, but I dread that the book will have a disjointedness about it - that it won't flow properly because I wrote it out of order, rather than sitting down and beginning at the beginning and letting events unfold.

I wonder. Surely everyone doesn't do that, do they? Surely there are many ways to write a novel? I know that JK Rowling had detailed plans of her Harry Potter books, a discovery that made me feel much better about mine. Having said that, as far as I can tell, hers was a couple of sides of A4. Mine runs to eighteen pages....

One thing I definitely need to bear in mind, though: if I'm finding a section of the book fairly dull to write, then there's a strong chance that it might turn out to be fairly dull to read. Maybe the parts that I'm putting off writing don't need to be substantial parts, more references, snippets of dialogue or indeed omitted completely.

Think. Think. And sit down and get writing.

Monday, 13 April 2015

It's my writing day. Or is it?

Well, not much writing of novels lately. Not much writing of anything, to be honest - and not much reading of books, gardening or housework either. School holidays.

I am a routine kind of person. I like to know what a day has in store, more or less, and I like to plan. I know which days I'll have time and space to sit and write, and which days I need to be out and about with other stuff to do. Then the schools break up for a couple of weeks and it all goes out of the window. I promise myself that I'll try and carve out some writing time to keep the Blog Monster fed and to make some small advances on the WIP, but I am not sufficiently spontaneous to be able to turn my thoughts to it at the drop of a hat, just in a small unexpected window of time when the children are occupied.

I am contemplating two things:

  1. Time marches on. Inexorably, like a never-ending conveyor belt, it just slides on no matter what I'm doing. I have no 'pause' button. Sometimes I'd quite like a 'rewind' or even a 'Stop/eject' but I don't have those either. It just keeps on going.
  2. I am going to have to fit writing round my life, not the other way round. Try as I might, things happen. The car needs to go to the garage BUT IT'S MY WRITING DAY.  The children have a school trip and I am roped in as a parent helper BUT IT'S MY WRITING DAY. It's a beautiful unseasonably warm and sunny day and I have a chance to put in the summer bulbs that are overdue for planting BUT IT'S MY WRITING DAY.

Which of these is a valid reason to move the writing time? Are they just excuses? I find that I am inclined to protect my writing time much more fiercely if I'm getting on well, in the middle of a scene or chapter that I am wrapped up in, rather than in a lull where I am a little undecided as to what happens next. Funny, that. One day an earthquake wouldn't shift me from the keyboard, and on others all of the above have occurred, and my little swivelly chair has been left empty. I have even been known to clean the windows rather than get down to it when I am feeling overwhelmed by the whole project. And that's saying something.

I need to work out what kind of priority this project should have, and whether it is realistic and sustainable. I had hoped to get a first draft written before the summer holidays, but that looks increasingly unlikely. First draft before the end of the year? But that autumn term is a busy one that leads into the chaos of Christmas, where I find that peace and quiet gets squeezed out completely for a while. On the other hand, perhaps I should just make time. Be determined to protect my writing days no matter how compelling the alternative. At what expense, this novel? Does it matter if it takes one year, two years to complete? I don't suppose anyone can answer that, really.

Today, the children are at school once more. I packed them off with PE kits, books, drinks, snacks and musical instruments and then settled down at the computer to try and remember where I left off weeks ago. I need to get back into my groove.

Well, onward and upward. I have today, which is all any of us has. Today I choose to get a few words down. Bit by bit. Bird by bird. Every novel is written one page, one paragraph, one sentence at a time.

No distractions. No procrastination. Only moderate amounts of coffee.

Come on. Words, where are you?

The sun is out, but I am going to write.
I have a pile of interesting-looking paperbacks on my bedside table, but I am going to write.

It'll be time to pick up the children, soon.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Badger on the roof

Here's a sneak preview, and a word of explanation. Believe it or not, this is based on a true story. 

Julia lay in bed holding her breath. She didn't know what had woken her so abruptly, but something had, and she lay with her head held stiffly just off the too-soft pillows, straining to hear any sound.


Slowly she blew out a breath and tried to relax but the earlier rush of adrenalin had made her heart pound in her ears.

It was very dark, and very quiet. Too dark, and too quiet. Out here in the countryside there were no streetlights, no passing headlights, no light pollution of any kind, and so when it went dark, it really did. Sometimes moonlight sneaked through the thin yellow cotton curtains, but not tonight.

The first time Julia knelt on her bed and looked out at the beautiful world of blues and silver trees and hills on a moonlit night she had been enchanted and amazed at how bright the moonlight was; the shadows it cast. Another night, one without a moon, she had picked her way through the soft blackness to the clearing at the side of the house and sat wrapped in a blanket gazing up at the sky, enthralled by the billions and billions of stars. She had shaken her head in amazement; surely she had been under the same sky in London, but she had never seen it before.

