Monday, 31 December 2018

Thinking Ahead

It's that time of year again when folk start to make plans for the New Year. Making resolutions which most of them will have forgotten by the start of February. I used to do that too until I decided to stop putting all that pressure on myself, knowing that I would fail. The law of averages said I would be one of the millions who failed to keep those unrealistic resolutions and if there's one thing I've learned over the years is that I am quite capable of failing without any extra pressure!

So boo to the New Year resolution and I for one will not make them anymore. But there is something about the turning of the year which draws us to reflect on the year past and make plans for the coming year. So I will spend some time thinking about what I want to do next year, what I want to look back on and celebrate in twelve months time.

Firstly, I have been planning to start my own podcast about writing and using it as a vehicle to share my own writing. This is an exciting and also scary time but I feel up to the challenge and secretly I'm rather looking forward to trying a new venture. As of yet it does not have a name which is another task for the New Year. I'm calling it Johanne's Writing Podcast at the moment which covers exactly what it is but isn't all that exciting!

Which brings me neatly onto the second thing. I want to try sharing my writing a bit more than I have done in the past. I want to get into the habit of submitting something each month. Realistically I know that this doesn't mean I will get something accepted every month but I feel it's time to stop being so reticent with my writing. I need to give it wings and see if any of it will fly. So watch out for news of submissions and hopefully some successes.

Lastly I want to watch less and listen more, to watch less and read more. I have a bad habit of watching too much TV, chewing gum for the eyes. Most of it washes over me and doesn't enhance or enrich my life at all. So next year I want to listen to the radio more, engage my brain and leave time to contemplate and read.

So, no resolutions that I know I can't keep, just some vague thoughts and a more 'professional' attitude to my writing. Here's hoping for success and good news for all of us in 2019!

Monday, 10 December 2018

Dang and Blast It!

So, I've decided to start a podcast in the New Year. I'm excited about it and starting to get organised - not looked at the technical aspects yet but I've recruited a reluctant tech guru to help. All's well then, surely?


I've got to come up with a name, haven't I? And how hard is that!

Every idea I have had seems to have problems. Too negative, doesn't say anything about me, twee, not memorable. You can see the problems, can't you?

It's driving me bananas.

I've started looking at other podcasts about writing or by writers and they all seem to have the word 'writer' or 'writing' in the name so maybe that's something I have to consider. But that's not got me any nearer to finding a name which I like and think says something about the theme and content of the podcast.

Maybe I'm over thinking it. Maybe I just need to pick a name and run with it. Perhaps it's not the deal breaker I think it is. I could always change it later if I don't think it's working.

The name I'm toying with at the moment is Catching The Writer's Imagination. I'm not sure, it seems a bit long but it's the best of a bad lot at the moment. Thank heavens I've got until January to sort it out!

What do you think about the name? Let me know in the comments.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Valuing What I Do

I've returned from a weekend retreat with a bunch of talented, supportive and funny women with my batteries fully charged and my head full of ideas.
As usual I fear the dwindling of enthusiasm and the fall back into the Pit of Despondency.
So I'm thinking of ways to keep the momentum and keep the enthusiasm going. I have been pondering what value I put on what I do and how this impacts on my state of mind with regard to my writing.

Last weekend was wonderful. Meeting old friends again, laughing and sharing a convivial time in a stunning setting with beautiful food was just the tonic most of us needed. But we have to return to the real world and I confess to not writing a word since I returned home. Why is that?
I have spent a lot of time thinking. I have been thinking about things that were said at the retreat and things I have noticed since I returned.
As usual I shared the writing I did during the weekend, guided by prompts from Gilly. I explored some of my feelings about my parents and how even after eighteen years I still miss them. But I didn't share anything that I had written in depth, nothing that I had invested time and effort into. This made me curious about how I value my writing.

I am a reluctant sharer of my words. That is an odd thing to say for someone who loves telling stories and inventing characters. Why don't I get my writing out there more? I think it's because I don't value it as much as the work of others. Last weekend we heard some beautiful writing and spent some time discussing it, workshopping it and appreciating it. I didn't share any of my work in this way and I think it's because I thought everyone else's writing was better than mine.

This week I have been giving this some serious thought and hence I am writing a post about it to clear m own mind. I love the sound of my own voice, I love reading stories aloud but rarely use my own stories for that. I think if I am to progress as a writer I need to let go of some of my 'babies' and let them fly in the world. After all, doesn't all writing need its reader?

So I am going to try something different. I am going to try podcasting! I've looked into this before and done nothing about it but this time I'm determined to give it a go. I intend to write some short pieces that I will read out on a short podcast and let my words go, to sink or swim in the real world. I also want to look into the possibility of doing some self publishing, online stuff for kindle and other e-readers. All this will happen in the New Year, fingers crossed and you will probably get fed up with me banging on about it then as I start the marketing and publicity.

So you heard it here first. There will be a big leap of faith in the New Year and I'm already thinking of excuses why I shouldn't do it, so wish me luck!

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Inktober Prompt Day 7 - Exhausted

As I'm not artistically gifted with a pencil or brush I have decided to take part in Inktober in my own way, by using the prompts for writing rather than drawing or painting. This is working well so far and I have produced some poems and pieces of Flash Fiction which may turn into something more substantial at a later date. Today, however, I decided to use the prompt for a blog post.


