Archive for August, 2009

I never understood why Chloe wanted to join the Girl Guides. She came home every Tuesday evening looking miserable, and she never went on any of the outings or brought friends home. She did, however, enjoy earning the badges. The first one she got was for needlework. I’ve always insisted she mended her own clothes, so she’s very neat and quick with a needle and thread. She put that skill to good use over the next year, sewing badge after badge onto her blue uniform. For cookery, she planned and catered a dinner party, and invited the Lord Mayor to join the Guide leader and the rest of her patrol. He came, as well, with his chain round his neck. She didn’t invite me. I wouldn’t have been able to go anyway, I had a flower-arranging class.

When she’d just turned twelve, the local fire brigade offered to help the girls get their firefighting badges. I’ve never seen her so excited. She said it was the last one she needed for some sort of award. She read all the books about fire that she could find, and wrote long lists of questions for the firemen who came every week to give talks and demonstrations. If her dad had been alive he would have encouraged her, but I’ve never really known how to deal with her odd behaviour.

One Tuesday I saw her going out after tea wearing jeans and t-shirt. I asked why she wasn’t wearing her uniform.

‘We’re going to the fire station today for the final test. I told you about it last week,’ she said.

Later that evening, as I was making my cocoa, I realised she should have been home at least an hour earlier. I initially assumed the tests had taken longer than expected, but by the time I put my empty mug on the draining board I was beginning to get annoyed with her. I didn’t mind her staying out, I generally let her please herself, but she should have let me know.

As if she’d heard my thoughts, the phone rang. It wasn’t Chloe’s voice at the other end of the line though.

‘Hello, Mrs Hunter?’

‘That’s right. Who is this, please?’

‘I’m Nurse Beckett, from the Children’s Ward at Northampton General Hospital. We’ve got your daughter Chloe here.’

For a split second my irritation intensified, then I’m not quite sure what happened. I heard the nurse say, ‘Mrs Hunter? Are you still there?’ as I put the phone down and went into the kitchen to wash up. I’d only just filled the bowl and pulled on my rubber gloves when the phone rang again, so I ignored it. I didn’t want to waste the hot water.

I’d nearly finished drying the pots when there was a loud hammering at the front door. I put the last plate away and went into the hall, unsure whether to answer the door at that time of night. I could see the end of a fingertip holding the letterbox open.

‘Mrs Hunter, are you all right?’ The voice was male, and too loud. ‘I’m PC Ledger. The hospital called the station and asked us to check up on you. Said you’d just had some bad news?’

What was wrong with me? I had a policeman kneeling at the front door, and Chloe was in hospital. And I’d just finished the washing up.

I opened the door. PC Ledger appeared to be about three years older than Chloe. He rose to his feet. ‘I’ve got a car out front, would you like me to take you up to the hospital?’

There are times in one’s life when one has to suffer indignities for the sake of one’s child. Climbing into a police car in full view of several pairs of eyes peeking from neighbouring windows was certainly one of those times. Thankfully the constable didn’t switch on the sirens or lights, or screech his tyres as we left.

He did drive very quickly though. It only took five minutes to get there. I apologised for troubling him as I got out of the car. He awkwardly reached out and touched my arm, and said, ‘I’m sure your daughter will be OK, Mrs Hunter.’ How did he know?

A porter pointed me in the direction of the Children’s Ward, and I was met at the double doors by a brisk woman who introduced herself as Nurse Beckett.

‘Chloe’s sleeping now. She’s had a nasty scare, but she’s going to be OK. We’re just keeping her in for observation.’

‘What happened? Is she badly hurt?’

‘Oh no, she just got very cold and shaken up, a few bruises, nothing worse than that. We had to warm her up a bit, that’s why we want to keep an eye on her.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ Couldn’t the woman get to the point?

‘I’m sorry, I thought you’d been told…’

‘Of course I haven’t, who would have told me?’

‘I’m sorry…’

‘Just tell me what happened, for pity’s sake.’

‘According to the Guide leader, some of the other girls dared her to climb on top of a fire engine, and then one of them nipped to the phone box and reported a huge fire. Chloe managed to wedge herself in and hang onto the ladder, but she was still thrown around, and the wind froze her stiff, the poor mite.’

I started walking down the ward. Nurse Beckett darted alongside me, tiptoeing like a nervous burglar. I couldn’t see Chloe, until the nurse took my elbow and steered me towards a bed I’d overlooked on first glance. Her tiny pale face, as white as the pillowcase it was resting on, was that of a girl half her age. At the same time, it was the face of her father lying motionless on the pier at Southend.

