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What I know now, that I wish I knew then …

The advice kettle is sage and wise and also keeps the water hot, like an urn, only not.

Back on topic this week, I was asked for some advice by a writer who is just starting work on her first book. Even though she appears to be of sound mind, she was dead chuffed with what I wrote and asked if I’d share it on my blog so she could send people to the post. As a result, by special request, here is my rambling view on er … some of the aspects of writing that popped up.

BEFORE YOU START ….

1. What do you want to do?
a) have fun writing a book.
b) have fun writing a book and maybe make a bit of side cash – or at least get the cover artwork and editing costs back.
c) Rule the world: Yeh, move over JK, I am on your tail.

2. Decide on a target genre, who your reader is and what genre/store category your book fits into. Are there other books for the kind of reader you are aiming at. What are they like? What do their covers look like? Hint, you do NOT want your cover to stand out, you want it to be slick, well designed and exactly the same as all the others so readers know what they are getting (I so didn’t do this). Are you going to mash genres? Say you’re writing Sci-fi, is it something else too? Is it funny? Is it also fantasy. Are there other books like yours? Who writes them?

Your answer to question 1 will affect this as if you’re looking to make a living you need to totally conform to the standard tropes. Unless you are going to be an outlier. I thought I was going to be an outlier. It didn’t work too well for me. I write because … actually, I write because I can’t walk away from it and to be honest, walking away would be the sensible option right now.

Pantser or Plotter?

I was firmly in the pantser camp to start with – as in I’d just write and see where it went. It went to lots of good places but my first book took 13 years. Pantsing may well slow your rate of production so if a fast output is your aim plotting is good. Likewise, if your daily existence is the equivalent of having someone opening the top of your head and stir your brains about, constantly, with a wooden spoon, some kind of plot outline is going to be a huge help. Especially if you have menopausal brain fog on top (yes apparently that really is a thing and yes, of course I have it).

I find that even though I now write an outline, there is plenty of wiggle room. The key thing is to experiment and find what works best for you. I find that if I get too confined by an outline I stop enjoying it as much, I quite like the whole wondering around and seeing where it will go aspect, but when I relied solely on that I got frustrated with having to keep stopping while my brain sorted itself out. I really enjoyed the learning process – even though it was trying at times.

However, these days I am very light on time so if I want to produce a book every five years, I do need to plot a little bit so I don’t waste time. On the last two books of the K’Barthan Series I wrote 60k words I didn’t need. Right now my year’s output stands at about 40k so I can’t afford to waste a year and a half’s writing time on plot bunnies. Hence I now plot, but with enough wriggle room for the characters to act on their own initiative. This works for me – and that’s the important take away from this one: that what works for me may not work for you.

Write in whatever way suits you best.

Try to avoid being too rigid in your approach

My brain and my life.

To put this in perspective, basically, I pantsed my first novel and I wrote three versions that I sincerely wish I hadn’t written and one half cock novel (which I managed to tidy up and turn into something decent: my fifth published novel) before I managed to produce a book that measured up to my Quality Standards.

In that time, the male lead had appeared out of nowhere, one character had changed from a mechanic to a ganglord, the first book had ended up being the third and fourth ones and the other two were the backstory that popped up out of nowhere at the same time as my getaway-driving male lead. By the time I’d got to the last book, the plot was so complicated my brain was just about melting out through my nose – oh no wait that was hayfever.

What I mean is, you don’t have to stick too rigidly to the plan but you may have to shake things up originally and see what falls out to know if your book is going to work, or if it’s two books, or a series of short stories, or if the character who has just turned up in prison really is the male lead. Sometimes you get too many characters. Eric, from Escape From B-Movie Hell was actually in the K’Barthan Series to start with. Obviously he was human in that, but he was also telepathic. I just made him into an alien for his new world, his character didn’t changed much.

Likewise, at the second short in a series of five, I discovered that what I was writing was a novel. We’re 60k in and yes, I’ve already binned 40k. I’m not learning from my mistakes am I? But at the same time, the short was not a short so there was no point in forcing the issue. Now it’s a long. So what? It will be what it will be. Just try different approaches and you will find a number of different things that work.

Grammar and Punctuation

Bollocks to it. It’s the editor’s job. As you write you learn more, as you work with a decent editor you will learn loads. The point is, you will need an editor unless you are a very and I mean very rare breed. Most of us are too close in to self edit. Additionally, the only thing I really know about grammar and punctuation for sure, is that there are no right answers.

