Tag Archives: an author with children

Real Life is underrated. Using mundane events to fuel your writing mojo.

I’m not here this week, I am going to post to my blog and give a talk at the same time.  Sadly this is through the wonders of modern technology and not because I have a clone but there we go, you can’t win ’em all. So without more ado, here’s a piece outlining my theories about pimping your world to add realism to your writing. At the risk of sounding a bit waffly …

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Pimp your world!

Real life can feel like an unwelcome and endlessly demanding interruption to your writing happiness.

However, it doesn’t have to be like this. The mundanity of your reality depends on how you see it. Even if you write science fiction or something that is very much not real life, observing what is going on around you can bring you huge dividends if you can put the right spin on it for yourself.

This is an owl; in flight, even though it looks like some kind of ball. Yes. Real life can often be quite weird enough – without the help of a writer.

How does this work?

Embrace the mundanity, be interested in everything, because it’s the sense of natural curiosity that will give you answers to the odd but boring questions of life. And knowing those boring answers will give your writing texture and make it real. Sure, nobody wants to know what that broken bent thing at the back of the drawer is but as a writer, you do because you never know when you’re going to discover a use for it in your books.

Exercise your writing muscles when you’re not writing.

No I don’t mean your hands! I mean this; if you have to do some mundane chore when you’d rather be writing why no approach it a different way? For example, if you have to go shopping, maybe try to see the dreary trek to Tesco’s as if you are making it for the first time, narrate your progress in your head, as if you’re writing a book.

You can make your approach to this exercise range from lateral to literal, for example, your first thought might be, ‘Why am I pretending it’s the first time I’ve ever been to Tesco if I’ve lived here all my life?’

From there you could go on to ask why the character in your head is only visiting now if they’ve lived here forever. Why, how and where have they been shopping in the years leading up to today? What does the sudden need to visit Tesco’s signify? What changed that put them there?

Alternatively, you can take a different approach and narrate your progress without really thinking of the whys and wherefores but simply as if it’s a scene in a novel. Think about whether the ‘you’ in your narrative is sad, happy, bored or something else. If they are, why might be the cause? How could you show it?

For example, if they see a thistle growing between the cracks in the pavement would their mood effect it. EG flowers, spring, lovely. Flowers, funerals death horror. Thistle, prickly and difficult.

Would they notice different aspects of their surroundings in different moods and interpret them differently?If you have access to MP3s on the hoof you could pop on a pair of headphones and see if different types of music inspire different scenarios. Would up beat songs make your character skip happily over the tarmac? Do sad songs make them drag their feet etc.

The point is, if you are thinking this way, it can only help you to develop your writing voice and style at times in the day when you aren’t able to do any writing.

Engaging with your surroundings brings rewards.

Yep, as much as you can, even when it seems as if there isn’t any point. First; you never know what you might see second, if you want to get interesting stuff out of your head, you have to put things in; experiences, ideas, knowledge and you have to be open to them when they occur – which is often when you least expect it.

Terry Pratchett talking about books said:

You don’t know what’s going to be interesting until you’ve read it. Somewhere in a book on the history of false teeth there’ll be the making of a novel.

He’s spot on.

Seek out the small details going on around you.

The other day, as my son and I were driving along, a middle aged woman passed us on her mountain bike coming the other way doing a huge wheelie. She, and we, were going under the A14, in different directions, her on the cycle path, us on the road. As she landed, having wheelied all the way under the bridge she pumped one fist in the air. My son and I didn’t have time to hoot, wave or give her the thumbs up before she was gone but that experience had both of us thinking. We spent the rest of the journey making up a story about her. We are probably the only people that noticed what she did.

Another time, waiting in queue to go to work at Milton way back in the late 1990s I looked up into the blue spring sky. As I sat stationary in the traffic I watched someone in an aeroplane with one of those smoke canisters in it flying round above. They drew a smiley face. Did anyone else see? I don’t know. Weirdly, a couple of years ago, someone did the same thing over the skies of Bury St Edmunds. On both occasions, it left me feeling up beat. I haven’t put either event in a book yet, but I probably will.

Be interested in your surroundings.

Why? Because the insignificant details of what is going on around you are where you will discover the things that will give your work texture and realism. Look at the world around you, be curious, ask questions. Pepper your stuff with answers you discover and it will feel so much more real to your readers, no matter how outlandish it is.

The wall of the Baptist church, in my town, has what looks like bullet holes in it. I’ve always wondered what happened to that wall. I’ve seen bullet holes in things on the continent, where battles took place in the second world war, usually. My son was intrigued, too, and decided to try and find out. It turns out that those are, indeed, bullet holes. The church was used for communications of some kind during the war and a German fighter plane came over and shot it up. Another one flew over one of the main streets, shooting up a pub called the New Inn and the house next door, which just happens to be ours. So it turns out my house has bullet holes in it. Something like this would be a great story to fictionalise or, if you write non-fiction, a collection of stories like this about your local community can make for really intriguing reading.

Similarly, my son has made a point of learning the names of all the local cats, so now as we walk down the street, we greet them by name. This is probably quite weird but if you have a character in a book doing this it can tell you so much about them; that they’re soft hearted that they like cats? Or maybe, that they don’t like cats but they’re too soft hearted not to greet them anyway. Or, possibly, they’re scared of cats and greet them out of superstition, the way some folk salute magpies. One tiny detail, lots of potential.

Be interested in people.

Find out who they are, what they have done.

There was an old man who lived down the same road as my parents who my parents were on nodding terms with. As he became older, he began to suffer badly with arthritis and couldn’t get out much, so Dad started popping in to visit. It turned out that this fellow that my parents had known for years was in the 1936 British Olympic running team. He was injured just as he arrived in Berlin and the Germans gave him one of the best seats in the house to watch the rest of the games. He saw Jesse Owens win and since he was sitting few yards away from the ‘royal’ box he also saw Adolf Hitler having a massive melt down and completely throwing his bricks out of the pram when it happened. But he always swore that Hitler did shake Owen’s hand … when he had calmed down.

Often, each person is the sum of some amazing stories. People love to talk and if you listen, you will hear incredible things, things that also shed light on human nature.

For example, my mum grew up in the country and recalls how she and her brother saw a plane fly across the garden during the war. Some people had been shot at on the Downs while blackberrying the week before but Mum and my uncle were on their own and were delighted to be able to wave at the plane without being told off by an adult. They were even more delighted when the pilot who was blonde and curly-haired waved back! It was only after the plane had gone that they realised it had a cross on the side of it, not the circles of the RAF. Meanwhile Mum’s friend Norah used to talk of the time a ME109 was brought down on the Downs near Steyning in Sussex. Everyone was arming themselves with pitchforks, kitchen knives, pickaxe handles etc and went off to capture the pilot. The gentleman in question unwittingly evaded capture and was discovered wandering local lanes by someone taking an afternoon constitutional, someone who was unaware that a dangerous armed enemy was on the loose. The pilot asked, politely, for directions to the local police station so he could hand himself in.

All your characters need a back story that is as real to you as life, even if it is never mentioned in the actual book you write about them. Collecting stories like these from people you meet can give you some fantastic, readymade back stories, or at least a place to start.

Use the mundane.

Also using mundane events in writing can tether your writing to the real world, giving the most outlandish scenes realism or throwing scary stuff into stark relief.

