Monthly Archives: August 2014

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Owl Service’

Alan Garner’s The Owl Service is far from being a new book, either to me or in terms of its publication history; it was originally published in 1967, but I first read it as a teenager and it’s been one of my firm favourites ever since. The edition I have dates from 2002.

Recently, I went on a bit of an Alan Garner binge and read three of his books in the space of a couple of days. The Owl Service is the one that stuck most in my mind.



This book is powerful, in every sense. It’s about an ancient story being brought back to life in a ‘modern’ – i.e. 1960s – Welsh valley, accidentally, through the involvement of a group of children thrown together for a long, fraught summer, and throughout there is mention of the ‘power’, the sleeping power of the older story, which is gradually waking. Garner manages to imbue his book with this same power; you almost feel as though you are as much a part of the story, and of the story-within-a-story, as any of the characters. The language is cryptic at times, the dialogue fragmentary, the setting claustrophobic – but it all works perfectly.

We meet Alison, her mother Margaret (who is never actually seen in the book, merely mentioned by other characters), Margaret’s new husband Clive and Clive’s son Roger. They are taking their first holiday together as a family since Margaret and Clive’s recent wedding, and Alison and Roger are learning to negotiate one another as step-siblings. They go to stay at a country house in the Welsh countryside which had belonged to Alison’s late father; he bequeathed it to her, and her sense of being the ‘owner’ of the house, but not the one with the power over it (as it is her mother and stepfather who are responsible for running it) is a pervasive theme. Alison’s father inherited the house from his cousin Bertram, who was killed in the valley at around the time Alison was born, under mysterious circumstances. Despite this, however, he is still a central character in the story. The house comes with staff – Huw Halfbacon, the groundskeeper, and the cook-cum-housekeeper Nancy, who – for her own reasons – chafes at the bit in her role, and feels resentful at having to work there at all. There is also Nancy’s son, Gwyn, The three teenagers, and their at times tense relationship with one another, is the pivot around which this book turns – for they are not just Roger, Alison and Gwyn. They are part of a larger tale, one which has been told time and again for centuries, and which has always worked out the same way – with a death.

As the story opens we are in Alison’s bedroom. She has just heard scratching noises coming from the attic above her head, and she enlists the help of Gwyn to get to the bottom of it. In the roof they find a stack of plates – a full dinner service – all of which are decorated with a complicated floral motif. Immediately, Alison is gripped by the design on the plates. She sees it differently to everyone else; where they see flowers, she sees owls, and she begins to trace the pattern compulsively onto sheets of paper, over and over, cutting it out and folding it to make a three-dimensional model of an owl. As quickly as she makes her paper owls, they vanish – but nobody will admit to having taken them.

And, as soon as she’s copied the pattern from the plate, it disappears.

In the recreation room, the plaster starts to come away from a recently patched-up bit of wall. Behind it lies a painting of a beautiful woman with an intense stare, which must have been there for hundreds of years – yet Huw Halfbacon, a man who seems to mix his own life up with the legends and stories of Wales, declares it was his own uncle who painted it. The tension between the children, and indeed the adults, grows to almost unbearable levels as the rest of the plaster falls away and the lady is revealed in her full glory – and then, one day, she disappears, too, leaving only a bare wooden wall behind.

‘She’s come’, says Huw.

But who is ‘she’?

Garner mixes his tale of three fractured children, all of whom have, in some sense or other, lost a parent and who are all looking for their role in life, ready in one sense to step into their future while at the same time not being certain where that future will bring them, with the tale of Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers, who appears in the Welsh epic poem The Mabinogion. In mythology, she was created by Gwydion as a wife to Lleu, but she betrays him for the love of another, a man named Gronw. She then encourages Gronw to kill Lleu, and is turned into an owl as punishment. Blodeuwedd, her power and frustration and rage, is the spirit which haunts the lives of all in the valley, and because she was awakened there her story is played and replayed there, over and over. Roger, Alison and Gwyn are only the latest in a long line to play the roles.

This book is a marvel of characterisation, dialogue, subtlety, suspense and atmosphere. Clipped conversations, the use of Welsh instead of English (though the book is written in English throughout), the clash between the social classes (very much evident in the way Clive and Roger treat characters like Huw and Gwyn, and as Margaret is reported to do too, in terms of making fun of their accents and aspirations), and the oppressive nature of the house which contains too many people and too much history is just perfect from start to finish. Of course, it’s a little ‘of its time’ in its terminology and technology, but that’s easily overcome. The power and timelessness of the story will draw in even the most modern of readers.