Now we all know about physical exhaustion. When just putting one foot in front of the other is a mammoth undertaking, when staying awake for the news headlines takes every last ounce of effort, when you start to doze off standing at the bus stop. That exhaustion. But I want to talk about another type, the emotional, mental type that has been creeping over not just me lately as I observe what is going on in the world.

I am exhausted hearing testimony from women about how they have been sexually assaulted, trolled on social media, belittled for holding an opinion.
I am exhausted hearing from women who have been mocked for the colour of their skin, their sexuality, their politics, their religion.
I am exhausted hearing about women who have been fat shamed, slut shamed or just plain shamed for being who they are.
I am exhausted by the amount of shit women have to put up with on a daily basis just so they can get on with their lives.
I am exhausted.

When I was much younger I hoped that by the time I reached 60 equality between the sexes would be a given, the norm, just the way it was. I hoped that men and women would be living happy, fulfilled lives no matter how they chose to live them or who they chose to live them with. But it is not so, dear reader. The world is still filled with those who try to keep women down, to shout them down, to put them down. Men, for it is mostly men, who think that women should stay down, way down, knowing our place. Men whose values and ideas who be at home in the Victorian parlour.

This weekend I attended an event at the Birmingham Literary Festival. Caitlin Moran and Sali Hughes were in conversation and it was wonderful to hear two intelligent, spirited women talk about their experiences and their hopes. Caitlin spoke vociferously about how The Patriarchy was keeping women down, trying to silence their voices, to marginalise them in all spheres of society. It made my old heart ache to think that things don't seem to have changed since the 70s when we were urged to burn our bras and strive for equality in all things. Yes, I acknowledge that some things have changed for the better: women are no longer the property of their spouse, women can open a bank account without the permission of their nearest male next of kin, women can get the highest paid jobs although they will still be outnumbered by men. So it's not all gloom and doom. Yet I am still exhausted hearing about all the crap women have to put up with on a daily basis.

Last year I attended an event again at Birmingham Literary Festival but this time the speaker was Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley. Now Jess is no shrinking violet. She calls out the trolls and the haters and gives as good as she gets. Yet hearing about some of the vile things that have been said to her and her fellow women MPs made me very sad. Things so personal, violent and sick that it is hard to imagine them if you are a polite member of society who hardly ever swears. But it happens to them on a daily basis and they have to either leave social media or grow a thick skin very quickly. And I am exhausted one year later to still hear that this is still happening to elected members of parliament, just because they are women. I am sure that male MPs get abuse too but I doubt it is as sexually violent or intimidating as that of female MPs. And in case anyone thinks 'Well, it's just a lot of hot air, words can't hurt them' remember Jo Cox, murdered on the street of her constituency. There is much to be wary of if you are a woman in the public eye with an opinion, a voice or a platform.

I am exhausted when I look at how the most powerful men in the world talk about women. I don't blog about politics as a rule because it's not something I feel comfortable doing. My politics are fluid, I'm not in one camp or the other and I don't always feel fully informed to have a fixed opinion. But I will make the exception here. In America, they have elected a misogynistic man. His views on women are truly offensive and he empowers others who see women as he does. He has recently nominated a man to the Supreme Court who has been accused by three women of assaulting them sexually. This is not the sort of man I would expect to be rewarded for this type of behaviour with a seat on America's highest judicial bench. But when the President is a misogynist, why not? They think alike so they're perfect bedfellows. And just watching the protests, seeing the thousands and thousands of women marching, shouting, begging for him to be excluded from this office is exhausting. I feel real despair at some of the things that I read about, hear about or see on the news. Being a woman in 2018 seems like hard work. Being a strong woman in 2018 seems like an uphill struggle.

So that is why I am exhausted.
I am exhausted by the constant stream of hate and abuse that women are facing every day.
I am exhausted by the struggle that is still being fought in the twenty first century.
I am exhausted by how hard it is to be a woman sometimes.
And I'd like it to stop now please.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Out of Step with Others

There are times when I find myself out of step. Sometimes it's just that I'm not up to date with the latest trends or slang. Sometimes it's because I haven't been watching the latest 'must see' TV show. Sometimes it's because I have chosen to stay on the outside because I don't want the stress of being on the inside!

Lately I have been struggling with reading. No, I haven't forgotten how to do it! I've been trying to plough through a book that I'm just not into because everyone who has read it is raving about it. What am I missing? I don't know but the darn thing isn't resonating with me and I'm avoiding picking it up.

I can hear my sister's voice shouting at me 'Life's too short for bad books' and I do agree with her. It's not like I've never stopped reading a book before the end in the past, as I remind myself every time I see Captain Corelli's Mandolin on a bookshelf.

So with reluctance I have decided to close the book and donate it. I'm just not getting the vibe that everyone else is and I have so many other books to read.

Bye bye unloved book and hello to all the other books on my To Read pile!

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Falling Out Of Love With A Story

Two years ago I won NaNoWriMo and wrote 50,000 words of a story in a month. After much tinkering about I found that there were some problems with it and I re-planned it to make a better story. So far, so normal.

This second version is my WIP and I've fallen out of love with it. I still believe in the characters and the world but something about the story isn't working. Writing it is like pushing a jelly uphill and that's no fun.