There were stars and planets and galaxies and ... what else? What else was up there? Constellations and meteors and satellites and things. She remembered that some of the constellations were named after gods and stories in ancient mythology: Zeus and Cassiopeia and Andromeda and so on, but she had no idea which they were. Which was Orion? One with a belt, somewhere. And one shaped like a 'W', was that the Big Dipper, or a saucepan?  Julia had shaken her head with irritation at her lack of knowledge and knew that she'd have to find some books on the subject.

Tonight she wasn't thinking about the stars. She was wondering what on earth that noise was.

A thud, and then a scrabbling noise. She lay, tense and immobile, eyes wide open as if to gather any stray photons of light that might be of some use. The bedside lamp was no good to her as she hadn't yet replaced the bulb, and the main light switch was by the door. Julia felt like a small girl, unwilling to get out of bed in case something grabbed her ankles. She gripped the covers in both hands beneath her chin.

Julia had never minded the sounds of the city around her. She was used to car engines, gear changes on the hill behind the house, distant sirens and the all-life-is-here noises of people on their way home from a night out. Even the most peaceful day in the garden in London had a soundtrack of traffic, aeroplanes, voices, telephones, and she had wrongly anticipated quietness in the country. She was quickly learning that the countryside had it's own soundtrack. Birdsong, squawking pheasants, mooing cows, the whisper of stirring leaves, drumming of rain on the roof or the whistling of wind in the chimney. And, in the small hours, the downright unnerving and unidentifiable.

Scrabble, scrabble.

It was some sort of animal. She relaxed a little at the conclusion that it wasn't an escaped convict or someone trying to break into the cottage, but only a little. She had locked up securely and checked the doors and windows four times.

Thud, scrabble, scrabble. Whatever it was, it was on the roof. The noises were closer now, almost directly overhead. What on earth was climbing on the roof in the middle of the night?  What creatures were out there?

Julia's imagination spun out of control. Squirrels? Were they nocturnal? Surely they wouldn't be heavy enough to thud. Cats? The only cat she had seen was the stripy ginger one that bounded recklessly across the lane in front of her car the other day. Surely a cat would be quieter than 'thud, scrabble'? Cats were supposed to be stealthy. Rats? Julia shuddered in horror at the idea and pulled the covers closer to her face. She would buy traps the very next day. Could you do things like that out here? Was it allowed? What if she caught some innocent little creature that had a right to be there? Do rats have a right to be out here in the countryside?

Not on my roof, she decided.

Birds? She'd heard birds up there before with their tck tck claws. No thud, not even if it was a big, fat owl. What else was out there? What lived in the woods and came out at night?  Hedgehogs? Not on the roof. Voles? Mice? Too small and light.


How big were badgers? Julia had only ever seen pictures and it was hard to gauge how big they were in real life. Like a small dog?  She'd heard that they had big teeth, badgers. Quite aggressive. Could badgers climb? Could one have jumped from the hillside onto the low gable of the house and scrabbled across until it was over the bedroom? Or from a tree?

Can badgers jump?

Even as she lay there, wild thoughts running through her mind, Julia had a faint inkling of the absurdity of the conversation she was having with herself.

Was there a badger on the roof?

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Bird by bird, buddy

Well, it hasn't been the most productive week in the history of this project; it might be more accurate to say that it has probably been the least productive yet, in fact. The computer was only switched on once or twice and the brain less often than that.

Life kind of took over. Started with a poorly daughter and ended up with widespread poorliness and lethargy and everything put on hold.

The bright point of the week was reading Anne Lamott's wonderful book 'Bird By Bird'.

I realised that my 'protractor' idea of breaking down a huge writing project into tiny chunks to try to get your head around it was not at all original - it was her idea a long time ago.

This isn't one of those moments where I thought I'd had an original thought and then found out with crushing disappointment that it's nothing new (I've had quite a few of those); no, this is a rare and precious time when the fact that I've stumbled on a path well-trodden is a huge, whopping relief.

Listen to this:
"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and unopened books on birds, immobilised by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." 

As I said in the last post, I've been feeling overwhelmed and intimidated by the vast scale of the project and that sense of inadequacy, combined with being an ailing member of The House of Poorliness this last week has made me feel like giving up. Ms Lamott's 'Bird by Bird' has restored my faith in my story, and I will try to put on the blinkers that prevent me from looking at the whole thing, just concentrating on one small job at a time. One brick. One degree.

One bird.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, 1994 Anchor Books, New York.
Chapter Two, page 18-19.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Cogs and levers

It's been a bad week.

I've been busy, things have happened that have knocked my duck off, as they say here in Derbyshire, but the main thing regarding my Work In Progress is that it's suddenly become overwhelming. Too big, too ambitious, too complicated, too many words. So I've backed off.