If you haven’t come across this one already, I’d counsel giving it a go. Highly recommended.

Flash Friday – ‘Hands Across the Sky’

Gemini V, August 29th, 1965. Public Domain Photograph courtesy of NASA.  Image sourced:

Gemini V, August 29th, 1965. Public Domain Photograph courtesy of NASA.
Image sourced:

Hands Across the Sky

Re-entry was moments away, but Rick seemed troubled.

I glanced over. I couldn’t talk through my helmet, but of course Rick – or whatever his real name was – didn’t need one. His exoskeleton was better than anything we’d ever come up with.

He blinked, and lowered his orbs. I looked back at the bank of switches overhead. Everything seemed normal – except my co-pilot.

We’d worked hard to build trust with the Grac. Rick had been chosen to come back with me instead of Michael Bell, who’d stayed behind; ambassadors. Symbols of inter-species cooperation. Insterstellar peace.

Splashdown was imminent. We braced.

Seawater rushed in. I smelt my first Earth air in God knew how long. I lifted my face to the sun.

And something – something large – blocked it.

‘Welcome, Joe Ronson,’ a huge voice boomed. Grac. I looked up. The sky bristled with alien craft. I spun to face Rick, who blinked again.

‘You made Earth sound so good,’ he muttered, shrugging.


So, this week’s Flash! Friday competition centres around the image above – the re-entry of the astronauts from the Gemini V mission, which landed back home on this day in 1965 – and the inclusion of an alien. Not the simple mention of an alien, mind, but an actual flesh-and-blood (or bone-and-aether, or shell-and-ichor, or whatever) alien. As usual, you’ve only got 140-160 words to do all this in, and as usual it was a challenge – but a lot of fun.

In other news – well, I’m dealing with a huge dollop of self-censure this morning, as I left my editing in a precarious place yesterday evening. I reached a point where I just couldn’t take any more (after about six straight hours of work, mind you), and even though I knew I’d be kicking myself this morning I had to throw in the towel when I did. So, as predicted, this morning my leg is sore from kicking and my brain is sore from thinking and my heart is sore from all the excising of my precious, precious words.

But that’s the name of the game, right? Have a good (and, hopefully, alien-free) weekend, do plenty of reading, and I’ll see you all back here bright and early tomorrow morning for an old-school book review.

I, for one, welcome our mighty Grac overlords... Photo Credit: kevin dooley via Compfight cc

I, for one, welcome our mighty Grac overlords…
Photo Credit: kevin dooley via Compfight cc


‘White Feathers’ is Launched!

Some events are just designed to be enjoyed. Weddings, Christenings, birthday parties – and book launches. I’ve been lucky enough to have attended a wedding and a Christening this year already (and hopefully a birthday party or two before the year is out), but yesterday evening I had the happy chance to attend a book launch, held in the lovely surrounds of Dubray Books on Grafton Street, in Dublin city. Book launches are huge fun – even, as often happened when I worked as a bookseller, you’re on the throwing end as opposed to the ‘standing around with a glass of wine’ end – and yesterday’s was no exception.

We were there to celebrate the book birthday of Susan Lanigan’s début novel, White Feathers



…which is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a gloriously beautiful thing.

(Clearly I haven’t read the book yet, as I only bought my copy yesterday, so I can’t expound about its brilliance at the moment. However, I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful).

The book was launched by Michael O’Brien, the publisher at O’Brien Press and its imprint Brandon Books, and the fearsomely accomplished crime writer Arlene Hunt, both of whom gave lovely speeches which introduced the book and Susan herself with warmth and welcome. Arlene was one of the judges of the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair when Susan put her book forward for consideration, and it was she who found she couldn’t forget it once she’d read the extract. She recounted how, late one night after finishing her initial read-through of Susan’s entry for the competition, which was the proto-version of what would become White Feathers, she realised she had to learn more about Eva Downey (the story’s protagonist) and find out how her tale ended. It’s every writer’s dream, of course, to have that sort of effect on any reader, particularly a reader with the power to pull your story out of a slush-pile full of other talented writers and declare that it’s a winner.

