Monthly Archives: February 2013


All right, I have a confession to make. I hope this doesn’t lose me any followers, or make me any (new) enemies, or whatever, but it’s time to come clean.

I am an antiques-freak. There! I said it!



I’m sorry, Wonder Woman. But it’s true.

Before you run away screaming, just bear in mind that today’s post won’t waffle on about dust or weird old furniture or odd-looking experts in handknitted jumpers. I’m just going to talk about one thing I saw on an antiques programme last night. I swear.

You’re back? Good. I’ll try to make this quick.

Right. Luckily (for me) my husband is also a bit of an antiques enthusiast. By this I don’t mean we go around car boot sales (or yard sales, I suppose, for those who have no idea what a ‘car boot’ is), or secondhand shops or antiques dealers picking up ‘key pieces’ for our big ol’ mansion; I mean, we like to watch antiques programmes on TV. Also, luckily for us, the BBC is full of antiques programmes, so we generally have something to watch. It seems our neighbours in the United Kingdom are as weird as my husband and I, so that’s nice.

Last night, we watched a programme wherein the owners of the antiques bring in something for a valuation and appraisal by the expert presenters, with a view to selling it no matter what the value. It’s not like most antiques shows, where the owner wants to know about the object’s provenance, or the story behind it, and the value is a secondary concern – this particular show is dedicated to selling people’s antiques. The viewers watch it for the stories and the background to the items (as well as marvelling at the prices the objects fetch, I suppose.) I was particularly struck by one man’s story – he brought in a beautiful antique box, made of a rare and lovely hardwood. The box had been in his family since the time of his grandmother, and had come from India originally. The outside of it was beautiful enough, but when the lid was lifted and the inside was revealed, the true beauty of the object became apparent. The interior was covered with mother-of-pearl and enamel inlay, with what looked like lots of separate compartments, and the inside of the lid was decorated beautifully.

But then, the antiques dealer lifted out the whole inner tray (the part that had looked like lots of separate compartments), to reveal a further layer to the box. In the bottom were letters, mementos, family artefacts and (most touchingly) a pair of baby booties from the 1870s, which probably belonged to his great-grandmother and may have been worn by his grandmother as a child. ‘Oh, look!’ said the dealer. ‘Isn’t all this wonderful!‘ ‘I didn’t even know it was there,’ replied the owner, completely unimpressed. ‘I never looked inside the box.’ The dealer expressed his amazement at this, and asked the man if he wanted to keep the box now, to go through it for family heirlooms, but he pretty much said ‘No, I don’t care about any of it. Just get rid of it.’

I was flabbergasted.

The box now belonged to the man’s daughter, he explained, who wanted to sell it to help pay for her honeymoon. Having been on a honeymoon relatively recently, I can appreciate how expensive they are and how you usually want to spend as much as you possibly can to make it the best holiday you’ve ever had – but still. If it was me, and I was faced with the choice of having a box full of my great-great-grandmother’s treasures, and a holiday, I know I’d choose the treasures. I’m a bit of a hoarder, though – I find it hard enough to chuck away my own ‘treasures’, so the thoughts of chucking away someone else’s would be anathema to me. I couldn’t part with something if I felt it had been important to someone like a long-dead relative, or if it was part of the story of my family.

A few years ago, while working as a bookseller, the shop I worked for received a shipment of books from an elderly lady’s estate. Her sons had sold off her library and we were lucky enough to be able to buy some of it. In the midst of the books (most of which were dusty old paperbacks about Corgis, beach-combing and gardening, along with approximately two tons of romance novels), I found three handwritten books of poetry. I asked my manager if I could have them, and he was only too glad to be rid of them. They’d been written in the mid-nineteenth century by the deceased lady’s aunt (or possibly great-aunt), and some of them were beautiful works of art. I read one poem which made me cry, about a young child who was suffering some terrible pain and who was not likely to live, and how difficult it was for her parents to watch her suffer knowing that she may never open her eyes again. I hoped it wasn’t written ‘from life’, but thought it probably had been. Some of them weren’t so good, but there were some really excellent pieces of work in those books. The author had kept some newspaper clippings of her published pieces, too, and those were wonderful to see.

Anyway, the point of this anecdote is to say – shouldn’t we treasure these things from the past? Does anyone agree with my (perhaps overly-sentimental) viewpoint that things like this are important, and worth taking care of? The man on the TV programme last night did sell the box, contents included, and it went for a huge sum – far more than it had been estimated to fetch. I wondered if that was because of the treasures it contained, and I wondered why they weren’t more precious to him.

But then, I suppose we should also treasure the fact that everyone is different, too. If everyone was like me, there’d be no empty surface space on the planet, and nothing (particularly books!) would ever get thrown away.

Perhaps this is the way of the future for me!Image:

Perhaps this is the way of the future for me!