It doesn’t matter what you do, someone, somewhere will always complain so a lot of it is about having faith in your editor. I do edit my work but that’s more word choices, and tweaking stuff so it makes sense; structural things. It also helps me to do this if I need a bit of re-orientation with my giant sprawling novel. Also I have regular read throughs of what I’ve done so far so I can zoom out to the overall big picture. Otherwise I can get kind of lost. Am I a grammar nazi? No, that’s the job of my editor.

Also there will be points where you really dislike your book or think, ‘blimey this is a bit meh.’ That’s all natural. Everyone does it. Sometimes, a good way of getting round that is to work on several projects at the same time. I do that because my life is hectic and I can’t afford to not write something when the stars align and the grey matter is fired up because it happens so rarely. But working on multiple projects also helps you to ensure you’re always working on something you’re up for and enjoy.

Learning Your Craft

I never bought any how to write books – actually, I tell a lie, I have a Chuck Wendig Book on writing which is epic.

However, mostly I’ve learned to write by reading a lot of work by authors who write the way I want to; Pratchett, Adams, Woodehouse and Bryson, notably, along with Tom Holt, Robert Rankin, Nick Hornby, Spike Milligan and Tom Sharp but also non comic writers like H E Bates, Graham Greene, Neville Shute and Asimov. There’s the odd dash of historical fiction, Moonfleet when I was a kid, the Children of the New Forest and The Three Musketeers, Jane Austen. In addition my work has gained a lot of influences from TV; Dr Who – check my non violent hero who never thumps anyone – the original StarTrek, StarWars are the three big ones but also a lot of the 1960s TV shows like Get Smart, the Man from UNCLE, the Avengers, Thunderbirds etc.

This is where I confess that I am the only living person in existence who is not going to bang on about To Kill a Mockingbird or Moby Dick in this section. I have never read a word of either.

The point is, I’m guessing there is a similar list of relevant books to mine for each genre.  A list of must reads which any author would look to for inspiration if they wanted to write in it. If you don’t have one, make one.

The most important thing is patience. Nailing the whole write a book thing usually takes a long time. You are probably a faster learner than me, most people are, but it took me ages to write a book that measured up to my QS. On the upside, when I did, I knew at once that I’d cracked it.

Setting Deadlines

I don’t do this. It would kill me because if they were realistic I’d be in tears about how long each project was going to take and if they are unrealistic I’ll be beating myself up over failing to meet deadlines. I just set a long term goal and short term, realistic, targets and then creep slowly along. One of my friends got stuck a while back when we were at the same stages in our first book. I was stuck, too, but by telling myself it was temporary, or writing other scenes from other parts of the book, or, indeed other books entirely, I managed to keep on creeping slowly forward, I now have 5 books out, she’s just completing her third novel. Other writer friends have twice as many books out as me after two years in the game. So much of writing is a case of having a firm word with yourself and just getting on with it in whatever way you can. You may find deadlines work for you. I find they don’t but a handful of defined and doable goals, with no done by time, they do help. Like all this, you probably need to experiment to get your own happy medium.

In a nutshell, then, bollocks to deadlines; set targets.

Building an Audience

It’s well worth doing this as you go along rather than waiting until you’re ready to launch your first book. If you can manage a free short story you can give to folks in return for mailing list sign up that will help you to start growing a following. Open an account at instafreebie and bookfunnel to deliver the free book to folks. Join promos with other authors. Find websites and Facebook groups where you can chat to other writers in your genre and exchange marketing tips and ideas. For mailing, it’s up to you but I use Mailerlite – they’re cheap and do all the things I need them to do as an author.

This might sound a bit premature but if you can start getting people invested in you even if it’s only to share your journey, you are more likely to start off with some decent book sales.

Big caveat on your give away short though, it has to be your best stuff because it’s your shop window.

Working Out Who Your Audience Is

This is going to affect what you do considerably. For example it is really, and I mean really hard to reach young people or children online. I’d call my book Young Adult. When I wrote it, as well as me, I was thinking of my nephew, who was 12 years old at the time. When I do events, my books sell exclusively to 10-14 year olds, with the odd adult Pratchett fan thrown in. The buyers are usually parents who want to encourage their children to read books. Online, no matter how well your ads or your site piques their interest, kids will not be able to buy your books without their parents’ say so and you run into a whole heap of legal headaches if minors start signing up to your email list. The folks who buy my books online are 45 and over, more women between 45 and 50, more men over 50.

So, if you are going to sell your books, think long and hard about who you are selling to. You may need to concentrate on libraries or making a print version – Ingram Spark are good for this if you are looking for world wide sales and will get your book distributed far more widely then Createspace or Amazon Print and for far less per copy than LuLu.

