Thursday, 31 December 2015

The turning of the year

I'm not one for celebrating New Year as such; it's an artificial deadline with a lot of hype surrounding it. I've only ever felt a significant New Year when we reached the millenium; I had a five-month old baby at that time, and it all seemed Very Important. (Was probably still the baby hormones...)

What're we doing this New Year's Eve then? We've got some friends coming for tea who may stay into the evening, but whether or not I stay up to see midnight is another matter. (If T and J have their way, I won't get a choice. I think I've forgotten what it was like to feel the excitement of staying up until midnight as a teenager. Nowadays, I'd prefer to be in bed.)

Mind you, I can understand why people lay so much emphasis on the new year. I've seen others experience some really tough times over the last twelve months - of course they're looking forward with hope for better things to come. Equally, I can understand those who may be fearful of the future, worried about circumstances beyond their control and the situations they might find themselves in.

And of course, there are Resolutions. Why it has to be tied to the new year, I've no idea - any resolutions I've ever tried to keep in the past have, I'm sure, been harder to stick to in January, when it's cold and dark and everyone's feeling the downer that inevitably follows after the excitement of Christmas. And mine are always so unrealistic; the only one I managed to keep was when my resolution was to get the bathroom painted, years before the kids were born.

2015 was OK. Nothing majorly bad happened. Several really good things occurred. Long-term plans came to fruition with the house. On balance, it's a good one.

2016... Well, I think it'll be the year I have to be brave. For several reasons:

1. I will be travelling on my own to a country that is so far out of my comfort zone, you wouldn't believe.

2. There may be medical intervention regarding a health issue, but we won't know for a little while yet.

3. StarMark will be available for anyone in the world to purchase - and then review - on Amazon. That's really scary.

4. I will have to begin another novel and the thought of that blank page...

There's no way of knowing how things will turn out, of course. There will, no doubt, be some very good things that happen in 2016 - and some not so good things too. You can't expect everything to go your way all the time, but the trick seems to be to keep going, whatever the year throws at you.

So I suppose that's my wish for myself at this turning point of the year; for strength to deal with whatever difficulties arise, and time to recognise and make the most of any good stuff. My wish for you - that you have what you need over the next twelve months.

See you in 2016!

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Chri - $%*"$%&*!!!

Things are getting well and truly Christmassy at Maison Squidge. The tree went up last Wednesday, we had flower arranging and carol services and Angel Delight sketches at church, I bought the last of the presents AND I even braved a trip to Morrisons today for the food shop.

(Incidentally - the busiest time of the year for our local store is apparently between 11am and 2pm on the 23rd December. Guess when we were there. *sigh* But I have to say that the spirit of Christmas was alive and well; the lady in the queue behind me kindly helped me to unload my trolley onto the checkout belt so I could whizz to the other end to start packing... Just a small gesture from her, but hugely appreciated on my part.)

The Angel Delight sketch was great fun - although I hold my hands up and admit that I was the only one to fluff their lines. Twice. The sketch was written by a member of our church congregation, Graham, who directs a faith-based theatre group here in Loughborough, called Grain. There were three angels; we had wings. And haloes, even though someone kindly told me afterwards I didn't really need one. I think they were talking about the silver hair, not my angelic demeanour!

Anyway, back to the Christmas Tree, the subject of this Christmas Eve blog.

We always plant the tree in a bucket and keep it well watered. Yesterday morning, I watered it...which might have been the reason why, yesterday evening, just after some friends had arrived for a flying visit, it toppled over! It's happened only once before, when the cat jumped up onto the windowsill behind the tree. This time, no-one touched it. As T put it "The tree has killed some of our baubles!"

We lost three, that's all - glass ones that shattered most spectacularly - and we filled a tray with the bits and pieces that fell off but weren't damaged.

Between us, we made sure the tree was secure and started to redecorate...only to have the flippin' thing tip again! Fortunately I was in the room and near it, so it didn't go very far, but Mr Squidge rushed in and sorted it all out. There's no way it's going to fall over again; we are probably the only household whose tree has indoor guy ropes attached to a bottle jack and is braced with a huge block of wood...

