I smuggled the book out under my coat

I had a spare half hour this afternoon, so I wandered into the local library, a place where I spent a large part of my childhood, and which opened up the world to me. I don’t often go there these days, but I wandered around looking at books on the shelf, passing time, and in the end I picked one up, sat down in a chair and started reading.

It wasn’t a fiction book; as a child I would only ever read fiction, and couldn’t understand my best friend who would only ever read non-fiction, but I have a whole pile of fiction books waiting to be read, and wouldn’t dare pick up another. This was a book called How Not to be Wrong: the Hidden Maths of Everyday Life. I teach or tutor maths on occasion, and I’ve always been interested in how numbers work and how maths is all around us – one of my pet hates is the “I haven’t had to use algebra all day today” meme – and so I started reading the introduction.

In the end, I took the book to the machine, fished out my library card and checked the book out (you don’t even have to see a librarian these days), but discovered that I was almost hiding the book away as I took it out of the library.

Why did I feel so guilty about it? Part of the problem is that I currently read for part of my living. I read manuscripts and give detailed feedback. I get free books in return for reviews, through the Amazon Vine programme. And I have a pile of books of my own choice that I’d also like to read. So adding another to the pile feels like extravagance.

There aren’t enough hours in the day already. How can I just add something else to the pile?

I guess, because I need to relax. I need to enjoy myself occasionally. I need to read widely in order to do my job – both the reading and the writing part – as well as I can. And as this is non-fiction, I’m not going to constantly picking plotholes in it.

And it’s also rather enlightening and interesting, and maybe I’ll learn a lot, and maybe what I learn will help me to teach maths better, because I’ll have a deeper understanding of how it does integrate with real life. As to the algebra – each time you work out what your change should be from a money transaction, you’re using algebra, because algebra is just making explicit the rules that numbers follow, which is that if a+b=c, then c-a=b and c-b=a.

 

Resilience

It’s been a busy week. As part of my training for a half marathon at the end of March, on Tuesday I ran 11 miles, my longest distance yet. Tuesday afternoon I gave blood, after making sure I had a good lunch in between and plenty to drink.

Then I made a couple of mistakes.

I was due out at a social evening for the allotment society, so I cooked food for the rest of the family and as I’d had a big lunch I decided I wasn’t hungry and just had cheese on toast – I couldn’t eat with the others as they don’t eat until the time I’m going out, thanks to the wonders of the railway timetable. Then I decided I didn’t need to take my handbag – I avoid it whenever I can – and walked down to the meeting.

Halfway through the meeting, I started feeling decidedly woozy. I felt the blood drain from my face, to be replaced with a sheen of perspiration. My vision started blurring and swirling and I was not at all well. Because of where I was sitting, I would have had to walk all the way round the back of the group to reach the toilets, and as I hadn’t brought my bag, I didn’t have the snack that I always keep in there. So I sat it out and thankfully had started to recover a little by the end of the talk, at which point I sent a text message for hubby to walk down and escort me back home.

So when I set out for a short run this morning, only to find my legs felt like lead, I didn’t worry too much. I was kind to myself and allowed several walking breaks, while not panicking that my running days were over and I’d never be able to run again, because I knew from experience that there was a good reason I was struggling and that given a day or so more to recover, I would be fine again.

One thing I’ve developed over the past couple of years of running is resilience – I have experiences I can call on, where I’ve not felt well, or a run has gone badly, or conditions have been less than ideal, and I know better how to cope. I have memories of running when tired, running in the rain, giving up on a run, running while freezing cold – as well as memories of successful runs, fast runs, long runs, in beautiful weather, in pleasant surroundings. I can judge each run in a wider context, rather than on its own merits.

Now I need to transfer that to my writing. I’ve been thinking constantly about my fantasy novel, and working on it in spare moments, but I have to confess that I haven’t done as much as I would have liked. And sure enough, I’ve now reached the point where I start thinking can I actually do it? There’s so much that I want to include in there, so much that should be in there, and I wonder if I actually have the stamina and ability to complete it to the standard I would like. All it takes is a post from someone about a successful local writer publishing her first novel, and my confidence hits the floor and stays there.

So this is where I need to develop writing resilience – the ability to keep writing whatever the mood, and accept that some sessions will be good and others not so good, but they’re all moving in the right direction. The ability to brush off doubts and appreciate the process as desirable in its own right. To recognise that the fact I see the weaknesses in my writing is actually a strength, because at least I can see what’s missing, rather than imagining I’m writing a masterpiece when it’s nowhere near.

