Monday, 30 April 2012

The power of the zenith

It's the final day and I have reached my zenith of the A-Z Challenge. Zenith in this instance meaning the time at which I am at my most powerful or successful. No need to worry though, I haven't developed super powers over night and hatched an evil plan to take over the world. I'm just going to share some writing from my novel, which is the zenith of my fiction writing attempts to date. I have the kind of personality that loves to start new things but loses interest and finds it hard to finish and see things through to the end. So the fact that I have stuck with it and completed a first draft of almost 55,000 words is, in my eyes, a huge achievement and a sign that this is definitely what I should be doing! I hope you like this extract.

Sheila finally opens the door wider and walks away back into the house. She doesn’t say anything but we take this as an invite and go inside and follow her in. She’s like a pudding as she waddles down the hall in front of me. Soft and rolling, so deceptive. She looks like someone you see when they show old footage of women scrubbing their stoops. Salt of the earth, keeping this country great. But she’s not. She’s vicious and vindictive and as I remember all the hateful things she’s said over the years I just want to turn and run. But I want to find out what’s happened to Jimmy more so I don’t, I go into the dark and overcrowded room and sit down on the sofa without being asked. Jules sits down next to me and looks round in horror. The already small room has been made minute by being stuffed to the gills with large, dark wooden furniture – cabinets mainly, which in turn are overflowing with dreadful china ornaments. Babies’ faces with one tear on one cheek. Ladies with parasols and flowing gowns. Teddies, cats, bears, birds, elephants. Plates, mugs, bells. It’s overwhelming.

‘Well what do you want then?’ Sheila says as she brings her pudding frame to rest in an oversized armchair in a slightly lighter shade of brown than the cabinets.

‘Is Alan here?’

‘He’s in bed. Not that it’s any of your business.’

‘We’re here to talk about Jimmy, obviously. How can you not be worried that he’s gone missing? Do you know where he is?’

I hadn’t meant to blurt it out like that and I can feel Jules’s surprise next to me and Sheila’s hackles rise even further opposite me.

‘Like we told the police, no we don’t know where he is. But we’re sure he’s fine. You wouldn’t know Missy as you never come to visit, not that we want you to, but we have lots of talks round here. Our Jimmy should never have married you in the first place and we’ve been telling him that all along. Hopefully he’s finally taken some notice.’

‘So, what, he’s left me? Is that what you’re saying? Did he tell you he was going to?’

She looks smug. Her eyes are gleaming with the power she perceives this situation to give her over me.

‘No, he didn’t tell me. But that’s what I reckon he’s done. Me and Alan’ll be seeing him before long I’m sure.’

‘How can you be so sure? He wouldn’t be leaving me. We were happy. And even if he was, why would he do it like this, why wouldn’t he just talk to me about it?’

I am shouting by the end of this sentence and Sheila is just gearing up to start shouting back at me when Alan comes bursting through the door in just his pants.

‘Oi. What the hell’s going on? What are you doing here shouting your mouth off? He pushes my arm as he goes to stand guard by his precious mother. As if she needs protecting from anything or anyone.

‘Don’t you think you can come here and talk to mum like that.’

Jules jumps to her feet then, my guard dog it seems.

‘She didn’t talk to her like anything. You two are the ones that are bloody rude. Kate’s husband, your brother and son,’ she jabs her right index finger at them both then, ‘has been missing for three days and I think she’s quite entitled to come here and find out why you two don’t seem to be bothered.’

It’s just descending into a shouting match and I can’t deal with it. I think I believe them that they don’t know where Jimmy is but I don’t believe he’s left me. I don’t believe he’ll be in touch with them in a few days. The reason they don’t seem bothered is because they aren’t. They don’t care about Jimmy, never have, and I have always been able to see that even if Jimmy couldn’t. The only thing they care about is themselves and each other. It’s weird the two of them living here together, spending most of their time together and Alan a grown man of thirty-five never having left home.

‘Come on Jules, let’s go.’ 

I grab her arm and she follows me out.

Alan follows, his pasty white gut hanging over the waistband of his pink panther boxer shorts.

‘And make sure you don’t come back.’

His voice is cut off as Jules slams the door behind us and we hurry away from the madness that is the rude family house.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

The voice of the young

Youth, mine is fading fast on the outside but still going strong in my head. Instead of mourning my lost youth though, today's post is dedicated to books that I have loved in which the main protagonist is a child or young adult.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt
Telling the story from 12 year old Harriet's point of view as she sets out to find out who murdered her baby brother, the writing in this book is truly evocative. I was there in small town America, where I could feel the heat, the dust catching in my throat and the eyes of the neighbourhood boring into the back of my head. The pace is slow and indolent just like the long summer days it takes place over, and as Harriet sets her sights on local junkie, Danny, as being the likely suspect the tension builds as the reader can see the danger she’s creating whereas she has no idea.

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
Not just one but four young girls share the narrative in this tale of a 1950s Baptist preacher from the US of A who transports his family to the Congo, where he is blind to the devastation that their presence, and his attempts to convert the locals they live amongst, wreaks. Not just an incredible story, this book is an incredible writing achievement to create four voices that are so authentic and so different to each other. Spanning the sisters’ childhood into adulthood, it is the young voices from those early days in Africa that linger in the mind.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
Set in Germany during WW2, this is nine year old Liesel’s tale but told from Death’s point of view. Liesel lives with a foster family, as her parents have disappeared into the concentration camps, where she first learns to read then about the fate of the Jews. Telling the tale of ordinary German people in the war, despite the subject matter, this book ultimately leaves you with a sense of hope about the beauty of human nature at its best. Both lovely and harrowing at the same time, it lives with you long after the last page has been read.

