Sunday, 18 December 2011

Blimey, it's nearly Christmas!

Christmas! Yes, you noticed.

Let me guess - for the next few days you are going to leap out of bed early, check your emials, the blogs you keep up with, facebook pages, and then you're off out to do last minute shopping and ring Great Aunt Maud to make sure she's not going to be on her own for Christmas. Oh dear. She is. Someone will have to pick her up; the children will complain that the bathroom smells of Imperial Leather; you will want to spend all day by the fire while she tells stories.

Christmas Day. The children are screeching before seven. The turkey is stuffed and in the oven. You have three hours before the neighbours come round for wine and mince pies. Time to check your emails? Read a blog or two? Or fall over on the sofa with coffee and mend little Johnny's car that has somehow broken already?

You'll have time on Boxing Day? Everyone sleeps late. You can crawl down to your laptop catch up with facebook then. Or you can turn over, mumble something about how it would be wonderful if someone brought you breakfast in bed just this once.

There is a hiatus between Christmas and New Year. Every year you promise to spend this time reading, writing, making up for lost Christmas time. Except the children are tetchy; the days are cold; and you've run out of coffee.

Don't get me wrong. This is a precious time. I hope you have friends and family who love you. You will eat and drink and laugh together. It is laughter that will, briefly, frighten away these darkest days of winter; fill them instead with candles and frivolity and the smell of cooking.

I too have friends and family who love me. Just as you have little time for reading, I have little time for writing. Or for blogging.

And - as I write that - I know that there will be some who live alone (as I do) and for whom these festive days stretch in terrifying isolation. I'm sorry, I won't even be able to offer you a blogpost to cheer you up for the next couple of weeks. But I shall raise a glass to you - I do know just how lucky I am.

So - until the New Year, my very best wishes to you all. And thank you all for your support in 2011.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Eating my way round the world.

Looking back, most of the meals I had while I was travelling are a bit of a blur. They are all recorded in my diaries, but there is a limit to how exciting yet another menu and meal alone can be.

(I wasn't always alone - a couple of friends joined me for a while, and I met people along the way to eat with. But many evenings were spent alone.)

I am, now, undaunted by the whole restaurant-on-my-own thing. I always have my diary, and a book to read. Which means I can listen to conversations going on around me and writing them down or, if that is too boring, read my own book. But I scanned too many menus to be surprised any more. I ate fish fresh from the sea in Australia, curries in the backwaters of Kerala, nasi lemak in Malaysia - there was joy in discovering new cuisine but eating out on my own, every evening, became a challenge.

(Could I not cook for myself? Yes, in Australia and New Zealand, when I was in hostels or campsites. But once in Nepal and India I was in hotels, where cooking for myself was impossible.)

However, a few experiences stand out.

One day, in Nepal, Tika (my guide) suggested that his wife, Shobha, walk with us. She was a slight woman with gentle eyes, and endlessly curious about me. I must have passed some sort of test, because she invited me to eat with them that evening. I arrived to find her hunched over an open stove on her rooftop, frying pieces of fish, to go with the rice and spinach and dal. (To think I make a fuss about cooking when people come round - and I have a fridge, and cooker, and a dishwasher.)

We talked about our families, as women do. And suddenly she turned and asked, 'Are you lonely?' 

I was so taken aback I could only answer honestly. 'Sometimes I'm lonely, and sometimes I like having my own way all the time.'

'In that case,' she said, 'you will eat here every night you are in Pokhara.' And I did; she hunched over her little rooftop stove and I ate like a queen.

Shobha is one of the reasons I'm going back to Nepal next year.

Further south, when I stayed in a guesthouse just outside Cochin, in India, I was presented with my own cook. (No, I don't know quite how that happened.) I was given a menu, asked to choose - he would make me anything, he said. Until I suggested samosas.

'They take a ... very ... long time, madam,' he said, with a huge sigh. He stretched the word 'very' is if to illustrate how long.

We settled on pakoras.

And for supper? 'I hear the fish curries are good here?'

'There may be no fish in the market, madam.'

I soon learned my place in this food-dance. I suggested he find what was good in the market, and I would eat it. The result - the best food of my trip. He was truly talented. And - just once - he allowed me into his kitchen. Not to touch anything, but to smell it. So I stood by the stove and inhaled - ginger, and cinnamon, and coconut milk. Curry will never be the same again.

Who surprised you with wonderful food, at that moment when you needed it most?

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Tales from the Fridge.

I have been asked to blog about food. Yes, I'm amazed too.

Already my daughters are spluttering - of all the people least qualified to write about food it must be me. Don't get me wrong - I love eating. I savour the finer points of fish as much as the next man or woman. I'll drool over a chocolate mousse. No-one would dare leave me with a plate of strawberries and expect any left.

It's just that I'm, well, a rubbish cook.

There, I've said it. But - in my defence - my daughters did not starve. I'm not the only mother whose capacity for creative cooking runs to fish fingers after a day at work. If there was time at weekends I might throw something a bit more exciting in the oven; it wasn't always incinerated. Everything was balanced, more or less. And there were no food-arguments, which - in retrospect, given how many rows some families seem to have about food, seems like an achievement.

And I did try. When they were little I took them to the farm (my brother is a farmer) during harvest; he let them climb on the combine harvester, run their hands through dusty grains. I took them to the mill where we watched the miracle of the transformation of wheat into flour. I even bought a bag, to make my own bread.

Not even the birds would eat the bread.

Cakes - I used to make cakes. I even, in a moment of rashness when my brain was totally disconnected from my mouth, offered to make a layer of wedding cake when a daughter got married. (I have many wonderful friends, one of whom recognised this as a cake emergency).

Now, living alone, the challenge of feeding myself has a different meaning. It's hard to get excited about it - which is probably why I ended up commenting on someone's food blog that I wanted to live in her house. She had menus for the week, including vegetables and sauces and sometimes even puddings. While I live on rice, or pasta, and whatever is in the fridge.

But - it's not so bad. I still don't starve. I buy my vegetables at the Saturday market. Pesto, Thai curry sauces, chillies - all liven things up enough to ensure that not every meal tastes the same. I make sure some protein is thrown in somewhere. Somewhere lives a yoghurt-god.

But when my daughters come - they suggest we eat out. I really don't blame them.

And surely it's okay to admit to being rubbish at something? Even in these positive, affirmation-drive times when we are meant to be positive about our achievements and talents and all that stuff?

(Next time I'll blog about travelling food. That's a completely different challenge.)

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Building a website.

How did I not know just how difficult this is?

I began with a free google site that I could tack onto this, write in proper words - but with such limited scope it obviously wasn't going to be flexible enough. I couldn't work out how to move things around, mould words round pictures - any of that. Which meant the page had too much white space - which is fine in a book, but not online.

Nothing for it, I was going to have to teach myself to do it properly, or pay someone. Paying someone appeals in some ways, but it would paying for ongoing maintenance, being able to phone them in a panic when something went wrong. Besides, if I could master the Kindle technology, surely I could do this?

So I bought a book, 'Build Your Own Website The Right Way Using HTML and CSS'. It's not a snappy title but tells you what to expect.

There's plenty of introduction in proper English; I could manage that. And then it began getting complicated. Surely I didn't need all that gobbledegook, just for one little website. I'm not building Amazon, or a newspaper, just a page or two with more information about the book and a photograph or two.

So I started skipping bits.

Then I didn't understand one word. So I decided it was designed to exclude everyone but computer geeks and I had plenty of better things to do with my life and who needs a website anyway. (Spot the tiny hissy fit!)

But I do - I know I do. I need to tell you more about my book (yes, very soon it will be a book and not just an ebook!). There may even be more books? I need to tempt you with photos from my travelling, tell you where I'm going next.

And so I went back to the beginning, and began to read every word. Practise every exercise. Build their pretend site - and my own, alongside it. One nugget of learning rests on another. It's like maths, or latin - it has a terrible logic that works, once you understand the code.

But the code is precise. I learned that < and = and " (not ') must be in the right place or a whole page can disappear. 'Scr' is not the same as 'src' - and the difference is almost impossible to spot in a pages of mark-up text.