Susan herself, despite declaring she was rattling with nerves, gave a most impressive reading from her novel, doing the shrill, harridan voice of one of her characters with aplomb (and giving her audience huge enjoyment), and giving no indication that she was feeling anything less than at her total ease. She was full of praise for her publishers, her agent Svetlana Pironko, and the team at O’Brien Press who worked hard on the book, including its beautiful cover art, and her passion was clear from every word she spoke. She talked about violence, and how it can take shapes and forms we do not expect, and how any human life, crushed in any way, is an example of violence. She spoke of how the very act of presenting men with a white feather during the Great War – which is one of the primary themes of her novel – was in itself an act of violence, and she spoke movingly of her desire never to see a return to the dark days of war.

There was a lot of applause and mutterings of ‘hear, hear’ from those around her.

Susan, in mid-speech, a proud Arlene Hunt watching on.

Susan, in mid-speech, a proud Arlene Hunt watching on. Image: F. O’Hart

After the speeches, Susan began to sign copies of her book – I, of course, skidded right into the top of the queue. Turnout for the launch was huge, and it was brilliant to be part of such an enthusiastic, happy group of people, all of whom were there to support someone whose hard work and talent had led them to a place of success, and I wasn’t leaving without a personalised memento of my evening. Susan – whom I’ve ‘known’ for a while from Twitter and blogging, but whom I’d never met in person before yesterday evening – was kind enough to put a lovely message on my copy of her book, which reads:

To Sinéad: In writing fellowship. Where I am now, you will be soon, very soon.

I think that tells you all you need to know about the kind of person, and the kind of writer, Susan Lanigan is. I’m looking forward to reading her book (I’m fairly sure there’ll be a review of it knocking about these parts in a few weeks), and I wish her huge success both now and in the future.

Susan busily signing copies of her book. Image: F. O'Hart

Susan busily signing copies of her book. Image: F. O’Hart

And now – to read!

If you’re interested in learning more about Susan’s book, and how to purchase it, you can visit the O’Brien Press website here.


The Charon Café



The Charon Café

Sometimes, I wonder why I bother.

The couple who came in last week, for instance. They ordered two flat whites and left them sitting, cold; they never even touched the mugs. They just sat clutching one another’s hands, white-faced and silent, for almost an hour. His thumb stroked the back of her hand, really gently, and her tears rolled, but they said not a single word.

I hate throwing away good coffee. They didn’t even leave a tip. If you’re not going to drink it, why order it, y’know?

Then, there’s the regulars – Rocket Man, we call one of ’em, because he’s always on his way to the moon, or something. Never looks anyone in the eye, hands over a scribbled card with his order on it – a large mocha with extra syrup, always, and usually a muffin to go with it – and he mumbles, mumble-umble, all the time, but only to himself. Usually gives no trouble, but there was that one day he looked through the window and started screaming; we got him out before anyone complained, though. We thought he wouldn’t come back, but he did, and he didn’t want to talk about the bruises on his face.

Or maybe we didn’t ask. I’m not sure anymore.

And Anjelica. Always, it’s a green tea. No sweeteners, no syrups, nada. Just the tea. She’s so slight the light goes through her, and her hair’s like fine wire. Some days, she’s too tired even to smile, but we love her. Good tipper, never leaves a mess behind. Such a neat girl, you know what I’m sayin’? It’s been a while since we’ve seen her, now that I think about it, but I’m sure she’ll be back. Girls like Anjelica will always come back here.

It’s the younger ones I feel sorry for. I always try to fancy-up their orders, y’know, putting flowers or hearts or something on the top of their drink. Slipping on an extra cookie when the boss isn’t looking. Sometimes they notice, and sometimes not. I like it when they pay a passing visit only, a stop-off on the way to somewhere better, but sometimes I look at them and know they’re going to be occupying a corner booth here for the rest of forever. That makes me sad, man. Real sad.

But – wow. Sorry, man. I don’t know what came over me. I’m sure the last thing you care about is the stresses of some barista, right?

Welcome to the Charon Café, friend. Now, what’ll it be?