There are many more but I will stop there so you can tell me the books with child narrators that you have loved. 

Friday, 27 April 2012

X was for Xenotransplantation

I am running out of blogging steam as we approach the end of the challenge and for today's post I was going to write a 50 word flash about Xenotransplantation, which is using animal parts in humans. But, as you probably guessed already, I didn't. 

So instead I went and found some X words that I didn't know but like, which is probably a good thing as I did a quiz to find out how large my vocabulary was yesterday and it was decidedly average. So I have now expanded it by another five great words.

Xanthippe - ill tempered woman

Xat - a carved totem pole in the Native American culture

Xeme - a fork tailed gull

Xenodocheionology - a love of hotels (my personal favourite purely for the fact that there is even a word to describe this!)

Xenogomy - cross fertilisation of plants

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Words Matter

Welcome and thanks to my last guest of the challenge, Cathy Dreyer, the award-winning story writer who blogs about all things writing at writeanovelin10minutesflat. This post is a dedication to the tools of the writer's trade - words. 

Words matter. This was never more clear to me than when I was trying to learn Spanish. About 15 years ago, I went to Guatemala, to its beautiful second city, Antigua, and took lessons. I’ve always felt I had an affinity for learning languages. So after just a few days I was striding around town flashing my new words like wads of dollars.

‘I’m feeling a little bit ill today,’ I said to my landlord. 

He looked a bit puzzled for a few seconds, then nodded and looked sympathetic. A few days later, I realised I’d told him I was a small illness.

When two friends joined me for a while, they were gratifyingly impressed with my new skills. In restaurants I would order their food and drink very much to the lingo born.

‘They fear your water may upset their stomachs,’ I explained to one waiter. ‘They do not want any ice in their Coca-Cola.’ 

That puzzled look again. And again, the realisation, a few days later, that I’d asked the poor man not to put ice-cream in the fizzy drinks.

Being on a Creative Writing course (at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education) I’ve learnt to consider not just the precise meanings of words, but also their sound and how that relates to meaning and storytelling. The poet Andrew Philip has a wonderful extended essay on rhyme on his website which goes into illuminating and erudite detail about how writers can use sounds.

Using linguistics, he examines the positioning of tongue and lips and the passage of air in making sounds which are words. I have found his stuff invaluable in considering my own work. I am not just talking about poetry. When I started to think about literature, about what it is, I quickly ran up against the arguments that it is what we say it is; that its definition simply reflects current cultural and political power; that it is not possible to define. I think that’s probably true. Cleverer, more educated people say it’s true anyway.

I’m not that interested in academic definitions. I like writing which ‘gets me there’. That’s my short-hand for text that I find enjoyable, text which delivers some kind of sensual experience. (For anyone who is interested the novelist and critic James Wood discusses this in his book How Fiction Works which I almost know off by heart.)

My internal short-hand for literature is writing that comes from playing with words, from people who enjoy playing with words, who like putting them in interesting sound or page or narrative patterns, even if only at a very subtle level. It seems to me the more games and patterns and general embellishing there is on a text, the more admired it is for its literary qualities.     I am really not talking about anything esoteric or overly academic. Anyone who uses alliteration is playing with words, surely. On this definition, AA Milne counts.

In her 1982 bestseller, Brother of the More Famous Jack, Barbara Trapido clearly uses sound to reinforce meaning, to get readers there, as I would have it. Early on in the novel, Trapido writes about a heavily pregnant character. The text becomes full of the  soft, not to say gestational, ‘g’ so stretchily redolent of the late stages of pregnancy, including the words ‘bulge’ (twice), ‘engages’, ‘hugely’, ‘strong’, ‘pyjama’, and ‘Burne-Jones’.

This is a novel which definitely got me there and still does when I regularly re-read it. Writers also think about the derivation of words. Some writers, notably Seamus Heaney, have made an effort to use words from our Anglo-Saxon past which tend to be more gutteral and back-of-throat, compared with the Latinate front-of-mouth language of the Norman Conquest.

There’s a suggestion that Anglo-Saxon is more authentic, less elitist and closer to the way language originally formed, possibly with words which sounded like what they were. Say the word ‘dig’, for example, and your tongue digs into the bit of your mouth before your teeth and then expels the air your mouth is holding like a spadeful of earth thrown out of the way.

Heaney’s poem Bone Dreams has been taken to be explicitly about this. He sets his wonderful phrase ‘scop’s twang’ against ‘Elizabethan devices, Norman canopies.’ Say the words out loud, see what you think. If you’re interested in further reading then I found Stephen Dobbyns’ next word, better word, the craft of writing poetry (Palgrave Macmillan) rewarding.

Meanwhile back in Guatelama I had all this and more to learn. What happened when I made the common mistake of telling a group of young jungle guides that I was ‘on heat’, when I was just feeling Guatemala’s punishing sun, is a story for another day.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Verity's Vignette

A vignette is a short, usually descriptive literary sketch so today I am posting up a piece I wrote for a workshop about Verity and Alison's backpacking trip. This story keeps coming back into my mind so now that I have finished the first draft of my novel and can think about other things again, I am going to work on this and the piece I posted up for the A post, Alexandrine Tinne: Lady Explorer, and see if I can develop them both into short stories to submit to the Bridport Prize competition. I hope you enjoy this vignette of Verity's story.