So for example, say you have a character who is held captive by a scary bad guy. Her guards take her to the bathroom. It has one of those fans that comes on automatically when you turn the light on and then chugs away for several minutes after you’ve turned it off again. When she is finished the guards turn the light off and take her back to her cell, but she can hear the fan droning on for several minutes. A lot of us can identify with listening to that kind of fan. So when our heroine hears it in book we can immediately get alongside her. It grounds the narrative in reality making a situation that may be difficult to imagine more realistic, while, at the same time, highlighting the unusual or menacing nature of parts that are different.

To sum up then, there is gold all around if you if you look.

I think it was also Terry Pratchett who said something along the lines that if you want to write convincing fantasy you will need a better handle on how reality works than anyone else. It’s a strange dichotomy that fictional or hard-to-imagine events seem to spring to life if you can fix them to reality every day real things.

It’s worth taking notice, observing the everyday and riffing with your surroundings in your head as you go about normal life. Because if you practise your writing by adding a little fiction to your normal life it will help you to develop your writing style and voice, and train your brain to view the world differently. Likewise if you look for little snippets of reality to use in your writing you can add immense power and depth to your words.

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Toboggan update, a war story and McMini versus Alexa.

It’s been a busy week this week. McMini is due to go on a school trip which involves two nights away. I have therefore been spending most of the week with a list of required clothing working out which items we have and buying the ones we don’t have. Pretty much all of them.

In order to try and train McCat out of some of his many behavioural problems, I have bought a thing that senses when he goes near the bin to flip the lid off and search for scraps and squirts a jet of air. Unfortunately, though this is working, the people who set it off 99.99999999% of the time are McMini and McOther.

It’s nearly run out already and judging by the cost of the refills it’s actual solid gold in there rather than the air the makers claim, or it’s liquidised diamonds or something. I thought one would do but with my menfolk, no chance, it’ll be hard put to last the week.

I also bought a static electric mat. Unfortunately it comes with no meaningful instructions. I think I switched it on but after an hour it started beeping and the battery died. I haven’t tried it since.

Ho hum … a partial success then.

Sadly, I also jinxed any chance of tobogganing joy this weekend by retrieving the one I had as a kid from Mum and Dad’s, barn, washing the mouse and spider pooh off it, along with the yucky, knackered crispy wood louse carapaces left by the spiders, and bringing it home. Turns out it’s a bit older than I thought as it’s a Flexible Flyer No 1.

It looks as if it may be Great Grandpa’s rather than Granny’s. Luckily, I don’t think that makes it any more valuable, so it’s still worth the same as a modern replacement, which means we can use it. Oh yeh.

Except for that bit about the jinxing. Yes, now that we have a slightly more McMini-friendly toboggan, we have had the usual boring Bury St Edmunds snow: chuffing cold, snows all day but doesn’t sit. Seriously I have no idea how it can be this fucking cold and still melt. It’s a bastard miracle. Climatologists should look into it because frankly, I reckon there’s something going on. Also, I’m getting a bit bored of being cold. I wish it would either snow properly or just piss off. It’ll probably snow properly tomorrow when I’m at my club dig out in the country at the bottom of a hill (note to self, take a tow rope).

Also this week, I went with Mum to the funeral of a lovely lady who used to go to their church. The chap doing the eulogy told a splendid story this lady used to tell about the time a ME109 was brought down on the Downs near Steyning.

The word spread like wild fire and everyone armed themselves with pitchforks, kitchen knives, pickaxe handles etc and went off to capture the pilot. Meanwhile, the gentleman in question unwittingly evaded capture and was discovered wandering local lanes by someone taking an afternoon constitutional, someone who was unaware that a dangerous armed enemy was on the loose. The pilot asked, politely, if they could tell him the way to the local police station. Unaware of the posse the other side of the Downs looking for him, he then calmly followed the directions he’d been given and handed himself in. Stories like these say so much about human nature.

In a bid to keep the screen time to quality time, I have given up doing the social media stuff in the evening in front of the telly in favour of knitting. I now have seven pairs of socks – and I’ve only shrunk two pairs so far – along with a smaller pair for McMini, and a pussy hat – but in red and light pink because militant use of pink is vile and gives me the boke.

Meanwhile McOther has purchased an Alexa. It’s quite good but not able to answer many questions. For example, I asked it how to make pasta the other day … about seventy times.

Try as I might I couldn’t get it to understand that I wanted it to make actual pasta, not a pasta dish. It came up with a whole variety of pasta dishes but not the ration of eggs to flour I required to knock up a few sheets of lasagne. It was like …

‘Alexa, can you give me the recipe for pasta.’
‘I found this recipe for pasta with meatballs on Recepidia.’
‘No, stop Alexa. I meant the actual pasta.’
‘I found this recipe for beef ragu with fusilli.’
‘Stop Alexa, please. OK, Alexa, if I have some flour and an egg and I’m Italian what can I make?’
‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that.’
‘Jeez …’ Recording of dull thudding sound made by MTM’s head beating against the kitchen work surface, ‘I just want to make a lasagne sheet, Alexa.’
‘Lasagne is a dish comprising tomatoes, bechamel sauce and-‘
‘Alexa stop. What are the ratios of egg to flour I need to make pasta.’
‘I found this great recipe on Recipedia for egg and spinach-‘
‘NO! Alexa STOP! Don’t they have the recipe for pasta on Recipedia?’
‘There’s a recipe for salmon and seafood with pasta shells, difficulty level, easy on Recipedia-‘
‘Alexa STOP! For the love of God, or I shall do you an injury.’

And so on ad infinitum. Alexa stores all these exchanges on an app on McOther’s iPad. I think he enjoyed reading that one.

This morning, I overhead McMini talking to it.

‘Alexa can you set a timer for cheese?’
‘I’m sorry I do not understand your question.’
‘Oh. OK. Alexa, set a timer for seven years.’
‘I’m sorry I can only set a timer for a time within the next 24 hours.’
‘Hmm … OK. Alexa, set a timer for seven hours.’

It might be sensible to occasionally say, ‘Alexa, stop timer,’ to it I think. Just in case.

In next week’s post I’ll be talking shop. I’m giving a talk called, ‘Real Life is underrated. Using mundane events to fuel your writing mojo,’ and since it’s 1,200 words long, I thought I’d reproduce it here, for your delectation, as I deliver it. And also because I’ll be actually doing the talk at the time, so I won’t be here to write a blog post … so … until next week!

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Sleigh that again?

It’s been all go this week. Snow has fallen (snow on snow) and it’s been fucking freezing (pardon my French) all week. We’ve had about 8 inches of snow, going by the pile on top of the wheelie bins, but the first four inches melted a bit before the second four arrived so it was only ankle deep here in town. Still looked cool though (see photos). What I like about snow is the way it lets you see the world anew; the same old same old, yet so different. I don’t know about you, but a quick dose of snow always helps me to appreciate my surroundings more. For us, here, there was just enough to be pretty and fun and not so much that things began to get a bit dicey.

That said, I believe there are folks out towards Norwich who have seen some impressively big drifts and now have a good grasp of how the average raspberry feels atop a pavlova. While others have no power. Definitely less fun for them.