Going Under the Knife

One of the best pieces of writerly advice I ever read was this: don’t compare your first draft with someone else’s finished product. In other words, don’t read published books and despair that your own writing isn’t of the same standard. To do that is to forget that the writer of the book you admire has been through draft after draft after draft, and then several edits either with their agent or an independent editor, and then perhaps several more at the hands of their publisher. How could you expect your own writing – which you’ve worked hard on, of course, but which hasn’t had any of that editorial help – to measure up? You couldn’t, of course. Every single book you love, and which is currently for sale anywhere, started out as a first draft, full of holes and hand-waving and ‘I’ll fix it later’-itis; they all needed help to get where they are.

And you know how ‘help’ sometimes doesn’t feel like help – say, when you dislocate your shoulder and the doctor yanks it back into the socket for you? Yeah. Well, being edited feels a bit like that. You know it’s absolutely necessary, and that it’ll make everything way better, but it’s going to hurt. It’s not going to hurt forever – in fact, the pain of it is but a moment, in the larger scheme of cooking up an idea and making a book out of it, which then goes on to outlive you – but you still don’t want to face up to the fact that you have to go through it.

Yeah. So, I started my edits yesterday.

Photo Credit: Mike Schaffner via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Mike Schaffner via Compfight cc

To be entirely fair, though, I have to admit that, so far, they haven’t been as painful as I imagined. I have found myself quite happily slicing out whole paragraphs of overwritten purpleness, keeping my eye on a tendency to repeat words in quick succession (I almost wrote the word ‘out’ twice in the same sentence there, but – ha ha! – I caught it, just in time!) and realising, weirdly, how often I have my characters make the same gestures over and over. People grab one another’s hands a lot in my book as it stands, but once the editing scalpel has been passed through it, all that nonsense will fall away. Hearts currently do far too much hammering, and breaths are doing a lot of catching and glooping and stuttering – but their days are numbered. I’m like Zorro, except with the Delete button.

Harder than excising hundreds of hard-won words, however, is the fact that reading my editorial notes has made me think, really hard, about complicated plot stuff that, to me, seemed obvious. My agent (the most hardworking woman in the British Isles, and no mistake) has flagged up several places in the story wherein what’s happening makes zero sense, and that was harder to take than any slaughter of innocent adverbs. I got quite angry with myself yesterday, in fact; if I haven’t been clear, and the reader doesn’t get what I’m trying to say, I told myself, that means I haven’t done my job properly.

For rule #1 is: If a reader doesn’t understand what you’ve written, it’s never the reader’s fault.

This is a major issue, but it’s not a novel-breaker. It would be a massive issue if I hadn’t a clue what was supposed to be going on at those points in the story, either, but luckily that’s not the case. The only thing keeping my own heart from hammering my ribcage flat and my breaths from turning to porridge in my lungs is the fact that I know what I want this book to be; I just haven’t done a clear enough job of expressing it. I thought my subtle hints and my oblique references to stuff were enough to get the message across, and I thought – because these characters came out of my head and I know them inside-out – that it was clear as day when they were being sarcastic, or lying, or evasive. Now that I’ve had the privilege of reading my own story with editorial notes appended, I can see that I simply haven’t given my reader enough to work with at several points in the text. That’s my fault – that’s an error with my writing style. But it can be fixed.

It’s going to be a long, hard, and slow job of work to get these edits done. Yesterday, I toiled for hours and got about 60 pages in (less than a quarter of the book, in other words), and that was only shedding excess verbiage and fixing overwritten sentences and rejigging dialogue tags and cutting away unnecessary sentences which were slowing down the action – the bigger issues, like unexplained plot, will be tackled in a second sweep.

Then, it will be back to my laser-eyed agent for another critical assessment, and after that we’ll see. One thing I know for sure is this: it’s going to be a better book when I’ve finished this process than it would have been without it. Painful as this book-surgery is (for there’s no anaesthetic against this particular knife), it’s the most important part of the process.

So, I best get on with it, then. This slicin’ and dicin’ ain’t gonna do itself, right?

Circles and Parallelograms

Years ago, a friend and I were in conversation. We were lamenting the fact that people can’t, often, see themselves the way others see them; they can’t see the good things about themselves which stand out like beacons to other people. All the person themselves can see are the bad things, the negative things, the flaws.

My friend – being a mathematical sort – asked me to describe myself in terms of a shape. ‘Your mind,’ he said, ‘and how you see your personality – not a shape that describes how you look.’ So, I said a parallelogram, not really sure why – possibly just because it’s a cool word.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘To me, you’re a circle.’

