First Day

Decided to post a very short story this week as I’ve been away and not blogging. This won the May Competition on the Word Cloud- which was great!

First Day

The bell is a hollow thing in the darkness. It winds its way into my mind, its steady chime luring me from strange dreams. Whispers outside the door announce the arrival of the women. I push the covers aside and turn to the paler shadow of the window. It is almost dawn.

Calli opens the door, giggling. ‘Did you have a restful sleep, Ama?’ she asks, her smile betraying the fact that she knows I won’t have slept much. Older women, village elders, bustle into the room, placing bowls of steaming water, oils, a fine dress and trinkets for my hair. And they begin.

I stand as I am washed from head to foot and painted in flowers and vines. Oils are rubbed into my hair and it is plaited and bound in ivy and mayflower. The old women are careless of me. It hurts and I let out a little yelp. Mara, eldest in the village looks at me in disgust. ‘You think this hurts, child? Wait until later.’ They cackle. Even Calli laughs, as if she knows what they are talking about.

Outside I hear the sounds of the village rising. The maypole is ready. I helped make the ribbons and trained the younger children in the dance. The boys are off with the men today, collecting firewood, drinking mead. Rather I was with them. I wonder if Mat is thinking of me?

I will take no food today. The old women give me herbs to drink in tea, with honey to stave off the hunger. The herbs make me feel odd. Different. I sense a fire, low in my belly. When the music starts up I want to dance. I laugh and Calli joins in. ‘Alright, now, Ama? Ready?’ I am ready, the fear has gone.

The women lead me to the fire. My heart pounds with the rhythm of the drums. People are changed- it is Beltane. They dance and shout and sing. Wildness grips my heart, and I want to dance too.

Into the circle comes the Green man. He is tall and shrouded in a cloak of green leaves and moss. He casts off his winter coat. My heart skips. I know Mat’s red hair. It cannot be disguised by mud and leaves. ‘May Queen,’ he says, taking my hand, and I go willingly with him to bless this new year, this May Day.

Episode 2: Animal Magic

Friday was my second volunteering day for the Ferne Animal Sanctuary. We were to take some animals to a Care Home for elderly people with dementia, which I was looking forward to, even though it was way out of my comfort zone.

I turned up at Ferne, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, only to be told, as I walked through the door, that the lady I was supposed to be assisting was ill (yes, just what happened last time) and, instead, I would be going with Des, another volunteer, and could I just wing it? Bright eyes dimming, bushy tail frizzing, I gulped; ‘Ok. Do I have to do a speech?’ The lovely Louise laughed, ‘No, shouldn’t think so. You’ll be fine. No worries. You’ll need to collect a couple of rabbits, a couple of guinea pigs, and Max the dog before you go.’ Right, then.

New readers, please visit the last blog to discover how simple I find rabbit-wrangling and guinea pig grasping. Luckily, this time there was Des, an old hand. It still took twenty minutes… Collecting Max, the Border Collie, was a different matter. He came out of the office (he belongs to a member of staff), lay on my foot, and turned huge, ‘just tickle behind my ears- yes right there’, eyes at me and I was smitten.

The sitting room in the Home was large and rectangular. To my initial dismay, there were chairs arranged all around the edge, just like on the telly, and sixteen pairs of eyes staring at us in silent expectation. Well, some had actually nodded off, (even before they met me) and a couple snored all the way through, but most were up for a cuddle. I smiled and said hello, wondering if I should say something about the history of Ferne, or about the work they do, but never fear; a smiley nurse asked who wanted to pet an animal – and we were off. No speeches, hurray!

Communicating with people who have dementia is interesting. I told one lady the name of the two rabbits and when they were born three times. They are called Mistletoe and Ivy. The fourth time, she said, ‘Were they born at Christmas, dear?’ It took a little time, but we got there.

Max was popular with everybody- a perfectly behaved pooch. I did worry when a man patted his lap and Max jumped up, lying sprawled across him until Matron had a picture and I made him get down. One lady had never seen or held a guinea pig; she was enthralled, and Poppy was calm and happy to be cuddled, although we should have called her Poopy because she did, often, everywhere. Betty, the long-haired one, was frisky, and was almost scalped when she tried to make her escape and one lady grabbed a handful of her hair to stop her making a run for it. Yes, she did indeed nip me when I captured her and put her back into the box (the guinea pig, not the lady).