On Friday, after school, I took McMini tobogganing. Our sledge is a plastic one, but slightly different to the usual in that it has a raised back and a lowered front. Apart from the fact makes the thing look more like a boat it also makes steering harder and you can’t use it lying down, face first. That didn’t stop fourteen stones of British lard from careening down the hill though – I lay back, skeleton style – but McMini was rather more cautious. I understood his reticence, my first memory of tobogganing is of me, my brother and my dad, all sitting on our toboggan and feeling very frightened.

Judging by the size of our toboggan, I must have been very small, in fact I’m amazed that the three of us fitted on. My misgivings soon disappeared when I discovered I could lie on it and proceed face first. Our toboggan was some ancient thing that had belonged to my mother as a child so it had steering, which helped.

On the down side though manoeuvrable, it was extremely fast – although that was also an up, in many respects. I remember visiting my uncle, aunt and cousins in Kew over New Year – a visit that was famously cut short after I ate an icicle off the bottom of a car and was violently sick about fourteen times but that’s another story. Where was I? Ah yes, tobogganing with my cousins. We took our toboggan to a hill in Richmond Park. It was icy, very steep and rammed with other folks on toboggans, mostly plastic ones or the Blue Peter home build (like the one my cousins had). All were going very slowly.

Our toboggan was not only the one Mum and my uncle had used as kids, it was the one which, in turn, my grandmother had used when she was a child. Antique and battered it may have been but this thing went like shit off a shovel – it still does. It looked rubbish, it also still does, and as you arrived on any packed slope you could almost feel the other kids watching you go past thinking,

‘What the fuck is that?’ and snickering contemptuously at your toboggan POS.

Then you’d take a run down the hill and the impression you got was that they were still thinking,

‘What the fuck is that?’ but with a different inflection entirely.

On this occasion, it was like trying to drive a Grand Prix car at full speed through a shopping centre without hitting anyone. You know the first car chase in the Blues Brothers, when they’re trashing the mall … that’s our toboggan with all the other kids pootling about around it. My cousins’ Blue Peter model seemed faster than everyone else’s as well, so it was kind of a rinse and repeat on theirs only with no steering! Unnerved by a couple of rounds of toboggan frogger we decided to move to another part of the hill which wasn’t being used.

Despite being a bit mad and fast, things were much easier with our toboggan on home ground. I grew up in two places at once, the staff side of the house in the school where Dad was a housemaster and our own actual home, which we lived in during the school holidays. Both places were half way up a down … well … the housemaster’s one was more three quarters of the way up but you get the picture. The point is, you could walk out of either house and pretty much onto a big hill. Five minutes and you’d be away. On the few occasions it snowed in the holidays, we’d spend hours up on the hill. There were thrills, spills and luckily, no injuries.

This is a ‘Down’. As you can see from the photo, the downs could be more appropriately named, ‘ups’.

The other great thing about living on a down was that you are not going to get that many people up there, and if you do, there’ll be plenty of room. The downside is that they look smooth but in reality there are a lot of sheep tracks up there so try the wrong slope and it’s like tobogganing down steps. Also there are fields up there, and the thing about a field is it usually has a fence. Hedges were getting pretty rarified in those days so said fence was usually three strings of barbed wire and some shuggly posts.

My father embraced the joy of tobogganing with even more enthusiasm than his children so we usually went as a family, or depending on school holidays etc it would be me and Dad or Dad and my brother and Mum back at home getting some peace and quiet. One occasion, I remember we had already moved out of the school for the holidays into our actual ‘home’ but needless to say, my school term hadn’t ended. Dad and my brother went for a tobogganing session while Mum collected me from my last day at school. We returned to find the two of them at home, which was not expected. There was a perfect field, just as you come into our village; a nice gentle slope, someone was even skiing on it one year, but it did have hedge at the bottom, in the middle of which was the ubiquitous knackered downland barbed wire fence, and beyond which was a trunk road. This wasn’t troubling the four or five other sledgers who were out the day Dad and my brother went but our mad toboggan was faster than all comers, as usual, so it went further. After a few runs it was clear that my dad and brother could only ride safely from half way up the hill, unless they wanted a close encounter with the hedge.

The field was L shaped and the road turned away taking the hedge away and leaving a lovely big square of unsullied virgin snow. My brother and dad wishing to experience full tobogganing joy trundled along the hill until they were above this. Now they could go from the very top and would have a huge amount of run off ground where the toboggan could come to a safe halt. Unfortunately, they moved along at the top of the hill so they didn’t hoist in that, where the road and the hedge turned the corner, the crappy barbed wire fence from the middle carried on, across what they thought was a wide snowy gap.

Dad went first and as he careened off down the hill, three things occurred to my brother:

  1. He noticed the barbed wire fence for the first time.
  2. He realised that Dad was short sighted and still hadn’t seen the fence.
  3. He realised that, not only had his loving father not noticed the fence but that he was unlikely to do so until he caught it in the neck while riding a toboggan at speed.

My brother set off running in hot pursuit shouting, ‘Dad! Fence.’ My father was sitting on the toboggan and steering with his feet. It had picked up some serious speed and there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of it stopping before it hit the fence. Luckily some other folks further down heard my brother and also ran towards Dad, relaying the message, with a bit more volume. Dad heard them and saw the fence, at a distance of about ten feet. There was no time to think, no time to steer and for whatever reason, it didn’t occur to him to bail out. Instead he lay calmly back, flattening himself against the toboggan – and probably the ground behind it – as if he was doing the Luge for real.

According to my brother, Dad passed under the fence at high speed. He took a slight scratch on the nose and it whipped off his red woolly bobble hat but otherwise, he and the toboggan came out the other side unharmed. My brother said it was one of the coolest things he’d ever seen because Dad had been so calm, but also one of the scariest because he felt he was about to witness his father’s untimely death. That said, I suspect Dad may not have felt as calm as he looked, since he suggested that they’d probably done enough tobogganing for one day and that they head home for a cup of tea, some biscuits and a plaster.

I guess the moral of this story is that few things are as they seem, ever.

On a side note, it turns out that the toboggan, itself, is not as it seems either. Indeed, it is a collector’s item. Which just goes to show that, coming from good Yorkshire stock who are too tight to throw anything away has its benefits (even if it was via five or six generations exiled down south to soften them up).

The toboggan is in Sussex and I’m in Suffolk so I can’t send you a picture. I can, however, show you what it looks like.

Thanks to Sledhill.com for this. Check out John’s Sledhill P1 in the menu for details of ours; it’s either a FFNo2 or an FF2B.

Like the snow on Bury, trying to find a picture of our toboggan has made me see it afresh. I knew it was old but it had never really occurred to me to think how old. Over 100 years. And it’s from the USA. I can imagine Grandpop (my great grandfather) going to Harrods or somewhere – possibly Hamleys – to get it for his son and daughter one Christmas.

That’s a hell of a thing.

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What do you see when you look at me?

You see a bad mother.

Church, if you want to do it, can be a bit of a conundrum with small people. McMini being a bit older now and more susceptible to boredom, it is not so easy to persuade him to come to the Sunday service. Furthermore, when he does, it’s probably no longer appropriate for a young gentleman his age to sit there with a huge stack of Beanos and a flask of tea, however quietly it is done. That’s why I jumped at the chance when the powers that be decided to introduce a more informal service during the week. Small church. It is called.