Now, usually I'd throw my hands up in horror, delete the darn thing and start something new, all the while berating myself and doubting my skills as a writer.
But I've grown as a writer in recent months and I'm approaching it in a different frame of mind.

This WIP will get written.
This story will get finished.
This writer will finish what she started.

Because this is where the 'work' starts. Pushing through the hard stuff, writing when it doesn't flow.
The craft of writing is out of the window and the graft of putting words on the screen begins. I will get a draft finished and I will edit the hell out of it to make it the best I can. Whether that is something I am totally happy with I don't yet know but I will make it as good as I can.

That's what it means to be a writer.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Why Bullet Journals Aren't For Me.

I'm just going to come out and say it: I can't get on with bullet journaling. I know, I know, the whole world seems to think that their lives have been transformed by using the bullet journal system. The Internet is packed with people extolling the virtues and benefits of using a bullet journal. Check out the thousands of beautiful bullet journals on Pinterest and you'll see what I mean. It seems to transform so many things for people and enable them to organise their lives.

So why don't I get it? The truth is, although I wanted it to work for me and to make me more productive, it just didn't happen. And I think it's because I don't have a mega packed life. I'm blessed that I have a relaxed life where I can do as much or as little as I like each day. I have retired from teaching and I am trying to forge a writing 'career' which I can do at any time, day or night. So a bullet journal didn't help my life at all. Most mornings I struggled to think of any meaningful tasks to put in my journal. I ended up writing 'shopping', 'washing' or 'ironing' every day. And those tasks get done (eventually) whether I journal them or not! Also, they're not significant enough to deserve journaling either.

So, despite trying three times to get into bullet journaling, it's not for me. My lifestyle doesn't need that level of micro managing, there aren't enough tasks to schedule and I only have one or two events a month to worry about so a regular calendar and diary is more than adequate for that.

So I wave goodbye to the whole bullet journal experience, re purpose another notebook and vow never to try arty decorating again (I was rubbish at it anyway!)

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

But What If It's The Exact Word I Need?

A few days ago I sent the first chapters of my WIP to a friend to critique. She's a former commissioning editor so I was interested to get her thoughts. But now I have more to think about than I need and I'm worried that I don't know what to make of her advice.

She pointed out that there are certain words that novice writers use that act as red flags for editors or agents. You mark yourself out as a novice writer if these words appear in the forts few pages of your manuscript and the editor or agent may pop your word straight onto the 'Pass' pile if they spot them. And guess what, friends? That's right, there they were in the first pages of my WIP! I'm a novice and showing it to anyone who reads my writing.

Some of what she pointed out I saw immediately - that's one, by the way - and I knew it was something I needed to correct. She pointed out that I use the passive voice a lot. This I knew, I am a lover of passive voice but I know that it is frowned upon in modern writing so I do try really hard not to slip into it too often.

But she listed some words which she spotted that apparently mark me out as a novice. these include 'sigh', 'shrug' and 'nod'. Help! What so I do if these are exactly the word to describe what is happening in the story? I'll share an example, if I may. One of my favourite television programmes is Casualty. And my favourite character is Dr Dylan Keogh, a brilliant, intelligent, frustrating man. Now poor Dylan spends plenty of time being frustrated by the stupidity of others and what does he do when frustrated? That's right, he sighs. he lifts his shoulders, exhales loudly and sighs. I've checked out some synonyms for 'sigh' and they don't convey exactly what he does - pant, weep, groan, suspire, great words but not quite right. Dylan sighs and there's nothing for it but to use that word. So how can I as an aspiring writer avoid using 'sigh' if none of the other words fit as well? Another word that marks me out as a novice is 'shrug'. Again I have a dilemma. When my character lifts her shoulder sand then drops them she's shrugging, yes? Synonyms don't help me again - dismiss, disregard or twitch are suggested in the thesaurus. None of which describe the motion of shoulders and the implied meaning conveyed by the gesture. A final example is 'nod'. The thesaurus suggests bob or bow but they aren't exactly right either. She's nodding her head for goodness sake. I can use bow but that suggests deference and that's not my character's style; I can use bob but that's not quite the same as nodding, in my opinion.

So what am I to do? If I take her advice then I'll spend hours wrangling the wrong word and feel frustrated. But if I use words that mark me pout as a novice I may never get anyone to read what I'm writing! I've decided for the time being to carry on writing in my won style. I'll come back later and clear up some of the things where I think she's spotted something that needs correcting. And as for my novice word choices? I don't know. Maybe I'll wait until more than one person points it out, maybe I'll stick to my guns and use whichever words I please.

Any advice? 

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Dealing with the Unexpected

Yesterday was a curious day. Not in an Alice in Wonderland way, that would be awesome, but in a 'what the heck just happened?' way.

My morning started with a lovely trip to hospital for a mammogram. Yes. ladies, that lovely shove 'em on the shelf and squash 'em time! I know, doesn't sound too lovely but it was fine: a nice girl, very chatty and gentle doing the procedure and a super sunny day to be out and about in Oxford. I even managed a sneaky rose Cava tasting in M & S!

So far so normal, right?