Wednesday Write-In #28

For those who aren’t familiar with the blog CAKE.shortandsweet, today’s blog post is an entry in their weekly writing exercise, Wednesday Write-In. Five words are given as writing prompts every week, and participants are asked to build a story around them. For your readin’ pleasure, then, I present to you my entry for the Wednesday Write-In #28. Enjoy!


farewell  ::  pocketful  ::  feeding  ::  thief  ::  maroon


‘Once, you know, I met the Colour Thief,’ she told me in a confidential tone.

‘The what?’ I said, struggling to pull the sheets across her bed. I could never get them quite straight, or quite tucked, enough.

‘The Colour Thief, darling,’ she chuckled from her chair by the window. ‘Such a handsome boy. But of course, I was a handsome thing myself, then.’

‘Nana,’ I said with a grunt of effort in my voice, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ She was doing this more and more lately, setting off on expeditions across memories where nobody could follow her. It didn’t worry her doctors, but it worried me.

‘Sit,’ she instructed, waving her hands at the crisply-made bed. ‘Sit, and I’ll tell you.’

I swallowed my discomfort, and sat on the sheets. They wrinkled around me like crows’ feet around an eye.

‘So.’ I said. ‘I’m listening.’

She didn’t seem to hear. She’d closed her eyes, and I watched as she dipped one velvety hand into the pocket of her dressing gown, before drawing it out and waving it gracefully towards me. It looked like she had a pocketful of seeds, and was using it to feed a flock of invisible birds. I tried to remain patient, but my eye was on the clock. I only had thirty minutes before I needed to be back at work.

‘Nana,’ I said, as gently as I could. I would need to speak to the doctor about this. ‘Tell me.’ She smiled, but I wasn’t sure she meant it for me.

‘His skin was blue,’ she began. Her voice was soft, but she spoke with quiet confidence. ‘He was blue as loneliness. He had green eyes – green like sunlight through trees, and like a deep breath on a warm day. He had black hair, down to his waist. It was the shadow of a gravestone, or a child’s nightmare.’ She paused for breath, still repeating that hand movement. It almost looked like a dance. ‘But he was missing one colour,’ Nana continued, speaking barely loud enough for me to hear. ‘My colour.’

‘What colour, Nana?’ I asked, in a breath. Was it me, or was this room cold? I made a note to speak to the nurse about it. I drew my cardigan tight.

‘Maroon,’ Nana replied after a moment. ‘The deepest red, with a touch of purple. He needed it, you see. For his collection.’

‘Collection?’ I felt a sudden pressure on my chest.

‘He had to have one of every colour, in every shade,’ she told me. ‘And what he was not freely given, he would steal. He had to. It was his nature, you see.’  I felt an oily sickness in my throat at her words.

‘Did he… did he hurt you, Nana?’ My vision blurred.

‘He was drawn to me,’ Nana continued. ‘He could feel the colour within me. He knew, you see,’ she said, as if she was talking to herself. ‘He could feel my passion, see the dark twist of it. See that it was just the shade he needed.’

‘So he took it?’ I felt wetness on my jawline from tears I didn’t know I’d shed.

‘He drew it from me like pulling thread from a spool,’ she said – and, as she spoke, she slowly, deliberately repeated her hand movement. This time, I finally saw what she was doing. She wasn’t feeding invisible birds. She was pulling something from the air and placing it in her dressing gown pocket. She was showing me she’d had something taken from her. My mind raced.

‘He prised it from me. My secret. The black-red of it, right out of my heart. He put it in his pouch, and turned to leave me.’ Nana paused again, her eyes still closed. ‘I asked him if he wasn’t even going to say ‘farewell’. So, he…’ she seemed to gasp for breath, and I jumped from my perch on her bed, desperate to help, but not knowing how. By the time I’d reached her side, she’d started speaking again. ‘He turned back just long enough to blow me a kiss. That was his farewell.’

‘Did you ever see him again?’ I wiped my face with the back of my hand. My Nana’s eyes were still closed. I wanted her to look at me, so badly.

‘Sometimes I miss what he took,’ she murmured. ‘But in another way, I don’t want it back.’ She settled into her chair and her hand drifted to her lap like a handkerchief coming to rest.

‘Nana?’ I said, gently touching her wrist. ‘Nana?’

Oh, thank God. She was sleeping. Just sleeping.

I switched my mobile to ‘silent’, and waited by her side until she woke.



Going With the Flow

It’s another cold day out there, but luckily not as bad as yesterday. It’s even beginning to brighten up just enough to look enticing, but it’s definitely a winter woollens sort of day, all the same.

Not that I can actually wear woollen gloves next to my skin, but you get the idea...Image:

Not that I can actually wear woollen gloves next to my skin, but you get the idea…

Today, a lot of things are on my mind. I’ve been trying to pin down a topic for my blog post for the last hour or so, not sure of the direction I should take today. My mind’s been racing from one image to the next like my head was an old-fashioned movie projector, but eventually I realised that maybe that was what I should write my post about. Being kind to yourself on days when your brain just refuses to sit still, or co-operate, or function the way you want it to.