This is not how I usually work. I throw ideas at the screen, ignore grammar and spelling, just get the shape of a story or poem or idea down, and then begin to unpick it, shape it, tease out what I'm really trying to say until - countless drafts later - it's as polished as I can make it. If I do that with the website it will never work. Finding mistakes hide among all  the <div>s and <a href>s and </p>s. I spent hours, yesterday, trying to work out why a link wouldn't appear, only to find I had instructed it to appear in white, against a white background.

I'm sure there are shortcuts. But please don't tell me about them. I've got this far, and I'm going to do this. But it may be a little while. (Though, please, tell me this is difficult, and I'm not being a really dingbat making a meal of it!)

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

An orchestra of white goods.

I have a new washing machine - no, don't rush off. This isn't a diatribe about white goods, nor a writing exercise just to prove I can write about laundry for an entire paragraph without sending you all to sleep.

Sorry - wake up there. No, my washing machine - sparkling white, undented, efficient, with clever programmes - sings to me when it has finished washing . . .

A merry tinkly tune - far too high to join in with; in fact, it is pitched so high it is almost at that point where only dogs can hear it. So high that only a toddler stung by a bee can reach it - that first, terrified cry before they take a deep breath and let out a proper bellow.

Which leaves me wondering - who thought this was a good idea? I don't want to appear all sexist about this, but somewhere a group of people (men? in suits?) sat round a table and brainstormed ideas.

'We need to find a way to make our washing machines more exciting. It's not enough that people have clean clothes. They need a complete laundry experience.'

Cue for enthusiastic clapping. 'Laundry experience,' they agree, 'is a great phrase. We must remember that.'

'How about we have different coloured machines - yellow, or stripes, or dots like Pudsey.'

'I'm not so sure. We need machines to fit in with the whole kitchen/utility room experience. So it has to be sleek and modern, and minimalistic.'

'I thought colours might be rather fun.'

Cue scowls.

'How about . . . well, I'm thinking, just brainstorming here, the washing is finished, and someone is busy with other things - cooking, looking after the baby - how will they know to sort their clothes? A little ping, perhaps? A bell chime?'

'No - a tune!!! A little song!!! That would be cheerful, and make the whole laundry experience more, well, enjoyable?'

'Hurrah, a tune, what a wonderful idea!!! Then laundry can really be fun!!!'

'Then people can have a little dance to celebrate the laundry etc.!!!'

'And let's be really clever and pitch the tune so high that they want to rip their own ears off each time it plays!!!'

I simply don't believe a woman would have done this. Nor would she condone hiding the instructions to turn it off so deep within all the little booklets that come with machines these days that anyone who with washing/cooking/cleaning to do (and some writing, or even travelling) would lose the will to live before she found it.

So, if anyone else has a new LG washing machine - any ideas? Other than soundproofing a room to hide it in?

And please - warn me of any other kitchen gadgets to avoid. I really don't need an orchestra of white goods.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Not so invisible - when I was travelling.

In my last blogpost I talked about the invisibility of older women - and it certainly resonated, if the comments are anything to go by. It's something that creeps up on us - and there is nothing we can do to slow it down. And it does, as I think we agreed, have advantages.

But when I was travelling I realised that it is culturally determined - a phenomenon common in western countries, where young people are seen to be the drivers of all thinking and energy. It is very different in other parts of the world.

Which means I was unprepared for being an older, white woman, wandering Indian streets alone. The Indians had no idea what to make of me, and made no secret of gawping at me as I tried to weave a path through the mayhem.  It didn't help that I was clueless when faced with somewhere so different, and so chaotic.
I didn't help myself by beginning in the north. 

If I'd read my Lonely Planet a little more assiduously I'd have known that life is easier - for everyone, as well as women - in the south. I'd have taken to the backroads of Kerala, and practised being visible among people who were both welcoming and curious. 

When I was in Kumerakon, a village on the edge of Lake Vembanad in the backwaters of Kerala (in the south), I found myself joining a group of children having a dance lesson; I managed their excitement and my general clumsiness and was waved away after a wonderful half an hour by a teacher - who spoke not one word of English. (My one word - thank you. It's the only word I learned in every country I visited.) What a wonderful introduction to the country that could have been!

Instead, I travelled down from Nepal, and spent a night in Gorakhpur, in a grubby hotel opposite the station. I was unprepared - not only for the chaos, but also for the lack of women in the streets. There are significantly more Muslims in North India; and it is rare for women to emerge into the streets alone - unless they are in air-conditioned cars, or begging on corners. Most commerce - the street-traders, the tuk tuk drivers, the waiters - are men.

And so one white woman, meandering down the streets - trying to avoid cowpats, beggars, the insistent calls of tuk tuk drivers, traders urging me to buy scarves, phones, betel nuts, cricket bats - was more visible than the queen in a primary school. Everyone stared at me - and, initially, I was hugely uncomfortable. It was like finding your skirt is tucked in your knickers and there is nothing you can do to extract it. There was no corner to hide in, no unremarkable cafe where I could sit in the corner and make sense of everything around me; even sitting brought someone to my side with questions or 'proposals'. Thankfully, I had a guide at the time, a gentle Nepali who found the whole thing highly amusing (it took so little to make him laugh) who was able to steer me through the worst of it, and kept me safe on those few occasions when . . . yes, there were some not-so-safe incidents.

And you - tell me your tales of your skirt-in-the-knickers moments. (Please - tell me it's not just me!)

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

It can be fun, being invisible.

Sometimes the invisibility of ageing women can be a nuisance. I speak, the room whirls round me, then the same words come out of the mouth of a man and everyone drools. But there is little point in foot-stamping; that changes nothing.

(I recall talking with Paul, my mentor, about this - and he was appalled. He'd never noticed older women . . . I rest my case.)

It has evolutionary advantages. The only logical reason for women to live so long after the end of their child-bearing years is to raise children. So - say your village is attacked; if those caring for the children are invisible then a few dead men matter less.

And it has its advantages. For instance, earlier this year I drove down the west coast of America. I found myself in a little cafe in LaJolla, sipping a cappucino, while three women at the next table seemed totally unaware of my scribbling in a notebook, looking up every now and then to check who was speaking. And here, roughly, is a transcript of a corner of their conversation. I shall call them A, B, and C.

A. 'Well, I had this job, in Silicon Valley, and it was so paid, well you know what they pay there, thousands, hundreds of thousands. We had this wonderful house, in the mountains; it was just darling. But then they effectively asked me to choose between work and family (she shrugs), so here we are.'
B. 'Oh, that's such a wonderful story!'
C. 'Oh, and you are such a wonderful mother.'
(They talk about the wonderful things they are doing with their children.)
B. 'I've gone back to school, so I can help little B with his math.'
A. 'Oh, that's so cute.'
B. 'And I've given my daughter a diary, so she can record the way she feels.'
C. 'Oh it's so important that daughters feel good about themselves.'
A. 'Oh self-esteem is the most -'
B. 'I talk with my daughter about her feelings all the time.'
A. 'I want to go to meditation with my daughter.'
C. 'Meditation is wonderful. The pregnant mothers I work with, they do this meditation together, and go into this womb-like trance, and then they all stay connected to each other, sort of embraced by the process.'
B. 'Isn't that just beautiful?'

And so it went on. (In my notebook I commented that this was another reminder of the things that obsess us when we are removed from the necessity of foraging for our own food or keeping ourselves safe.) I have yet to weave this into a short story, but I can't help feeling that all this mutual adoration hid some serious envy. I'm not sure I believe A's tale of deciding to leave Silicon Valley for her family; and, if it's not true, why does she feel a need to make this up? What is B's daughter really writing in her diary? And what do the pregnant women in C's medication class think when in the throws of labour?

On a lighter note - a lad on a bus intended me to hear this: he clambered on with a large musical instrument, bumped into everyone on his way to the back seat, and the turned to his friend and shouted for us all to hear, 'Have you heard, like, Verdi's fucking requiem; it's fucking great!' (I think he wanted me to be shocked.)

So - what have you overheard recently? And does it find its way into stories, or simply simmer in the pages of your notebook?

Sunday, 13 November 2011

What do you look for in a website?

I take your point. I need a website.

