Monthly Archives: September 2014

Passing Out



I am approximately two-thirds through the second pass of edits on ‘Emmeline’. I have long dispatched the purple prose and the overwritten sentences and now I’m on to the slightly nigglier plot issues, the things which left my agent scratching her head as she read and which I was hoping nobody would notice (fatal mistake, by the way). I’ve been making some big decisions – things to leave in, things to leave out, whether this particular piece of plot is needed, exactly how many baddies one slender book really requires, how much faffing about is feasible or realistic, and whether I’ve been consistent in my characterisation. They’re all big decisions, but luckily most of them are easy. This isn’t because I’ve suddenly become an editing and/or writing genius, but because it’s obvious what’s not working, what will never work, and which things I should just allow to gracefully retire. Other things I’m fighting a little harder for, and I’m preparing my ‘defence’ as to why they’re still there despite my agent’s advice to the contrary. I’m hopeful that once she reads my reasons, and understands that I didn’t just fling scene after scene into the book purely for something to fill the pages (and, of course, that I strengthen the book and make these scenes more vital), she’ll relent.

It really is, in so many ways, like writing a thesis and preparing an oral defence all over again. I’m having flashbacks to 2008, which isn’t, all told, a good thing. The only bright spark in the situation is that I’m not as afraid of my agent as I was of my doctoral examiners.


I’m also flitting about the country these days, zooming home to visit my uncle (who is still in hospital but doing really well – and thank you to the very kind folk who are still getting in touch to ask me how he is. Do keep up the good wishes!) which makes consistent work on the book pretty hard. It’s been a few days now since I looked at it, which is no harm in the long run. Time away from your work when writing and/or editing is something to be cherished. It just makes my fingers itch and my brain start to bulge with things I want to fix and need to change, and I’m only at peace when I’m sitting in front of the computer again, tapping away.

One of the writerly errors I make (and, hence, one of the things I’m having to edit the hardest, particularly on this pass) is over-description. It’s a strange thing: I tend to go nuts over the minutiae during scenes in which the reader, to be perfectly honest, probably doesn’t need all the help I’m giving them. Then, there are scenes which could probably do with a bit more fleshing out, but which I leave that bit more sketchy. There’s a scene in the book, for instance, which takes place inside a sort of laboratory/aircraft hangar, in which an injured woman is lying on a metal ‘grille’ floor, bleeding from a wound in her back. There’s a walkway not far from where she’s lying which leads to a stairs. I (almost literally) described the angle of the light being refracted from each metallic surface and gave the width, in millimetres, of every section of walkway and the depth of the tread in the stairs – all for nothing. Anyone can imagine a metal walkway leading to a metal stairs. Right? It’s not exactly 2001, here. Then, there’s a scene later in the book where a dogsled team (complete with driver, of course) comes across the burning wreckage of a downed aircraft and mounts a brave attempt at looking for survivors. Weirdly, I was far more loose with my descriptions here, flinging around terminology and unfamiliar words with abandon.

Guess which scene worked loads better? Big hint: it didn’t involve stairs.

I think I tend to over-describe when I’m not confident about what I’m writing. For whatever reason, I have a personal interest in dogsledding and I’ve read about it in various other books, so it seemed natural to just talk about it in a relaxed way. I don’t explain the terms I’m using – they’re not really important to a reader’s understanding. What’s happening is clear. Interestingly, my agent didn’t make any edits at all to the dogsled teams; her cool, analytical pen passed over them without once making landfall. However, in the scene which involved the hangar, and the stairs, and the metal floor, and the bleeding (all things which might, in some ways, be considered more familiar to the average reader) I got way too tangled up in describing things which didn’t need to be described, and she employed a slash-and-burn technique when it came to editing. In fact, she advised me to get rid of the whole thing.

The whole thing.

I didn’t, because I feel I need it for structural reasons. But I have pared it right back to the bone. And it has done the scene the world of good.

That’s not to suggest it didn’t hurt, though. It did.

Writing a book, and then having it edited, teaches you a lot about yourself. Your patience levels, for instance. Exactly how much of a diva you are. How many times you use the word ‘just’ in any given paragraph (far too many). And sometimes you learn that you’re capable of having a good idea, and writing about it well, which makes all the pain worthwhile.

I’m off! Catch you tomorrow for some freshly-written fiction. Till then, adios.




It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

The other day, my agent (Polly Nolan, for those who are new to the party – hello! Welcome!) posted an interesting Tweet. Here it is:

Why, indeed.

The opening of your novel is so important. It’s the bit that will draw in not only agents and publishers, but also readers. It should be true to your ‘voice’, open a window into your fictional world, give a clear impression of your protagonist and a hint about what’s facing them as your story unfolds, and – if possible – it should avoid a few classic mistakes.

