Archive for September, 2009

Present Imperfect

I am writing.

Did you see what I did there? (sorry)


I stole the title for this post from a post on the Strictly Writing blog by Susie Nott-Bower. She wrote about wabi-sabi – the Japanese art of imperfection and impermanence – and how the concept can be used to whack the Inner Editor over the head and churn out a Shitty First Draft (SFD).

As it turned out, that post couldn’t have come at a better time for me. If you’ve been reading my blog lately, you’ll know that (a) there hasn’t been much of it to read and (b) I had fallen into a pit of procrastination and self-doubt.

I’m 40,000+ words into the SFD of my novel, and it is so S it’s painful to re-read. I tried to emulate Katie Fforde – write 1000 words every day, and before that, edit yesterday’s 1000 words. That might be OK if you’ve got the skills to make your FD not quite so S, but all it did for me was allow me to convince myself that my writing skills are non-existent.

I also find myself having to check back through the text on a regular basis to find out what X was wearing that morning, or what the weather was like, or who was in the room when Y said Z. That’s another opportunity for my Inner Editor (who is vile and vicious, and I believe is trying to make me start smoking again) to tell me how S my writing is.

Three Golden Rules

After reading Susie’s post, I sat myself down and had strong words with myself. Then I imposed three rules:

  1. The First Draft of anything I write is expected to be Shitty. No, actually, it’s required to be Shitty.
  2. Do not, under any circumstances, edit anything until you’ve finished the Shitty First Draft.
  3. Make notes of all important facts in another place so you don’t have to look at the Shitty First Draft until it’s time to turn it into the Barely Adequate Second Draft.

And hey presto, I’m writing again. I know it’s shitty. I know it’s going to take a long time to edit into something resembling a novel. And I expect I’m going to have to impose a whole new set of rules for when I start work on the second draft. But I can’t work on the second draft till I’ve finished the first.

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My Tomatoes Aren’t Ready

They’ll be ready to harvest in an hour and a half. So I thought I’d catch up on reading blogs and #fridayflash, and I found this wonderful meme at dovegreyreader’s blog, which I couldn’t resist having a go at. The most difficult part is remembering which books I’ve read this year – if I inadvertently cheat I apologise.

“Using only books you have read this year, answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It’s a lot harder than you think!”

Describe yourself: The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham

How do you feel: Still Breathing by Cathy Grindrod

Describe where you currently live: Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Your favorite form of transportation: Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins

Your best friend is: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

You and your friends are: Beggars and Choosers by Nancy Kress

What’s the weather like: May Contain Traces of Magic by Tom Holt

You fear: A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

What is the best advice you have to give: Eternity is Temporary by Bill Broady

Thought for the day: When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson

How I would like to die: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

My soul’s present condition: Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher

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FrdayFlashBadge02Sammy took extra care over his appearance that Saturday. He persuaded Anna to iron his blue shirt, the one with a collar, and he borrowed Jim’s pair of nearly smart black leather shoes. He even pulled a comb through his hair before leaving his room.

‘Sammy, you can’t go out without a coat,’ Anna called after him as he shuffled down the corridor towards the front door.

He took no notice. His trench coat stank, and his saggy brown cardigan would spoil the effect he’d achieved. He looked at himself in the full length hall mirror with approval. If he didn’t know any better, he’d think the slightly scruffy 43-year-old man looking back was just like anyone else.

Suddenly Johnny appeared, his grey scrunched-up face sneering over Sammy’s left shoulder, eyes glittering. ‘You’ll never be normal, you won’t. Look at you, can’t even button your shirt up right.’

It was hard to ignore Johnny, but Sammy managed it. He hastily adjusted his shirt and opened the door.

‘I know where you’re going. You’re pathetic. They won’t want you.’ Johnny’s voice whined in Sammy’s ear like a mosquito following the scent of blood.

‘Shut up shut up shut up…’ Sammy muttered to himself over and over again as Jim’s shoes rattled over the gravel path outside The Oaks. The wind lifted the tails of his shirt and swirled around his torso, icy teeth biting at his chest and belly. Sammy didn’t notice, not really.

He turned left along Oak Lane, trying to pick his feet up when he walked, the way Anna had taught him. It felt like Johnny was following him, but he didn’t turn round to see. He was afraid he would stumble if he looked up.