Photo Credit: jouste via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jouste via Compfight cc

‘O-kay,’ I replied, not really getting it. ‘Why?’

‘Because a circle is a perfect shape,’ he told me.

Now, by saying this, my friend wasn’t trying to tell me he thought I was perfect, but that how he saw me was widely at odds with how I saw myself. All I could see were angles and spikes and corners, but what my friend could see was balance, symmetry and wholeness.

I’m not sure whether he was right or wrong – or if those sorts of distinctions can even be drawn when you’re talking about a person’s opinion – but certainly, his view of me and my own view of me didn’t overlap then, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t overlap now. It can be a strange experience to hear another person’s opinion of you, particularly if they’re speaking to someone else about you in your hearing; it can feel a bit disorienting, like your concept of yourself suddenly doesn’t fit any more. ‘Who is this person they’re talking about, this nice creature? Couldn’t be me, surely.’

Don’t get me wrong: it’s lovely to be thought of in good terms by others, and I’m lucky that it has happened to me once or twice so far in the course of my life. It’s just odd, and I wonder why.

I’d like to think I’m the same person, no matter who I’m talking to or where I am: I don’t make an effort to be more ‘circle-like’ in certain company, while happily parallelogramming it around at other times. I am what I am – at least, I hope so. And yes, there are days when I feel content with who I am and what I’ve done with my life and what I plan to do with the rest of my time and I feel reasonably ‘together’, but in general I don’t feel like I have a handle on life. I reckon I’m just swinging from one crisis to the next, making the best of things as I go – a bit like everyone else. So, if I’m a circle I’m only a part-timer; occasionally, my circle breaks and I become a collection of shards instead. Maybe some of me has got lost over the years as I try to put myself back together, time and time again.

Perhaps, too, how others see us is as much a reflection on them as it is on us – my friend’s view of me as a ‘circle’ might say more about the personality traits he sees as admirable and worthy of emulation and which he imagines I have, rather than a realistic reflection of who I am. Maybe I am good at portraying an unruffled face to the world while inside my brain it’s like a scene from Duck Soup; who knows.

When facing a challenge, I really wish I could see myself as the circle my friend saw all those years ago. I wish I could picture a smooth and balanced exterior and an unflappable surface, filled with calm wisdom from edge to edge like a plump water-skin in a desert. Instead I’m all angles and careening lines, zipping about without direction or sense. My thoughts are like weapons. My mind is over-cranked. I feel about as circular as a straight line.

And then I realise all I have to do is bend, slightly – no, a little more – and my straight line can start to resemble something circle-like. Bend slightly more, without breaking, and continue on without stopping, and somehow, eventually, the line will meet itself, and a circle will form.

so it may be that I’m more a ‘circle-in-training’ than an actual circle, but that’s better than nothing, right? I’m trying to remember that someone, a long time ago, saw something admirable in me, and chose to tell me so. He used the highest form of praise he could. Unknowingly – or perhaps not – he also gave me a tool I can use to help myself when things get tough; I can imagine myself as a circle, the circle he saw and which must therefore be in me, somewhere. Complete. Whole. Balanced. Graceful.

I don’t see it yet, and maybe I never will; I’m glad to know it’s there, all the same.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Shadow in the North’

My dears.

I have just this moment finished reading the most extraordinary book.



You’ll all know the author, Philip Pullman, from his wonderful work as the creator of the His Dark Materials trilogy – if you don’t already love these books, you’d better get your act together, is all I’ll say, as they are the best series of children’s books I know of. However, a lot of people don’t know that Pullman was an author for years before these books became huge, and this one – the second in his Sally Lockhart quartet of mystery stories – was originally published in 1986. My edition is from 1999, published by Scholastic Children’s Books.

I make a particular note of the publisher because, at several points during the reading of this book, I had to stop and take a look at the flyleaf, just to be sure I hadn’t misread it. Why? Well, The Shadow in the North is the least children’s book-y children’s book I have ever read.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I loved this book, and I’m about to tell you why. But it’s not a children’s book. I wouldn’t even class it as a YA book. It’s definitely a story for people who’ve done all their growing up, and who like to have their heads challenged by an intriguing mystery and wonderful characters and soul-wrenching loss and political-economic wrangling and steam power and social class… In short, it’s fantastic.

