Monthly Archives: September 2012

A Quick Thought for Sunday

I’ve just returned home from a funeral service held in memory of a man who was well known in our hometown.  I didn’t know the man well, but my mother is friends with his daughter.  I know some of his grandchildren, too, as we attended school together and we’ve all been vaguely aware of one another’s lives since we grew up and moved away from home.  The ceremony was a very emotional experience, even though I wasn’t a personal friend of the man who had passed away.  I tend to get quite upset at funerals generally, but I found this one particularly touching because one of the deceased man’s granddaughters sang, beautifully, during the ceremony and she moved me to tears.  It wasn’t just her skill as a singer that moved me, or even the choice of hymn, but it was her ability to pour her grief and love into her voice without once losing control.  I found tears rolling down my own face just listening to her, and my admiration for her was immense.  It was a wonderful tribute to a dearly loved grandfather, and it made me think about the important things in life, and what we leave behind us when we go.

The reading at the Mass was about the riches of the world that pass away, and the silks and fine fabrics of the earth which will, with time, return to dust – in a way, it was appropriate.  I’ve never aspired to be rich, or to accumulate ‘things’, but I do want to accumulate love.  The greatest treasure I could ever own would be the thought that, when it was my time to be mourned, that those who loved me would miss me and be thankful for my life.  I would hope too that they would then move on and live their lives, remembering me fondly every once in a while, and that – in time – all memory of me would pass into the wind, at one with everything else.

‘Remember me when I am gone away,

Gone far away into the silent land;

When you can no more hold me by the hand…

Yet if you should forget me for a while,

And afterwards remember, do not grieve…

Better by far you should forget and smile

Than that you should remember and be sad.’

from Remember, Christina Rossetti


 

Happiness is a Dusty Book

Good morning, good evening or good night – whenever it is where you are, I hope these words find you well.  Today’s blog post is going to concern itself largely with books – those vaguely rectangular things, between two pieces of card or boards, with a picture on the front, and absolutely no buttons.  Remember those?  I hope you do.

As I write, unexpected sunshine streaming through the window, I’m constantly having to fight to keep my concentration on the computer.  This is due to the large and extremely attractive pile of books sitting on the table beside me.  They’re calling to me, begging to be loved and cherished and demanding all my attention (they’re probably a little needy, because I picked them up yesterday at a second-hand/antiquarian bookshop, so we can forgive them that – but it’s still a distraction!)  I think there are a few gems in here, and so I’ll tell you about them.

The first one to draw my eye when I entered the shop was ‘Wulf’, by Kevin Crossley-Holland.  No matter what condition this book was in, no matter what it was about, I knew as soon as my eye fell on it that it was coming home with me. I would happily read Kevin Crossley-Holland’s shopping list and no doubt derive enjoyment therefrom, because I’ve relished everything else I’ve ever read by him, but also I knew the book would have an Anglo-Saxon aspect just by its title, which is right up my street, too.  I bought some Philip Reeve, some Catherine Fisher (of course), some Margaret Mahy – who I’ve always wanted to read – some Terry Jones, who writes the most fantastic absurd tales for children, some Kate Thompson, some Siobhan Parkinson, and one by Frances Hardinge.  I bought a book called ‘Wolf’, partly because of the pleasing symmetry with ‘Wulf’, but also because the storyline sounded amazing – I had never heard of the author (Gillian Cross), but I’m looking forward to finding out more about her.  This particular bookshop was the first place I ever came across the work of Catherine Fisher, and I’ve since become a devoted fan, so I know the stock is chosen with a discerning and careful eye, and I never fail to find wonderful nuggets of pure bookish joy there.

The jewel in my crown, though – the Queen in my pack of cards – is the book which was by far the most expensive, but by far the easiest one to buy.  It’s a first edition of ‘The Wizard of Earthsea’, by Ursula K. Le Guin.  It’s a hardback.  It’s from 1971.  Despite the fact that it’s an ex-library copy, the only evidence of this is the stamps on the front flyleaf – the interior of the book is a model of readerly restraint, and there are no markings or scribblings or tea-stains or anything of that nature.  I, of course, already own this story – I’ve loved my ‘Earthsea Quartet’ for many years, and I’ve read a significant fraction of Ursula Le Guin’s prolific output – but I had to have this wonderful book.  It gave me a feeling of light-headedness as I handled it, and I just knew that if I left it behind, I’d never have a second’s peace – I’d be tormenting myself until I found another one.  It was at once a connection with the past, and also a link with my future – I’ll treasure this book for ever.

