Monday, 31 January 2011

Writing up a spook

Over the weekend I worked on a ghost story for a competition.  It was a story that had been at the back of my mind for a while, but it's amazing what a deadline will do for productivity.  The closing date isn't for about five weeks, but I want it to have time to cook properly.  I already stuffed it full of far more conflict than my original idea - but might I have overdone it?

Magazines and writing sites suggest that entering competitions is a good way to improve your skill and get honest feedback, so hopefully it will be a valuable exercise anyway.  The only problem was,  Steve was away for the weekend, and after writing for a couple of hours after the children had gone to bed, I discovered I couldn't sleep.  I think I'll leave writing spooky stories until I'm not on my own another time!

This should be good news, though, shouldn't it -  I scared myself, therefore the story must have some merit...? Except it's my imagination, so it's no wonder it's vivid for me. The problem is whether I've shared my vision well enough, and empowered anyone else's imagination enough so that they don't want to turn out the light, either.  And, then, I'm the world's biggest wimp.  For instance, I saw a cheap horror when I was about thirteen. In it,  a floury-faced vampire dropped through a skylight in order to drink the blood of some virginal young thing in a flowing white dress.  After twenty years or so, I still check above my head every time I go under my Mum's skylight, even when my white dress is at the dry-cleaners (cough, cough)...So I'm not sure "It scared me!" guarantees that it is scary...

I'm not going to think about it for now, though;  back to the book!

Thursday, 27 January 2011


I've not broken any new ground today.  Instead I've been re-working a short story.  I'm still not sure if that was the best use of my time, as it took me away from my main focus of the novel, but it was one of those little distractions that snowball and steal your time.

Before Christmas I submitted two stories to a magazine, and one came straight home to roost.  I was disappointed - it was the one I'd thought was better, for a start. It also arrived on one of those blue days when it feels like life is just finding a new way to kick you when you're down.  The good news is that the sting of rejection faded, and this week I'd put on my to-do list (being an avid writer and duplicator of lists) to tweak it (if necessary) and send it to another magazine.

I was genuinely shocked when I read it.  I think that evil fairy had been at work again.  I hadn't loved writing the story in the same way I feel entranced by writing 'my novel', but I'd still worked hard at it, and proof-read it and edited it and lavished hours on it.  It had not improved with time.  I could see every flaw (some major - eg it was just too flimsy) and some minor.  Most humiliating of all,  one of the characters changed name in one sentence! How that had slipped past my proof-reading, and a friend's eagle eyes too, I don't know.  I was so ashamed that I'd submitted something substandard.

But I'm dusting myself off now, and reminding myself that it was a step in the right direction to have sent something off for publication at all.  I'm congratulating myself on the fact that I can now see what the problems are with it, and I've spent the day re-working it, so that I now have a meatier (although also longer) first draft.  And now I'm going to let it cook for a while, while I get on with the novel.  Hopefully when I come back to it I'll have enough perspective to fix it again, and the guts to send it off again, undaunted.

The e-reader fence

I'm sitting on the fence regarding e-readers.  The part of me that is a voracious reader and hoarder of books looks at my groaning shelves, and my annual, painful parting with volumes that haven't quite made it into my favourites and thinks it's revolutionary to be able to keep so many books in such a small space.  I even think I could get used to reading with one in bed.

Then there's the part of me that reads with an eye on the sensual, tactile pleasure of it.  There's a thrill to running my finger over the spines of much-loved books, choosing one to revisit; there's the smudges on page 36 of a sad story where I cried when I was fifteen;  there's the untold story in the leaves, softened by time;  there's the awe when turning age-spotted pages of ancient hardbacks; there's the wonder of sharing a book with my children snuggled on my knee, and showing them the sticker in the front that says their Nan had it for a prize when she was four.

In the end, my reservations outweigh my interest at the moment.  As I may have already mentioned, I'm not always on close terms with technology...

