Bristol Still Life

 

A car alarm sounds, an endless soar and dip of electric whoops.

The neighbour’s kids are in the back garden kicking a football around, trundling up the powdery tarmac path on their scooters. They shout and cry and argue in English, their mother chastises in Arabic.

Streets away a road sweeper van hums and whistles, brushes whirring against the pavement, a windy suck of air as it sweeps away polluted dust and grit and unsuspecting invertebrates.

A plane reverberates like thunder; the waspish rev of a moped. Twin sirens – lazy cousins to the car alarm – weave together, fade and grow and fade to nothing.

But.

The sparrows chitter their fussy song and a blackbird answers proud from the chimney top. Leaves stir on the cherry tree, the long grass is a sea of hushes. Rain pitters the roof and a bobble of a bumble bee hums over the raspberry canes.

 

The Captive River

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Image: Pixabay

 

Released from the house, from fairy lights and the pressure to eat more sugar, I wander up the hill, supposedly to buy bread and milk, but really to escape and breathe air that doesn’t smell of pine and cinnamon and the vinegary tang of last night’s red wine.

I’m disappointed.

There’s no ice out here, no sparkling clarity and breath-fogged air – a midge cloud batters my face, warmth collects uncomfortably under my coat and the Christmas gifts of hat and gloves have to be stowed in my shopping bag before I’ve taken twenty paces.

The supermarket is a five minute walk from our front door ‒ down the winding slope of the burial ground, past the last two remaining gravestones, commemorating an engaged couple who slipped beneath the choppy waters of the Severn on a pleasure cruise over a hundred and fifty years ago.

But I need to be in the world for longer than the graveyard will give me, so I turn up Dunkerry Road, towards the council flats and the playground painted with purple galaxies and flaking stars. In a couple of days’ time, the pavements will teeter with recycling boxes, dreary with crumpled wrapping paper, shedding spruce trees with ribbons of tinsel still clinging to balding twigs. But not today. Today, let’s pretend Christmas is still with us, before midnight on the 31st murders the season for good.

Back down another hill, past that mysterious heap of blackened banana skins that’s grown every time I see it, a fresh yellow caste added to its peak every day.

Crossing the road by the station, I zigzag through the steel bars that keep out bikes and joyriders and I’m in Cotswold Green. It’s not ancient, never a medieval focus for May poles and summer fetes, but an absence, a hole created when wartime bombs levelled a terrace of houses that no one had the energy or focus to rebuild once the skies went quiet.

I keep clear of the grass, cautious of what dog walkers haven’t bothered to clear, though we clambered the slopes in August to pick blackberries for a crumble and there’s a sloe bush somewhere, though it’s hard to remember exactly where in the tangle of thorns.

On the tarmacked footbridge I stop to look at the Malago River running beneath. Barely a river, more a brook, sliding over a bed of concrete slabs and energy drink cans. It’s tamed, this stream, culverted in parts, encased on one side by a Victorian sandstone wall, girders spanning the water to stop the blocks slipping down the bank.

I’ve read a plaque, a website ‒ something ‒ that says the Malago was once a danger to those terraced houses, before they were turned to brick outlines in the grass. There was a flood, people stranded – drownings. Hard to imagine the river had such power – now an irrelevance, caged and subdued to allow first the railway, then the road to dominate it.

A train clanks close by, halts and clanks again, a crocodile of coal carts bumping behind. A blackbird flies low above the water, chip-chip-chip and back up into the trees.

There’s graffiti on the bridge – sprayed by whoever created the muddy path that disappears beneath. SECRET HQ it reads in garish tangerine and I hope it was written with irony. I imagine the hidden space under the tarmac, under my feet, and think of dripping water and trolls and the excitement of being able to watch passers-by without being seen, avoiding thoughts of nitrous oxide canisters and cigarette butts and I don’t want to think what else is really there.

The rain plops loudly on the drum of my umbrella and I know I’ve been too long, that I’ll be missed, that strip lights and packaging and canned music wait for me in the supermarket and I that can’t avoid them.

But for a little while, the green corridor of the river belonged to me and the sparrows and that was enough.

 

 

Author Interview : The Writing District

 

Lingerie mannequin

Image : Pixabay

 

Earlier this year, I was delighted to win The Writing District’s August competition with my story, Waiting for Angie. (Read about the story’s long road to publication here.)

Now, the very lovely Olive O’Brien (children’s author, publisher and founder of The Writing District) recently asked if I’d like to take part in an author interview for the site. Well, who’s ego could resist that little massage?

So, if you’d like to read about what inspired me to write the story, who some of my favourite authors are, and who was better, Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet, do pop along and read here.