‘Tell her I’ll bring some clothes in the morning. No point staying if she’s asleep.’

I turned and walked away.

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KREATIV_BLOGGER_AWARD_thumbWhat can I say? The lovely Laura Eno at A Shift in Dimensions has given me a Kreativ Blogger award! I am overcome with very British embarrassment!

As a recipient of this award, I am required to pass it on to seven deserving blogs and list seven favourites.

And the award goes to…

The difficult bit about selecting blogs is keeping it down to seven, there are some great writers out there. But here goes (in no particular order):

Jeff Posey’s Anasazi Stories (absolutely fascinating stories of a lost culture)

Tomara Armstrong’s This, That… The Other Thing (some fantastic writing here)

Adrian Reynolds’s youdothatvoodoo (in-depth reviews of films and tons of useful tips on storytelling and screenwriting)

Fran Hill’s Being Miss (so funny, so so funny, so so so funny!)

Dan Powell’s ‘Dan Powell Fiction’ blog (superb writing and incisive critiques)

Daine Salmon’s Unlikely Eden (an ongoing post-apocalyptic story which keeps me coming back for more)

Jodi Cleghorn’s Writing in Black and White (discovered through her critiques and comments on Fourth Fiction, she writes fabulous stuff)

Congratulations to all of you, please pass the award on to seven of your favourite bloggers and list seven favourites on your blog. This is a great way to find new things to read out there on the jolly old internet. I suspect I won’t get much writing done today.

Seven Favourites

I struggled with this one. it was OK when I thought it was seven favourite mystery authors, that’s a defined category. Then I followed the award trail back and discovered it’s seven favourite anythings. Oh god. Too much to choose from. So I wandered round the house, then I sat here and thought for a while, then I nagged the kids to do their chores, then I read my email…

…then I had a brainwave.

Here are my seven favourite ways to procrastinate!

  • Social networking. Email, Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader… there’s always someone sending me status updates about their prowess on Farmville, or tweets about cricket, or emails about extensions to parts of my anatomy that I don’t have.
  • Tidying my bedroom (which is where I write). Unfortunately I’m much better at untidying it than tidying it, so this is always a task that ‘needs’ doing.
  • Updating my competitions list. I do sometimes think if I spent more time writing stories and poems to enter into these competitions I might stand more of a chance of winning.
  • Cleaning the toilets. Yes, there are times when I find myself wielding a bottle of bleach and I just don’t know how I got there.
  • Playing with Excel. My novel progress tracking spreadsheet now has so many bells and whistles, I should probably take out a patent.
  • Talking to the kids. They’re teenage boys, the last thing they want to do is talk to their mother. But it’s good to interact with them, right? Show them I care?
  • Having a power-nap. You know when you can barely keep your eyes open, and 20 minutes sleep is just what you need? Shame I usually sleep right through my alarm, and a power-nap turns into a full two-hour siesta.
  • Staring out of the window. Considering all I can see is the sky, the roof of next door’s house and their TV aerial, plus a small part of my guttering, there’s an awful lot to keep me entertained.

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Chloe again, again…

And she’s back. The questions she chose to tackle yesterday were the easy ones. I had to talk her into returning to answer the rest. It’s wonderful what the promise of wine and chocolate will do!

You have something in a drawer that you have told no one about. What is it? Why have you kept it secret? Why haven’t you thrown it away?
Yellow BlanketIt’s a yellow blanket, one of those baby blankets with holes in. I was wrapped in it when my real mum and dad crashed the car. My mum gave it to me when I left home. One of the paramedics at the scene wrote down my real mum’s last words, and that piece of paper is wrapped up in the blanket. It’s like a nursery rhyme, but not one I’ve ever heard before, and I don’t understand it:

Rocking to, rocking fro,
The balance must be kept.
In the wood the stone will grow,
That centuries has slept.

I’ve kept it secret because it sounds a bit mad, to be honest. I never really knew anyone I wanted to tell it to. But it’s the only link I have with my parents, so I couldn’t throw it away.

Is your desire to search for info on your birth family getting stronger?
Not particularly. Well, that’s almost a lie. I want to know where I came from, for some reason the place is more important than the people. I’m not bothered about having a sense of family, because I’ve never had that and I’m not sure I could cope with suddenly having lots of relatives. But I would like somewhere to call home. I have this strange feeling that my home is calling to me, and that home isn’t Northampton (where I grew up), Nottingham (where I was at uni) and certainly not London, where I live now.

