Friday, 27 November 2009

The worst day of my life!

"This is the worst day of my life!"

No, this is not another depressing post (I seem to have written a lot of serious and rather melancholy stuff lately). This is how my son greets me with remarkable frequency. Who would have thought being eight was so difficult?

He was playing his trombone, and playing lots of staccato notes rather than the legato his teacher wanted him to play. Foolishly, I point this out. I had first said how well he was playing and he just needs to lengthen the notes a little.

"But I can't!" he wails. "This is the worst day of my life!"

Flings down trombone, collapses to floor and tries to hide.

Or last weekend, when visiting Grandpa and being told he had to be a little bit quiet and not walk around with his juice and find something to do whilst Mummy told Grandpa about her visit to Great-Granny in hospital (a whole other post there, methinks).

"Oh, this is the worst day of my life!" Cue collapse to floor in floods of crocodile tears.

[Admittedly the day was not great, but he had spent over an hour playing games with his Dad and eating chocolate in the hospital cafeteria.]

And yesterday? He has his first swimming lesson since we moved house, which he loved, but much of the evening is taken up with ferrying his sister around to other activities. Cue ...

"This is the best day of my life - ever!"


"Well, apart from my friends falling out at playtime."

At least he has some balance in his life then!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

A life worth living?

Twenty-two years ago this week our dog, Fudge, was put down.

Something had been wrong for a couple of weeks and she was taken to the vet on Tuesday morning. I came home from school to find that she had cancer in her stomach and was put down.

Three days later we were told that my mother had weeks, perhaps only days, to live. She died the following morning.

I often wonder about this peculiar week. Fudge was 11 years old, not a bad age for a dog, and clearly she would have been in ridiculous pain and discomfort if we had not had her put down. It would be mean and unfair to let her live in that condition.

So, is it more fair to keep a human alive? We all think so. After all, we are all human (well, most of us!) But is it right to keep someone alive who is in pain and discomfort, who genuinely has a short life-expectancy anyway?

Of course, there are many examples of people who have far outlived their prognosis (Jane Tomlinson would be a fine example) and I am delighted for them and their families. There are probably stories of dogs who have done a similar thing, fighting back from what would seem an impossible situation.

Every so often my husband, in his work as a paediatrician, tells me of children he is caring for that he is sure will die. They have such awful, horrific diseases that he can see no way that they will survive to have a 'normal' life or to contribute to society in any way. Of course, the hippocratic oath demands that the best is done for these children but sometimes - just sometimes - I wonder if 'the best' is actually to let them die in peace and dignity, rather than after weeks, months or even years of invasive treatments.

I was touched last week by the compassion shown by the parents of baby RB. This child had a dreadful condition meaning that he could not live except with artificial breathing. The parents had been to court, but ended up settling amicably on switching the life-support machine off. Last Friday that was done.

What an awful choice for a parent, whilst presumably right for the child.

Could I have done it? Wouldn't I have fought for my child's life, for as long as possible? Wouldn't I demand the best healthcare (to hell with the cost!) because it is my child, my love, my future?

There is no easy answer. But the juxtaposition of the cancerous deaths of my mother and our beloved family dog does make me question the virtues of prolonging life at any cost.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Life has no purpose

The other day, in a fit of melancholy, as I walked back from dropping the kids at school I thought to myself that my life has no purpose. The day was stretching endlessly before me, and what could I plan to achieve? The washing? Is this what sums my life up now?

Thinking a little more, I realised that my anxiety was not about having no purpose, but having too many purposes. So many purposes that I wasn't really sure which to tackle next. (It just happened that the washing was becoming more and more urgent!)

Many of the things I do have been shared on this blog, so in a way of an update and partly to try to sort out what I ought to be doing next, here is what is currently going on.

The writing
I am trying to write a chapter a day during the month of November of The Professor, The Bishop and Me, the third and final book telling the story of our time in Zambia. I am failing on my initial lofty goal, but I have written around 17,500 words, which is not to be sniffed at. There have been days when this has been nearly impossible to write and days when I have wept whilst typing about stories that are so personal and upsetting to me. It is only the 16th today, so I still have half the month to go - maybe half the book will be finished then?