Yesterday, I also found my brain acting like this, and I gave myself such a hard time about it that I drove myself into a bad mood. I kept berating myself for not being able to function at 100%, so much so that I ended up standing in my own way and impeding what I was able to accomplish. I’m learning that when you’re the only person you have to get you (and keep you) motivated throughout the day, it’s really important to be on good terms with your brain. I’m not sure why my basic reaction when I don’t have all my cylinders firing first thing in the morning is to be angry with myself, but it’s the truth. So, it’s something I need to work on and help myself out with.

We all have days when things don’t go our way. Some days everything is so easy and effortless that life is a pure joy, but on other days everything we turn our hand to is a struggle. I know this is true – and not just for me – but it’s so easy to forget it. I tend to get so frustrated with my own slow reactions and fuzzy thinking on those hard days that I end up convincing myself nothing is worth the effort, which means a slow slump into unproductivity. This in turn means more chastising myself, which means the work I do produce is wrung out of me with ten times as much effort as it should have taken. It’s a completely ridiculous situation when I sit down and work through it in words. It’s a bit like shackling myself to a boulder and then expecting myself to run a marathon, and kicking myself when I can’t do it.

Fitted sheets, no matter how many times my mama-in-law shows me how to fold them, are my nemesis. Plus, Sean Bean. All good. Image:

Fitted sheets are my nemesis. But I’ve learned to live with the fact that I will never be able to fold one. If only I could extend this to everything else in my life!

It would be so much better to work with your brain and not against it at times like this, wouldn’t it? To be gentle with your thought processes and try to listen to what your brain is telling you. It will lead to better productivity, as well as better mental health, because struggling to accomplish something you just can’t manage at a particular point will (at least in my case) lead to total mental strangulation. Which isn’t, as you might’ve guessed, a lot of fun.

Yesterday, I managed to write three pieces of flash fiction, as well as my blog post, and draft an idea for a fourth short piece. Because I’m trying to build up a body of work for submissions, this is important work for me. Perhaps that’s the reason why my brain tends to freeze when I try to do it, and why I react with such frustration when things start to go wobbly inside my head. But the point is, I still managed to hit my target, despite doing my best to hobble my own efforts. I know I can do the work, but it would have been accomplished with a lot less strain if I’d just taken it easy on myself.

Is this a problem for other people too? I hope I haven’t come across as a total crackpot in this post! I have a feeling, though, that this process is one which will sound familiar to a lot of people; something else I’ve learned in recent times is that you’re very rarely alone when it comes to struggling with certain things. My resolution for today is to go with the flow of my brain, and let it set the pace. I’m going to listen to it and let it give me ideas for my short pieces, instead of treating it like a galley slave and whipping it until it produces the goods. I’ll let you know how I get on!

Happy Tuesday – I hope all is flowing perfectly for you today, whatever you’re doing.

We Are One

First things first. It’s COLD!

I haven’t been having too good a time of it this Monday morning – I’ve been awake since the early hours. I wasn’t feeling too well and I just wasn’t able to sleep. Luckily, however, I’m feeling better now. If I could just sort out the fact that my workspace is currently minus two degrees Celsius, I’d be good to start the day.

I look a bit like this:

I know how you feel, Han...Image:

I know how you feel, Han…

I have a feeling I’ll be working on pen and paper today, muffled up in a warm corner somewhere. Days like this, I wish I was a cat. No matter what the weather, they have a knack of finding the best and warmest places to take a nap… I mean, work.

One of the things that’s on my mind this morning is the inter-connectedness between people and the importance of relationships. This is probably because of the fact that among the things I did this weekend was watch a movie – well, more like a documentary – which I’d been wanting to see for a long time. It’s called ‘Dreams of a Life.’ (If you haven’t seen this film, and you’d like to watch it, perhaps this post might give away a little too much about it. Just a warning!)

This is it:

dreams of a life

It tells the (at times, very sad) story of a woman named Joyce Vincent, who passed away in December 2003. Tragically, though, her body was not discovered until 2006. She was still in her home, her television set was still turned on, and she was surrounded by a pile of Christmas presents which she’d been wrapping at the time of her death. Her body was only discovered when her landlord came looking for three years’ back rent – at least, this is how it’s depicted in the film – and the scene when she is found has been in my brain ever since I saw it. This lady was not a recluse; she had friends, she had family. She was loved, but she was forgotten. The film asks ‘how can something like this happen?’

The film-makers tracked down her old friends, some of her ex-partners, and people who’d worked with her during her life. None of them had anything bad to say about her as a person, besides the fact that she wasn’t the best at cleaning the bathroom; everyone loved her, and shared their good memories of her. One of the men with whom she’d had a lengthy relationship in the 1980s (which then developed into a close friendship for the rest of her life) was interviewed throughout the film. At the end, he breaks down and says ‘I wish she’d have called me and asked me for help. I would have helped. I would have helped because I love you.’ He forgot, momentarily, that he was talking to a camera, and he addressed his lost friend directly. It was a terrible and tragic moment, and I was very moved.