As the boy signalled for me to get on the back of his moped my stomach lurched in a momentary pang of fear. Was I going to end up as just one of those statistics in the newspaper? “English woman aged 22 disappears while on holiday in Sri Lanka”. As I said though, the pang was momentary and the boy, who had one tooth missing in the bottom row of his otherwise perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth, didn’t look like a kidnapper or murderer. I gave Alison a reassuring grin. 

'Verity, are you sure about this?' she said with a restraining hand on my arm as I swung my leg over the saddle of the moped. 

I laughed and nodded, convinced with the unshakeable belief of the young and invincible that I would be fine. My bum had barely touched the seat before my little grinning friend sped off. Within moments, the sanitised Sri Lanka of the tourist resorts was behind us and the wind was blowing in my face as the little moped whizzed through dense foliage on what could best be described as a hiking trail. Despite the fact that I couldn’t see any signs of life nearby we came to an abrupt halt after about five minutes on this track. My cash was taken and stuffed in a grubby shorts pocket, while I was ushered into a bush and told to wait. Then the moped spirited my money, and the only person in the world who knew exactly where I was, away.

Time ticked slowly by in the bush and I started to get paranoid about insects. Surely there must be millions of them all around me. It was quite dark despite the blazing sun I knew was high in the sky somewhere above me. I became convinced that strange creepy crawlies were making their determined way towards me. I started to spin round in the confined space, my breath loud, panting, trying to catch sight of them all before they got me. I couldn’t see anything though so I burst out of the bush on to the path, flailing my arms around in the air and whimpering pathetically. The relatively open space now surrounding me calmed me down quickly though and then I just stood there waiting, hot and annoyed, hoping that the boy would return soon. I heard the moped before I saw it, then it came spinning round a corner. The boy’s mouth dropped open when he saw me waiting on the path.

‘You wait in bush I said.’

I shrugged. ‘I heard you coming so I got out.’

He gave a fearful glance behind him and motioned for me to get on quickly. As I sat down behind him he stuffed a carrier bag in my hands.

‘Put it in your bag.’

The trip back to the beach was taken at an even faster speed than the outward journey. When we got there I was deposited back to Alison, who was still standing in the exact same spot where I’d left her, and the boy zoomed off shouting back over his shoulder that when I wanted more he’d be around. Back in our hotel room I pulled out the biggest bag of weed I’ve ever seen in my life from my backpack and dropped it on the bed. Alison and I just looked at each other then burst into semi-hysterical laughter – we only had ten days of our time in Sri Lanka left and even if we got stoned all day every day, we’d need to stay for at least a month, probably two, to get through a bag this size. Oh well, we decided to give it our best shot by tucking straight in and if we couldn’t quite manage it, we’d just donate it to someone when we left. It had only cost a fiver after all.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Destination Unknown

Another flash fiction for today's U post and quite a tenuous link...chosen because one of the words in the title starts with a U!

Destination Unknown

As the woman plonked herself down on the seat next to him Jacob looked up and smiled. Surprisingly she grinned back  at him before rummaging through the bag on her lap and pulling out a pre-packed sandwich.

‘Good idea to eat before you get on the plane,’ Jacob said as she bit into her BLT, ‘the food is always awful isn’t it?’

The woman nodded as she chewed then swallowed the mouthful she had.

‘God yes. I spend loads of time on planes as well so have really had enough of it.’

‘Oh, bit of a jetsetter are you?’ Jacob joked.

‘Hardly. It’s for my job, which is not very glamorous I’m afraid. I’m going to a factory in Poland today.’

She wrinkled her nose at that.

‘That’s not so bad really is it? At least you get to see different places and meet new people.’ Jacob said.

‘I suppose so. No, you’re right. I have seen some beautiful places actually and met lots of really nice people.’ She looked pleased with this realisation and Jacob was glad he’d made her feel better about her job.

‘What about you, where are you off to?' She asked.

Jacob gazed off into the distance with a dreamy smile.

‘I’m going to a beautiful tropical island called Aitutaki, my sister lives there.’

'Oh how lovely.’

The woman glanced up at the departure board then gathered her bags together and stood up.

‘Well have a great time. I’ve got to board now so, bye.’ She gave a little wave then walked away.

Jacob sat there for a moment longer before standing up too. Then he walked into the supermarket opposite and went through the staff door, where he hung his jacket up and grabbed the trolley of food he needed to stack onto the shelves. He’d put this lot out then have a look and see which ready meal he’d take home to have for his tea later.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Let's get traditional

Today's T post is about an old English tradition called Wassailing, with an extra bit of Mummers and Morris traditions thrown in for good measure. Thanks to my lovely husband, John Saint, for the great photos that go along with the article I wrote about it. Which I didn't try and sell, I must stop doing that!

We are Wassailing

“We’ll all have some cake in a minute but the trees will have some first.” Not something you would usually expect to hear a grown woman say, unless that is you are attending a Wassailing ceremony on a cold January night in East Sussex.

Wassailing is an old English custom that blesses the orchard trees to drive out evil spirits and try and ensure a good crop of cider apples at the next harvest, and it is still alive and well in many communities across the south of England. At Middle Farm just outside Lewes, an ancient town a few miles inland between the popular seaside resorts of Brighton and Eastbourne, Morris dancing troupes, bonfire societies and generations of families gather every January to celebrate this pagan rite that has been a part of English custom since as far back as the Norman conquests in 1066, and maybe even further.

