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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Making Lists

If I let myself, I could be quite a lazy person, allowing swathes of time to disappear without achieving much. So I set try to set myself targets and I write lists. One of my recent targets has been to finish my romantic novel by the end of August. I don't yet have a publisher for this book, so there is no pressure there, but I just find it useful to give myself deadlines.Tomorrow is 1st September and I have failed in this particular quest. Considering there is not much more to do, two chapters probably, and a bit of infilling, this is quite frustrating. I haven't been lazy but life recently has been pretty hectic and although I'm fairly good at prioritising writing time, sometimes other things have to come first.

Over the last few weeks my 'to do' lists have got longer and longer which is not a good thing. A list should serve to soothe. The mere act of writing them can give me a sense of impending order -unless the list gets too long, which has happened lately. So how many items should you put on your 'to do' list?

My daughter is a list-maker too and, since returning from university she has been writing a daily list. Unlike mine, hers are consistent and manageable. Each day she writes down four things she wants to achieve. Through trial and error she has discovered that, for her, four is the magic number. Any more can add too much pressure. Any less and there is the feeling that you could have made more progress.

Interestingly, four is the only number which has the same amount of letters as its value in the English language. In Numerology, the number four resonates with the vibrations and energies of organisation, application, patience, determination and progress too.  It is a grounding number and symbolises the principle of putting ideas into form. Four is also the number of Fate which reminds us that many things happen which are beyond our control. So, although my daughter didn't know any of this beforehand, she may be on to something.

By writing things down we also create space in our brains. If it's on a piece of paper there's not so much danger it will be forgotten (unless you have a husband like mine who swoops on random pieces of paper and discards them - I am still trying to train him in this regard!).When I've done something on my list, I tick it off and this gives me a feeling of satisfaction. We all need to give ourselves a pat on the back from time to time. Most of us don't do it often enough.

So this week, with the sense of optimism which September usually brings, I shall be adopting the rule of four. In four weeks I really do aim to have finished that novel!

Thank-you for reading. Have a happy week.

Sunday, 24 August 2014


On U.K. television at the moment is a programme called Long Lost Family. It is about loss,  a deep need to make contact with family and the enduring power of love. There are mothers who were forced to give up their babies, children looking for parents they have never met, siblings in search of each other. It is a simple and predictable format but the programme itself, which has won a BAFTA, is incredibly powerful. I cannot watch it without a box of tissues to hand.

Yesterday we had a family day. My husband's sister and family drove down from Yorkshire, his brother joined us from around the corner. We drank Pimms to celebrate all being together. My mother-in-law brought a fruit salad, my daughter baked gingerbread and I cooked salmon and beef to serve alongside new potatoes and salads. After lunch the sun came out and we took our coffee into the garden. We played boules on the lawn, my granddaughter picked golden cherry tomatoes from the greenhouse (much more exciting than toys!) and my son and daughter caught up with their cousins, aunt and uncles. As an only child and with my parents gone, I do not have much family of my own so, over the years, my husband's family has become mine.

Quite some time ago my husband and I stayed the night in a lovely bed and breakfast near Cirencester. We chose it from the Alastair Sawday's Special Places to Stay for Garden Lovers and at breakfast everyone sat around one big table. Opposite us were a couple who had driven down from Scotland. They were attending a Golden Wedding celebration that day and I asked if it was a family celebration.' No', the lovely lady replied. The party was for good friends. And then she looked at me and added, 'but sometimes friends are better than family, aren't they?'

She was right. In Long Lost Family the ending is always a happy one and rightly so. I also totally understand the sense of loss those people on the programme feel, but life is not a television programme and not everyone has the family they want, not everyone has a happy ending. I have been extremely lucky. I love my husband's family dearly and I love my friends too.

My friend Cathy once said to me that 'you make your own family', and those wise words have stayed with me. For those of us who do not have many blood ties it is important to 'make our own families'.  They can take many forms and provide much happiness.

Thank-you for reading. May your week be a happy one.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Overcoming Disappointment

Recently, at one of our invaluable writers' meetings, someone mentioned disappointment. It is something we could all identify with. For most writers, disappointment is something you have to learn to live with on a fairly regular basis, in one form or another. I think it is easy to forget that even successful authors will have had rejections and disappointments and probably still do, even when they hit the dizzy heights. The disappointment from rejection letters (or even the gaping hole of no response at all), can be energy sapping; it can throw you off course and worst of all it can, if you let it, mar other areas of your life, dulling times which should and would otherwise be joyful. That initial conversation stayed with me and I wondered about how other people cope with disappointment so, a couple of days ago, when we got together again, I asked my tenacious and inspiring writer friends.

These were some of their answers:-

Cry - a lot!

Spend time with someone close whose job depends less upon the judgement of others.

Read some affirming words.

Talk your disappointment through with family or friends.

Acknowledge how much it hurts.

Remind yourself of all of those authors who are now successful but were turned down many times on the way. (i.e. Kathryn Stockett's The Help was reputedly rejected by 60 agents).

Take strength from your writing group if you have one. They are guaranteed to console, encourage and put things in perspective.
(If you don't have a writing group, try to find one).

Someone suggested getting a dartboard, pinning your rejection letter to it and taking aim!

 I also recommend walking. It usually helps me to feel better and more able to face the world.

Remember that this rejection is only one person's opinion.
(okay maybe more than one person but there are still plenty more out there who may love it - how will they get that opportunity if you stick it in a drawer).


Send that work out again.

You will probably have many other suggestions, maybe involving chocolate, retail therapy or being slobbered over by a very affectionate pet. I find all of these help a little bit too!