As Polly says, ideally a strong opening to a novel shouldn’t feature weather or a character waking up from sleep, particularly if it’s due to an alarm clock ringing or because of a nightmare frightening them into wakefulness. In my opinion, a novel also shouldn’t open with a character describing themselves, either, particularly if it’s achieved by having them look into a mirror.

Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan via Compfight cc

Not that I’m anyone to judge.

My first ‘novel’ – completed, but never shown to anyone – began with a little girl looking out her aunt’s window watching the rain fall outside and wondering how she was going to pass the time until it stopped. Also, I once wrote half a novel which opened with a girl waking up from a recurring dream which had been bothering her for months. She returns to sleep and when she wakes up again – properly, this time – she and her sister help one another to dress, enabling me (the extremely novice writer) to describe what my protagonist looked like through her self-deprecating self-comparisons to the other girl. I then go on to describe the day outside and what the weather was doing, for no real reason.

All in the space of the first four pages. Yeah. Clever, huh?

It’s no surprise that neither of these stories went anywhere. The first was just nonsense, and I felt the second was too similar to every other YA-kidlit dystopian narrative out there. Parts of its story world did end up resembling another novel (in one of those weird ‘My-idea-has-been-STOLEN-from-my-very-BRAIN moments which happen to everyone at some stage), and I felt the other book had handled it much better than I ever would. So, I chucked my own story. But I thought of these books with a certain fondness when I read Polly’s Tweet. Everyone has to make the same mistakes when they’re starting out. It’s a rule. Or maybe a law. I was (and am, because I’m still learning) no exception.

The strange thing is that even though nobody ever read these proto-books of mine, and I had no feedback on my writing at that point in my life, I somehow picked up, probably from reading other books, that these methods of kicking off a story weren’t good ones. It’s important to say that this isn’t because they’re not good places to start off a story, per se; it’s more to do with the fact that everyone does them. These methods of beginning a story have been used so often that they’ve become almost instinctive (which is why so many beginning writers default to them), and they’ve become so clichéd that Madeleine l’Engle parodied them in the opening to her most famous novel A Wrinkle in Time. I’m sure agents see them in their hundreds, week after week – and that’s what you want to avoid, if you want to get their attention. (Other things to avoid: bribes, ‘presents’, scented paper, threats to burn their offices down unless they take you on, pleading, personal photographs of you, and general weirdness. Word to the wise. You’ll get their attention that way, too, but for all the wrong reasons).

However, I do have to admit that thinking about this issue got me wondering whether it’s ever a good idea to begin a story with an alarm clock ringing or the weather or your protagonist looking at themselves in a mirror. Just for fun, then, I put this together:

Katie woke from a deep sleep to the sound of an alarm. Half-conscious, she wriggled her arm free and slapped at her bedside table, searching for the clock as its relentless brrrrrrring burrowed into her brain. Her knuckles knocked against something cold and unfamiliar, something which clanged like hollow metal, and it jerked her more fully awake. What on earth had that been?

Consciousness crept over her, confusion coming with it. The mattress felt weird; harder than usual. The air smelled cloying, with a tang like blood. Her breath caught in her neck as she opened her eyes, feeling the sharp pull as a layer of encrusted… something broke apart, tugging at her eyelashes.

Everything was dark.

She blinked, but the darkness stayed absolute.

Then, like she was inside an egg being cracked with a silver spoon, light burst across her vision, slashing her retinas. She recoiled from it, hissing, as she raised her hand to shade her watering eyes. All she could see was light, like a scalding yellow sun. Gradually, it began to show her the smooth, domed ceiling above her, the featureless walls.  This is a dream, she told herself.

The alarm never stopped its ringing.

’99-097-31!’ shouted a voice, clanging inside Katie’s skull. She rolled her gaze around, wondering what she was enclosed in. A capsule? A cell? ‘On your feet!’ Like the words had triggered her muscles, Katie swung her legs out of bed. The floor was cool on her bare soles, but the light-filled gap was widening, permitting the brightness of a desert day to pierce Katie’s world. The heat was rising with every breath. The snow and ice that had been there, outside her window on the street where her house was, where she’d grown up, where her parents were in the next room and where she’d gone to sleep just a few hours before, had been replaced by unrelenting sun and cracked earth. A broken ruin lay somewhere on the horizon. As she struggled to stand, her feet slid across the metal floor in pools of sweat, throwing her back against her thin mattress. Her heart thumped painfully beneath her collarbone.

‘What’s happening?’ Katie called. ‘Where am I?’ But there was no reply.