  We have interactive whiteboards in the classroom these days.  For those not in the know, they project the laptop screen onto a big screen, but you can touch the big screen to select icons, or write and various other things.  We hailed their arrival with slack-jawed wonder, and oohed and ahhed at the impressive list of things they could do (although, apparently, teaching the kids without a teacher in the room is still a little beyond their remit).  For a year, they more or less lived up to their promise .  Then things began to go wrong.  The relationship got a little strained.  Some mornings they were slow to warm up.  Some days, the laptop and projector didn't appear to realise they were still connected.  It began to get worse.  Sometimes the screen froze, or turned purple unless you wiggled a wire and hopped on your left foot, and buried a sacred herb at midnight in the school garden.

  By now, they've been installed for maybe five years.  (I know; we were a bit behind the rest of Britain in our rural idyll).  The calibration goes off within minutes, so that any attempts to write on it look like a pre-schooler scrawl.  The screen itself is so dim, the children can't see it properly, even with the classroom lights off. The projector has been replaced twice.  The laptop and software has had to be updated twice.  And still, sometimes, it ruins a lesson by refusing to work.  We've all taken to using the traditional whiteboard at every opportunity; it just never goes wrong, and never makes it look like a four year old wrote on it, unless they did. And that's my first problem.  Is an e-reader going to freeze at a crucial moment? Will I ever miss out on the last chapter of a book?

  Secondly: we do sometimes read books on the IWB's at school (when they're working).  The children get that glazed look they do when the tv is on, like they're being drugged intravenously.  It's not such a good look.  It makes me sad.  They wait for the computer to tell them things, and they take it in, but they don't interact the way they do when you show them a book, and they want to jump up and poke the pages, and tell you about the time they went to the zoo, and did you know they saw a spider the size of an elephant there.  The animation and enthusiasm isn't quite the same.  And I'm not sure that's a move in the right direction.

But I'm staying open-minded, and looking forward to seeing if I can fit just a few more books in the book case before the shelves collapse.  I'm sure there's room for at least one more...

Sunday, 23 January 2011

tied up by technology

I always thought I was computer literate.  Not a genius, by any means, but I can't imagine life without our computer.  I love writing on it - the sound of the words tap-dancing out of the keyboard is so satisfying, and I'm glad I learnt to touch-type during a fallow year when I was eighteen.
We upgraded to a Mac nearly two years ago - I love it and Steve, whose idea it was to jump over to Macs, is half in love with it.
At first, I loved the video editing.  At last, the stack of videos of the children as tiny babies were transferred, edited and the Mac spewed them out on DVD.  Uploading photos from my camera was simple too, so much easier than before, and I could add them to my facebook page in a wink.  Then the start-up disk became bloated and sluggish, and it began to complain about anything more tricky than getting up in the morning. So Steve bought an external hard-drive, and all his photos are saved there automatically.
But neither he nor I can figure out how to do the same with my library of photographs.  Every time I complain, he grumbles about how simple it is, comes to do it, and then goes mysteriously quiet.  Sometimes it asks for the administrator details, and for some reason, from my account, his don't work, and mine don't either. It keeps telling me my password hint, and I keep putting my password in, and still it's not happy.  I want to put all the home movies I've made on the external drive, too, but can't figure it out, and I can't edit any more because the start-up disk is too full.  So the video tapes are mounting up again, an avalanche waiting to happen
Just after Christmas I bought myself a new phone.  It's the first one I've had with a camera, and I decided that, for the first time, I might e-mail (or at least check e-mail) from it.  I got a special pay-as-you-go package which offered free texts and e-mails.  Can I figure out how to actually access orange world from it? No.  It constantly tells me that the page is unavailable. It claims this is temporary, but it is lying.  Unless, perhaps, the homepage is available between the hours of 2am and 4am.  I've read the user guide, cover to cover. I've searched the net, and the online user guide, and I've given up trying to understand it.
But the camera on the phone was worth it....I thought.  I took a few photos of the children to add to this blog, and one or two for facebook, and I've just tried to upload them.  It refused to work with a USB cable in place, so my long-suffering husband came to set up a bluetooth connection for me.  (His mobile is already set up like that, and works fine).  After sniping at each other a bit as we tried to make the technology toe the line, the tension increased as things weren't going quite to plan. Then the Mac asked for the administrator's details.  He typed his in, several times. I tried mine so often I began to wonder if I'd misspelt my own name.  Three times it told us we'd tried too often, and it was fed up of us, please try again in a moment.
Trying to sort out the children's squabbles when they won't speak to one another is a breeze compared to trying to get the phone and Mac to communicate with one another.  So I've given up.  Temporarily, you understand.

aiming high

I've not managed any more of my book this weekend, though the story and characters have been stewing away, almost on their own.