And so, to the real point of this post.  Books, especially old ones, are such a feast for the senses, in my opinion.  I hope I’m not alone in sticking, much in the manner of a barnacle, to my convictions regarding books and reading.  Sometimes I feel like the only paper enthusiast in a sea of screens, and it can be very disheartening.  I used to work as a bookseller, and I’m used to seeing the many ways in which e-books are killing bookshops – a tragedy, in my eyes – but I think, even if I hadn’t had this background, I’d still be a ‘real’ book reader, as opposed to an e-book reader.  Recently, my husband and I were in a large computer shop – he was looking for some piece of magical computer-witchery, don’t ask me what – and I tried out a model e-reader which the shop had on display.  It did nothing for me.  Not only did the ‘turning’ of the ‘page’ hold no mystery, there was no tactile feedback, like I’m used to with a book.  After a few minutes of messing about with the first example, I moved onto the next model, which was hopelessly frozen – none of its buttons worked, and it just had to sit there, awkward and apologetic, tethered to its display case with absolutely no purpose.  This experience cemented me as a paper-lover, once and for all.

Books are works of art, in every respect, not just in their contents, but in the designs on their covers, and even in the skill needed to bind them.  How can you feel a magical connection with a book you can delete at the touch of a button?  I feel like I’m entering a fairytale cave full of treasures every time I enter a bookshop – I don’t think the same feeling is had from browsing a list of books to download.  You don’t have any emotional investment in that sort of book-buying; you miss out on the thrill of the scent of a book, the feeling of its pages, the comforting way in which the spine just settles into the palm of your hand.  Plus, if you drop a paperback, you don’t need to worry about breaking it beyond repair, and – unless some miscreant rips pages out – you don’t need to worry about it getting ‘frozen’ and refusing to work.

Am I alone?  Are there any other paper-lovers out there?  Care to share an opinion?

 

Dreams (Includes some Jimi Hendrix)

Good morning!  I’m having one of those mornings where your brain stays about an hour behind your body.  It can be a good sensation, or it can be ultra weird.  I’m not completely sure what this morning’s sensation is, yet.  All I know is, I’m thinking about dreams.

I read a great blog post about dreams last night just before I went to sleep, which must have acted as the seed for my own brain-dancing last night – I had one of the most vivid nights’ dreaming that I can remember for quite a while.  To begin with, I was in a prison camp with Caitlin Moran (who, of course, was far too cool to talk to me) and hundreds of other people, and my survival depended on my ability to see – and thereby avoid – the red lattice of laser beams keeping me and the other prisoners penned in.  We’d just had a huge prison assembly when the guards started firing on us randomly, and some of the other people, who couldn’t see the laser beams, made a run for it but ended up getting zapped before they could be shot.  It looked like I was going to escape, and I was running for it towards some trees… when something woke me.  Then, I blinked at the darkness and panicked for a bit, until I realised that no matter how cruel a prison camp I might have ended up in, surely the cell wouldn’t look like my old bedroom at my parents’ house, so I concluded – cleverly, I thought – that it had all been a dream.  When I fell asleep again, I was surrounded by the glass walls of a building that I’ve dreamed about before, several times.  I’ve never been able to figure out what it is, or what it means – usually, I just pick a random corridor and follow it.  It’s a low-ceilinged, green-tinted building, like a hotel designed during the 1970s.  It’s mostly made of glass, with lots of ferny plants everywhere.  Some doors I can’t open, and the ones I can lead to blank rooms with a view over the roofs of an anonymous city.  Someday, I’d love to know where this place is.  I’d be slightly worried if this giant, empty building represents my mind, so I’m hoping it’s just a repressed memory of a deeply unfashionable place that I’ve actually been to.  Fingers crossed.