It's a pain when things like this happen - we want Christmas to be perfect in every respect, but it hardly ever achieves that because we live in a broken world and we are human.

Even the very first Christmas was far from perfect.

Four of the decorations I had to replace after the tree-falling incident were felt stars I'd made last year...and they sum up perfectly what I find in my Christian faith which helps me to deal with whatever life throws my way, whether it's something relatively minor in the scheme of things like a few broken decorations, or something more life changing, like a bereavement.

They also represent my wish for you - the readers of the Scribbles - too; whatever life may have thrown at you and yours in recent times, may you find Love, Joy, Hope and Peace during this festive season and into 2016.

With love, from Squidge xxx

Saturday, 19 December 2015

It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas...

Not blogged for a week - blame it on the usual pre-Christmas *stuff*, plus a funeral and lots of social events (not many of them mine, I hasten to add...but I do a good impression of a taxi driver for the family!)

There WILL be a blog soon, though - because tomorrow, I'm going to be an angel.

(Stop sniggering at the back. Yes, I did mean YOU!)

In the meantime, have a look at the blog I wrote about the Christmas flowers we arranged today at church, because I'm off to choir practise!

See you soon...

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Christmas Experience

My church has worked for some time now with the primary school in our parish, explaining something of what it means to be a Christian as part of the RE curriculum.

We've just done The Christmas Experience with Year 4.

The structure we use comes from the Diocese of Gloucester, specifically their Jumping Fish 'Experience' publication. (We've also used Experience Easter at the school).

The premise for the Christmas Experience is that through a number of different stations, the Christmas story is told, but the interactive element goes deeper than simply 'telling' the story.

We start with Preparation. The children are encouraged to share what kind of preparations are going on in their homes for Christmas - and told that one thing Christians do is prepare their hearts for the coming of Jesus, which often means saying sorry. As they wind shiny lametta strings around a fir cone, they're encouraged to think of something they need to say sorry for.

Then we move to the Announcement, set in Mary's kitchen. Mary was asked to do something she probably didn't want to, but she said yes to God - her response captured beautifully in the Magnificat - and here the children are encouraged to think about something they've been asked to do that was hard or they didn't want to do, and to ask for courage and strength to do it.

Promises looks at the Wise Men - that Jesus' birth was foretold and what the wise men brought as gifts; gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh to anoint the dead. The children wrote down what they would bring to the baby Jesus, and the paper put into a gift box ready to leave at the manger.

Next is the Journey... It's 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a long way to walk and even worse when you're heavily pregnant. The children were asked about journeys they've been on and encouraged to think about those who have nowhere to stay at the end of their journey - particularly poignant at the moment given the scale of the refugee crisis in Europe.

The Message looked at the shepherds and angels. The angels bore a message of peace, and as Christians we share the peace with each other during our services. Every child was given a gift tag with a picture of an angel on it, and on the back was written 'To ..... Wishing you peace at Christmas, from .....'. The tags could be taken home and given to someone the children felt needed peace.

And finally, bringing it all together - The Gift. Jesus is often called God's gift to the world, because He was the means by which God set right the relationship between God and man.

The children laid their promises at the manger, and then we listened to Annie Lennox singing 'In the Bleak Midwinter', emphasising the words of the final verse;

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part,
Yet what I have I give him -
Give my heart.

It always brings a lump to my throat, that bit, and as I was doing this last station it was a bit of a struggle to say what I needed to, but I did. (That's why I hate doing the 'deep and meaningful' bits of any service; talking about faith is hard, sometimes.)

The children seemed to get a lot out of the session and the teachers are always very complimentary of the team (a dozen of us altogether) who are prepared to go into school to run the event. In a society that is ever more secular, I think it's a good thing to explain my Christian faith to children - we can but hope that in years to come, teaching religious understanding and tolerance will help bring some of that peace that the angels spoke of, two thousand years ago.

God knows, the world needs it.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Feeling a bit...lost

My last post celebrated the fact that I'd finished Kingstone. Today's post is a little less celebratory in tone, but relates to the same novel.

The initial euphoria has worn off. I find myself at a loose end, feeling like I should be writing - wanting to write - but there's nothing left TO write. I ought to be thankful, really; I've completed what I set out to do and given myself one less thing to think about in the run-up to Christmas.