When I got home I popped Twitter open to see what madness I had missed while out in the sunshine. Someone had retweeted an invitation to tweet a pitch for your book to a publishing company.
'Why not?' I thought. Nothing ventured after all. If one of the editors liked your tweet you were invited to submit a synopsis and some work for them to consider. A great way to practice my elevator pitch I thought. So I composed my tweet, sent it into Twitter land and tried not to obsessively refresh Twitter all afternoon!

I got a like! One of the editors liked my pitch and wanted to know more. Knock me down with a feather. Naturally I sat with my mouth gaping open, trembling and shouting 'OMG! OMG!' in my head.

This is the first time I have done anything remotely professional with my writing. I've shared bits with family and friends but never with someone who knows what they're talking about in the real world of writing. I still don't know what to think, it seems so surreal. I was sure that my writing was a personal thing. of no interest to anyone else. Now someone is sufficiently curious to want more. Gosh!

Now of course I'm obsessing about writing a synopsis, composing a cover letter and making the most of this opportunity. When I come down from Cloud Nine and DefCon Ten I'll get started, But for now I'm basking in a scary glow and going 'OMG' some more.

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

A Thousand Paper Birds by Tor Udall

Some books are easy to sum up. Almost as soon as I have finished reading them I know what I want to say about them and how they made me feel. I crack a review out, press 'publish' and pass the book along to my sister or the charity shop.

A Thousand Paper Birds is not a book like that.

I finished this book several weeks ago and it has taken me a while to process what I read. Don't get me wrong, I adored the book and would recommend it to everyone. It is a contender for Book of the Year, if I was awarding such an honour. So why couldn't I write a review straight after I finished it?

This is a complex book, tackling serious and important issues. It deals with love and grief, longing and loss, relationships and friendships. All very 'big' topics and ones that always make me think when they are the bedrock of a book. So I was very aware that I needed to take these themes seriously when I wrote my review.

I don't want to give too much away about the plot of the book because there was a moment when I was reading when everything shifted for me, literally took my breath away and left me staring at the page in disbelief. I don't want to spoil that moment for anyone else so l won't give away any secrets or important moments.

The novel centres around five characters and how their lives intertwine, sharing love and loss and struggling to understand each other and themselves. Jonah is a widower who is trying to piece together his life again after the loss of his beloved wife, Audrey. Audrey's story is told in a parallel narrative in the past. She is the link between all the other characters, touching their lives and changing them. Chloe is an artist who works in paper. She starts a relationship with Jonah that isn't easy for either of them. Harry and Milly live within Kew Gardens, a young girl constantly searching for her place in the world and a gardener whose whole world revolves around the plants he tends.
The way Tor Udall weaves the narrative through Kew Gardens and binds the characters together is wonderful. I have never visited Kew Gardens but I was transported there by the beautiful descriptions. Here is a small example: 

'Half-hidden among the cool green of the reeds, a heron stands on one leg, watching the sun glint on the water. Its wings are the colour of a bruise as it waits silently, like an old man wearing a coat of straggly feathers. There are four wooded islands on the lake, undisturbed by humans; stamping grounds for coots, moorhens and Canada geese. The air thrums with birdsong and damselflies darting between the campion and blanketweed.'

Can't you just picture the scene? I'm transported to the side of the lake, sitting and enjoying the tranquillity.

This book is a marvel, so beautiful, so sad and heart-breaking. The love between Jonah and Audrey shines through, his pain is almost too much to bear when reading yet there is hope for the future too. I was in tears at the end but it is a satisfying ending, everything left in a way that felt right.

I have not moved this book on. I know I will return to it again and read with tears in my eyes. This is a book that I will cherish, that I will re-read, a book I wish I had written. And that seems to me to be the highest compliment I can pay to any author.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Words on Wednesday

The lovely Kamsin is running a linky which challenges us writers to take a prompt and produce either a poem or piece of prose and this week she challenged us to think about old age. The prompt is 'When I am Old I Shall...' so I decided to give it a whirl and here's what I came up with.

When I am old I shall spend time looking back. Nostalgia has always been very attractive to me, I love a good rummage through the past, where naturally everything was better.
I love looking back on my childhood holidays. Long sunny days spent on a beach, building sandcastles, eating ice-cream. Long visits to my Grandma’s, walking round wheat filled fields, lounging in the orchard listening to the gentle buzz of bees and wasps. Glasses of barley water, the smell of dry grass, feeling drowsy in the heat.
I love looking back on my teenage years. Discovering the world and trying it out. Platform shoes, clogs, Oxford bags, cheesecloth, hippy beads and floppy hats. Questionable fashion choices, bright red nail polish and hennaed hair. Glam rock, Saturday morning discos, dancing in formation, cigarettes behind the bus stop.
I love looking back on my college days. Independent living, learning to roll my own cigarettes, beer and darts. Rag week, last minute essay panic, frenzied kisses at the disco. Dungeons and dragons, political awakening, Rock Against Racism.
When I am old I shall disappear into the past, listen to David Cassidy and David Bowie and smile, remembering when I was young, possible foolish but always happy.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Jumping Ahead

I sometimes wonder what goes through my mind at times.
But then if I knew that it might worry me!

I have been making good progress on the second draft of my WIP and this makes me very happy. Everything has been planned out chapter by chapter and I'm enjoying writing a more satisfying story than the one I cobbled together in my first draft. So everything in the writing garden should be lovely, right?

Well, yes, except I'm jumping ahead again.