I was particularly moved when I gave Poppy to one lady who is deaf and almost blind. The nurse said she rarely communicates anymore, and she had ignored our presence until that moment. She stroked Poppy for almost half an hour, and when the Matron suggested getting a couple for the Home, she joined in the conversation and said that was a good idea. It was her first positive statement in months. Animal magic, indeed.

First, catch your Guinea Pig

Last week I wandered into the Reception office of the Ferne Animal Sanctuary in Somerset, and offered my services as a volunteer. I had visions of playing with the pussies, walking the dogs, brushing a bunny or two… The lovely Laura, however, scanned my CV and said ‘Tours. School children, disabled groups, Old Folks’ homes. Only got one person to do them. You’re an ex-teacher. Tours are yours.’ Honesty clearly isn’t always the best policy on a CV. Thought I’d waved the little blighters good bye for ever, but no, not yet…
‘No pussies?’
‘No, we’ve got loads of cat socialisers. (I know- but it is a real job! — Now look here Felix, you can’t just scarf down all the biscuits. Share with Delilah. No Felix, don’t bite her on the leg. Bad boy. Now kiss it better… Joyce Grenfell lives)
I had one hour of ‘small animal training’ with Kathryn, which involved first, catching a rabbit and showing I could hold it correctly. No problem. The one I aimed for was huge and weighed over two stone- he couldn’t get away fast enough to avoid my groping hands if he’d wanted to. Lovely warm coat he’d make he had.
Then it was onto the Guinea Pigs. At the lift of the latch into their cosy shed they disappeared under several upturned baskets. ‘This should be easy,’ I muttered, turning over a basket to reveal at least eight Guineas with their heads tucked underneath their arms pretending I couldn’t see them. But as soon as I put a hand down they scattered like the last Rice Krispies in a bowl of chocolate milk. So I scrabbled about a bit. Practised lunging (good for the thighs) ‘Got one!’
‘Oh. That one’s not good to demonstrate with – it’s blind,’ said Kathryn. No wonder I could catch it. I caught another two blind ones. Didn’t get within a Guinea Pig’s wotsit of a young ‘un.
Ah well. Onto the ferrets. The ferrets were fast asleep wrapped in blankets. Easy. Kathryn tipped out the albino one (that doesn’t bite) and I grabbed his silky, half-asleep, shivery little body and held him close. What a delight. Battered ego raised its head just a little. Maybe I was getting the hang of this animal lark. Ferret fettler first class… (I know, step away from the alliteration box).
We looked at cows, at chickens, at ducks, at goats, at pigs, at horses, at birds, at dogs…but no pussies. They were torturing me for my insolence in expecting to see them straight away. I sighed.
Then, far too swiftly, induction was over. I signed to say I had received training, did Fire and safety stuff, and said goodbye to the staff. I took the tour notes and map home to swot. Lots of swotting.
Today was Tour Day 1. 100 ten year olds in groups of 25, for a 45 minute tour each. Had I lost my touch? Was I past it? (Jury’s still out on that one) Would it be terrible? Nah, it was great! Freezing cold, yes, bitter wind, yes, animals hiding in their sheds, yes. But I’d forgotten how enthusiastic the average ten-year old is- they ran around like monkeys, asked questions, laughed at my jokes (hey- I can re-use them!) Even the teachers smiled. Occasionally.
I really enjoyed my first day. It just goes to show that doing something for nothing is worthwhile. And I’m really looking forward to the next one in April.
Oh, and I did get to see the pussies. I’m in love with a stunning blue-eyed Bengal called Lucky. Reckon we could squeeze a little one in at home…

Now where am I?

