The Motorbike

photo of the story in my rough bookWhen I was at school, we were encouraged to use rough books – any piece of work would be planned out in this first, before being written up neatly in the correct subject book. Any notes were taken in this book. And it usually became an expression of its owner, whether through carefully designed covers – at one point I used to divide my cover into squares, allowing me to create a different image/pattern in each square – or through sketches and stories written in spare moments, not always following the normal page order.

I recently found a rough book that I used in what was then fifth form – nowadays it would be called year 11; the year students turn 16, the year of external exams. I reproduce a story from it here, word for word. It might show you where my mind was in those days.

Mike gazed into the water, wondering what would happen to him. He thought about Sophie, then hurriedly blinked back the tears that came to his eyes. Big boys don’t cry, he thought.

Children shouted as they ran about on the grass, and his mind wandered back to that day when Sophie…

This was no good. He must forget about her. It would do no good, all this remembering. But as long as he could hear a motorbike roaring– He slowly straightened, and wandered over to where a crowd of boys gathered round a motorbike. He recognised the owner as Paul, and seeing how proud Paul was of his new bike was like looking in a mirror and seeing himself a few months ago, so proud and important, and he saw Sophie’s face; he remembered how reluctant she had been to ride on the bike, and how he’d persuaded her.

As if in a dream he saw Paul slip his arm round his girlfriend’s waist and lead his friends towards the cafe, leaving the bike behind. As he stared at it suddenly fury welled up inside him and jumping on the bike he kicked the stand away. As the engine roared into life he heard shouts behind him, but suddenly he didn’t care. There was a wall in front of him and no room to turn, but he didn’t care about that either. All he could see was Sophie’s face, Sophie laughing, Sophie having a good time, then suddenly he saw her lying on the ground, with the motorbike on top of her. The picture melted and he came to his senses — too late.

With all this focus on loose worksheets and fun activities in the classroom, I mourn the loss of the rough book. I think it’s time I got back to using a creative notebook.



Running in wellies

I had a strange dream a few nights ago, where I was running parkrun wearing wellington boots. I found they slowed me down considerably, but made life easier going through the very muddy section – although as I normally enjoy running through the sticky mud I’m not entirely sure why I felt this was good!

I joined Saturday’s parkun this week having not run for two weeks, and having run very little the week before that. I had a headache, I was tired… and as I listed my excuses to myself on the way there, I realised that was me putting on my wellies. Armed with so many excuses, I was setting myself up for a slower, easier run.

In fact, I’ve felt before that I do this a lot; that I set myself up for failure in some way, such as not training enough during the week, or not eating as healthily as I should, or not stretching my muscles out properly, so that while I complain about how badly I’m doing I have good excuses. The end result is that I grow frustrated and feel justified in slacking off – after all, I’m trying hard, so it must be that I just can’t do it. Never thinking to just take the virtual wellie boots off and prepare properly.

Now I just need to figure out the second half of my dream – why the pack of other runners turned into zombies grasping for me as I came out of the toilet block! Surely the other runners represent what I should be aiming for, not what waits for me if I don’t run?

Conspiracy theories

One of my first jobs on leaving school was in a small printshop, back in the days when home computers were very rare and no-one had their own printer, let alone photocopier. One task that I sometimes had to do for a particular customer was to take a booklet apart, photocopy all the pages and then bind each copy together. She often came in for two copies of this booklet or five copies of that or three copies of another.

I was the junior in the place, and was told by one of the older members of staff not to read the booklets, but they spoke in vain; I’m a compulsive reader, and couldn’t resist taking a peek as I worked.

I’ve no idea to this day who the person was, or what organisation they were part of, or why they needed all these booklets or where they came from, but I learned many interesting theories.

This was where I first learned about the mysterious Men in Black – those men who would turn up at someone’s house after they had seen something that could be extraterrestrial in origin, and would demand they keep quiet about it. Their visit, of course, would be somewhat counter-productive, since it served to prove that something really had happened. There were two or three different Men in Black books, and I would become fascinated by the stories of encounters.

I also learned about the hollow earth theory – the evidence was convincing to my eighteen-year-old self: in the sixties, when there were several nuclear blasts, there were also several UFOs seen. Since all the UFOs arrived at the same sort of time as the nuclear explosions, and travel from any other planet would take time, the UFOs must have all come from our own planet, where they live inside the earth and access their world via holes in the north and south pole; basically our world is doughnut-shaped.