If you’d like to read the story before the interview, here it is.

Thank you Olive, it was a pleasure.

 

 

 

 

Reasons to love a frozen day in Bristol

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Image: Pixabay

A dusting of frost whitens the roof tiles: the wheelie bin’s iced shut again. Vapour trails slice the haze. I imagine excited passengers in flight to warm seas and warmer blue skies than mine.

I wear fingerless gloves as I type, slippered feet resting on a hot water bottle, body wreathed in layers: vest, blankets, jumpers – a scarf.

But the sun shines brilliant and golden on the old gas fire, brightening photographs of my  smiling son and a Valentine’s Day card. Along with the blankets I’m wreathed in valuables – that card, those photos.

I don’t envy those holiday makers and their week on a beach.

I’d rather be here than anywhere.

 

 

 

Why I gave myself ‘permission to be crap’

 

paper-523232_1280

Image: Pixabay

 

When is a novel like an old jumper?  

Well, let’s start off by getting this straight – I’m a rubbish knitter. I know the theory of combining lengths of wool, needles and fingers, but have got no further than small strips of uneven textile, with even my best examples resembling something a box of frenzied kittens have been let loose on.

Anyway, in my experience, a novel resembles my attempts at knitting a jumper.

Both can be big, baggy – out of shape and slightly out of control. And full of holes. Where I want my text to be neat and controlled, where I want to create fantastic patterns and spin wonderful colours, there is instead a saggy, loose ‘something’ that resembles a novel as closely as a jumper does.

Well, alright, novels are not made from wool. They have chapters instead of rows and words instead of stitches … In fact, let’s drop the jumper simile now as I’m actually starting to feel like one of those aforementioned kittens – all tangled up and irritated enough to eat a nest full of sparrow chicks.

You get my point, I hope.

Writing a novel of 80,000 words or so is tough. Not only do you have to have an idea that will sustain you through what could be a year – several years? – of writing, you have to ‘juggle’ so many things.

There’s a ‘ball’ for character, one for plot, setting, sub-plot, theme, pace That’s six ‘balls’ on top of juggling the skills a writer hopefuly already possesses- the ability to write clear, interesting, cliche free prose. Surely, too many ‘balls’ and not enough hands.

You can see how easy it would be to find yourself empty-handed, surrounded by balls.

Now, I’ve written three of these unwieldy creations, all unpublished, of course and varying greatly in quality. At least two are unpublishable at the moment. The most ‘finished’ one is the YA fantasy novel. I’ve spent so long with this book, these characters – writing and re-writing – that I’ve written nothing else ‘big’ in the past two or three years.

But now I’m at the stage where I want professionals to consider the book, it’s time to crack on with the sequel, right? I have a reasonably coherent plot . I’ve given my characters plenty of opportunities to do some interesting, upsetting, dangerous, thrilling things. No one’s gonna come out of this one unscathed and in fiction, that’s a good thing. So far so great.

Thing is, the more I developed the plot, the more confident I felt in which direction my beloved Edie and her pals would go – the more unable I felt to write.

You see, the first book just spilled out. I plunged into the story like  a poodle BASE jumping off Niagara Falls – unaware I was doing anything wrong. I did it without a thought and with enough enthusiasm to power a rocket. And that helped me to just write.

Eight years after I started the first book, I’ve learned a lot – I’m better at this writing lark than I was back then. Problem is, I now know how hard it is to get it right.

The weight of this knowledge has been paralysing. I’ve stared at the screen, genuinely wondering how on earth I’d written a book before. I couldn’t imagine how any of my characters think or speak, what they would do in any given circumstance. I read and reread the opening chapters of the first book, trying to absorb the tone, the voice. I even started writing a few, faltering paragraphs. But still – I didn’t feel right.

And then I did something idiotic. I renamed the file I was working on. It’s now called

PERMISSION TO BE CRAP.

And the first line? The line that greets me everytime I open that file?

PERMISSION TO BE CRAP, SUH? PERMISSION GRANTED.

It’s worked. Instead of being hung up on creating something wonderful from the start, I’ve allowed myself to just write. I’m officially allowed to be rubbish.

Not everything I’ve written is good. The opening chapter at least will be deleted. But there’s a section or two where my characters have emerged, recognisable, with the same voices and speech patterns, the same attitudes.

So, next time you stare at a laptop screen, and the pressure is too much – give yourself permission to write execrable nonsense.

It might just help.

 

 

 

How to murder Prevarication and Distraction

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Image: Pixabay

 

You have a few hours free.