I set my first novel in Exeter, a beautiful city about twenty five miles from where I live. It’s a city small enough to feel friendly but large enough to support a bit of low-life murderous scum. One friend read my novel when it was a draft ms, fighting its way through several more drafts towards being a proper, finished book. She enjoyed the parts where she could ‘see’ the city, and wanted to read more- to help her get an even better sense of the place. So I dutifully had a good look to see where I could add a bit of description without boring the reader to death. And I couldn’t find anywhere.
I think that, without meaning to, I’d stumbled across one of the main differences between commercial and literary fiction. In a literary novel I would have taken the time to bring the places in which I set my novel to life. I’d have helped the reader to experience the world through my eyes. Hilary Mantel does it superbly in the realm of historical fiction, as does Clive Sansom in his Shardlake novels. Wonderful writing, which often stretches to 150,000 words. That’s a big reader commitment. Think I need to stick to a faster, shorter read.
My book’s a crime thriller; the plot ruled. It had to. It had to be tight, well-planned, and, at least some of the time, plausible. The focus on twists, red herrings and false endings just didn’t leave space for the proper evocation of place. (If I wanted to come in under 85000 words, which I did).
Unless, of course (ulp), the writing itself just wasn’t good enough. Was I focussing on other stuff when I could have been crafting a well-turned setting? Probably. Now, I’m not picking on myself- it’s a major achievement for a first-time writer to complete a novel at all, and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. And I did get some of the places right.
But I’m now looking carefully at successful writers in my chosen genre to see how they do it. Rankin’s Edinburgh- I see through Rebus’s bloodshot eyes as he drives along the A9. MacBride’s cold, bitter Aberdeen in winter- I’m there, chilled to the bone, waiting for the body with Logan McCrae. Maybe I need to move to Scotland.
So, if they can do it….

Please step away from the Keyboard



Yes, I do mean you. And me, of course. I’m writing about giving yourself down time, thinking time, chilling time. Time when you don’t have to meet a deadline, real or self-imposed. Time when you can just be. Time when you can step away. Time to stop busy busy.

Because if we don’t stop for a moment, and take stock- how can we see what is important?

Going for a walk is a good way to start the ‘being’ process. Or a run, or a ride. Method is not important. Taking the strain off the brain- more easily achieved when the body is otherwise occupied- is what allows the creativity to return when the juices have all dried up, and in my case, withered and fallen off.

I’ve blogged before about left-side / right side brain activity, and how the logical, task-driven left side will not stop working until the tasks are done. But the tasks are never done, are they, dammit? And keeping a lid on the creative side of the brain dulls us, dulls our lives, dulls our perceptions, dulls our ability to be inspired or inspiring.

So take a little time off just for you. No excuses. You don’t need to seek permission from yourself to recharge. Go look at a snowdrop and see perseverance against huge odds, watch starlings fly in magical murmurations in an evening sky, stare at the universe of stars and wonder.

Then, an hour, or a day later, come back and see if the words flow more freely.

When I’m refreshed, the ideas wander in like stray cats when a door is left open, uninvited but welcome. They challenge me to re-write, to re-structure, to be brave, to try something new. I need the time away from ‘real’ life to free me to do what I love to do – writing.

Fighting the Demon of Doubt

It’s a funny state of limbo, waiting for an agency to call and say they want to represent me. Waiting for them to say that they really enjoyed Breathe and would love to help me get it published. Perhaps giving me a list of changes that need to be completed, arranging to meet for coffee…

I know that I should be cracking on with book 2. After all, the Police characters are already formed and ready to go, except for the new set of bad guys. I’ve even written a plot outline. So what’s the problem?

It’s just…what if nobody wants it? I’m prepared for nobody in the first round of submissions to want it- I think I’ve made it better since I sent it off a few weeks ago anyway. So I have the next set of five agents ready to go. But, my head keeps saying; what’s the point of starting a second book in a series if no-one wants to read the first one?

Yes, the doubt demon has struck. The ‘I’m so bad at this I may just as well play on-line Scrabble all day. Or knit more scarves (I am really improving my knitting btw). Or bake cakes.’ Or… fill in your own procrastinatory doings. Yes, I’m waiting for external validation. Sad but true.

Now, I’m no spring chicken. I’ve been around long enough to know that doing something simply for the love is the best feeling in the world. I know that the pleasure we should get from doing something beautifully should not need to be shared with anybody in order to make it worthwhile. But I’m new at this, and I want someone to put a tick on my mss. In red.

I think that’s why I haven’t taken the self-publishing route. Just giving it a bit more time. Maybe someone will see a story they could love. Maybe….

So, what if the worst-case scenario comes to pass? I’m having a go at scriptwriting for the TV. (There’s a challenge should anybody need one- bbc Writers’ Room is open for submissions now). A totally different way of writing, but fascinating to get to grips with. And it has to be good for general writing as I really have to cut the excess baggage and get to the point. I’m not moping, honest.

The demon of doubt still looms large in a lip-licking, ‘let me devour you and spit out your bootlaces, puny human’ kind of way, but I think I’ve got him distracted at the moment.

Was that the postman?