Her friends seemed to think she was off doing something fabulous with her life, and they didn’t miss her for that reason. She had always been a ‘flitter’, in their terms, someone who didn’t like to be tied down to a job or a particular way of life. But, somehow, she managed to stay in contact with certain people down through the years, albeit sporadically. She was (in their words) a beautiful, talented, popular and bubbly woman, who had never lacked for company or material comfort. At least, as far as they knew. One of the most striking aspects of the film was the fact that everyone had slightly different impressions of who she was as a person – they were united in their opinions of her outward existence, in other words her beauty and stylish way of dressing – but some of their opinions about who she was in terms of her personality and her inner life were flatly contradictory. Some friends said she seemed to have no direction or ambition, and others that she was a very driven and ambitious person, for instance. Most of them were making guesses as to what she may or may not have been thinking or feeling at certain points in their friendship with her.

The film made me wonder about several things, including the idea of living your life without letting people into it. I’m wondering why people see themselves as a burden on others when, sometimes, their friends would welcome a little more contact or a little more inclusion in their life. Why is it that most people’s reaction, when approached by a friend seeking help, is to give that help without question – but they may not feel they themselves are worthy of being helped in a similar way? I began to think about my friends and how worried I’d be if I didn’t hear from them for weeks or months at a time; then, they don’t live the sort of carefree life that Joyce did. They don’t regularly disappear or put themselves out of contact with everyone. So, if one of them vanished it would seem strange and out of character, and it would flag as worrying behaviour. But, still. Knowing that a person can simply vanish, and be missed by nobody, in 21st-century London, is frightening.

We like to think that we matter, and that we’re important. And – of course – we do matter, and we are important. But Joyce Vincent’s story happened, and I’m sure it’s happening every day all over the world. Perhaps it happens because people don’t believe that anyone could love them, or that anyone could care whether they live or die. I hope, perhaps in my naive way, that it’s rare to find a person about whom nobody else cares at all. Everyone has someone who loves them, and who would miss them if they died. At least, they should have. The thought that a person – a life – who had been so important to so many people could be so easily lifted out of the world made me feel sad for humanity. If one of us is lost without anyone noticing, it lessens the whole.

Every one of us has value – including you. Every one of us brings something unique to the world. I hope, if I were to suddenly disappear, that I would be missed and mourned and remembered with love.

If we all lived our lives like we mattered, and like everyone else mattered in exactly the same way, wouldn’t it be a better world?

Following your Instincts

I’m only starting to learn how much of being a writer is following your gut, doing what you feel is right and hoping for the best possible result. It’s inherently unstable, unreliable and unpredictable – but it’s also exhilarating, of course.

Felix Baumgartner knows what I'm talking about...Image:

Felix Baumgartner knows what I’m talking about…

That’s not to say I haven’t been on the receiving end of some wonderful, helpful advice from people all over the world – people I’ve met through blogging, most particularly. It’s great to read how other people manage their writing goals, and how they achieve the word-counts they want on a daily basis. Everyone has their own style, their own technique, and their own ‘tricks of the trade’. Some people manage their writing completely differently from how I manage mine, and some use techniques that I know I never could. The more I read, and the more I write, the more I realise that writing is a game of doing your best, and doing the best you can to be true to yourself. At the same time, there are hundreds of websites out there offering the secrets of how to write, the tricks of the trade, the absolutely foolproof ‘rules’ – but I’m beginning to think there are no rules. How can there be?

Writing is, like any artform, completely subjective. I bring my own life-experiences to what I write, as does anyone who puts one word after another. I don’t think it’s possible to avoid this, particularly at the beginning of your writing career. Perhaps I’m just particularly bloody-minded, but I really think when it comes to writing I have to learn how to do it myself. If someone tells me ‘don’t do it this way,’ I have a suspicion that I’ll be inclined to try to prove them wrong. Just because a certain technique didn’t work for one person doesn’t mean it’s ‘wrong’ in itself. Of course, there are general rules governing writing (spelling, grammar, sentence construction, paragraph usage, consistent punctuation), designed to aid a reader’s comprehension, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Those are rules worth following, by and large, though sometimes interesting effects can be created by breaking or bending these guidelines. Even the old rule of ‘a piece of writing needs a beginning, middle and end’ is sometimes jettisoned, to sparkling effect, by writers. It takes great skill to completely throw the rules out the window, though. I’m not at that stage yet, and may never be. In order to break the rules you need to have mastered them completely and be in total control of your technique and material. But how to get to this level in the first place? Hard work and practice until you’ve mastered the rules of structure and composition. Then, experimentation – and listening to your inner voice.