McMini is one of four to six small parishoners; the two youngest are girls, one of about eighteen months, one of three, then there is another little lad of five and McMini at nine. He enjoys the stories, the drawing and occasionally, when the vicar is around, and brave enough, to have a ‘mini mass’ he gets to serve. As he has expressed an interest in being the thurifer, we now have incense at this and take our lives in our hands as McMini enthusiastically wields a steaming hot thurible in our faces.

However, formal this sounds it isn’t. Last mini mass the adults tried to contain their laughter as the small parishoners wandered around, apparently oblivious to what was going on. One withdrew to the table to draw, McMini was sitting next to the radiator upon which he’d perched a cup of tea (next to the bread and wine) and was calmly drinking sips in between the responses. The two girls had a bit of a contretemps and we had ‘pencils at dawn’ until a smart adult realised they both wanted a pink and purple one and found a second pink and purple pencil so they could have one each. A few seconds later and the small plaintive voice of the three year old said, ‘down there’ and pointed to the grating. Her crayons had disappeared. Doubtless they are somewhere beneath the hot pipes but none of us dim-eyed adults could see them and so far, they have not been found.

Meanwhile, McMini had miscounted the amount of wafers – or sherbet free flying saucers as we blasphemously call them at home. This meant that, communion done, there were extras left. Quick as a flash, McMini chimes in.

‘Oooh look! There are some left over! Can I have another one?’
‘I’m not sure that’s quite-‘ I begin weakly, poker face in place, toes to curling silently.
‘Actually, as we have to eat them all up now, it’s quite acceptable for you to have another if I ask you to help me so, McMini, would you help me by eating another one?’ says our vicar as, completely unfazed, he proffers the platen towards my son.
‘Thank you, and the wine was delicious today,’ says McMini hopefully but luckily there’s no extra wine to finish.

I remember the day when McMini, after his first communion, stuck out his tongue and wiped it on his sleeve with a loud, ‘Yuck!’ to try and remove the taste of the wine from his mouth. Yes, well, at least he’s got used to it. Maybe I should thank myself for small mercies … possibly.

Usually, small church, is less eventful, indeed it’s rather like a normal Sunday school, a bible story, a discussion and some prayers, during which we all light a candle each and put it on the um … candle holder thingummy.

Two weeks ago, we were talking about thinking before we act. When prayer time arrives, my darling child comes up with the following gem.

‘Please guide Mummy to listen more and think before she acts so that she will be a good mother.’ He then places his candle in the holder with a very serious expression, to the sound of stifled sniggering from the grown ups.

‘Am I a bad mother?’ I ask afterwards, thinking that this might stem from my harrying him to clean his teeth that morning before school.
‘I’m afraid so, Mummy.’
‘Was it the teeth cleaning incident this morning?’
‘No Mummy it’s because you swear all the time and some of the language you use in front of me is very inappropriate, which is a pity, because you could be a very good mother otherwise.’

Damned with faint praise. What the right hand giveth the left hand taketh away so to speak, or at least, the other way round in this case, and also furnishing me with a very interesting insight into how his teacher talks when she is telling him off. I remember how much trouble I got into at school when I was a few years younger than him, for saying, ‘bloody hell is a very bad word, isn’t it?’ to my best friend and then, how mortified my mother was upon discovering that, when asked where I’d got such filthy language from, I’d told my teacher, ‘Daddy.’ And yes McMini has also done this to me with a similar situation centring around his use of the word, bollocks.

This last week, the theme was giving thanks for people who make the world a better place through their actions; folks who let their light shine in the world is roughly how the story put it. As we sat discussing this and deciding who we will pray for as folks who shine the light of kindly goodness in our lives, the small people all say ‘Mummy and Daddy.’ Except for McMini. I should be so lucky. Unfortunately, the fact that he got a laugh last week from chastising me hasn’t escaped his attention.

‘What about your Mummy McMini?’ says someone. ‘Aren’t you going to thank God for her?’
‘Regretfully, no,’ he says.
‘No?’ I say with mock affront. ‘Is that because ‘of the-‘
‘Swearing?’ He fixes me with a very serious look while the other adults snort with laughter behind their hands. ‘Yes.’
‘Have I not been better this week?’
‘No Mummy. Well, you have. You haven’t been doing it in front of me as much but it’s really not appropriate behaviour,’ there’s that word again, ‘in the presence of a nine year old.’
‘I don’t do it in your presence do I?’ I ask him omitting the ‘much’ that would make that statement a lot more honest.
‘True, Mummy, but you do it a lot in the other room when you think I can’t hear you.’
‘Then don’t listen,’ I tell him.
He shakes his head sadly. ‘You have a very loud voice Mummy. It’s difficult not to and you see, it will influence me.’

The lady who makes the tea and serves the biscuits, and who is trying so hard not to laugh she may, possibly, be in danger of rupturing herself moves away out of earshot.

When we eventually make it to prayer time, the other kids all thank the Lord for their mummies and daddies. Finally it is McMini’s turn. He says thank you for the ambulance staff, police and fire brigade who make the world a better place by protecting us and looking after us, and then says thank you for everyone and anyone working in the church. There’s a bit of a pause. He gives me a look and I start to giggle.

‘What about Mummy?’ asks one of the grown ups.
McMini heaves a sigh and then he finally adds, grudgingly,
‘Oh alright then, and thank you God for Mummy, too, because although she is a Bad Mother she is funny.’

The worst thing is, I know he’s doing it to take the piss out of me, no the worst thing is that I know it and I’m proud of him. But if he’s that sophisticated about taking the mickey out of me now, heaven help me when he’s older. I probably shouldn’t have played this in the car so much when he was tiny. I really don’t have a fucking clue about this parenting lark but it is fun.

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To Infinity and Beyond! Plans for 2018. #Newyearsresolution (sort of).

Heaven knows how many weeks ago it was now, far back in the mists of time, anyway; before Christmas, I posted about my efforts to bludgeon people into reading my stuff over the course of 2017. Basically, I discovered that I had a much higher rate of read-through on my perma free book than I thought and that I should maybe think about making something else permafree this year. Or Doing Something New.

Mostly, this year, I intend to be Doing Something New. Here are my New Year’s … not resolutions exactly, that will only set me up for disappointment in myself. Let’s call them Things I Intend To Do.

Yeh.

That sounds good. On we go then:

Thing 1: sort out my time management.

This one’s kind of done, I just need to put what I’ve learned into practise. The basic gist is to be more rigid about planning the day. There is so much to do that in order to avoid overwhelm the trick is to do a few sprints of several projects in progress to keep everything moving. I have no idea why I didn’t think of this before. I used to do it all the time at work, which was well busy and usually involved starting the day with a couple of hours’ firefighting. It’s the same now, as I usually get a call from Mum or the carers, or some wages come in to pay. This method sounds nuts, especially for someone like myself who prefers to do things one at a time in sequence. However, a bit at a time quells the rising sense of panic that it’s all too much and nothing is getting done.

Time allocation is also good for controlling those things that suck you in and spit you out at the end of the day before you even know it. Need to find a printer? Set a timer for one hour, make notes on what you need it to do and ask for advice in a forum. Then do something else. After someone answers your post set a timer for an hour and armed with the information, have a look a few different models on line. Compare prices if there’s time, if not, when the pinger pings, stop, schedule an hour on the printer search in for tomorrow and do something else.

