Tag Archives: writing

Can I have fried brains with that? Time management/productivity hacks for writers #amwriting #writingtips #timemanagement

The longest blog post in the world … probably.

This week I will be mostly talking about making something out of nothing, or as that pertains to my world: time management.

As many of you will remember, my lack of minutes in the day to do … well … anything much was a continuing trope in many of my posts last year. The frustration of not producing any meaningful work while any ‘free’ time melted away faster than the polar ice caps was strong, and the whinging on my blog extensive, as a result. Sorry about that.

However, good news, I think. It looks as if I’ve fixed it, possibly, or at least, bodged the problem enough for my writerly mojo to return. And as I bitched and complained my way through last year, I did realise that I’m not the only one who struggles with balancing their duties to others and their requirement to write. So I thought I’d share the stuff that has worked for me in the hope that, perhaps, it will help anyone reading this who has similar struggles. So off we go …

A long time ago in a galaxy far away …

Last November, actually, Mum was in hospital again, and as I tried to sort everything out, and write, and be a mum to my own son, a good daughter, and be happy, burnout loomed.

Once we got her sorted out, and back home with Dad, I knew that if I was going to carry on writing I would have to make changes, even if it was just changes to my attitude. And I was going to have to make them fast. I’m an old hand at this now. The trick is not so much as to solve the problem but to alter my thinking so I see it differently. This time the ‘solution’ I arrived at was twofold:

  1. I couldn’t write the kinds of books I had been writing and deal with the things I needed to do in Real Life. I would therefore write shorter, less complicated books.
  2. It was clear that many folks who read my books enjoyed the K’Barthan stuff best. And I knew K’Barth well. There wasn’t so much time for experimentation right then – so that was easy. I’d write shorter, less complicated stories about K’Barth.

Enter the new series of 99p K’Barthan Shorts. In a bid to discover more details about the ‘market’s’ demands I asked what people would like to see more of. Gladys, Ada and Their Trev was the answer from everyone.

Roughseas asked me to write on about how Betsy, on Turnadot Street, started her Bordello. The answer popped up almost immediately. Meanwhile there was another one about The Pan of Hamgee’s early years on the Blacklist. That popped up reasonably fast too. So I had two ideas for short stories ready to go. All that was left was to write them.

Keenly aware that I can’t actually guarantee myself more than about 40 minutes to write in each day, it occurred to me that one of the problems with my rate of production was that its slowness sapped my morale, resulting in even less speed. So making some steady progress was essential to keep up my spirits and keep going. Obviously, as an authorholic, I am, literally addicted – stopping would have been much more sensible but it wasn’t an option. I decided to try and find a way to write more efficiently. I had a bit of a think and I came up with five ways that I could, possibly, give myself a hand:

  1. There might be some book production tools I could use to speed up and ease the process – such as writing software or text-to-speech software.
  2. Planning and plotting a bit before I start would help if I could tie it into the way I write.
  3. Writing shorter and less complicated stories would reduce the cerebral load (as previously mentioned).
  4. If I could improve my time management I might achieve more in the moments I had,
  5. My brain was fairly porridgey and I needed to find a way to re-enthuse it and sharpen it up while avoiding burnout.

1. Production tools

Yes, I am aware this sounds nuts but it occurred to me that one of the problems I face, writing, is that I usually keep the whole plot in my head. This is fine until I’m sad, or  stressed about other stuff, or my writing routine is constantly interrupted. Then, I can’t do it. I lose track of who is doing what, and with what, and to whom. When I make notes to help myself I still fail to remember, or at least, I fail to visualise what’s happening where, so written notes are unhelpful. So back in November 2016 I was spending three quarters of each writing session working out where I’d got to and catching up, and then about five minutes moving it forward before I had to stop.

As I pondered how to solve this knotty conundrum I saw a free seminar by a bloke called Joseph Michael about using a writing programme called Scriviner. Now, I confess, I’d never thought about using Scriviner, it seemed completely pointless, but I couldn’t help noticing, as I watched this free seminar, that the way you lay out a project in Scrivener appeared to cover a couple of my big writing problems.

  • Finding a way to list major scenes in a memorable way so I can work out a cohesive plot
  • Finding something that can remember what’s happened so far, and where I’ve got to, when my head can’t in a way that’s instinctive and at-a-glance.
  • Being able to put bits I like but can’t use yet somewhere close to hand so I can just nip over and cut and paste them in and out and remember they are there.
  • Being able to flip from my writing to my research easily  if I want to.
  • Being able to fit more writing into a short time.
  • In short, having all the information and prompts I need to write effectively in one place without burying one room of my house in post it notes.

The way Joseph Michael had his demo Scrivener set up, everything was laid out on screen where I could see it. My mental filing system is visual and it works horizontally. My ideal filing system would be a huge long table, with all the work in progress laid out on it. I’d walk up and down the table and see what needs to be done. If I try to file things vertically, in stacked trays or in drawers I forget they are there and cannot visualise what I am supposed to be doing or the shape of my task. I lose things in a pile.

My computer is a drawer – even using WordPerfect to write doesn’t fully ameliorate the impact of that, despite the fact it has its documents in tabs and I can switch from one to another with a single click. Things get lost and forgotten in my computer. Important things. Scrivener looked as if it might be the computer equivalent of a table rather than drawers, and when I found it on sale for  75% off, I decided to try it.

Bonus! Except While it was, indeed, the closest thing a computer can produce, in organising and filing terms, to a table, it was incredibly frustrating to use because it’s very much NOT intuitive in some respects. So I bought the training course for a truckload of money. BUT ONLY because it has a 365 day money back guarantee. No 30 day nonsense. A whole damn year. If I get stuck, I look up the problem on the course site, watch the video, which lasts about 3 minutes and I’m set. I am quite quick to pick up computer stuff but even so this worked very well for me. The way it’s set out is like an encyclopedia you can look things up in, rather than a course of long lessons which you annotate. Thus you sidestep the thing where your mind wanders as you take notes and you leave out a crucial click or step, one that renders your notes worthless and necessitates spending 30 minutes of your 40 minutes’ writing time watching a video, from beginning to end, to sort out where you went wrong. It’s way more useful than I expected, almost indispensable. Indeed, it’s probably paid for itself already to be honest. Bugger. Won’t be getting that refund then.