The house
I haven't updated about this for ages. We have received planning permission for our proposed changes and are now in the process of submitting building regs. We will then have to put the job out to tender (yikes!) so I am spending far too much time on-line working out exactly which tiles and baths and lights and kitchen units I actually want. Everything requires a decision and, given decisions are not my strong point, the next few weeks could be excruciating. And we haven't even begun building yet...

The family
Husband's job still takes up too much time (personal opinion!) and the PhD has still to be completed (personal frustration!) which does seem to leave me on my own more than either of us would like.
Having had parent's evening at school last week I am proud to say that my son is absolutely flying through school, the teacher being very pleased with everything but his handwriting (he's a boy, and can't be bothered with it!)
And I am delighted with my daughter's progress too! She is talking more in class, sitting still on the carpet with more consistency and generally improving all round. Her reading and spellings are fine, her numeracy is still way behind but her teachers were very positive about her and her progress. If she learns to concentrate better then maybe she'll pick everything up more quickly: that is the current theory we are working on. But she is talking - woo hoo!

I have to write a sermon by the end of the month. (I've read the bible passages and they seem all doom and gloom, which doesn't feel appropriate just before Christmas!)

So, if you add in that I am trying to fund-raise in order to take some money or equipment out to Zambia when we go on holiday next year, to a project that works with women and orphans; and planning for Christmas, with family coming and going throughout the fortnight's 'holiday'; and the usual taxi service to run for the children, household jobs to do and an elderly grandmother that I really ought to visit more often ... well, I am not allowed to be idle.

There probably is some purpose to my life after all!

Monday, 9 November 2009

Pandemonium and Pottery Party Preparation

I hate birthday parties.

Now is the time of year I have to endure organising them. It causes me untold stress, and I really wish they didn't, as the children love them. My son's birthday is just before Christmas which makes it doubly difficult as I have to avoid Christmas parties and the many school events that occur in the run up to the holidays.

Nevertheless, yesterday was Daughter's 7th birthday party. She had been looking forward to it all week: a party at a pottery place.

Here is what I organised:
- the venue
- the invitations
- the items the girls were going to paint
- the food to eat
- the plates etc. to eat the food from
- the party bags
- the cake - both making and decorating

I know, my list is very similar to every other mother's list. And I wish it didn't get me so anxious, but I would like everything to be perfect and I want all the children to be well-behaved and I don't want to run out of food or bags or cake or whatever. The Cake dominated Saturday's preparation, firstly as I realised I didn't have enough eggs to cook it. Then concern when, after 37 minutes in the oven it was still soggy in the middle. Then making butter icing that was nearly solid and virtually unspreadable. Then decorating with enough pink things to make it attractive for a dozen girls, including writing her name on it with the icing pens my son had kindly bought (with my money but without my permission) when I have never written with icing before. Then ensuring no-one ate it for 24 hours...

Here is what my daughter did:
- turned up and enjoyed herself

Yeah, I know! How inconsiderate! All the hard work from Mum and not so much as a thank you! Friends arrive, she grabs their presents and then sits down to the hard work of painting her model teddy bear. She leaps at the chance to go on the miniature railway (whilst I set out all the food) and then eats. She blows out the candles. She says goodbye to all her friends. She laughs and smiles the whole way through.

She gets home, opens all the presents and then snuggles up with Mum on the sofa.

Ah, yes: that bit was precious. An exhausted daughter, worn out by the excitement and the joy, just enjoying being quiet with me for a little while.

And that, really, is what makes it all worthwhile.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Heaven Can Wait

Today is a World First for this blog: an interview!

Cally Taylor is a proper writer: has written lots of stuff, really works hard on it and (most crucially) is actually published. Her first novel, Heaven Can Wait, is out in all good bookstores right now! I have written a review of the book on my other blog (I thoroughly enjoyed it!)

I held his face in my hands and kissed him back. I felt that life just couldn't get any more perfect. I was right, it wouldn't...

I am delighted to welcome her to my blog as part of her World Blog Book Tour. Here she answers questions about her book, the writing and editing process, and where in the world she'd rather be. Enjoy! (Then buy the book...)

Firstly, tell me about your book 'Heaven Can Wait', the story of a girl who dies before she can marry her true love. What inspired you to write it? I have to assume it is not based on true-life experience...

