Tuesday, 28 February 2012

My latest creation

Little Chick-pea arrived on the 22nd February - a baby sister for the other three to dote on. Turns out I can create something even more perfect than I can envisage.  She is a delightful little chubster - 8lb 6 and a half oz - and we are all in love, as we should be.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Project hopping

Half-term is over, and I'm on maternity leave, playing the waiting game.  What a gorgeous amount of time to spend on writing projects to pass the time....but of course not.  The two-year old is at home, and finding it risible that I suggested he amuse himself, even for half an hour. (He's helping me type now, with sticky fingers on my laptop keys).

Fortunately, in trying to keep a little writing routine going as much as possible -for as long as I can - I have things that I can tackle in ten minute slots. I dug out my Grandad's life-story this week; I had typed it up a year or more ago, but it needs lots of footnotes.  One day I hope to use a POD service so I can give my sisters and Dad a copy.  It's a very personal project, which I'm trying to edit and interfere with as little as possible - it's about Grandad, not my writing, and I only wish I'd asked him to write it earlier, as he might have got further along before he died. It's a completely different project, and the change is good. It also has intriguing little stories in that I would love to use sometime; he was a dispatch rider in the Royal Signals during WW2, and had a fascinating wealth of life experience by the time he was in his early twenties. It turns out that this project, at a very uncreative point, fits well into ten minute slots.

In direct contrast, my next book-to-be is still at the planning and plotting stage, and I can pour gallons of creativity over it to help it to flare into life.  Yet it also fits into short sessions. 

There's a definite benefit to having a range of projects, of wildly different kinds, on the go at the same time.  I wonder if you work like this, and if it suits you?

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Baby Brain

Photo: vichie81
Baby brain.  It's one of those funny phenomena that is always up for discussion.

 Pregnant women go on and on about the strange things they do - a colleague of mine brought her home phone to work in her handbag instead of her mobile. I've lost the sugar for a morning, because I'd put it in the fridge with the milk instead of the cupboard where it belongs.

Perky magazines trying to convince their pregnant readership that pregnancy is a superior state (an effort I'm grateful for) constantly quote any new research that proves the hormones zipping around during pregnancy are magical things.  I've read that they make pregnancy the perfect time to  use the imagination, try new things, become a miracle multi-tasker and that actually pregnant brains function better than pre-pregnant brains.

And I have a lot to say to that. Like gah, surrenbet, and flumduh?  If baby brain is a myth, I must have premature senile dementia. If I weren't pregnant, I'd be seriously worried.  Words - the simplest of nouns, mostly  - are deserting me by the bookful. I can laugh about it, knowing they'll come back again to roost, one day.

But it's disconcerting at best when your small child looks at you quizzically and says, 'Did you mean teeth, Mummy?' and you realise groggily that you've told her to brush her hands.  Sometimes I can get around it (with some frustration) by describing things.  Steve wanted his hospital wristband tonight, from when he was newborn. (It's a long story).  I could see it in an instant. I knew exactly where it was.
'It's in the bookshelf, with the other....things. It's a purple - a purple striped book thing. Look in the bookcase, second along, third shelf up with the other... oh, for goodness' sake.' I took a deep breath, then shouted triumphantly, 'Photo albums! It's in a purple stripy photo album.'

I wasn't quite sure how to take it when he suggested my next story should draw on my experience, and involve the frustrations of Alzheimer's, apart from to feel thankful that I haven't got to face something so crippling in reality. Then, two minutes later, he called up, 'Where did you say this album is?'

'Never mind. I'll come and get it.' I heaved my considerable bulk off the sofa (having baby bump as well as baby brain) and found it, exactly where I'd said: second bookcase along, third shelf up.

So while I wait for my language skills to return, I get the last laugh. At least I don't suffer from Man-Blindness (the inability to spot the obvious, right in front of your nose). 

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Little Quitter

My daughter has her characters in place for the story she was going to write.  She has a plot that isn't terribly exciting, but it's all hers. She knows where she's going and all that is left is to put pencil to paper. Today I suggested she make a start; told her she'd probably get it done today, or she could do a bit at a time if she preferred.

She slanted her mouth down and dipped her head to look at me from under her wayward fringe.

'I don't really want to,' she said.  And ran off to fetch her Hama beads instead. 

It would be lovely to try to glean a lesson from this.  It is so often hard to start  writing (either a new thing, or sometimes on a new day!); to begin committing an idea to print, knowing you're going to spoil it along the way.  But let's face it. She's six.  She's not afraid of failing yet. She simply wanted to do something else instead. Perhaps it was my fault for trying to help her too much. Perhaps I corralled her imagination and creativity into something that no longer held any sparkle for her. Or perhaps she has the focus of a grasshopper. There's no point sucking the joy from it by forcing her to do it, so that, it seems, is the end of that. 