And one big reason I need to do this is because I’m reaching the point now where I’m lining up beta readers (or to be more accurate alpha readers) to help me out with the structure, and so I need to reach that point where I have a complete story that’s ready to be looked at. It’s nearly there, but not quite, and will only get there with work.

The other reason is that once again news stories are appearing that make me think of the other novel I have on the go, the speculative fiction novel, the one about babies, which really does need a proper title! So I need to get the fantasy novel to a point where I can set it aside/pass it on to readers and then let it rest for a while, and press back on with the babies.

Because these things won’t let me rest these days, and the least painful way to deal with them is to push on and get something done about them. Even if it does end up being a load of rubbish that’s not worth the effort of reading. Because apart from anything else, I’ll have learned what works and what doesn’t, and will be a few steps further down the line towards being able to finish something that is worth reading.

 

Out of routine but still achieving

Normally I cope with  life by developing routines. Because I know it’s a run/swim day, or a run day, or a swim day, I’ll get out there regardless of how I feel. Ask me to go on a non-scheduled day and there’s no way that will happen. Sadly, I haven’t managed to build up my writing routine that strongly yet, so have missed opportunities simply because the structure wasn’t there to force me to write whatever my mood, but the exercise is definitely at the point where it’s easier to stick to routine than miss a session.

So when I learned that today, my longest run day, I would have to run an errand, thereby disrupting my schedule, my heart sank. No time for a long run before, forecast for Thursday is rain so I can’t swap the two days safely, so what was going to happen?

I’m training for a half marathon, which takes place in around 7 weeks, so really didn’t want to miss out on my longest run, so I made myself a vague promise I’d go after lunch. Then I decided to take advantage of being dragged away from work for an hour and I took my notebook with me, so I could get working on my novel while out.

Having added a sizeable chunk to my novel, I tried to sit smugly at my desk, but there was still something nagging at me; I may have managed to work some writing into my day, but what about my long run?

Part of me threw up every excuse imaginable, desperate to prove that there was no way I could run, but I thought about my novel, how I’d been putting it off and putting it off, and how good it felt to get back writing again, and I thought about my running, and how I always enjoyed it once I got out there, and how if I missed this week’s long run it would make the HM training even tougher for the next few weeks, and in the end I got changed and went out.

The first mile was tough, but it felt good to have won the battle and got out there. The last third was mostly walking, as my knees started to protest, but I decided not to worry too much – I’d already walked about 5 miles with the dog today, and it was after lunch rather than the morning when I usually run, and I was short on sleep last night. So I finished my run in a very slow 1 hour 26 mins, covering nearly 9 1/2 miles, and now I can rest, because I’ve written today and intend to write some more this evening, and I also managed to get out there and run.

I think I’m back on track, with running and writing.

 

Reading is different now

In my childhood I would plunge into the world inside a book, to emerge hours later. As I grew older, that magic remained but weaker; I would read while cooking, while on the train, when doing all sorts of other things, but just sitting reading was not always a possibility.

Over the past couple of years things have changed. Now I make a living out of reading, one way or another. Either I’m reading stories to check for sense, writing style and technique, and making comments throughout, or I’m going through every detail checking for errors and correcting them. Either way, reading is slow and sometimes painful, and there is usually some sort of conversation between me and the writer.

Even reading books for pleasure isn’t quite the same; as a member of Amazon Vine, I receive books and other products in exchange for an honest review of them, so even when I’ve chosen a book and am reading it for pleasure, I’m mentally composing a review, thinking of phrases to describe what I think of it, working out how many stars I want to give it, and sometimes reading on when I might have otherwise let it drift out of my attention.

Just occasionally, I choose a book and pay for it, and then I can read it purely for pleasure. But even that has changed lately. Now I’m thinking about the words and phrases used, how the characters and situations are built, what in the story keeps me interested.

My latest read is even worse, as it’s written by someone I know. I have no obligation to review it. There will be no conversation with the author as to why she wrote something a certain way, or introduced this storyline here, or chose to handle the characters that way. But it’s still not something I can just read and enjoy, because I’m also examining her description, her character development, her handling of multiple timelines, and trying to figure out some of her secrets. And I’m feeling inadequate, because I recognise the qualities in her writing that are lacking from mine, and also inspired, because if she can do it why can’t I?

And so reading has taken on a whole new dimension for me. It’s impossible these days to just sit and enjoy a story with no desire to analyse it. Mostly, I’m okay with that, because the change has brought its own benefits.

But I do miss that utter absorption I used to have before I was so aware of all the writing skills involved and busy trying to master them myself.