This is a bit hit and miss, but even a nod to apportioning my time seems to be working in that it gives me the illusion of control. The time slots are flexible. I’m doing a course at the moment so I give myself 90 minutes to watch each new vid and do the homework. Writing is a minimum of a 20 minute sprint; more if I can, and so on. I try to write down what I need to do as well, so I can enjoy the feeling of achievement crossing it off the list afterwards.

Thing 2: write something every day.

Yes, set the timer, write for 20 minutes and hey presto there are 250 – 700 words that weren’t there yesterday. Not doing too well on that so far as I’m still ‘getting rid of Christmas’ as in thank you letters, taking decorations down and all that other malarky. Not long now though and my real, proper 2018 can start.

Thing 3: make it easier to write.

That is simple stuff like doing a plot outline and a scene list. That way, if there’s only twenty minutes to write, you avoid spending nineteen of them working out where everyone’s got to and what happens next. I am a born pantser and I was very sceptical about plotting but I did some free training from Joe Nassis and it is really good. If you get the chance, or find it online somewhere it’s so worth doing. He does a course attached, too, but I don’t have time to do it justice. The principles he sets out are brilliant though because the technique gives space for the characters to do their own thing but without you heading off after plot bunnies.

Other ways to make writing easier to do include:

  • Having more than one project on the go so there is always something I feel like writing.
  • Planning in advance (as mentioned) not hugely but enough to have titles for your scenes and be able to dive in and write one at any point in the book.
  • Doing sprints to focus my attention on what I’m doing.
  • Taking a break from the computer so that the time spent at the keyboard is quality time – ie knitting in front of the telly at night rather than writing mailshots or coding web pages.

Thing 4: set out my wares better.

Phark, alright no giggling at the back you smutty lot. At the moment folks can buy my books in a fair few places. They can also buy bits of my art, and bits of artwork from the books. After using some of my own artwork to illustrate a blog post the other day I linked it to a place where the picture is for sale as a card. I sold three. It occurred to me that I always sell a few cards when I take a stall to sell my books but that none of this is organised. None of it is anywhere easy for people to find if they want it. Then there are my books, currently, there’s is no way people can buy my books from my site.

However, just recently Bookfunnel introduced a system that will make that possible. It looks complicated but I am looking into opening my own online store, so people can buy ebooks direct from me.

Thing 5: diversify.

Leading up from Thing 4 really but … tidying up the other day I found the beginnings of a sketch of General Moteurs, and since Unlucky Dip, with my dodgy homemade cover seems to get way more downloads than my other books in giveaways it makes sense to resurrect plans to make more artwork of the characters like this.

Not General Moteurs

Guess who?

Originally, the plan was to do a spoof of the cover of A Hard Day’s Night but my pictures of The Pan of Hamgee came out really shit. To be honest, I thought they all came out really shit but other folks, people who don’t even know me, seem to disagree. An artist friend tells me this is usual because you’ll always be too close to your own drawings. Perhaps it’s time to try that one again, then see about turning it into postcards. Also on the agenda is making more things like the K’Barthan bling pictured to the right, or possibly below, but nearby anyway.

You can do all this stuff on sites like cafe press and zazzle. They are really expensive but they print, ship and process payment after which they give me a royalty – a pitifully small royalty but one that takes no admin or effort on my part after making the original product.

In other words, keep up the policy of paying more for cover art that can be used for other things.

Then there’s the eyebombing. I’ve really missed a trick there. The other day when sharing some of the year’s eyebombing highlights someone said,

‘You should make these into postcards! I’d buy a set.’

Amazingly, I’ve done nothing arty with my eyebombs short of sharing them on instagram and facebook. I’ve written the book text but left it sitting for lack of cash. Now I’m thinking I should have made a calendar and all sorts. Head desk. So for 2018, now that I am earning for the admin I do for my parents, my plan is to squirrel that cash away and then use it make more of the opportunities that arise, not to mention try and notice what is happening when said opportunities are busy smacking me about the face and still failing to get my attention.

Thing 6: chill.

Yep, that’s Thing 6.

You can never do all the things you ought to, so you just have to content yourself with doing what you can.

There’s been a bit of a journey this year with the situation with my parents and the sadness associated with it. Sadness can be a habit if you’re not careful. On the other hand, if you blank it too effectively you wonder what damage it’s doing inside, and you have to open yourself up to being hurt because that’s the only way you can engage with the people you love who are suffering.

Suffice it to say that this year has been about learning to do what it is possible to do, accepting that it isn’t as much as I’d like, and letting the rest go. It does feel as if I’ve made some strides with this now, not least in that I’ve found ways to shoulder the burden without ceasing to write, although I had to stop writing for about nine months to work that out. I think it was worth it. In other circumstances I imagine I could be a better mother, a better daughter and a better all round better person. But looking at it, I’m probably about as decent as I’m capable of being right now. I haven’t murdered anyone and I’ve only been rude to the gets I’ve encountered occasionally, so that’s OK.

Happy New Year everyone.

Run fast, laugh hard, be kind.

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Navel Gazing and Pocket Lint; MTM’s Year in Publishing 2017

Yes it’s time for me to do a round up of business. When I say business, I mean my business, such as it is, not ‘the business’ of world book sales. Anyway here goes.

So, how’s it been?

So so if I’m honest. Marketing-wise, I have not had the time to do it justice but I’ve turned the corner with the writing, definitely.

Sometimes, in publishing, it can feel as if you are running faster and faster to stand still. Now, clearly an author with my output rates isn’t going to be able to keep up with the standard, low margins high output model that is doing so well.

However, I have happened upon a group of authors who are doing very well thank you without ever troubling the best seller lists. It all started with a thread on Kindleboards here from Australian sci-fi and fantasy author Patty Jansen. She has also written a really good set of books about her alternative approach which I highly recommend any fellow authors who are stressing about sales, and what have you, should read.

Seeing as I’ve always had a slightly different approach to what I want to achieve with my book sales, I thought it was time I evaluated my efforts so far, all of them. I’m using Booktrakr, which may not be 100% accurate but is on point enough to give a good idea of my career wide sales.

One Man: No Plan M T McGuire

Which Genre? This one.

What genre are we in?

OK, in case you don’t know. I sell humorous science fiction fantasy action adventure books with a dash of romance here and there but no squelchy bits. They’ve been described by a friend as ‘Douglas Adams meets James Bond’.

Or to put it another way, the books are genre transcending, which is polite-speak for,

‘they’re an extremely hard sell.’

And when I say ‘hard sell’ I mean it. Frankly, I suspect I’d have an easier time trying sell a dog turd in a paper bag than my books. BUT when people finally read them, they do tend to enjoy them.

General overall goals in writing

Over the course of my writing ‘career’ I’ve rather loosely kept to four goals:

  1. Produce more books and find people who will love them.
  2. Find a way to access those people where I am in control ie no middle man like Facebook hiding my posts from everybody because they want me to pay for ads.
  3. Make some cash, although to be honest, I haven’t really written enough books to make much, but I’ve set a goal of £300 a month – about $400 – by the end of 2019.
  4. Increase sales from sites other than Amazon because they dick their suppliers around less than Amazon does.

In so far as I have a customer strategy, it’s get a small group of folks who love your work and buy everything you do. Keep as much control over your access to them as possible – ie have as many on your mailing list as possible rather than relying on third parties, although I’d rather someone followed me on Facebook than stayed on my newsletter list when they didn’t want to.