I've put on my to-do list for this week: start a ghost story for a competition in a couple of months.  (I have the beginnings of this mentally mapped out already).
Send out a story to a magazine that didn't fare very well last time I sent it to a publication.  I will give it a good grooming before I send it again.

But I want to make sure my book gets its fair share of attention too.  Unrealistic expectations for a week?

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Evil Manuscript Fairy

A productive day.  I don't count words as I go, but I know things were smoother today;  characters came to life, sentences flowed, images sparkled....if only the evil Manuscript Fairy didn't call in every night and steal away my beautifully crafted chapters and leave a changeling novel in their place!
Oh, well, there's always the next edit, and I've thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I even set a timer so that I wasn't late collecting the children.  I'm going to savour being smug while I can - the opportunities don't come that often.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011


What a day - back on writing schedule, but it's not gone well.  I had about an hour and a half, and I was really disciplined at not looking at e-mails, nor checking out facebook.  The baby didn't go to sleep as quickly as I hoped, and I watched the minutes ticking by, with me trying to catch hold of the thread of my story again.  It seems to me that this is trickier with re-writing - I'm having to remember what has changed, and what I was hoping to alter, as well as writing brand-new sections.
After about half an hour, the baby fell silent, but I had itchy feet, so I had to go and make a cup of tea, which makes my world go round.  Then I knuckled down to it.  And discovered that there was a good reason I'd been procrastinating.  That police officer I had tried so hard to leave out is causing me no end of hassle).  I know I need him in,  but I keep finding holes in what I know about police procedure.  I feel fairly confident that the best thing to do for now is write, and then I'll know what research I need to do at a later date, but it's hard.  I'm faltering, and uncertain, and I expect it's affecting what I write.  I had no time to re-read today, but I didn't want to, either.
I managed to get a disjointed few paragraphs together in one extra section, and then typed as if the end were nigh for another section, finishing with a flourish.  Enjoying the faint satisfaction that came from having at least Written, I glanced at the time, and realised with horror that I was meant to be picking the 4 year old up in less than five minutes.  If it were just me,  I could've made it, maybe, running the whole way.   But there was the baby to wake, and then find a means of travel for (back carrier, buggy, car...) and to top it all off, I was meant to be taking the 4 year old to his swimming lesson (only his second ever), and had intended to pack a lunch for both boys to have at the pool.
Luckily, the baby woke like an angel, and even luckier, didn't smell as though anything unpleasant had erupted from anywhere in his nappy region.  I ran around grabbing things that might be useful while the baby sat on the kitchen floor, a bit dazed, I think, then we raced out to the car.  By now (and this is mightily impressive) I was only two minutes late for my little lad. I think 7 minutes to leave the house must be a record.  I daren't try and park right by the playschool, as there's a competitive streak in some of the parents over who gets to park in the best spots, so I pulled up a little way off and sprinted down the track to the gate.  The 1 year old bounced in my arms, crowing, certain that I was doing it all for his benefit.  I got to the gate, sweaty, panting and having left all composure back in the car, only five minutes late.
And then I waited for five more minutes until the children came out, late, as usual. At least I had time to get my breath back.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Small things

During the dinner hour I ran down into town and picked up the latest Writing Magazine - can't wait to begin reading it, once all my other work is done.
On the advice of various magazines, I've submitted a letter (by e-mail) to a magazine. I received a standard e-mail reply, and have my fingers crossed that it might get published - everything counts, doesn't it?!