For me Morris dancing has always brought to mind friendly-looking men dressed all in white with a few rainbow ribbons thrown in for good measure, and although some of the troupes did have a similar look to this, the night was led by the Hunter’s Moon troupe. Black-painted faces, long black and silver cloaks, top hats with an array of bizarre objects added to them, along with their whoops and yelps when dancing, combined to make an intimidating sight, soon broken however by their welcoming smiles and friendly chat.

In a hall decorated with straw bales, apples and leaves, smelling of hot and spicy cider, Twig told me about how the Morris troupes and bonfire societies are all interlinked. Visiting from the Hastings Bonfire Society, wearing a hat she had decorated specifically for the Wassail, adorned with pheasant feathers, a black feather mask and a cardboard beak, she explained: “The year kicks off with Wassailing and then culminates with Guy Fawkes in November. Everybody travels around going to all the other society’s events, they take their families. It’s all very relaxed with a lot of drinking, dancing and singing going on. Mainly these are events are all very noisy.”
Starting with dancing from the many different Morris troupes, the evening was helped along by the cider, or apple juice for the drivers, local ales and hog roast. The drummers are an important part of the night and when the time came for the procession, the deep booming from their drums reverberated through the night, and down through me from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. Led by the Hunter’s Moon Morris, who lit the way with fire torches, to the beat of the drums everyone made their muddy way to the orchard for the Wassail ceremony.

Once everyone was gathered around the bonfire site, it was lit, several firecrackers were thrown in, so Twig was right about it being very noisy, and Jan from the Hunter’s Moon Morris sang the Wassail. The Wassail cup was taken around the trees and cider was poured onto their roots. We then all joined in with the Wassail chant, ending with joyful cries of “Wassail” and much banging of the drums and throwing of firecrackers. After that the trees were fed some of the delicious Wassail cake before everyone had a small piece along with a small shot of cider to complete the ceremony.  

The festivities continued with another old custom back in the hall, a Mummers’ Play. Four men dressed in masks and an array of colourful strips of fabric performed a short play in which a doctor of dubious credentials revived a man using magical powers. Then it was back to the dancing with a vengeance, the Morris troupes all did another turn before the band started playing and the dancing responsibilities were handed over to the audience. The free flowing cider ensured that the not very complicated clapping and whirling instructions from the stage were not that easy for the merry dancers to follow and as we made our way home, there was a lot of banging, crashing and laughing going on. We can’t wait to go to our next traditional celebration.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Stories Start Surprisingly

Today's S post is courtesy of my guest, the lovely Shaun Levin, author and creative writing teacher. Thanks to Shaun for this great post about the inspiration for his writing.

Stories Start Surprisingly
by Shaun Levin

See, stories shape silent sensual seconds. Stories start silently, subconsciously, setting savoured scenes, stone-like, shimmering. And then we must write. It nags at us, it wants to be written, that thing, that line, that word, a scene, that moment when we’re cycling to work along the park and the kid on his bike who's bunking off school looks at us and says: I'll race you. And there's something about that look in his eyes that will haunt us for days, like a dream we can't get rid of, or a memory. And we're not sure why it's haunting us, what it wants us to do with it, that look, that moment in the middle of the day when we and the kid were cycling alongside each other, about to race to the edge of the park, or not. His look is like a punch in the gut. That's a cliché, but it was a bit like that. We remember it. A ton of bricks. A truck. An epiphany. All of that. And we thought: he just wants a dad to play with him. He doesn't like school, doesn't need school at this time in his life, the way we didn't need it when we were that age, close to sixteen. All we wanted was the sea, to be on the beach, to think about sex.

And yes, it's something I've noticed about my writing over the years, S features a lot. The letter S, and maybe not just because it's the start of my name, the beginning of a snake's hiss, the moment of temptation in the garden, the turning point, the end of Eden, danger, or the beginning of the sound that tells others to be quiet, the voices in our head, to let us write. Sh.

I didn't race the kid in the end. I'd seen him do that thing of balancing on one pedal, balanced on the side of his bike as it moved down the street, like an acrobat on one side of the horse, the circus crowd waiting for him to propel himself over to the other side. I’d dared the kid to do that, to jump from one pedal to the other, and he’d looked at me and said, I can’t do that. There was a note of sadness in his voice, an echo of disappointment. He wanted to impress someone.

The story has become an exploration of fathers and acrobatics (I did gymnastics in primary school) and how we learn to do stuff with our bodies. I'd just been watching a documentary about three guys who run across the Sahara, from Senegal to the Red Sea, and I longed to go running again, a long run, miles and miles, which made me think of my dad, of being a son, and although I never liked running with him, I’ve always loved to run, to jog, the farther the better. The story’s still simmering. Some stories stalk you, snatch your sleeve: Say something! Speak! And we must submit to them, be the shadow to their scent. Say si.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Retreat - the best command ever

Today's R post is dedicated to retreats, of which there are many types, but the ones I refer to are writing retreats. I go to the Urban Writer's Retreat regularly, one Sunday a month a short tube ride away but takes me to a different place completely. One where I don't sit and write for customers all week and the cat doesn't come and sit on the keyboard and meow in my face, repeatedly.