I'm waiting for some feedback from someone who's casting an experienced eye over what there is to date, and suddenly it becomes more important that I wait and see what she says before I go any further. It might be that the whole thing is a non-starter. With the new realisation that I have to address some fairly heavy issues rather than introduce an idea but then not take it anywhere I find I'm stuck. I've lost confidence, not in the story, but in my ability to tell it.

I'm stuck. It's not a writer's block kind of thing, because I'm not sitting at the keyboard waiting for words to come; it's just that the thinking has become too difficult. I find myself not even wanting to sit at the keyboard.

Do successful novelists have times like this?

It's as if this story is an elaborate structure of cogs and levers and all was going well; it was starting to whirr into life, and then I realised that I have to insert another big cog. As a result, the whole piece needs re-engineering and work has ground to a halt. The cogs and levers lie all around me, waiting to be incorporated into the new machine. It'll work better, smoother, and it'll be more satisfying, but... it's just not built yet.

The engineer is tired and confused and not feeling up to the task.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, I hope. In the meantime, let's put the kettle on.

Custard cream, anyone?

Image credit: ashton_cogs1.JPG by doctor bob. Courtesy of Used with permission.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Adding a layer

I've just had one of those moments where I realise that the story isn't going to go the way I thought it would.

This is a remarkable moment, and one which I'm commemorating with a blog post, since I never thought it would happen to me.  Not that it's particularly inspiring that it has happened, since it means a whole lot more thinking and a greater challenge than I had anticipated. For something that already felt like climbing a huge mountain, making it harder isn't something I was after.

It's not one of those moments where a character does something that I didn't expect him/her to do, partly because I haven't actually written enough sequential scenes for the story to be moving along like that. I am planning in great detail, because I am that sort of person. Not for me the sensation of being swept away on a story-wave and seeing which beach I get washed up on - no, I am still holding fast to my protractor theory, and I have just realised that there are several more degrees than I first thought.

Lucky for me that my story-plan protractor needn't have 180 degrees, or even 270 or 360. It can have 192, if I want. Or 214. I call the shots. So there.

I realised I'd left a whole dangling area of the story; something happens to the protagonist, Julia, early in the novel that I hadn't addressed sufficiently in the later parts of the story. I'd left it alone as it's tricky to handle and somewhat controversial, and I suspect if I'm honest I was more inclined to leave it out than commit myself to managing the consequences of her actions. More comfortable, less trouble that way. I imagine Julia would agree with me; but it's not to be. I realise that without tackling it, the story is more lightweight than I want it to be. Less realistic. Also, writing in the event, but not providing something to counterbalance it feels wrong. As well as feeling like a cop-out, it feels as if the story doesn't sit as it should.

So, back to the drawing board - or at least that part of it. Several new scenes need to be inserted. I need to work out how some of my characters might respond to this new twist in the plot. I'm sure there'll be repercussions.

Things suddenly got exponentially more complex, on several levels. Complicated simply because the plot is slightly less straightforward, now, and one of my characters is going to get a huge shock, and he is already, by his very nature, unpredictable. What will he do?  (Seriously, what will he do? I don't know, yet! ) Also, the story now has another layer. It's a bit like an angel cake; I've just slapped another one on top and I've got to make sure that they all fit together without squishing out all the buttercream.

Can I do it?

Friday, 20 February 2015

The need to get it right

Oh, research. I love it.

Really, I love it. I once had a job as a researcher and I would like to boast that I know how to work a microfiche machine. I bet nobody under about thirty-five can say that. I started to try to explain to my nine year old daughter what a microfiche machine was, but soon gave up when she asked if it was a bit like Google. Not really. Still, it's a lost art, and I was a dab hand.

This book has me researching lots of things from modern farming techniques to hunting for mushrooms, train timetables to things that might go wrong with an Aga.

Way back before the children came along I was a hand therapist and I used to make splints for people with a huge range of hand injuries but my information is a decade out of date so I've written to an old friend to see if they can fill some gaps for me because a character in my book is going to need their services.

How long does the average cat live? Just your common or garden moggy?

What's the best way to break into a car if you've left your keys inside (and what model of car that would permit such an oversight in these days of central locking, might still be on the road?)

The perfect soft-boiled egg. Four minutes, or four and a half? What size egg?

Can badgers climb? Can they jump?

Mending a leaky roof? The correct way to prune roses, and when might they flower? How long does it take to milk a herd of cows?

How do you use a twin-tub washing machine?

Got to get it right. I hate it when I read a book and the author is obviously talking about something he doesn't know about, or asserts that something is so when it isn't. On the other hand, I love it when I learn about something while reading a novel; when the author clearly knows her stuff.

I want to know my stuff. If I can't find things out, or find somebody who knows, I'll find another way to tell the story.

In the meantime, I'm having a lovely time with my research.

Image credit:
by Alvimann
Courtesy of
Used with permission

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Needing to decompress

I had a good day today.