Around this time, I also saw McOther dictating email replies into his iPad and a light dawned. I could speak my books. However, after discovering that there is no way to teach my iPad how to write ‘eyebombing’ when I say ‘eyebombing’ and having the same experience with many other words like that, I reckoned it would be more trouble than it was worth. Even doing some dictation for my non-fiction book where I used the word, ‘spectacles’ instead of eyebombing – with a view to using search and replace, later – it was, frankly, too much of a ball ache. It occurred to me that the whole process of teaching speech-to-text software to understand my vocabulary, the correct spelling for the word arse and all the rest might take a lot more time than it would save. Doubtless I will give it a go at some point, but for the moment, I think I’ll put it in the someday-my-prince-will-come section of my list.

2. Planning and Plotting

Obviously what I envisioned achieving for myself here is far removed from compiling a comprehensive plot and then sketching the story by numbers.  I am, at heart, a pantser. However, it did occur to me that I could save myself a lot of time if I could kick the habit of developing so much backstory that my first scene ends up being one of the last ones. This is how I write: I get to know my characters, get interested in their pasts and before I know it, a new story has emerged. It’s usually a better one but having it turn up a bit earlier in proceedings would save me … well 60k of wasted words last year so, in short, the entirety of last year’s output (some of those words will be rescued or recycled but not all 60k).

I heard about a free seminar promoting a course called Story Engines. Story Engines sounds brilliant, but I can’t afford it. It didn’t help that there was only a short window, during the zenith – or is that the nadir – of the Christmas and post Christmas bankruptcy period. Why does everyone who runs a $500 closed course think a good time to open it up is December when everyone is skint? Sorry, I digress. The seminar was pretty good and opened my eyes to the kinds of questions I should ask myself. Questions which I thought I was asking already but clearly haven’t been. However, I could only afford one course and I thought that, possibly, I would work out more of the plotting stuff on my own than I would the workings of Scrivener. And the Scrivener course cost less. A lot less.

And I still have about 335 days in which to decide whether or not I like it! So I bought it.

3. Writing shorter

An absolute epic fail. For example, I’ve binned 20k of the ‘short’ about how Betsy’s bordello opened and I’m now just bubbling under 29,000 words into the new one. I think I may squish it into about 40,000 but it could run to 60,000. On the upside, I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN. Yeh. Thank you, Story Engines free training and lovely easy-to-see-what’s-going-on Scrivener layout. The magic is still happening, the picture is slowly de-pixilating and sliding into focus and the process is fun again. I also have a very much clearer idea of how Space Dustmen, the new series I’m working on, is going to go, and I’m really enjoying making notes and thinking about ideas. The characters are more focussed and yeh, things are happening there, too. Oh and there’s a non-fiction book.

On the writing shorter books front, then, null points. But on the writing, generally, a massive booyacka!

4. Time Management

We talked about the minuscule size of my writing window. How to make those minutes count then?

Scrivener was surprisingly useful and the plotting was helping but it was only a partial success. My efforts to write were still resulting in redundant words. Cf that 20,000 odd I mentioned just now and the other 40,000 from last year. Even though I will probably use three quarters of them, tweaked, a bit later in their prerequisite stories it was fairly essential that I did something to increase my rate of production and increase the suitability for immediate use of the stuff I produced.

So far, I’d some ideas plotted that I was really chuffed with, I’d laid out the basic chapters I thought I was going to write in Scrivener, added some notes, done the cards etc. But I needed more.

Somewhere, I read that comparing notes with other writers and posting your progress daily can really motivate you so I started a thread on a forum I visit. I’d also read that doing sprints works well for many people. You set a timer for twenty minutes and write until it goes off, have a 5 minute break and then rinse and repeat. I thought I’d see what I could do with that. I reckoned if I spent the first twenty minutes planning the scene and maybe writing a bit, and then the next twenty, going for it, I might get somewhere. No distractions, nothing, just writing the rest. So that day, I started my thread and explained what I was going to do. Then I turned off the internet, opened scrivener, sat down with the pinger set to twenty minutes and off I went.

Well.

That was a fucking eye opener I can tell you.

First sprint: 400 words, second 1000. Smecking Norah! Four weeks later, I have 28,800 words down. Even a hard, pulling-teeth-style sprint nets me 400 words. Just three of those sprints, ie an hour and a quarter given over to writing, and we are looking at 1,200 words, minimum. My record in one 20 minutes is 1,700. Typing. Every morning I can wake up knowing that, even if I only have half an hour to work that day, I can get a few hundred words done. Few things boost a writer’s spirits better than being productive.

I love the sprints and I love the camaraderie of chatting on the thread where we encourage each other and compare results. Definitely a really effective strategy, that one.

5. Avoiding staleness: saying, ‘bollocks’ to social media and making it quality time

With the sprints, Scriviner and even the plotting going well. I wondered if I could work on my freshness of approach. What I mean is, trying to persuade my times of  maximum brainpower to coincide with the times I had available to write.

After a lot of head-scratching it occurred to me that this writing game is a bit like a relationship in many respects. Sometimes, with dating, less is more. Three hours of quality time are worth many more hours of half cock time spent not really connecting that just make the whole thing go stale. I realised that, when quality writing time was thin on the ground, I was spending hours on social media while I did other things looking at emails, or generally staring at my iPad and phone to try and keep myself connected to the electronic ether and with that, somehow, to my writing. Even sitting at home in the evening watching tv, or while I was cooking, or some other situation in which I could never hope to produce any meaningful content for my books I would be gazing soulfully at the screen convincing myself it would help.

It didn’t.

While, on one hand, all this screen time made me feel as if I was maintaining the connection, on the other it fogged it, made me feel as if it was sapping my creativity somehow. And the more in touch with it all I tried to be, the more time was sucked into this faux ‘keeping in touch’, and the less time I spent actually writing. Across my wider life, writing was all I was doing … Oh and panicking about having no time. I did a lot of that. So as well allowing my brain to be gloopified by the wrong kind of screen time, I was starving it of stimulation. No fuel. Poor brain. How could I expect inspiration?