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Land of the Rising Temperature

Bean has been ill for three days now, with a sky-scraping temperature (it's her speciality, it has to be said).  You have to admire her;  when she does something, she gives it her all.
It's knocked all my plans out of whack, though.  Those two precious sessions when the four-year old is at pre-school, and I manipulate the one-year old's sleep pattern to scratch together an hour or two alone, writing, disappeared.  I ended up watching Disney's Beauty and the Beast, instead, cradling a child who was ember-hot.  It was such a  disappointment -  I love writing in the daytime when I'm wide awake and my brain isn't limping yet.  Now I've got a week before my next shot at that.
I suppose part of achieving a goal, whatever it is (getting a novel to publication standard; losing a few pounds; raising a child with the right values to choose the best nursing home for me in the future) is not letting life stop you.  I've got to find ways to cheat, and steal time from less important things so I can get back on track with writing.  I gave up ironing long ago, but maybe there's something else I could jettison - eating? That'd sort the pounds, too...
In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy the extra cuddles from my least cuddly child.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Pointing the finger

A cautionary tale about trying to understand small children.  Nothing to do with writing today:  except we can't write till we get the speaking and listening part of language conquered. (It's amazing how children pick up language at warp speed, isn't it?).
  In the case of my own three, their first words have reflected a lot of their personality.  The five year old wouldn't say 'Mama' for weeks and weeks after she started to pick up words - I think it wasn't even in her first forty words.  I suppose she didn't need me, since I was at her beck and call already (the lazy old days when one child was a handful).  It didn't stop me prancing around her like a loon, chanting 'Mummy, Mummy.'  Her first word popped out when she was playing peepo, and said 'there'. Along with her second word, 'gone', she managed to communicate about everything, from the fact she'd flushed the toilet ('gone') to the fact she wanted to put her shoes on ('there!').  She abused those two words for weeks.
  The four year old, ever a mummy's boy, and always trying to outdo his sister,  said 'Mama' first, and hasn't stopped saying it since.  The lump that choked me the first time he said it melted long ago;  it's still his favourite word, but when he bellows it in the middle of the night because it's shockingly dark, or in the day because the five year old  'is looking at me, Mummy!' it doesn't have the same appeal.  Perhaps I should have pranced around chanting 'Daddy, Daddy'.... 
  But the one year old, serene and adored in his little sphere, said his own name first.  We reasoned that it was what he heard most at the time.   Secretly I'm a bit worried: how self-obsessed must he be if his first word is his own name?  
  The one year old is also the one who has dabbled most in profanity.  I can't repeat some of the words we've heard him say. It goes without saying that he has a finely tuned sense of the most inappropriate place to use them, and he's never heard of whispering.
  The first time he said 'bugger' was a bit of a shock - I knew he hadn't heard it.  I discovered after a while that he really meant ' book', but it didn't stop us laughing when he muttered it under his breath like a grumpy old man, or threw a book across the room and yelled 'Bugger!'  I didn't laugh when he said it to my mother.  She can't hear all that well anymore, but she heard that.  She fixed me with her best mother-glare, and said, 'Where has he heard that?' (The italics are all her own).
  I was on my own this week when the baby/toddler pointed at me, full of high drama, and declared, 'Minger.'  I was a bit taken aback, as you might imagine, but I was full of faith in my smallest boy, who surely couldn't be that rude, and to his own mother, at that.
 'Say it again, darling,' said I, all sweetness and light.
Again, he pointed imperiously at me: 'Minger!'
I decided it was safest to blame Steve;  a one year old doesn't come up with that sort of thing on his own.
With the wind in my sails, I sat the husband down over dinner that night and told him the story, ready with my line of interrogation, but he wouldn't take it seriously.  In fact, he started to laugh.
  'I think you'll find he was saying finger, you daft bugger!' he said.  