For the first time ever, I have just been to a longer retreat. I have had the absolute pleasure of spending the past four nights at Retreats for You in lovely North Devon, where the even lovelier Deborah and Bob welcomed me into their home and spoilt me rotten. Their rambling thatched cottage in a sleepy little village is the perfect place to get away from real life and immerse yourself in the one you are creating. As has been proved by my writing almost 22,000 words in my short stay there. It was like staying with friends, the best type that leave to your own devices but provide you with lovely home-cooked meals and good conversation whenever you venture out of your cosy room.

But the best thing about retreats is that I have learnt they work for me and my writing. I don't write that much inbetween them but I mull the story over a lot. So by the time I get to the retreat and have been removed from all distractions and every day life, the story comes out of me really fast. So it seems the best thing would be for someone to give me loads of money so I can just go to retreats all the time and write loads of books. Loads.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

To quote or not to quote

Quotations are used liberally in many novels, as lead ins to chapters or sections and in the text. As I am busy writing away, 12,500 words written so far over the past two days, today's Q post is very short and is just some quotes that I like.

An eye for an eye leads to more blindness. ― Margaret Atwood

If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. ― Toni Morrison

It is never too late to be what you might have been. ― George Eliot

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Feeding Need

Today's P post is dedicated to the art of poetry with this poem from my second guest of the challenge, Jen Squire.

Feeding Need

Like a new waiter offering a heavy bill

I stand before him

almost sorry

He reaches for objects

Ripping skin – the tiers of my body

violent need

But love cannot be bottled

My heart does not sit chilling in clear glass

Hands spooning preparations -

scraping the black bead seeds of paw paw

leaving barren pulp

I am putty for the expert

the addict

He watches me rising, rounding,

sweet juices dripping from his greedy thieving mouth

he stuffs me with his words

I want

Darling he moans with apology

a fat person caught ravishing a fridge in the dark


I am his sponge

too much to eat at once

too pretty to throw out

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Somebody's watching you

O is for observation, a skill that writers are supposed to have in abundance but I don't know that I do. I do like to watch people but what I like to do even more is listen to them. There's only a limited amount you can learn by watching, it goes much further when you shamelessly eavesdrop on all around you wherever you are.

A gem of an example is someone from overseas asking a man on the tube if he knew where Elton John lived as he'd like to see him while he's in the UK! Today's post is short and sweet as I am at a writing retreat this week finishing off the novel so for once am getting on and doing that. Tomorrow will be a guest post and I'll be back on Wednesday, by which time, fingers crossed, I should have at least three more chapters in first draft.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Cara's Needy

Today's post comes from an exercise in my writing class in which Cara the Needy turned up. This was the homework piece then we did some follow on scenes from it in class. I'm not sure if it will go any further at the moment but I liked the clopping so thought Cara's neediness would be good for my N post.

She woke me up again. Always the attention seeker, even when she came home very late and I had been in bed for hours she would clip clop around in her heels on the wooden floors, backwards and forwards past my door until I woke up and went out there. Sometimes, if I had been in a heavy sleep, as I rose through my dreams to the beat of her feet, drab horses would appear, heads down as they toiled along grey, cobbled streets. Then I would open my eyes and be in her spare room, the weight of her expectations heavy on me as I lay there wishing she would just go to bed.

I suppose it’s my own fault. When I first moved in I was new to the city, keen to make friends, so when she clopped around in those early weeks I wanted to get up and hear her stories. But now I know things I’d rather not, and she’s turned out to be the kind of person I don’t really care to spend my time with. This morning she was pouring out her latest tale of woe before I’d even managed to get a cup out of the dishwasher, let alone pour coffee in it.

'Oh Adam you wouldn’t believe what happened to me at work yesterday.'

'Wouldn’t I?'

She then told me about another one of the seemingly hundreds of complete lechers that work at her company who had said perverted things to her. The first time I heard one of these tales I was suitably horrified but now I’m immune to them. It seems she can go nowhere without a member of the opposite sex making improper sexual advances. In meetings, at her desk, on the tube, in the supermarket, at the gym; you name a place, she’s definitely been propositioned there.

I think it’s sad that she feels the need to make this stuff up. I mean, I’ve been living in her house for quite a long time now and have never found myself desperate to pounce on her, or talk dirty to her, so I find it difficult to accept that every other man she encounters is compelled to throw caution to the wind and do exactly that. On a daily basis. Although to be fair she does bring quite a number of them home, maybe two, sometimes three a month, very occasionally four. Some I meet at breakfast, others I don't meet at all. So she's not making it up completely, just embellishing it for some reason.

As I sat there at breakfast today though, listening to pervert tale number three hundred and forty-two, something inside me snapped.

'Cara please, can I have my breakfast just once without tales of your sexual exploits accompanying it?'

'Adam! They are hardly exploits, I get harassed.'

'Yes, you said.'

As I thought it would that got rid of her and she flounced off to get ready for work. Yet tonight she has woken me again. But I’m not going out there and if she doesn’t stop clopping around soon, I’m going to shout at her.

'Stop making so much noise.' I’ll yell at the top of my voice.

I’m not putting up with it anymore.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Did you really say that?

Having got very engrossed in literary terms for yesterday's post, I wanted to include another one today. And the term of the day is:

Malapropism: an act or habit of misusing words ridiculously, especially by confusing words that are similar in sound.