As she gazed around, desperately searching for answers, a telephone, a door, she was transfixed by an image in the metal wall opposite. Her reflection. She saw a skinny dark-haired woman sitting on a sleep-tossed bed, bright blue eyes staring out of a hollow face, stick-like arms clutching the thin blankets. A scattering of dark moles pocked her face like ash on milk. The reflection’s thin, chapped lips stretched as Katie gasped, raising a bird-boned hand to her face. She felt rough fingertips touch her blistered mouth, and the movement was echoed by the mirrored woman.

But the reflection showed someone Katie had never seen before in her life.

So, there you have it. Maybe starting with an alarm, the weather and a character’s self-description isn’t always a bad idea.*

*Just kidding. It is. Don’t ever do this, kiddos.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter’

Most people know Astrid Lindgren as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books, but this one – Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter – is a perennial favourite of hers, too. Originally published in the early 1980s, it has been made into a film, a stage play, and a musical, and it is currently being adapted by Studio Ghibli as an anime.



In some ways, it’s strange to think of this story having such a multifaceted life beyond its original format, because it is – on the surface, at least – an exceedingly simple tale. It opens in no-nonsense fashion: Matt, a robber chieftain, is nervously awaiting the birth of his first child. His wife Lovis (who likes to sing during the birthing process in order to ease the child’s passage into the world, which is all kinds of awesome) is unperturbed by the fact that she’s in labour, but the screeching of the harpies outside, who are flying about in the storm which rages overhead, is disturbing her peace. Her husband fires arrows out the window to disperse the harpies, and his band of robbers carouse in their dining hall, waiting for the child to be born, and Lovis quietly carries on with her important work. They all expect the baby to be a boy – a new robber chieftain, of course – but when the child eventually arrives, it is a girl, and everyone (especially her father) is instantly smitten.

[Matt] stood there gazing in admiration at her clear eyes, her little mouth, her black tufts of hair, her helpless hands, and he trembled with love. (p. 5)

As the new baby is being presented to the robbers, a huge clap of thunder bursts through the sky, and a lightning strike hits the fort in which the robbers live. Next morning, they discover that the fort has been split in half by the power of the lightning – but Matt, after an initial burst of futile rage (which is his calling card) decides to live much as before, except in half the space. His major worry is about the outhouse, which is now beyond ‘Hell’s Gap’, the name the robbers give to the chasm down the centre of their home.

Named by her mother – who had decided that Ronia would be her child’s name, whether it was a girl or a boy – she grows up the pet of all around her. She learns to crawl, and then to walk, and then to sing and dance and cavort as a good robber should. Then, eventually, there comes the day when Ronia wants to leave home and explore the forest all around.

Her parents don’t stand in her way – they warn her, in plain language, of the dangers she faces, and tell her what to do if she gets in trouble. If she falls in the river, she must swim; if she gets lost, she must find the right path. Matt roars in fear at the thought of what will happen if Ronia falls into Hell’s Gap, but she assures him she won’t, and so he tells her to go. I loved this bit: this book is one of the few children’s adventure stories I’ve read where the protagonist has both her parents living, and in this story the adults are ushered out of the way through their respect for, and trust in, their daughter; she wants to be free of them for a while, and so they allow her that freedom. As it turns out, Ronia’s first expedition almost meets with disaster – her father saves her from a bunch of grey dwarfs, but she learns from the experience and does not repeat it.

One day, she sees another child sitting on the other side of Hell’s Gap, happily swinging his legs and looking quite at home. After some interrogation, she discovers he is Birk Borkason, the son of her father’s mortal enemy – Borka, the other robber chieftain who lives in the forest. Matt and Borka have been arch-enemies for years, getting in one another’s way and generally making life difficult – for a forest is only so big, after all, and how can it support two bands of robbers? Soldiers have chased Birk’s people away from their home, and the only refuge they could take was in the other half of Matt’s fort, across the terrifying gap. When Matt finds out, he is not pleased.

Slowly, the children become friends, eventually deciding to become unofficial sister and brother. Upset by their fathers’ inability to see eye to eye, and afraid they are going to be kept apart, they run away together into the forest where harpies, grey dwarfs, and even more fearful creatures live…

This story has a very simple plot, and there’s not much to it in terms of subplot or nuance. The dialogue is fun, the characterisation a little predictable, the threats of the forest somewhat toothless, but for all that I loved it. We know what will happen, but that doesn’t take away from the joy of reading it. The psychological complexity of Matt’s relationship not only with Ronia but also with his strong-willed, intelligent, resourceful and extraordinarily brave wife is a charm, and I loved Lovis’ calm, rational reactions to events in the book which stand in contrast to Matt’s passionate, hot-headed and rather impulsive decisions. The book has everything – birth and death, nature as a thing of beauty and also red in tooth and claw, the transformative power of love and friendship, and a particular kind of fairytale magic. I’m sorry I didn’t come across this book as a child, but if you know one (or you are one, even at heart), you can’t go wrong with this.