Not many words down on the page; in fact I think the net result might be a negative word count because I got rid of so many superfluous passages. I'm trying to work on my 'showing, not telling' and I realise how often I narrate, rather than paint a picture. However, in a waste-not-want-not kind of way, I've squirrelled away all the extraneous bits into a file marked, 'CUTTINGS' so that I might get inspiration there in future.

I did my usual messing about on Facebook and my browse of the BBC news, which now, sadly, has to be done on the computer since they upgraded the phone app so that I can't find anything at all. I surfed for a little while before tricking myself into opening the Word documents and working out where I left off. Before I knew it the clock said almost midday and time for scrambled egg.

It was like swimming up to the surface from somewhere deep below.

I was deeply embedded in my story; making notes of scenes that I already have, scenes yet to be written and trying to link up the back story arc with the main, present day story. It takes a while to get to the place where I'm thinking of the characters, how they interact with each other and how I might go about showing the reader what I want them to see without it being so clumsy that they know what I'm doing and lose interest. When I get there I find that I don't want to leave.

So, swimming up to the surface. I've realised that there's a long transition between my imaginary world and the real one; a bit like a diver having to use a decompression chamber as he comes up from the sea bed.

I emerge, blinking,  from a place in the countryside where birds are singing and a soft breeze blows; where my heroine goes for long walks in her new wellies to my kitchen where the washing machine is beeping to prompt me to empty it and the family is asking 'What's for tea?'

What's for tea? I have absolutely no idea.

Time for some deep breaths.

Image credit: 
PIC1079990928.jpg by rupertjefferies
Used with permission

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Who was in the foyer?

Oh, here's a new one.

As I still haven't really sorted out a structure for this novel, my writing has jumped around a bit. I've allowed myself to pick and choose which scenes I write, and they're by no means in the right order at the moment. I'm quite certain that some will end up being discarded (ouch - really?) and there'll definitely be an awful lot of joining up and jiggling around to do at a later date.

I'm starting to think that the later date had better not be too much later, actually. The reason being that I revisited a scene I wrote quite a while ago and realised that since I wrote it, one of the character names has changed even as she sat in her armchair, doing nothing. A key part of my heroine's backstory had altered beyond recognition, and I don't even remember changing my mind about it.

Another part has my main character arriving to visit her grandmother in a residential home just as lunch was being cleared away in the dining room. Later on, it's half past eight in the morning. That'll be breakfast, then. A time warp.

Not good.

And then there's the scene where a character sits in his conservatory and watches the sun set over the hills. Then, later in the story, he's unable to sleep and watching the sun rise from the same chair... eep.

Name changes are easily sorted, and continuity problems  in terms of 'It was eight years since...' vs 'It was fourteen years since...' can be put right without any problems, but I need to watch out for more serious flaws that affect other decisions that the characters make, or how they speak, or act.

For the sunrise/sunset problem I had to draw a diagram to work out which way the building had better face. I want him to watch the sunrise, I think (or maybe the sunset) so, if that's the case, can the lady who lives across the road see the sun from her kitchen, or her bedroom?

Was it Agnes in the foyer on that occasion, or Maisie?

It matters.

So, another little dimension to keep an eye on. This is multifaceted to the nth degree; so much more complex than a blog post or a short story!

Can I juggle all the strands that I need to juggle? How many balls in the air can I manage before something comes crashing down?

We shall see.

Friday, 30 January 2015

A day with words in

I had a good day with the writing, the other day.

Here's how it goes.

I am busy. I have only so much time, and lots of demands on that time. Family things, household things, life things. School runs, chauffeuring the children to swimming practice, shopping, cleaning, cooking - that kind of thing. The stuff that makes up the bulk of each day.

Generally speaking, I like my life; all the component parts of it. I've got to middle age and found that the things left in my life by this point are pretty much the things that I want there, and yet there are times when I wish it would all go away and leave me free to do this thing that I want to do more than anything else. I dream of a remote cottage lined with bookshelves, with a log fire, comfy sofas, coffee and custard creams. And WiFi.

And then, I have a day with no interruptions. If I close my eyes, I could be there in my wilderness cottage, in blissful solitude, nothing to do but work on my bestseller. I have a whole (albeit school-length - about five hours, allowing for the school runs) day to myself. Then what happens?

A whole host of things happen, ranging from excessive time spent on Facebook, to rearranging the cutlery drawer, from repotting aloe vera plants to taking a nap.

The precious time ticks away. I cannot fathom why I do this thing, but I do.

That's normal behaviour for me. Round about half past one in the afternoon, inspiration might strike, and I'll be deep in another world when it's time to extricate myself and dash off for my daughters.

Not this day! I managed almost 4,000 words, and then another 800 the following day to complete the scene. It's not at the beginning of the book; it doesn't follow in any sequence from anything else I've written so far, but it starts in one place and takes my character to another place, and I like it. I'm quite sure that it needs substantial editing, but there it is.