Now what I really like about this is it that when I read it, it brought back a memory of something my nan said to me when I was a little girl when she indulged in a malapropism without even realising it, and I was too young to recognise it so went off to the shop to get baking ingredients none the wiser.

Once there I searched the shop high and low for decimated coconut and had no idea why the woman in the shop laughed so heartily at me when I asked for it. Thanks Nan for your unintended malapropism, it lives on.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Let's get literary

Literary terms - I have a dictionary of them since I started studying literature with the Open University and today I am sharing a couple of my favourite ones.

Deus ex Machina (literally "god out of a machine") is an improbable contrivance in a story. The phrase describes an artificial, or improbable, character, device, or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation or untangle a plot (such as an angel suddenly appearing to solve problems). The term is a negative one, and it often implies a lack of skill on the part of the writer.

When I read this description I couldn't help thinking about a book I was forced to waste some of my precious life reading as part of a book club I used to belong to (and no, this wasn't what made me leave!). It was a religious conversion tool thinly disguising itself as a novel called The Shack. In it a man who's daughter has been murdered by a serial killer goes to the shack in the mountains where the killer apparently took his daughter and hangs around in it for a bit with God, Jesus and The Holy Ghost. As if that premise itself wasn't bad enough, the writing, well don't get me started. So this book didn't just employ this technique suddenly, it was one massive Deus ex Machine and I highly recommend that all readers avoid it at all costs.

Hyperbole is exaggeration or overstatement.

This one I chose just because there is something really pleasing about the way the word feels in your mouth when you say it. And I literally have said it at least a couple of thousand times this morning already because I like it so much, and I've only been up an hour!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

K is for Kate

Today's K post is an extract from the novel I am currently working on, which tell Kate's story and how her life changes beyond all recognition when her husband goes missing. This is from the chapter where she goes to visit a medium in her search for answers when he isn't found...

I’d never done anything like it before and I felt scared despite the nips I'd had for dutch courage. Had no idea what to expect really but was strangely convinced that I would definitely find out what had happened to Jimmy. After I was buzzed in and told to come to the top floor I closed the door behind me and leant against it for a moment. Was I doing the right thing? The entrance hall smelt of chemical air fresheners and there was a row of letter boxes along one wall, I wondered how the post man got in to put the letters in the boxes. Did he have a key or did he have to buzz to get in? What if there was no-one in any of the flats when he arrived? I shook my head – what did it matter – and pushed myself forward towards the stairs. They were deeply carpeted in dusky pink and there were flower arrangements on every window sill on every level as I climbed upwards. Carole the Psychic lived on the third floor and I heard her door open above me as I made my way up.
'Hello dear,' she called, 'Sorry about the climb, no lifts here, but it keeps me fit.'
Her voice was friendly and warm, and very normal sounding. Not what I had been expecting. I realised then that my mind had been filled with clichés when I’d thought about what she’d be like. I’d imagined her voice would be deep, smoky and she would talk in mystical rhythms. Instead it was chirrupy and she spoke of everyday items like lifts. Even before I saw her I knew that my vision of how she would look would be wrong too – there would be no long flowing hair and robes, smouldering eyes or gold hoop earrings. As I rounded the last corner of the staircase I could see her feet – swollen, fat ankles hanging above slippers shaped like sheep. Then the rest of her appeared. A long, shapeless blue dress with a zip up the front and an embroidered flower on the left breast covered a gargantuan body. She didn’t look very fit to me. She was older than I’d expected too – her white thinning hair sprouting out in all directions around her heavily lined face. She looked like the kind of granny you saw every day buying bread and humbugs in Marks and Spencer’s. Was she a fake?

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The road is long

Journeys are something that all novel characters go on, be it a physical one, mental or both. Road trips have featured heavily in literature and film and the end of the physical journey usually goes hand-in-hand with the characters' psychological transformation. America is the land most associated with road trips and I'd never really understood the appeal until I lived in New Zealand, where they featured heavily in our free time.

Luckily I was just the passenger so could really appreciate the scenery that we were driving through but it made me realise how being on the road surrounded by majestic mountains, wide open plains, peaceful lakes and roaring rivers was a very different experience to the mayhem on the M4. I suddenly got it. I knew why road trips were used in literature to symbolise more than a physical journey. Your mind is set free as you wind along empty roads, real life retreats into a shadowy background and the opportunities offered by the open space, and the ever-growing distance between you and your responsibilities, seem endless. I wanted to own a camper van, I never wanted the journey to end.  

But end it did. And what psychological transformation did I undergo at the end of all those road trips? I learnt that you couldn't build a life based on scenery. As great as all the trips were and as beautiful as New Zealand is, I needed more. When the trip ended I wanted to be somewhere that had cultural beauty too, where there was always something new to see - a band, a play, a comedian - where history oozed out of the pavements, the walls and the air. So my journey ended with a return to the UK, where I avoid road trips if at all possible as the motorway service station can never compare to a picnic next to a waterfall overlooking a deserted beach, even if it does have an M&S Simply Food in it.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

I have an idea...

Today's post was going to be a double whammy 'I' with a look at ideas and inspiration. However, I have got a cold (again!) and am not feeling too inspired. So, today will be brief. Where do I get my ideas from? On the whole, I don't really know when it comes to novel ideas. Something just starts ticking over in my mind, most of the time I'm not really aware that it's there, then I start thinking about whatever it is more and more often until it starts to become a little idea.