I think this is where I was also exposed to the idea that we as a species came from another planet, that we travelled here on a ship and displaced the natives to become the dominant species.

It was a fun time, before the internet, where rumours and theories were much slower to travel, and communication generally was slower and more personal.  And my mind was irrevocably marked by those sneak reads.


Running to stand still

wet and muddy meThe title of this post is the same as the blog a friend writes. I think it’s a brilliant phrase, that really reflects how life is at times, so apologies for borrowing it for a bit.

I haven’t done much exercise lately, and by lately I mean the last couple of days. Transport issues have meant that I didn’t go swimming, and to be honest the weather, work and general hassle meant I allowed myself to slack off.

Today I did a Pretty Muddy Race for Life, and I really felt out of condition. Two days was all it took for me to lose fitness and almost get out of the habit. I’ve also been eating less healthily for the past week or two, which hasn’t helped.

I enjoyed my run today, but at the same time was a little disappointed in it. The day was well-organised, with plenty of parking, food and drink available onsite, plenty of loos brought in (no queues!) and a very pleasant route, which contained a couple of fairly challenging hills. We were sent off in 15 minute waves, which ensured maximum use of the course and management of runners. However, most of the people around me were walking, which made it difficult for me to keep motivated to run, and the obstacles were fairly tame for a mud run – when I say the cargo nets we crawled under were placed on warm, dry tarpaulin, does that show you what I mean? There were some wet obstacles, and by the end we were all thoroughly soaked in muddy water, but mud itself was not really in evidence – I’ve seen more mud on a winter parkrun. To add to the time taken, one obstacle even had a ten minute queue.

What I did learn today was that I need to keep up the exercise, and make it much higher priority. I need to keep up the healthy eating and not let things slide. I need to do regular stretching exercises (I went to buy a new pair of shoes while we were in the area, and the woman at the shop instantly identified that I have tight calves), and I need to push myself harder.

I also had a reminder that I do enjoy running. I enjoy moving under my own power, and I enjoy challenges, but I do need to be pushed to achieve them.

So now the intention is to keep pushing myself (10k in September is next, I do believe), and to look out for more challenges. We’re looking into getting a dog, which will mean plenty of walking when I’m not running, so that should help with general fitness.

And yes, stretching exercises.

Because today was a strong reminder that as frustrated as I get in running slowly, and not increasing my speed very much, it’s worse if I don’t exercise at all, because then I start moving backwards and losing ground far faster than I’d like.





Please note: this is rather different from my usual type of post…

In the news today is the story that Rolf Harris has been convicted on charges of sexual assault on young girls, with more cases possibly in the pipeline.

My reaction to that is to feel totally betrayed. I believed in the man. I loved his music, and his art, and thought he was an all-round good guy. All the way through I was thinking that it was a mistake; that the accusers were making things up, that they had misunderstood, exaggerated, were trying to cause trouble.

I mention my reaction because it’s exactly the reason why this sort of thing can happen; it’s so easy to make excuses, to turn a blind eye, to not believe it, to trust someone.

When someone you know is accused of something, it can be hard to accept. But it’s important that we do accept it. Sure, there are the odd cases where someone makes an accusation out of malice, but there are so many times when kids speak up and aren’t believed, because of all the reasons I’ve given, and that’s why it can continue. Because not believing the accusation means that we can carry on the way we are, without causing trouble, losing a friend/family, or experiencing major upheaval.

This is the reason, too, why I’m opposed to things like Sarah’s Law, the law allowing people to find out if people close to their children are on the sex offenders’ register. Because it lulls us into a false sense of security: they’re not on the list so they must be safe.

In reality, those known sex offenders are not the worst threat. An abuser is far more likely to be a family member or family friend, someone who is trusted and loved.

Not all people are abusers; of course not. But very few of those who are abusers are actually caught. Far more manage to continue their habits because of who they are.

This is why we need to empower children to know they’re allowed to say no where their bodies are concerned – yes, even to great aunt Aggie who insists on a kiss every time you see her – and allow cases like those we’ve seen lately to be discussed openly. Because only when the stigma is removed, awareness raised and when children expect to be believed is there any hope of stopping things. Children have very little power. Let’s at least grant them the right to be listened to, and believed, and protected. Otherwise they may struggle with these issues for the rest of their lives.



