Monday, 28 February 2011

Raining trouble

I knew this week was going to be a busy one.  Due to exceptionally bad planning (or perhaps a lack of planning whatsoever..?) on our part, two of our children have birthdays a week apart. Oh, it gets worse. The five year old wants a sixth birthday party, so on the Saturday between the birthdays, we have a party to plan. And, of course, there has to be a cake for the party as well as one on the day itself.

The day before the party is also Ste's gorgeous sister's 30th birthday. Oh, and my Mum's 67th (sorry, Mum).   My Mum is diabetic and has to look on with envious eyes while we tuck into cake, so for her birthday I've been meaning to bake up a batch of scones, which counts for a treat, apparently, in Mumsville.  Busy? You could say.

Then, niggling away at the back of my mind, I know that next week, between the premature party and the birthday girl's big day, the head teacher is observing me teach, and we have a parent's night, which will be a late one.  So I have been regretfully coming to the conclusion that the writing will be taking a back seat for a fortnight.

But it's true that it never rains but it pours;  I thought this was quite a storm already, and have been trying to take deep breaths and remind myself to ENJOY the birthday whirl - they won't want me to celebrate with them in a few years  - when I got a phone call this morning.  It was my Extremely Efficient Colleague.
"We've had The Phone Call," she said. (Sorry for all the capitalisation, but I need it).
"THE Phone Call?" I said.
Apparently, it was. We have forty eight hours to ready ourselves for an OFSTED inspection.  (Nearer twenty eight now). So my day off became a morning of buzzing around like the proverbial blue-bottomed insect, and an afternoon of grafting at work, and then I will give up another day off on Thursday.  I don't think there is any hope of writing time at all this week...but you never know.

The only good thing is that, while doing my impression of a fly this morning, I posted two Important Things:  the ghost story I'm entering in a competition, and a story that was rejected from one magazine went winging its way hopefully to another magazine.  And I don't even have time to dwell on their fates.  Now, if I could just find an umbrella to hold off the downpour....

Friday, 25 February 2011

Sea Monkey Stew

  Just days after bewailing the lack of thought for consequences that the four year old had towards the hapless sea monkeys we were babysitting for the Glamorous Next-Door Neighbour and her children, I found out where he gets it from.

  Two of the children and I were struck down with a tummy bug, and went to stay at my Mum's to recover.  We had to go, really, as the builder was working on the drains, and we had times when he was asking us not to use the toilets  - doesn't bear thinking about.  So I left Ste officially in charge of the house and the build and everything home related for a day. Twenty four hours, more or less.  
  And the plumbers came, to move the boiler flue, outside tap and overflow pipes. This involved drilling through the outside wall from the kitchen.  Had I been at home, I'd've moved things out of the kitchen, shut the kitchen door to keep the dust from upstairs, maybe covered some of the work surfaces.  My darling husband moved his shoes and left everything else.

  That night Mum went to check on the work for me (and pick up pyjamas for her lurgy-infested lodgers). She came back and said, 'It's quite a mess. I don't think you can go home till it's clean. You can't cook in there.'  She went on to tell me about the dusty fruit, the film on the worktops, the filth on the hob, the stereo with dust in every crack.  Then she said, 'But, Abigail, what are those things on the windowsill?  They're not fish, are they?'

  I suddenly felt sicker than ever. The sea monkeys!  
  'Well, they were still swimming around,' Mum said, doubtfully, 'But there is dust EVERYWHERE.'  I had dreams of choking sea monkeys, and wished I hadn't joked about keeping them alive till the end of the week.  

  We went to clean today; took two of us four hours of hard non-stop work.  The sea monkeys appeared none the worse for their adventures with us, even if the water is a peculiar shade of pink. Half way through cleaning, I spotted the Glamorous Next-Door Neighbour's husband wandering in his garden, back early from their holiday.  Those poor sea-monkeys must still be reeling from the speed with which they moved back next door, and I've replaced them with a bunch of flowers from my Dad.  At least I only have to remember to top up the water in those.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Giddy Heights

Was so excited to get a magazine today and find I've had a letter published on the letter's page! It should pay £30, and I hadn't been notified, but it's ridiculously exciting to see my name in print.