The next question - what to put on it.

So, just supposing you're wandering the internet, in a random fashion, what makes to stop to look at a website? What is genuinely interesting, and what is filling pages for the sake of it?

I know what I look for. If it is someone who genuinely interests me, I'll flick through the 'about me' page - just to see if they are telling me how wonderful they are or if they can come across as flawed like the rest of us. I might look at what they write, what they read. If they travel I drool over photos.

I don't care about exercise regimes/diets/strange health ideas. I don't care what car they drive/house they live in, or even when they prune the roses. I'm not good anyone telling me what to do.

But I want to make my site welcoming for everyone. It is not simply a reflection of my whims and fancies, but a place that responds to those of anyone who might drop by.

So I'll tell you of the ideas I've had, and I've be grateful if anyone can chip in with others:

  • I probably need an 'about me'. It will all seem too random otherwise.
  • A page of travel photos, which I can change from time to time - just to whet the appetite of anyone wondering if he or she should follow in my footsteps. 
  • A sample chapter - the first - from the book. With a link for anyone who wants to buy it - yes, people have been buying it!
  • A page of travelling thoughts - things I learned along the way that I wish I'd known before I left, but didn't seem relevant for the book. Such as how to manage one's washing (walk on it in the shower). (Except the time I arrived at a hostel in New Zealand with a rucksack of filthy clothes which I had saved for their machine. I slipped into the only skirt and shirt that weren't walking on their own, put the rest in to wash, and then went to breakfast. I've often wondered what the energetic young people alongside me would have thought if they'd known the wrinkly in the corner had no pants on.)
I think I'll keep my thoughts on the MA for this blog, because my ideas around that will evolve, and the blog seems a better vehicle for recording change than a webpage.

So - over to you. What do you look for in a webpage? 

Sunday, 6 November 2011

In case you were wondering, I'm still doing the MA.

It was a few weeks ago when I blogged about the challenge of online seminars. I was, initially, frantic - how would I ever keep up with the waterfall of ideas. I was the old lady in the corner, thinking, while everyone else was typing away throwing ideas and witticisms into the ether.

No, I haven't given up. And I'm even beginning to learn. But it's been a challenge.

The first task was to give myself permission to 'say' nothing. So I only contribute to seminars if I have something I really need to say. That, at least, took care of the anxiety.

So, I'm surviving. But if I'm simply surviving, then there is little point to doing an MA. I want to learn. And I am. Though rarely in the seminar itself. My learning takes place afterwards, when I can wallow in thinking time, unravel the ideas that have swum around the internet-seminar for the past couple of hours. Constructs such as 'narrative tension' begin to make more sense when I've let them swim in my head for a while. I begin to see that setting can act as a container for a story, and is not simply the backcloth. (Frey, in his book 'How to Write a Damn Good Novel' talks about setting as a crucible. I like that idea; I want to live with it for a while and see how I can use it in my writing.)

Solitary thinking can be so productive. For a start, when having a conversation with myself I am always right. New ideas pop up from somewhere and I can claim them all for myself. New ideas, like feathers, float about somehow, until (sometimes) the sink into something coherent. And then I can risk feeling smug that I am so clever, what with my originality verbal dexterity.

You're right. Ideas need airing in company. And our seminars, with their flood of comments, are no place for unpicking complications, or even delving into ideas in any depth. I could use the course forum; but no-one else uses in this way, and I'm not brave enough to be the first to put my head above the internet parapet.

So how can I possibly know if my thoughts are original, or useful, or even right? I can't, of course, though I would argue that there are few rights and wrongs in writing. But the reading and talking has opened up different ways of looking at things. And that has to be a start, surely?

And you - do you have your best ideas when you are on your own, or do they grow in discussion with other people?

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Marketing. Please don't yawn, I need you.

So, I've done it. Produce the book. And you can even buy it here. (If anyone can tell me how to put pictures and clever links on the side of this blog so that it looks inviting and not just gobbledegook web address I'd be grateful.)

I must, I am told, market this book.

That's business-speak. It wears the jargon of business. Which is, of course, terribly important and without it the country would be in a dreadful state because no-one would buy anything and then where would we be ... Honestly, I'm not suggesting it's not important. But, from my perspective, it's, well, a bit boring.

But I am stiffening my shoulders. Trying to behave as if I'm not at the back of the class passing notes. I must learn. I have a book to sell.

And I have friends who know about these things - and even care about them. So I've had a lesson.

Marketing, I'm told, is about product, price, place, and promotion. I must think about each in turn - without resorting to the wine and chocolate and who-really-cares-about-this-stuff option.

Product: I have the book. Well, ebook. It's in the real world now. Well, the eworld. I've done the very best I can with that, and I am proud of it. It is the right book for me. (But, whispers businessman, it doesn't matter what you think. Is it the right book for your readers? As if I know the answer to that.)

Price: I've read blogs telling me not to underprice the book; it will look cheap. I've read blogs telling me not to overprice the book; people will not buy it. There is obviously no right answer. So I've plucked a sort-of-middle price out of the air. My current plan is to leave it at that - some writers seem to fiddle around with the price. Do they not have better things to do?

Place: Amazon, and Smashwords. I must be realistic. The local bookshop might be persuaded to take a copy or two, but it's unlikely to reach the front tables of Waterstones (unless I pay them enough, and even then it may not sell unless I stand on my head and dance in an effort to draw attention to it. Maybe not dancing while standing on my head ... you take my point.).

Which brings me to promotion. Yawn. I tweet, I facebook, and I blog. I am thinking about building a webpage (note - thinking. That's enough for now). I comment on other people's blogs, though only when they interest or entertain me. Surely that's enough? No - apparently. I have read advice suggesting I should join forums - on Amazon, on Kindle, on travel sites, on writing sites - really? To say what - to witter endlessly about the book, which will surely bore everyone. To join in general writerly conversations? Which are fine for a while, but I have real writing to do. Besides, so many of them repeat themselves, and there is a limit to how many times I can recommend that writers read a lot, only to be shot down by someone with wobbly grammar insisting that he or she has never read a book and doesn't mean to stop now.

So - realistically - what do you think I should do now? Carry on as I am, or join in some sort of internet-frenzy in order to sell a few more copies? (I know, I've made it obvious what I want you to say. But if you disagree, please say so. Maybe I'm being a bit bah-humbug about all this.)

Sunday, 30 October 2011

When is a book not a book?

Well, I did it. I fought the Kindle formatting and won.

You don't need to know about the blood, sweat and blasphemy that went into sorting it all. (Though I will, here, say a huge thank you to Anna, a daughter, who kept her head when I was in danger of losing mine.)

And, should you have a Kindle, you can even buy it by clicking here!!

I will get the linky-thing working at the side of the blog over the next few days. Hopefully that will also link to the smashwords version - yes, I'm even doing battle with their (different) formatting requirements, and believe that, too, is almost cracked. I'm just waiting for - I think it's some sort of review, and then they give me an ISBN and I have to do something mysterious with that, and then the smashwords version will also be available.

Smug - of course. Not only have I done the travelling, I've written the book, and mastered the technology. Worth a little smugness, just for a day or two? Even some celebratory wine? (Yes, please join me in that. Especially my little band of loyal followers who drop by every blogpost and have cheered me so much these past few weeks. I've raised a glass to you, too - you have definitely helped keep my spirits up in those bleak moments when I wondered if I was ever going to get the hang of this. Thank you all.)

Ah, but this is not the whole story, is it? I am still waiting for the proofs of the 'real book' to come from createspace, and there are bound to be mistakes in that (I rushed it), so there will be more amendments and waiting. It may well be the New Year before I have the final, polished, version to offer you.

And so - my ebook, that lives in the ether and cannot be held or smelled or leafed through - it is real? It has no substance, no body, fills no space. I'm in an odd limbo, knowing my efforts already exist in the contents pages of a Kindle or few, and yet with nothing to hold - nothing, if you like, to show for it.

So - does anyone else experience this odd existential questioning when the ebook is there for all to see, but there is still nothing for anyone to hold?

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Did someone tell me this would be easy?

Oh groan.