More head-scratching, and then I decided to try and make all the time I had count, across the board, not just in writing but in everything. So I limited social media and marketing time and added other things to my day, experiences, like coffee with a friend, a walk, reading, listening to music, shopping, eyebombing, etc. I also tried switching off the computer at six pm and not turning it on again until the next morning. I still checked my emails and social media first thing as I sat in bed with a cup of coffee. However, I started writing a to do list for the day at the same time. Then when I sat down at the computer after the school run it was easy to reorientate myself. I started experimenting with using sprints to write emails and social media posts. I listed things I needed to look at, set up a sprint to do it in and then stopped when the bell rang. I found I could achieve exactly the same amount of interaction in a fraction of the time. In the evenings, in front of the telly, I stopped checking Facebook on my phone and started knitting socks. Um … Yeh.

The results of this have been amazing. I have way more creativity. When I started this, a month or so ago, there was only really room in my head for one project. After a week, I started having ideas about a project I’d shelved because it was too complicated. After two weeks the short had turned into a novel. After three, a non fiction project popped up. It looks as if I may finish a novel this year. One that I only started writing in earnest four weeks ago. It is as if this simple act of giving my brain time to rest has jump-started my creative mojo. Yes I still get tired, I still get sad about my parents, I still have the odd week of PMT when I can’t meaningfully achieve anything but I also feel fulfilled and fantastic because I am creating stuff – and when I feel like that I create more stuff – and even when it’s not books, it’s very comfortable socks!

Conclusion

So what gave I learned here that might help anyone who has waded through to the end of this? D’you know, I think probably this:

  • Being open to new ideas and open-minded about trying new things can result in solutions you never believed possible. I am really surprised at how helpful Scrivener is, for example, and would never have tried it had it not been flagged as a godsend by a couple of the book selling gurus I follow.
  • Looking at problems from different angles can really help to solve them.
  • A writer’s brain is just like a computer, you need to put stuff in to get stuff out – although unlike computers, I find that putting rubbish into a brain doesn’t necessarily diminish output quality. But the biggie is input. Input has to happen for output.
  • Avoid getting stale.
  • Keep trying! I’m beginning to think that the people who achieve stuff are the folks who never give up. And I’ve discovered this by achieving stuff (in my own very small way but it feels big to me) because I can’t give up. So I’m beginning to think that, within reason, if you try to achieve something for long enough, and work hard enough at it, something WILL happen, even if it’s not what you were expecting. Or to put it another way, when life throws you lemons then yes, take time, lick your wounds, nurse your bruises, regroup … and make lemon meringue pie.
20160412_mandslemon

Pie-ify me big boy!

 

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Filed under About My Writing, Blimey!, General Wittering, Good Advice, Useful Resources

I bring you tidings of great joy … probably.

I hope this finds you well and that you survived hurricane Doris, if it hit your part of the world. We have, although unfortunately, it appears that our garden fence has not. It’s currently lying prone in the garden but at least it’s not blocking the street anymore! So, it occurred to me that I should, perhaps, make this week’s blog post a little lighter in tone. To that end, I bring you freebies and some writing news.

First up, writing news, because I’m not egocentric or anything. Phnark!If you follow my rantings and witterings on a regular basis, you may remember me saying I was going to try and write some shorter stuff. This was, mainly, because my life circumstances aren’t always conducive to writing long, complicated stuff. To that end, you will be glad to know that I’m now 26,500 words into another ‘short’ story about K’Barth. I have also binned 19,000 words, or at least reallocated them for use somewhere else, because they don’t fit with this story, because, as is my wont, I started in the wrong place. I really, really hope I’ll be able to stop doing that one day, but on the upside, at least it means I usually get two books when I work on one.

It looks as if this will probably pan out at about 40k words, possibly 60k so, I think we can safely say that as efforts to write a short go, it’s an epic fail. It might, however, see me end up finishing an novel in record time if it continues the way it is. Mwah hahahargh. Swings and roundabouts, eh? It’s all go!

In addition, the Space Dustmen characters are getting excessively antsy and their world is becoming more and more vivid so I am going to have to write something about them soon, or they’ll find and have a word. They are indentured labourers living at a space base and obviously, as the scum of the earth, they all live near the sewage processing plant, on P Deck. Oh ho ho! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you saw that joke here first! I’m just letting it ferment for bit more – the story I mean, not the sewage on P Deck – so it’s more obvious where I’m going when I start working on it again.

Lastly, on the writing news front, I thought I might have a pop at some non-fiction. This is a project that I may even try to do the trad way, I’ll have a think. However, I was out taking photos for it this morning and having thought I was nowhere near, I now find that I easily have enough illustrations to compile the book.

20170225_131746

Happy me!

So, what else do I have for you this month? Two lovely promos, that’s what. Yep!
First up, the lovely Andrew Q Gordon is running a promo for fantasy books this month. There are ten books featured and you can grab yourself a freebie in return for mailing list sign up. To find out more, the promo page is here or click the picture. This one runs from 27th February to 3rd March.

aqg-fantasy-giveaway-option-2

Second up, once again, Patty Jansen is running a monthly promo which segues effortlessly into position on 4th and 5th March, just as Andrew Q Gordon’s promo finishes! Handy.

This one is for no strings attached free books on either Instafreebie and Bookfunnel. So, no mailing list sign up is required but you need to feel confident side loading them to your reader/tablet/computer yourself.

You can cop a load of that one, here or click on the picture, as before.

promomarch2017home

Anyway, I hope the promos are useful. I was rather chuffed to see that they are are full of fresh books (to me). So I’m hoping there is lots of interesting stuff in them for you too.

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Filed under About My Writing, Author Updates, General Wittering

I want to be straight! (Yeh) I want to be straight! I’m sick and tired of taking drugs and staying up late.

It occurred to me, the other day, that it might be prudent to try and explain why it takes me so sodding long to write a book. So in this gargantuan half rant, half post with a dash of tirade I am going to try. Basically, it’s about admin.

Frankly, I think I may be unique in the extent of my total and utter inability to organise anything easily: be it myself, others, things I find it incredibly hard to sort them out. Indeed, I would probably have a second life to live if I could somehow claw back the endless hours I spend looking for my glasses and my keys.  Also my life is ruled by Murphy and his law, no, not Murphy; Sod. Presumably that’s why, in the perfect irony, I have been given a life where I have to organise a lot of stuff, mostly to do with other people’s lives. Because I’m shit at it and someone up there thinks that’s funny. Like the time I declared that I’d never ever marry a lawyer … and the right man came along and of course he was, indeed, is, a lawyer.