Er no...though I probably would have got a lot more press though if:

a) An ex-boyfriend had died and come back to haunt me

b) I was actually dead and managing to write a novel (a lot, lot more press!)

The truth is I was inspired to write “Heaven Can Wait” after a friend died and I ended up thinking about death a lot (I know, cheery subject for a romantic-comedy writer). That, and a question from my then boyfriend – if he died how long would I wait before I moved on? (he was a cheery sort) - sparked an idea for a novel. I started to wonder what would happen if the dead person refused to move on. What if they refused to go to heaven and insisted on being sent back to earth instead?

Have you always been a writer? What is the most interesting job you have done?

Despite having a novel out I’m not a full time writer yet – I’ve still got the day job, designing e-learning Masters degrees for a London university.

I’ve had lots of different jobs – a strawberry/raspberry sorter (M&S and Sainsburys get the best, the other supermarkets gets the rest), a kitchen hand, a waitress, a barmaid, a post sorter for the Royal Mail (even if you write ‘Fragile’ it still gets chucked into a sack!), a graphic designer and a web developer – but the most interesting job was when I worked for a local radio station. I had to put together the traffic reports for the DJs to read out and answer the phone during competition phone-ins. I also had to greet the guests in reception and bring them through. I remember being very nervous about going to meet an ‘aura reader’ once. I was in a foul mood and was sure she’d see a big black cloud around me as I forced a smile and welcomed her to the studio!

What do you most enjoy about writing? ... and least?

I most enjoy that feeling when the scene you’re writing grabs you by the hair and pulls you into the story. You lose track of time, yourself and what’s going on around you and you live and breathe what you’re writing. When you finally stop writing the rush is incredible.

I least enjoy getting stuck and not knowing what happens next. I also dislike the feeling that something is wrong with the story and/or character – especially when I can’t work out why, or how to fix it. I don’t like that I’m a perfectionist and constantly doubt my ability and what I’m writing.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to write and publish a book?

Write what excites you. Don’t write about vampires because they’re ‘the next big thing’. Don’t try and write a Mills and Boon because you think it’ll be ‘easy’. Don’t write chicklit because you think it’s popular and bound to sell. Don’t write to make money. Write the story that you can’t get out of your head, that makes your heart beat faster, that has you jumping out of bed at night to scribble down a new idea for a scene. Write the story that you can put your heart into. Write the story that makes you laugh and cry. Don’t try and write like another writer, or how you think a novel should be written to be marketable, write like you.

I really believe that when what you’re writing moves you it will move your reader too (whether that’s an agent/editor or book buyer). If you hate every second of what you’re writing you’re writing the wrong novel for you. Yes it’s hard to put your bum on the chair and I procrastinate as much as everyone else, but once I get going I enjoy it and wonder why I don’t sit down and write more often! If what you’re writing feels like constant torture – and it never gives you a buzz - write something else.

At the moment you are editing your second novel. How do you approach the process of editing? Do you have any tips (... for those of us who find it soooo difficult and often demoralising...)?

Oooh god, you’re asking me this while I’m knee deep in rewriting/editing hell, and have been for months!

I’ve had two very different experiences with editing. With “Heaven Can Wait” the story was very clear in my head all the way through and the structure didn’t need any work when I finished the first draft so I ‘just’ had to edit it. I went through and cut a lot (trimming it from 100,000 to 80,000 words) to make it pacier. I cut a lot of introspection

, I tried to make the funny scenes funnier, I noticed there were lots of ‘waking up in the morning’ chapter beginnings and cut or changed them. I cut journeys and transitional scenes and I cut bits of dialogue that were just waffle and didn’t move the scene forward. I cut, cut, cut.

The best bit of advice I can give for editing is, if your novel is in good shape structurally/makes sense/has plot and character arcs, to read it through and mark anything you find boring with BORING in big letters. Keep reading. Keep marking the boring bits. Then go through and cut or rewrite those boring bits. Read it again – out loud this time – and you’ll spot more mistakes and/or stumbling sentences. Fix them.

