Sunday, 31 July 2011

I am not tired and I will not go to bed!

So, it is late. The children have been put to bed, stories read and sleep beckons.

I decide to have a bath - my husband's still not home from work, so I figure I could take my time, read a book, relax.

All seems right with the world.

After a while, who appears at the door but my Son, clinging to his teddies, rubbing his eyes, hair all askew.

"I can't get to sleep," he says. "I've tried every position possible on my bed."

Now, I'm not feeling very sympathetic (it is late, he's clearly tired - just sleep!!) He's interrupted my novel and I'm a little vulnerable, being as I am in the bath. And I don't really want to have to get out to deal with him. This is my justification for my next, fatuous remark.

"Have you tried sleeping on your head?"

It does stop him in his tracks.

"No," he says, looking at me as if I am mad. Perhaps I am.

"It's probably not a very good idea," I say. "After all, when you do fall asleep, you'll just fall down and that will probably wake you up and you'll be back to square one."

He laughs, in that way children do when they know their parents are both right and completely bonkers. And with that he sits down on the bathroom floor with his teddies. Then he lies down on the bath mat.

I figure, if he can't sleep, a few minutes lying on my tiled bathroom floor won't make any difference. I'll finish my chapter then deal with him. But I don't get to the end of my chapter before my next interruption: my husband comes home from work.

He walks in, grins at me, then gawps at my Son. At this point I sit up and take notice. Peering over the edge, I see him in all his childlike glory: fast asleep. For a mother, I suspect, there is nothing more beautiful than their children in peaceful repose, clutching their teddies or dolls, far away in the land of nod.

But he is on my bathmat, and I do have to get out of the bath sometime. Reluctantly we wake him and take him to bed. This time, thankfully, he falls asleep quickly in the proper place (head on pillow!)

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Thick skin

Writing Wednesday
I have often read that a writer needs thick skin. The battle to get published is a long and arduous one (well, for most of us, who don't already have a famous name to sell the book). Many, many writers have their world-famous writing rejected by publishers 20, 30, 40 times before success comes. Even when a book is published, there are reviewers out there and (heaven knows why!) some of them won't like the book. More criticism, more seemingly personal attacks.

Thick skin is not something I am famous for. I take far too much as a personal insult and, if hit with a criticism at a low point, can be utterly miserable for days. Unfortunately this fear can also be prohibitive: it stops me doing things for fear of failure, of comments that I won't be able to bear.

It is part of why sending my book to publishers and agents is yet to be done in earnest. I know that I need to be in the right frame of mind, so that I can accept the rejection letters in good grace, to receive any comments not as criticism but as constructive advice. (Cowardice is another word for the lack of action, but I prefer to think of it in more positive light!)

In the shade of the mulberry tree is currently with an editor for her comments. I am braced for its return, covered in red ink like a school essay. Yesterday I thought, 'It would be nice to have that back before I go on holiday, then I can look through it whilst I'm away.' Then I thought again. 'I don't want to ruin my holiday. I hope it comes back in a few weeks' time.' The latter is more likely; September's looking bleak.

I have also learnt that writers should ignore what their friends and family say about their books. F&F have no real idea whether it is good or not and are always more positive than the archetypal publisher/agent. This advice has made me most wary of my writing group, who always praise my writing. They get a further chapter each time we meet, and some ladies say they come just to hear the next installment. Fantastic! But are they the best critics? Probably not. Then again, in a break from tradition, last time I read them a short story I had written. That got thoroughly slated (and rightly so: it didn't really have a story, which is a clear drawback!)

Give my husband a chapter of my book and it comes back covered in suggestions and re-writes. Is he too critical? Is he writing it for himself? (He has admitted that sometimes he has different memories and wants to write it from his view instead!) Most interestingly, he usually simplifies the language. He would probably cut archetypal from the sentence above, but sorry - I like it - so it's staying!

Thick skin: that is what is needed. I'm developing it slowly and perhaps, when I've evolved from mouse to crocodile, I'll be able to cope.

Then again, at that stage I might just eat all the critics up!


During the summer holidays Writing Wednesday and other blog posts will be even more randomly timed than usual. Please bear with me! Normal service will resume in September.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Book Review: Coming back to me

Writing Wednesday

I was quite wary about starting to read Marcus Trescothick's autobiography Coming back to me.  It chronicles not only his lifelong love of cricket and his professional achievements, but also his struggles with depression and the impact it has had on his career and family life. It has had wonderful reviews, awarded the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2008, so it had to have a quality worth reading.