For the novel I am currently writing, I kept seeing stories in the news about people going missing and then I saw a documentary programme all about missing persons and before I knew it, that's what I was writing a novel about. The writing class I currently go to has been great for generating new ideas but one of the best sources of inspiration for me is other people. Be warned, in case you see me anywhere - I am a terrible eavesdropper!

Monday, 9 April 2012

Home Sweet Home

Recently, the concept of home is something that has been appearing a lot in what I've been reading. As part of the Literature module on my Open University course we looked at Wuthering Heights in relation to the Victorian ideals about 'the home' and in the reading that I have been doing for my writing class, home is something that has come up time and time again.

So it set me to thinking about 'home' in literature and I realised that so much of it is about people trying to find a home, return to a home they have been removed from, or longing for a distant home land they have had to leave through emigration. All of the great cities around the world have districts dedicated to the recreation of home for the immigrant groups living there and as I discovered when I went and lived in someone else's country for the first time, you naturally gravitate to social groups made up of your fellow country men and women.

Although I really enjoyed my time living in New Zealand, and it is a beautiful, unspoiled country with plenty of space for everyone, I realised that it would never be my home. I also realise how lucky I am that I could make the choice to return home when so many people can't. My course work is currently looking at Dubliners by James Joyce and the concept of the city as home and the opportunities that offered, as well as the restrictions it brought too, for the first generation of people who migrated to the big cities for work.

Next we move on to works such as The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, which looks at the migration of West Indians to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, and WG Sebald's The Emigrants, a meditation on foreigness told through four stories of German people the author met who had emigrated to the US and the UK. Although these books are obviously about the subject of home, I think that, without even realising it, many books are also about the longing for a home. In my novel the narrator returns to the town she grew up in, in my guest blog from Michelle Scorziello the longing for home shone through, and Dorothy stated the obvious way back before mass emigration had become the norm: "There's no place like home."

Saturday, 7 April 2012

What sort of story is that?

"So what genre is your novel then?" is a question I am often asked and one I really struggle to answer. My ultimate aim is to be writing literary fiction, but I think I may have a long way to go before it is considered that. So, what is the novel I am currently writing then? Well, when I met with Simon Taylor of Transworld publishers earlier this year he classified it as women's fiction. So, despite my slight disappointment as I thought it could be of interest to men too, we'll go with that. Perhaps by the time it has been finished and edited, it will get upgraded to literary. Who knows? All I really know is that it's the story that was in me and that is how it came out on paper, or computer screen if you want to be literal about it, and that I hope people enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

In preparing for this blog I thought about what genres I like to read and they are wide ranging. I really enjoy the kind of dystopian science fiction that Margaret Atwood writes - think The Handmaid's Tale and Year of the Flood. But I also really enjoy writers such as Maggie O'Farrell, Helen Dunmore and Linda Grant - women's, literary, commercial? I just can't tell. David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is firmly in my Top 10 and that, I believe, defies being given one genre classification. I also really like Peter Carey's writing, Grahame Greene's, RJ Ellory's and Thomas Hardy's, so it seems I am just as confused about what genre I read as what I write.

I like books that grip me, make me care about the characters and teach me something about the world and human nature, oh and it really helps if I also think the writing is good, and I am happy to read anything that meet these criteria no matter what genre it has been classified as. What about you?

Friday, 6 April 2012

Flash - a-ah - saviour of the universe

I have been turning my hand to writing some flash fictions recently and sending them out into the world of competitions. I entered two, Progress and Playing Nurses, into the 2012 Fish Publishing Flash Fiction competition and couldn't quite believe it when they both made the long list. The short list should be announced by the end of this month and I'm really hoping that one of them might make it to the next round. But even if it doesn't I am really pleased that my first competition entries got this far.

Although they are so short, flashes are hard to write. Every word matters as you have to create a fully-rounded story in such a limited word count. They are perfect material for blogs and I've noticed that e-publishers are calling for them more and more as they are also good for downloading and reading on commutes to work. But more importantly I have discovered that I really enjoy writing them. So expect to see more of them on here once the A-Z challenge is over.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

This is the end

As I'm still writing my first novel endings are not something I've done much with, until recently when I started writing flash fictions. I've always struggled with writing short stories as I just can't seem to contain myself - so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed writing 250 word flashes. Even more surprised when two of them made the Fish Publishing competition long list! So it seems I can do really short and really long but not much inbetween.

I hadn't really thought too much about how my novel was going to end until I was in a writing class late last year and we had to write three alternative endings for our stories. My first reaction was that I couldn't do it, but do it I did and now two of the alternatives I came up with have been merged into one and I have a very good idea of how the story will end. It's only two weeks until I head off to Deborah Dooley's writing retreat in Devon, where I am hoping to get the first draft finished so it won't be long before I reach that ending.

In preparation for achieving this milestone I have been researching endings as I want mine to be one that leaves the reader satisfied but wanting more, but also has a really good, memorable last line. Here are some of the last lines I like best in books that I've read:
  • "Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long at sea as Mr. Patel, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger." Life of Pi, Yann Martel 
  • "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • "Are there any questions?" The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Sweet dreams are made of this

Recently I read Isabel Ashdown's Hurry Up and Wait, which is a coming of age story set in 1980s Britain. It really resonated with me not just because of the reality of the characters but also as I was a teenager at this time in a small town much like the one in the book, minus the sea. The fashion, food and music references were spot on but what really struck me was how many dreams featured in the story. To start with I thought it was too many but then I went away and thought about it and realised that people probably do remember their dreams that often. I do.