This time of year McOther’s working hours go crazy, he has corporate events to go to at the weekends, the NFL play matches at Wembley which, as he spent his formative years in North America, he is desperately keen to attend – also at the weekends – and they make a 40 minute game take hours … Suffice to say, McMini misses his calming presence. So do I. This year, my organisational inability over the months coming up to Christmas seems to be particularly bad. I know I like variety and I know I have a sense of humour but it would be nice if just once I could organise one single smecking thing and have it go according to plan. Not that I do plan. Ever. Because there’s absolutely no effing point. But I do kind of, prime stuff and expect … results of a certain nature.

Case in point. This week. This week is not so different from any other week in my house other than that it’s got me feeling a little down. I don’t know why because this is my life, this is how I live but I’ve found myself wishing I could be one of the normals. To explain what I’m talking about … well … here’s the story so far.

We arrived home from our half term trip abroad rested and ready for action, except my iPad – which I had dropped for the second time before we went away, breaking it for the second time, Gorilla Glass my arse – decided to die on the Sunday night. Properly. So, as the folks who were going to fix it for £50 when they got the screen hadn’t rung in three weeks I decided I’d better get my wallet ready for a spanking and try the Apple store.

A few minutes later, I walked into the kitchen and just happened to notice McCat popping in, with grey feathers hanging out of his mouth. He had a squint round as if checking the coast was clear and made to head out. I shut the cat flap knowing that there was a body out there, one he was going to bring in, disembowel and eat bloodily and messily on the beige carpet outside our spare room.

No.

Not happening.

Looking out into the garden to check I could see a lot of feathers in the light from the kitchen window. It looked as if someone had burst a pillow out there. So McOther and I concluded that there would, indeed, be a body. On his mission to put out the bins McOther had a look and discovered that contrary to our expectations there was a live victim. A pigeon, looking very sorry for itself, with few wing feathers, a bald neck and absolutely NO tail whatsoever. Inevitably, we christened him Kojak.

There wasn’t much we could do for Kojak at 8.00 pm on a Sunday night except leave him and hope he recovered, the reasoning being that he’d be gone or dead in the morning. Monday dawned and Kojak was not dead but unfortunately not gone either. I would have to rescue him.

Bum. I didn’t really have time for that.

So I chalked him up as another thing to do after the school run and my, now, inevitable trip to the Apple store with my smashed and non-functional iPad. I locked the cat inside and off we went to school.

Surprising joy from the Apple store. The iPad hadn’t really died, it was just pretending, the smashed glass was lifting and not conducting so well so the screen was beginning to stop working. I decided to skip the folks who hadn’t rung me about the screen in 3 weeks and took it to another store. Yes, the fellow told me, he could fix it and would do so by that afternoon at 4.00pm (thank you Sod, who rules my life and knows the school run has me going past there at 3.30pm).

I left it and went to the gym for dodgy knee maintainance. That done it was home to find out what to do with Kojak. After about an hour surfing the internet which only told me that a trip to Norfolk was required – 30 miles away but probably at speeds of no faster than 30mph the whole distance on a good day. This was not doable in the time I had left if I wanted to present myself at the school on time to get McMini. In desperation I rang the Vet’s.

‘Bring him here,’ the told me.

So I captured Kojak, which took a bit more doing than I expected, because he’d perked up quite a bit, and carried him round to the Vet’s in a box.

kojak

Kojak in his box looking surprisingly perky

Kojak despatched to safer climes, I returned home, released the cat, cleared up the thermonuclear weapons-grade pooh he’d done in his earth box, washed up breakfast and even managed to write about 3 words before it was time to go collect McMini. We faffed about long enough to be able to visit the shop mending the iPad at 4.00 and discovered that the people who mended it last cocked it up and broke some stuff – including the wifi transmitter, which explains why it was so shit. So he would get the parts and call me when they were ready. (Does this sound familiar?).

Tuesday passed without incident – or contact from the iPad menders. Wednesday was visit-the-parents-day and the journey to and from Sussex was surprisingly smooth. Only a small stop at the Dartford Tunnel where I received a text to say that my iPad was ready for collection and arrived home just too late to be able to pick it up. I also discovered that I’ve driven my car through a hole somewhere, the tracking was out and I had therefore spunked an extra £15 worth of petrol on the trip on a smooth journey with no major delays – it having used the entire tank instead of the usual two thirds. Having a quick look round the car as it was parked at the pump I saw one front tyre was a little low. I drove over to the air line, which someone else arrived at just before me, of course, and while they did their air I opened the boot and rummaged about for my car’s handbook.

I found it, but I also found stern warnings about putting air in when the tyres are hot. The car must have been stationery for 3 hours minimum. Then, I must drive no more than 1 mile from cold and then check the air. I must not drive no miles. One mile it must be, two was too many and three was right out, one and only one mile must I drive etc.

Overjoyed that here was another bit of administrative shite I could piss my precious time away doing, ie go get the tracking done and the tyres balanced and do the sodding air, I felt a little deflated for a moment. Then I remembered. Never mind, at least something had gone according to plan. I was going to get my iPad back.

Now, when I go in my car to my parents, my fibit thinks that I am running up and down 300 flights of stairs and walking about 40,000 steps. It kind of buggers up the averages so I take it off and do it up round my bra strap, where, strangely, it ceases to log all non-existent activity. Clearly despite being jiggly, my jiggly bits are not as jiggly as … well … you know. You get the picture. This means I had taken it off and snapped it round my bra as I left Mum and Dad’s. As I approached the traffic lights at the end of the road ASDA is on, I’d remembered I must put it on again. By the time I pulled up at the ASDA petrol forecourt I had, of course, forgotten all about remembering.

While I was filling the tank the empty road outside ASDA filled up with traffic as the council offices emptied at 5.30 so I took my place among their 8,000 employees, most of whom seemed to be in cars, queuing for the lights. It took me 20 minutes to get home and I broke the good news about the iPad to McOther and had a lovely chat with McMini. I went upstairs to have a shower and put my pyjamas on before supper at 6.30. Then I looked at my fitbit. It wasn’t there.

I took a rain check on the shower. Instead I searched my car – even under the seats, a process which involves feats of contortion few humans, other than lotus owners, are capable of – and failed to find my fitbit there, either.

Arse.