Here are resources which might help focus your thoughts on production and marketing, anyway …

The first is a series of books about how to format paperbacks using word and publishing indie books. They are by this guy here:

Aaron Shepard

Mr Shepard’s books, From Word to Kindle and POD for Profit might be useful. The amount of information he is dealing with has increased so where I bought one book: Aiming at Amazon, which dealt with the process of making print books. I would have never got my paperback stuff sorted without them. If you are looking at children’s books it might be worth looking at Adventures in Writing for Children and The Business of Writing for Children and the ones he has written about making a useable kindle file using word!

The three other essential ones that will give you an idea of how you can go about building an audience, indie musician style, and sell your books are a three book set by Patty Jansen. I heartily recommend these as they also propose a way of working that is not reliant on any one bookseller and with a work rate that is realistically attainable. They are:

  • Self Publishing Unboxed
  • Mailing Lists Unboxed
  • Going Wide Unboxed

Links to buy them from all retailers can be found here – scroll down to the bottom of the page.
Or you can buy them, direct, from Patty’s Website here

I realise I’ve probably given you way more information than you might want and about stuff way further down the line than the point at which you are now. It might look daunting but the thing is, if you enjoy writing and work at it, you will get there, and when you do it won’t feel nearly as daunting, putting your work out there. It is like putting your soul on the table and inviting snide comments but somehow it works out OK and the more you do it the more your confidence builds and the more you begin to believe in your work. Not everyone will like your stuff but that’s OK. I have one star reviews and that’s fine, and if it isn’t fine, avoid reading the reviews! 😉

Finally, the most important things

IMPORTANT THING ONE: enjoy it. Enjoy writing and the love for it will shine through in what you say. If you write with conviction and enthusiasm, pretty much any plot will work, I mean, look at my stuff! The rest is gravy.

IMPORTANT THING TWO: never, EVER look at other people’s progress and compare it to yours. They are not you. Their life, their personality, and probably their books are different. Keep your eye on your own writing goals, make them realistic goals and work steadily towards them. Enjoy the process of learning and enjoy writing.

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How a battery charger saved my bacon …

…And the danger of over confidence when coupled with good intentions.

This week, I was going to talk a little more about happiness being a state of mind, but I only have a few minutes to do this in so it’s more of a dump it and leg it!

It’s been a busy week with a bank holiday at the beginning, a weekend away and a trip to my Uncle’s funeral today. It began with a bit of a dodgy start. Up at 5.30 expecting to leave by 6.00 but cocked it up and was late, finally leaping into the car at 6.15, I was not a happy bunny when pressed the starter and it turned over once and died. Tried again and it went ‘click’. I pulled the lever to open the boot and the cable snapped – for the second time in a year, I’ll have to book it in to be fixed. Luckily, it wasn’t all bad. Before snapping, the cable had actually unlatched the boot lid so I was able to get it open easily enough and access the battery to put it on charge. I was already fifteen minutes late departing, fifteen minutes too late to be able to take McOther’s car – it doesn’t go fast enough when there is quarter of an hour to recoup. As you can imagine, there followed a very tense ten minutes while I waited for the booster to charge the battery enough for the car to start. Yes. There was swearing.

On the upside, it did work, the car started and I was there just after nine because I missed the worst of the traffic on the dicky bits, i.e. the entire M25 which was uncharacteristically clear. Sure it was an hour early but that wasn’t a problem; there were cousins to chat to by ten past! I am so glad I got there. It was a lovely service, planned by my Uncle, himself, and it spoke eloquently of what I gather was a very peaceful and ‘good’ death. The priest was a lovely chap and spoke well about him, too. I did cry, and the bit that got me was the point where we said prayers for the sick and the list comprised Mum and Dad, while the prayers for the dead, apart from my uncle, were for my aunt, his wife. It was very moving, and a positive and uplifting, if sad, experience. It was wonderful to see my other uncle and aunt, and my cousins and my brother and all my cousin’s children who have grown into splendid young people, one with a microdot in tow. Well worth braving the roads.

However, there’s not much to say after that, at least, not in thirty minutes, so instead I’m going to share a story from Setting Tripwires for Granny and Other Tall Family Tales.

Learning to throw and missing …

This is a story about the disastrous consequences of having a sport obsessed older brother and the dangers of learning to throw, over arm. When my brother and I were little and lived in the school we used to run with the other housemasters’ kids. The amazing thing about it was that we probably had the kind of upbringing our parents, or grandparents, had rather than our contemporaries. We walked around the school, which was the size of a small village, and the adults kept an eye on us. If Mum wanted us home for tea she’d just ring round the other housemasters, starting with the most likely, to see if we were playing with their kinds and then the housemaster’s wife would come and tell us it was time for tea. This was standard procedure for all of them so we got to play alone much more than we might have done.