Spellbinding, sweet, and a deserved classic, this would be perfect for a ‘read aloud’ book, or an early reader for a confident child of six or seven upwards.



Flash Friday – ‘Duel’

Typhoon Maid Thursday. CC photo by Shuji Moriwaki. Image sourced:

Typhoon Maid Thursday. CC photo by Shuji Moriwaki.
Image sourced:


He hadn’t noticed me leaving.

Kazuhiko, I mean. We’d been kissing until Emiko arrived, in her corset and fishnets. He’d been like a flame-blind moth for her, then. They all had.

It was a stupid party, anyway. Masahiro decided we should wear black and bring an emblem of death; I took grandfather’s gas mask, and it had gone down well, at first. Now, it felt stupid.

Emiko’d brought nothing. Of course. But nobody’d noticed.

I walked right to the cliff’s edge. Mist beaded on my skin and clothes, hiding my tears.

The scream made me drop grandfather’s mask.

It took me forever to stumble back. I called out, but everyone was gone. Except one. A stranger on the ground. I hurried to his side, and turned him, and the blood…

Kazuhiko’s knife – his death-emblem – stuck from the boy’s neck. Without thinking, I pulled it free, and threw it into the bushes.

Nameless blood lay heavy on my skin.


Wow. So, this week’s Flash Friday challenge was to write a sub-160 word story based on the image prompt (a wonderful picture of a pensive Japanese woman, or perhaps a teenage girl, gazing out over a mist-covered bay), and the ‘Dragon’s Bidding’, or required element, which was to ‘include a death.’

I think, all in all, I didn’t do too badly.

These challenges are fiendish. Who needs brain training when you have flash fiction, eh? Sometimes, I worry about developing things like dementia as I get older (it’s in my family, so don’t think I’m being overly cautious by considering such a fate at my tender *ahem* age); however, I think doing a couple of writing challenges a week is a great way to keep the brain nimble. It helps with writing, of course, but it also just helps in general, with synapses and biochemicals and what have you. It gets the imagination flowing, but there’s direction and focus to it – you can’t just go off on a ramble through the dictionary. You have to hit the targets. That’s why I love it.

This week, the first thing that struck me about the image was that the girl – or woman – was a personification of a typhoon. The image is entitled ‘Typhoon Maid Thursday’, and our Dragoness, Rebekah, mentioned that she wished to dedicate this week’s writing to the victims of two typhoons, both of which fell on this day during the 1950s. However, I have long learned that the first idea to strike your head is rarely the one to go with – for if it strikes you, straight off, it’s going to strike ten other people too. So, I thought again. Something about the woman’s posture made me think she was pensive, sad, lonely – hurt, even. So then, why is she dressed so strangely? What’s with the gas mask? Who is she?

And the story came from there.

And I realise now that I haven’t mentioned typhoons. I got so caught up in my own tale that I forgot entirely about the typhoon bit until after I’d written and posted my entry. So it goes. I may have been slightly off with my focus this week, then, but I wrote a story I liked, it was hard work to get it to fit within the word count, and I’m pleased with it. It’s not perfect. But it’s not bad, considering I wrote it in the space of half an hour while distracted with other stuff.

Are you going to have a go this week? Yes? Excellent! Well, you know what to do. Head on over to Flash! Friday, drop your story in the hat, and make sure not to mention I sent you. No – seriously. You don’t even know me, right? Right.

And good luck, my darlings. Fly!

Thursday Randutiae*

*I so totally can’t take credit for this amazing word. It belongs – as far as I can tell, and insofar as a word ‘belongs’ to anyone – to the author Kristin Cashore whose books, if you haven’t already read, I’d highly recommend. Her blog, and general existence, are pretty cool too. Go on! Check her out. I can wait.

Tum-ti-tum-ti-tum... Oh, don't mind me! Photo Credit: CJS*64 via Compfight cc

Tum-ti-tum-ti-tum… Oh, don’t mind me!
Photo Credit: CJS*64 via Compfight cc

Okay. She’s pretty cool, yes? I told you so.

Anyway. It’s Thursday. My life feels gritty, rather like it’s full of small particles of random minutiae (or, if you prefer, randutiae. See how useful this word is?) As I was pondering this, trying to come up with something slightly more nuanced to blog about, I thought…


Blog about the contents of your heart and mind. That’s the point of the entire exercise, isn’t it? So, here’s what’s in my heart and mind. Bear with me. It’s been a weird and rather fragmented week.

Firstly, this morning over breakfast my husband and I developed an outline for a new format TV show named ‘Baking with Physics.’ It all began when I told him I’d bake him something later (though I made no promises, mind) and I mentioned the famous quote by Carl Sagan: ‘If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.’