I've started to obsess about approaching agents, finding beta readers, editing, you name it really.

I know, I'm not anywhere near needing any of those things yet but they have been playing on my mind. I'm starting to worry about things that are nowhere near as important as getting the second draft written! Even when I do need them I have many lovely writer friends who will help point me in the right direction.

So why am I jumping ahead? I think it's a consequence of the talking therapies I have had in the past. They got me to visualise what success would look and feel like, to visualise the steps I would take to make my success happen. I think that my brain is now performing these visualisations before I need to do those tasks. And I'm jumping ahead.

So on go the brakes, no more jumping ahead, just writing, writing, writing.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Why is it so hard to make 'good' choices?

I like to think that I'm a reasonably intelligent woman. I manage to stumble through life without too much trouble most days and I have mastered being a civilised being in an increasingly complex world. So you'd think that making choices about my life would be a doddle, wouldn't you?

Well it's not as easy as that in Johanne's World.

I have a great gift for self sabotage. Wherever there are choices to be made I will veer towards the 'bad' choice like I'm magnetically drawn to it and have left my free will in dry dock. It doesn't even matter what I'm making a choice about, it can be anything and I am perfectly capable of making a 'bad' choice.

I know that giving subjective values like 'good' or 'bad' to choices is a bit silly but it helps to focus my mind on what I mean. A choice is neither 'good' or 'bad' in reality, it is just a choice but in certain circumstances I need to assign such values to my choices to differentiate between them.

Take food for example. I am old enough (God, am I old enough!) to know which foods are 'good', nutritious and have health and well being benefits for me. I know that I have a weakness for certain foods and do not exercise any form of control when eating them - I'm looking at you pasta, white bread and crisps! For me these are 'bad' foods and choosing to eat them is 'bad' for me, makes me feel sluggish and piles weight on or stops me losing weight. So you'd think it would be easy to choose the 'good' foods and to shun the 'bad' foods, wouldn't you? Wrong! I keep choosing the 'bad' foods, over and over again, for years and years and years. I sabotage efforts to make healthy choices, 'good' choices and I reel from one shameful episode of crisp scoffing to another toast binge.

So why do I sabotage myself like this? I wish I knew. I'm fed up of trying to sort out my diet, trying to improve my fitness, address my health concerns only to sabotage my own efforts. It's getting to the point where I don't want to start again and am on the verge of accepting that I will never make things any better. And that's a depressing thought.

I guess what I'm saying is that my ability to make 'bad' choices is stronger than my desire to improve my health. I feel really sad typing that as it sounds as if I have no control over my own life and lifestyle choices.

It's not only with food that I manage to make 'bad' choices either. Every day I wake up full of good intentions for writing. I fully intend to turn the TV off and the laptop on, to be productive and creative. And most days I leave the TV on and waste hours watching junk daytime TV, the laptop left cold in its case and my stories remain unwritten and untold. Again, I sabotage my efforts by making a 'bad' choice.

So what should I do? How do I break this cycle? I'm not sure, I really don't know if I can. Perhaps it's just part of my DNA or personality and I have to accept that. Maybe there is a way out, I'm not sure. I know that I can't keep sabotaging my efforts and feel good about it. I need to find a way that works for me, a way to make the 'right' choices, the 'good' choice for me.

And that's what I have to do now, to start making 'good' choices. I'm not sure how I'll do it, after all I have many years of self sabotage experience behind me and it won't be easy changing the habits of an adult lifetime. But I want to do it and that's got to be positive, hasn't it? Wish me luck ...

Thursday, 10 May 2018

What to do when a book recommendation isn't doing it for me.

I'm very lucky to have many good friends who recommend books for me to read. Some are even kind enough to pass books on when they've finished reading them. And sometimes I have found a real gem this way.

But what do I do when someone sends a book that they've loved but that leaves me cold?

It seems mean to discard the book. After all it was given with love and good intentions. But as I get older I'm less tolerant of spending time on things that don't bring me joy. And life is too short to spend it reading books that I don't enjoy. I'm also less bothered by stopping a book that isn't doing it for me. I used to think that I had to finish every book I started, even the real stinkers. I prided myself that I had only abandoned one book - Captain Corelli's Mandolin, I'm looking at you! Now I will put a book down and walk away if it isn't speaking to me. After all there are so many books to read and so little time.

But what do I tell the giver of the gift? Do I confess that the book wasn't for me? Or do I spare their feelings and say it was OK?

At the moment I'm struggling with a book that just isn't doing it for me. I find the writing clunky and it's grating on me as I read. I'm only a few pages in so I'll give it a little longer but if I don't get gripped soon I'll have to leave it. It's only fair to all the other book cluttering my desk, table, chest of drawers etc.

Sometimes, something has to give. And it's sometimes a disappointing book.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Book review - We Need to Talk About the Conditions of my Imprisionment by Michelle Tan

It's been a while since I had much to do with toddlers and small children so I put that out as a disclaimer right now. However, I was thrust back into the world of temper tantrums, fussy eating and Yummy Mummies as soon as I started to read this wonderful collection of thoughts about parenthood. Michelle Tan has assembled a witty group of parents to share some of the highs and lows of living with young children. But beware: you may find yourself laughing out loud as you share the embarrassment, the pain and the sleep deprivation that comes with the territory!