But I don't feel like that at all - it feels more like I've experienced a loss, that I've 'lost' Kingstone because I can't do anything else to it, (other than email it to beta-readers) and I don't want to do any of the things on my to-do list which I know I should be doing in its place...

It's weird. I don't remember feeling this way after completing StarMark or Rurik. Perhaps in their cases, when I first said 'finished', I wasn't. There was still lots of editing to do (still might be on StarMark!). In Kingstone's case, I feel it's been written much better, much earlier in the process and it really does feel 'finished'.

Do other authors have a time of - grief sounds wrong, belittling of real heart-wrenching loss - but it really does feel like a loss at this moment.

Am I the only author to feel this way at the completion of a long-term project?  

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Beta reader time...

I have just finished the third edit of King Stone.

*waves pompoms, cheers loudly, then slumps into exhaustion*

It's taken me a month - NaNoEdMo - but I am really pleased with the result. The novel has ended up just short of 50,000 words, which isn't bad for a children's novel. I daresay I could've padded it out a bit, but I'm not going to fiddle any more - for a while at least... The story is complete, and I'm happy with it.

Now, it's time for whole-novel-beta-reading by other people. *gulp* (And, perhaps, a celebratory snifter of ginger wine this evening because I've done what I set out to do and cleared the decks in time for the editing of StarMark!)

So, anyone fancy a read?

Friday, 27 November 2015

A whole day of storytelling

I was asked a while ago if I'd be prepared to run a whole day session on creative writing for primary school pupils; there'd be 18 gifted and talented children from 9 schools, all of them in Y5 or 6.

I said yes. It happened yesterday, and it was brilliant!

The timetable for the day was built on a foundation of where we could find inspiration and looking in more detail at world building and characters to put flesh on the bones of a story outline.

I didn't worry too much about spellings and capital letters and full stops. As I pointed out to the children, the way I was taught writing at school was very different to the way it's taught today - I just learnt how to write something that made sense, and I can tell you what a verb, noun, and adjective are. I had no idea what a 'reported clause' was when it was mentioned with respect to dialogue, for example. But when I said that I knew you needed speech marks, and you had to put he/she said after them, one of the children piped up with 'that's the reported clause!'


Anyway, even if our spelling did go a bit dodgy at times or we didn't put a comma in quite the right place, we had enormous fun. We made up daft excuses as to why we were late for school; talked about what makes a good book, good; wrote story outlines based on 'The antique glass bottle contained...'; used paint chart colour cards and objects for inspiration; completed character sheets and created a sight-sound-touch-taste-smell picture of the setting that had been chosen.

Outlining a story using three objects from a tin of baked beans, a rainbow sock (of course!)
a police car, a diamond pendant and a length of chain...

Sharing a bit of StarMark when thinking about
where to set a story...

And the best bit - according to 50% of the children on their short feedback sheet, 
completed at the end of the day? 

Writing a story.

A whole story. Just being able to go for it and write the way you wanted, without worrying about any of it being 'right'.

The children had been given free rein, and judging by what they produced as a result, I wonder whether, in our eagerness to teach the component parts of writing, we rather lose sight of the end result? Individuality is lost, because children don't have the opportunity to develop their own style or allow their writing to flow naturally. (Of course, I know that teachers' hands are tied by the requirements of a curriculum that is imposed on them - I'm sure many of them would love to have the time to give the children to develop their creative writing!)

What surprised me most was the sophistication of some of the children's writing; after all the 'building up' work, they had half an hour to start on their final story, then I used a timer to give those that wanted to, a minute to read out some of what they'd produced. Even among 10 and 11 year olds, there were some very distinct voices and styles, ranging from epic fantasy third person to chatty modern first person. There were deep emotions expressed in 'The Vale of Tears' and by the boy with no name, who was hiding in the dark. And there was some very, very accomplished world building on a space station where the character was 16 yans old, and for the 80-year-young girl who was on the run and currently hiding in a cottage in the she had been before...