I drove to ASDA. Was it there? Was it bollocks?

I asked at lost property, ‘No,’ the lady informed me. ‘If it hasn’t been found after half an hour it probably won’t be but pop in when you are here next week.’

I trudged back to the car park, cursing myself for being such a spacker.

When I got home McMini threw open his arms.

‘Mummy, I’m so sorry to hear about your fitbit, come and give me a hug so you will feel better.’

As I hugged him tight and looked over his head to the kindly face of McOther it did occur to me that every cloud has a silver lining.

Sometimes life feels like this ...

Sometimes my life feels as if it’s like this. Other times …

Welcome to my world.

… it’s more like this. Welcome to my world.

Wednesday night poor little McMini had another bad dream about the air raid siren. Who thought World War Two was a good topic to teach 8 year olds? Seriously? Nobody with an 8 year old kid, that’s for certain. He was so scared he was shaking, a couple of times his fear has been enough to make him throw up.

Thursday I went to the shop to pick up my iPad. I discovered that the shop didn’t open until 10.00 am. As I was on the way back from the school run this was a bit of a pain. So I went and did some shopping, did another knee improving session at the gym and went back to the store at 10.30. It was still closed. No note of explanation, according to the door and their website, it was working hours and should have been open it just … wasn’t. I texted the chap who had let me know the iPad was ready, asking what gives. He explained that his colleague would be there on Friday, definitely and we arranged a time for me to pick up my iPad. Disgruntled at schlepping up the hill for nothing I grumbled my way home. Oh well, at least it would be there the next day.

In the evening, I went to a skiing lesson. Yes, buggered knees aside, I thought I’d give it a go because McOther and McMini can do it and want us to go on a family skiing holiday. But I have to see if it’s physically possible first. Hence the lesson, the third of three, which started at 7.00pm. It’s in Ipswich, 30 minutes down the A14 … or not because it was blocked. The minor roads either side were gridlocked and it took me an hour and a half to get there. On the upside, I found out enough in advance to leave early and only be 15 minutes late.

This morning, Friday, I locked my keys in the house. It says a lot for the regularity with which I do this that I forgot to mention it until the last edit of this tirade, and that I was back in, picking them up and locking up properly in about 30 seconds, causing McMini to exclaim,

‘Mummy you are just the best burglar ever!’

Pshaw! M T blows casually on fingers. We weren’t even that late.

But that’s what I mean. Nothing, and I mean nothing goes according to plan. If a simple 10 minute phone call can turn into five hours of endless buttock numbing tedium it will. If something that should be straightforward and simple like, ‘please can I have this?’ is able to turn into five days of wrangling, begging and pleading, it does. Nine times out of ten it’s my own fault or because I’ve been a total dork and missed a deadline or some step that the normals take in their stride. What is going on? Is everyone else’s life like this or is it just mine? Maybe my people skills are crap. But really, what is so difficult about,

‘Can you fix my iPad.’
‘Yes, you can pick it up tommorow.’
Next day: ‘Hi I’ve come to pick up my iPad. I see your shop is actually open at the times the notice on the door says, and at the time I arranged to pick up my iPad and pay you money.’
‘It is, indeed, madam. That’s how the retail business is usually conducted.’

This morning I made sure I was doing something interesting in the time until the iPad repair shop opened, at 10.00. I had breakfast with a friend. Again, I gave the shop a bit of slack. Again, at 10.30 they were still closed. I sent a stinking text to the fixit man saying his colleagues were tossers (politely, obviously) and asking when was he next in. So I’ll be picking it up on Monday.

And in the middle of all this stupid shit, I’m trying to write a book. And I had two hours to work on it today. But I couldn’t. Because I’m too smecking cross. So I did another welter of overhanging admin and wrote this, instead. If I could give up writing, I would, but I need it. It’s like some horrible drugs habit. I’m a high functioning authorholic.

You see this is the problem.

My brain hates admin. It wants to concentrate on the important things in life like making shit up and … I dunno, listening to music, drawing, or the view, or the next joke. If I have loads of crap to remember to do it gets kind of fried. So if all the stuff I have to remember, like making bank transfers, checking cash, booking dental appointments, going to them, booking a slot to get my car’s tracking done – going to the post office to collect the parcel that some dickwad has sent me with £2.00 to pay because they didn’t put enough stamps on it, in case it’s important (it never is) – if all that total wanksputle starts to overwhelm my brain it just thinks, fuck this for a game of soldiers I’m off and then it buggers off somewhere, and I wish I knew where but I don’t. It just switches off.

And it switches everything off, including the important stuff that I’m interested in and actually want to remember, like that cunning plot twist I’d thought of for my book, or remembering to put my watch/fitbit back on, or forgetting that my iPad cover comes off and it drops out sometimes … onto the floor … and breaks.

And I end up giving myself even more administrivatative shit to sort out because I’ve forgotten deadlines, and then I end up getting even more pissed off and frustrated and angry that the majority of my span on this earth is going to be spent sorting out mindless shitty shite for me and others who can’t do it without my help. For the rest of my days. Oh yes, and in between all of that there’ll be lots and lots of chronic knee pain. The outlook for the rest of my life is incredibly bleak.

No wonder I need to escape.

And yet … for all that. I know I’m happy. Because it’s friends and family and the people around a person who make their world, not this shit. I just wish … well … that there was a little bit less of the shit sometimes or that occasionally, just once or twice, when I tried to do something, it went … OK it’s never going to go according to plan but maybe if it could just go wrong the way it does for normal people?

So there you go. Here’s a joke. You have to read it out loud though .. and to be honest its a bit crap

What do the Portugese do with their cars?

I told you it was crap.

On a final note, McMini had a Boy’s Brigade meeting tonight about a mile from our house so I drove there and then went to ASDA to do the tyre pressures on my car. You’d think I’d have managed that but no, it turns out that air, these days, costs 20p. And I left my wallet at home and I don’t have a 20p piece anyway. So although I’ll be in the right place in the right circumstances tonight, nothing can be done. (There’s no kiosk at ASDA so I can’t get change and no other garages who do have a kiosk nearby). Then, as I unlocked the door upon our arrival home, I somehow managed to bend the yale key. I unbent it and it works now but not before we had to go through the conservatory door because, initially, it didn’t. And so the madness continues …

Joy unbounded.