Well, says the Husband, all science-like, not really. You’ve just got to invent a universe. One in which there are apple-like things.

I couldn’t really disagree with this logic.

This moved on to discussing a fun feature called Schrödinger’s Pie, where the presenter of ‘Baking with Physics’ gazes out benignly at the audience and a cat’s meowling is heard somewhere off-screen. ‘So!’ trills the presenter. ‘You can’t see the cat, or whether it’s inside or outside the pie. How does it feel to live in an existence where a cat both is, and is not, baked inside a pie?’ (Cue canned laughter and applause). We also discussed Quantum Baking, where the presenter would begin going through a recipe, demonstrating the steps, and at the end a pie would appear in his or her hands. ‘Oh, look!’ they’d say. ‘And here’s one I’m going to make tomorrow. Won’t it look lovely?’

Yes. Just be glad you don’t live with us. It’s hard enough being us.

We also discussed the strangeness of the fact that the word for ‘oat’, in most of the major European languages, falls into one of two camps (excluding Finland, because Finnish): either it’s ‘havre’ or its crew (Norwegian havre, Danish havre, Swedish havre, German hafer, Dutch haver) or the ‘av’ group (French avoine, Spanish avena, Portuguese aveia). Yet good old English has the sturdy ‘oat’. This sort of linguistic ‘family tree’ stuff really interests me. I wish I knew the reason why English has ‘oat’; it probably has something to do with the roots of the language. It’s not Latin, because in Latin ‘oat’ is ‘avena’, and the German-Dutch roots, which might have been connected to the Anglo-Saxon word, aren’t anything like ‘oat’. Apparently the word comes from Old English ate, plural atan, but – and this is the weird bit – nobody knows where the word ate comes from in Old English.

Isn’t that mad? Oat. The common, humble oat. It’s actually an International Word of Mystery, with shady roots abroad, hiding its secrets in the mists of time.

So what? You can't prove anything. I was never even *here*. Photo Credit: EsCrItUrA cOn LuZ via Compfight cc

So what? You can’t prove anything. I was never even *here*.
Photo Credit: EsCrItUrA cOn LuZ via Compfight cc

Yes. Anyway.

It’s been a pretty stressful week. I guess this is how my brain goes when pressure is applied to it – i.e. all over the place. Also, today is (or, would have been) the birthday of my friend who passed away earlier this year; you may remember him from this post I wrote about his passing. Today, he should have turned thirty-two years old. My thoughts are with him and his family, and they’re with my own beloved uncle who is still very unwell – though, miraculously, alive – and they’re with the precious fragility of all things, including peace of mind.

So, isn’t it great to be able to have a laugh, of a dark morning, about quantum bakery and the origin of the word ‘oat’? Things like that make everything worthwhile.

Have an oaty Thursday, everyone. And remember to do some baking – though not with cats, whether living or dead or both. See you back here tomorrow for some more short storying with Flash Friday – which, by the way, I hope you’ll be joining in with one of these weeks? Yes, I’m looking at you! Get those inspiration engines churning and get stuck in. What do you have to lose?


Wednesday Writing – ‘Good Things Come’

Photo Credit: Leonrw via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Leonrw via Compfight cc

Good Things Come

Leave the ‘ouse at seven-twelve; all good. Hop the train at seven-forty; all good. The gatherin’ crowd means I get shoved into someone’s armpit – not so good, but it could be worse. I feel like a slab of meat in an abattoir, my fingers goin’ numb around the bar suspended from the carriage ceiling, swayin’ gently with the clack-clack, just like every other poor sod.

But it’s all good.

We screech into her station, and I watch as she elbows her way on, knockin’ folk left and right. I hide behind some bloke’s newspaper, FTSE-this and NASDAQ-that lickin’ my eyeballs, but when I stick my ‘ead back out again I see ‘er, like she’s got an ‘oming beacon stuck to her forehead. She jus’ draws the eye, y’know? Face like one o’ them statues. Angled. Perfect.

She looks tired this morning, though. Can ‘ardly blame ‘er. You ‘ad a late night, eh? Oblivious, she flicks her finger up and down ‘er phone screen, swipin’ this way an’ that. Workin’? Sendin’ a very important email? I grin. Or checkin’ your dating profile, are we, love? Leanne6Herts, that’s you. Tweetin’ about your night on the tiles, yeah?

I look away before I want to. Any longer an’ she’d have felt it, like a weight. Any longer, an’ I might as well have screamed her name. I bite my lip and breathe, staring in the direction of the window, gettin’ an eyeful of some woman’s ear’ole, and beyond that, a spaced-out looking dropout with a nose-ring. Scum.