You’ve sent the kids off to play by the railway line (cos you know, they love Thomas the Tank Engine and there are so many nettles and hogweed, urban foxes and rats down there, it’s virtually a nature walk).

Your other half has gone to the football / aqua-zumba / sealion taming lessons you bought them last Christmas.

The house is silent except for the scritch of woodlice at the skirting board.

You open your laptop or take out your Transylvanian vellum notebook and ivory and tiger skin Montblanc pen.

You breathe deep, slow, open your mind to the ideas sloshing around it …

You catch sight of that unruly pile of Amateur Shed-Builder Monthly magazine. The untidiness distracts you, so you straighten up the stack and retake your place.

You breathe again …

Actually, now you think about it, you’re pretty thirsty – better put the kettle on. And there’s a piece of that Venezuelan Mud Pie left your mum made that would go down very well. And you’d better just check Ebay, because you put a bid in for the entire DVD collection of Chastity and Me staring Bill Clinton and your Aunty Paula would really love that for her birthday …

Six hours later and all you’ve managed to write is the word fish fifty times.

If only you weren’t so easily distracted …

Well, if you pop along to the Mslexia blog, I might just have a few suggestions for you …

 

 

 

 

Is being an author written in your DNA like brown eyes and freckles?

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Clackety-clack Image: Pixabay

After Wednesday’s groan-athon, where I attempted to turn whiny introspection into an art form, and realising that I probably focus on rejection way too much in these posts, I thought I’d write something rather more positive.

A couple of days ago, my other half was reading my first blog post for Mslexia. After the odd wry smile*, he finally said,

Bloody hell, it’s tough, isn’t it?

By this I don’t think he meant writing blog pieces was tough – cos that’s as easy as falling off a stack of the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica – but that the road to being a paid author is tough.

The comment made me look at the whole endeavour with fresh eyes.

Yes, it’s tough. Few people who love to write can do so professionally, fewer still full time. And it’s only the top tiny percent who become so rich they make Croesus look like the Clampetts pre oil strike.

But that doesn’t phase most of us, because that’s not why we do it.

 

We write because words are part of our DNA, woven into our genetic make up as much as brown eyes and a tendency to freckle. 

We write because at some point, we have fallen into the whirlpool of a book, drowned in its world, felt the emotional tug of its characters – we’ve inhaled the magic of the best stories. And we’ve thought, even subconsciously,

“Dammit, I’d love to do that for someone else”

We write for the fleeting joy when a scene, a phrase – even a mere word – feels right.

We write because we grow to love our characters, they live in our minds and whisper at our shoulders, telling us what they wish to do next – what they WILL do next – and we want to be along for the ride.

We write because we want to prise open the door on the worlds we created and say to others, ‘Come on, take a look. Share this with me.’

We write for Joy and Love and even for the Pain we feel as our best created friends slip from us.

We write because we have to.

***

At least, that’s why I write.

So all my writer pals out there, tell me why you write.

Fame? Fortune? The possibility of appearing on Radio 2’s book club with Simon Mayo (oh, yes please)? Or is it just because if you don’t, the stories will build up until your head bursts a la Scanners?

 

***

*My husband has been with me for twenty five years, so he’s heard all my gags now – it’s tough to make him really laugh. Carry on reading this blog until the year 2040 and you will no doubt feel the same.

How authors can overcome their lack of time to write

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

Greetings from ‘sporadically sunny, but when it comes down to it, pretty rainy and miserable, let’s stay in and have another cup of hot chocolate’ Bristol.

Whilst not exactly bathing in the glorious output of the sun and feeling the Vit D leech from my body with every second that passes, there is something that warms my very soul today.

No, it’s not the hot chocolate.

Nor is it the prospect of eating the dosa (and possibly imbibing in a sneaky ‘my son’s at school so why not’ cocktail) that’s waiting for me for lunch with a friend.

Neither is it chatting to you lovely people in the little ray of sunshine that is right here, right now, this blog – though it warms my insides almost as much as the dosa and Mumbai Mule coctail will, I assure you.

No.

It’s the news that the second in my series of posts for Myslexia was published mere minutes ago.

As well as my usual nonsense rambling about dragons and tea, there are a few useful tips about conquering every wanna be author’s foe – Time Constraints.

Do pop along. A warm welcome extends to all.

Did a non-existent Ancient Greek write my novel?

Is heaven so cold, this angel has to wear socks? Image:Pixabay

Is heaven so cold this angel has to wear socks? Image:Pixabay

Now, I’m no great believer in Calliope.

No, I don’t mean the steam powered musical intrument. I’ve seen some of those, heard their fluty tones, so I know they exist.