It was a good day. A good day words-wise, and also a good day because I proved to myself that I can do it. It is possible to make good use of time. I can sit with my fingers on the keys and arrange words on a page to tell a story.

I want to do more of that.

Image credit:
Christmas_in_Houston_079.jpg by beat0092
Used with permission

Friday, 16 January 2015

Telling a story, and telling it well

Ok, another moan.

I've been reading more novels than usual lately, partly to inspire me, to check out what other people are doing, and (I suppose) to see what makes the grade these days; how good does something have to be to be published?

I have had a good run; since Christmas I've read eight novels. One of them I found poor, with typos a-plenty - even at one point a misspelling of one word twice in different ways on the same page - and with a predictable plot and some fairly glaring problems. However, it seems to be doing well. Another three I thought were entertaining, quick and easy and well-deserving of their place on a bookshelf.

And then, another - ah. It's so good that I find myself despairing. Why bother, when there are such skilled storytellers out there? When someone has had an idea so original, so intelligently told, with such complexity and confidence? The characters are three dimensional, beautifully brought to life and I actually care about them.

Sigh. My story looks pastel coloured and simple in contrast with the vibrancy and life of this novel. I am consumed by the story; I want to know what happens next. I've found myself tucking this book in my bag in case I have a chance to read a few pages waiting for the children outside school, rather than checking Facebook on my phone, or browsing pictures on Pinterest. It's like the old days!

With novel no 1, the poor editing pushed me right out of the story, even before the poor story did that too. I was too aware of the quotation marks that opened and never closed, the missing question marks, the misspellings, to get caught up in the story.

Some books have the same effect for a different reason - if the author tries to be too clever with the writing, using words that are too unwieldy or too high-brow, then I find myself pushed out of the world she's trying to draw me into. It can be too self-consciously intellectual.

This novel is neither of those things.

The writing is intelligent and the plot satisfyingly multi-layered, and the author does me the courtesy of assuming that I am capable of coming along for the ride without patronising me or trying to impress.

She tells a story, and tells it well. Isn't that exactly what you want from a novel?

I so want to write a book as good as this. I have no idea whatsoever whether I'm capable of it, though I rather doubt it at the moment. It just seems so hard. I know that everyone has a different voice, and I am (for the most part) content with mine, but now and again I read something that is just so good that it brings a wry smile and I wonder if there's any space for beginners at this game.

I should say that the novel I'm talking about was this lady's debut novel.


I would go so far as to say that I'd rather not write a book at all than write a bad one. Or even a mediocre one.

Someone asked me whether, given the choice, I would rather write a Booker Prize winner, or a bestseller (I can't have both). Of course I'd like to make a fortune from my writing. I'd like to know that someone will publish my books without the awful angst that I might be putting in all these hours and all this soul-searching for nothing but rejection slips. But a bestseller for the sake of being a bestseller? Only if it's GOOD.

The Booker Prize? In my experience those books are so intellectual and high-brow that research has been done on whether anyone actually reads them. As the owner of several Booker Prize winning novels I can attest that I have on occasion reached a point several hundred pages in and still decided that life was too short  and given up.

So, I'd like to write a book that will be read by people, and enjoyed.  That the reviewers like, and that my former English teacher likes. I would like to impress her; this hasn't changed in the last thirty years.

I want it to be a grown up novel that makes people think, but not so much that it's too heavy to read on a sun-lounger on holiday where a person has gone to relax and be entertained. Something that people put a bookmark in and anticipate getting back to. Something that makes an early night with a cuppa something to look forward to.

Can I do that? Is it possible?

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Nocturnal scufflings

I'm feeling sleepy today.

Lots of things going on in life at the moment; my eldest daughter, a talented swimmer, has been moved up to the next squad at the swimming club and has started training a couple of days a week at 5.30am. Five-thirty-in-the-morning, in other words, and so requires her chariot to be available at about five fifteen and her alarm clock, breakfast-provider, chauffeur and cheerleader to be ready for duty at 5am. This has had knock-on effects on the rest of my life.

Sleepiness. I think this may be the year where I am forced to learn how to push on despite wanting my bed with a longing previously unknown to mankind.

So, here I am taptaptapping with strong coffee.

There's another reason that sleep is at a premium at the moment, and it's rather wonderful. I'm finding that as I settle down to sleep at night, my brain kicks in. While this has never been a positive before, I'm finding that as I let go of rational thought, so to speak, ideas are occurring to me. Little scenes, snatches of dialogue, quirky things to weave into my plot; they're coming to me in the drowsing stages of sleep.