Here's to feeling the joy; but keeping up the 'work' even on the days the joy stays in bed.

Friday, 17 February 2012


It's working.  I'm getting a few more ideas for my plot down on paper, and fleshing them out.  I am trying to think of less and less original or predictable outcomes, too - tricky, as I want the characters to be believable, and none of them (so far at least) appears to  suffer from any form of psychosis.  So there are definitely a few options there that aren't going to fit.  But it's a good exercise for my imagination.  I want to avoid falling into the trap of my six-year old, and churning out the easy and obvious....since I have nearly thirty years on her, I have no excuse.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The plot thickens

Was re-reading some of Jurgen Wolff's excellent 'Your Writing Coach' again today.  He suggests that early in plotting (before character profiles) it is useful to interrogate yourself on the 'Why?'s of your idea, and to keep questioning until you have more insight, and also perhaps other avenues of the story. 

After this, he advocates using some 'What else could happen?' questioning.  It was delicious opening a brand new notebook.  I have quite a little stash of them, most of which I'm slightly reluctant to use - they're so pretty when they're pristine, before I've filled them with scribbles and post-it notes. But I carefully wrote a title and the questions above.  And then I closed it again. 

I will come back to it - maybe even tonight - but first I had to take the children swimming, and make turkey burgers with them, and listen to them read, and cuddle the little one and read to him, and then I fell asleep on the sofa in a late-pregnancy induced stupor.  But that notebook is like a promise to myself-  planning this as a career, not just another dabble at a story.

Monday, 13 February 2012

More six-year old scribbling

At tea-time tonight we tried making a list of horrible things that might happen to the 6-year old's main character. She wasn't able to embrace the idea of horrible things. I was touched by her innocence and sweetness.  She thought perhaps the problem might be that her protaganist might fall...off a swing.  Or in the playground, six times. Her 5-year old brother suggested brightly that she might fall on a railway line and get dead, and R sucked in her lips and said, 'Well, it would have to be a toy railway line.  And it would have to be switched off.'

Trying to persuade her to include any real peril was difficult. We moved onto things that might happen at school that were bad.  Could the baddie (Evil Boy Cousin) do something naughty? Perhaps he might damage something valuable of the teacher's...? Oh, she liked that. He might steal a pencil. Bless her.  We brainstormed for ten minutes, with her brother interjecting several interesting and dangerous scenarios, while she...didn't.  At the end, there was perhaps one that stood out, involving getting lost in a cave.  And I felt strangely proud of the fact that in her world, at the moment, falling over in the playground, or stealing a pencil are the worst things she can imagine.

We finished the session with me scribbling down a story for the five year old, who was so desperate to be involved.  It went like this:

A bad boy called Luke put Jessie in a rocket that was about to blast off. It went to the moon and bashed into it. Jessie fell out all the way home, and broke her arm and had to go to hospital. Her mum was cross with her, and so was her dad and the doctor and all the other patients.

Oh, the simple joy of an unfettered imagination.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Weird Little Minds

My little six-year old (who looks so much older now she has a gap in her teeth, and can do her own hair...even if it does look better from the front than the back) adores reading, as I've mentioned before.  She also likes writing stories, when she is in the mood. I'm careful not to push her. I think there's an effort involved in the mechanics of writing at her age that is exhausting, and can actually extinguish the creativity that making up stories needs.  Every so often, she'll produce a story, and she is lit up with the joy of it. 

More often, she starts a story, and then discards it unfinished. I'm sure many of us can associate with that.

Her father, who regards my writing with some bemusement, but humours me, heard of a writing competition for children, run by the BBC.  Without thinking it out, he printed the rules, and told her all about it, and she is now determined to enter. It makes my chest feel tight for her. I remember entering Blue Peter competitions for all sorts as a child, and that complete lack of understanding you have at that age of just how many other entries you were up against. I remember the disappointment of never winning. She hasn't understood that yet.  She isn't even aiming to be in the top twenty-five for her age category. She wants to win some books. And that's another thing - her age category is nine and under.  A nine year old is a whole different creature to a six year old.

So I'm taking it rather seriously and her dad is laughing, and says, Just let her write it, ok? Then send it up.

But they're looking for originality, characterisation, plot...!

So we had a half hour this afternoon when she made up two characters, and I asked her questions about them. It was a lot of fun. She really enjoyed it, and I always love spending time with her weird little mind.  I'm finding it strange, despite my teaching background, to think how best to break the process of plotting into chunks for her. I think she is already beginning to have ideas about how she can use the characters she has come up with - they are suggesting plots to her - and I think she would have liked to do more today, but I refused, and said we'd carry on another day. I'm hoping that will keep her enthusiasm high.