 

Editing on paper

I’m still plodding away at editing my novel. I’m focusing on the first half at the moment, and found the best way was to print it out, stick it in a binder and go through it with a pen. I was a little shocked to realise just how thick a stack 148 pages is! Seeing it printed out double spaced was quite a moment; I realised just how far I’ve actually come on this story already.

Now I’m going through making sure the first half makes sense and is in logical order. This has meant moving some sections, so I’m checking continuity. I’m also aware that I do a lot of telling, sometimes several times over, so I need to make sure enough information is given for a reader to follow the story without being repetitive – always a challenge when you have the world clear in your head but your reader could be thinking something different!

Then once I’ve finished working on the first half, I need to push forward through the story. The second half is nowhere near as well developed, and I’ve a nasty feeling I’m going to have to go a lot further towards destroying our world than I’d originally pictured. But I’m thoroughly enjoying the process, even if I’m easily distracted.

The best editing session I managed so far was when I took myself out of the house to a cafe with no wifi and poor phone signal. The lack of distraction meant that I was able to sit and really focus for a couple of hours. The plate of chips was good too! I’ll be repeating that exercise every couple of weeks, I think, and pushing myself to focus more when I am at home.

Once I have the complete story clear and in order, which will be the end of draft 2, I can worry in more detail about writing style and technical details for the next draft. I keep reminding myself that there will be plenty of time to refine the story down to the best I can do. There’s no point in worrying about individual sentences until I know they’re telling the right story.

My main challenge now is pushing forward fast enough to keep up the enthusiasm and not risk losing the train of thought or getting distracted by other ideas and grinding to a halt.

 

New targets

2014-12-31 10.46.10

For 2015 I’m going with another Keep Calm and Carry On page a day calendar, and with it I get the electronic version of another one for free, which this year I’ve chosen as Today is Going to be a Great Day! – I’ll receive emails with the message of the day every day, or can access it online. The Keep Calm saw me through 18 very difficult months at work, and then a further 6 months of running a new business, so I’m looking forward to getting back to it. I was a little disappointed in my Runner’s High calendar over the past year, as sometimes the messages seemed a little odd and irrelevant, but a couple did make it as far as display above my desk - You already have everything you need to be a long-distance athlete. It’s mindset, not miles, that separates those who do from those who dream, and The only failure is not finishing, both of which seem to apply to my writing as much as to the running.

At around this time of year I tend to reflect on the year just past and consider the one to come. What have I achieved? What do I want to achieve?

On the first day of last year I set myself some targets. On looking back, I’m pleasantly surprised at how far I got with those targets.

Running

  • Beat my parkrun (5k) PB (currently 34:21) – done (currently 32:27, and working on reducing that further).
  • Beat my 10k PB (currently around 1 hour 18 mins) – done (currently 1:13:45)
  • Beat 50% age grading for 5k (that makes it around 32:24) – my current highest grading is 49.992, which is pretty damn close
  • Complete a parkrun in under 30 mins – this one is still a work in progress, but I haven’t given up
  • Complete a half marathon – not done yet but booked for end of March

Writing

  • Write at least 1000 words every day – not so good here, but I’m working on building the habit back up
  • Complete at least a working first draft of my novel – halfway through but also working on another novel
  • Study and work at writing – sort of in progress, too vague really
  • Plan out another novel for next November’s nano – done
  • Complete nano – done and the nano novel is the other novel I’m currently working on

So writing wasn’t as good as running, but still progress has been made.

I guess next year the plan is to tick off those I haven’t done already, and work on keeping the running and fitness up while developing the writing side as well.

In another review I mentioned the house and garden. Well the house is kind of tough – any space I clear is immediately invaded by stuff from another member of the family – and the garden hasn’t received too much attention apart from a rather large puppy running around destroying the grass and digging up my carrots, but I did take on an allotment at the end of March, so I’ll be working on that throughout the year.

This leads on to the other area I need to focus on, which is sort of related to running, and that’s to achieve a more healthy weight. It’s another work in progress, but now I feel I have the tools and motivation to get further on this.

Then there’s the business, which is building up steadily. That’s an area where I need to make sure I have a good work/life balance, not wasting time or putting in time at the computer when I could be doing more productive things elsewhere. In quieter times, there’s plenty to be done without feeling guilty about not working, and I need to make sure I’m allowing enough time for other projects that are more long-term.

Talking of more long-term projects, I seem to have lost my enthusiasm for learning about technology and coding over the past year, which is understandable considering I’d just left the classroom and needed a break from it, but I need to get back into that side of things, and back into my technical writing side generally.