Sally Lockhart, for starters, is a wonderful character. Several years ago I read The Ruby in the Smoke, the first of the four books in which she features, but this book is a huge departure from its predecessor. Perhaps it’s partly because it’s been so long since I stepped into Sally’s London, but there’s also the fact that six years have passed in her world. We left Sally as a young woman – now, she is an adult who runs her own business and who has worked very hard to set herself up. It is 1878, an era of gaslights and steam power and carriages and gentry, and every corner of this story drips with detail – but it’s done so well that you never feel crowded. Sally has become a financial advisor (which is such an amazing thing for a woman of her era to do, I can’t even tell you how pleased I was by it), who knows her way around stock markets and share prices and investments. She is also closely involved with her dear friends Fred and Jim, photographers, and the three of them occasionally solve a mystery or two, too. She has offices, and a wonderful dog named Chaka, and a life she has fought hard for. She is proud, independent, intelligent and hard-working, and I love her.

But then, into her office one day comes a woman who had sought advice from Sally about where to invest her money a couple of years before the story opens. Sally had advised her to put it into shipping – the North Star line in particular – but the business subsequently collapsed. Sally is appalled. She hadn’t realised this had happened, and she’s devastated that her client has lost her money. She promises to get back her investment in full – but then the woman says that she’s convinced there was more to it than a simple company collapse. All was not well in the workings of the North Star, and she feels sure it was scuttled deliberately. People were killed, and many thousands lost their money. Sally, of course, is determined to get to the bottom of it.

So begins a tale of shadowy financial goings-on, stage magicians, back-street clientele, spiritualism, power, money and bankruptcy, not to mention invention, weapons dealing, and love. The further Sally pokes into the affairs of the mysterious and powerful Axel Bellmann, the owner of the White Star group of companies, the deeper she involves herself in a darkening web of terror which draws in gentry and street-dwellers alike. The connections between people in this book are fascinating – is a particular gentleman the lover, or the son, of a particular lady? Is another character married, and if so to whom, and why? What connects the old showgirl Nellie Budd, now working as a spiritualist, to Alistair Mackinnon, the stage magician? – and I admired the way Pullman wove the story together, right to its (tear-inducing) climax. The tale takes in politics – the instability in Russia which would become the revolutions of the early twentieth century, and the disruption of social class which was beginning to unseat the gentry in England, not to mention Sally’s own status as an unmarried working woman and the assumptions made about her as a result – as well as the most wonderful love story between two characters matched perfectly in intelligence, understanding and mutual respect, so proud and independent that it almost keeps them apart, until – but I can’t say any more for fear of spoilers, and also because it pains me to think about it.

There’s a tip of the hat to Bram Stoker and to the social conditions of the time (the poverty in which some characters live is unstintingly described), and it’s a book very much sited in the realities of nineteenth-century life, but really it’s a love song to the steam age, featuring trains and steam power at the heart of its mystery. It takes in British ingenuity and hard work, clashes between unions and employers, the thrilling fear of inventiveness and what the human brain is capable of producing. It is perfectly paced, and the set-up to its (absolutely brilliant but heart-shredding) ending is masterfully handled. It did, perhaps, get slightly sentimental in the last few paragraphs, but perhaps that’s another nod to the era in which it’s set.

Just in case I haven’t convinced you already, it also features illegitimate unions, and the selling of daughters as brides (as well as a threat that money will not be paid if the girl is found to be anything less than a virgin on her wedding night), and accusations of moral impropriety, and a love scene. It opens with a detailed discussion of socio-economics. Also, it features exactly one child, who is a peripheral character – wonderfully drawn, of course, but utterly unimportant to the story – so, you can see why I marvelled at its publisher, and the fact that I found it shelved under the children’s section.

So. Not a children’s book, but a brilliant book nonetheless. If you like period mysteries, give it a whirl.


Flash Friday Fiction – ‘Marooned’

Image: 'Marooned', by Howard Pyle, 1909, Public Domain image. Sourced:

Image: ‘Marooned’, by Howard Pyle, 1909, Public Domain image. Sourced:


‘Hey, freak. Look where you’re going, yeah?’

‘Oi! We’re talking to you, man! Where you going?’

‘I just wanted –’

‘Nah, nah, nah. Get back here. What you got there?’