We're hoping that the children will go away and finish their stories, so that they can be copied and made into a book as a reminder of the day and their hard work and fabulous ideas. I said I'd write a story too; I quite fancy beginning with 'The antique glass bottle contained goblin snot...' (Thanks, Holywell Emma, for that suggestion!)

It was a huge privilege to share in the creation of so many unique stories and immensely satisfying to see some of the children so enthused and inspired they wanted to do it all again!

There are, of course, some non-writing things I'll remember too... The vibrating cushion. Jooshua (with two 'o's.) The letter to the paint company to ask who comes up with the names on the sample cards.

Using the colour sample names to inspire stories...

And finally, the 'Why I'm at this school today' reasons that had some of the younger pupils at Mountfields believing that there were some rather important visitors from Hogwarts in the playground...

Oh, I DO love being a writer!

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Challenged by Chuck Wendig

I don't always have time to create new work in line with Chuck's challenges on his terribleminds blog. Fortunately, this week's challenge is to paste 1000 words of your NaNoWriMo WIP (National Novel Writing Month Work in Progress for the non-writer readers of the Scribbles!) in your own blog space and link it to his blog. Chuck extended the challenge to include current WIPs as well, so I thought what the heck. (By the way, welcome any fellow terribleminds fans who drop by - my blog's a bit different to Chuck's, but I hope you still find something to enjoy here.)

As regular readers are probably aware, I'm not writing a new story this month - I'm NaNoEdMo-ing. That is, editing my WIP: Kingstone. It seems to be going well.  

Here, for your amusement, are the first 1000 words of Kingstone, a fantasy adventure novel for 9-12 year olds, third draft. 

King Bertrann’s ship slid past Indigon’s famous purple-grey cliffs, far enough out to avoid the deadly rocks jumbled at their base, yet near enough for those on deck to make out the black holes of the mine entrances pockmarking them.
            A bubble of happiness swelled inside Katia’s chest at the sight. Home at last, after six months that had felt like a lifetime. Thank the gods she hadn’t had to wait the full two years to return, unlike those she’d left behind at the Academy. No wonder they’d made things so uncomfortable for her after the announcement.
            Mind you, no-one had been more surprised than Katia herself, when she was told she’d be part of the king’s entourage for this unexpected and hastily arranged trip; she wasn’t exactly top of any classes and there were plenty of other novices who deserved the honour much more than she did.
            But – and this was the important thing to remember – you didn’t say no to the king’s priest when she picked you for something. Not if you wanted to get on in the temple. And more than anything else, Katia wanted to get on…
            Tiny lights twinkled high up on the cliffs, lighting the wooden walkways which connected the separate indigolite caverns. Somewhere up there, Katia’s Da and brother Ned would be nearing the end of their ten hour shift, having worked hard to earn their money.
            A pang of guilt stabbed at Katia but she squashed it quickly. It wouldn’t be wasted effort on their part, not if she tried really hard–
            “It looks as though the rock is sparkling.”
            “Gods!” Katia yelped, and with more haste than care made the greeting to the woman who’d appeared noiselessly at her side.
            Right hand, circle for the sun. Left, a crescent round the circle for the moon. Now fingertips of both hands together: mountain.
            The woman sighed. “Left for sun, right for moon, Katia. Like the symbol.”
            “Sorry.” Katia dug her nails into her palms and hid the fists deep in the folds of her skirt. She was still getting it wrong, even after six months at the Academy. Her right hand took the lead every time… She sneaked a sideways glance at Elder Sevanya, whose attention was fixed on the lights high above them.
            How did the king’s priest manage to look so perfect, even after days of travelling? Sevanya’s purple dress was uncreased, her grey travelling coat unmarked by salt, and her pale hair was still tightly braided – as expected of Senior and Elder female priests.
            By comparison, Katia’s own cream novice’s robe was watermarked at the hem and stained with gravy because plates refused to stay still on board a ship. There was a button missing from her brown wool coat and her hair was sticking out at all angles despite every attempt she’d made to tame her dark curls. No wonder her fellow novices were always finding fault and telling her she’d never make it to Junior priest…
            The beads woven into the ends of Sevanya’s braids rattled quietly when she turned away from the cliffs. “Tell me, Katia, have you ever been up there, on the walkways?”
            “Yes, Elder. Once, at night.” Katia shivered, remembering the sheer drop to the rocks and sea, hundreds of feet below. “My brothers bet I was too scared, but I went to the first entrance and back. At least the wind wasn’t blowing when I did it. Da says when the wind blows strong, the miners hug the cliff face and make sure their safety straps are clipped to the ropes, otherwise they’d get blown off.”
            “I should think a fair few prayers get said to the mountain god, asking for firm footing up there.”
            “Definitely. I know I said lots.” Katia tried to ignore the fact that Sevanya was watching her closely. She had the feeling that the priest was looking for something, but what?
            Suddenly, Sevanya sighed. “Katia, are you sure that you want to give your life to the temple of the triple gods? You don’t have to be a novice to say prayers, you know.”
            “What?” For a moment, Katia was so startled, she couldn’t say anything else. The bubble of happiness which had filled her chest just moments previously burst, leaving a hollow sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Yes, of course I do,” she managed eventually. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
            “And your family? Is it what they want for you too?”
            She had to think hard before answering that one. “No, not at first.” In fact, they’d positively discouraged her, thinking the training beyond her and far too expensive. “But once they got used to the idea, they supported me completely.”
            By taking on extra jobs and working all hours the gods sent, scrimping to make ends meet, and standing up against those who thought your dream was impossible to achieve… 
             “But things are not going very well for you at the academy, are they?”
            “No, but–” Katia swallowed hard. How did Sevanya know that? Surely keeping track of the novices and their training wasn’t a job for someone in her position?  
            “Your tutors have repeatedly informed me of your poor progress. It is that which made me decide to bring you on this journey.”
            They picked you because you’re so bad?
            Katia tried to concentrate on what Sevanya was saying through the buzzing in her ears.  