All in all, I think I’ve done well this year, and I’m looking forward to continuing this progress into the next year. It’s always good when a new year doesn’t bring in lots of things I need to change, and it’s more about keeping up the good work.

 

Recurring dream

I often remember my dreams – I think it comes as part of the not sleeping well. Sometimes I can trace them back to something that’s happened during the day, either to me or something I’ve read in the media. Sometimes they’re completely off the wall – I must remember to start writing them down!

Sometimes I have a familiar theme occur. It involves travel, and railways, and often involves London or another city that’s familiar to me at least in my dreams. I dreamed it again last night. There were a group of us – family, I think – trying to get somewhere, and we were trying to keep luggage and people together and find the right platform and get the right train, but the platforms were so crowded that there was barely room to stand, let alone move around to get on the train. Sometimes the issue is that I can’t find the right platform, or the right line, or that the luggage isn’t ready, or that the wrong train comes in, or two trains come in at once, but it’s always that frantic, urgent feeling of needing to be somewhere and struggling to get there.

I often recognise the place the dream is set; either coming in to a specific station, or related to a specific street in a town, neither of which I’m actually aware of existing, apart from in my dreams, but it seems to be somewhere I visit often in that dream world.

I’m starting to build up the habit of writing a minimum 1000 words a day, usually on some sort of short story/theme. I think I’ve got a vague idea what might crop up tonight. What would be really interesting is if it turned out that all these shorts turned out to be related in some way.

Not beyond the realms of possibility.

Do we make up our stories, or do we just transcribe them from wherever they exist already?

And what does this specific dream mean? It often turns up at critical points in my life, or what in hindsight turns out to be critical points, and signifies the struggle of knowing which way to go in life. Last night’s, though, I think just relates to the article I read about the boss of the railways receiving an obscene “bonus” to his wages (his bonus would be far higher than I have ever earned in a year) while there is misery caused by overrunning engineering works and overcrowded, rerouted trains.

 

Reading as a writer

A few years ago, I watched a programme about adult literacy. An educator took on a few adults who were illiterate and set out to help them master the world of words. He was determined that he was not going to give up on them, as it appeared their teachers had, and would figure out what was stopping them from reading and open up the world of words for them.

They were an assorted bunch, of different ages, and with different problems, ranging from not having had the support they needed at home to help them practise to having real issues with shape and rotation of letters. With one particular woman, they resorted to having her make letters in plasticine, as she discovered that only by physically experiencing the shape and feel of the letters could she remember them and learn them.

By the end of the programme, they could all cope with basic reading, but their reactions were mixed. One woman was heartbroken over all the time she had lost, and all the books she had not read, while another had a very surprising reaction: she was furious. She felt that by being able to decode all the words around her, she had been deprived of peace of mind. She yearned to go back to the days when she could walk down the street without being aware of all the letters and words.

I find it difficult to imagine not being able to read; in fact I’m addicted to reading, being unable to pass text without stopping to read it. I only realise just how addicted I am when I see something that I can’t quite read, and start feeling extremely twitchy and uncomfortable until I’ve moved closer or found some other way to deal with it.

But my reading has changed greatly over the past few weeks. Now that I’m partway through writing a novel, my reading is influenced by my writing. This has taken the form of reading books with similar themes, to discover how the book copes with the switch from the real world to a fantasy world, or describes a computer game, and is moving on to more general writing issues: now when I read I’m asking myself how much I’ve learned about the character, or the setting, or the world; why I’m interested in that specific character; how the author makes what could be a nasty character more sympathetic, or how he changes voice when he changes viewpoint; how he sets up an impossible situation, and then bends the rules to solve the problem; why something is introduced in a certain way.

Just like the woman who learned to read, there’s no going back. As a proofreader, I find myself distracted by silly errors, because they interfere with the decoding of the text, but as a writer I also find myself questioning the plot, and how the author has planned things, and how he has drawn us in to the world and the characters.

There are more practical issues too: how many characters? How long are the chapters? How does he jump from story arc to story arc? How do we keep up with which arc we’re on? Why does he tell that scene from that POV? And the very basic issues of whether the plot makes sense and if the characters are believable.

Sometimes this new awareness makes life harder; it’s difficult to find a book that really engages, because I’m too easily distracted by the writing. And if I do find a book with a good writing style, then there’s the feeling of inferiority, that envy that I feel when admiring someone else’s eloquence and wanting it for myself.