The ping as we reach the next station causes a handy bit of kerfuffle in the carriage, just enough to give me the chance to catch another glimpse. She’s leanin’ against the wall, her ‘andbag held tight, water bottle clutched like a baby. Still on the blinkin’ phone. In ‘er own world, this one. In ‘er own bloody world. Don’t I know it.

Eight-nineteen. We reach our destination right on time.

She’s ever so polite, stoppin’ to let folk off in front of her, smilin’ at some bint with a kid. Gives me a chance to slip out past her as she’s helpin’ to get the pram down from the carriage to the platform, all laughter and jollity. You can turn it on when you want to, eh?

The river of people bashes past me, umbrellas and briefcase-edges and cleared throats and mumbled conversations and excuse mes and muttered curses. I ‘ang about by the barrier, cradlin’ my ticket, ready to slip through. Just got to time it right.

‘Ere she is.

I slide up to the validator, an’ out I go. Carried along by the flow, we make our way up to the bridge like we’re all one tribe, y’know, all fightin’ the same fight. Suits and jeans alike, skin’eads and barbershop jobs. Nobody looks at anybody else. Nobody speaks. Nobody even notices me.

I make it across the bridge, no problem. Timin’, I warn myself, chancin’ a look back. I stop, ignorin’ the shakin’ heads and the clickin’ tongues all around me. Time it right, man!

She’s over halfway across – no goin’ back now, sunshine. She’s still clutchin’ that stupid water bottle, bags under ‘er eyes, face pale. I can barely keep it in long enough to let ‘er look up, in ‘er own time, an’ just when I think she won’t, she does. She finally does.

She looks up an’ sees me there, the press of people at ‘er back and the flow urgin’ her on. I smile my widest smile an’ hold out my arms, welcomin’-like, an’ she tries to stop walkin’ but someone bashes into her. Come on, darlin’. You ain’t got no choice. I tried it the nice way, and you weren’t ‘aving it. I’ve waited long enough.

She drops the water bottle, an’ it gets kicked away, quick as quick, as the press of people carries her to me like a reward, like a prize. Like nothin’ more than I deserve.



There Are So Many Ways…

…to tell someone you love them.

There’s the hug when they walk into the room. There’s the way your eyes light up when you see them, and the ‘I’m so glad you’re here!’ that you whisper into their ear. There’s the laughter you share, and the private jokes.

There’s the lifetime of memories: the special Christmases made all the better by the knock of your loved one on the front door, and their silhouette in your hallway, and the presents – always the same, but no less loved because of that – which, year upon year, they gave you. There’s the way you used to watch, open-mouthed, as this person you love did magic trick after magic trick, opening your mind to a world you couldn’t understand but were fascinated by. There’s the Bruce Lee posters on his wall, the tiny hints of a hidden life, one separate from you – a grown-up life, full of mystery. There’s the motorbike parts in the living room, which made the other adults tut, but which made you smile because it seemed so cool. So free.

Photo Credit: next. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: next. via Compfight cc

There are the memories you’ve made from all the family gatherings – the happy and the sad – made whole and perfect by the fact that your loved one was part of them. It wouldn’t be the same without him.

It wouldn’t be the same.

You show you love him in the way you roll your eyes as he rolls another cigarette, and the chuckle he gives to show he knows you care, but he’s going to smoke it anyway. There’s the glint in his eye as he stands at the pub door, and the nodding assurance that he’ll make sure to get home safe. There’s the affectionate way he tells you he’ll be grand and not to be worrying about him, but both of you know you will worry, regardless.

There are the bad jokes that you can’t help laughing at. There are the phone handsets that fascinate him, and the crazy ringtones, and the way you smile when he wants to show you all of them, all at once. It’s the the fact that he doesn’t eat broccoli because he doesn’t like the look of it, and you just let him away with it even though you shouldn’t.

There’s the fact that he brings an umbrella with him no matter what the weather – and you never make anything of it, even for fun. It’s just part of who he is, and you love it because you love him.

But I realised when this beloved person became suddenly, deathly ill, that in all my life I have never told him I love you. I have never spoken the actual words, the simplest and hardest in the world. Of course I hope I have shown it through actions, through the enjoyment of his company, through all the smiles we’ve shared and the happy days we’ve spent together. There haven’t been enough of those, of course. Of course.

But I have never spoken the words. Today I’m thankful I get the chance.

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to share their warm wishes with me after yesterday’s post. My uncle remains stable after surgery, but I would ask you to continue the good wishes and prayers, with my gratitude. There is still a long way to go.


A Note, on a Stressful Monday

By all accounts, today has been – and will continue to be – a challenge.

Firstly, my husband has gone on a work-related trip.

Secondly, spiders have taken over my house, and my only weapon against them – the vacuum cleaner with a pair of old tights stretched over the intake pipe – is banjaxed. (This may be because I accidentally hoovered up a pair of tights while trying to catch a spider, but I can neither confirm nor deny such rumours).