First - all the formatting for createspace. I did complicated things with copying and pasting and retyping bits to get rid of the wretched lines. Reread it. Yippee - nearly there.

Don't rush, advises Catherine Ryan Howard (find her website here). This is not the time to throw it all together. Make sure it's right first time. You'll only end up with a rubbish proof that you've paid for, and then you'll have to redo it to order a better proof which you will also have to pay for. What's more it will take time - the book has to be shipped from America.

Don't rush. What planet is she on? I know she's right, but let's be realistic. When you're that close to getting the show on the road all you want is to tick the right boxes and get it going. So yes, I rushed. And am now sitting back, waiting for proofs that will need changing and I know it will cost time and money but ho hum, I was impatient and that's just how it is.

While you're waiting, she said, you can be getting on with formatting for Kindle.

She warns me to make plenty of coffee.

Right, I was sitting comfortably. Delete all formatting from the document. No fancy lines, no additional spaces, no tabs, no surprises that Word dropped in when you weren't looking. Then, begin again. Indent paragraphs. (No tabs - repeat, no tabs. I got that - there are no tabs. No extra spaces - got that too.) I checked it, checked it again, saved it. Saved it again.

And opened the kindle website. Registered. Uploaded the cover - this was going well. Uploaded the book. Wait a minute or two while kindle recognises my masterpiece and rearranges it for their readers. Now, check out the book - this is almost done.

A page appears on the screen that looks like a kindle - and I could go through it page by page.

How did those tabs get there? Those line spaces? How come it read all my old formatting which I'd deleted - rediscovered tabs and lines? How can it see things which don't exist any more?

I checked my document. No - that was fine. I really hadn't let one single tab, one stray space, survive. I tried again. Stupid, really, trying the same thing twice. And no, it didn't work the second time either. Fortunately it was late by then, and I had the sense to shut the computer down and head for the wine.

There's been an awful lot of swearing in this house since then.

Sunday, 16 October 2011


Don't get me wrong. I am enjoying working with two huge projects (beginning the MA and getting the book-show on the road) at the same time. It's just that sometimes I feel a bit disintegrative.

The MA head needs to read, reflect, re-read, make a note or two and carry on reading. It is a quiet, creative process and takes time. And I love it - though it isn't always easy. My mind seems to find new ideas in quiet spaces; I notice things between the lines in a way I don't when I'm simply reading for fun.

Meanwhile, the book is at the typeset stage. It needs reading for mistakes. My head is looking, not for ideas (please not ideas - this book is, basically, finished!), but for sentences that don't scan. Or the confused 'thats' and 'thans' and 'ifs' and 'its' and 'it's'. The lonely lines at the top and bottom of pages. It needs a logical, more detached, clinical approach. I cannot let it get under my skin - not now. This is a mechanical process and I am trying to approach it as such.

Which means I am asking my head to switch from clinical to reflective mode, like brain-skipping. And, though it's rare that I move directly from one task to another, they may be separated in time by nothing more divisive than a cup of coffee. I am aware that my thinking is beginning to feel like a sort of cognitive soup - a soup with bits in coalesce in an almost unidentifiable way. (Surely we've all tasted soups like that - they might have begun life as vegetables, but who knows what they are now?) When I wake in the morning one or other book is at the top of my thinking agenda, but in a floaty way. It will neither make itself knows as an identifiable problem, nor sink to the bottom so something recognisable can appear.

I will, I tell myself, get used to this. And my book will, before long, be on its way, with a real cover and read pages and (gulp) real readers? Which will clear the decks a little.

But in the meanwhile, I'm drowning in thinking-soup. Anyone have any ideas how to start swimming?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Reading like a writer.

Every 'how to write' book and webpage includes the mantra that we must read. Read anything, and everything. More than that - we must read as writers.

The pages of bumf that accompanies my first MA module instruct me to read as a writer. I must keep a reading log, note down anything that excites me, or surprises me, or betrays the writer's thinking.

I've tried this before. And it's not so easy. For a start, I read in all sorts of unusual places. In bed, of course, and on the sofa in my sitting room. In the garden (on precious warm days, with the drone of bees and the smell of mown grass from next door). I can read while I'm stirring a saucepan. Read in the bath (though I rarely have time). When my children were little I would read while pushing a swing (Bad idea. Doesn't do the back any good). I read on buses and trains. Leaning against the wall by the bus stop. In cafes. In restaurants if I'm eating alone. Anywhere it is possible to hold a book. But there are too few occasions when it is also possible to hold a notebook and pen.

But that, I can see, is making excuses. So I've bought some little stickers; it is easy to slip them into a page if I notice something, and then go back later to think about it again.

Even so, I find it hard to know what it is I'm meant to be noticing. Years ago, when I tried to keep a reading log, I gave up as I found I had no idea what I was looking for, which made writing it down pointless. My MA tutor has given a list of questions, which give me notes at the moment are scrappy, and mostly meaningless; but I have a term to practise this. There are other students to bounce ideas with (when we learn to listen to each other). A tutor who might drop in a thought or two. It is, I confess, exciting. By Christmas I might have a handle on what reading like a writer looks like - and feels like.

Unless, of course, any of you know better - are there short-cuts? Codes? An alternative to this try-it-and-see method? (Helping me out is not cheating - it's just helping!)

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The continuum from failure to success

A while ago Sarah Duncan blogged about the struggle many writers have with failure. (You can read her interesting blogpost here. And do trawl the rest of her blog for useful writerly things here). She started me thinking.

I struggle with the term 'failure'. It suggests we can divide endeavour into those who achieve, and those who do not. Some years ago I tried to climb Kilimanjaro. I was within six hours of the top before giving up. Was that a failure? Surely even trying was something to be proud of. And altitude sickness had stolen my appetite, so I was unable to consume the 4000 calories a day needed to keep myself warm and carry on climbing. Although I drooped with disappointment at the time (even, at one point, forgetting how grim it was and wondering if I should try again), looking back it doesn't feel like a failure. I didn't do badly, given that I was fifty at the time, and my fellow 'failures' included a marathon runner and PE teacher.

I wonder if it all begins in school. Teachers smothered my sums with red crosses; I believe I'm hopeless at maths. We had terrible 'team-choosing' times for games, with the sporty girls as captains selecting equally sporty friends to join them leaving the lumpy and unco-ordinated (me) to be one of the last. (Tell me they don't do that any more?) Failure had a very public meaning then.

Is writing, or learning to paint, or taking exams, or playing golf - so very different? Okay, there are pass marks, there is evidence of not doing so well, but I don't think we can separate ourselves so crudely into those who achieve and those who fail. There are degrees of not doing well, of not really trying, of being defeated by circumstances. And sometimes there comes a point where giving up is the sensible, realistic, or timely thing to do.

Surely what's important is to try, and to enjoy the trying.

And, as for the writing - like most, I could paper the bathroom with rejections. This is not, I would argue, evidence of failure, but rather than I carry on trying. That, I hope, is something to be proud of.

Or do you see it differently? Does the idea of failure leave you weeping? And how do you define success?

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Holidays - don't you just love them.

Well, I do - love holidays. And I make a distinction between holidays and travelling. My book is about travelling. This week I'm on holiday. (Well, I'm not actually on holiday as I write this - but I'm drafting it at home so that I can spend my holiday doing, well holiday things. But if I can pretend I'm away, I'm sure you can.)

I'm in Devon. Which is not far, and not hugely different from Wiltshire - except Devon has the sea, and the moor, and cream teas. I've not come here for difference; rather to be away from my own washing up, the grass that needs cutting, remembering which week they collect the recycling. I need an interruption to those realities.

For the joy of holidays, for me, lies in its being just that - an interruption. When I'm at home my days have a rhythm. I live alone and so the rhythm is mine to control. I don't have to think about the shape of days. I can even get a little tetchy if there are major challenges to that rhythm. But comfortable rhythms can lead to complacency.

And so I come on holiday. To surprise myself by doing things differently. I might take a boat trip up the Dart. I might tramp across the moor and pretend to be a brigand. (I am alone; nobody will know.)  I might eat a cream tea at coffee-time. I will eat unexpected food, at unexpected times. I will not listen to The Archers, nor organise my evenings to watch the News. I will ask myself new questions.