I'm not sure how keen my husband is on this new development, as I am given to sudden lunges for the bedside lamp and then a series of scufflings and rustlings as I find the page in my bedside notebook and scramble for a pen that works (I once wrote down a long and involved dream that somehow seemed vitally important only to find in the morning that the pen I used had no ink in it). No sooner do I empty my brain onto paper and switch out the light than it happens all over again.

So this routine can happen several times in a night until some sleep hormone takes over and washes like a tide over the creative centre in my drowsy brain, sweeping all ideas before it.

This sometimes works in reverse, as well. This is not so good.

The other night I woke up abruptly in the small hours suddenly alarmed that there was a large and ominous plot hole in my book and unless I could find a way to fill it and smooth it over the whole premise of the novel was rendered useless. With this revelation came a rush of adrenalin which meant it was a good half an hour before I started to feel sleepy again, and so for that time I lay there in the wreckage of my embryonic novel trying to work out how to plug the gap.

When I woke up in the morning I realised it was quite straightforward, and a word of explanation early in the story meant it was all alright.

Some night-time moments of inspiration are to be heeded and others are to be disregarded. Unfortunately there's no way to tell which is which until morning comes.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Swimming through treacle

You know what I'm finding hard with regard to writing this novel?

Most things, really. Nothing about it is very easy.

Specifically, I'm finding it hard to sort out the structure. The way the story hangs - how to tell it. How to entwine backstory and the present day, and how to weave together the main character and the supporting cast. I am very aware that I'm probably making untold mistakes in my language, my baggy dialogue and flowery description and scene-setting, but worries about such things come much later. At the moment, I need a framework. I need to order the degrees on my protractor, so to speak.

It isn't easy.

Not that I'm complaining, you understand. I can't think of anything else I want to do, which makes the days when it feels like swimming through treacle a lot easier to manage. I can take myself off to read a novel written by someone else free of any guilt by telling myself that I want to learn how they did it; how it should be done.

It doesn't help that much. Nobody seems to be telling a story like mine. This conclusion strikes me as three things:

1. Tremendously arrogant. Surely there is nothing new under the sun. There must be many stories like mine out there, it's just that I haven't found them. I am clearly not sufficiently widely read and therefore ill-equipped to attempt to create a novel of my own.

2. Very dangerous. If nobody has written a story like mine, then a publisher isn't going to have anything to compare it with, and it's hard to discern what sort of genre it might belong to. Maybe it has indeed been done before, and nobody particularly wanted to read it?

3. A bit encouraging. Maybe I have something new to say? Perhaps there's something original about it after all?

I find that I am thinking about my story so much and so often, regularly waking in the night to write down an idea for scene or a bit of dialogue, that it all seems a bit hackneyed by now. I can no longer tell whether it's even original, let alone unusual or attention-grabbing. I am so familiar with my ideas that I don't know if it's any good at all. I thought I had a good idea, but then sometimes I'm not so sure.

Well, that's one thing I'm finding difficult.  Just one.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The master of procrastination

When I was a student facing exams, I used to make detailed revision plans that were mini works of art. Different colours, fonts, tick-boxes and so on. These were time-consuming and quite often I didn't get done anywhere near the revision that I'd intended when I made my ambitious revision timetable.

Subconsciously, maybe that was the point. Or possibly not even subconsciously.

I am a master of procrastination. I don't think that there's anyone as good at it as me.

And here I am again with a big project and I am finding endless things in the way. One of the biggest and most difficult to solve at the moment is where I should set up my computer and my pile of notebooks and sit to write.

The kitchen island unit - long my writing home, but it's a stool at a kitchen counter, and although its close proximity to the fridge and biscuit cupboard are in its favour as a venue, the stool has no back and I slouch dramatically, which causes my back to ache, and my feet are off the floor, which makes them hurt too. Moan moan.

The kitchen table - my current location. Pros include the size of it; there's room to spread out papers, there's a radiator right next to me and clothes airer behind, so I'm nice and cosy, and the kettle isn't far away. Cons: the chair is hard and the wrong height and again, I have such bad posture that my neck permanently aches. Also, the table is where we eat most of the time, and so everything needs to be cleared away for meals.

The dining-room table - works pretty well in summer, but in winter it gets a bit parky in there. There's a big table, great for lots of paperwork, but it's also the room where my daughters practice their musical instruments so there's a keyboard at one end, a cello at the other, and piles of music everywhere else. So, if I decide to set up in there, I usually find myself musically accompanied, which is nice on one level, but not conducive to thinking. We tend to eat in there at the weekends when there are more of us, so clearing away is necessary once a week. Better than the kitchen, maybe.

The sitting room/bedroom - both great for slouching and snuggling but not really what I'm looking for if I mean business longer than a blog post.