Are you going to explore the hidden meanings behind your draw to the countryside? After all, you are trained in psychology.
Yes. See above. I have a very strong feeling that my real home, where I was born, is somewhere in the English countryside. Or it could be Wales, or maybe Scotland at a stretch, but I don’t think it’s that far away. I have no explanation for this feeling, all the psychology degree gives me is the ‘knowledge’ that it’s irrational! Doesn’t stop me believing it though. If there’s a God, he’s certainly trying to steer me somewhere.

In the 10 years that have passed, do you see yet that it’s not about how pretty you are?
I guess you mean what I said about John going for the prettiest girls? Well, I always did see that, but I didn’t feel it. I’m not sure I do even now. John can make my heart do somersaults just by smiling at me, and a big part of that is that he chose me rather than any of the others. And I still don’t know why. So sort of yes and no – it isn’t about how pretty I am, but I don’t know what it is about. Does that make sense?

In your fantasies who are you?
Someone who can fly a long way. I can imagine nothing more magical than just taking off and following the sun, or the moon, or the stars.

Have you no ambitions in life?
That’s a really difficult question! See my answer to the next question, and probably tone it down a bit for what my true ambitions are.

What would you do if you won the lottery, would anything major change in your aspirations, or would it just be fun to spend it, and you’d end back up in the same old rut?
I can’t spent money just for fun, so I definitely wouldn’t fritter it away. There are two things that would change, for sure. I’d give up work, and I’d buy a house in the country. I never really liked any of my jobs, they’ve always been a means to an end. Dad left me a bit of money, enough to put down a 50% deposit on the flat, which helps. We still can’t live on John’s salary alone though, not the rate he spends money. So yes, the first thing I would do is leave work. And a house in the country, that’s always been my dream. When I was a little girl it was a magical house with a stable and a pair of horses for me and my handsome prince. When I was at uni it was a rock star pad, with a swimming pool and a stage. Now I’m not fussy really, just as long as it’s warm and dry, big enough for me and maybe a couple of dogs, and miles and miles away from any built-up areas.

Yes, what would you do if you had enough money to quit work? Would you look at John differently? Would you leave him?
I think it would depend on him. If he wanted to come and live in the country with me, that would be fine. But if he didn’t, I don’t know what I’d do. I hope I never have to choose.

Why do you think you’re so insecure?
What’s behind all that guilt?
Does being doormatic feed your guilt and give you what you deserve?
Are you an honest victim?
All these questions are really difficult for me to answer. I don’t actually know the answers, to be honest. I didn’t think I was particularly insecure or guilty, and I don’t really think of myself as a victim. I don’t stand up for myself as much as I should, I know that. I am trying to do something about it, and so far I’m doing pretty well, I think. At work, anyway. Doreen keeps trying to persuade me to stand up to John as well, but I reckon I’ll tackle one thing at a time. As for getting what I deserve, doesn’t everyone? Yes, John has hit me once or twice, but it was always when I was winding him up, so it doesn’t count as abuse or anything like that.

I haven’t got any questions at this point, but do have a suggestion for a hobby: she flies a glider.
Now that I agree with wholeheartedly. I shall book myself some lessons. I’d better not tell John though, he’d re-mortgage the flat to buy his own bloody glider!

So, that’s about it. If you have any further questions, I’d be happy to try and answer them for you (especially as the Old Bat is bribing me with yummy things). Otherwise, hopefully it won’t be too long before you can buy the book and read about the strange and wonderful things that happen to me!

And Finally…

Old Bat here again, just to play you out. Thank you so much to Chloe for taking the time to let us into her world and helping me to understand what makes her tick. I don’t think she’d be one of my bessie mates, but I’d certainly be up for going down the pub with her, or a long walk in the country.

And thank you even more to you guys who helped me by asking questions that I had to dig deep into the mystery that is Chloe to answer. It’s been a fascinating exercise, and I feel a whole lot happier about my plan to spend a lot of the next six months with her. Julian, Laura, Steph, Fran and Adrian, you’re all stars! and if the novel ever gets published you’ll definitely get signed copies and a mention in the acknowledgements!

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Chloe again…

She’s finally surfaced and is going to answer your questions. She was sulking with a hangover yesterday, too much introspection and Chardonnay the night before, if you ask me. So, Chloe, it’s over to you. Take as many posts as you want, don’t rush.

Thanks, Old Bat. I didn’t know your friends were such a nosey crowd, or I wouldn’t have let you talk me into this! I’ll start with the easy ones and work my way up (of course, you can draw whatever conclusions you like from the order I tackle the questions in).

How many pairs of shoes do you own?