So basically, I’m looking at the 1,000 fans theory, I’m looking for superfans.

Goals for 2017.

Last year, such as they existed, my goals were:

  1. Experiment with new ways to find readers who will enjoy my stuff.
  2. Write more books.
  3. Concentrate on growing my mailing list and making sure that the people on there want the things I can give.
  4. Find out if there’s anything they want related to my fiction books which I can deliver but haven’t yet.
  5. Find out what the folks on my mailing list want if it’s not the books I’ve written and decide if I can deliver it to them.

What actually happened?

A lot happened in my personal life over 2017 and I had to stop writing and evaluate the situation. Basically, I had to work out if I could continue to write at all. Then I had to work out what, if anything, I could to change of the handful of factors within my control to make sure that happened. I sorted a new way of working. Tried it out, wrote a short and half a long, sent the short to my editor and … she died bless her.

So this year’s new release – originally for September – will now happen next year.

During the various crises, I let a lot of stuff ride, I just about kept the mailing list going with promos, book recommendations and group giveaways. I also did a couple of mailing swaps. I managed an International Bookbub.

However, it felt as if my book sales had stopped. Dead.

This morning, I decided I’d have a look and see if it really is and if so, how bad the situation was. Was I right thinking my sales are dropping like a stone?

Yes and no. Let’s look at some graphs!

No wait! Don’t run away.

Monthly Revenue 2014-2017

You can see three big spikes here, the first one, mid 2015 is when I first made Few Are Chosen permafree. I optimised it for UK readers and I was getting between eleven and thirty downloads a day. As you can see, a lot of those folks went on to buy the other books. In early May there was an algo change and the downloads dropped from eleven to thirty to about five or ten each day. Read throughs, drop accordingly. I never managed to optimise my listing for the UK store quite as effectively because they brought in KU and you weren’t allowed to use the words, Kindle, Good or Free so I had to bin my highest performing keyword phrase, ‘Good Free Kindle Books.’ As you can see, that cost me about $100 a month and Amazon about $30, which seems counter intuitive of them and is one of things that has me wondering if KU is about more about destroying the opposition than anything.

Monthly revenue from Jan 2013 to now … yeh you are welcome to laugh!

Numbers of books bought from 2013 to now note the 99c international Bookbub which makes a huge spike on right hand side of this graph but doesn’t register much in the revenue graph shown above.

As you can see there’s a small blip around the time Escape From B-Movie Hell comes out – Dec 2015/Jan 2016, that’s in red. I had about 400 people on my mailing list at that point and did a full-on launch. It shifted 65 of them but a lot of the original K’Barthan Series fans seemed unwilling to give Escape a try. Indeed, I wonder if those sales were simply folks from the Bookbub the month before who were moving on from the series to the stand alone.

Ditching the Permafree.

Since the permafree first in series was only getting a handful of downloads a day and a far lower proportion of those seemed to be translating into sales for the paid books, I put it back to paid in January 2017.

Yes, this cover attracts more readers than the cover for Few, but Escape, which has a person on it, does equally well.

Looking at the graphs now, that might have been a mistake but at the time, I’d recently discovered Instafreebie and was getting a fair few downloads there. Also, a 105k book is a hell of a lot to give away – I’m not sure if that means I got greedy or desperate. Since running a year’s worth of Instafreebie promos, I’ve discovered that the short story, Unlucky Dip, is downloaded far more in promos than the novel. Furthermore, the people who have downloaded it, joined my mailing list and stuck around are one of the most dynamic and responsive groups. Escape also scores more highly in downloads when offered free. Both the books doing better have a person, or people, on the cover. Clearly the adage about having people on book covers is true. Go figure.

The rates that folks read the other books seems a bit better on Instafreebie and Bookfunnel, too. Over the three years I had the first in series on permafree, it was downloaded 19,140 times (according to Booktrakr). You can gauge how well the permafree is working by the number of sales of the second book. The results break down as follows:

  • 2015-2016 227 onward sales of book 2 and the highest of the two others sold 275.
  • 2016-2017 there were 148 onward sales of book 2 and the highest of the others sold 206
  • 2017-2018 (or at least end of Dec) there were 32 onward sales of book 2 and the highest of the others sold 60. However, the box set, sold 54 copies so in ‘real’ terms it’s probably a drop in onward sales of about 20 books.
  • Revenue is way down from about £1,500 the two previous years to £800 or so

On the face of it, that looks as if a permafree book might still be a smart move for me, but perhaps a new one, or one written specially to give away would be the way to go. I am sorting a potential candidate out with the K’Barthan Shorts. If they come in at 10-20k each I can use one of those or do one longer one at 50k so I can try and get it onto Bookbub.

That said, though less people are buying my books, meaning that growth has, in theory, slowed down, if those people are folks I can access, directly with new release bulletins, rather than being at the whim of Amazon, Facebook or the like, they might be a lot more valuable to have on my side in the long run.

Instafreebie or Bookfunnel versus Facebook Ads and Permafree.

Is the $20 a month on Instafreebie worth the outlay? Possibly. When I joined Instafreebie I was on a $10 account at Bookfunnel so I kept that and added Instafreebie by turning the Facebook Ads off (I was getting about 20 new sign ups a month for $30).

The thing with Instafreebie is that, barring the ones who’d downloaded Escape and Unlucky they seem to take a very long time to get round to reading, we are talking, literally, years in some cases from what they’ve told me, but they are keen, and interested, and they also buy from sites other than Amazon so they fit my ambitions to increase my access to readers on other platforms. Hopefully I’ve been sewing some seeds there.

With Instafreebie, 2,417 readers have downloaded books from me in return for mailing list sign up. I have offered three different books and I suspect I may have shot myself in the foot there with folks on my mailing list downloading all of them. This could well go some way to explain the drop in income I have experienced although this year, Escape, the pariah stand alone, has done way better this year although I did get a 99c International Bookbub on that. Then there’s the fact many haven’t read the books they’ve downloaded yet, so people are not reading them quickly and buying all the other books the way they were after downloading the permafree. Finally, there’s price, I have put it up from $4.99 to $8.99 – and lower on Amazon where the books are still $4.99. I may need to review that.

Interestingly, at Bookfunnel, I’ve given away 148 books – some a short and some the original permafree – in return for mailing list sign up, and 2,251 copies of Few Are Chosen, alone. Of those, 306 were giveaways and the rest were people who’d signed up to get the book on Instafreebie clicking the link on my autoresponder sequence to download the book from Bookfunnel.

I give the second book away in my mailings, too. 2,835 folks have downloaded those; 60% of the folks who’ve visited the download page.

Clearly it’s much easier to download books from Bookfunnel than from Instafreebie!

The numbers for this year that I gave in the last section suggest that the permafree made a big difference and that I should definitely add it to my marketing arsenal!

Sales from other vendors than Amazon

Free books given away. The big spike in the middle is an international Bookbub and the other to the left is an E-reader News Today.

This is the same graph; free books but shown by vendor. After the Bookbub vendors other than Amazon feature much more prominently. Woot!

Clearly the Bookbub for Escape From B-Movie Hell resulted in some sales on other sites than Amazon. At last there are other colours edging into the dark blue. To my delight, the trend continues right through to today. Kobo promos are excellent for this. What appears to be happening is that sales of my books on Amazon are, indeed, tanking since the April algorithm change. However, sales on the other sites have held steady. I never expected this. Sure, I do Kobo promos and they are excellent but Smashwords are delivering too. Google play is tailing off a little but sales are still trickling in – for all the reports that they are making free books invisible, a permafree on Google Play might be a good plan.