During this time, most of the kids I hung out with were my brother’s age so they were boys. As a result, their first priority was to teach me the most important things in life, how to kick a ball properly and how to not throw like a girl.

Actually, I used to be able to throw reasonably well but I’ve never managed to get a chuffing ball to go that far overarm, maybe it’s the bingo wings interfering with it or something, there seems to be a bit too much flexion in my arms and not enough … um … hurl. Yeh, whatever it is, they failed. My nine year old can throw as far as me. Anyway, on with the story.

My brother decided, when I was four, that he must teach me to throw over arm. After weeks of intensive coaching, I did finally crack it and could do a very passable overarm throw for a four year old girl. The day came when one of the lads had his birthday party. There we were, a massive group of kids running riot on the lawn and I was anxious to show my throwing prowess. Anxious but nervous. Some of the boys were throwing a lump of wood about, the foot rest from one of those turned wood chairs (check name). The point came when it landed at my feet.

‘Hey, I can do this!’ I thought and I picked it up. Flung my arm back over my head to get a really good overarm lob on it and … oh dear … let go. The wood flew up into the air, hit a window, which broke and landed back at my feet in a shower of glass.

The others stared at me in silence.

I had no idea if they were horrified at my pathetic attempts at throwing properly, or just thought the way the glass had showered down on me was really cool. All I could think of was how surprised I was that the throwing had gone so badly.
Never mind, I’d remembered how it felt to throw, muscle memory and all that, I would be able to throw over arm.
The window belonged to the house next door and the housemaster of said house came striding across the lawn looking a bit stern.

You did what???

‘Oi! You’ve just broken a window.’
‘I’m very sorry, I said.’
He looked up at the window and down at me and the piece of wood.
‘What on earth were you doing?’ he asked.
With complete confidence in my newly acquired throwing prowess I replied,
‘I was just trying to do this!’

I picked up the piece of chair and threw it, over arm, towards the assembled crowd.
Except I didn’t.
I did exactly the same thing again. And guess what?
Yep, you’d better believe it.
I broke another window.

Which just goes to show that even when you are absolutely sure of yourself, and have the most well-meaning intentions, it’s sometimes best to be cautious, engage your head as well as your heart and think before you act, otherwise, it can all backfire horribly.

In light of the storm rocking the independent publishing world this week, it seems that’s still an important lesson.

 

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Chin up lass!

There is a popular trope that being happy is just a state of mind. It’s a little more complicated than that, I suspect but I think there is something in the idea that trying to cultivate a positivity of outlook can help. For me it’s definitely about noticing things. Noticing the smell of hyacinths from the flower bed beside our back door. Noticing the way the birds start to sing way, way more loudly from January on. Noticing how even in December, the bulbs are starting to break through. If I wasn’t lucky enough to spot these signs of hope and spring, naturally, I suspect I would be a much less happy person. But once you’ve noticed this stuff once, maybe you look harder for it the next time? Who knows.

This week, has been … interesting. Really tough at times. Not helped by a dash of sleep deprivation; they resurfaced a bit of our street … at night and, apparently, with the help of the Mysterons.

They also foolishly parked their rollers etc outside my house where I could eyebomb the living smeck out of them so there’s an upside to everything but …  after a couple of noisy nights mental energy was low by about Tuesday and by Wednesday I was running on fumes – no not my farts, I’m trying to say there wasn’t much fizz in the tank – and there was even less after I had to sort out a bit of a ‘situation’ at Mum and Dad’s. Suffice to say, I should be driving to Hexham right now to celebrate the 50th Birthdays of two lovely friends from school. And I’m not.

In my defence, it’s a five hour trip each way and after my uncle’s death, the night works and a furore (now sorted) that blew up around my parents this week, I decided that if I was being realistic, there were not enough spoons/fuel in the tank – my tank, not the car’s – to do 600 miles in bank holiday traffic. I cancelled. I feel bad about cancelling but sitting here right now, I know I’ve done the right thing.

Meanwhile alongside these it has been a week of small and unusual things. Lovely things that have lifted my spirits. Rare stuff. It’s strange how these things happen sometimes, often when the rest of your world is at its worst. Little mini-boosts that filter through to you, as if the world is trying to tell you, in it’s own small way, that despite feeling that you haven’t measured up, it’s alright.