 

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Oh dear, it’s not them. It IS me. #remain #leave

Well, this has been an interesting week. For better, or worse, Britain has voted to leave the EU. As a mum with an 8 year old in a local state school with a very wide range of nationalities attending, the majority of voters asked in my extensive Playground Polls came up Remain.

There is a reason. This:

Evilposter

A lizard with opposable thumbs in front of a racist poster.

In the absence of any real facts, and after right wring extremists murdered an MP for her pro-IN, pro-refugee, humanitarian beliefs, it was all about sticking it to the racists for us. So what I saw winning, when Leave won, was fascism and a sheep like mass of people voting the way they were told to by the Sun.

And we’re at the beginning of the century, the world economy went down the toilet a few years ago and is still only recovering. And despite that recovery it’s left a lot of people in deep, deep financial plop. Which is a worry. Because that’s the kind of climate in which fascism takes root as folks look for someone to blame and some of the rhetoric flying around about immigration and letting in refugees is … disturbingly familiar.

However, I have a handful of highly intelligent, sensible friends voting Leave. They’re good people, decent people, one is about where I am politically, one way to the right but the other two are further left. They are never going to vote for racism, no way, no how – even the right winger. So I asked a couple of them what the hell they were doing.

They put forward lot arguments which made sense – but all the arguments for both sides make sense when you uncover the facts that’s part of the trouble – but the salient point was one about how they believe the people of this country feel about politics.

Which is, that our politicians are condescending, aloof, self important and that they no longer listen to, nor have any respect for the people they are supposed to serve. My Leave friends felt that through the gradual change, over the years, from debate over the issues to personal attacks, most politicians have not so much lost our respect as earned our contempt. We believe what they say about one another. That’s why so many young people don’t or won’t vote, which is bats of them but that’s another story.

Furthermore, many leavers are every day people, but poor people, the folks who feel disenfranchised and without hope, because successive governments have stood by and let their places of work – in some cases, whole industries – die. Leavers are people who worked in our pottery industry, our coal industry, our manufacturing industry, dairy farming, fruit growing, the Cadbury factory, the steel industry. Most of our heavy industry was up north. And that’s why the folks up there are angry. The big agricultural areas in East Anglia voted Leave too. And a lot of the seasiders.

They feel that when their livelihoods and their whole communities were at risk, successive Governments, labour and Conservative stood by, didn’t step in, didn’t help. Failed them. And yes, there are probably more positve things to do than concentrate on your anger and bitterness about a past that is gone and a future that cannot be. But maybe they were just trying all that time to get someone, somewhere, to listen. And heaven knows, I graduated into a recession, I felt washed up, useless, dismissed as junk before my working life even began so I can actually really sympathise with that.

And so when the government asks for their help now their reply was a resounding fuck off, in this case, in the form of a Leave vote, to sock it to the Man. Whereas we in Remain, even if we’d thought of it, would probably have demurred from socking it to the Man when it’s just swapping one Man for another.

I suspect many people, both those voting IN and those voting Leave, may well share some very similar sentiments about our politics and politicians. We just reacted in different ways.

And in that one thing, lies our hope.

MPs have to learn from this, they have to start believing again, they have to relearn humility, that they are public servants, that it’s not about power for them but about working for us. And those who take such things seriously need to make sure that we, the electorate, realise that they, at least, are listening. They need to be Jo Cox, not Boris Johnson.

And as for tomorrow. What’s done is done. This is complicated, and it will be difficult. A lot depends on the negotiations surrounding exit. I hope Scotland and Northern Ireland give it some time to see what we come out with before they vote to leave and the UK is broken. Because it looks as if we, Britain, might actually have a chance at a new beginning, a new start. It’s up to us. It doesn’t have to be about racism, immigration and bigotry. It can be about unity, it can be like the 2012 Olympics.

Because for all my initial horror at the result, and for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth I’ve done on Facebook with my like minded friends, when we get to the bottom of things, it turns out that despite being on opposite sides of the debate, many of the folks who voted Leave are closer are closer to us than we think. And if they are we can work with that.

Here’s hoping.

Some good pro leave posts:

Roughseas – there are some good comments on this one and I had a long chat with her too: https://roughseasinthemed.wordpress.com/2016/06/24/brexit-its-real
Jim Webster, again more comment chat as well: https://jandbvwebster.wordpress.com/2016/06/24/the-road-from-the-bigoted-woman-stops-here/

A couple of good pro remain posts from writers, like myself, who hadn’t even thought of sticking it to the Man:

Chuck Wendig the thinking American’s view: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2016/06/24/you-want-trump-this-is-how-you-get-trump/
Charlie Stross sums up the initial feeling in Remain at the result: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2016/06/tomorrow-belongs-to-me.html
Lee Harris – just a nice cynical post about the Remain point of view. http://leeaharris.com/brexit/
I need to comment on these.

 

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Underground, Overground, Wombling Free…!

It’s a long time since I wrote anything on my blog. There is a reason. It’s because Real Life has been quite hectic. Worse, it’s been hectic in a way that has meant that I need to write to stay sane. That’s where I’ve been. Writing, and driving 130 miles to Sussex in the middle of the night to accompany one parent to hospital while a carer stays over and looks after the other, then doing the full care package for a day and dealing with all their heating and the cooker being turned off due to a gas leak on one and a half hours’ sleep… that kind of thing.

But now I’ve just finished half term week during which I was compelled to leave my characters to their own devices and interact with Real Life. So here I am, sorting some bits of real life out before I go back to my routine of not very much time, but a bit more than before, and a lot more of it spent writing. Also, my parents are on a more even keel now, so the desperation with which I escaped into my made up world is not quite so marked.

As you probably know, both my parents are in their 80s and they need a bit of help. To that end, I’ve been trying to get some disability aids out of Social Services for them. It’s not that social services won’t give them, just that it takes ages. There’s one particular thing called a ‘perching stool’ which Mum could really use in the kitchen, right now. But there’s a 20 working day waiting time before they can even call you back and start the process. I have been wondering if I should buy one – if Social came up trumps with a second I could always put the bought one in the greenhouse for her. But I was havering, because they cost a sod of a lot of money, these things.