With novel 2 (the one I’m working on now) the story was a lot messier at the end of the first draft and, unlike “Heaven Can Wait”, the structure needed a lot of work. As a result I’ve had to rewrite it. I did that by reading the draft through, making notes about what had to change/why/where and then working through it methodically, from the first chapter to the last, rewriting. It’s a bit like building a wall in your back garden when you haven’t got a car. You walk down to B&Q, buy a few bricks, carry them home, and lay them in your garden. Then you go back to B&Q the next day, buy a few more, carry them home and continue to build. When you’ve finished you’re absolutely knackered, go out to admire your handiwork and discover you’ve built it wonky! The only thing you can do is to knock it (or some of it) down and rebuild - but at least you’ve got the bricks and you don’t have to walk all the bloody way to B&Q again!

There are probably a lot of holes in that metaphor. I’ve never actually built a wall before...

Anyway... if you’ve finished your first draft and there are problems with it and you’re not sure how to fix them the best advice I can give is to go back to your ‘How to’ books on plotting and characters and try and work out what it is your novel is lacking. Go with your gut instinct. If something doesn’t ‘feel’ right about your novel it probably isn’t. Try and narrow down what isn’t working then ask yourself WHY it isn’t working. If you can identify that you should be able to fix it.

The Withenays have wandered an awful lot, moving house seven times in the last six years. I know you are selling your flat at present. Where would you most like to move to, given no other constraints on your life?

Don’t talk to me about moving! My dad was in the army and I think I was born with itchy feet. When I first moved to Brighton I moved house six times in three years! I’ve been a bit more settled in this flat and have lived here the longest I’ve lived anywhere, ever (mortgages are like concrete blocks for itchy feet!). If I had no constraints on my life...hmmm...I don’t know. I’d have to visit a few places first, to check them out. I’ve heard that Perth, Australia is gorgeous and I’ve always wanted to visit San Francisco so maybe somewhere like that. Ideally I’d like to be able to live in the UK during the spring/summer and live somewhere sunny in the winter. I can’t STAND short, dark days.

Which is better: the journey or the destination?

I’d be lying if I didn’t say ‘the destination’. It’s the feeling of accomplishment, relief and pride when I’ve finished a draft of a novel and typed ‘the end’ that does it for me. I might feel like I’m limping over the writing finishing line (like Katie Price completing a marathon), but I know I’ve worked bloody hard to get there and I’m proud of myself. Writing is an exhausting process and I can’t believe I used to think (before I actually tried writing a novel) that it was easy! I’ve got a LOT of respect for anyone who writes and finishes a novel, whether published or unpublished, because I know how bloody hard it is and how much dedication, perseverance and sheer-bloody-mindedness it demands.

If you could pick one person who would request a signed copy of 'Heaven Can Wait' from you, who would it be?

Richard Curtis. I’d be secretly hoping he’d requested it because he wanted to turn it into a film (well I can dream...)

Thank you so much Cally for visiting my little blog as part of your World Tour. I wish you every success with the forthcoming film of your book (positive thinking!) and look forward to my seats at the premiere in Leicester Square!

You can find out more about Cally on her website or follow her blog, or become a twitter buddy

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

My writing challenge (day 4 update)

Just a quick update for those of you caught in my procrastination last week. I have written over 9,000 words of The Professor, The Bishop and Me so far, some of them quite reasonable, over the past four days. If I'm lucky this evening I may take it over the 10,000 mark, but that assumes I ditch all my parenting skills (such as they are!)

And for the writing and reading fans out there, come back on Friday when I will be interviewing Cally Taylor about her recently published book Heaven Can Wait. Really, I want to be her when I grow up.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Job prospects

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked my daughter at lunch today.

"A mummy," she says.

"You can't be a mummy," her brother complains. "That's not a job." [Wry smile from me, here.]

"Would you like to be a teacher?" I ask.


"Maybe a nurse, or a doctor like Daddy?"

"No, that's a boy's job. I don't want a boy job. I'm a girl."

"Doctors can be girls too," my son shouts back at her. Patience and tolerance are low in his list of skills at present - equality and justice are clearly higher! I do wonder where they get these sexist ideas for jobs: it certainly isn't from home.

"What about being a vet?" her brother continues. "Boys and girls can be vets."

"No, that's a boy job. I don't want to be a vet."

Volume levels are rising, and the distinction between boy and girl jobs is not one I wish to promote nor pursue. "So, is there anything else you want to be?" I ask gently.

"No. I want to be a mummy."

So that's that.

Does that mean I have to be a granny?

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