The truth, the whole truth and…

I’ve been thinking hard about telling the truth in my writing. I make up stories, so they are fictional, but I know that the essence of a story has to be true, or the readers will know, and back off. Emotions give a story heart. Without heart, I stop reading, because I don’t care what happens to the characters. It’s irrelevant whether or not the character is a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’ as long as their emotional responses ring true.

So then I thought, how do I do that without going totally over the top with the adjectives? How do I peel away the layers separating a character from a reader, and lay him or her bare? How do I make the character give up the truth of their feelings?

I attended a very good on-line Writers’ Workshop course on Self-editing a Novel last year. One of the most powerful weeks was when we got to try ways of getting closer to the feelings of a character, and further away, and examined the differences that style and word choice made to the power and depth of our writing. From a distant, disinterested level 1, suitable for a meeting, to the emotional turmoil of extreme close up at level 5. The tutor that week was Emma Darwin, and you can find a more detailed analysis of ‘psychic’ or narrative distance on her brilliant blog ‘This Itch of Writing’. She drew on the work of John Gardner in his standard text ‘The Art of Fiction’- and condensed it into a readable, immensely helpful post.

How does it work? Well, one of the things we all do is to censor what we write. Even in a personal diary, we are aware of a potential audience, and censor our words- just in case. I think I rarely write the truth of a feeling, especially if it’s a powerful or upsetting one. (Poets, of course, aim to do this all the time). The most helpful way to demonstrate this burrowing into the emotional dark places is to show you a ‘before and after’ extract from my own novel, ‘Breathe’.

Preamble: Jamie is falling apart as he waits to talk to the police about the death of his girlfriend. In the first version, approximately level 3 out of 5, there is a sense of his pain, but I think it really gets there in the second, level 5 version where I attempt to get to the truth about his feelings.

Level 2/3
He’d only been trying to get her to stop talking to Westlake, but when he’d smashed the phone it made her so mad she’d fought back, and before he knew it he’d knocked her onto the bed and was choking her. He only wanted to stop her, not kill her, but she’d made him so angry. You could fight other lads and not kill them. He looked at a scratch on his arm and rubbed it raw, wanting the pain.

Level 5
He could still feel his arm round her throat- squeezing and squeezing. I’m strong now, strong now, Carly. Squeezing and squeezing, kneeling on her back, bending her head back- give in, give in, give in. So angry. Bitch bitch bitch. Until she stopped fighting. Just one slow dragging breath. And she just lay there, still. He hadn’t meant to kill her. A boy wouldn’t have died so easy. He choked back snot, blood and tears and found the scratch. He bit where the scratch burned, sucking at the blood. She was in the scratch, taunting him, and he had to rub, to rub, to scrub at it until she was gone, until she left him alone, until the pain stopped.

Better? You need to be selective with level 5 writing- but it does help you get to the truth.

Writing the Difficult Bits

The difficult bits are probably different for all of us, but I was sitting looking at the computer, ready to start something new, when I found myself thinking about the parts of the my novel which had caused me to writhe about in indecision.

The most difficult I would suggest, is common to everybody (E.L. James excepted ) and that is writing about sex. Hands up, I chickened out completely. It must be difficult enough for established writers to convey passion, excitement and all the squidgy slitheriness needed to engage the reader’s imagination. For new writers it’s absolutely terrifying.

Here’s a quiz. Place a mark at the point on the line where you would be comfortable as a writer, and then as a reader:


I could go on, this was fun…

If you’re in any way like me, you’ll have placed your markers in different places. I’d suggest that we are more comfortable reading other writers’ sexual episodes than we are creating our own.

So, what to do? I have a deep dread of the ‘Bad Sex’ awards- I’d be mortified to find people sniggering over my carefully crafted scene. In the end, though, the decision about what to include in my novel was decided by the pace of the story – there was only one encounter and that was brief and interrupted, so I got round the problem without really tackling it. (Cowardly woman- I’ll never make a proper writer until I’m braver and ready to take a risk or two)

I know we have to be honest and not absurdly coy to write about intimate moments, whether emotional or physical. At heightened moments we all lay ourselves bare (in so many ways…). To write about these moments successfully is to achieve a delicate balance between the passionate and the prim. I won’t go on to quote Jane Austen at length, but no-one doubts the passion between Darcy and Elizabeth, and they hardly touch. It’s got to be about the quality of the writing, not the explicitness of the vocabulary.

So that’s where I’m going- I’m hedging over on the right side of the list until I get up the courage (or it becomes essential to the story) to explore the vocabulary of the erotic. Then I’ll be doing an awful lot of re-writing. And possibly a bit of home study.