The way dreams are used in Hurry Up and Wait is clever as it hints at things that are being left unsaid and also captures the otherworldliness of dreaming really well. One of the passages describes what's happening in the dream but the narrator also: "...knows she's sleeping, can feel the weight of the sheets on her body. But she can't quite rise from the dream." I love that feeling when you are drifting and dreaming and the sleep world and the real word seem to merge into one.

But beyond liking how dreams were used in this book, it made me realise that I hadn't featured any in my novel despite my narrator going through a pretty tough time, which in all reality would manifest itself in her dreams. So, now I've added some. But you will have to wait until the novel is published (do you like the positive thinking there?) before you see how dreams are used in it.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear of more books that use dreaming in a way that stood out for you.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Cake, glorious cake

Well, in the world where I had prepared for the A-Z blog challenge, today's cake blog was going to be an inspired and well thought out look at baking in different novels. However, I have been very slack in the preparation stakes and despite getting loads of recommendations from my Twitter friends about what books feature cake making, many of which I downloaded to my Kindle, I have had my nose stuck in just one of the recommended tomes: Joanne Harris's Chocolat.
Firstly, I just need to say that I cannot believe it has taken me so long to read this book as it is excellent. The narrator doesn't just bake cakes she creates glorious confectionary worlds in the window of her Chocolaterie and I for one would love to be transported there. On Monday night I fell asleep to the preparations for a chocolatey Easter extravaganza, and seeing as it's Easter this weekend I considered trying to create something yesterday to post up here. However, work and a yoga class got in the way, so instead here's a picture of a Christmas cake I baked a couple of years ago! My most successful venture into cake making yet, although the Date & Walnut one I whipped up last Christmas came a pretty close second.

And seeing as I didn't get round to dicussing the baking in books that were kindly recommended to me, I'll just tell you what they were and you can have a read and let me know what you think about the baking in them. In no particular order, some books with cake making in them are:

  1. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender
  2. Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel, Carol Christensen, Thomas Christensen
  3. Thin Air, Sue Gee
  4. Baking Cakes in Kigali, Gaile Parkin
  5. The Help, Kathryn Stockett
I bought three books about cake making, Chocolat and numbers one and two above. So don't be surprised if something I bake does end up on here before the end of the challenge. I just need to figure out what letter I can sneak it in under now.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Beatrice is introduced to Becky Sharp at Berkelouw Berrima Book Barn

Firstly, welcome and thank you to my first guest in the challenge, Michelle Scorziello, whose short story Boiler Room has just been shortlisted in the Writers & Artists Arvon Short Story Competition. Its a great story so I'm sure she's on her way to winning it. This flash fiction she's kindly allowed me to publish on my blog really invokes that feeling you get when you live abroad and some days wake up and just feel really far from home but then find things that help make it better again. Please take time to leave some comments for her about her story.

Beatrice is introduced to Becky Sharp at Berkelouw Berrima Book Barn
By Michelle Scorziello

Beatrice lamented her lost London life.  In tow with husband Toby she dragged her heels a full hemisphere. To Sydney. All she found was sun and heat and light and space - kilometres of red earth stretching away to the Indian Ocean – and a white-marble-floored apartment past the girders of the Harbour Bridge. Oh my. Mornings she woke churlish to chortles and screams; a string of fluffy-haired gentlemen kookaburras lined on the branch of an overhanging gum tree. Once a snake coiled itself to perfection on her bedroom balcony. In the garage she startled a reptile the size of a small dog; he scampered quickly, dewlap swinging in surprise. Cockroaches as big as Christmas dates loitered in the grey bedroom carpet, flat and fast; their brown hard shells clicked into wings before whistling past her rounding shoulders on warm January evenings. Frightened she was, what with tales of spiders, the fatal Redback that climbs up toilet pans, not like dear namby pamby English spiders. Wondrous creatures here: wombats and kangaroos and platypuses and koala bears and a strange word – marsupial. Not to mention Australians themselves with their bendy twangs, English voices melted by heat, malleable and stretched.
She followed Toby to the southern highlands, open land where the sky is bigger than the earth. How remote it is, she thought, how far from London and Georgian squares and green grass and grey rain. Toby had meetings in Bowral – a sort of working retreat for trouser-creased businessmen – so left her alone all Saturday. She squinted at the sun; a car, the long roads and the hard sunshine, all by herself. A flyer thrust under her nose, a small cardboard chit of a thing. Can there really be a barn, here, full to the brim with books?

Indeed. A barn, wooden and raftered, books piled and stacked and organized and cross-referenced. She gaped along narrow passages tracing her index finger along spines, searching. Why, all of England sat here! Dickens and Austen and Shakespeare, of course, and Donne and Wodehouse and Keats and Pinter and Charlotte and Emily and Anne. She bought an old green hardback, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, ‘I’ve never read this.’

Monday, in Manly, she drifted up away from the sea-front crowds into the side streets of the piazza. A little place, all windows really, serving everything on toast, with tea in stainless steel pots. A knife and fork wrapped in a pink paper napkin, baked beans and a rock cake and a cup and saucer. She propped Thackeray against a bottle of brown sauce. The New South Wales sun poured onto her shoulder, warm as butter. Becky made a play for Jos Sedley in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and Beatrice, in awe of Becky’s chutzpah, licked her lips. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps I shall manage after all.