Monday, 10 January 2011

of post-its and pencils

  It's been one of those days; the only writing I've really got done is some post-it note assessments of children  at school to share with my colleagues (along the lines of:  Arwenna doesn't know how to bite into a pear yet;  Trav is terrified of pencils).  Oh, and updating facebook, of course.  (Do ten words count?)
  Instead of pointing out failures, though, I should mention that I did work out tonight, and while my legs were knotting themselves up to a cry of  'grapevine!' I was busy mentally fleshing out a character who had been inserted into the first draft indecently late.  He's a police officer, and I was being lazy first time around.  I knew researching him would take time.  But the story baulked over the lack of him;   the plot wouldn't lie straight.  I gave in three quarters of the way through the first draft, and now, in rewriting/editing mode, I've got to go back to the beginning and put him in.  
  It's exciting to be back at a blank-page, creating stage.  I'm enjoying the editing to some extent, but it's the first time in a few weeks that my fingers have itched this much! Perhaps I'll delay bedtime and get some real writing done, without a post-it in sight...

Sunday, 9 January 2011

le mot juste

  I find it so hard to keep the cliches out of my writing - they often evade me and need editing out . I imagine it's not uncommon - after all, the reason they're cliches is because they worked so well, and once they must've been just-coined and striking.
  The children are so new, they bring less baggage to their world-view than I have.  They have this uncertain grasp of language, too, that sometimes brings clumsiness or humour, like the 4 year old who used to call his favourite carb  'squashed potato', or the 1 year old who calls ladybirds 'spiderbirds'.
  Occasionally, though, this flexibility with language produces something beautiful.  When Bean was a very little girl, she woke up to one of those breathtaking September mornings when the mist hangs ragged in the valley so only a few treetops peek through,  and the horizon is dim.  She gasped and said, 'Everywhere is steamed up!'
 Here's hoping I can find some of that enchantingly fresh vision;  cast off my staid adult perception and be playful with words.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Aiming at two birds with one stone

  Have been looking at another kind of clutter this morning - the extra poundage I've collected over Christmas! I suppose it's not too bad - only four pounds in a month  - but it's always harder work getting rid of it than gaining it.  And it's only been a year since I really nailed losing a couple of stone after having babies.
  Where do you squeeze in the time to be healthy and fit, when you're already working so hard, and your brain fails at the merest hint that you have to remember something important?  I don't want to use up writing time by exercising.  (And don't get me started on the time-eating qualities of starting a blog and following other people' was a good plan, but it's not helping me focus!)
  One of the things that triggered my determination to write again, despite feeling that drinking a cup of tea while it was still hot was the height of my ambition, was a book I came across.  It was entirely by accident; I was still floored by the realisation that my writing was poor and I didn't know what to do about it.  The children were choosing library books, and had sunk into beanbags. They appeared as keen to move as Steve is when he wakes up in the morning, so I left them to it, and wandered next door. (It's a small library!) 
  I saw this book: 'I'd Rather be Writing', by Marcia Golub and thought, Yes, I would.  I grabbed it quickly and took it home.  It was a lucky choice.  I've read others since that daunted me more and one that made me quake, but this one was so positive, and it resonated with me so well that it was the push that got me rolling.  I'm so glad about that.  
  One of the things she said, which I have cherished for months, is that sometimes you're writing even when you're not at your keyboard.  When you're plotting in the car, or don't hear the 4 year old say he needs a wee till it's a moment too late to find him one because you were off with the fairies, it's all part of the process. And she talked a lot about getting yourself in the right frame of mind to write, and how the repetition of exercising helps her.  I tried it: it helps me, too.  When you're out jogging, or even bouncing the floorboards in front of  a Davina DVD, you can unhook your brain and imagination and be writing so that when your fingers hit that keyboard, they can hit it racing.
  Maybe it's time to tackle the clutter round my waist, and get on with sorting the kinks in my plot.  Floorboards, brace yourselves!

Friday, 7 January 2011

The enemy within

  I was surprised yesterday to see the Christmas tree still up at the 5 year old's school.  I have a guilty secret altogether;  I don't really like Christmas decorations once Christmas is over. In fact, I usually spend Boxing Day itching to start taking them down.  It was even worse this year.  When we got home from the in-laws on the 27th, I had a bad case of mess-induced stress.