My favourite trainers

My favourite trainers

Nine. Three smart pairs for work (blue, grey and black, to go with the rest of my capsule wardrobe). Two pairs of Nike trainers which I wear most of the time outside work (I always buy black ones, and when my best pair is getting shabby I buy a new pair and donate the older pair to Oxfam). Strappy red sandals, black flat shoes, and gold stilettos (for going out). A pair of expensive walking boots (essential to keep feet dry and blister-free on long hikes).

What’s a typical Saturday for you?
Chances are John will be out with his mates, playing with the latest boy toys. Last month a couple of them bought speedboats, and they race them on the Thames. So I can do pretty much as I please. I get up early and do the Waitrose shopping before it gets busy (I’m not a morning person, but Waitrose is awful at the weekend, and I get really bad trolley rage). If John’s up when I get back we’ll have a coffee together and read the Telegraph. When he goes out I write a letter to the editor – I do that most weeks. Usually about green issues and the impact of people on our environment. I feel very strongly about that. I actually got one published once. Then I’ll go out, post the letter, and most Saturdays I join Doreen for lunch at a tiny Caribbean cafe she discovered ages ago. Their jerk chicken is the best I’ve ever had. We’ll talk about her grandchildren, who are always getting into ridiculous scrapes (I thought it was only in the Beano that kids got saucepans stuck on their heads), she’ll try to persuade me to leave John, then I’ll steer the conversation back to small children. In the afternoon I might visit a garden centre, just to see the plants I’d choose if I had a garden. And in the evening, if John’s out I’ll drink Chardonnay in front of the TV, if he’s around we might go to the pictures.

Do you have any internet friends? Are you on facebook/twitter?
I don’t do the social networking thing, I’m not even quite sure what twitter is. Sounds a bit pervy, everyone following everyone else. I think I have a facebook account, but I haven’t logged into it for a while. I’m signed up for quite a few internet newsletters, like the Rainforest Alliance and the WWF. My mum discovered email last year and she’s always sending me messages, nothing interesting most of the time but she gets upset if I don’t reply. Denise emails once or twice a week, telling me about her wonderful life as a wife and mother. She’s so different from when we were at school, smoking in the toilets and dancing in our bedrooms to Curiosity Killed The Cat (two shameful secrets for the price of one there!). Apart from that, a few ex-colleagues and ex-school/uni friends stay in touch but nothing significant.

As I thought...

As I thought...

How would you score if you took ‘How evil are you?’
I’d be a kitten… hang on…
Oi! Old Bat!
Can I borrow your Facebook?
Go on then, but get on with answering those questions.
Right… yep, a kitten.

When did you last dream about how you’d kill John?
I’ve never dreamed or thought about killing him. But now you’ve put the idea in my head… LOL, not really! Sometimes I think it’d be fun to destroy his current favourite toy though. Back in January it would have been the Ducatti that’s now under a tarpaulin in his mate’s garage. Now it’s the speedboat, but that’s only half his.

Are you into politics or religion, and if not, why not?
I’d be interested in politics if we had an effective Green movement in the UK. I did go on the Countryside Alliance march, not because I agree with fox-hunting, but because I don’t think people like me who live in towns and cities should dictate how things work in the countryside. As for religion, I do go to church most Sundays and I guess I do believe in a higher being of some sort. This is a secret I haven’t told anyone, but when I’m gardening at Mum’s or out walking in the countryside I sometimes hear a voice that’s somehow bigger than any human being. I’m not sure what it’s saying, it sounds like it comes from a long way away. And no-one else can hear it. If that’s not God, who is it?

I think that’s enough for now. I’ll come back tomorrow and answer the rest of your questions, but right now I need to lie down in a darkened room.

Thanks, Chloe. This is much appreciated, it helps me understand you a whole lot better.

And many thanks to Julian, Laura, Steph, Fran and Adrian too, we couldn’t do this without you!

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Dad held one of my hands and Mum held the other. Every so often Dad would say, ‘One, two, three…’ and on three they would swing me high into the air. I thought they’d pull my arms off but I didn’t care, it was so funny to watch my feet flying up in front of my face. I was wearing my best shoes, they were brand new and if I looked closely I could see glimpses of Mum and Dad reflected in the red leather. One time I saw Dad grinning in one shoe and Mum frowning in the other. I laughed so much I scared a seagull away from a bag of chips, and Dad had to thump me on my back to make me breathe properly again.

Past the big building at the end of the pier, we found a row of men fishing. The railings around the edge had balls sticking up on top of the upright rails, and the fishermen were all spaced out, each one between two of the balls, like a row of shadows on the sky. I ran to see if any of them had caught anything. I love to see the fish wriggle on the ends of the lines, they look like they’re catching little bits of the sun.