(Not so different from travelling, then? Yes - it is very different. Travelling is an expedition, and requires significantly more planning. It needs me to interact with my surroundings all the time if I am to keep myself safe, meet great people, catch the right bus. And it doesn't stop at the end of a week.)

But how much of an interruption will this week be to the writing? I can't imagine a day of writing nothing. Of keeping all those words locked away. So I'll write - I expect my journal to be the dumping ground for far more sentences than it handles at home. And I shall read, of course. So - you are saying - this holiday is no interruption to the writing. Surely it's like taking your work away with you? But writing doesn't feel like work. It feels like breathing. I can no more stop writing than I can will my heart not to pump. I am even ready for the holiday to throw up short story ideas, thoughts for this blog, or even snippets of inspiration that will ferment for a while until I find the right home for them.

Why do you go on holiday? What do you hope to find there? And does being away tilt your world at all?

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Working with a copy editor.

Well, I found a copy editor. That bit wasn't difficult. They advertise in the back of writing magazines, pop up all over the Internet.

I chose to work with a big editing company in London. They are reputed to be constructive and highly professional. I found no negative reviews. And so I sent a sample, we agreed an estimated bill, and off went the tome.

Thumb-twiddling time? Not exactly - there are other projects on the go. A short story nagging me to edit it; a life writing competition that tempts me. But there is a corner of me still with Over the Hill. Is there a sense of story? Have I managed to describe the exhilaration of swimming in the Barrier Reef, or flying over Mount Cook? Should I ring her, ask her if I've overdone the discomforts of Nepal?

And then I make myself stop and think about why I can't, quite, let it go for a couple of weeks. What do I really want from this copy edit?

I want two things. I want her to find the mistakes, the wobbly grammar, the cumbersome sentences, those moments when I've followed an idea and become tedious. I expect the manuscript to come back covered in red marks, an ugly reminder of just how much work this still needs. She is professional and I expect her to be thorough.

And then I want her to like it. It is, of course, not her job to like it. Indeed, as long as she finds all the mistakes it doesn't really matter whether she likes it or not. But that doesn't stop me wanting her to like it, to make a brief comment about how working with my book was, well, entertaining, or fun, or - well, anything but boring. I have trusted her with something I've treasured for years, my precious efforts, my book.

Dissonance is never easy. But by recognising my all-too-human hope that she will like my work as well as improve it, it is easier to live with these waiting days. She will do her job. I'll get the report - and yes, I shall probably scan it for hints that she might have enjoyed this project - and then settle down to work with her recommendations.

Has anyone else worked with a copy editor? How did you negotiate this split between needing constructive criticism of your work and the gut-wrenching fear that she might cast judgements on your baby?

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

There is good, and then there is popular.

Blogs are wonderful. They begin being about one this, and then comments lead them in a different direction. A couple of posts ago, Mark made a comment about the distinction between work that is good and that which is popular. That'sfFar too interesting a thought to hide among the comments. I happen to know that he is a fab photographer, but his thinking is apt for every corner of the arts.

But I shall limit myself to the writing context, as that's the only one I know anything about.

It's hard, being on the outside and looking in, to get a feel for how publishing is these days. All I have to go on are the articles in newspapers and publishing press (such as The Bookseller), and comments from writers in blogs. There seems general agreement that the industry is squeezed, that the big publishing houses control much of what is reviewed in the papers (and what makes it to the tables at the front of Waterstones), while the small publishers are bravely swimming against the tide and bringing out books that are daring and different but might not make the huge profits demanding by the likes of Harper Collins.

For it is the books that make most profits that are seen to be popular. I don't, personally, like reading Dan Brown, but his publishers must love him.

Meanwhile, the small publishers have to sift through the deluge of submissions from writers whose work slips between the confines of conventional genres, or uses unfamiliar forms and structures. Somehow they have to find enough good-enough books to make enough profit to keep going.

Propping the system up are the readers - and writers.

Not all writers want to win the Booker Prize. Nor find their book heaped among piles of holiday reading. Nor even be particularly rich. They simply want to write the best book they can, and hope that enough people are entertained by their efforts. Some simply don't have the energy to survive the submission process, or the emotional resources to withstand endless rejections. Some want to control whole writing and publishing business themselves. They just want to be good at what they do.

And, from among this group, we hope to find self-published gems. There may not be many treasures among the self-published eel vomit, but they are there if we hunt for them. Books that are different, and exciting, and ask unusual questions. They may never be popular, but that doesn't mean they aren't wonderful. And often they are wonderful in a different way from the books piled in bookshops.

Or are they? Do you equate quality with popularity? If not - what criteria do you use the decide if a book is 'good enough?'

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Why I'm going to get a copy editor.

In my last post I mentioned that my book is almost the best that it can be, and now I'm into seriously researching the Next Steps. I'm beginning to unpick this self-publishing business. And trying not to drown in conflicting messages.

For instance, the advice about finding a copy editor. I've read blogs telling me I must use one. It's not always clear why - some don't get far beyond the 'because I say so' message, which is guaranteed to send me into the opposing camp. I'm not good at being told what to do. Then there are those who insist that a copy editor will make my book 'better.' What does that mean? What does 'better' look like - and will I like it when I get there? They will, I am assured, go through it line by line, make sure I'm saying that I think I'm saying. That I've got my facts right. That my grammar isn't total rubbish and I can tell the difference between past and passed.

Then there are a core of self-publishers who insist that copy editors dilute the message. That the great strength of going it alone is doing without the trappings of conventional publishing and presenting material which is fresh and original, even though it may have occasional wobbles in the grammar or factual department. These books are not trying to be replicas of those conventionally published, but are different, exciting, immediate. Readers who enjoy these books know that, and enjoy it.

So what is a woman to do?

My book has already had some serious help. Paul (my mentor - you remember him?) took it by the short and curlies and threw common sense at it. (Sorry, mixed metaphor there.) He helped me look at it from a different perspective, give it a new shape. And it is, I know, a better book. And here I know what I mean by 'better.' It is more personal, funnier, and the tedious bits are in the bin. So - here I have some experience of what it means to have help with the book. Paul has, in effect, nudged me into a huge structural edit. And the book is significantly improved as a result.

Which makes the copy-editing decision so much easier.

Of course I'm going to get it copy-editied. Not because anyone has told me to, but because I have already seen the benefit of working with a mentor, and am now looking forward to someone else helping me make this book even 'better'. I still don't know what that will look like, but it will be exciting to find out.

But you - where do you turn to for advice? Who do you listen to? And who ignore? And why?

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Self-publishing. Just because we can . . .

Doesn't mean we should. Self-publish, I mean.

(Yes, I know I leap from one topic to another. I'm back in the self-publishing camp today.) One way or another Over the Hill and Far Away will be a book.  Which has led me to play around on a self-publishing site or ten, and drown in blogs, and to read a couple of how-to books which explain the awkward bits. Maybe it's not so daunting?

This looks almost easy, I thought. Print on Demand - what could be more straightfoward? Typeset, sort a cover - and presto, a book! And putting books onto Kindle, onto Smashwords - yes, it looks fiddly in places, but it costs so little! Anyone can do it! Maybe I should put some of my short stories there -

STOP RIGHT THERE! Yes, it might be not-so-hard. But that doesn't mean my short stories are good enough. Oh, there are one or two that aren't bad; even a couple that might be reasonable if I could only - well - make them more interesting. Make the plot a bit more, sort of plottish. Find characters that I don't want to smack at the end of 2000 words. There is a reason they are sitting in the 'not really good enough' folder on the computer.

In her book Write to be Published Nicola Morgan (find her fab blog here) describes much self-published material as 'eel vomit.'  No, it isn't very nice, is it? But, being honest with myself for just a minute, most of those short stories are eel vomit. They have taught me things about plot, and characterisation, and making settings work (or not). So they have a value for me. But when it comes to literary merit, well, they are rubbish.

In contrast - I am proud of Over the Hill. It is, now, almost the very best book I can make it. (Almost - yes, there is still work to do.) But I must resist the temptation to play with making other books, just because I can. Better to have one book to be proud of than piles of eel vomit.