Do you think I'm overthinking this?  Do you think it says a lot more about me than her?!

I suspect her brother will be very different. The five year old had a dream last night that I dropped a jar of ants in the bathroom, and we flushed most of them down the toilet but then one crawled under his skin, and went from his belly button right up to his head.  I'm already looking forward to the stories he'll make up...

Irons in the fire

It turns out it's easier to work in little chunks at the plotting stage. I sat down yesterday and the day before, and wrote some very brief notes for the next three books I want to work on. (How ambitious of me!) One has been simmering away in the back of my mind for at least eighteen months, and the characters are already talking to me in little bursts, while the other was an idea triggered by something I heard on the radio four days ago, and is the barest bones and 'what if's? 

It's quite fascinating to have them there on the screen, now, each grown to a different depth according to how long it's been since their conception.  I wrote them down partly to clarify my thinking on each, and partly to decide which one to begin with, but it turns out there isn't a choice. It would be counter-intuitive to leave the one which has been languishing to sit it out on the shelf for another couple of years. I've been aching to get at it, and I can't be unfair and bypass it now. It still intrigues me and interests me, and there are still so many questions to answer about the characters and plot that I can hardly wait to start.

And sitting on the end of the desk is the printed out manuscript of my other book, waiting for me to read through.  I think Jurgen Wolff recommends the first read through should be an overview, without making notes or getting hung up on grammar or any other finer points.  I'm going to re-read the relevant parts of his helpful book before I start, to help me to focus on improving it in the most efficient way.  But I think I'll find it very taxing not to go through it with a red pen, immediately striking out huge parts and writing helpful critiquing comments in the margins, such as 'This is dross!'

It's encouraging to think that, with a maternity leave looming, there are parts of my writing life that I may just be able to keep up with, even in the first few weeks. (Ambitious and delusional - what a combination!)

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Black and white

I printed out my novel today.  In preparation (and anticipating my husband's half-hearted grumblings over wasting ink and paper) I'd bought a couple of packs of paper, and a black ink cartridge. 

Fortunately, he was still sleeping off a night shift when I discovered I'd bought the wrong ink cartridge...and thrown away the receipt.  I did sneak down to our local Sainsburys and flaunted my bump as an excuse for my stupidity, in the hope they'd exchange the cartridge, but it didn't work.  As a last ditch attempt, I'm writing to customer services to ask for proof of purchase through my Nectar card, but I'm not holding my breath.

Following the advice of various writing books and magazines, I changed the font before I printed, and to save paper, I closed up spacings, reducing my massive MS to a mere 251 pages. Half way through, the black ink ran out, and my husband (awake now, and surprisingly understanding about my idiocy) went and bought another cartridge from a small independent shop in town.  Just another 30 -50 pages later, it too ran out.  At first, I blamed the printer, and made all kinds of defamatory utterances towards it.  When I finally stomped into the kitchen and grumbled about how the printer was lying to the Mac about running out of black when I'd just changed the cartridge, Ste came to see for himself, and on shaking the cartridge announced that he thought the printer was telling the truth, actually. He went straight back to the shop and made a fuss (thank goodness for someone in the family who is good at complaining) and we will have a free replacement tomorrow. Meanwhile, my novel is only three-quarters printed, but there is such glow every time I catch sight of that square-edged pile of papers.

I'm resolutely refusing to acknowledge that as I stacked the papers, I caught sight of cringe-worthy phrases, and clumsy ideas (whoever told me I had anything worthwhile to say? Wherever did I get the idea I could write? At all?). Instead I'm adding it to my reading pile for the hospital, and hope I'll be able to improve it and not decide to file it in a drawer somewhere.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Breathing Space

Having a void, for now, of writing projects, is doing me good.  I think occasionally of my novel, but more often my mind is full of the new baby, and getting ready.

Walking home from work yesterday, however, I saw the smallest something that triggered an idea for a short story - I explored ideas (most  too easily come-by and predictable) on the rest of my walk, and scribbled ideas in one of my notebooks as soon as I got home.  Turning the leaves of my notebook, I saw a scrap of an idea I'd had before - I'd written a whole first chapter, in fact (if you can call that a scrap) and the strange thing was, I have very little recollection of writing it.  The simmering ideas I have for my second and third novel are nothing to do with this.  It was an intriguing opening, and I can't, for the life of me, remember what was actually going on, and why this woman was in the fix she found herself.  I found that quite exciting, and full of possibility.

In fact, I got quite fizzy-stomached thinking about it.  I think some down-time between projects will become one of my 'must-haves'.