From the opening Fairy Tale for the Perfect Mother through to the title piece We Need to Talk About the Conditions of my Imprisonment I found myself smiling with recognition, snorting in solidarity and laughing out loud at the things parents go through in the course of an average day with little ones. I loved the brutal honesty of Why Can't We Have Sex Like The Coneheads? I empathised with the embarrassed mother in Where Do Babies Come From? I loved the children's dialogue in The Green Food Strike. Mostly though, I felt deep sympathy for the poor food soaked, sleep deprived, embarrassed parents who are struggling to get through another day which is being derailed by their offspring. I salute you and wish you luck. I'm also insanely glad that I've left those difficult days far behind me!

The book is released on 21st April but you can pre-order it from Amazon

Sunday, 25 March 2018

What to do with criticism. Or how I learnt to deal with it.

Recently I took an online course on writing short stories. I was looking for a push to get me going again after a brief hiatus and this seemed like the perfect way. One of the features of the course was the chance to have work read and critiqued by course tutors and peers. This appealed to me as I don't really have anyone who I regularly ask to read my work and give me hints about what works and what needs work. Maybe when I have a greater body of work that I'm happier with I may look for people to read things but at the moment I'm still finding my feet when it comes to short stories.
The peer review was very useful for a story I started a few weeks ago and have done some work on. The readers showed me the things they liked, the places where they were confused and I was able to straighten things out so it read 'better'. This gave me confidence and I continue to work on this story which is now more or less finished but still at the polishing stage.
I then submitted the start of another story, very much first draft, to the tutor and awaited their feedback. Reader, I asked for it! Lots of problems, lots to fix, the beginning of the story needs moving, too much showing etc. I was crestfallen. Hardly anything positive to say about it.
Now, not so long ago I would have weep real tears, deleted the story and giving up on any idea that I could be a writer. My writer's ego really was that fragile a year ago. Don't get me wrong, it hurt to read how much there was wrong about my story. After all, they're a bit like my babies and I can be a bit Tiger Mother about them.
This time I read his comments with a writer's eye. I looked again at what I had written and I could see the faults and the flaws. Yes, the story would be much tighter if I started it much later in my current narrative. Yes, I was doing to much 'head dwelling'. Yes, I needed to get to the point more quickly and succinctly. There was work to do but I could do it and end up with a  better story as a result.
So what have I learnt? That sometimes I need to step back, take another view and do the dreaded re-write. That first drafts are almost always not up to scratch. That time given to reading the comments of another reader is time well spent.
Finally, I learnt that taking the ego out and accepting some criticism is necessary to end up with a story that I am proud of, a story that one day may make its own way in the world.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Book Review - Everywoman by Jess Phillips

If I am ever harassed, marginalised, silenced, bullied or abused I want Jess Phillips in my corner. Reading this book filled my heart with joy and sadness in equal measure. Jess is a powerful, feisty, opinionated Brummie and I wish there were more voices like hers in both society and Parliament. She has issues she cares passionately about and isn't afraid to say it like it is. The parts of the book which deal with her work with and campaigning for women who have suffered violence and domestic abuse broke my heart. Her determination not to be silenced when giving these women a voice is truly inspirational. 
Don't get the idea that this is a dry, weighty, preachy tome, it is nothing of the sort. It is full of warmth and humour, filled with the loud and proud Brummie voice that Jess is so well known for. I had the privilege to hear her speak last year in Birmingham and she was such a wonderful speaker, full of wit and anecdote. How I wish every one could have an MP like Jess. How I wish we all had a cheerleader, a friend like Jess.
Am I inspired by her? Hell yes! I won't be standing for elected office but I will stop publicly doubting myself and try to silence the voice of imposter syndrome. If Jess can be strong and big herself up then so can I. So can we all.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Writing contests: why I take part and read my latest entry

I love a good competition. I've always enjoyed quizzes and crosswords so it's perhaps no surprise that I enjoy submitting my writing to writing contests.

So far I have yet to win one but for me the winning isn't the important thing. I enter to get my work read and to get feedback.

At this point in my writing journey I am not ready to send my work to agents or publishers. I haven't got to the point where I need to recruit beta readers. I don't want to burden my friends and family with a constant stream of things to be read and commented on (although I'm sure they would do so gladly!)

So contests are an ideal way for me to get my work read and to find out what works and what needs work. But it can be difficult to know what to make of some of the comments. Not everyone gives useful or constructive criticism so I have to remember to filter what is said and take the comments that are helpful and leave the rest alone. For example, my latest piece, which I will share later in this post, included the comment that it was 'Brilliant!' which did my ego a power of good but wasn't very helpful - if it was truly brilliant why didn't it win? Another comment said ' I kept waiting and waiting for something to happen, but it really never did.' Re-reading the piece I can see that is a valid comment but then I didn't set out to write a piece with much action. A third comment said 'As a mother who had a two hour labour from first contraction to actual delivery I find the concept very difficult to believe.' Again I can see what she means and recognise that I may have been too vague about when labour began and how the journey began. All things that I can change in an edit and useful to know from a dispassionate reader.

So I will continue to enter contests and try to improve my writing based on the comments I receive, good, bad or indifferent. I attach the story concerned below and would be interested in any comments you might have. This is the story as sent in without any edits that I may make later.