         The priest looked serious. “I am sorry to say that, during our time here, if you cannot demonstrate to my satisfaction the duties expected of a novice after your first six months of training, I shall have no option but to leave you behind when we return to Eraton and consider your novitiate at an end.”

November - the month of too much to do

There's something a bit depressing about the latter half of November. I don't think it's the nights drawing in, because I love shutting my curtains and cosying up in the lounge with the telly and a blazing fire. I don't think it's the fact that we've had Remembrance Events - in Loughborough, that's counteracted (for me) by our annual town fair, with lights and music and candy floss. Although once the fair's been, my thoughts do turn to Christmas...

And then it starts to get flippin' busy! My mum often tells me off for taking on too much for Christmas, because when I say 'yes' in October, I forget that I have to plan and action things in November to make them actually happen in December. Between now and Christmas Day, here's what's on, (assuming  I've remembered everything):

Black tie dinner with friends
Church council social
Two music concerts (in different schools)
Four choir practises
Three sketch rehearsals
Two carol services (featuring both said sketch and choir items)
A creative writing day for Y6 children
Helping at 'Experience Christmas' (held at the primary school in our parish)
At least one trip to Yorkshire
NIBS Christmas session
Editing StarMark (before the 14th Jan, so I've got a little bit longer...)
Outline plan for creative writing session for ESOL students at the College
Decorating church for Christmas
Two Christmas Eve Crib services

Add on top of that the present-buying, food-shopping, card-writing and house-decorating that is part of my normal Christmas... I ought to say no, but...

So if you see me and I look a bit frazzled over the next few weeks, you'll know why! How's your Christmas preparation going?

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The long and the short of life...

I've always been told that good things come in small packages - mainly because I've always been a titch.

It runs in my family - neither of my parents are taller than 5' 1'', my brother's probably 5' 3" and my sister's a smidge smaller than me - I'm four foot, eleven and a half inches with bare feet.

(By comparison, Mr Squidge is 6' 3", Squidgeling J is 5' 3", and Squidgeling T, 5' 9" and still growing...)

It's had its perks, being short; pre-children, I used to buy my clothes at Tammy girl, to fit 152cm. Since then, my child-bearing hips have meant I needed grown-up sizes from the waist down...and therein lies a problem.