I wasn’t tall enough to lean on the top railing, like my Mum and Dad, so I leaned on the bottom one. That was level with my tummy, so I could lean over and watch the fishing lines diving deep into the water. I couldn’t see much of them, I think maybe the sea was trying to hide them to help the fishermen catch the fish.

Suddenly, one of the rods dipped at the end, and its line started to swim away from the pier, trying to pull the fisherman into the sea. He was too strong though, he leaned backwards and heaved and heaved. The reel clicked as it span, his breath was loud through his nose, birds screeched and flew low over the water. All the other fishermen were shouting, ‘You’ve got a big one there,’ and, ‘Come on Jim, land her quick now.’ My feet wouldn’t keep still inside my red shoes, it was so exciting. Even Mum was pointing and laughing.

It took ages for the fisherman to win the battle. I thought the fish must be so big it might be able to catch the whole sun as it rose up on the end of the line. I leaned out as far as I could so I wouldn’t miss it. Then, just as it started to rise, twisting and turning, from the waves, I fell in.

The water was hard, and then it was all around me, and it was cold. It rushed into my nose and eyes and ears, and inside my dress and my shoes. I tried to scream and it filled my mouth as well, tasting like too much salt on my fish fingers. The sea was pulling at my dress, trying to take me down to the bottom where the lobsters live. I didn’t know how to stay afloat. My arms and legs were thrashing about, which helped a bit. My head came out into the air, and I breathed in and coughed and coughed before the water dragged me down again.

Then there was a big wave and a loud splash, and something caught hold of me and pulled me up. I didn’t understand to start with, but then I heard Dad’s voice saying, ‘Keep still now, Chloe, we’ll get you out of here.’ He wasn’t scared like I was, and after he’d said, ‘Keep still,’ a few times I understood. He pushed a big red and white ring over my head, which kept me on the surface.

‘You’ll be safe now,’ he said.

I looked at his big smiling face. His hair looked funny, stuck down to his head on one side and sticking up on the other, and he was wriggling his arms and legs to stay afloat. He was very white, and his smile wasn’t in his eyes.

I said. ‘Daddy, why are your lips going blue?’

‘Because it’s cold. Just hold on to that lifebelt, and look over there. The boat will come to pick us up, and you need to watch for it.’

I turned towards the shore. There were lots of people looking at us, so I waved, and they cheered. I couldn’t feel my hands and feet, and I was watching so hard for the boat my eyes hurt, so I closed them and just rocked in the waves. Then I heard an engine, and another one, and men shouting at me. They grabbed me and helped me climb onto one of the boats, and took me away from the pier. The other boat stayed to get Dad out of the water.

When I got off the boat, I had to go to an ambulance. A nice man in green clothes shone lights in my eyes and asked if I could breathe all right. He wrapped me in a blanket, even my feet, which were really cold because my shoes had come off and were at the bottom of the sea with the lobsters and the crabs.

The nice man took me outside to see Mum. He had his hand on my shoulder, helping me keep the blanket on. It was cold, even in the sunshine. Mum was standing still, with her back to me, watching someone lying on the ground being punched and kissed by some more men with green clothes.

One of the men came over and talked to my nice man, and his hand tightened on my shoulder so hard it hurt. I was scared all over again, so I pulled away and ran over to Mum.

‘Mum, what’s a heart attack?’

She didn’t answer.

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Interview my character

OK chaps, I need practice in putting on other people’s lives. It’s one of the prime mistakes for new writers, to make all their characters aspects of themselves, and it’s a mistake I’m certainly prone to. I often (not always, which is strange) find it difficult to imagine how a character feels, why they react the way they do, what their unique voice is… you get the picture.

At writers group on Monday we tried out the interviewing technique I learned about at Caerleon in the wonderful Sue Moorcroft’s ‘Become Your Character’ after-tea session. We each created a character (a burglar who has nightmares!), then took turns to interview each other. It was excellent fun, and we’ve come up with an ongoing project as a result – more on that in a later post.

I digress. The point is, I found it really hard to be Katie, the troubled teen from a broken home who robs houses for fun and is terrified of her dad’s new wife. Writing up a character sketch of Katie yesterday, I realised I was struggling really hard to take myself out of the equation. In some ways it was easier to write the sketch than to be interviewed in real time, as I’m not too good at thinking on my feet, but in other ways it allowed my own thoughts, feelings and reactions more time to get entangled with Katie’s.

Can you help?