I woke up this morning, then, my brain full of pictures, and I started thinking about dreaming.  Do you have a favourite dream?  I do.  When I was a teenager at school, I became obsessed with Jimi Hendrix.  I listened to his music non-stop, I drew his image on everything I owned, and I read whatever I could about his life.  Then, one night, I had The Dream.  It was so amazing that when I woke up, brimming with the sounds, colours and beauty of my dream-experience, I had to write it down immediately in case any shred of detail would escape.  It began in what looked like an old power station, and I was wandering around inside it, hopelessly lost.  I passed iron doors that wouldn’t open, glass windows too dirty to see through.  Then, just when I was giving up hope, I heard a liquidy guitar riff, coming from somewhere just ahead; I ran towards it, to find a door open.  Through it there was an old-style American diner, complete with red leather booths and a large curving counter.  The only other person there was Jimi Hendrix, up on a small stage; he raised his hand in greeting as I entered, and proceeded to play me an entirely new, completely unheard, utterly amazing piece of music.  He then joined me in the booth, where we sat and talked for ages, though I couldn’t remember all the details of our conversation.  He held my hands, and when I woke up, I could still feel the touch of his fingers.

I still get a thrill, even writing about it.  I wish I could explain how much a dream like that meant to me, an awkward and deeply shy teenager.

I’ve sometimes been inspired to write by dreams; occasionally, details or names will come to me in a dream, and – if I remember them when I wake up – dreams can be rich sources of ideas.  My problem is remembering things once I wake!  When I was younger I used to record my dreams on waking, but as an adult that became impractical.  Sometimes I dream solutions to plot problems, and once, in recent months, I woke with a strange word burned across my vision in red letters.  I didn’t know what the word meant, but I wrote it down anyway and made a story around it.  It would make you wonder what your brain gets up to at night, when you’re not keeping an eye on it.

Tell me about your dreams, do.  Can you remember them?  Do they inspire you?  And – most importantly – have you ever dreamed about Jimi, and does he ever ask about me?

Appreciation

I don’t have a lot of time to write today, either – and it’s possible this will be my last blog of the week.  Where I’m going (i.e. the deepest, darkest countryside!), they don’t have a reliable internet connection…

I wanted to devote this short note to saying ‘thank you’ to everyone who has taken the time over the past month or so to check in here and keep me company.  Last night, this blog ticked over into the 2,000s – in other words, more than 2,000 people have looked at it since I set it up just about five weeks ago.  I can see that a lot of my readers come from Australia and Canada, several in the United States, India, Pakistan, Korea – even Hong Kong! I’ve had people reading me in Switzerland, Belgium and – of course – my ‘home islands’, the United Kingdom, and my own beloved Ireland.  When I started this venture, I thought maybe my mother and my mother-in-law, along with some of my stalwart friends, would occasionally take a look at this blog, but that for the most part I’d be talking into a void.  Instead, I’ve ‘met’ wonderful people from all over the globe, and I’ve had the privilege of taking a peek into their lives and journeys via their own blogs, and it has been an exhilarating experience.

 
I don’t ordinarily count myself among those who think that technology is an indispensable part of modern life – usually, I fear we’ve lost something intimate and kind in this digital, screened age in which we live.  It makes me sad to see people preferring to look at their tablet than the real world, and it really makes me sad to see people texting, or otherwise using their ‘smart’phones, instead of engaging with another person.  In relation to this blog, however, I’m willing to admit my initial misgivings were far wide of the mark – you might remember one of my earliest blogs discussed my fears and insecurities around blogging.  I now know that writing here, gaining regular readers, commenters and friends, has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been able to do.  Some of the kindest and most supportive feedback I’ve had on this blog has come from people who don’t know me, in the traditional sense, and for whom I’m just a collection of blobs on a website.  I truly couldn’t have imagined that so many people would want to read what I have to say, and I hope that my posts here will continue to be interesting.  I hope that, over the next few months, I’ll have lots to blog about, and it would be brilliant to have you all along for the journey.

Thank you all, most sincerely.  I’m just an ordinary gal, trying to do her best, and it’s so good to know I’m not the only one out there.  Have some flowers, and Happy Thursday!