And you - tell me I'm not the only one with eel vomit hidden in a bottom drawer?

Monday, 29 August 2011

Ideas are such fun!

Well, first I lob into the blogosphere thoughts about the nature of truth and untruth, and then it becomes something outside me, a discussion topic.  As well as the comments on this blog, I had emails, conversations with friends and family. Ideas on the nature of truth in fiction, history, even photography, as well as my original thoughts on memoir, all became part of the story. What fun! (If anyone has no clue what I'm talking about, click here to see what all the fuss is about.)

This is why I like ideas. They come out to play when you least expect it. You can throw them up in the air, see them tossed about and come down in a slightly different shape. They have become something different, reorganised, evolved.

Which is partly why I'm beginning and MA in Creative Writing this September.  Well, only partly.  It's mainly because it's what I feel like doing next.  But I couldn't write that on my personal statement (yes, I had to write a personal statement on my application form.  That was creative writing in the raw).  So I waffled about wanting my writing to improve, to 'get better' - whatever that means.  But basically I know I love it, want to do it, talk about it, think about it - and maybe even have something to show for myself at the end of it.

And yes, I'll be blogging about it.  But not about individuals, nor course grumbles, nor my thoughts on any one else's work.  Rather, it will be my reflections on my own efforts, and whether it is as exciting as I think it will be.  All those ideas to toss around - and who knows what shape my writing will be at the end of it. But that's the excitement, the joy of not-knowing.

And you - what would you do, if you could?  What unlikely course would you study, country you'd visit, remains you would excavate, scientific corner you'd - do whatever people do in scientific corners?  Okay, I know it's often not possible, but surely dreaming is fine.

(And yes, I know I'm self-publishing a book at the same time.  You don't need to remind me.  Thinking is in full spate in the self-publishing department.)

So, I now have student union card, and a bus pass.  Now, which will get me a better deal getting into the cinema . . .

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Truth and Untruth in Memoir.

Thorny one, this. When you read a memoir, do you assume that every word is 'true?' - and, if you do, do you assume that your truth and the writer's truth are the same thing?

Deep water, this. But, bearing in mind that everyone sees things differently, surely every memoir can only be the writer's recollections. Parents, siblings, friends, may have completely different memories. For instance, I loathed school; I am sure some of my contemporaries quite enjoyed themselves. Both views are equally valid.

But we now know that not all memoir-writers stick to the concept of personal validity, even make things up. For instance, Steinbeck did not spend every night in his green van when he drove round America with Charley; Chatwin may never have made it as far as Patagonia. Does this invalidate their books - both as works of literature, and in relation to their wobbly attention to truth?

And yes, it is relevant to my book. I trotted round the world, and have written about it. And - you'll just have to believe me here - I haven't made anything up. But I have been selective in what I wrote about. For instance, I have not described my rapture at sitting in the Sydney Opera House listening to Rigoletto; rather I concentrated on getting very lost on a beach near Manly. Why? Not because one incident is more or less important than the other, but because it is easy to find images - and youtube snippets - from the Sydney Opera House, and not many of a middle aged woman stuck on a beach with the tide coming in and common sense disappearing over the horizon with its backside on fire.

Every writer makes choices - for the sake of story. And yes, these choices may shape memoir in such a way that the humdrum is drowned and every day is presented as drama. Truth it may be, but can never be the whole truth.  Or can it - do you know of any other memoir writers wrestled with this?

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The great thing about not-knowing.

So - I've taken the self-publishing decision, and have been trawling websites and blogs for advice. In particular, blogs about writing and publishing. And there are plenty of those.

Blogs - many, of course, are wonderful. They offer advice with humour, and often with humility. Written by bloggers willing to share blunders as well as successes. They inform and entertain and I turn to them first and join in with comments. (Others are too didactic for me; bossiness tends to send me to the back of the class, wanting to shout 'prove it.' But that probably says more about me than it does about them.)

Mine feels like a feeble addition to the blogosphere. I can find no other blog that wanders along the 'I'm not sure what I'm doing here but hello anyway?'path. Nor one that acts as a diary along the writing and publishing road, with mistakes on show for everyone to learn from, or not. The whole thing - this blog, and the leap into self-publishing, feels like a giant experiment.

But surely it's fine to say 'I don't know but I'm going to find out.' That's different from being ignorant - ignorance shuts out the possibility of learning. While not-knowing contains the possibilities of discovery, of creativity. It is not a position of weakness, but is exciting, and scary, and full of glorious choices. It feeds curiosity, fuels experiments, allows me to make mistakes. Ignorance is a dead-end; not-knowing is an opportunity.

Sometimes I wish more people would admit to not-knowing. It allows for asking questions, for alternative solutions, for second thoughts. But that's an opinion, and I've already said I don't know enough to have opinions.

So I don't suppose anyone will follow me for advice - in fact, I hope you won't. I need people who will laugh with me (and, sometimes, at me) as I unpack the jigsaw of the publishing world and try to piece it all together. And advice - yes, please offer advice.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The changing of minds.

A comment from Cat on my last post got me thinking. As I drafted my reply I realised that, in my transition from dreams of finding a traditional publisher to getting my self-publishing clothes on, I've had to reframe they way I think about this book.

Reframing - a phrase from my old days as a therapist. (Yes, a play therapist, with traumatised children. It feels like another life now). It means the process of changing one's thinking, generally from a somewhat negative approach to finding positives. For some children the prospect of two Christmases and birthdays begins to compensate for their parents no longer being together.

For me - it's been a slow, and often painful process, dragging myself towards a more positive view of self-publishing. I've been on the fringes of writing and publishing for several years, and watched opinions change. Ten years ago, self-publishing was (rightly?) called 'vanity publishing.' Writers unable to find a traditional home for their novels, with contracts and advances and royalties, could pay someone to do it for them.

Two things have changed: traditional publishing has been squeezed; it is unclear how many people still read, but fewer and fewer books make money - and making money is the function of any company. Which means the chance of any book making it to the shelves of Waterstones are slim. At the same time, print-on-demand (POD) services have made it easier for writers to produce books for themselves, with minimum costs, and with all the marketing opportunities the internet has to offer.

As a result, anyone can do it. And, while, the quality of much self-published material is little better than eel vomit (Nicola Morgan's term, in 'Write to be Published'), one can defend the right of any aspiring writer to take a manuscript and make it real. For, among the dross, there are gems. Dan Holloway (here) has shown how, with hard work and persistence, self-publishing can become an aspiration in its own right, by-passing any thought of traditional publishing. Just as there are gems in indie music, self-publishing is now unveiling wonderful books that would never emerged from their writers' dreams without the opportunities of POD.

I know all this. But in my head I've had to take an idealogical leap - from daring to dream of editors with big desks and fat wallets with their proofreaders and their typesetters and their marketing departments who would make my book look so wonderful everyone would buy it and people would look at me in the street, oh so you are Jo Carroll (tell me all writers have little dreams like that?) - to a recognition that self-publishing is not only valid, but an exciting and worthwhile road to travel.

Reframing. And yes, it has made my head hurt occasionally - but I've made it.

And - ps - if anyone can tell me how to reduce links to a nice tidy 'here', in red, for people to click on so I don't have long addresses, I'd be grateful.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Submissions, rejections. The usual merry-go-round?

Back to the book, and writing, because that's what I set this blog up for. I shall try not to digress too much. Well, maybe sometimes. But today I shall be disciplined.

I shall tell you what's been happening - and where I'll go from here. And I'm not going to whinge - because it achieves nothing.

The Book (Over the Hill as it is now) was submitted to three publishers about a month ago. Yes, I know I didn't tell you. Because it takes ages for replies to come, and blogging 'still waiting' for week after week is boring for all of us. And because chewing one's nails is something that should only be done in private.

I chose the publishers carefully - but, I must admit, with limited optimism. Why? Because Paul, my mentor, had told me that this book would have found a publisher without a problem - ten years ago; but not now. But, he added, it's an ideal book to self-publish. I have no reason to disbelieve him (his advice has always been thoughtful and constructive). But - well, sending to traditional outlets was worth a try, if only to prove him right. So I targeted three publishers, carefully, but kept my dreams realistic. And I knew I wasn't going to trawl round every publisher in the Writers and Artists Handbook.