I thought it might be fun to extend the exercise here, and encourage a bit of interaction… and beg for help! I’ve asked Chloe (the main character in my novel) to write a bit about herself, and I’d be eternally grateful if you could take on the job of interviewers, and ask her some really searching questions in the comments. No holds barred, anything goes. And then I’ll get Chloe to answer the questions in my next-but-one post (the next one will be #fridayflash, of course).

I’ve just read through what she’s written about herself, and I’m struggling to find any redeeming qualities, she seems like a bit of a wimp. I’m sure she must have some though. She’d better – I’ve got to spend a whole novel with her! I think she needs another hobby – anyone want to suggest something she could take up while her no-good husband is out with his mates?

Hi, I’m Chloe

Me on holiday last year, catching up on emails while John was paragliding

Me on holiday last year, catching up on emails while John was paragliding

My name is Chloe Hunter. I’m 33 years old, married with no children and no pets. I’ve been with John ever since we met at university. I couldn’t believe he wanted me, he was always surrounded by much prettier girls. He said they were all too sure of themselves, and he liked my insecurities. Anyway, after I got my psychology degree, I came down to London with John. He’d got a job in banking, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. My dad died when I was three, he left me enough money to put down a deposit on a flat. It made sense for me to take on the flat and the bills while John was getting his career going.

John by the sea

John by the sea

I trained as an occupational psychologist, and eventually I ended up in Human Resources at Hickman Carter (a property agency), which is about as inhuman as it sounds. It’s not about providing resources for people, it’s about treating people as resources. I don’t know how much longer I’ll stick it. John says I have to keep my job, we need both incomes to support our lifestyle. I guess he’s probably right, but I sometimes wonder if I want the parties and holidays and new cars that go with that lifestyle. Still, if it wasn’t for John’s friends, I probably wouldn’t talk to anyone outside work from one week to the next!

I miss the countryside, and go out of the city as often as I can. I don’t know why, I grew up in Northampton and have never lived in the country. I guess I had a happy enough childhood, apart from Dad dying. I don’t think Mum ever forgave me for that, but it wasn’t my fault, not really. We went to Southend on holiday. All I remember was the sand in my shoes and the sea going on for ever. I fell in the water, off the pier, and Dad jumped in to rescue me. He had a heart attack and drowned. I can’t see him in my mind any more but I still catch his smell sometimes, pipe tobacco and engine grease. He was always trying to fix our old Ford Capri. Mum sold it as soon as he died.

I don’t have any brothers or sisters. I was adopted. Mum never told me much about my real parents, except that they died in a car crash, in a stolen BMW, when I was only a few months old. I did think about trying to find out about them, but John says it’s not worth the hassle. They’re dead, so why bother?

I used to have lots of friends, but they’ve kind of drifted away over the last few years. I’m not very good at keeping in touch with people. A couple of them still send Christmas cards, and Denise phones every now and then. I don’t like talking to her much though, she keeps telling me I should leave John. He says she’s a jealous cow who doesn’t understand how much we love each other. She just remembers the time he got drunk and gave me a black eye, but she doesn’t listen when I tell her how sweet he was afterwards. I know he didn’t mean to hurt me.

Just about the only person I talk to much these days is Doreen, our team secretary. She’s persuaded me to stand up for myself a bit at work. She hates our boss as much as I do, but she’s not as good as me at hiding it. I’m very good at keeping my head down. I have to say, though, I quite enjoy saying what I think in meetings. The looks on their faces were priceless the other week when I told them their redundancies proposal was bonkers! Perhaps I should do it more often!

Isn't it beautiful?

Isn't it beautiful?

What are my hobbies? Well, like I said, I love going out into the countryside. I can walk for hours, rain or shine. I think one of the best weekends of my life was when John was at a conference and I got in my car and drove up to North Yorkshire, just on a whim, and walked and walked and walked. Apart from that, I keep the flat clean (my mother trained me well), watch TV (I have a guilty addiction for EastEnders and Casualty), and sometimes I try to write poetry. It never turns out right though.

So, what else do you want to know about me?

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hownottowriteI have to say, I thought I was the expert on this subject. I thought I’d made all the mistakes there are to make. But no, there are more! And Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman have kindly collected examples of 200 of them in this handy book.