Trying to write in a different way to your normal style can also be a good idea, from time to time. If a person usually writes ‘straight through’ – i.e. linearly – perhaps it’s a good idea to write scenes out of order, and put them together afterwards like a patchwork quilt. Or, as Kate Curtis has recently discussed, sometimes it’s best to start at the end and work your way back. This technique works very well for her, but I’m not sure it would work for me! However, it might be a brilliant thing to do in order to get my brain thinking differently about words and structure, and so it’s a useful nugget of information to have in my writing arsenal. One of the most useful writing exercises I ever did was take a scene I was having trouble with and rewrite it from the point of view of another character; I couldn’t believe the insight this gave me into the scene, the connection between the characters, the dynamic of their relationship, and – most importantly – the motivation behind the behaviour of each of the characters. This technique really helped me to understand why they were acting and reacting the way they were in this particular scene. But no matter what way you write, whether it’s writing each character separately, or whether you stand on your head and write with a pen attached to your eyelid, or whether you can only write on every third Wednesday – if it works for you, it’s right.

As strange as it may seem, having written a blog post which concerns itself with giving out writing tips like lollipops at a doctor’s office, I’m going to conclude that listening to tips may not always be the best thing to do for your writing. I think, from now on, I’m going to limit the amount of advice I take in from others, and rely more on my own instinct. Advice relating to publication, gaining an agent, the book industry, and so on is a different animal – that sort of advice is always worth having under your belt, I think. But I’m going to ration my intake of writerly advice, because reading all sorts of conflicting advice has, lately, been making me panic a little. There is, undoubtedly, a lot of useful, well-intentioned and good advice out there, but it’s a matter of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Instead of trying to take on board all the advice I’ve been hearing about and reading, and changing my writing to suit the advice I’ve been getting (which, now I think about it, is a little bit crazy), I’m just going to write as I feel, and hope I manage to bumble my way towards my dream, bit by bit.

Happy Friday, and happy weekend! May your writing flourish and may your word-goals inch that little bit closer, and may you write in the best way possible – your own way.

On Being Brave

For some reason, several people in recent weeks have taken the time to tell me how brave they think I am. I presume this means they think I’m brave for putting my dreams on the line and for following the impulse to write, or perhaps for entering competitions and submitting pieces of work for publication.

I don’t feel brave, though. Not at all. I feel like the biggest quivering chicken in the history of the world. Surely, if I was brave, I’d feel more like I was channelling Queen Boudicca instead, taking on the might of the Romans with little besides a bow and some facepaint. Isn’t that how it works?

It’s hard to feel brave when you have to force yourself to check your email in case there’s a note of rejection in there. It’s hard to realise a piece you’ve written is really not very good – and it’s especially hard to realise this after you’ve submitted it. Some of the stories I’ve entered into competition over the past while have been catalogues of rookie mistakes, and I’m learning the wisdom of the saying ‘measure twice and cut once’ – or maybe, in this case, ‘read twice before submitting’! I don’t feel brave because I’ve started this process; I simply feel like an amoeba in a very big pond, realising just how much I have to learn.

This is me. Hello!Image:

This is me. Hello!

I feel like what I’m doing at the moment is an apprenticeship, something everyone who wants to write has to go through eventually. I’ve done things in the past which I’ve needed bravery for, sure – giving lectures in front of hundreds of people, for instance. Taking an oral examination. Going up in front of a funding board made up of six senior male professors, and arguing for the validity of the research I was doing at the time. I still can’t quite believe I’ve done all these things, because even the memory of having done them makes me quake in my boots. All those things made me sick with fear before I did them, and I felt like I’d accomplished something when I’d managed to get through them.

Submitting stories for publication feels more like a compulsion, though – and, like any compulsion, it can sometimes be impossible to resist. I feel like I have to submit something I’ve written, perhaps before it’s ready, because the urge to do it is overwhelming. It’s only afterwards when I realise ‘perhaps that piece could have done with a bit more maturation time.’ But it’s too late, at that point, to retract it. It’s almost like my enthusiasm gets the better of me and a certain recklessness gets into my blood. So, off the story goes. Submit in haste, repent in leisure!

This isn’t to say that the pieces I’ve submitted haven’t been my best effort at the time. I feel like there’s something of value in everything I’ve entered into competition, and I’ve done my best. But it’s the same with everything; after the fact, you wonder if you could have done better, and what you should have changed to make the piece stronger. But if you followed that logic to its extreme, you’d never submit anything. You’d spend the rest of your life tweaking your first piece of writing until it’s beyond recognition, and nobody else would ever read it. The process of writing and submitting and being rejected is a terrible crucible, but it’s absolutely necessary. I know I have to go through this process of learning in order that something I submit, somewhere, someday, might meet with approval.