As a cricket lover, the first part was not a great worry, although I have little interest in Somerset as a team, nor (to be fair) in Marcus's achievements, amazing though they were. And, if you don't have an interest in cricket then I would recommend skipping most of the book. Trescothick was (still is, I guess!) one of England's greatest ever opening batsmen. He scored prolifically and sometimes easily against the most feared bowlers in the world. He was part of the 2005 Ashes team that beat the Australians under Vaughan's captaincy. My only criticism of the book is that I struggled to follow exactly which year I was in, as a plethora of matches (county and country) were rattled through.

But what worried me about reading it was his admission of and reactions to depression. Yet that was also the prime reason for picking up the book. In my teenage years I watched both my parents suffer from depression, my mother to a level that hospitalised her for several weeks, and at university age another close family member was close to taking their life. Knowing what it is like as an observer, living with the highs and lows, made me wonder if I could really read what this brave man had been through.

Marcus set out in detail the steps leading to his breakdown - the pressures of being on tour for months on end and his evident love of his wife and daughters. He also writes about how afraid he was of going public, a chapter entitled 'The Lie' when he was interviewed and only told part of the story. But when he had a few more months to come to terms with the illness he recognised that the only way to explain his absence from international trips was by admitting to his problems. He did make one more failed attempt to play overseas, but didn't get further than Dixon's at Heathrow. The crippling anxiety attacks and fearful separation from his family were too much. England's best batsman is never to play international cricket again.

Depression is a dreadful illness, coming in many forms. Marcus' strength of character to write about his experiences will undoubtedly help many others to be open and honest about their own situations. Despite my concerns, I was eagerly turning the pages, willing his illness to vanish as much as he had. It is not a book for a non-cricket-lover, but anyone with concerns about mental health should read this for Marcus's openness, honesty and candour. As a Yorkshire lass I have problems with his prowess for Somerset, but huge admiration for him as a man.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Something funny happened in the car park

So, there I am, chatting with my friend.

I hear my son sigh just by typing that sentence. He was at school, so not a witness to this event. I'd only popped to the shops to drop off some dry-cleaning and my friend happened to be doing something similar, and the sun was shining, and we just stopped to chat. Just next to my car. Nothing important, nothing to write home about.

Anyway, as we are chatting I notice the car opposite beginning to reverse.

Fine. It was reversing towards us.

Also fine.

Except it kept going. Slowly, but nevertheless in our direction.

As we realised it was about to hit us several things happened.

1  We each took a step out of the way (really, we are quite intelligent women!)

2  My friend, who was more in the firing line so-to-speak, hit the back of the car to indicate to the driver that he/she should stop - quickly - before hitting the car next to mine.

3  I looked to tap the driver's window and screamed, "Aaargh!!! There's no-one in it!"

The car was driving itself. Or, more accurately, rolling gently.

Thankfully the incline in the car-park is negligible so it just rolled to a halt without hitting anything or anyone.

But it was now in our way. (Well, mine. I was, despite my protracted conversation, about to leave and a rogue car blocking my exit was not in my plan.)

We stood there and scratched our heads for a while. We got abuse from drivers entering the car-park for being 'women drivers' - this really riled me. It was not my car, I was not responsible, I was having to delay my departure as we worked out what to do. I didn't need prejudicial assumptions laid at my feet.

The long part of the story is that we went to the local row of shops to see whose car it was and get messages put out on the tannoy. The shorter part is that we noticed a poster in the back of the car and rang the number - and got the owner (who was in one of the shops, but ignoring our dash around pleading for them to move their car!)

Irritatingly (given the verbal abuse I'd taken) it was a woman who hadn't put on the handbrake.

All's well that ends well. How and why the car started moving I have no idea. No-one was hurt, no damage done. The poor woman who rushed back in a fluster was about to get teased mercilessly by her accompanying husband.

And I left with a delightful and slightly bewildering tale to tell.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

In the beginning

Writing Wednesday

All the thinking about first lines last week reminded me of a moment when I had one up on my father. When it comes to words and knowledge and classics this is a rarity, which is why it stuck in my head and makes me smile every time.