The office - where my husband sits with all his computers when he works from home like a spider in the middle of his hi-tech web. The ideal place for another desk - and indeed, before the children came along I had my own space and it was lovely. I had all my things around me; pen pots, inspiring pictures, books and drawers full of all the bits that make me feel professional. Alas, the office is full of things now like filing cabinets and sofa beds and piles of things with no other home that have been stowed away in there. No room for my old desk, which is in pieces in the loft, or the nice swivelly chair that languishes with it. Also, I think my husband is possibly one of the most untidy people in the entire world, and I'd struggle to spare a space with all his clutter.

So I am nomadic. I move around with my computer to the room with the nicest light, destined never to find a comfortable home. Ah, woe is me. This book will never get written. Circumstances are conspiring against me!

You see what I'm up against?

Maybe I ought to start exploring coffee shops and write in there with a latte and a toasted teacake. Or tidy more, or put the heating on in the dining room, or sit up a bit straighter.

And just get on with it.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Notebooks and Book books

I am a great fan of notebooks.

The ideal notebook is spiral bound, with enough room to slide a pen down in the spiral, hardback covers, narrow lined, with generous margins and preferably an elastic thingy that means that it stays shut in your handbag. Little flaps for saving notes or photographs is nice to have, but the icing on the cake is when the pages have an inspiring quotation or inscription. This makes it a Very Nice Notebook, but also increases the pressure to make sure that anything I write in it is worthy of its inclusion.

I have several notebooks on the go at any one time - journals, ideas books, handy pads to scribble down To Dos or shopping lists, and now, my Book book.

My Book book is a notebook with roses on the front, which is sort of appropriate given the subject matter of my novel and the fact that roses feature significantly in it. My youngest daughter stuck a sticker on it, which says, 'Excellent', which sounds good to me.

I so want this book to be good. Just getting it finished isn't anywhere near enough for me; I think I would genuinely rather not write one at all than write a bad book. I want it to be worthy of it's 'excellent' sticker.

I've written down every idea I've had with regard to this project in my Book book and regularly transfer all the jottings on the subject from other notebooks that were closer to hand than this one when inspiration struck. I then put them on the computer when I'm working on the scene in which they belong.

There are ideas for scenes, connections that I made while driving, in the shower, reading to the kids or just about to drop off to sleep. Even the odd scrap of dialogue or nugget of information to remember about a character. They're all jumbled up in the Book book, waiting to be scooped up and used appropriately when the story is told in full.

Sometimes it's easier to write things on a page with a pen than it is to taptaptap it out on a keyboard. I'm sure that if I'd had an efficient online filing system and started with all my ideas in virtual folders etc, they would be close at hand for transfer into the story when I wanted them instead of having to transcribe them from my scrawl, but my computer skills are basic to say the least, and my filing system non-existent. There are so many documents on this computer that are lost forever unless someone retrieves them for me.

Hence the notebook. My notes for the book. It's almost full, so it must be time to start turning ideas into scenes and chapters.

It's exciting. I am just loving this.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Chippers and builders, planners and pantsers

I know that there are as many ways to write a book as there are authors - it stands to reason that everyone goes about it in a different way, but I've also heard that largely speaking (enormous generalisation here) there are two main techniques to writing: the planner, and the fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants-er. I've heard this second category of writer referred to as a 'pantser'.

I am definitely not a pantser.

I don't know why I thought I might be, to be honest, since in every other area of my life I am a careful planner who requires advance warning of everything, who struggles to adapt to change and who loves routine and familiarity. I don't do surprises very well, and so clearly I am unlikely to be one of the writers who sits down one day with a vague idea of how to start a novel, and just starts writing, with no idea where the story might take them.

Goes with the flow, so to speak.

Nope. I have my 'protractor' idea and I am breaking my detailed synopsis down into chapters and scenes and attempting to make myself a plan for writing the scenes that I haven't got yet.

Another interesting way of describing the work of an author is to decide how you create your work in terms of sculpting a masterpiece: whether you start with nothing and slowly add pieces until your sculpture is complete, (a builder) or whether you start with a huge shapeless lump of stone and slowly chip away at it until the shape within is revealed, (a chipper).

Michaelangelo did this with the famous statue, 'David'. David was buried inside a block of marble until a master-craftsman found him in there and released him with a chisel, leaving all the unnecessary stone-chips on the floor around him.

I always thought I'd be a lump of stone-type writer. I am notoriously wordy and find that my writing needs a lot of editing down to get rid of all the bits that I don't need. When I was writing my dissertation at university I found myself with nearly double the word count and had to go through it again pruning off the excess. My dissertation slowly got smaller and smaller.

So, this is how I imagine myself as a writer.

However, sitting here writing this (and surfing pictures of statues and sculptures) to put off actually doing any proper writing on the project in hand, I find myself wondering whether it's possible to be a planner and a chipper at the same time?

Maybe with my detailed plan, my scene-by-scene guide, I am a builder after all? Or maybe a builder who will later turn into a chipper because she's created something vast and unwieldy?