So, I don’t feel like it’s brave, as such, to send things away for other eyes to read. It’s horrible and I don’t like to do it – but I don’t think it’s the same thing as being brave. However, there’s a certain amount of facing your fears involved in living through the days afterward, when you’re waiting to hear the results. You may never hear how you got on, of course. There are a lot of voices clamouring for attention, and I know it will take a long time before my words will warrant any recognition. The process is somewhat analogous to shouting into a hurricane – your small contribution is swirled up into the whole and becomes lost. But the value of it still lives inside you. You know that you tried, and did your best, and over time the process gets easier (hopefully, at least.) In my case, it’s even true to say that every submission makes me feel a little better about myself – at least, until the doubts start to creep in. But I don’t think doing what you have to do is brave, really. This is a process I have to go through, and I’m just doing what I must. It does make you feel vulnerable, and it’s not entirely pleasant. But, given the choice between doing what I’m doing and trying to live any other life, I’d happily choose what I’m doing.

I do appreciate being considered brave, though. I try to remember it every time I’m faced with the prospect of entering another contest, or laying my work out in front of someone else like a merchant laying out her wares. I remember it every time I have to check my email, or every time I wonder ‘should I enter something into this contest?’

Maybe that’s what being brave is all about, though – taking a chance on something even though you’re not sure what the outcome will be, and hoping for the best. In that case, every one of us is brave.

I'll never be as brave as this lady, though. Let's hope it's never up to me to stop the onslaught of a tyrannical Empire...Image:

I’ll never be as brave as this lady, though. Let’s hope it’s never up to me to stop the onslaught of a tyrannical Empire…

The Sense of an Ending

Today, the world is wearing winter’s wedding dress. The whole place is white and lacy, and there’s a layer of frost over every surface. The sky and the ground blend into one another. It’s quite lovely, but it’s very cold!



As I write, the sun has started to peek up over the horizon, bringing touches of gold to the whiteness. Hopefully soon things will start to thaw and I’ll be able to get outside. Nothing is as refreshing as a lungful of cool air on a crisp day like this.

While I’m waiting, I’m still thinking about short stories. I wrote three yesterday, all of them very different – one was about a frustrated wife trying to get revenge on her oppressive husband (very much not based on reality, before anyone asks!), another about an anxious child who feels she has done something terrible, and the third about a man convinced that his life so far has been meaningless and he’s wasted any potential he had. Two of the stories are narrated in the first person, and one is third-person; one of them features a lot of ‘salty’ language – it seemed appropriate for the character – and all the protagonists are different in terms of age, race and gender. But all the stories have one thing in common.

None of them end very well.

I’m not sure if this is a problem for others, but it’s certainly a problem for me. I find it very difficult to bring short stories to satisfying conclusions. It’s even the case with the longer pieces I’ve been working on over the last few months. With ‘Tider’, I felt happy with the ending at first – I thought it was exciting and snappy, leading the reader into curiosity about the next book, and it wrapped up most of the plotlines, leaving some strategic threads unresolved. Then, I read on several internet forums that ‘cliffhanger endings are a no-no’, which gave me a bit of a headache. How do you end a book which is the first in a planned duology without leaving some plot threads unresolved? I was stumped. Luckily, this isn’t such a big problem for me any more because I’m planning to completely overhaul the book anyway, but it speaks to the larger problem I feel I have. Stopping the writing process, rather than starting it, seems to be my biggest challenge. I’m really enjoying the focus on short stories lately, because they don’t come naturally to me, and finding solid, convincing and meaningful conclusions to them is vital to their form. So, with every story I write, I’m learning.

But how does it work, this ‘concluding’ business? I suppose it helps if you plot religiously, and you know exactly where you want your characters to be at the end of the piece you’re writing. But, as we saw yesterday, sometimes writing short pieces is a case of listening to what the characters have to say, and letting them finish in their own time. It can be hard to plot when all you have to go on at the beginning is a flash of an image, or maybe a couple of words of dialogue. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, a whole opening sentence will come to you. Trying to write a story like this is a delicate business, and I fear that trying to tie these bursts of inspiration to a tight plot will strangle them. Then, that’s where drafting comes in. Perhaps the first draft of a short piece should be a listening exercise, finding out who your character is and what they have to say. There has to be a point to the story – otherwise, it’s just a pointless ramble. We’ve all been on the end of another person’s bumbling, and it’s usually not much fun. So, the second draft is where the real work comes in. You take your character’s thoughts and turn them into a narrative. Find out what was so important about what they had to say. Chisel out the kernel of their thought process, and find out what concerned them so deeply that they felt they had to tell you about it.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

The story I found the most difficult to bring to a conclusion yesterday was the one about the anxious child. The image was very strong – a little girl who was sick in the night and who was too afraid to wake anyone up to help her in case they’d be angry with her. She was tiny, cold, afraid and very lonely, and I felt her very clearly. But I wasn’t sure what was important about what she had to say. Her younger brother had been very sick and he’d just been released from hospital; her father had a hard job and he needed his sleep. All of these things were on her mind. As well as that, she was terrified of something, but she wasn’t able to tell me what. I’m going to revisit this story today and find its point – redraft it until this child’s message becomes clear.