The letter was edited to within an inch of its life (very expertly, though, to be fair) and it's not the same as having fiction published somewhere, but I don't care today.  I'm still fizzing from the pleasure of knowing that I've essentially been paid for something of mine that is in print. There are so many rejections to celebrate, I think any success should be, too!

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Back to the drawing board

It appears the only way is down.  I rewrote parts of the ghost story, and at last got it within the word limit (quite a feat for me) and sent it back to The Trusted Friend...only for him to say, as my Auntie did about another piece, that it had lost something in the reworking.  Worst - shocker! - he finished his email with a patronising little comment about 'hope you continue to enjoy writing'...clearly he thinks it's a fine little hobby to keep me happy but that he was right years ago when he said I wouldn't get anywhere with it!

In a sense, he's right - I do enjoy it, and I can't imagine giving up, because I have such fun (in between the slogging and discouragement).  Anyway, I told myself that the second version had gone to him much 'fresher' than the first - because time is running out, I hadn't let it cook so it hadn't been as meticulously corrected, and maybe that was the issue. (Hey, I'm allowed to make excuses for myself. Someone's got to.)

This afternoon I went back through it and, how I hate him, his advice was nearly all spot on.  However, he questioned some of the basic motivations and realism of the situation  -  but for goodness' sake, it's a ghost story! And I still feel convinced by the motivations, myself.  I think while I still have faith in that, I shouldn't try messing with it.

So I'm about to sit down to the third draft(or is it fourth or fifth? Well, I'm still in single figures...), but at some point I'm going to have to just bite the bullet and send it.  After all, I'm not really holding out any hope that it will be placed in the competition;  what I want is the professional advice and feedback, and just to have a sense of achievement that I've dared to put myself up for 'public' scrutiny.  I do still want it to be my best effort though, so enough blogging, I have other writing to tackle...

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Sea Monkeys

You'd think the four year old would be growing more sensible by now.  A friend with boys tells me it's quite usual for them not to think out the consequences of their actions, and when I look at Ste, I can believe it.  But I still thought he had a bit of gumption.

The Glamorous Next-Door Neighbour was heading through the flickering snow to her in-laws' holiday home up north today.  She knocked on our door with two slim plastic fishtanks in her hand, about the size and shape of our modem.
'These are the boys' sea monkeys,' she said.  'Their dad says they'll be ok with us away the week, but I don't want them to starve. They only need a bit every other day.  Will you have them, so?'
It seemed reasonable enough.

'In the light,' she said.
The kitchen window-sill, I thought, away from the littlest one's clumsy hands. I put them on the trunk we use as a coffee table and picked the boy in question up.
'Just a wee bit of this on the spoon thing,' she said, showing me a measuring spoon that looked like a doll's house tablespoon.
'Sure they'll be fine,' she said, and trip-trapped down the front steps in her knee high boots with the killer heels, waving cheerfully through the snow.

I waved, equally cheerfully, and turned back into the room to find the four year old had picked up one of the tanks and was shaking it as if it were a snow globe.  Water splashed out of the holes in the lid.  He looked startled when I made a noise like a cat when its tail is trodden on, and put it down quickly. I dropped to my knees and searched the wet patches on the rug for any signs of feeble movement, but couldn't see any of the little semi-transparent blighters  - would I have done anyway? And just what I could do if I did find one microscopic little escapee/victim, I'm not sure.  To my relief, it looked as though he hadn't succeeded in shaking any of them out.  I peered into the water and held my breath.  The murk was beginning to clear; what must be old bits of green foodstuff shimmered snow-like down to the floor of the tank. (I was beginning to see why he might've mistaken it for a toy).  Little creatures, smaller than a comma, floated around on what looked like their backs, waving frond-like legs.  There didn't seem to be any harm done.  It was true, there didn't look as though there were as many as in the other tank.  And they were swimming in slightly panicky circles.  I wonder if sea monkeys can suffer concussion?  But there were still plenty in there, and they were still alive.

Now all I have to do is remember to feed them, and hope they still are by Friday.  Let's hope the Glamorous Next-Door Neighbour never decides to go in for a cat...