As he walked through the alley between the newsagent and the launderette, he strained to hear the jingling of tambourines and the joyous sound of singing voices. Maybe they weren’t there this week? He hadn’t been able to sleep the previous night for worrying.

When he heard the music, relief filled his mind, leaving no room for concentrating on his feet. He tripped, put out a hand to save himself, and was horrified when he felt it sink into wool-covered flesh.

‘Get off me!’

Sammy backed away from the indignant old woman. She glared at him, then wrinkled her nose, pushed past him and stalked away.

Johnny sniggered. ‘See, you do smell. No-one wants Stinky Sammy.’

It took all his willpower not to cry, but he managed it by focusing on the singing.

‘They do want me,’ Sammy said. ‘They do.’

He started shuffling towards the shopping precinct again, all thoughts of lifting his feet up forgotten in his need to reach the source of the music.

‘Jesus loves me, Jesus loves you,
Come rejoice, accept His love.’

Sammy stopped at the end of the alley, and an enormous grin spread over his face. There they were. A circle of people. Men and women, dancing and singing and clapping, and children waving tambourines in the air. He jiggled across the block-paved pedestrian area towards them, trying to clap in time with the music. He knew the words to this one, he’d listened to it for many Saturdays, so he joined their circle and sang along as loudly as he could.

Johnny was laughing so much he could barely stand up. ‘Oh, Sammy, you’re such a dickhead.’

‘Piss off, Johnny. You’re the dickhead,’ Sammy yelled. He’d finally come to accept Jesus’s love, and he wasn’t going to let Johnny spoil it.

The people around him stopped singing. Oops, thought Sammy. Jesus probably didn’t like bad language.

‘I’m sorry. It’s just Johnny, he doesn’t love Jesus like I do. Can we sing again please?’ Sammy started to sing another of his favourites. A couple of the children joined in, but the adults continued to stare at him, and a man with a bright red pullover walked quickly away.

‘What’s wrong?’ said Sammy.

A warm hand clamped around his arm. ‘I’ll tell you what’s wrong, sir, you’re disturbing these nice people,’ said a very large policeman.

Johnny chipped in, ‘That’s right, Sammy the dickhead’s disturbing the God-freaks.’

‘Shut up,’ Sammy shouted. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Policeman, but Johnny won’t shut up.’

The man in the red pullover said, ‘There’s no-one called Johnny here. He’s obviously one of those nutters from The Oaks. Can’t you take him back there?’

‘Nutter, nutter, Sammy’s a nutter,’ sang Johnny.

Sammy wasn’t quite sure what happened next. The man who’d called him a nutter somehow had red all over his face as well as his pullover, and Sammy was on the ground with the policeman on top of him, handcuffing his hands behind his back. Then he was being hauled past the shops, past crowds of people with cold eyes like Johnny’s.

‘Where are we going, Mr Policeman?’ he asked. ‘I’m looking for Jesus, I want to accept his love.’

The policeman jerked Sammy’s arms upwards. ‘I’ll show you Jesus’s love, you weirdo.’

‘Thank you, that’s very kind.’ said Sammy. He could hardly believe his luck. He’d thought the people singing would help him find Jesus, but he’d been wrong all along. He shuffled docilely through the car park and into the police station.

‘Is Jesus in here?’ he asked the policeman.

‘Can you keep a secret?’ said the policeman, grinning.

‘Of course I can.’

‘I’m Jesus.’ The policeman was laughing aloud now, obviously really happy that Sammy had finally found him.

‘Do you love me?’

‘Of course I do. Now go and sit in there.’

Sammy entered the cell and sat on the wooden bench. The door clanged shut, but not before Johnny slid in.

‘You don’t really believe he’s Jesus, do you?’

Sammy’s eyes were closed and his face was radiant. He couldn’t hear Johnny any more.

The policeman shook his head as he walked back towards the front desk, followed by Sammy’s quiet off-key singing.

‘Jesus found me, Jesus loves me,
Rejoicing, I accept His love.’

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Writer’s Speed Bumps

I don’t seem to have had much to say lately. I even missed last Friday’s #fridayflash for the first time in months. I’m not quite sure what’s going on, I suspect it’s one of those writerly things that every writer comes up against once in a while.