The pun to end all puns

The sixth mistake is to ignore a principle that anyone who’s done a creative writing course is aware of – Chekhov’s Gun. An extract from the Wikipedia entry defines this as follows:

The name Chekhov’s gun comes from Anton Chekhov himself, who stated that any object introduced in a story must be used later on, else it ought not to feature in the first place. “One must not put a loaded gun on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

The example text in How Not To Write A Novel that demonstrate this starts:

Irina entered the nursery to ensure a fire would be roaring when her two beloved sisters arrived. Before bending to stir the coals, she plucked from her mouth the moist pink wad of gum she had been chewing since coming to Petersburg from the family’s country estate. The mantelpiece was bare, and Irina planted the large, wet bolus of gum firmly upon it.

and the Chekhov’s Gun principle is restated as:

if there is gum on the mantelpiece in the first chapter, it must go on something by the last chapter.

I felt I had to share that with you. For the first five mistakes I followed the authors with a ‘ho hum, I suppose I don’t really mind reading this.’ Then I reached this gem (or gum?) and laughed so much I had to grab for the Tena Lady. From then on I was hooked, and I wasn’t disappointed. In addition to several invaluable tips to help make my novel completely unpublishable, I laughed. A lot.

How it works

There are seven sections:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Style – the basics
  4. Style – perspective and voice
  5. The world of the bad novel
  6. Special effects and novelty acts
  7. How not to sell a novel

All but the last two are further divided into chapters. Each section and chapter starts with a summary of the contents, so if you feel reasonably confident you’re already making enough mistakes in that category you can quickly check you haven’t missed any. Then for each mistake, an example of how to make it is given, and an explanation of why it’s a mistake, in case you’re curious. Of course, you don’t need to read the explanation, but I find my mistakes have so much more depth if I know why I’m making them.

For instance:

Where specifics are lacking, the reader will unconsciously fill in any missing details with the minutiae of his own world. If you say that Galdor of Nebulon sat down to breakfast, and do not describe any of the elements of that breakfast, the reader who eats Froot Loops every morning will on some level understand Galdor to be doing the same.

I thought I was an expert on this particular mistake (allowing the reader to impose their own lives on the picture of a strange and wonderful world I’m painstakingly trying to fail to create), but this explains it so specifically and brilliantly I now feel able to trigger terminal confusion in my reader’s mind. For example, I can make him wonder why my heroine is cutting his toenails for him, or why the vampire rabbit is nibbling on his right ear. Hoorah!

Would I recommend this book?

A big bold yes. It may be frivolous at times, and there is unnecessary swearing in a few places, but it gives an excellent summary of common and not-so-common mistakes that novelists are prone to (even published novelists). So whether you want to avoid those mistakes or learn how to make them even better, spending a couple of hours reading this book is not a waste of your time.

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Yesterday I cleaned the kitchen sink fifteen times. Fifteen pairs of rubber gloves pushed fifteen dual-textured sponges over gleaming chrome surfaces.

The fifteenth time, I needed two blue pills before stripping the plastic sleeve from the gloves.

Can’t clean taps without water.

Can’t get water without touching taps.

Today, this paradox freezes me in place. Rubber gloves remain in their packages, an accusing pile on the draining board.

My husband arrives home, gives me a posy of golden flowers. He sees the unused gloves, says, ‘No cleaning today! Well done!’

The sink is filthy.

I am ashamed.

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(or at the risk of being politically incorrect, moron being a novelist – that’s what I feel like at the moment, floundering around and trying to make it work)

I’ve been through the flames of hell since my last post on this topic, which was apparently less than a month ago, although it feels like much longer.

I really thought I was on the right track, off and running, heading for the finish line. Then I went to Caerleon and discovered I was happily jogging across the grass towards the refreshment tent. And then I went to Lumb Bank, where I worked out vaguely which direction the track was in, and even managed to catch a glimpse of it every now and then.

On ignoring advice

Not a good idea, it turns out. Even though it’s often contradictory, a lot of it makes sense, and there are many points everyone agrees on. For instance, Jane Pollard pointed out in no uncertain terms that she didn’t like my main character. I knew the character, so I liked her, but on re-reading what I’d written, I could see Jane’s point. She came across as a totally miserable cow, and not at all likeable. So why would anyone want to read a whole book about her?

If I’d taken the trouble to read a book that’s been on my shelf for a year now – Writing a Novel and Getting Published for Dummies – I might have come across the following:

If your characters badger and lecture the reader, or annoying, tedious, disgusting, boring, or boorish, your reader isn’t going to want to continue reading about them unless you provide a very good reason.

and you never know, I might have taken that on board before writing 23,000 words about a miserable cow!

So part of my writing routine is now going to be spending an hour a day reading a Useful Tome. After all, Authors of Useful Tomes usually do it because they have some Useful Information to impart… and a whole lot more experience than I have.