Paid book sales by vendor. Amazon still has the major share but Kobo and Smashwords are coming up the rails.

 

This is my yearly income since I’ve been publishing books.

If we look at the yearly income graph we can see a substantial drop this year on last year. It also includes a 99c international Bookbub.  Whereas most months, in 2016, I was selling at least one book every day, this year, that’s not happened at all and you can see that with no permafree there are fewer downloads of the second book in my series.

Is it all bad?

D’you know, I’m not sure but I think it might be better than it looks. April on Amazon was miserable for me this year. That could be an algo change, or it could simply be that after four months the last of the folks who’d downloaded the first book in my series for free had bought the rest. And of all the sales channels, it’s Amazon which is down the most, with Google Play dipping a little. Kobo and Smashwords seem to be reasonably stable.

Clearly, I want my books everywhere so I will always sell them on Amazon, but I also want to get away from relying on a single retailer which, in my experience, has been a more of a primadonna to supply to than the others. At the moment it looks as my efforts to widen the field, at least, are succeeding. Also, bear in mind I’ve not had a new book out for two years and my duties of care have eaten into my work time so I’ve done far less marketing. As we speak I have some ambivalent AMS ads which aren’t doing that well – and to be honest, I think it’s going to take too long to research and produce properly targeted ads to make them viable. However, I will definitely return to Facebook ads and I will also dip my toe into a couple of other advertising channels in the New Year. It may take months to produce some ads, and it will take months to produce some books, but a couple of hours a week on these things is better than nothing at all.

What does this tell us?

  • That I am correct and my income is dropping.
  • That it might be worth my looking at a permafree again, but something shorter than a full 120k book.
  • That my upped prices may be a little too high, either overall or on some sites.
  • That other platforms will tolerate a higher price than Amazon.
  • That my particular rate of output might be better suited to other platforms than it is to Amazon.
  • That my decision to pitch my books as artisan crafted rather than mass produced is the right one.
  • That people might, possibly, be taking longer to read free books.
  • That figures are sometimes different to your expectations.
  • That marketing evolves all the time, what works today may not work tomorrow.
  • That Amazon is quirky – and therefore best not relied upon.
  • That you can infer many things from the same information.
  • What works for other authors may not work for you.
  • Cultivating the right connections is important. You need to find places where folks will share information with you and where you can share it with them. Almost all the decent marketing information I’ve had this year comes from two groups, one on Facebook and one on Goodreads.
  • I think there may be a disconnect between the kind of people I think are on my mailing list, and reading my books, and the folks who actually are.

Tune in next week, if you can bear to, to discover how I’m going to try and breathe some life back into my book sales for 2018.

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When dyslexic people try to fill in forms … #dementia

This week, a cry for sympathy rather than help, hopefully, in a way that is amusing or useful to you.

Last night, McOther and I were invited to a Christmas party. We went. He from London, me from here. I met him there. I was late because our babysitter couldn’t get here before 7.00pm – although I had only just hopped out of the shower when she arrived. This year, the babysitter had not had a car accident, McOther was not in the middle of some stupid deal and it all went off without a hitch. Until we drove home at which point we found a sign announcing that the road would be closed at the next junction. So we ended up having an interesting adventure driving around the Suffolk countryside on muddy single track roads, in the middle of the night, at temperatures of about four below so the mud was mostly ice.

This is the story of my life right now.

Nothing is quite going to plan.

It’s not that things are going badly, or over complicated even, just that they are consistently arse-about-face. The simple things complicated and the complicated things … nope they’re still complicated. It’s not all hand of God like that one though. A lot of the cock ups are my fault.

Obviously with Christmas looming I’d expect things to be going slightly wrong, but this year, even November, which is usually a nice quiet month, got complicated. It all started about ten days in, as I was cresting a very creditable 25k in the first ten days of NanoWriMo. My brother phoned in a panic because the accountant who does Mum’s tax return had been onto him telling him that he must do this that and the other, and suggesting we remove all Mum and Dad’s remaining estate from stocks and shares and into a high interest account. It sounded barking to me but what do I know? Luckily after a few phone calls to check the situation, and a consultation with McOther who understands banking and shizz in a way I don’t, it was all sorted out but it took several days.

At the same time, my brother raised a second thing; that we need to have a properly legal power of attorney over Mum and Dad’s health – yes my lovely peps a Do Not Resuscitate form is not enough, why, I do not know but it seems they have to express this intention formally, using a living will or a special government form. The form is massive and it has to be witnessed, counter witnessed, another independent person has to sign to say Mum and Dad are not being coerced and they all have to do this in front of one another. The form has to be signed in a certain order, or it’s void and when it’s done it costs £110 to file each form, which you don’t get back if you fuck it up and you have to pay again to resubmit, although they will let you resubmit it a second time for half the fee.

To complicate things Mum and Dad’s DNR was signed three or four years ago and the legal stuff must be organised while Mum and Dad are still capable of stating their intentions about this or we would have to make them wards of court or something horrifically complicated. Mum is fine but I wasn’t sure about Dad. I knew I’d have to get the forms filled in and ready to discuss by Wednesday so I could go through them with him when I visited.

Having taken this all in, it occurred to me that I had pissed several days of Nano to the four winds but I had written the middle week of Nano off anyway, because Mum’s birthday is on 18th November and she isn’t really able to organise things like a cake, day out etc for herself so some of that, notably the cake for 15 people, would fall to me. We were all going to have lunch with her at the pub on the Saturday. Likelihood of both attorneys, both deputy attorneys, Mum and Dad in a compos state and enough hangers on about to witness the thing being in the same room in the same place again within another year, low. And, as I said, the middle week of November was already shot writing-wise so I decided I may as well lob the form filling into the mix. Along with the cake.

Finding the forms online was reasonably straightforward and I printed them out and set about filling in the obvious bits. After cock ups galore, I ran out and when I came to print some more I discovered that the latest Windows update had some issue with older printers so I couldn’t print them. So I rang and got them to send me two copies. Thanks Microsoft, I have a computer that won’t save anything to the remote hard drive I bought for it after the last upgrade and which can’t print anything in less than half an hour after this one. Way to go. Yes if I had world enough and time, I am sure I could browse our help fora, as you very reasonably point out, because I’ve nothing better to do with my available time than spend a couple of weeks of it fixing my computer so the drive is useable and its 64bit operating system is, once again, able to talk to a 34 bit printer. I could. But unfortunately, you total and utter bastards, I have a life.

After the helpful intervention from Microsoft I sent the forms to my parents’ email address and on the next Wednesday, I visited Mum and Dad, printed out several copies and set about filling them in. I must state, at this point, that while the forms, themselves, are a nightmare, the government helpline to assist you is staffed by wonderful people who answered my numerous questions about the bleedin’ obvious with politeness and endless patience.

Filled in forms 1 and 2 on the left, instructions and stuffed up pages on the right. Pen, for size reference.