Only read on if you’re really interested in an apprentice writer’s insecurities…

My novel is rubbish

I’ve written about a quarter of the first draft of my novel now, and it’s getting really difficult to continue. There are several problems:

  • It’s rubbish! Yes, I know, it’s only a first draft, and it’ll be much better once I’ve edited it… but all I can think is it’s badly written and uninteresting…
  • It’s hard work. I knew it would be. Writing 100000 words and polishing them was always going to be difficult. But when it’s rubbish it makes it even harder…
  • It’s so big. I keep forgetting plot details and back story, so I have to read back through what I’ve written so far, which just reminds me how rubbish it is…

All of which means I’m not getting much joy out of the writing process at the moment. Which wouldn’t be too bad if I thought it was worthwhile. But, at the moment, I don’t. The book is going to be rubbish and isn’t going to make me any money and I’ll lose my house and end up living in a skip and drinking meths to block out the fact that I’m an utter failure. (melodramatic, me? never!)


All this leads to major procrastination.

For instance, I’ve spent hours creating a spreadsheet that will tell me how much I’ve done, what my target is for the day (1000 words per day, and if I don’t manage 1000 words it accumulates, but if I do over 1000 words it doesn’t), average words per day, and lots of other stuff, even the estimated finish date. And there’s a graph, which is a simple bar chart showing how far through I am as a percentage. That took me ages to work out how to create.

Also, I’ve become addicted to FarmVille (a stupid Sims type game on Facebook). My house is tidier than it has ever been. I’ve persuaded myself that a glass of wine in the evening will help the words flow, but half an hour after drinking said wine, I need to have a game of Combine (also on Facebook) because I play that so much better when slightly tipsy.

I have, however, stuck to my resolution not to watch TV all evening every evening. I do in fact get a lot of writing done in the evenings, in between Facebook games. Usually the 950 words I haven’t managed to get written in the daytime, admittedly.

The worst thing…

The worst thing about all this is, I don’t enjoy writing at the moment. I really don’t. And that’s sad. I haven’t written any short stories for a couple of weeks, despite having a list of competitions I really want to enter.

I’m hoping two things will get me back on track:

  • Uni term starting. I’m not doing particularly inspiring courses this term – playwriting and literary criticism – but I love studying and maybe it’ll help me see there is life beyond my rubbish novel.
  • Arvon. I’m booked on a course in October entitled Work in Progress, which is absolutely perfect. The blurb starts: ‘Being stuck in the middle of your novel isn’t much fun, sometimes you need to step away from the Work in Progress and just enjoy writing again.’ – exactly what I need.

It’s not all bad

In the meantime, there are enjoyable writing-related aspects of my life:

  • Poetry. I’m in a poetry group that meets weekly, and I do enjoy it hugely. It forces me to come up with a poem every week for workshopping, and means I spend an evening with people who are equally enthusiastic about poetry. That renews my energy levels for a day or two at least.
  • Writing group. Our fledgling writing group is showing promise, we’ve talked about starting a project that could turn into something fantastic if we can get it off the ground. Meeting tonight… hopefully we’ll get something started.

Thank you…

… for listening to my ramblings. It’s been cathartic. And despite all the doom and gloom, I think I’ve reminded myself that there is a positive side to this writing game.

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Cliché or not cliché?

I’ve been mulling this one over for a while. It takes all sorts, and there’s no accounting for taste… but is it OK to use clichés in proper literarily-acceptable writing?

(is literarily even a word? do I care? nah, you know what I mean…)

Six of one, half a dozen of the other, if you ask me.

The Cat's Pyjamas

The Cat's Pyjamas

Incidentally, I have recently acquired a copy of ‘The Cat’s Pyjamas – the Penguin Book of Clichés’ by Julia Creswell. Good fun, and a tough act to follow.

Why one should use clichés

Everyone uses them in everyday conversation, more often than not. They are phrases that have become so much part of the language that everyone knows what they mean, and everyone knows that they do not mean what they say. (Don Rumsfeld, eat your heart out.)

George Orwell said, ‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’ As so ably pointed out by Mark Liberman, ‘If you really tried to put that advice into effect, you’d find it difficult to write anything at all.’

And isn’t it ironic that so many clichés have arisen from Orwell’s work?

The point of a cliché is that it is a figure of speech that does the job it was intended for so well it has become generally accepted as an integral part of the language. So why not use it, if it’s appropriate?