Written in Haste*

I don’t have a lot of time to write today – ‘real’ life is interposing, and making my blogging life difficult.  It might be just as well, however.  I was browsing another blog last night – it was late, and I was unable to sleep, and there’s just so many interesting things to read – and that blog discussed the importance of not blogging.  What they meant was, it’s good for a blogger, and their readers, to have a few days off every so often.  They also mentioned the importance of not expounding at length, day after day – I know I’m guilty of that!  I never yet met a word I didn’t like, and I like to use them all.  So, today I will keep things brief, and I beg your indulgence.

The biggest thing on my mind this morning is the idea of constructive criticism.  I’ve been privileged enough to receive feedback on my current piece from three of my most trusted readers, and they’ve each given me valuable insight into where I’m going wrong with my writing.  For instance, I’m trying to ration my comma usage.  Already in this very blog post I’ve taken out three or four – honest!  I’ve listened – despite how hard it was to do it – to explanations as to why certain aspects of the beginning of my WiP don’t gel.  The last thing I want to do is confuse a reader, so feedback like this is vital.

But – it has been so challenging.  Creative work – of any sort – comes from the heart, and hearing criticism of it feels like a blow to the heart.  At least, it does to me.  It’s hard to keep in mind that your trusted first readers just want to help, and while they might be drawing attention to shortcomings in your work, they don’t mean that you, personally suffer from shortcomings.  Perhaps this is perfectly clear to everyone else in the world, and it’s just me who thinks like this!  It wouldn’t surprise me.

In any case, I must dash.  Thank you for your indulgence, and I hope lovely days and creative breakthroughs are had by all.

*I also hope my dear friend Claire won’t mind that I ‘borrowed’ her blog title for this post title!

On Fear

Last week, I found myself feeling a bit unwell over the course of a few days.  I began to feel panicky and stressed, with all the cold sweats and moist palms and thundering hearts which tend to go with it.  I found it hard to write, but I pushed through (and, I hope, I did all right); my thoughts raced, around and around and around like a dog chasing its own tail.  I began to feel very anxious, and I wasn’t quite sure what was causing these feelings.  I was worried, and my family was worried.

Then, just as suddenly as the attack had come upon me, it lifted – I’m fine now, and I have been fine for the last several days.  However, I’ve been thinking about it ever since, trying to figure out what caused my mini-meltdown, in order to avoid it happening to me again.  I think it’s down to several discrete things, but the one thing they all have in common is Fear.  I know now that my symptoms were because I’d begun to worry that I’d made the wrong decision in life, or that I’d taken on more than I could safely handle.  As mad as it sounds, I was afraid of failing before I’d even properly begun, and that was stopping me in my tracks.  I now know that I can add another sort of fear to the list – the fear of being read.  In fact, I think this fear is the primary one, and it’s the one I’ve found it hardest to admit to.

You might think this is a very odd fear for a person who identifies themselves as a writer to have.  A fear of being read?  It’s like a doctor having a fear of diagnosing (but then I’m sure that happens, too!)  I know it seems crazy, but I fear it’s true.  Other writers spend their lifetimes being published, here and there, in literary magazines or in anthologies, or what have you, until they break through and get ‘the book deal’.  I’ve always envied them.  I’ve never been published in my life, with the exception of an essay in a local newspaper and a few pieces in my school magazine.  Even at that, my mother submitted the essay to the newspaper without telling me – the first I was aware of it was when I opened the publication in question to see my own words staring back at me.  I had no choice when it came to the school magazine – I had to submit something because I was on the editorial committee and ‘it was expected.’  I would have dodged it if I’d been able to.  Everything else I’ve ever written has sat – in old biscuit tins, or in envelopes, sometimes wrapped in plastic bags – in various cupboards, drawers and cubbyholes in the different houses I’ve lived in during the course of my life.  I’m not even sure that what I’m doing now will ever be published – I hope it will – but I’ve finally admitted to myself that it’s a frightening prospect.  I can’t just tell myself I’m not submitting any of my work because ‘I don’t have time’ or ‘I couldn’t be bothered’ or ‘I only write for myself’; I’ve never submitted anything before because I’m stone cold terrified.