Truth V Fiction- where does the writer draw the line?

There seems to be a fine line for the writer between the joy of making it all up and the more academic rewards of painstaking research. My novel is a crime thriller, and like most law-abiding citizens of GB my knowledge of police procedure and practice comes mainly from watching TV. Often American TV. And from reading many, many thrillers. Often American thrillers.

I finished the manuscript draft 4 before Christmas and it has been out to several readers, all with specific instructions as to what I wanted them to do. And now I’m taking some of the advice; if a character really doesn’t engage someone, then I will re-visit and improve it, if it’s just that they don’t like the name I’ve chosen for someone- tough.

So, last week I met up again with kind ex-police officer Andrew to get my feedback. It was generally very positive. He’d enjoyed it, found it easy to read and a page-turner. Great- just the kind of feedback I wanted.

Then we got to the technical stuff. Why on earth did I think dead people went to a morgue in GB? I know it’s a mortuary. I’d got a different kind of writer’s block- Atlantic crossover. It just seems to be ingrained; CSI has seeped its slick and impossibly speedy results into my brain- and it is blocking out good sense!

Annoying little Americanisms apart, I did have a real issue with one scene. Dan Hellier, protagonist, has broken into a recording studio (no warrant) and his colleague has been killed. Andrew said his Superintendent can’t ignore it until the case is solved- Dan must be suspended and have his warrant card taken off him. Hmm. For obvious reasons this cannot happen- Dan must finish the investigation. What to do? In the end, I re-wrote the scene and made his superintendent take the responsibility and leave him on the case via a bit of careful report writing to her superiors. I had to add a bit at the beginning to make her more maverick so that such a wrong decision would be more believable.

It was difficult. I could have ignored Andrew, of course. Lots of readers don’t care if their detective does something completely illegal (and four of my other readers didn’t say a word about it!). Where would we be if Rebus did everything by the book? But it’s a different matter if I make the senior officers less than scrupulous. If she lets that episode go, what else might she sanction? Well, later in the book, she sanctions a shooting, so I guess I have created an interesting character in her own right- ready for the next volume! In the end, pride made want to get a bit closer to a realistic resolution; I don’t want to look totally amateur when it hits the bookshelves!

I found going to an expert in the field invaluable, and I think the story is stronger for the re-write, even though you pedants out there will still argue that what happens is against the law. I claim poetic licence, and the need to tell a cracking good story outweighing the need to be accurate.

Just so that you don’t think I fly completely by the seat of my trousers, I found the book linked below to be very useful and I recommend it:

The power of a bit of praise

People often say writing is a lonely business, and that can be true. You do need to switch off the media and focus, often for long periods of time. But writers do so, even when we continue to be unpublished, because we long to communicate. We want to talk to many people, not just our immediate circle. We want to share our ideas, our humour, and our concerns for the world and for each other.

But most of all, we want to be loved. Maybe you would prefer ‘admired’ or ‘appreciated’, but it boils down to the same thing: a deep need to be praised and recognised for doing something good.

I admire the writer Will Self. His books are hard, funny, bitter and often dark. I can see on the page the battles he has to write his truth, and he is adamant he only writes for himself. Yet he publishes. Why? So that the rest of us can see the world through his eyes. He wants to communicate, and be appreciated and admired for his skill. Yep, he wants to be loved.

So, to come to the present. To this morning, in fact. I blogged recently about an ex-policeman who agreed to read my book and check it for accuracy. Well, he finished it and texted me this morning to say that, although he has a few suggestions, he enjoyed it. He is the first ‘stranger’ to read it, and I can hardly believe that he liked it. My heart soared! Maybe I’m not rubbish at this. Maybe I can get a book published…

Funny how we think we believe in ourselves but still be consumed, a bit at a time, by the worm of doubt. As I finished the fourth draft in November, and have had it out to various people to read and comment, I’ve been slowly losing the joy that came with finishing a first manuscript and have been cringing at its crassness every time a new writer emerges with an amazing debut. Today’s positive comment has restored me. The power of a bit of praise!

I suppose I’d better get on with the covering letter, and I could probably tweak the synopsis (again). Then I can crack on with something else, because it’s also strange that, however low we may get, we are driven to keep on doing it. I must remember that every bit I write, even if I can’t think where to use it, improves my grasp of this complex, tricky, fulfilling craft.