The Beacon
Overwhelming rock walls towered above Jorelle as she struggled through the newly fallen snow. Plumes of steam appeared and disappeared before her as her warm breath met the icy air. Her legs burned and her back ached but she had no choice but to push on. Generations of women had been making this journey and now it was her turn. The straps of her satchel bit into her shoulders and she stretched her back to release the pain and soreness a little.
Turning another corner Jorelle saw a clearing where the snow was lighter on the ground. There were faint tracks and marks in the snow which looked as if someone had recently cleared the smooth rock floor. She scanned the rock face. No sign of life but many carvings and symbols covered the rock higher than her head. Many years of visitors, leaving their mark in this ancient and sacred place. She dropped her satchel, squatted and tipped the contents onto the ground. Blankets, blades, soft cloths, waxed cord all tumbled across the snow as she rummaged for the beacon. The cold metal cylinder rolled away from her and she cursed under her breath. The word echoed around the clearing, startling her into standing and spinning around. Her eyes searched every crevice until she was satisfied that it was only the echo of her own voice. Several days without hearing another voice had made her sensitive and jumpy. She reached down and picked up the beacon, scanning the canyon as she did so.
Back in the village she had been shown how to prepare it, how to light it, how to activate it. She had nodded, agreed to be shown again and again and finally snapped that she understood. Now she wished that she had paid more attention. Doubts filled her head and her frozen fingers refused to manoeuvre the tiny parts on the beacon. After several attempts and more cursing Jorelle managed to prepare the beacon for illumination. She stood it on the ground and stepped back. Once lit, there was no turning back.
She steadied her breathing, arched her back and shrugged her shoulders. No turning back. She squatted, picked up the beacon and pressed the button. Holding it above her head, Jorelle counted to five and waited. A hum, a vibration and a column of blue light rose into the sky overhead. No turning back. As she had been instructed she began to murmur the prayer of calling and closed her eyes. She turned slowly one way then the other, opened her eyes and stared at the rock face. Her arms ached from holding the beacon above her but she knew she would not have long to wait. Once the beacon was lit, the message was seen and responded to with haste.
Above her the air rippled, pulsed as Jorelle felt the rhythmic beating of wings overhead. The beat got stronger, stronger and closer and behind her Jorelle heard the beat of feathers and the squawk of the giant bird. Increasing the pace and volume of her prayer she waited until the air stilled, then stopped praying and listened to the silence. No turning back.
Closing her eyes, Jorelle waited, listening to her heartbeat, hearing her breathing. Behind her the rustle of feathers, the squeak of leather and the ringing of metal on metal. Breathing faster now she waited and listened. Cold wind blew from around the rocks, chilling her more than her fear. No turning back.
A gentle hand rested lightly on her shoulder and Jorelle gasped. Her eyes snapped open and she turned slowly to face a kindly smile, greying hair and the beacon carefully taken from her frozen grip. Bright green eyes sparkled with warmth and intelligence and for the first time in days Jorelle relaxed.
‘Jorelle, isn’t it? I’m Shalea, your midwife. Shall we get out of the cold? You have all we need? Excellent. I’ll tether Aviacus and we can set off.’
Jorelle smiled as Shalea wrestled with leather thongs and knotted the bird’s harness to an iron ring then allowed herself to be hurried and bustled further into the canyon. The snow became wetter and they slithered along the rock face, Shalea leading with assurance. Jorelle felt a wave of pain spread across her belly. No turning back.
The path led round a sharp bend and Jorelle clutched the rock face for balance. Ahead of them the mountain plunged away into cloud and nausea swept over her. Heights were a problem for her and she struggled not to step towards the edge. It was a familiar feeling and one she didn’t understand. If she feared heights so much why was she drawn to the edge? Another stab of pain brought her crashing back to reality and she rested against the rock face and waited for the pain to pass.
Shalea waited ahead and when Jorelle nodded they walked on. In an instant Shalea vanished from sight and Jorelle gasped in horror. Had she plunged over the edge? A cold sweat spread across her brow and she swayed against the rock wall. What should she do? What if she was stranded alone on the mountain? So many questions flooded her mind that she could not think clearly. She edged forward, eyes scanning the rock face, the drop and the clouds. Her fingers inched along the rock and suddenly touched the softness of wood.
Turning a corner, bright light forced her eyes shut. A cavern in the rock, that’s where they had been heading. Shalea had removed her cape and was adding kindling to a blazing fire.
‘Come in, come in! Warm yourself and I’ll fetch wine. You’ll need to rest before your exertions later.’
Jorelle stepped into the cavern and warmed her hands. There were furs around the walls, sturdy wooden benches and chairs and a gleaming copper tub in one corner. Large pans of snow were arranged around the fire, slowly melting. She took the cup of wine and drank deeply. The warm fruity taste felt so welcome after days walking alone in the mountains. Shalea bustled about preparing everything – food, water for bathing, more wine, stoking the fire. For the first time in days Jorelle relaxed. She sat on a bench and began to undress, removing the bulky layers that had kept her alive on her journey.
‘Shalea, what can I expect? I am ignorant of the secret ways of motherhood and I confess that I am scared. You are plainly experienced so I would value your insight.’
Shalea put down the pan of water she had been pouring into the tub and sat down next to Jorelle. She took her hand and smiled.
‘For more years than I care to remember I have been helping women to give birth. Any knowledge I have comes from this for I have not been blessed with children myself. I will not lie to you, there will be great pain, you will wish yourself elsewhere and you will curse everyone in the world. This is natural and not to be feared. Together we will bring this special baby, this important baby into the world in the footsteps of hundreds of women before you, including the queen your husband’s mother.’
Jorelle watched and listened as Shalea told her about the night she had helped the queen to deliver the baby that grew up to be her husband. It was odd to think of Erik as a baby. The man she loved was tall and broad, bearded and brave, a fighter and a leader. But twenty eight years ago he had been born here in the cavern as all kings’ babies were.
Another stab of pain doubled Jorelle up and she gasped for breath. Shalea nodded and returned to her duties. It would not be long now until she met her baby, their baby on whom so much depended. No turning back.
As the night wore on the pains increased. Jorelle doubted her ability to survive but Shalea was calm and her words soothed the dark thoughts which beset her. Together they walked around the cavern, Shalea crooning and caressing to help her through. Sometimes she found herself joining in the songs and chants although she had no idea that she knew these songs. Perhaps all women know them in their souls and she was joining a secret sisterhood. But more than anything she felt that as the pain increased her life was slowly changing forever. No more carefree times with her friends, no more lingering in bed with Erik, no more putting herself first. From this night on she was a different person, and this scared her.
‘Shalea, I have doubts. How can I care for this child? I am young myself, barely more than a girl. Yet now this burden is upon me and I am not worthy.’
Shalea stood up from her perch on the bed and frowned.
‘All women feel as you do. I have yet to meet a mother who was not filled with feelings of inadequacy, of deep fear for the future. All this is natural. But as for being too young, fie! You were old enough to wed Erik, old enough to lie with him. Now you must find the wisdom within to take care of the family you have created. Everyone in the tribe will support you. Erik will do his part, if you will let him. And this child is precious, they will continue the bloodline that you married into, a special child indeed. Fear not! There will be many other babies for you and you will laugh at your foolish doubts as you birth each one. I have seen it many times.’
Another wave of pain took the breath from Jorelle and she stared at her midwife with widening eyes. This felt different. Pulling her down, making her womb feel heavy, causing her to moan like an animal.
‘ The time is near. Your child will be born within the hour. Now you will have to work hard for now you must push your child out into the world.’
Jorelle nodded and understood. The time was close, the time when she would fulfil her destiny. And her tribe’s future would be solidified. Another tug in her womb, she squatted, roared and pushed as hard as she could. Sweat poured from her body and for several minutes she groaned and strained. Shalea watched closely, soothing her with cool water and gentle words. At last a huge effort pushed the baby out of her body and into the midwife’s arms. Jorelle slumped onto the bed and closed her eyes. Silence, whispered words and the glorious cry of a new-born. She turned towards Shalea who smiled and nodded.
‘Fine and healthy, perfect and as handsome as his father. Here, Jorelle, meet your son.’
A tiny, wriggling body was gently placed on her chest and he searched for her breast. With an instinct that she did not know she possessed, Jorelle held her child to her breast and felt the milk flow as he fed. Tired, tearful yet triumphant she beamed at Shalea. The midwife nodded, wiped a tear away and began clearing the bed. Jorelle stared at her son and knew that it was indeed true, no turning back. She had begun her journey as a mother, as many women before her, following in their footsteps, learning as she went. The baby suckled and Jorelle closed her eyes, exhausted but content. She drifted gently into a light sleep and dreamed of showing Erik their child, the child of the future.