Then I had an e-mail from one of the disappointment contributors and she mentioned success, which set me thinking again. Because this wise writer said that we don't celebrate our successes enough. And I think she's right.  I happen to come from a family where celebrating success was rather seen as 'showing off'. But I'm about to show off because on 1st July I had a book published and I haven't mentioned it until now. Not because I'm not immensely proud of it. I am. But because I have been so disappointed that my publishers are no longer taking children's fiction and the lovely people I worked with on Last Chance Angel and my new book, No Going Back, are no longer there.. But it's more than time to get over that and move on. So here is my new book.

It's about love, loss, forgiveness and strangely enough, disappointment. It is also about moving on.

Finally, when that rejection letter drops on to the doormat or a 'thanks, but no thanks' e-mail pops up in your inbox, this quote from Barbara Kingsolver is a good one to give hope.

'This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package.
Don't consider it rejected. 
Consider that you've addressed it 'to the editor who can appreciate my work'
and it has simply come back stamped 'not at this address'.

Thank-you for taking the time to read this post. I hope you have a good week.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Watershed Walks

Our greatest gifts are often given to us before we even realise. When I was barely more than a toddler my father used to take me walking on a Saturday morning. We usually walked across the fields to the next village, our English Setters bounding ahead, and headed back again in time for lunch. Since those early days walking has been an important part of my life and I have written about it on this blog several times. I think that one of the most difficult things I found about boarding school was not being able to just open the door and go for a walk.

Later, when living in Oxford, I was a member of the University Rambling Club but I am not a hearty walker. My walks tend to be gentle and last anything from a brief twenty minutes up to an hour or two at the most. Sometimes I walk alone, sometimes with company. The walks take many forms. They can be celebratory or consoling. They can raise questions or can lead to answers to questions I already have. They can provide inspiration and, every once in a while, a walk occurs at a watershed moment.

This week we collected my daughter from Oxford. After three years studying History of Art she graduated in June. Since then she has been working, but on Wednesday the lease expired on her student house and she has come home. It is almost eighteen years since she started at playschool for three mornings a week and, like many children, the rigours of academic life have not always entirely suited her personality. But she has done well and now she begins a new phase in her life, with freedom to choose the direction she wants to go in. It is an exciting time for her but also daunting too. So we went for a walk.

In retrospect it seems appropriate that, at this watershed moment, for the first part of our walk we headed for the still, muddy water of the canal.

Planting our feet carefully on the uneven towpath we admired the wild flowers, recalled blackberry picking with my grandmother and took a moment to study the quietly moored narrowboats. We talked of friendships she had made over the last three years, some which would endure and some which she needed to let go.

As we emerged into open pastures our conversation changed to the future, of possibilities ahead and of the importance of giving yourself time, not trying to achieve too much all at once.

Again our walk finished by water, this time alongside the crystal clear water of the River Sence.

We headed off to the nearby garden centre for a coffee and to buy some fresh produce for lunch.

So, this week a chapter in our lives has ended. Unless, in a few months' time my daughter decides to do an MA, all of our children have completed their formal education. It's been a long haul!  I feel enormous pride that they have all done so well and are making their way in the world and relieved too that the worries about exams, subject choices, settling in to new schools/universities and fitting life in around term times are behind us. So it's not just a watershed moment for my daughter, but for my husband and I too.

Thank-you for reading and if you have a watershed moment this week I hope it's a good one.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Pacing your Book

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about pacing myself physically when writing. Since then I have been thinking a lot about pacing in books themselves. Poor pacing can mar an otherwise good story and I've read a few books recently where this has happened.

Also, eighty thousand words into my adult, romantic novel, I have become stuck. The ending is clear and not that far away; there are a variety of paths leading to the conclusion but I'm not quite sure of the right one. I'm also not sure whether the pacing is right. When writing shorter books for children it is much easier to judge the pacing but at eighty thousand words it feels much harder.

With one doubt comes another and another. This is where an editor or an agent are worth their weight in gold. But I have neither for this book, so for now I am relying on my own judgement and that could be skewed!

These are some of the questions I have asked myself.

Is there enough tension?

Is the plot being driven forwards in a fast enough manner?

Are my characters themselves acting in a way which drives the story forwards?

Is my heroine someone readers will love, someone who will compel them to turn the page in order to find out whether she attains her heart's desire?

Is my hero the sort to make readers swoon?! 

Does the network of relationships, the ups and downs, slow the pace of the story in some places?

And does this matter if it is only a transitory thing?

Pacing is about rhythm. Too much tension and the reader will tire before the denouement. Too little and they will switch off.

Robert McKee's Classic Five Part Narrative Theory is as follows:-

Inciting incident.

Progressive complications.




Pace needs power but I am aware that it also needs pauses. It is finding the balance between the two which is so  hard to get right.

So how am I attempting to answer my doubts?

Well, eventually I will hopefully pass the book to one or two trusted writer friends and rely on them to be truthful. Before that I have begun to edit. Many writing blogs say not to edit until you have finished the story, but by returning to the beginning, deleting some passages and adding in others, I am hopeful that all will become clear. I am hopeful that, when I reach the part where I became stuck first time around, the choice of which path to follow will have been made for me. I am hopeful that by re-working from the beginning and trusting my instincts, I will be able to better judge how well the pace is working.

There are a lot of 'hopes' there but to a large extent that is what writing is. You pluck an initial idea from the ether, trust your instincts and hope that you can make something of it.

I hope that whatever you are doing this week you don't get stuck and if you do, that you find a speedy solution! Thank-you for reading.