I know I sound like a nineteenth-century Spiritualist here, knocking on tables and making the lights flicker in my attempts to contact ‘the other side’. I just find it easier to talk about characters as though they were actual people trying to speak. Sometimes, it is a bit scary – they seem very real and, sometimes, in a lot of pain. Most of the characters that step into the parlour of my mind don’t want to tell me about how happy they are and how much love they have in their lives – something terrible or sad has happened, and they want to explain it all to me. But they’re all a bit like me (which makes sense, I guess); they like to ramble on, and they find it hard to wrap things up.

Perhaps it’s just a case of practice makes perfect. The more I listen, the more I’ll learn, and the more I read, the more I’ll discover about how to master the art of conclusion.

Back to the drawing board for me!


For the last little while, I’ve been trying to focus on writing stories, including several pieces of flash fiction. I’ve been submitting pieces to magazines and into competitions, with no luck so far (but it’s early days yet). It’s exciting, though, to sit down at a blank page and decide what I’m going to write (in other words, a short story or a piece of flash fiction), come up with a word – perhaps it’ll become the story’s title, or it’ll end up being included in the opening line, or something – and then watching a story come together.  It’s a bit like how Dr Frankenstein must have felt when he saw this happen:

It's ALIIIIVE!!Image:


I wrote a piece yesterday which had its genesis in an image of a lady confined to a wheelchair, sitting alone by a window. I also felt I had a first sentence, which went something like ‘It’s all my fault, anyway.’ I began to write, wondering what the lady was blaming herself for, thinking perhaps she would tell me about why she had become paralysed – but she didn’t want to tell me about that. The story ended up becoming about abuse, murder and family breakdown, and all in 500 words. When I started the story I had no idea where it would go, and in some ways it was like tuning into the thoughts of this character I’d created and listening to her as she explained how she was feeling. It’s a strange sensation. Sometimes I wonder who the writer is – me, or the people in my head. Often I feel more like a secretary. Perhaps I should learn shorthand in order to keep up with their dictation.

I think it’s a good decision to take a few days away from novel-writing at the moment. I hope it will help me keep my thinking fresh and give me renewed vigour for the story I’m creating in ‘Omphalos’. I’m at a point in the book where it’s a little bit difficult to maintain my focus, and I think getting away from it for a bit will make me more appreciative of it when I go back. I’m about as athletic as a wine-rack, but at the moment I feel like an athlete warming up and getting ready for a sprint, doing stretches while huffing and puffing in my ill-fitting singlet and shorts. My novel-writing muscles are tired and overworked, and while I don’t want my short-story muscles to atrophy, of course, it’s been a while since they were used as intensely as this. I’m trying to take it easy and gently urge them into action, but sometimes my enthusiasm overtakes me. I’ll have to remember to take my time and understand that a story doesn’t necessarily have to be finished the same day it’s started. Perhaps it’s not my fault at all, though – if the characters want to talk, who am I to tell them not to?

So, that’s my plan for today. I’m hoping to have an idea-spark for at least one, if not two, new stories, before filing them carefully away in the hope that a suitable submission opportunity will present itself. I seem to be more naturally suited to the flash-fiction form – a lot of my recent work is coming in at around the 500-word mark – so today I hope I’ll manage to stretch myself a bit more and write a slightly longer piece. Fingers crossed I won’t pull a mental muscle in my self-improvement attempts, though. I don’t think I can imagine anything more painful than a brain-cramp…



Happy Tuesday to you! I hope your writing endeavours (and general life-endeavours) are going swimmingly.

A Big Weekend

Monday mornings usually come all wrapped up in a sense of depression and anti-climax, don’t they? This Monday morning is no different, except in terms of how much worse than normal these anti-climactic feelings are.



But don’t be concerned. Everything is all right – just about.

All this emotion is a result of (another) surprise party, which was held at the weekend to mark my younger brother’s 30th birthday. It was a wonderful night, attended by friends and family from all over the country and even further afield – one very determined partygoer came all the way from Tobago! – but the best part was that my brother had no idea it was going to happen. It was a huge effort to keep it secret, but everyone managed to pull together and the whole thing worked like a dream. My brother’s fiancée is a miracle-worker. Most of the hard work and organisation fell to her, and she did a marvellous job. It was such a great party that it’s hard to cope with the fact that it’s all over, and there’s nothing to look forward to any more – but we’ll just have to soldier on.

One of the best parts of the night was seeing my brother’s friends again, all the people I remember from his life as he grew up. I hadn’t seen some of them for years, and it was great to see them all again, all of them making their own way in the world and succeeding in their own fields. I was struck once more by how nice my brother’s friends are, and how friendly and supportive (not to mention kind and generous) a bunch of people they are. My brother was amazed by the amount of people who made the effort to attend, and he couldn’t believe so many people actually wanted to be there for him as he marked this milestone in his life. Of course, nobody who loves him was surprised. My brother is a beautiful person, and he is loved far more than he realises, I suspect.