A final first draft

I’ve had attempts at this novel before: the first time I had the setting, and attempted the characters. The second time I had the setting and characters and attempted the story. This time I’m more confident that I have all three.

Each time I’ve started afresh, so it’s still really a first draft, but I intend this to be the final first draft, so to speak. I have some rules: I have come to a compromise with nano rules, in that I need to write every day, with a target of one scene/around 1000 words minimum per day, and the focus is on writing not editing, but at the same time I’m not allowed to add words for the sake of them, when I know I’m just going to have to remove them again later.

There are various challenges going on at the moment – there’s camp nano about to start, and another run of 100k in 100 days, and I see today that Della Galton has her own challenge going on via facebook, with the aim of 10k words by a week’s time. Regardless of those challenges, I have my own challenge, and that’s to finish this darn thing and get to the next stage before it drives me completely mad.

So main characters and main story arcs are sorted. I have a strong idea of where each scene fits in the overall arc, what has to be achieved and what has to be lost in each. The next thing I have to decide is the relationship between my two main characters; the idea is to have their lives run parallel throughout most of the book, touching together occasionally, until they collide at the end. But in order to do this, I have to decide how they touch, to what extent, and who knows what. Then there’s all the extra characters who have to be there, and the extent of the part each of them plays, and minor issues such as how to weave background information and scene descriptions into the main narrative.

So far, I’ve found that a scene a day gives me a good focus for planning out as I swim in the morning, and then writing up in the evening. I just have to keep that up and ensure that I have not only a collection of words on the topic, but something that is vaguely readable and coherent.

Then begins the editing stage…

Just follow the path and don’t look back

A dog and a direction postI borrowed a dog for a walk this afternoon. I took him somewhere I used to take my dog, but where I haven’t been for a few years: onto the nearby common and the adjoining woods.

As we walked through the woods, there were wooden posts with arrows marked on. Being well behaved, I tried my best to follow the arrows. At one point this resulted in a rather overgrown section – it got worse and worse, until we finally broke through to a clear area again. When I looked back, there was no sign of the path we’d come from, and had we been going the other way, there’s no way we would have tried to get through.

We continued on, back on a more well-defined path, and eventually broke out of the woods back onto the common, and continued our walk.

overgrown pathThen someone asked the question: “Would you want a do-over?” and that made me think of that path. We go the way life directs us, but sometimes when we look back we can see no path, and it’s hard to believe we came through that way. If we were heading the other way, there’s no way we would have picked that path, but as bad as it looks from this side, actually going through it wasn’t so bad at all, and it’s brought us to where we are now.

And having reached this point, we go on, because looking back is pointless. We can only go on from where we are, and find what’s on the other side.

So would I want a do-over? No, because I’m actually pretty happy with where I am now, whatever the path to get here looked like. If I started again, there’d probably still be unpleasantries, and even if there weren’t, if my childhood had been perfect, then I’d be a different person, because my experiences shaped me into the person I am.

I wouldn’t have chosen some aspects of my early life, I fully admit, but they are part of me now, and helped to bring me to where I am, and I can’t change the past without changing the present.

I think I’ll just focus on moving forward, and not looking back.


From world to characters to story

I’ve been working on my novel for a long time – in two different forms, it’s been the topic of two nanowrimo attempts, both completed, and I still wasn’t happy with the results. Yet the story refused to let me go.

So lately I’ve been writing about my story rather than trying to write the story itself. I’ve been trying to work out what I want to achieve with it, and how I’m going to do that.

You see, I started with a world. I had a situation that I wanted to explore, and a first idea, but not much more than that.

Then I figured out a couple of characters and situations to put in that world. I knew who they were, what they wanted and how they would get on in this world I’d created. But it still didn’t seem to work – I got bogged down, and couldn’t see the overall structure.

Going back to basics, back to thinking about the story, the message I want to get across, the situation I want to explore, I suddenly began to see my way through the maze, and feel the overall arc of the story, to the point where I’ve roughly sketched out the entire structure, including the ending, which had been hidden to me so far.

It’s not completely there, of course; I still need to get down into specific events and scenes, and then I need to get it all written down. But the point is that I know where I’m going with it now, so that I can consider the purpose of every scene I decide to add, and where it fits in that structure.

The next step is to start putting down ideas for individual scenes, and then I can transfer to Aeon Timeline and Scrivener, and start really putting the flesh on the bones. But it feels so good to finally see the whole picture.