So imagine how insanely chipper I was to discover this bizarrely obscure item in a skip this morning, just outside my gym! It was brand new and it wasn’t alone. It was in there with three other disability aids: a riser loo seat for people with dodgy hips which was still wrapped in its plastic and a really handy trolly-cum-walker with two shelves for trays. All had labels on with a number to call for collection after use, so at the least, I thought, if Mum and Dad have no use for them, I can ring the number and get them back to people who need them. Anyway, I had to take the trolley because it was the only way I was going to get the stuff, plus my bicycle, home. So, with the help of three of the ladies who also attend my gym, who praised me for my Womble* like tendences, I climbed into the skip and relieved it of its disability enhancing contents.

SkipScore

If anyone had ever told me I would get excited about finding items like these in a skip I’d have told them to piss off. Luckily, no-one did. Unlike the time I said I’d never marry a lawyer and then…

It will be even more of a challenge to get the things – which are square and firm and most non-folding – from Bury St Edmunds to Sussex in a Lotus. I might have to borrow McOther’s car.

Even so it’s a bit of a result. I am, naturally, hugely chuffed to have these difficult-to-get things fall into my lap, instantly, when I never expected them to, and for free.

Mwah hahahahrgh! Sometimes the stars just align.

 

*If you don’t know what a womble is, click here the song explains it. Obviously, they are a lot more interesting when you are 7.

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Surviving trolls, extremism and other curses of modern life

<<<<POLITICS WARNING read on at your own risk, I can guarantee I’ll offend the entire world with this one.>>>>

A couple of weeks ago, I was standing on a rain soaked road in France in a Barbour which is not at all waterproof looking at this field. In all truth, I didn’t really connect. It looks pretty unremarkable but the odds are that if I’d been there 600 years earlier I’d have seen the bodies of several thousand French soldiers, 3 days dead, most stripped completely naked by looters from the desperately poor local population after the important stuff had been removed by the English (I bet those clothes lasted some local families a couple of generations). That’s because 600 years (and 3 days) previously we are about as sure as we can be sure of anything in history that the battle of Agincourt was fought on this particular field.20151029_114039

As I understand it, one of the defining aspects of the battle was that the ground became a quagmire. People sank in the mud and suffocated, just as they did 500 years later, a few miles down the road, on the Western Front. Once I heard that it made connecting a little bit easier.

There’s no hint of the carnage that took place there now. There’s a museum, a memorial and not much else. It was a bloodbath and it horrified the people of its time just as the first world war did, just as the deaths of those 60,000,000 victims of the second world war (if you count civilians) did, just as 9.11, 7.7 and last week do.

Those Agincourt deaths are not at the forefront of our consciousness any more. As I said, the area is not far from the fields which comprise what was once, part of the front line in WW1. Likewise, apart from the odd memorial and the war graves you wouldn’t necessarily understand the horror of war from what’s there now. Although the bucolic peace belies the truth, farmers are still killed and injured every year by unexploded ordnance buried under the tranquil landscape. They will be for some time. Things are not always as they seem.

Maybe, as wars pass out of living memory, they cease to be so real to us. How do we keep remembering, understanding?

When I grew up there were plenty of people around who had fought in the second world war and still some who had fought in the first. It was in their consciousness at all times, and so it was in ours.

As they die out there is one experience in my life that I begin to value more and more. An RS lesson I was given when I was about 17. It comprised my A level set, three of us, the teacher and a visiting Bishop. He was about 70, Mark Greene his name was, and he was sitting on a rickety arm chair which tipped up, dumping him onto the floor. I remember that. I particularly remember our poor teacher’s flustered efforts to help him up and his calm, unfazed reassurances that he was fine.

But what I really remember about that lesson was the story he told us. At the end of the war he was with a detachment of forces in Germany and on the day it was liberated, he was the 20th allied soldier to walk into Belsen.

We didn’t know that’s what he was, of course, I’m not sure the teacher even did. I don’t even remember how it cropped up. There’s a bit of a memory gap between the chair incident and it suddenly hitting me, very forcefully that this man was telling us what it was like to walk into a death camp for the first time, when you hadn’t realised they existed, when you didn’t understand, first hand, what human beings were capable of doing to one another, or at least, in an era when the general consensus of opinion was that we’d evolved past all that.

He proceeded to tell us about the experience. What he felt, smelled and saw. I have seen videos of what was there since which cast a whole new light on his words and made his understated, calm description of the facts all the more powerful. He wasn’t ’emotional’ as he described it. He cried no tears. But the strength of feeling in his voice was striking. He avoided emotional trigger words, he told us about the smell of excrement and rotting bodies but spared the grisly details. He talked about seeing piles of grey sticks and only realising, at second or third glance, that they were people and that some were still alive, just, and moving. I remember thinking that I was hearing about one of the defining moments of the 20th Century from a man who was actually there. I still get goose pimples when I think about it. Mainly because I suspect I am unlikely ever to come so close to history again.

And then Paris last week. And all the absolute tosh that’s been talked on the internet since about religion, and the Muslim faith. We don’t seem to be learning do we?

Aldus Huxley, I think it was Aldus Huxley, said, “Propaganda is the art of convincing one group of people that another group of people is not human.”

One of the defining things about the concentration and death camps was that the victims were stripped of all humanity. They were not to be dignified with a name. They were given a number. Their names were verboten. They all wore the same uniforms. They were as robots. Nothing.

And that’s how you hate. That’s how the Daesh are able to kill the way they do. Because to them a non Daesh child is not a human child. Then again, I’m not sure how the Daesh manage to have kids because as I understand the tenets of their extreme doctrine, their menfolk believe women aren’t human either.

So how do we beat them? Well, turning their victims away, or ‘Closing the UK’s borders until Isis is defeated’ is patently bollocks. Making all Muslims wear an armband, well, yes, Mr Trump, I refer you back to Belsen. We’ve done that before, quite recently and I don’t recall it working out well. You need to have a word with yourself mate.

Someone at church the other day who said there is an easy way to make all these memorials to past battles mean, or continue to mean, something. Give the dead names. Pick one solider, research him, find out who he was. Suddenly they stop being numbers and turn back into people. And after last week, in Paris, I thought that all the more.

It’s very easy to generalise about people, to isolate ourselves, to become ‘them and us’ about practically everything. Now more than ever we seem to be particularly vulnerable to a black and white generalist view of the world which is simply a lie, a fairy story totally removed from the truth which we tell ourselves because we cannot handle the uncertainty of grey.