‘Just – just my homework, okay? N-nothing –‘

‘Whoo-hoo! Freako’s got a book.’

‘Oh, yeah? Give it here. ‘Marooned’? Looks like old rubbish, man.’

‘It’s v-vintage science-fiction, f-from –‘

‘Whatever, man. Space? Gotta be weird.’

‘Freako. Never talking to nobody. You too good for us, are ya? You special, or something?’

‘N-no. Of course not.’

‘Yeah, right. Stuck-up. That’s all you are.’

‘Be careful with the book! Please! It was my dad’s!’

‘So I shouldn’t do this, then?’

‘No – please!’

‘Hoo, man! Nice one! Cover’s ripped right off.’

‘Got something to say, freak-boy? Geek boy? Nah?’

‘Not goin’ to lower yourself to speak to us, eh?’

‘Whatever, man. Let’s roll.’

‘Later, loner.’


I pick up the pages, alone. I gather my things, alone. I keep breathing, alone. I live.


This week, my Flash! Friday effort had to focus on the painting, above, and include the concept of ‘arrogance’; I’m not really sure why my mind went to the assumption, on the part of the bullies in this story, that the child they’re targeting is arrogant instead of shy and awkward. I also felt myself falling naturally into a story told practically all in dialogue – it did make it hard to conclude the piece, and I’m not sure I managed it quite how I wanted to, but I think I’ve taken the prompt in an unusual direction, and I’ve written a story, and isn’t that the main thing?

In other news – I’ve survived reading my agent’s editorial letter, which was long and detailed and full of stuff, some nice and some not, about what needs to change in my book. She’s right, of course, about most of it and I do feel a proper fool for not seeing some of the errors she pointed out, but that’s the name of the game. I’m taking a few days to let the edits settle, and then I’ll be back into the thick of it, fists swinging. Whatever you’re up to this weekend, do it well and be happy, and remember – things are never as bad as you fear.


Scraping the Bottom

Yesterday, I battled my way to the end of draft 1 of ‘Eldritch’. Today, however, I’m wondering why I bothered.

You might ask ‘Why? Surely it’s good to have reached the end of another first draft?’

Well. The reason for my disillusion today is, of course, that the quality of the work produced goes down very fast when you’re feeling tired, or uninspired, or unhappy in any way with any aspect of your life or your writing. I knew yesterday that my bucket was scraping the stones at the bottom of my well of inspiration, but I kept sending it down anyway, expecting it to be full when it got back to the top.

Of course, it was – but it was full of mud and rock and surprised, wriggling insects not used to seeing the light of day, and perhaps a clump or two of mouldy moss, too. The clear water was all gone.

Photo Credit: Kash_if via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Kash_if via Compfight cc

I got the work done, all right – I got the story told. But I couldn’t have been less happy, even as I was writing it, with the work I was producing. Once I’d taken the story as far as I could, I saved my file, closed down my computer and sat with my bone-shaking tiredness for a few minutes, my mind feeling disconnected from my physical body and the world around me. Even as I sat there, literally having just typed ‘The End’, I started to understand what was wrong with the story as I’d written it.

A short list of What’s Wrong with My Book

– An unnecessary meeting with several unnecessary characters.

– A complete lack of character development for the antagonist, and not enough time given to his reasons for his actions.

– A total fail in my world-building, and not enough time devoted to working out my magical system.

– The story is far too heavily weighted at the front – in other words, too many pages are devoted to the first ‘half’ of the adventure, and not enough to the second. The only positive in this is the fact that the ‘finished’ draft came in at just under 62,000 words, which is a lot shorter than my norm; there’s plenty of scope for expansion.

Yesterday, when I finished writing, I felt hopeless. I felt despairing. I began to question whether I should even continue with my plans for my career, and I began to fret that I wasn’t deserving of all that I’d accomplished so far – having several stories published, gaining an agent, slowly building a following and a readership on social media. This feeling didn’t last, of course, though the thoughts, and the deeper insecurities, took a little longer to disperse. I’m not sure they’ll ever really go away, but so long as they stay quiet long enough for me to get on with the work, I’ll be happy.