First, an account from a friend of someone waxing lyrical about my intelligence – as in that she thought I had some – left me with a nice warm feeling. The Scottish man who served me at the market today who asked if I’d be having those strawberries and without thinking I said, ‘Aye.’ The moment in church when a lady visiting, who had the misfortune to sit near me, tapped me on the shoulder at the end of the service and thanked me for my singing. I’ve discussed my singing before, an attribute about which I was teased a great deal at school – so much singing, so little of it in tune. But recently people have been saying how nice my voice is. I’m not sure if something’s happened to my voice, if the people in church are tone deaf or if I’ve always had a decent voice and the girls at school were just jealous. Whatever it is that’s happened there, I suddenly feel I can sing. I’ll take that and be happy!

This last fortnight, after the death of my uncle, I felt very low, about Dad as well as about him. Strangely, I’ve been seeing butterflies and rainbows everywhere. Butterflies, obviously, because it’s spring. Rainbows; I had a memorable journey back from Sussex to Suffolk this week; two and a half hours over waterlogged roads in bright sunlight. Lots of spray, car got a Sussex respray and was covered in white chalky puddle water stains, visibility was terrible, lights on but blue sky above and rainbows dancing around me everywhere pretty much the whole way home. That was a hell of a thing.

This is hardly a phenomenon, either, after all, it’s typical April weather really, showers then sun but it’s not something I’ve witnessed in quite such abundance before and it’s different to the norm so it makes for a change. Some ditzy article I read somewhere, which I can’t find now, of course, talked about about how butterflies are messengers from your guardian angel to let you know s/he’s listening, while rainbows are messages of reassurance from the cosmos. Butterflies are wonderful, they’re always going to cheer me up and as for the rainbows, well, when something is able to make a British motorway look beautiful then, dubious theories on cosmic reassurance aside, it’s still uplifting.

Then after a fair time with no reviews one from ‘An Amazon User’ for Few Are Chosen popped up this week. I always think that makes it sound like some kind of drug.

‘Hello, I’m MTM and I’m a recovering Amazon User.’ [applause] ‘Yeh, it’s tough but I’ve been clean several months now.’

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, the review. Actually, they left it two weeks ago but I only found it this week. It reminded me of something my brother in-law said. He thought there were two interesting, and slightly amazing, phenomena about the reviews of my books. The first thing he pointed out was that if you look at most reviews on Amazon, generally across the site, while some are superb far more are less than articulate. He felt a surprisingly high number of reviews for my books were witty and amusing, as if the reviewers loved the jokes in the books and are joining in. If that’s true, it’s a lovely thing for them to feel and I’m delighted it’s happened. The second thing he thought was intriguing is the fact that even the one-liners are reasonably well spelled and punctuated, suggesting a level of intelligence in the readers reviewing my books that is way above average.

Mwahhahahrgh! So there we have it. Congratulations to anyone who has read my books, then. Clearly you are very smart and arbiters of good taste! Phnark! It is a cheering thought though, because it makes me feel that I am reaching my intended audience; eccentric people like me. And if the people who feel moved to write reviews of my books want to join in with the jokes then maybe there is the possibility that the small beginnings of a community of … I dunno … K’Barthan-heads? Is forming. Maybe, or maybe not but it feels like a little seed of hope.

And I needed all those small things this week. You see, one of the hardest bits about the death of my uncle was the way it made me feel about about Dad. Sometimes, when I think he’s suffering or unhappy, I wish Dad wasn’t around, not because I want him dead but because it’s hard to see him suffer, it’s difficult not to see his disability as Dad going under and dragging Mum down with him. It’s horrible to think either of them is unhappy. Other times, when he seems cheerful, I see, with crystal clarity, that he is a man with a disability and I am being incredibly able-ist and condescending. At least it makes for a new topic to beat myself up over.

In a minor miracle this week, something in me was able to let a lot of that baggage go. Dad is, mostly, happy and enjoying life, as is Mum. That’s really all I can hope for. No doubt the worry will return but for now, I’m OK with the situation again, things are on an even keel. The house I grew up in is still a place of laughter and compassion. The rest is kismet, right?

Perhaps that’s all you need to do to be happy; look for the small gifts, be kind to yourself and be kind to others.

Who knows? I leave you with the review, because it was lovely. Thank you and Godspeed ‘Amazon User’.

Don’t Giggle Out Loud
You know when you are sitting in an airport and the guy next to you starts giggling at the book he is reading? And it’s so annoying because you can’t quite see the title? This is the book. The anti hero, The Pan, is terrific, his search to find the Chosen One before the ultimate baddy Lord Vernon gets his evil hands on her, The Swamp Thing, all go to make a refreshingly funny and well laid out plot. Oh and did I mention the car chase? or the lovely old man, or the drink that hits the spot, especially of the evil one’s soldiers? But that would spoil the story for you. Go read it yourself. It only has five stars as Amazon is tight with them.

 

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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 …

_______________________________________________

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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