My ultimate aim as a writer is to communicate my ideas and thoughts to whoever’s reading my ramblings. If the best way to do that is to use a cliché, then that’s what I shall do. Being original for the sake of being original seems daft. There’s nothing worse than tweaking a cliché for the sake of it. After all, a nod’s as good as a curtsey to a blind diplodocus… (say whaaa??)

Why one should not use clichés

A cliché will not give the reader any information above and beyond the understood meaning of the phrase. The actual meaning of the phrase is ignored. If I want to really make the reader think, really draw them into the story I’m telling, I do need to come up with something striking and original at appropriate points.

Saying someone’s eyes are as cold as ice is fine, it gets the point across. Saying ‘her glance sent slivers of ice into my heart’ is much more powerful. (I know it’s corny, but it was the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment, and I still contend that it’s stronger.) So if at this moment it’s really important to send a shiver through the reader, the second version is appropriate. However, if it doesn’t really matter that much there’s nothing wrong with using the cliché.

Even science agrees

I was delighted to read this blog post by Keith Oatley last week, which explained the different reactions based on proper experimental psychology research. (The On Fiction blog is full of fascinating stuff, by the way.)

A brief summary would go as follows:

  • When we carry out a specific action, say, falling, a particular area of the brain is activated to make the appropriate muscles do their thing.
  • When we think about falling, the same area of the brain is activated even if we don’t actually fall over anything.
  • So when we read, ‘The boy fell to the floor,’ that area of the brain which would make us fall down is activated.
  • It seems reasonable to assume that this makes us ‘feel’ the act of falling.
  • However, when we read, ‘The boy fell ill,’ that area of the brain is not activated.
  • The assumption here is that the reader does not actually ‘feel’ the act of falling.
  • Interestingly, the blog post doesn’t tell us if that area of the brain would be activated by, ‘The boy hit the dust.’ Or whether an alternative area of the brain is triggered instead.
  • So I’m not sure if I have proved my point… I only spotted this while I was writing this summary… maybe I should go and check the source research papers…

Anyway, it all backs up the theory that one shouldn’t use clichés if one wants to make a real impact on the reader. I think.


(and there are no prizes for correctly counting the number of clichés used in this post)

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Friday night was pizza night in our house, from when I started school until Mum went away. After school, Rachael and Lily and I had chores. We had to clean out the rabbits, weed the flowerbeds, and tidy our bedrooms. Meanwhile, Mum would make the pizzas.

She used three different toppings each week, and never the same one twice. This was exciting to begin with, while there were still palatable toppings to choose from. We even won a prize once, when Giovanni’s Italian Restaurant had a competition for the best new pizza. Who would have thought that cherries, jalapeno peppers and cashew nuts would taste so delicious in combination? We called it ‘Sarah’s Hot and Crunchy’ because the cashew nuts were my suggestion.

After a couple of years, Mum was really struggling for inspiration, and we began to dread Fridays. To make things worse, after a while she would only use foods that started with the same letter of the alphabet, a different letter each week chosen at random from a Scrabble bag. I think Dad must have taken out some of the letters after the first time she drew a Z. Zucchini, zabaglione and zinc tablets do not go together very well.

Most weeks, stress levels in our household rose steadily from breakfast time on Monday morning, when the letter was chosen, to the moment that the new pizza was presented to us on Friday evening. Then, if the combination wasn’t a success, Mum was miserable for the whole weekend. I think the worst time, before they took Mum away, was when she drew an L. Our bathroom was in use all of Friday night and Saturday, as lentils, liver and lime pickle didn’t agree with our digestive systems.

The final pizza night was different from all the others. R was the letter for the week, and Mum had been feverishly leafing through recipe books and dictionaries in search of ingredients since Monday. On Thursday evening we didn’t get a bed-time story, as Dad was too busy consoling Mum, who’d only managed to come up with one potential topping – rowan berries – and Dad had told her they were probably poisonous. At breakfast on Friday, Rachael asked if she could stay with her friend Charlotte overnight. She’d been doing that a lot lately, but never on a Friday before. Mum didn’t mind though.

After school, Lily weeded the flower beds and I cleaned out the rabbits. Then we crept through the kitchen, where Mum was sitting with her head in her hands. Our bedrooms were somehow more untidy than usual, so it took a while to straighten things out. I got into a fight with Lily because some of my books turned up in her bedroom. Dad came home from work and pulled us apart just as Mum was serving up.
The four of us sat around the table, staring at our slices of pizza. Mum was grinning widely.