Naturally, since it’s a government form, and you have to have about ten people in the room at once to sign it, two of whom have dementia, plus three children ranging in age from seven to nine who are a bit bored. Distractions are everywhere and opportunities to fuck it up are legion. Add in that the person ‘organising’ it all, the ‘sensible one’ in my family is pathologically unable to fill in any form without fucking it up at least three times and you have a recipe for disaster. I had seven copies of each page. I used every. single. one.

Indeed I had to print an extra one to redo when I discovered that if I so much as scratched out a letter Mum and Dad, the two attorneys and the two deputy attorneys all had to initial them.

Mwahhahahahargh! Another MTM cake wreck.

Meanwhile, a family tragedy overtook two of the carers on the morning, which meant the cake for fifteen which I had made and McMini had helped me ice was somewhat redundant. It also meant that I was going to have to arrange lifts to the legion of appointments with the nurse, hospital, dentist etc that Mum had over the following two weeks while they were on compassionate leave. Obviously, dear Mum did just enough to make it really complicated, organising lifts, then forgetting, or asking me to and forgetting and then organising them so we found two doughty folks had stepped up to help. But we got it sorted. Just! And it could have been so much worse, because the other two carers stepped into the breech and were wonderful while the other ladies were on compassionate leave. We still had a good day on the birthday, Mum called it her ‘best birthday ever’ even if a cake for fifteen was a little more than was required … and I got the forms signed …

… Except I didn’t.

Oh no.

Dick brain here managed to miss the page where the attorneys have to sign and so I had buy two hard backed envelopes so I could send those to my brother to sign – with the second envelope stamped and self addressed inside (he lives further from a post office than I do). I left them to ‘rest’ for a week while he was doing that, on the pretence this would make me more efficient when I checked them but really, just to see if I could jemmy in the last few days of Nano.

This week, there was a panic about Christmas, who would make the cake? Not me!  Yippeee! Who would order the turkey, Mum hadn’t, I did, just in time. Phew.

And then yesterday, back to the forms. One round of final checks as I was getting them ready to post and I realised one of the other pages my brother signed had managed to slip through without a witness signature.

Head desk.

Another joy of having a form of dyslexia, you only seem to see these things one at a time, so you check and find a mistake, rectify it, check, find another and so on. I just hope I cease to find mistakes eventually, except, when I cease to find them, it won’t necessarily mean that there are none.

Anyhooo … The lady who had signed as a witness isn’t one I routinely see on a Wednesday. Would I have to arrange a special meet? I rang the government helpline and was told no it could be someone different. So now, on Wednesday, the lovely carer on duty is going to sign as witness.

At the same time, I was working on the other form my brother mentioned, the thing where Dad gets a community charge reduction. Turns out I’d filled that in and sent it to the Doctor to certify at some stage AND COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN! Help me God! How? I found out when he popped round to see us on Wednesday with it and while it was a lovely surprise to discover I’d been so efficient it was a bit of a shock to have completely erased such a land mark event from my memory.

Form for Dad was signed, I’d done one for Mum on the off chance but Mum has no diagnosis for her memory gaps and isn’t really mentally prepared for the news, if we are to get her one, so I can’t get a reduction for her but I can get one for Dad. So yesterday, having discovered I’d bollocksed the Lasting Power of Attorney for Health forms I turned to the Community Charge Disregard for Dad, called a ‘disregard’ because they disregard that person when totting up the bill, except they only disregard 25% of him but I’m not complaining because it’s a sod of a lot better than refusing to disregard him at all, sorry where was I? Oh yeh.

There are two parts to the form, a bit the doctor filled in and another bit which I fill in. Needless to say, I ballsed it up. Manfully I print one. After twenty minutes of printing enough of it has come out for me to discover it’s auto set for landscape.

The form is portrait.

Swearing colourfully, I cancel the print job and after waiting ten minutes for the printer and computer to sort that out with one another, I check the ‘portrait’ box and set it to print again. I leave it and sort the washing into darks and lights, change the sheets on the beds and come back to find it’s printed a quarter of a page. I go and make a spag bol for half an hour and discover it’s now half done. Then it occurs to me I have no address to send it to so I ring the council to ask, they ask me for my account reference, I say I don’t know it and ask for the address which the lady thinks is on the form but she’s kind enough to give it to me anyway. As I write it down, I hear the sound of the printer spitting out the completed sheet. I look at the form. It is set out as a table with shaded headers for each bit. At the top, above the table is a tiny bit of type which I only notice now that the woman has asked me for it. ‘Account Ref’ it says.

Fucking shit.

Do I have the account reference number? Do I bollocks?

But wait! I can look at the bank statement, it will be on there won’t it? I spend five minutes getting into the account with the special secret code that you get by putting a different password into to your phone and have to type in before it expires and it’s numbers and you have discalculia so you have to do it twice and it forgets all the other answers you’ve typed on the page because you got the one wrong so you have to type them all back in and then the new passcode has expired so you have to go back to your phone and do the other password again and so on.

I get in. Is the ref number there?

No.

Arse.

Second job for Wednesday, find the knobwanking reference number.

Here’s hoping that when I check these bastard forms next time, they will all be in order.

At the end of it all, Mum, my brother and my sister in-law sat me down and told me I must pay myself for the stuff I do for Mum and Dad. So now I’m earning one day’s ‘consultancy’ a week from them, which is what I’d be doing if I was efficient.

On top of that upside, what of Nano? Well, I did 35,000 words in less than half of November. OK so that isn’t a ‘win’ but in the number of days in which I was actually doing writing, that is a gargantuan result. And, it shows that:

  1. The Joe Nassis method of planning a bit, even if you don’t normally plan, on line seminar I went to and took copious notes about does actually work for me.
  2. That if I can make time to write, any time at all, and structure it properly, I’m fucking productive!
  3. There will be a novel out next year.

Woot.

Finally, a note on powers of attorney or planning generally. My parents sorted out enduring power of attorney forms in 2004 so that if anything happened we could take care of their finances smoothly. At that time health was usually implied, certainly in the way the homes and hospitals my grandparents ended up in consulted my parents over their wishes in regard to treatment. As I said last week, I remember talking to my Mum after the home where my Grandmother was had asked her whether they should aim to cure my grandmother of pneumonia or make her comfortable. These days she would need to be officially and legally entitled to make that decision for my Grandmother and likewise, I need to be, to make decisions like that for her and Dad. Best laid plans of mice and Mum and Dad etc. You can plan but even when you do, you have to accept that laws change, the landscape alters and things move on.

Also, if you’re doing these forms for finances it is worth consulting the bank. Despite having power of attorney over my Dad’s affairs, I am not allowed a bank card for him, so it’s worse than useless when it comes to the day to day matter of trying to buy things or get cash out for my parents, etc, etc. Luckily, they have a joint account and it is a key reason why we haven’t activated Mum’s; because she needs cash, and she’s two to three hours away by car, so the ability for her, or her carers, to get to a cashpoint themselves, or pay for things by card in a shop is very important. I am certified by the bank to do telephone and internet banking now, which helps a lot. So I keep an eye on her bank account, pay the wages and liaise with their stock broker when they need more cash. It works very well, and I consult Mum each week about what she’s paying and to whom, but it’s definitely a compromise and I’m not 100% sure if our method is exactly by the book.

After all this, the other day, McMini with his somewhat gappy smile, grinned at me and then, pointing to the large empty space where his new front tooth will grow said, ‘Look Mummy! My gums are bald.’

And so it continues …

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