My father has a degree in classics. This is important to remember. I don't. I did have an enthusiastic English teacher who spent a couple of lessons teaching us some basic Latin to help us in our comprehension of words (such as circum = around, thus circumference, circumnavigate, etc.) ... but my knowledge is severely limited.

On one occasion he visited me at university and we were walking past St Mary's Quad on our way to lunch. In the wrought iron of the archway into the quad are the words:

In principio erat verbum

"Ah!" my father said, "Genesis 1.1."

I stopped and looked at it. Genesis does indeed begin In the beginning... but continues God created the heavens and the earth.

My translation was In the beginning was the word. Verbum - surely this was like verb and thus word rather than creating heaven and earth? And if so...

"Or perhaps John 1.1?" I ventured.

My father looked at it again, gave a small grunt of agreement and walked on. I grinned and followed. (I was a student; he was paying for lunch. There was only so much gloating I could do.)


And now for the answers from last week.

1      It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Jane Austin - Pride and Prejudice
2      It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Charles Dickens - A Tale of Two Cities
3      Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. J K Rowling - The Philosopher's Stone
4      All children, except one, grow up. J M Barrie - Peter Pan
5      Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays. Arthur Ransome - Swallows and Amazons

Not the most obscure, and only one that I've not read. One day - I promise myself - I really will read a book by Dickens. Just not today...

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

It was a dark and stormy night...

Writing Wednesday

The first sentence of a story is probably the most difficult to write. It has so much hanging on it. It needs to hook the reader, draw them in, encourage them to buy the book. It needs to set up the story, provide intrigue and raise questions. It can’t be too long; to short, and it won’t reel you in.

I heard Tim Key's Suspended Sentence yesterday on Radio 4 which prompted these thoughts. The comedian and poet was postulating writing his first novel and knew he had to start with the opening line (an error in novel-writing in my opinion, as that is the sentence that is most likely to change a myriad number of times). It was all a little tongue in cheek, but his discussions with experts show how difficult writing this opening sentence can be. You can listen to the programme yourself here.

I had previously learnt one rule about first sentences: Don’t start by talking about the weather. I suspect that is a good rule for beginning any conversation with a stranger (although being British the weather is something I am well-trained in talking about). The infamous start “It was a dark and stormy night …” from the 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton has precluded any of us from ever touching on the weather again. There is a competition named after him for writing the ‘opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels’ with thousands of entrants every year.

Hopefully, not mine. Here is the first line of my book In the shade of the Mulberry Tree:

We take a sharp left-turn through a gap in the hedge, avoid the ditch, and pull up in front of a wall.

At least I’ve not mentioned the weather. Could it have the same impact as these, more famous, openers?

1      It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
2      It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
3      Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
4      All children, except one, grow up.
5      Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays.

I can begin to grasp why these lines work. I am already asking questions, picturing the scene, wondering why this statement is important to the rest of the book. 
Is a rich man in need of a wife? 
How can it be both best and worst of times? 
I can picture Mrs Dursley – prima and proper – saying, ‘Thank you very much’ in her clipped Southern English tones. 
Which child didn’t grow up (and why)?
And Roger? Well, I’m running with him, free from the constraints of everyday life and loving my childhood holidays.

What draws you in to reading a book?

If you wish to have a guess at these first lines, do so in the comments. I promise the answers next week! 

Saturday, 2 July 2011


Early morning, and I go into my daughter's room to wake her. I find her sat on her bed, motionless, morose. Rather than my usual chirpy morning routine I am flooded with concern. Something must be wrong.

"Are you ok?" I ask.

"I've lost Doris," she croaks.

I'm not sure I've heard her correctly. "I beg your pardon?"

"I've lost Doris."

Presumably Doris is one of the vast array of dolls and soft toys that take over the bed. It isn't a name I recall but I could name most of the ones I can see, so maybe she is lost.

"Doris?" I query.

Her voice is fading, hoarse and raspy. "My card," she explains.

A light switches on. All becomes clear in my mind as I remember the Moshi Monster cards that are so precious to her and the joy of the previous day's acquisition.

She looks at me, all forlorn, for her world is falling apart.

"And I've lost my voice," she whispers and bursts into tears.

Why is it, at these tender moments, all I want to do is laugh?

(For info, both Doris and voice have been recovered!)
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