Saturday, 19 February 2011


There was a good reason I picked my friend to be my first reader.  His advice was spot on; not writerly advice, but solid, objective reading advice. Love it.  The moment I read his advice that a certain section was unnecessary, and he'd expected me to do something with it later in the story and I hadn't, I could see myself that it wasn't necessary.

It was one of those strange things - this section was to do with the woman who becomes the ghost being pregnant - and it was based on a real-life local tragedy from years and years ago.  When I first heard the story, the pregnancy was the part that had grabbed me by the throat and made me think - there's a story! And that was why it was in there.  But he was right; the story had evolved in a different way, and the pregnancy had nothing to do with it. It didn't bring anything to the party - in fact, it was just muddying the water.  (Oh no - those cliches again!) Why couldn't I see that myself? Just because I was half in love with the original concept? Wow.  Something to bear in mind in all my writing  - that sometimes you have to let go of things that are important to you, and that were at the root of the original idea;  if it's not paying its keep, let it go, and if it's not adding to the story, it's dragging it down.

There were other minor things too - some of them practicalities, things that didn't seem likely or believable...and he was encouraging too, but not gushing.   I trust him to be brutally honest (that's why I was so afraid).  When I was still fresh-faced and dreams were ten a penny, he told me I'd probably never be a writer;  there are so many aspiring ones out there.  So his encouragement is worth a lot. It's so scary opening yourself up for criticism like that - I'm glad he made it easy.  He even asked me to send him the stories I've begun to submit to magazines.  When I'd finished laughing at the thought of him reading these gentle, slightly twee love stories for middle-aged women, and how embarrassed I'd be if I let him, I was touched by the offer.  I need more friends like that.

Friday, 18 February 2011

The Return of the Ghost Story

It's amazing how a deadline seems like a miniscule dot on the horizon and then you turn around and it's threatening to swallow you whole.  I think there is only a week or two until I need to send the ghost story in to a competition, and with time stretched thin, I've done something unthinkable, and let my best friend read it.

The accompanying email was nearly as long as my novel;  endless instructions about being honest but not too honest;  critical but not to destroy all my confidence and a myriad of other Hugely Important Things to Bear in Mind.  Poor friend.  I was surprised how my heart clenched up while the cursor hovered over SEND.  Poor me.  I'm not sure when he'll get back to me, but in the next day or two.  It's one thing knowing your work is a dim reflection of what you wanted it to be, but opening the door to someone you know, and letting them judge it is so difficult. I let a good reading buddy from work read a chapter of my novel early on;  she was such a star, and her words of (biased) encouragement are what kick-started a germ of hope into a flare of motivation and productivity.  Ok, attempts at productivity.  She said to me afterwards, though, that she felt uncomfortable reading it, as if she were reading my diary.  I know exactly what she meant;  that's the reason I hate people I know reading my writing.  Even if it's fiction, it comes from the soul.  It leaves you vulnerable and exposed.

I'm going to have to grow a thicker skin, I know.  Wrap up tight in layers. A bit of unrealistic, unshakeable self-belief wouldn't go amiss either, if only I could find a place that stocks it.  And of course, the silly thing is, if he forgets that he's meant to be offering constructive advice, and criticises it, I'll be devastated.  But if he forgets his brief and compliments it, I shall resolutely refuse to believe him.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Marian Keyes

Something else I particularly enjoyed
reading last year...
I have quite wide and varied taste in reading material.  Let's face it, when I'm desperate I'll read the instructions for the 4 year old's drum kit.  I hate a vacuum of reading material.  Luckily, I'm far from desperate at the moment;  there's quite a stack of seductive books by the bed, distracting me from writing. (I don't know why they're there, particularly - I read anywhere, any time I can, as I suppose most wannabe authors must).

I've just finished Marian Keyes' latest offering, The Brightest Star in the Sky.  I enjoy her writing a lot (two of her previous books were used as pain-relief and distraction during two separate labours), although I think I'm only just beginning to appreciate all the craft that goes into her work.  Some of her characters are so neatly observed;  they leap from the page and stroll around with you.  Even though I've finished the novel now (I turned the last page at 2am - I was reading fiercely by the end), the characters are still in my head.  She has a brilliant touch for the sex scenes, too, I think  -  she walks that fine line between too much detail and too little with surgical precision.  The fact I was up till 2am (even though the alarm was set, as usual, for a 6am start) says a lot about how I found the plot too.