Luckily, I slept well and have woken this morning in a much better frame of mind, with a clearer idea of what I can do to ‘fix’ the story. It’s not a total waste of time and effort, as I thought yesterday. It’s not the worst thing ever put on paper (though it’s probably in the same ballpark!) It’s not unsalvageable. I know that I can fix it, and bring it to a point where I won’t be ashamed to share it with other people. Right now, if my agent read it I’m sure her hair would turn white and she’d burn our agent-author agreement; I know it won’t always be this way. It’s going to be a big job, but I’m equal to it.

However, today is not the day I’m going to start working on it.

Today is going to be a day for getting to all the other tasks I’ve been neglecting for the past couple of months while I’ve been up to my neck with writing. There are jobs to be done in literally every corner of my house, and there’s a book to be read, and there are walks to be taken, and there is (if I have any energy left!) baking to do, and I’m looking forward to the sort of good, clean tiredness that comes from having an exhausted body, instead of an exhausted mind, at the end of today. I’m hoping that, as soon as I take my eyes off my well of inspiration, that it will slowly start to fill up again, and that the good clear water I need to sustain me will start to trickle through the stones again. I’m not planning to send my bucket near it for a while.

Finishing a novel isn’t easy. It takes focus and dedication and bloody-mindedness. You need to have a story you can’t rest until you’ve finished telling, and you need to have some idea – even only in outline – of how you’re going to get to the end of it. Even so, a first draft is likely to have missteps and forced steps and illogical steps and errors, but that’s all right. Getting the skin over the bones of your story, even if it’s stretched, is good. Once that’s done, you can go back and settle it properly. If you force it, though, what happens is you begin to think there’s not enough story, or you haven’t done enough work in the writing of it, or you aren’t enough, and slowly but surely you lose hope. I’m sure many thousands of stories have fallen at the first hurdle, but I should think many thousands more have fallen at the last. Beginning a story and clip-clopping your way through the middle can be fun; bringing everything to a conclusion is tough, and chances are it won’t work right the first time you try it. But all I can say is, don’t give up when you’ve got that far. Leave it alone for a bit, and come back to it once your mind has had a chance to forget all about it.

Stop scraping the bottom. Let your well re-fill. Once you do, there’ll be plenty of water for all the stories you have nestling within you, waiting for their time to bloom.

Photo Credit: ViaMoi via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ViaMoi via Compfight cc


Wednesday Writing – ‘Sharing the View’

Image: Photographer: Bjorn Simon

Image: Photographer: Bjorn Simon

Sharing the View

‘Just our luck, huh? Comin’ up here on a day like this.’ Eric strolled around the platform, hands in pockets, breathing deep.

‘What d’you mean? View’s fine. It’s a little misty, is all.’ Carla’s face was pressed to the eyepiece, the wind tossing the netting on her best hat.

‘Misty views? For my gal? No, sir.’

She lifted her face and dimpled at him. ‘My Mama always said, make the best of what you got. So, quit that whinin’ and get over here.’

‘All your Mama ever said to me was ‘git your ugly behind off my porch, boy!” Eric drew his hands out of his pockets and loosened his collar a little, flexing his shoulders like they were tiring of a burden. ‘Ain’t nothin’ ugly about my behind. No ma’am.’

‘I’m sure I wouldn’t know,’ replied Carla, sucking back a smile as she stepped away from the viewer, being careful of her fancy shoes. ‘Oh, come on, baby. Look! You can see right to the river.’

Eric nodded, flexing his fingers out, feeling the pull and twang on the nerves and muscles across his back and shoulders. He felt the throbbing of his heart shaking his whole body, and he tried to swallow. His throat was full of sand.

He crossed the platform to where Carla stood, shading her eyes with her hand, her pretty coral glove like a flower, her skirt blowing around her legs. She was looking out over the city – their city, the one they’d found together – like she belonged to it, and it to her. Something squeezed him then, and his breath smashed into shards.

He coughed, and bent toward the viewer. He blinked as he got the thing focused, the city swimming before him like a dream. She’d been right, of course: there was the river, leading on forever, and the skyscrapers they’d only dreamed of, growing up. The mist on the horizon didn’t really matter after all.

He took a deep breath, and heat flooded through him like a faucet being opened.

Then, Carla was beside him, warm and fragrant, and her hand slid into his pocket before he could say a word, and she found the ring he’d hidden there. Her fingers closed around it.

‘Yes,’ she said, her lips right by his ear, and there was a smile in her voice. ‘Yes, I will.’