Thirdly, I was supposed to begin the second pass of edits on Emmeline today, but chances are high it won’t happen now. Because…

…fourthly, and most importantly, one of my dearly loved family members has been taken to hospital with a serious illness, and I am waiting anxiously for news.

If you’re the praying type, please remember my family in your petitions today. If you’re not, a handful of good vibes strewn in the wind will do instead.

And I hope you’ll be able to forgive me for not posting a proper blog today. For all these reasons, some more than others of course, I am not in the right place to do it justice.

So, here’s a photo of a tiny baby hedgehog in what looks to be a purple toilet roll holder for your enjoyment instead. It brought a bit of levity to an otherwise stressful morning for me, at least. I hope it’ll do the same for you.

I hope to be able to talk to you tomorrow; until then, may all go well for you and yours.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Circle’

The first thing I did when I finished this book was to send a Tweet about it. Then, I checked up what other reviewers thought of it on Goodreads. Now (but I’m sure it won’t have escaped your attention) I’m blogging about it.

Is this irony? I’m not even sure myself.



The Circle is probably not the sort of book a person like me should read – a person, in short, who has a fraught relationship with modern technology and who is a bit afraid of the internet and what it’s doing to personal privacy and how it seems like people feel more entitled, these days, to say what they like about others no matter how hurtful or damaging just because they can. I’m fascinated by technology, but at the same time I hate it. At the same time as loving the fact that I can connect with people all over the world through my computer, I want to take off and live in the wilderness away from everyone – but, if I were living in this book, someone would have been there before me and left a SeeChange camera behind.

I really like Dave Eggers. I’ve been a fan since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and while I haven’t read all his novels I usually feel like I’m in for a pleasant journey when I pick one up. I enjoyed The Circle for all the reasons I usually enjoy an Eggers novel – good writing (overall), good characterisation (overall), and a plot engaging enough to keep me reading. I didn’t put this one down, reading it practically in one sitting over the course of a grey, rainy Sunday – and it’s over 500 pages, so it did well to keep my attention that long. But I can’t say I enjoyed it. This book disturbed me.

The Circle tells the story of Mae Holland, a twenty-four year old woman who has been working in her local power utility plant for the two years since she graduated college. Her friend and college roommate, Annie Allerton, was recruited by the world’s most sought-after employer, the Circle (a mix of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon and just about any other internet- or tech-based company you can imagine), straight after completing her MBA and – after a lot of encouragement from Annie – Mae eventually applies for a job there, too. Apparently on her own merit, she is successful. She’s employed in the ‘Customer Experience’ department, dealing with queries and complaints from Circle users all over the world. Her salary and benefits are excellent, and her parents are very proud. Mae herself is thrilled to have landed such a prestigious job.

But who, or what, is the Circle?

The Circle has made it impossible to hide behind an internet avatar. Everyone is who they say they are – the TruYou method – and this has (apparently) made internet trolling obsolete, along with cyberbullying and fraud and a host of other crimes. The web is an open, rational, welcoming and unthreatening place. People can do everything through their TruYou account – pay their bills, their taxes, run their businesses, maintain their social media profiles, even cast their vote and insure their vehicle. What’s wrong with that – right?

Mae is welcomed personally to the company. Everything seems so laid-back and friendly. She is trained in the use of her equipment, and it is explained to her that customers will leave feedback and scores on her ‘performance’; if this score is anything less than 100, she is expected to follow up with them and encourage the customer to raise the score. So far, so expected. As the novel goes on, however, we feel the cold hand of entrapment begin to strangle Mae, and us. She is strongly encouraged to take part in the company’s social gatherings – ‘strongly encouraged’ to the point of compelled – and everything she does has to be documented. Photographed. Shared. She must comment on the photographs of everyone else. She must improve her rankings and become one of the top 200 ‘Circlers’ – people whose every purchase is used as advertising, whose every choice is monetised somewhere, whose every ‘zing’ (a Twitter-like social media platform) has no value unless it is rezinged, or commented on, or given a ‘smile’ or a ‘frown’, by hundreds if not thousands of others. How you are seen, whether you are ‘liked’, whether you have followers and influence, matters more than anything.

Every so often a new screen is added to her workspace, another distraction. She has her work to do, but she also has to take part in constant surveys, trying to divide her attention between these surveys and the queries which pile in on top of her. Then, she is expected to train the newer staff, and another screen is added to her desk, one on which their queries appear, colour-coded depending on how urgent they are. She has no time to think or reflect, and eventually she ends up living at the Circle campus, away from her family, self-medicating in order to sleep at night. She works into the small hours, despite the Circle’s declaration that they want to enable their employees to have a perfect ‘work-life’ balance – the way they run their company makes that impossible. It quickly becomes terrifying and claustrophobic – to the reader, at least.