Being read is a scary thing, though, if you think about it.  It’s giving people an access into your mind and heart that goes right to the core of who you are.  It means people who you don’t even know, and may never meet in real life, will be able to get to know the characters and stories that you’ve agonised over, lovingly, for months – maybe years – and they may not like what you’ve created.  Gah.  Horrifying!  I can’t even say exactly why this matters so much to me – I just know it does.  I love my characters and I feel terrible sending them out into a world where I don’t know how they’re going to be treated.  It must be something akin to how a mother feels, waving her children off on their first day of school.  At least a mother knows her kids can come home to her at the end of the day and tell her all about how they got on.  My characters might end up wandering the world, in tatters, never finding a home and never making their way back to me, and I’d be none the wiser.

At least I’ve faced up to the fear.  That’s got to be a good first step.  If I’m ever to realise this dream – which I am determined to do – I have to get over it.  Blogging has been such a huge help in this regard – it’s great to know there are people out there reading these blogs every day, and (hopefully) enjoying them.  It’s going to be a challenge, but then nothing worthwhile in life comes easy.  Deep breaths, baby steps and keep on keeping on!

Less is More

So, this morning, I’m working on a synopsis of the plot of my current piece of work.  I’m entering a competition in a few weeks (one of those ‘find an agent’ type competitions), so I’m obviously pretty anxious to do this correctly and give myself the best shot I can.  The competition requires each entrant to summarise their plot in 300 words or less.  This is a challenge, and no mistake.  I’m sure most people who have ever written creatively felt the same way when it came to this part of the process, and it does help – a little – to know I’m not the only one facing this test.

I’m not 100% finished with the manuscript, but that’s not a problem, as I know exactly where I want the story to go.  So far, I’ve written about 83,000 words, and – for the most part – those words have been effortless and a pleasure.  I’m loving this story, and finding words has never been a problem; that is, except now, when I need to find fewer of them.  It’s really difficult to cut a story down to 300 words, particularly when it’s a story you’ve been thinking about for years, and which you’ve always seen in terms of ‘the bigger picture’ – by which I mean all the back-end detail that only an author knows and loves.  Not only do you, as a writer, know the plot, but you know the characters, their back-stories, their favourite foods and what their childhood dreams used to be, and it’s practically impossible to condense all the life in your words down to a sentence or two.

But this is precisely why you’re asked to do it, of course.

It doesn’t just apply to creative work.  When writing my PhD dissertation, I had to write an Abstract to go with it, for which I had the generous allowance of 500 words.  That was hard.  As interesting (I hope) as the plot of this work-in-progress novel is, at least it is a single story, based around a set of characters, in a world that I created – it’s not an argument, trying to link together twenty or more different stories, made by people at whose mindset I could only guess, as was my PhD.  Stories can always be boiled down to their essential elements – the hero, the quest, the ‘problem’, the journey, the resolution, the antagonist, and so on – but trying to write a clear summation of the stories of multiple texts, as well as showing the central points of my argument, was hard to do in under 500 words.  I did it, though.  It made me understand the necessity of the synopsis, too – I couldn’t possibly expect my examiners to wade through 120,000 words of carefully argued prose before they had any idea what on earth I was talking about.  The Abstract was, in a way, a courtesy to them – a guide to the inner workings of my argument, and a taster for what was to come.  It also made my argument clear to me.  One of the things you’re constantly being asked when you’re undertaking any type of written project is the dreaded question ‘what is it about?’  Being able to explain what it’s about, in a sentence or two, is very useful.  Not only does it mean you can answer the question in ten seconds as opposed to ten minutes, but it also keeps you focused on the core elements of the work you’re doing, which can only help you to bring it to fruition.

Understanding the importance of a plot summary is only half the battle, though.  I’m wondering, this morning, should I leave the end of the story out – in other words, should my plot synopsis end with a cliffhanger question?  I don’t know if I need to go into subplots and minor characters.  I’m not sure how much explanation of the ‘tech’ of my society is needed.  I’m going to have to take a leap of faith on this one, and just do my best, and hopefully I’ll hit the mark.  The worst part of all, the waiting game, is yet to come!  Wish me luck!