I can see it in myself. When it popped up in the news recently that Jihadi John had almost certainly been killed in a bombing raid my first instant thought was, ‘serves him bloody well right. You live by the sword you die by the sword.’ But then I thought about it some more. It’s hard to consider someone like Jihadi John as a human being. Really hard. But somewhere he has parents and family who loved him, some might even be anguished by what he has done. Somewhere there might have been a mother, a father, a wife begging him to turn to compassion and humanity again like the family of an addict begging them to forsake the bottle. We are all equal, we are all human. He was a sad pathetic thing, broken inside, but to deny his humanity, however much he seems to have forfeited his right to be seen as human, maybe that is the cause of the trouble.

People like Jihadi John, people like the lads who killed all those people in Paris, probably get off on the feeling of power or that they are physically doing something to make a difference than politics. It’s in our nature to want to change the world. That’s why we’re high achievers in so many ways. Their acts are inhuman so perhaps the only way we can defeat their inhumanity is by holding onto our humanity.

The minute we cease to see your enemy as a human being, you have given in to hate. In my view, if we give into hate, we’re no better than they are. An ability to love and respect others is what sets normal people apart from the extremists. The way to understand the gravity and the evil of war is not to look at the casualty numbers, it’s to remember that they are people. To give them names.

Every now and again, someone special comes along like Jesus, Budda, Mohamed and the like and they try to persuade people to treat each other as they’d like to be treated themselves. It’s ironic, isn’t it, how fast we manage to turn that into intolerance and hatred. If the devil exists, he must be laughing.

If we have a battle cry, perhaps it should be that of Antoine Leiris, whose wife, Helene was killed at the Bataclan.

“I will not give you the gift of hating you.”

It seems to me that, if ever we need to foster a culture of love and tolerance, it’s now.

 

 

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Detail: What Noticing Stuff means to a writer.

Some random true life stories this week, as inspired by Mr Chuck Wendig’s blog, even if I’ve missed the deadline and my very tenuous efforts to link them to my ‘job’ – which is really just an incredibly expensive hobby.

Story 1. Years ago, in the mid 1990s, I was driving to my job one summer morning. My journey to work used to take about an hour, 20 minutes to the outskirts of Cambridge and 40 minutes queuing. I drove an elderly Triumph Spitfire so the morning queue had a worrying tendency to turn into a game of temperature gauge chicken. On the up side, even if I had to sit there with the heater on to stop the engine boiling, at least I could take the lid off.

So there I sat, at the end of the queue, in my car. I leaned back looking up at the blue sky I saw, where other’s saw the deadness of their car’s upholstered roof. An aeroplane flew across and directly above me. As I watched, it began to blow out smoke – not yeek-my-engine’s-failing-and-I’m-about-to-plummet-out-of-the-sky-type smoke you understand – stunt plane smoke like the Red Arrows (or les Bleu, I don’t have a picture of the red arrows) blow out in red white and blue. Anyway, I watched and as it flew, smoke in full er… puff? It drew a circle. Then after a bit of flying back and forth, it put two eyes inside the circle and a smily mouth. Then it flew away. What I liked about that was the fact that the pilot must have known that hardly anyone would see what s/he did but they went and did it anyway.

Thank you Kate Jackson, over at Roughseas for having a picture of the Red Arrows blowing out volumes of exactly the kind of smoke I’m talking about.

How does that pertain to writing? Well, to me it says that sometimes, even if you think only one person in a thousand will ‘get’ something, it’s worth putting it in if you believe in it. Why? Because chances are, they’ll be aware that this is a very obscure joke and putting it in will make them feel like you’re sharing secret code with them.

Onto the second story. A week or so ago, at the school picking up my son. I was just having a quick chat to his teacher about his maths when a helicopter came over.

“How very odd coming up out of the sun like that and flying so low,” said McMini’s teacher.

“Yeh, and they’ve got the door open,” I said, as we both looked up. “Perhaps we should give them a wave.”

We duly both did, along with McMini, who didn’t need much encouragement. The wave spread – or several other folks had the same idea – and then to our amazement the helicopter did an circuit of the playground, the folks in the open doorway leaning out and waving like looners. Then everyone waved back at them: the kids and some of the parents were even jumping up and down and cheering. The helicopter then headed off. None of us know where it came from, where it was going, or why it flew over us. But we do know that pretty much everyone felt good after it had gone, including, perhaps, the folks in its open doorway.

Relevance to writing is a bit thin here, I’ll give you, but perhaps it shows the value of a wave and a smile, the power of simple things, or of small acts of friendship. I’m a great believer in approaching the internet like that. It’s full of people who’ve had a bad day and are ready to rip your head off, but sometimes, all it takes to break the ice is a kind word, a smile or, yes, a cheery wave.

Which brings me to the last story.

As most of you know, my Dad suffers from memory loss. Before all that hit him, he was a life long lover of wine and spent many hours poring over lists from the Wine Society, and other esteemed wine sellers, selecting and buying wines. Many of these were bought to drink with Sunday lunch, which was a bit of an event in our house, or at the riotous dinner parties my Mum and Dad used to have. One of his favourites was a claret called Leoville Barton. For some years, he bought cases of it to drink on special occasions – although my Dad being my Dad, quite a lot of quite mundane occasions were ‘special’.

The other night, a friend came round to dinner and we had a wine tasting. We put the bottles in socks and juggled them about a bit and then tried to guess what they were and who’d brought what. One of the wines felt familiar and I realised that it reminded me of the Chateau Leoville Barton my Dad used to love and which, I admit, I rather like, too. And as I said this to McOther and our friend, I suddenly felt incredibly affected. I was amazed how a single flavour could bring back such vivid memories of the happy times I’ve had drinking a glass of that wine. And as I remembered my Dad as he was then, it hit me, anew, how much of him has gone forever.

So what do these things mean for writing? Well, maybe that small things, tiny details inserted in the right place, can show the reader volumes about your characters without you having to tell them. I guess it also means that a deftly added detail can be incredibly poignant or can make the difference between a boring scene and diverting one. Perhaps it also means that as writers, we should train ourselves to notice all this stuff – or perhaps the fact we do is what sets us apart and makes us writers. Perhaps some of the battle we face, when trying to turn our writing from good to amazing, is working out which details to add, and when; and even more importantly, which ones to leave out.

 

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