‘Guess what it is this week!’ she said, and then she burst into laughter so loud I had to cling onto Dad’s arm. She started rocking backwards and forwards, and when she tilted her head and her hair fell back I noticed there was a smudge of red on the tip of her ear. Probably tomato sauce.

Lily said, ‘I don’t know. It looks like bits of meat.’

‘Well, just eat it. I’m not going to tell you what it is. You have to guess.’

Dad put on his brave face, the one he was wearing more and more that year. He cut a piece and lifted it to his mouth. We watched him chew as though strings tied our eyes to his lips. Then he smiled.

‘Actually, it’s not bad. I’ve no idea what it is though, it tastes like liver and kidney and maybe chicken drumsticks. Can’t be that, can it? Unless…’ He smiled again, and touched Mum’s hand. ‘You are clever. It’s different parts of the same animal, isn’t it? An animal whose name begins with R?’

‘That’s exactly right! Come on girls, eat up!’ Mum watched us as avidly as we’d watched Dad. It wasn’t bad at all. We finished every crumb, although none of us could guess what the animal was.

Then we had the best evening ever. Dad put on the DVD of ‘Finding Nero’, and we all snuggled up on the sofa together with a bowl of popcorn. Mum kept tickling me until I kicked Lily accidentally, then we had to pause the DVD while we all had a tickle fight and cleared up the popcorn, which ended up all over the floor.

Later that night, when the house was dark, I was having trouble sleeping. I guess I was hyped up after the wonderful time we’d had. I wondered what the mystery animal was, the one that had been sacrificed for our pizza night.

Suddenly, I had a horrible thought. I crept into Lily’s bedroom. She was still awake too, and her wide frightened eyes told me she had exactly the same thought.

We both spoke together, ‘Rachael’s name begins with R.’

And then I said, ‘That wasn’t tomato sauce on her ear.’

That was a very long night. Neither of us said any more. We curled up together in Lily’s bed and cried and cried until we fell asleep. I dreamed of Mum suffocating Rachael with a pillow, and then I thought I woke up and went downstairs, but I was still dreaming, and I saw Mum cutting Rachael’s liver out on the kitchen table.

Next morning Dad made pancakes for breakfast, which would normally have been great, except I thought I’d never be able to eat again. Lily’s face was as white as the lilies-of-the-valley she’d weeded around the day before.

The front door opened. Dad looked up.

‘Ah, Rachael, maybe you’ll eat some of these pancakes. These two don’t seem to be hungry.’

‘Thanks Dad, that’d be great. By the way, what happened to the rabbits?’

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Another award!

HonestScrapThis time from Dan Powell, for being ‘honest enough about [my] writing on [my] blog to try new things in public.’ Thanks Dan, it’s a great honour. And given the supportive and helpful comments I get, it’s really not difficult to be honest about my writing and share my learning process. So thanks to you guys too!

This award is meant to be passed on to bloggers who post from the heart. The rules for receiving this award are simple, pass the award on to seven worthy blogs and list ten honest things about yourself.

Seven Worthy Blogs…

… from people who are honestly all great writers …

Kevin J Mackey at KjM on the web

Stephen Book at Powder Burns and Bullets

Erik Krause at Erik J. Krause’s Writing Spot

Chris Chartrand at The Dark Eagle

Craig at Wash The Bowl

Ryan Harron at harron.dreamwidth.org

Anton Gully at The Black Dogs of Despair Ate My Novel (I know it says your site is an award-free zone, so you don’t have to accept it, but I think it’s worth pointing people in your direction anyway 🙂

Ten honest things about me

Oh gods, where do I start? And what could I say about myself that might be the least bit interesting?

  1. I’m terrified of spiders.
  2. I drink far too much diet cola, and hence belch and fart more than is polite.
  3. I spend too much time in bed.
  4. I was expelled from school for consistently failing to attend lessons (result!).
  5. I keep trying to dye my hair purple but it keeps failing to work.
  6. I achieved my all time high score on Tetris when I was in labour with my first son.
  7. I am obsessed with stationery.
  8. One day I will live on a small island, possibly Lundy, possibly somewhere else.
  9. Most of the furniture in my house comes from Ikea.
  10. I am about to become a full-time student again at the age of 43, and I love it!

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