A stitch in time saves nine

A Darning Mushroom

A Darning Mushroom

My plot had many holes. I blithely assumed they could be patched up as I wrote. Both Jane Pollard and Bill Broady pointed out that some of the holes were too fundamental, and I would be unable to avoid putting tension on critical threads as I wrote, thus enlarging the holes beyond the limits of patchability. So I dug out my grandmother’s old darning mushroom and got stitching.

Now I have a plot that is almost but not totally unlike the plot I started with. Many of the elements are still there, but some of them aren’t, and most of them are in different places. And I’m really pleased with it. It hangs together without any currently visible holes. I’m reasonably convinced that any loose threads that come to light will be repairable (and if they’re not, there’s always quantum flux – thanks Adrian!).

Give the characters a bit of character

I gleaned many tips and techniques from Caerleon to help me sort my characters out.

I’ve written a lot about their histories and relationships with each other, the reasons why they behave as they do, their secret fears and dreams and shames. I’ve constructed a timeline and identified additional relationships that I didn’t know existed – Billy was obviously one of Henry’s best friends, how could I not have seen that before? It explains his behaviour and gives me a whole new subplot to work with…

I’ve started to interview them (think Tony Hill in Wire in the Blood), which is an intense process and knackers me out, so I’m only doing one character every couple of days. It’s a wonderful technique to establish a voice for each character though. One thing I noticed about some of the writing I’d done was that several of the characters sounded indistinguishable… another technique that also helped with that problem was to put them in a room together and get them talking to each other. They soon developed their own voices.

And I’ve persuaded my main character that she needs to suck up to the reader. She’s not too keen, but I think that’s because there’s still too much of me in her.

Just F***ing Do It…

… but make sure you’re doing the right thing!

I stand by the JFDI piece of advice, with the qualification that there’s no point just f***ing doing stuff at random and hoping it’ll all turn out in the end. I think I’m back on track now, but I need to keep looking up every now and then, just to make sure I’m not about to run slap bang into a carrot cake.

What I’ve achieved over the past month

Words written: 23,000
Current word count: 0
Confidence level: +73
Darning skill level: +29

The ridiculously large amount of money I spent on the Caerleon Writers Holiday and the Arvon course (given that I’m a student with massive outgoings and no income) was well worth it. I now feel like I might actually produce a novel worth reading.

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This is me

This is me

What timing. I managed to chase the big lump out of the room just in time to take over her blog for Sally Quilford’s birthday. Like all two-legs, this Sally person has some very strange ideas, she wants people to hand their blogs over to … well … anyone or anything. Now I don’t know Sally, and I don’t believe in birthdays (chances are I won’t live long enough to have one), but I’ll accept any excuse to cause havoc for my pet two-leg.

It was laughably easy, I scuttled a bit, hid in her discarded jeans (she’s such a lazy lump, can’t be bothered to put clothes away), scuttled some more, and she squealed and ran away. She came back with her son, another two-leg who is totally deformed, even taller than she is and with the most amazing puffy fluffy stuff on top. He thought it was funny too. I managed to resist showing myself to him when he started to cast aspersions on my size. She might be stupid and easily-scared, but she did at least recognise my magnificence.

That was last night. Now she’s quivering in bed, trying to pretend she hasn’t seen me, reading her book and steadfastly pointing her weird big eyes the other way. Every now and then she looks over her shoulder. If I catch her doing that I wave a leg at her, that soon sends her back to her book.

She’s scratching her wrist. She thinks it’s a mosquito bite. I think she’d freak if she knew I crept onto her bed and bit her last night. Sometimes I wish I could talk. That Charlotte was a bit of a clever cow, thought she was too good for the rest of us, but at least she got her message across.

So, what am I going to do today? Problem with this house is, there are no flies. The only insects are the earwigs in the en-suite, and they’re a bit too crunchy for my liking. I’ll make a web anyway, just in case, but I don’t expect to catch much. It’ll wind her up though, she’ll forget to vacuum it for a few months and it’ll build up a nice coating of dust. It’ll hang there for ages and ages, reminding her of me.

Now I’ve got onto her precious netbook, maybe I’ll go and delete the latest draft of her novel… I bet she hasn’t backed up recently.

Or perhaps I’ll scuttle into the boy’s room and crawl all over him. That’ll show him I’m not to be laughed at. He tries to pretend he’s the big two-leg man, but he’s just as scared of me as she is. And he can’t even control his four limbs, he’s forever damaging himself. I should be able to make him shed a bit of blood, which will do as a snack.

Anyway, I’m getting a bit tired now. It’s hard work pressing these keys when you’re as slim and delicate as I am, you know. So I’ll be off to spin that web.

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