  In case you think I'm too much of a Scrooge, it wasn't just the decorations.  If we couldn't use the front door because of the tree, did it really matter? It was the toy mountain, too.  I try to operate a fairly unsuccessful policy of 'one in, one out' when it comes to new Things.  My husband flouts this rule with great delight - I have no idea how many pairs of boots he owns, headtorches and other paraphernalia he calls 'gear'.

  But the problem is, when you can't walk from the sofa to the television, nor to the window to undraw the curtains because of the piles of shiny new toys, you have to find a place for them.  We'd tried to have a cull before Christmas, but then the 4 year old had his fourth birthday and undid the little good I'd done.  I keep sneaking things out to the dustbin while they all sleep, but they tend to be tatty, broken things that aren't really taking up any room, anyway.

  I didn't even know where to start;  apparently setting fire to the lot would be seen as criminal activity.  My husband couldn't really see the problem.  In the end, we've begun a three box system, and we're going to rotate them.  I am sceptical about this theory, as we have done it once before.  It worked like a dream, as long as we organised enough to keep going up the loft every month or so; and that's where it all goes wrong. The clutter was really getting me down, though.  You know, tidy desk, tidy mind; it's so true for me.  I couldn't think straight while Buzz was lying, legs akimbo, astride a remote controlled Noddy car and the Christmas tree died quietly by the door.  All those hours I might've been writing, and I couldn't.  And as the inimitable Flylady says, You can't organise clutter, you can only throw it away.

   The lovely dustbin men took the tree this morning; every toy has a home, though they turn up in other places quite regularly; the decorations are back in the loft with the toy boxes, and I can breathe again.
I'd feel quite self-satisfied if it weren't for one thing. Last night, Bean came up to me, forehead wrinkled in thought, clutching soft Baby Annabel.

  'Mummy,' she said, 'You know you were looking for things to pass on.  I've got those other two dolls now, so I was thinking someone else could have this one.'
  I hid my surprise.  'Are you sure?'
  She wrinkled her nose, and nodded.
  It was so quiet you might have heard the truth drop. I had a mental image of a sweet baby girl, patting that doll on its back, and rocking it.
   'But you had that when you were a tiny little dot,' I said at last.
  She looked at me, then at her doll.  She shrugged, and skipped off to put the doll back in the playroom.

  Maybe I haven't yet got to the heart of the clutter problem.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Spinning plates

I really must get out of the habit of calling the baby, 'the baby'.  Even the older two children are getting sick of it.

My daughter, who thinks she knows everything because she's the eldest, has begun correcting me:  He's not a baby, Mummy, he's a toddler.  I suppose she must be right, as I'm beginning to feel as if my life is my own again.  It's quite refreshing.  I even - bliss! - have had chance to read a few books lately, without anyone falling down the stairs or colouring on the doors.

But  they're all growing, too fast, and I daren't look away in case I miss anything special.  So I'm trying to keep all the plates spinning; working part-time as a teacher;  being a good mum;  taking time to enjoy the children while they're all mine; trying to scrape by as a wife.  (It's a good job my other half doesn't get to fill in a performance management review).   And on top of that, I've realised that while I load the washing machine and walk the children to school and pre-school,  and all the rest of that housework/mothering business, my dreams are getting dusty.

So I thought I'd start by trying some new things this year - like writing a blog.  And, like millions of others, I've always dreamed of being an author.  I even wrote a book once.  I'd sit at the computer and find myself still there hours later, and not quite know how I'd got from there to here.  Then I re-read my book, and it was dreadful.  Real dross.  The worst thing: I couldn't figure out what had gone wrong.  So I gave up, and had three babies in fairly swift succession instead.

That was  six years ago now.  And it makes my mouth dry thinking about it, but this is the year I'm going to really aim for that dream.  I wrote the first draft of a new book last year, any time the children were asleep or out.  I'm still writing stuttering prose, and I have an immense amount still to learn, but I'm going to take it one step at a time.  I'm going to remember that a first draft is just that - a beginning, an early attempt that will be much improved by rewriting.   I'm going to practise and practise until I begin to make progress.

Now all I need is for the children to stay asleep...