I mean Calliope – the Muse – she of Nine Muses fame, that graceful female entity of Greek myth and legend, who Homer (no, not Simpson) called upon for inspiration whilst writing the Iliad and the Odyssey. Originally the Muse of epic poetry, she became the go-to girl for all writers, her remit having changed and expanded over the years.

The Ancient Greeks didn’t write novels, so had no need for a Muse of paperbacks. Though, if we fancy inventing one – you know, amongst ourselves – may I suggest the name Novella. Not a word of Greek origin, but catchy.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, I don’t wait on outside forces to help me write. I also don’t believe in channelling a fey, chiton-draped lovely to help me out when my writing has hit a pit of deep, dark wordlessness. I’m a great believer in having a routine, in treating creativity like a muscle you need to train.

You wouldn’t expect your abs to stay looking like a padded xylophone without a million sit ups, and so it is with your brain. I expect mine to jump to attention and produce short stories, novel chapters or the mind-spew that I post on this blog, whenever I ask it to.

I see it as developing a professional attitude. If I want someone – anyone, please? – in the publishiing business to take my writing seriously then I have to approach writing as if it were a business. Between drinking a lot of tea and being distracted by Twitter, of course.

But …

A couple of days ago, I was re-reading some chapters from my as-yet-unacknowledged (mainly because it’s unpublished) work of YA loveliness. 

I was doing this because I’m just taking the first, cautious, squeaky-bum-time steps towards writing a sequel.

Yes, I know. Many of you reading this will be chuntering about the wisdom of planning, plotting, writing a sequel to a book that hasn’t seen the light of day yet. What if a prospective agent/publisher sees and likes the book but thinks it needs the odd tweak to reach perfection …

Well, we sure like the sixteen year old, flame haired, tomboy heroine. But the story would work a whole lot better if she was a fifty six year old former soldier – ex SAS, hard drinking, thrice married Ross Kemp look alike. How do you feel about a rewrite?

But there a few reasons I’m keen to start the sequel.

One: It’ll be good to have a big project to tackle again.

Two: It’ll (maybe) help sell the first book if the second is at least in the planning stages.

Three: I just wanna.

When it came down to putting fingertips to keys, I first wanted to reread some of the orignal book, to get back into the swing of the style, to slip back into that world, shrugging it on like a favourite old jumper I’d left at the bottom of a drawer and just rediscovered. I felt nervous reading it, in case after few months away, it looked amateurish and clunky and just plain drivel.

And do you know what I found?

That much of it was really okay. And even bits – BITS, mind – were actually good. It was almost like reading a proper novel.

The weirdest thing, though was that it feels like someone else wrote it. I don’t remember composing some of the sentences, or where some of the ideas came from. How the hell was that manuscript created without my brain being truly involved with the process on a concious level?

Which got me to thinking.

Firstly: is there something in Rooibos tea other than innocent leaves?

Secondly: maybe there are moments when Calliope has been my friend after all.


Are you a writer who channels Calliope to help you?

Have you written something that later you were surprised you’d written?

Overcoming those knotty writing obstacles* with Mslexia

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

Today, my first blog post for Mslexia has gone live.

Those of you who’ve read this blog before will be unsurprised to find the posts will include writing, monsters and my usual daft view on things. It’s particularly wonderful to be part of such an intelligent, respected magazine – to say I’m chuffed is an understatement.

For the next three months, I’ll be blogging about … Tell you what, why don’t you just read my pitch.

To become that most mythical and elusive of heroes – a successful author – you must conquer terrifying foes. As a blogger and novelist-in-training, I’ll share with readers practical ways to immobilise the Writing-Obstacle-Hydra’s many heads. These include:

  • Time constraints. Trick! Overcome with cunning and sleight of hand.
  • Lack of self-belief. Stifle! Slow smothering brings results.
  • Money concerns. Blamo! Best acknowledged then ignored.
  • Continued rejection. Plyers! Yank out its teeth.
  • Fear of failure. Snap! Break the creature’s neck.
  • Prevarication & distraction. Die! Die! Die! The hardest to kill.
  • Family & friends. HALT! DO NOT CUT OFF THIS HEAD ‒ merely charm it.

So, if you stumble over any of these problems in your writing, pop along to Mslexia and we’ll thrash it out together. Why don’t you take a look anyway – it’s a great read.

P.S. Don’t forget your sword.


* Not included in my posts is the fact that this guest spot has helped me to overcome one of my own writing obstacles – getting my first professional writing job.

Many thanks to everyone at Mslexia.

Just in case you missed the link, here it is again.