Or maybe it doesn't matter even remotely and I should get on and put some words down and see what happens?

That sounds a little bit pantsy to me.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Gazing at the mountain

The more I think about writing a book, the more enormous and impossible it seems. I feel a bit overwhelmed.

A book! A novel, 80,000 words or thereabouts, with characters who need to become real. A story where present day and back-story are interwoven, where plot is gradually revealed, shown, not told, and characters say things and do things,  make mistakes and develop. A living thing, three-dimensional, with the power to lure readers in and prevent them from leaving. To immerse them in the story and make them laugh, or cry, or gasp, or want just one more chapter before sleep.

I want it to be good.

Can I do that?  Really?

It seems so huge. Like a vast, towering mountain, so high that the air is thin at the top. I'm just trekking in towards Base Camp and already feeling horribly ill-equipped to scale the thing in front of me. I have crampons and ropes and those little clippy gadgets that dangle from climbers' belts but I don't have the first idea how to use them.

It seems so intimidatingly big. There's going to be a lot of looking at this mountain and trying to find out all I can about it before I pull on my boots and put one foot in front of the other. I don't even know which direction to set out in.

Where do I start?

Well, I'm setting up camp at the bottom of this mountain and I'm realising that I won't get to the top in one go. It's too far, and too tricky. I need to break this task down into smaller ones, and then subdivide the smaller tasks into even littler ones. That's the way to do it. Make it less overwhelming, by having smaller, attainable goals. Camp One, Camp Two....

Kind of like a protractor, with the degrees marked off one by one, in fives and tens and so on. Nought to 180 (or 360?) in a series of tiny sections. A mountain marked off in degrees.

I can't begin to get my head around a project of this size. I can't just sit down and start writing (though I know that some people do just that). I have so much going on with other stuff; family and other commitments, that I don't have that much time for writing. I'm going to need to be fairly disciplined and structured in the way I do it because I don't have the flexibility to 'go with the flow' and write as inspiration takes me; rather I'm going to find myself with the odd hour and I'll have to learn to use it as efficiently as I can.

I need to find a way to break the huge task down into smaller chunks. If I can do that, then writing it in pieces might work. If I get to know my story well enough, I hope to be able to sit down on a free morning and know that my plan for that session is to get the plot from there. This is the scene where such-and-such happens. Write that scene.

From one mark on the protractor to the next.

This is my theory. I'm used to writing short blog posts, and so small pieces are familiar territory to me. 100,000 words of structured novel is totally beyond me; I have to find a way to make it manageable.

Bit by bit.  Step by step. The longest journey starts with a single step...

That must be how mountains are climbed.

Image by cohdra (cohdra_100_2045.JPG) courtesy of 
Used with permission.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

I am writing a book. Yes, me.

I'm going to write a book.

I think it's taken me several years to work up the courage to say that, and I haven't actually worked up the courage properly just yet because this blog is unlikely to be read by anyone, as I have no intention of promoting it anywhere. This is called 'security by obscurity', apparently.

Even if it's a whisper in the dark, however, I'm saying it. I'm going to write a book. Me. Yep.

I have no idea why it's so difficult to say that I'm a writer. It somehow seems arrogant to me to make such a claim, and risks someone reading the stuff I write and rejecting it as not good enough. What I write comes from the deepest and most vulnerable part of me and for someone to laugh and say, 'You think you're a writer? What makes you think you can write a book?' makes me cringe with self consciousness.

Of course, saying 'I am a writer' also begs the response, 'Have you had anything published?' And then, of course, apart from my own little orange Blogger 'Publish' button, no, nothing published. I have yet to be validated by someone who holds the keys to a publishing contract.

This works differently if you're an artist, it seems to me. If you paint, you're an artist. Just because you don't have work in a gallery doesn't mean you're not. Likewise, a musician is a musician even without a recording contract, but somehow people apply the rules differently if you write.

So I'm breaking the rules (an uncomfortable thing for me, a very law-abiding soul) and not only am I claiming that I am a writer, I am stating that I am writing a book. And books are big.

I'm aiming for 80,000 - 100,000 words, and I want them to be well-chosen, and fit together to make something good. I had an idea for a novel several years ago and events in the last few months have inspired me to find the idea, dust it off and look at it again. The idea grew and grew and linked up with some other ideas and I started to write them down.

I've got all I need. I have a faithful little laptop, a plethora of notebooks and a couple of good pens, if the children don't disappear with them. My 'E' key is a little worn, and I suspect it might disappear completely if I get this whole thing written, but that's ok. Only Real Writers have worn vowels.                          

I'm writing a book. I am so excited and I'm finding it hard to think about anything else. I feel alive and expectant and full of anticipation and hope. I know that it won't be plain sailing and there'll be times when I feel like giving up, but for now, I feel positive.

I'm going to do this.

Who knows what might happen?