Thank goodness I can explain to Ste that reading is now a serious and important part of trying my hand at this writing game, and not just snatched minutes of indolence. But I'm not going to let myself open another book till I've got a few hundred words on screen...

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The best laid plans

We had a lovely lunch out yesterday with my Mum, one of my sisters and her husband.  It was such a beautiful day - you could believe Spring would come again, after all - and then we called to see my eccentric Grandma, who lives alone.  She was in remarkably high spirits, sitting by her four bar gas fire with them all turned up high.  We surreptitiously stripped layer after layer of clothing off, but every time I tried to turn the fire down, she rounded on me with a shriek of: 'What are you doing? It's awful shivery in here! Don't do that, I'm begging you.'  In the end Mum had to crack open the back door to let a draught in.

We headed home just in time for tea; we said goodbye to Mum and I had my mind already organising the pasta bake, and putting away the bit of shopping we'd done...but when I was balancing all three children and the bags at the top of our steep front steps, I discovered that I had no key.

In an instant the full horror unfolded;  I hadn't locked up when I left because Ste was at home, but now he was an hour's drive away, at work, until three am.  I felt sure the key had been in my handbag when I left,  but after checking three times, I had to admit I must have been mistaken.  Our front door is only a couple of months old, and I hadn't yet given anyone a spare key to it;  we've not really used it until now, and that's only because the beginnings of the extension are blocking access to the back door.

The only ray of hope was that Mum has a back door key...but I knew we'd left a key in the back lock, not expecting to use that door for the next six weeks or so.  (Isn't hindsight a wonderful thing? It could've got us through this sticky situation in no time).

In the end, we fed the children a meagre meal of spaghetti hoops on toast while we searched for Mum's spare back door keys (no mean feat in itself, as it turned out, but we sniffed them out in the end).   Then there was the saga of trying to toast bread under Mum's 'new' grill - she's only had it for four months, and didn't know how to use it.  After teasing her about that, I had to eat my words;  every time we lit it and released the knob, it switched itself off again.  I thought we were all going to be gassed, but at last we cracked it.  Then off we went, back to my house, with Mum watching the children in the car,  while I wiggled and jiggled the key furiously in the back door, and threw myself bodily at it. The only discernable effect this had was that I looked quite silly (nothing new there), and attracted the neighbours' attention.  (Which is, I suppose, quite reassuring).

So we ended up sleeping at Mum's.  The older children had to wear the baby's nappies, and shared a bed.  Luckily, they were so tired, they went out like lights.  They all wore t-shirts that didn't fit from Nan's spare clothes box;  the baby wore one of Rhianna's though he kept plucking at it in what I imagined was disgust because it was pink.  The four year old was so disgruntled by all the unnatural happenings of the day that he wouldn't eat his hoops on toast, then kept waking in the night, and wouldn't eat breakfast this morning, either (the wrong spoon, apparently).

All my school work went undone;  it was worse than when there's a powercut, because not only does my Mum only have four tv channels (yes, just four; channel five hasn't yet reached this neck of the woods) and no computer,  but all my reading material was still locked safely away at home.  At least I had an early night.

The worst thing was that I was so angry with myself. (Not a good example to set to the children).  I was livid that I hadn't double-checked I had a key; that I hadn't left the key out of the back door; that I hadn't given mum the spare front door key already.  (Aren't mistakes wonderful for teaching you things?) I was so angry I ate lots of chocolate, and I was still blaming myself this morning.  Until I walked through the front door, and started to look for the key.  I had been sure it was in my bag, but now knew it ought to be lying on the arm of the sofa, or on top of the trunk we use as a coffee table.  Only, it wasn't.  In a moment of renewed despair  I wondered if it had fallen out at the restaurant - what a nuisance! And then I found it, posted beneath the cushions of the leather sofa, in a place where it wouldn't have fallen on its own.  Hmm. The fourth lesson I've learnt:  don't ever leave the keys near the baby.....