As well as all this, the Circle is constantly developing new technology, all of which is sold as marvels which will transform the world – chips embedded into children to stop them from being abducted, cameras the size of lollipops which can be discreetly placed anywhere – and while we witness the fervour and evangelism of their inventors and the passion of the Circlers, as readers we are thinking: hang on. But what about privacy? What about people who don’t want their every move broadcast to the world? What about these microchipped children who will grow up still microchipped, against their will? Mae’s parents and her ex-boyfriend Mercer are the voices of ‘reason’ here; her parents cover up the cameras in their house, and Mercer runs to the wilderness in an effort to get away from the constant surveillance.

But Mae? She is swallowed up.

She becomes a company figurehead, going ‘transparent’ – in other words, wearing a camera 24/7 which is broadcast on the internet to her millions of followers. Every conversation she has becomes a performance. Every interaction with the world rings false. A rift begins to open up in her psyche, but she stifles it. The Circle’s stated aim – to make knowledge a human right – sounds so good on the surface, but the truth of its cancerous power is gradually revealed as we read. People have a ‘right’ to know everything, regardless of security or privacy or personal objection. The will of the person becomes crushed under the will of the people.

Then, Mae meets a strange man on the Circle campus who is maddeningly elusive – she can’t find him on the staff intranet. She can’t search for him, she can’t figure out who he is. The fact that she can’t know everything about him drives her crazy. But who is he? And why is he important?

Some of this book is irritatingly heavy-handed – the imagery of the shark, for instance – but I thought the rest of it was spot on. People have criticised Mae’s naivety and stupidity, but I think Eggers pitches her just right: idealistic and inexperienced, sucked into the cogs of a large, persuasive and well-oiled machine. I thought the utopian aims and dystopian outcomes of the technology were brilliantly handled, and the tension (and sense of being crushed) amps up at a perfect pace. Technologically, it’s unlikely (if not impossible), but if you can suspend your disbelief that forcing people to use their real names online would crush out cybercrime, the book makes a terrifying and gripping point – do we have the ‘right’ to know everything? Where do our rights overlap with others’, and which set of rights should take precedence? Is it possible to fool all of the people, all of the time?

Read The Circle and find out.


Flash Friday – ‘Ram’

Krak des Chevaliers/Qalat al-Hosn, Syria. CC photo by Jon Martin. Image sourced:

Krak des Chevaliers/Qalat al-Hosn, Syria. CC photo by Jon Martin.
Image sourced:


It’s my fault.

After less than a day, her skin turned pink and her hair started clinging to her neck in sweaty loops, but she was still beautiful. So beautiful.

It’s my fault.

We’d eaten. There’d been wine. I just asked her, right there, by the side of the road. One knee, and all, but no ring. No ring.

She said ‘yes’, and everyone around us clapped.

It’s my fault.

She spotted a junk-stall across the road. Tourist tat, souvenirs, that sort of thing – and rings, plastic ones with fake gems. A modern woman buys her own bling, she’d laughed as she dashed out.

She forgot which way to look.

It’s my fault.

Now I am the besieging army, and I am the fortress wall. I shore up the cracks as quickly as I make them, but the assault never stops. It can never stop. I will not let it.

It’s my fault.
It’s my fault.
It’s my fault.


This week’s Flash! Friday challenge was to take an image of the beautiful fortress of Krak des Chevaliers – which I’ve long yearned to visit, though sadly it’s not in a very accessible part of the world – and a marriage proposal, and put them together to make a tiny story no longer than 160 words. It was also hinted that it might be good to look outside the box a little, and so this story was born. I lingered for ages over the end, and also over the title, but when you’re under a certain amount of time pressure (a good thing, of course!) you have to make decisions. I’m not sure I’ve quite achieved what I wanted with this wee tale, but I enjoyed the challenge of thinking about a fortress that wasn’t simply a fortress, and a siege that wasn’t simply a siege, and walls that crack but can never break.

My success in Flash! Friday has been negligible, if by ‘success’ you mean ‘winning’; I’ve been Honourable Mention a few times, and runner-up once or twice. My average isn’t great. I try to take this not as a sign that I’m terrible at writing flash, but that I just don’t seem to ‘get’ the prompts in a unique enough way to appeal to the judges – and that’s no reflection on my writing. With any luck, at least. I’m not going to hope for glory this week, either, but I’ve pleased myself by trying to see something different in the image, and that’s success enough.

So, it’s the weekend. The United Kingdom is still united. I’ve managed to squeeze a story out of my desiccated brain. All’s good with the world. Salut, friends – we’ll talk soon.