Some of my own friends also attended the party, and I also had a welcome chance to catch up with several others during the day. My husband and I couldn’t turn up at my parents’ house, of course, in case my brother would get a hint that something out of the ordinary was happening, so we had to take refuge in the home of one of my best friends until it was time to get ready for the party. My friend very generously accommodated us (and even cooked us dinner!) and gave us so much tea that we left her house in a faint caffeine haze, which was fantastic. My brother isn’t the only one with wonderful and brilliant friends.

I have often had reason to be thankful for the loving and selfless support given by my friends – there have been things I’ve faced in my life which would have overwhelmed me if not for the solid and dependable bunch of friends I’m lucky enough to have behind me. I’ve had most of them since I was a teenager, so we’re really starting to clock up the years now. My bridesmaid at my wedding was a friend who has been a central part of my life for over twenty-five years! Of course, it’s not all about the support they give me; I hope that I’ve given back as much love and help as I’ve received, and I hope they’d consider me as good a friend as I consider them. (They still want to hang out with me, so I hope that’s a good sign.)

There’s nothing in life that can’t be overcome if you have the steady hand of a friend to hold, and there are few joys which can compare to making and keeping good and loving friends. I have an abundance of blessings when it comes to my friends, and I’m hugely grateful for all of my friendships. So, to all those I’m lucky enough to know as a friend – thank you!





Tough Going

Do you ever feel like your brain could do with some oil? Or maybe WD40, perhaps. Something, at least, to help it to move freely, like the supple youth it once was. I’d love to be able to give my brain a soothing bath, from which it would emerge relaxed and refreshed, possibly swathed in a fluffy robe, ready to attack the world once more.

Yesterday was one of those days where I felt that for every inch forward I managed to crawl, I was being forced to take ten steps back. I spent most of my day undoing and rewriting bits of the chapter I’m currently working on, and reading what I’ve done on ‘Omphalos’ so far with a critical eye, seeing where I could improve it. And, like everything, the more I prodded and poked at it the more stodgy and ridiculous it seemed to become, until I threw in my lot and left it alone. I haven’t been brave enough yet today to even open my file to have a look.



It got me thinking about the way I write, and made me remember something I learned years ago. When I was younger, at school, I liked art. I still do like to draw, but I never find the time to get to it any more. One of the things I remember most clearly about my art lessons was that my teacher once told me I had a very ‘definite line’, by which he meant I looked carefully at what I was going to draw and let it sink in to my mind before I put my pencil near the paper. Then, I just put my line down with confidence and a heavy hand, reasonably sure that I wouldn’t need to erase it or change it very much. I had never noticed this before he said it (I just drew the way I’d always drawn), but he was right. I wasn’t the kind of person who drew lightly on the page so that corrections or adjustments would be easily made; my lines were heavy, sure and hard to remove.

This isn’t to say I was some sort of artistic savant who never put a nib wrong – of course I did, often. But my style never changed. I always drew the same way, with that strong, heavy hand. I think I like to write the same way – or, at least, that seems to be how my ‘creative’ brain works, and so I feel the impulse to write the same way as I draw. It not so easy when you’re writing, though, of course – getting your ‘line’ right on the first attempt is much harder when you’re talking about a storyline instead of a pencil line. Perhaps that’s why I feel it so strongly, like a failure in my heart, when I have to unpick something completely and redo it from the ground up. I feel like it should work, so when it doesn’t, it makes me wonder if everything – my idea, my method, my style, my work – is flawed and wrong.

Another piece of advice my old art teacher gave me was this: ‘It’s easier to darken your darks than lighten your lights.’ By this, of course, he meant it’s easier to add to a piece than it is to take bits away. Particularly when you’re talking about pencil marks or charcoal shading. If you go too heavy with your charcoal on a picture, it’s virtually impossible to lighten it. It’s easier to go over the entire picture and make the whole thing darker so that your overworked bit looks lighter by comparison, or just chuck the lot and start again. I wish I hadn’t forgotten this good advice as I set out on this writing lark – I think the work I’ve done so far would’ve benefited immensely from remembering those wise words. Start off sketchy and light, hinting at the outline of a piece, until you’re happy with the structure and the overall picture. Then go back over it and add detail – a wisp of shade here, a suggestion of texture there, a glint of light dancing over the eyes perhaps. Then, step back and reassess. If the piece needs more, add it a little bit at a time. But always be aware that sometimes the piece will need a light touch, and adding too much (whether it’s words or pigment) will destroy it.



But this is all very easy to say, isn’t it? If you have a style – a natural style – it’s difficult to overcome it and write (or draw) a different way, even if you know on an intellectual level that it’ll make things easier or more manageable. If you write (or draw, or whatever) in a way that comes effortlessly, maybe it’s impossible to teach yourself to do it differently.

And maybe the lesson I should take from all this is just to take it easy, and work with my natural style instead of against it. But I think I’ll bear my art teacher’s words in mind, regardless – the advice about lightening your lights and darkening your darks is a good rule for life, as well as art! Live lightly, except with those who matter; focus your effort and your ink on people and things which are important to you.

Happy Friday, and have a wonderful weekend, everyone.