Thursday, 10 February 2011


I'm having a confusing day.  Apart from the fact the builders arrived at ten past eight this morning, and began clearing our 'patio' ready for the extension, it's been impossible to get on properly with writing.  The phone has rung and rung, and just as I sat down to work, Mum and Dad turned up (to view the building site) and stayed....Oh well.
When they'd gone, I just had time to view the story that boomeranged back when I submitted it.  I'd tweaked it, and left it to stew a bit longer.  Today when I read it, there were a few editorial changes to make, but no major rewrites.  My auntie  arrived at tea time (to view the building site - aren't I popular today? How inexplicable) and I thrust the story at her and demanded she read it.  She is an avid reader of the magazines I'm trying to get into;  I know family opinions aren't worth much, but they do me some good.  She had liked this story before I first submitted it; I was feeling a teensy bit proud that I had made it stronger.
After she read it, she gave me a look and said, 'Yes, I can see you've changed it.  It didn't really give me a thrill like it did at first, though.'
So what do I do with that opinion? Have I interfered and made it worse? Was it good enough before? Do I need to let it stew even longer? I do feel a bit as though I can't see it anymore.  Or do I just reassure myself I've done my best (for now), send it out hopefully, and see what comes of it? I just don't know.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

A floater

At work today there was a bit of a storm in a teacup, or a mystery in the toilet.  A private nursery rents a room opposite ours in the school building.  We share the pint-sized toilets (that is, the children share them; the grown ups are allowed to use real-sized toilets with full height doors...).  All my class were in Assembly when one of the nursery teachers beckoned me into the toilets.
  'Has one of your children been sick?'
  'Not that I know of...'  I racked my memory to see if anyone had said anything about sick today.  I couldn't imagine anyone being sick and keeping it quiet;  it's a matter of pride to make the most fuss possible about vomit when you're four. In fact they're more likely to tell you they've been sick when actually they spat in a bowl, hoping you'd you'd send them home, rather than forget to point out when they have been ill.
  'It looks like someone has been sick down this one and got it on the seat.'
  I went to look, and there was the strangest sight.  I can see why the nursery teacher thought it was sick, but it looked creamy and there was no smell.  There was only one small splash on the seat, too.  But whatever was floating in the toilet bowl was unrecognisable.  I had to go closer to try and work it out.    It was shaped a bit like a small box, but had gone pulpy and disfigured.  When I say it was floating, really it was sinking and blocking the whole bowl.  It was a fairly virginal white, though;  my best guess after approaching it suspiciously two or three times was that someone had found a wad of squared toilet paper and put the whole lot in the toilet in one go.
  I locked the door and promised I'd get the cleaners to come and sort it.
  As soon as the children got back from Assembly, I sat them all down and began to lecture them on the evils of blocking toilets.  Playing on their eagerness to blame someone else for anything possible, I even opened the floor to anyone who could tell me anything about what had happened to the toilet on the end.  There was such a protracted silence and a sea of vacant faces turned my way that I began to doubt myself - was someone in the room an excellent liar?
  'So no-one knows what it is?  And no-one knows who's put something down there?' I said.  I was feeling rather grim by now.
  Just then a voice from the far end of the room said, 'The toilet? The one on the end? I've put something down it.'
  My wonderful teaching assistant came around the corner, laughing.  'I didn't know you'd seen it,' she said, 'I was going to tell you, but then we had to rush to Assembly.  It's frozen soup.'
  I'm not often flummoxed, but I was then.
  She explained that she'd found it when she was clearing the fridge in our kitchen, and she didn't want to block the sink by letting it defrost in there, so she'd put in in the toilet.   In case you're wondering if a tupperware lump of soup would block the toilet, the answer appears to be, no.  After she'd flushed it a couple of times during the afternoon, there was no trace, although the eternal smell of wee in the toilet area does have a delicate overtone of leek and potato now.

Monday, 7 February 2011

And so it begins

Late last night I was putting the finishing touches to my preparations for today's teaching.  Suddenly, from upstairs, I heard a really odd noise, something a bit like a cat coughing up a fur-ball.  (We don't have a cat). I listened for a second;  I wondered if the one year old was having a nightmare, or laughing in his sleep. (Yes, he does do that occasionally).