Two rejections have arrived. The first came late on a Friday afternoon, and was - well - terse. So what does that tell me? That they were tired and working their way down the submissions without really thinking? Possibly. That my submission was rubbish - also possible. It was the only submission that needed full non-fiction proposal, and it's years since I've written one. And I suspect, once the synopsis and everything else was written, I approached it with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Although it still looks okay to me, I suspect a keen-eyed editor spotted my reluctance to engage with the minutiae of that proposal.

And the second arrived, also on a Friday, but worded with such understanding that it felt as if the writer was genuinely sorry to reject my efforts. Her final words were 'don't give up.' For all I know, the rejection email may have been cut and pasted. But it felt kinder. As if my feelings might be important even if my submission was, well, rubbish. Or maybe it wasn't total rubbish, but just not sparkling, amazing, right for them. The rejection was less bruising.

And the third - I'm still waiting.

Yes, there were a lurches of disappointment. I wouldn't be human if there weren't. But it's time to take it from here. To investigate self-publishing options. To get this book out myself.

It is, I confess, daunting. I've bought books on self-publishing (where else would I begin?), and they all give slightly different advice. The technological details terrify me. I have drifted into a website or two, and run away to eat chocolate. But, give me time - and I'll get there. And please - if anyone has any ideas how to get past this 'so scary I'll look at it tomorrow' hurdle, then I'd be grateful.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Writing in public spaces

I read an interview with Stephen King the other day. It's obvious, simply from counting the number of books he's written, as well as the insight of On Writing, that he works compulsively hard. But the comment that surprised me was when he admitted taking editing to a ball game.

Now, I know nothing about 'ball games' - other than the clips seen on films or TV. They always seem to include a lot of nailbiting and cheering and people carrying large cups of coca cola. And sometimes people climb over each other in the stands, or miss the action because they are too busy kissing. So tell me - do they have plenty of pausing spaces - spaces where it is possible to divert thinking from the ball game (Stephen King is, apparently, passionate about the red sox) and re-immerse oneself in something written? How does he do that? Allow his brain to be so involved in two such disparate things?

I do write in public - especially when I'm travelling. When I'm away I write anywhere - my diary overflowing with the tiniest details of bus stops and train stations, cafes, hotel rooms, corners of parks, by rivers, watching the sea. How else to record the mayhem around me - the goat giving birth on the ghats at Varanasi; the smell of Germolene in a hostel room in Kuala Lumpur. I even wrote in the back row of Sydney Opera House, after the first half of Rigoletto; a man from Glasgow climbed up to me to ask what the acoustics were like up there. By the time he'd gone I had just five minutes to scribble my thoughts on our conversation, Rigoletto, and the Opera House itself. But it had to be done.

When I'm at home my little notebook nourishes passing thoughts. Ideas for stories (rubbish, mostly); overheard conversations; incongruities. And I read - on buses and trains, in cafes. (I don't read on buses and trains when I'm travelling - there's so much going on out of the windows, and I don't want to miss anything!)

But editing? At a ball game? Surely that requires a very different headspace. If I'm writing when I'm out and about I write about what I see. And I read if I'm somewhere predictable, and can bury my head in a book for a while - not dipping in and out of it. Maybe it's me - and I need an editing space. But you - can you take editing to the ball game?

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Is there a polite term for . .

older women?

A week or so ago I blogged about Emily Harrison - a brilliant young poet. In the course of this blog I described myself as 'wrinkly' and a 'crone.'

Francis commented - quite reasonably - that these are derogatory terms; I belittle myself by bringing up my age in this way. These are not terms I would use to describe a man. She's right - I wouldn't use them to describe a man. And there I stop, and think - I'm not sure what words I would use to describe a man my age. Geezer? Certainly not. 'Pensioner' sounds far too old, and doesn't include gender. Drawing attention to receding hairlines is too personal.

And - taking this a step further - 'wrinkly' and 'crone' are not words I would use to describe anyone other than myself. I use far kinder words when thinking of my friends. Mostly I use their names - that is enough to underpin the feisty, independent, funny women that they are. At a push they are 'older women' - that gives them dignity, gravitas.

The trouble is that I don't feel dignified. My head is still somewhere in my twenties. But I know my body carries all the indignities of its sixty years. I walk down the street and men look through me. I am sure my grandchildren will, before long, ask if I remember the Romans. And the only way I know to manage this dissonance is to laugh at myself - at the incongruity of dancing round the kitchen while waiting for my hot chocolate to cool down; the way I rub my arthritic knees and then think, maybe, I should go to Nepal in the winter and trek the Annapurnas.

Which leaves me in a quandary. I don't feel I fit the term 'older woman' - it smacks of common sense, and comfortable shoes. So, what do I call myself? I'm happy to laugh at myself, and to use terms like 'wrinkly' and 'crone' - I'm happy in my own aging skin. And there are huge advantages to landing, healthily, into late middle age. Women my age are invisible. We sit in corners in cafes, and people take no notice. We earwig conversations - during a recent trip to America I scribbled, word for word, an argument between three women regarding the need to affirm the self-esteem of their teenaged daughters, all of whom were launched into serious diets. They talked as if I wasn't there. (In evolutionary terms, our usefulness lies in caring for grandchildren. And if invading soldiers are unable to see us, we are more likely to keep those children safe.)

So - how to incorporate all these advantages of aging? 'Crone' - maybe is too harsh; it smacks of Macbeth's witches. But 'wrinkly' - that feels, to me, a wry way of laughing at myself. It doesn't take the realities of age too seriously.

But I do take Francis's point - maybe I have not done other older women any favours.

So - what words would you use? For older women - and men?

Sunday, 17 July 2011

True talent is so rare.

I'm a wrinkly - as most of you know.  And I sit in writers' groups, go to open mic sessions, spend most of my writing life with people whose children (if they had them) are well past the nappy stage.  We have been taught rules, dissect our words obediently.

And then along came Emily.  Aged eighteen.  With her scarlet lipstick and shoes-not-made-for-walking.  She's a poet.  I write that carefully - she's not just a young person who writes poetry.  I wrote poetry in my teens and it was excruciating.  She wears the word with panache.  It is who she is.  Her work is gutsy and honest and funny, rooted in the angst and energy of adolescence but without the whining.  She delivers it with crisp diction, firing words that stick to you.  The last line lingers - swims around the room somehow - and you want her to read the same poem over and over again until every little nuance is swimming too, but you know it won't be, there is always something more, a corner that is still to be explored.

I've no idea if anyone has tried to tame her, to work with rhyme scheme and form, to deconstruct line length.  I hope not.  Her talent is raw and wonderful and exciting.

There are few good reasons to live to be 130.  But one of them is to live long enough to see how Emily discovers which paths to take.  I want her to ignore the advice of crones like me; to carry on surprising us with the brutal honesty (and wit) with which she approaches her poetry.  I have no doubt she has the ability to be successful (in the sense that her work will be widely read), but want her to remain rooted in the immediacy of her feelings and experiences.  I want her to have plenty of Life, but not so much she drowns in it.

Am I envious - no.  I've made my own choices.  I've had plenty of Life.  Rather - I love cheering her from the sidelines.  It's a privilege, even to be peripheral (as I am), to her early efforts.  Emily Harrison - remember that name.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Good words, bad words, or just words?

Writers groups are unexpected things.  I think that's why I like them.  One week we can struggle over a couple of lines of poetry, this adverb, that adverb, with too many silences and countless coffee stops to keep us going; other times we all talk at once and there are too many ideas and opinions for one little group.  And I spend most of the bus-ride home thinking of all the things I could have said.

This week one member presents a 'found' poem - he had extracted a conversation between some young people on Facebook and organised this into a poem.  Leaving aside whether this was a poem or not, we homed in on the language - particularly the first line:

'Stay balls deep bitch.'