Monday, 1 January 2018

New Year, New Start?

Another year rolls over and the media are full of resolutions. It often seems like everyone is on the same ride, thinking and doing the same as everyone else. It can be heady, the feeling of being swept along with the rest of humanity. Or it can seem scary, full of FOMO and doubt.

Most years I have joined in with the resolution thing. Writing lists. Making plans. Some of them last into February, some struggle to make it to the 2nd of January! I love writing lists but hate sticking to what I have 'promised' or resolved. If I look back through previous blog posts from the beginning of January I find lots of things I 'promised' I would do and very few made it further than that.

This year I thought about doing the same, writing a list of things I wanted to accomplish in 2018. Yet I was beset with doubt. What is the point of doing that? I know based on past experience and my own character that I am great at saying it but really bad at doing it. For example, I promise to go to the gym more often. I even make a schedule in my head of when I will go - every Monday, Wednesday and Friday perhaps. I visualise putting my gym kit on, walking to the gym with some inspirational music playing, using the equipment and strolling (staggering) home all aglow and virtuous. But I don't actually do it! It lives in my imagination but is never transferred into the real world. So why pretend I am going to do something which I know I am probably not. Who am I fooling?

So for a change, January 1st will pass without me bothering it with unrealistic resolutions. I have decided that this year I will be kind to myself. No pressure, no expectations, no resolutions. Just a whole year of kindness. Now if that means I pop to the gym when I feel like it then great, if it means I don't go at all one week, also great. If it means I eat a biscuit when I have a cup of tea, lovely, it may also mean that I pass on the biscuit when I don't fancy one. But there are no rules, no resolutions, no depriving myself of the things I want in life.

I think I may be able to stick to this one ...