Then it started to scare me - it was such a weird sound and they'd all been silent and, as far as I knew, deep in sleep, for a couple of hours.  I went up the stairs two at a time, and opened the bedroom door a wee bit faster than I ought....and there was the five year old, wide awake and giggling uncontrollably by torchlight.   It turned out she was reading 'The Magic Faraway Tree' by Enid Blyton and had come to a funny bit.

I could hardly be expected to be angry that she's taking after me (I remember hiding the torchlight under the covers, though, and I also had the good sense not to giggle when I was meant to be asleep).  Besides it was kind of hard to talk past the lump I got in my throat when I realised she is stepping into Wonderland on her own.  I almost envy her, all those lovely, gorgeous stories she has yet to read.  So I just giggled with her, and I'll try my absolute best to be cross the next time I catch her.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Last year we stayed in the World's Worst Bed and Breakfast (unofficial designation) for one night so the children could play on the beach.  There is a long and horrible story attached to this, but suffice it to say that we ended up at the B&B due to a belt-tightening strategy that was unrelated to losing any weight.
 I think everyone felt a bit sorry for us. Perhaps we told the story of the horrors we had endured a little too often.  So my Mum and Dad are kindly taking us to the Lincolnshire coast in July, along with both my sisters and their families.  Most of us will be in one house, but my eldest sister, husband and their three children are staying separately but nearby.  This is probably a good thing, for them as well as us..!
Beginning to organise it has been a feat of planning that has been almost military in scale.  Even so, it's not possible for Steve to come, as he is working all summer, except one week, and that is the week that three other people can't make.  I hate it when he is missing at family occasions, and it happens so often, you might think it was deliberate if you didn't know him. (I know him, and still think it might be deliberate.)
I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I'm going to look forward to it and hope for nice weather; grey skies on a wet English coast are not very appealing, but even in July that's what we might get. But I'll dig out the sunsuits and suncream, and hope for the best.
But in true bus-like fashion, two holidays have come along at once.  My lovely in-laws phoned two weeks ago to say they were booking a huge house on the coast of Wales at Easter for us all to go and stay in - with Steve's glam sister and her husband, and Steve's ageing Nan.  We pointed out that our school holidays didn't coincide all that well, and they went quiet.  Then they phoned back, triumphant, last week -  they'd booked a place! We could join them for a mere fraction of the true rental price. We wrote the date in the diary and discovered that Steve is working, and won't be there - hmm!
And now I'm feeling nervous.  Who is going to cook and sort food?  What if we all want to do different things or argue? Much as I love the in-laws, it'd be nice to have Steve with me, offering moral support.  But there's no point wishing - if I put my mind to it, I know I'll have fun, and it might even be worth taking some books to read or even my novel to work on while there are willing baby-sitters on hand.
But what are the chances of sun in April at the coast?  Well, this is Britain.  I'm thinking we'll leave the sunsuits at home, and take waterproofs and lots of games.  Surely everyone will be happy to play endless rounds of Hungry Hippos while I read in a corner?

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Putting one foot in front of the other

  Today is Wednesday, so I had a nugget of time to write in.  The baby was meant to be sleeping, but he kept calling out every so often, which interrupted my train of thought, though it's lovely to hear his little voice.  The worrying thing is, maybe he's growing out of morning sleeps, and then I'll lose one of my extra writing sessions a week...but I'm not going to borrow trouble.  Maybe next week he'll sleep; and tomorrow I want him to sleep in the afternoon, because that's when the four year old is out! Poor child; no wonder he's out of routine.
  I also had time after lunch to read some of the latest Writers' Forum.  I particularly enjoyed reading Hazell Evans' 'Book Deal or bust!'  She is an aspiring writer like me, though she's a few steps ahead.  It's good to hear about other people in the same boat; and I found it very encouraging today, when the job of rewriting has seemed more difficult than juggling knives while climbing Everest.  But as my outdoorsy-husband frequently reminds me when we are conquering Welsh mountains and my legs are giving up, (and my spirits, too) - all you have to do is keep taking one more step at a time.
 So here's to pretending there is no big picture;  to anyone else who is battling to improve their writing, or finish a novel; to the promise of writing time tomorrow.