Is there anything poetic about that?  And is it valid to use adolescent monosyllables as the basis of poetry?  Does the language code of adolescents have any value at all?  Some members of the group dismissed any value in the grunting communications of teenagers.  Teenagers use words, partly to exclude adults, and partly to affirm a sense of belonging among themselves.  Their dictionary is a transitory, evolving thing - in effort to keep one step ahead of tedious grown-ups who insist on trying to keep up with them.  But does this mean that the words they use have any less value - and that they can't be the basis of poetry?

(And is it so different from the jargon used by lawyers and doctors and estate agents - all designed to affirm membership of a clique?)

One member of the group felt very strongly that such language had no place in poetry.  The words of the King James Bible have survived because they are beautiful - irrespective of their message they flow in a satisfying, mellifluous way.  And, because they are beautiful, they can be used to explore deeper truths that survive long after the writer is forgotten.  The breadth of vocabulary, the music of the words - it all combines to underpin the exploration of profound ideas and search for meaning.  Surely these are the words that poetry, especially modern poetry, should be utilised.  (They were new, daring words once.  King James's compilers did not use the language of Chaucer.)

My view - words and simply words.  They are neither good nor bad, and are given meaning only by the context in which we try to understand them.  I think modern writers should relish both the complex language of classical poetry and the immediate, the transitory, words of teenagers - or of any other group with its own codes and mores.  We should embrace the vibrancy of evolving language, arranging words in such a way that we communicate meaning to anyone willing listening to us.

(And did we organise any words to find me a book title?  Possibly.)

Monday, 11 July 2011

On taking a day off!

So - I haven't got a title (see my last post - just in case you thought I was referring to a ladyship).  Waiting for a title is a bit like waiting for a late train.  Shall I count to 20, 30, 50 - and then look at the board to see if it might turn up any time soon?  Or maybe change my destination - who wants to go to London anyway, when Cheltenham beckons.  I've revisited title ideas, and come up with the same drivel over and over again.

Time to take a day off.  What shape should this day take?  A trip to London . . . No - following on from some of the thoughts that swam about after reading Kathleen Jamie's book (see a couple of posts ago) I decided to have a silent day.  She talks of the demise of the Sabbath, a day when everyone was expected to put down their pens, their picks and shovels, and reflect on the almighty; she suggests that this lack of quiet space makes the noisy times even more intrusive.  Her writing - which is poetic, and beautiful, and all sorts of repetitive words like that - is testimony to her capacity to seize the quiet times.

I don't do religion, but I do, at times, think I long for a space where I can be really quiet.  Although I live alone, I still feel the raucous onslaught of 2011.

I made minimal rules. I would spend the day with no TV, no computer, no radio, and no music.  I would only do one thing at a time (so no playing with the crossword while I ate; no stirring soup with a book in my hand; no going for a long walk plugged into a radio).  I would telephone my old aunt (she would have a fit of the vapours if I didn't), and answer the phone if it rang.  But I wouldn't ring anyone else. And I could eat and drink whatever I liked - this was not a hair-shirt, bread-and-water day.

It was an interesting day.  Some of it was wonderful - I went for a long walk in Savernake Forest and noticed a little pink flower clinging to the bank near my house - why hadn't I seen it before?  And the cat-like cry of the buzzard - what had upset him?  Was I too close to a nest?  Surely he could see there was no chance I'd shin up his tree to inspect an egg or two.

But eating meals without a distraction was difficult. I made an effort, cooked food that was different, designed to be appetising.  But all that effort and I shovelled it down my throat in less than ten minutes and my stomach struggled with the sudden weight of it.  Another time I'll be more flexible.

There was a low point when I saw the evening stretching in front of me.  All those silent hours, without the distraction of the internet, the TV.  But I read, a bit of Stephen Fry, a few stories in Mslexia, poems in Ambit. Hours slid by without me trying. I used to read like that in my teens, hour after hour, resenting the necessity of meals. As an adult, reading has been fitted in - between work and family and friends and writing and TV and the computer - it was such a joy, discovering that it is still possible to read for that long, oblivious to passing time.

There were other surprises.  I spent far less time faffing - just filling time for the sake of it, no hitting the refresh button on facebook, pottering on twitter until some programme came on the telly. Finding resources in myself was easier than I'd anticipated - I read, I wrote (in my notebook, pages and pages of scribble) and savoured this respite from technology.

Who knows if it will make any difference - to my writing, or to my relations with the way I live. I'm back at the computer today (obviously), but with good resolutions to keep it in its place. I shall keep faffing time to a minimum. I shall listen for the buzzard; maybe he has a story to tell.

And yes, I may do it again, from time to time. It's wonderful how noisy one's mind becomes when the world is silent.

Monday, 4 July 2011

A continuum between poetry and prose?

Sorry - this title looks like an essay question, and I mean it to be more of a discussion.  So here are my thoughts - I'm sure you will have others.

Yes, I know this blog is about publishing Gap Years, but these are waiting days - I have a couple of stories simmering, but nothing that drives me to the computer at sparrowfart; and so I have savoured the luxury of more time to read.

I stumbled across Findings, by Kathleen Jamie (published by Sort of Books in 2005).  She is a Scottish poet but this is not a poetry book.  Rather it is a collection of observations, from watching ospreys nesting in the mountains, to the necessities of finding a home for her great-grandmother, to meandering round a medical museum full of body-parts that make her cry.  So what, you might say - nothing there to send me rushing to the book.  Indeed, I'm struggling to find any sort of description that shows how special this book is.

I can only tell you that it is beautifully written.  Kathleen uses all her skills as a poet: her descriptions are lyrical, her reflections are tender, funny.  All her sentences balance.  Her word selections are sometimes surprising (I'd never thought of the feathers of sheep's wool caught in brambles before as 'dollops' - but, when they are soggy, that is exactly what they are.)  She has some wonderful metaphors - the cry of a peregrine is described  as 'like a turnstile pleading for oil.'

As she rambles up mountains she muses, about the survival of the corncrake, and the dialogue between humankind and the environment.  She suggests that we had lost the capacity to notice, to contemplate; the secularisation of the Sabbath has left us bereft of time  to nurture our thinking, our noticing of everything that is around us.  She tackles the subject gently, leaving it without answers - and me wondering how I would cope if I offered myself one day a week without radio, music, TV, computer. (Maybe another blog post there.)

Her skill - as I see it - lies in the tenacity of her noticing.  That, and her ability to describe what she sees using the most beautiful, appropriate, and compelling language - and overlap of poetry and prose.  Her writing refuses to comply with the demands of genre but is such a joy to read.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

To Mentor? Or not to Mentor?

As I said in my last post, Gap Years was mentored.

I entered a competition, run by Exeter university. We had to submit some writing, and tell them what we hoped to learn. I sent a short story that had grown from the travels, and said I hoped to learn more about using life experiences as a basis for story. Paul took a step back, said the travels were interesting in themselves, could he read my first efforts. Can't say I sent gave it to him eagerly - I'd reached the point of knowing it wasn't publishable. Expected him to come back with a thick shit-sandwich (this is wonderful, but would be really really wonderful if you changed the whole thing, it will be wonderful).

It wasn't quite that bad. He made me look at it as a book that said as much about me as the places I visited. Eek - who wants to write about themselves? (And here I am, now, writing a blog!) I had to look at how it felt to be older, and female - he was surprised when I said I was, often, invisible. And that invisibility has its advantages.

So, home I went with some serious thinking to do - which was, in the end, much more challenging than the writing. I practised scribbling about myself in notebooks - words that will never see the light of day (promise), just to free up my thinking. He was right; I knew, deep down, the minute he said it, that he was right. I didn't have to like it, but I agreed with him.

So there was a bit of kicking and screaming (well, chocolate and wine) and then I settled down to rewrite it Gap Years. And yes - it is almost unrecognisable from the old plod from one scenic location to another. I'd drooled over the Taj Mahal skated over the man with the gun in Lucknow - he's given a prominent corner in this version. Ditto being abandoned outside a massage parlour in Kerala. Snakes and leeches in Malaysia. It is a significantly better book.

Would I go for a mentor again? Yes - if I had a piece of work in need a good shaking. Would you? I think you need to begin with the draft of something, even if it's rough round the edges. Mentors don't provide inspiration, but they can take your inspiration and nudge you into turning it into something people might want to read. That's surely worth some uncomfortable thinking.