I miss reading

As a child, I was always reading. I remember one time when I was around seven years old, when I sat and read through two famous five books in one afternoon. I chose my secondary school on the basis of the books in the library. I was known as a bookworm, and was a regular visitor to the local library.

Now I earn a living from reading. I help writers shape their stories and I check them over for errors and confusion. I spend most of my days reading, in one form or another.

And yet I really struggle to read for pleasure these days. It seems that after spending my days being hyper-critical of what I read, it’s hard to switch off and simply enjoy a story. Those books that drag me in so I can’t bear to put it down are few and far between, and so many times I’ll start a book and lose interest halfway through.

It’s not just the day job; I think the switch to electronic reading has a lot to do with it as well. I read on my ipad, which means that not only do I not have a physical copy of a book to see and remind me, but there are so many other things I can do on the pad that I simply forget to read.

There are so many books around these days. Perhaps that’s another part of the problem. So many stories, and yet the quality is often an issue, particularly as the same subject matter is dealt with over and over again in different ways.

I’m working my way through the futurelearn writing course, and that lays emphasis on not only writing but but on reading, and particularly reading with a writer’s eye.

So that’s reading with an editor’s eye, reading with a proofreader’s eye and reading with a writer’s eye. I just long for the sort of book that I get to enjoy for its own sake, reading with a reader’s eye. I’m going to make a real effort this week, and see how far I get.

How much reading do you do? What’s the best book you’ve read recently? Have your reading habits changed as you’ve got older, or as electronic books have become more popular? How quick are you to drift away from books that don’t catch your attention?


Introducing Charlie

I’ve already introduced you to Annie and Betty, two of the voices in my head. Well, if Annie is a small child, excitable but easily scared, and Betty is the timid and worrying adult, then Charlie is the neurotic one. He is completely paranoid. He is the voice that, if given a scenario of a family member being five minutes late home, has come up with at least ten different reasons for their tardiness within the blink of an eye, each worse than the previous one. He’s the one who always looks for the very worst in every situation, and revels in the times he predicts correctly. Given any situation, he can immediately pull the worst out of it and present it for my delectation and delight.

Charlie is the one who says: “What’s the point? You’ll never get anywhere anyway, so don’t waste your energy. You’re not worth the effort. You’re in your place, and you need to stay there.” He tells me that I’m not allowed to feel happy, because there’s bound to be something nasty coming along, and I can only stave it off by accepting the misery now and rejecting happiness. He tells me that I don’t deserve happiness, that my role is only to satisfy others, never to feel satisfied myself. He’s the one that tells me I need to spend all my time worrying so that bad things don’t happen, and that any appearance of success is an illusion, to be shattered the moment I embrace it.

He’s a ball and chain. He keeps me anchored, and tries to persuade me that I’m in the place I should be. He can shout me down until I hide, cowering, in a corner, reluctant to venture out into the big bad world. One story I heard was of crabs in a bucket – you try to lift a crab out, and all the rest of them grab onto him and refuse to let go, keeping him in the bucket. Well, Charlie is definitely a large crab.

He’s also boring and repetitive. He will capture a phrase, sometimes from a song and sometimes just a destructive attitude, and will repeat it over and over again, like a mantra, making it hard to think past him. It’s hard to make positive choices when all you can hear is “you’re a fraud and you know it” or similar.

Charlie, like all people, has a positive side: in his case, he has a lot of imagination, so although he usually comes up with negative suggestions, still I hesitate to squash him completely. His favourite game is What-If. He’s fantastic when it comes to making up stories – although being Charlie, it’s not that simple. When you have a good idea, but it involves writing something negative, and you have Charlie whispering that writing it will make it come true, it leads to a lot of tension.

He’s paranoid. He’s the one that tells me not to think too hard about my PIN as I enter it into the cash machine, in case someone can mind-read it. He’s the one that says any bad attitude around is aimed at me and my fault, that strangers around me are enemies and I mustn’t provoke them. He’s the one that finds my element of blame in anything that happens and magnifies it until it overwhelms me.

I think I’ve been listening to Charlie far too much in my life. Maybe if I can force him to be quiet for a while I can find another voice inside, a positive one who cheers me on and encourages me, who always sees the best in things. And I think I’m starting to figure out who that voice is. Maybe one day I’ll even know him well enough to introduce him to you.