One thing I’m becoming more and more aware of is that there are two dimensions to storytelling: there’s the story itself, and the storytelling skills. I’ve read gripping stories where the writing style is lacking, and I’ve read books where the writing is strong but the story itself lacks pace and structure.

And then just occasionally I come across a book where both meet. Where a strong story is told by a good storyteller. Where the words flow on the page and the story pulls you along until you can’t resist.

And oddly, that’s where I often slow down, where I find I read a few pages, or a chapter or so, then put the book down, then pick it up later to continue. It’s as though I’m enjoying the book so much that I can’t bear to get to the end of it.

It doesn’t often happen, sadly, and it happens far less frequently than it used to in my childhood. Has my new awareness come between me and the book world? Or is it just an inevitable part of growing up, that reality prevents us really getting absorbed in a book?

Either way, I feel my reading has taken on a new dimension recently. And I really must get back into the habit of writing regularly as well, a habit built so well during November and then lost in the scramble of December.

 

Let it go

As a teenager, I was neurotic. I distinctly remember losing sleep over dogs barking in the neighbourhood, convinced that it meant rabies had come to the country and the demise of everyone was imminent. And that was just one of the very many threats to my world that I feared.

As an adult, I find the world around me still a scary place, but maybe I’ve been through enough scares now to realise that it’s very unlikely that anything will come of them and if it does there’s nothing I can do about it anyway, so it’s not worth losing sleep over.

Even so, I find myself frequently drifting into minor panics over various things. Many years ago when I used to watch Home and Away, every so often I would become so intrigued by a storyline that I looked up spoilers (Australia were several months ahead of us showing the episodes). I would read several episodes ahead, become overwhelmed by all the experiences the characters had to go through and would have to stop watching for a while, until again I was into an area where I didn’t know what would happen. I get that same feeling about real life – that looking ahead is too stressful, and I need to pull back and focus only on the present and immediate future. Some days I find it tough to look beyond the current day, at other times the pressure eases a little, but still looking forward too much makes me feel uncomfortable – maybe because those thoughts tend to focus on the big things and the negative things that might/will happen, rather than remembering all the little things and the positive things along the way.

Now I’m trying to remind myself that there’s no point in worrying, that I don’t have to pay today in worry-time in order to avoid future disaster. That song Let it Go is proving very useful as a refrain. As is the proverb that seems to be doing the rounds these days: Not my circus, not my monkeys.

So often we try to save the world, and despair that we fail. Maybe we need to work on just our little corner, and make that more pleasant, and stop worrying about the big picture.

And maybe I need to stop reading the news for a while.

 

Rhyming with Rupert

When I was in what would now be called year 3, the first year of junior school, I was around seven years old. Our teacher loved Rupert Bear, and one activity we would enjoy was to read the Rupert the Bear annuals together as a class. The teacher would read the rhyming couplets, all but the last word, and we would have to guess the last word.

“The wood is risky, Rupert knows,/And so another way he …”

“…goes.”

“Just look what I have,” Rupert cries,/And Mr Bear turns in…”

“…surprise.”

I always used to enjoy these, and it was surprisingly easy to guess the right word. Usually it seemed that looking at the pictures and listening to the rhyme made it obvious what the word must be.

Then as my understanding grew, I realised that while the second word in the rhyme was obvious, it was only because of the choice made for the first line; that it was the writer’s skill in choosing both words together. This was well after the time I used the word “Caravans” in my own poetry, then desperately rhymed it with “Lumberans” – the name of an act in the circus! (“They lumber and lumber round the ring, and they’re as funny as anything”).

The type of plot I like best in a story is one where the outcome is tied in neatly with the rest of it. There’s a fantasy book that I read years ago, where a group went on a journey and had various adventures, and the lessons they learned helped them in their final task – in fact, that’s similar to what I’m doing in my novel, or at least what I’m trying to work out.

Sometimes it can happen naturally. In one of my Bones fanfiction stories, “The boy at the building site” (written eight years ago!), the opening scene has Bones fighting with an unknown assailant, who turns out to be her work and romantic partner, Booth, but I realised as I finished the scene that this would be how she faces off the bad guy at the end, because it just felt right.

Now I’m faced with trying to do this deliberately. To design my storyline so carefully that the end becomes a fulfilment of the rest of it. So that the pieces of the puzzle all come together and the journey becomes obvious. I’m really beginning to understand that the more effort that goes into the writing, the easier the end result flows. That is something is easy to read it’s because the writer has really taken care and thought things out.

Kind of like the more training and preparation you do, the easier the marathon will be.