Y'see, not only am I short, I also have short legs in proportion to my body. This means that a lot of clothes are simply far too long, because unless you're prepared to pay Petite range prices, you're left with off-the-peg clothes which have been designed for ladies with legs up to their armpits...

For example;

Lovely long floaty summery skirts? Could wear them as a strapless dress.

Jeans? Remind me, when did turn-ups disappear from the catwalks? Disastrous with bootcut...

Posh frocks? Only ever buy dresses that don't have beading or lace or patterns around the hem, 'cos sure as eggs is eggs, that'll end up being chopped off.

Mind you, if I wear heels...HIGH heels...there's a chance I can get away without shortening. Sometimes.

Yesterday I bought an outfit for a black tie 'do' I'm attending on Saturday night. As you might expect, it needs shortening. By 14cm.

14cm! That's about five and a half inches - and that's WITH my highest heels on. (Fortunately I have a friend and neighbour who is a whizz with a sewing machine, so there's every chance the outfit will be shortened enough to wear on Saturday night...She's a godsend, my friend x)

There are times in my life - especially when trying to buy clothes - that I wish I had longer legs...

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

A bit quiet on the blogging front

I'm still here. *waves at readers*

I've not been blogging much over the last few weeks, I know...but there doesn't seem to be much to write about.

Actually, there's plenty; NIBS had a thought provoking meeting on the theme of November (who knew that we packed so much into this month?) plans for the India trip are ongoing (visa arrived last week, yay!), house feels more settled after the building work (still letting the dust settle - literally), proof reading Something Rich and Strange (to be published by the Random Writers later this month, a little later than intended, but life happens to the best laid plans...) and Christmas services and events are coming together for church.

But I've not felt the urge to write about any of it.

I have a theory; I'm focussing so much on Kingstone edits at the moment, it's using up all of my writing energy.

Sounds daft, doesn't it? But I'm getting through a chapter or two of Kingstone a day and I'm loathe to break off from it while I'm on a roll. I want to get it done, want to get a complete MS that feels like a proper story, want to have something to offer BInk for after StarMark...

*whispers* Want to prove I'm not a one-hit wonder...

So forgive me if I'm a bit quiet on here for another week or so? I'll soon be back to normal.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Let there be...electrickery!

Not only has Maison Squidge been plastered recently - last week, it acquired solar PV panels.

We are producing our own electrickery! It sounds really grand, but of course we only produce during daylight hours (wonder whether bright moonlight will work too?). In a dull grey and somewhat rainy November so far, you wouldn't think the panels would be working - but they are! We've got twelve panels - eight on the garage and four on the roof, because since having the loft extension a few years ago, our roof space is somewhat limited by dormers.

When they were connected, I admit, I sat in the cupboard under the stairs with a torch, waiting to see the meter go backwards as all that lovely power zoomed back into the grid. However, we've since discovered that our meter has a back stop, so it won't go just doesn't go forwards as quickly when the sun's shining and we plug the kettle in, if that makes sense?

Mr Squidge spent quite a long time trying to explain how the new meter in the garage shows what we're producing, but neither it or the normal leccy meter can show how much we are exporting; apparently, that's done by guesswork for the feed-in tariff payment. It's assumed you use 50% of what you generate, but of course you could be exporting a lot more than 50% if you don't use much electricity. (And we don't, in spite of being at home most of the time. I'm a natural light, turn off the lights kind of girl!) You can get smart meters, which tell you the separate import/export figures, but they are expensive to fit and can be confusing to read. And frankly, I'm not sure it's worth it.

I know a lot of folk have had solar panels fitted to take advantage of the feed-in tariff (which is due to be phased out at the end of this year) - but for me, that misses the point rather. We've got solar panels because it's a Good Thing. It relieves the pressure, just a little, on the Earth's precious coal and oil reserves. And, like Bob our wind turbine, makes us feel that we're giving something back to the world rather than simply taking all the time. Mind you, to really take full advantage of the panels, we need batteries to store up what power we generate in the daytime for use at night. Those, as yet, I don't think are available for domestic use.

Meanwhile, Mr Squidge and the Squidgelings might have to wait for clean undies 'til the sun comes out and I can put the washing machine on, guilt-free, in the daytime...

Thursday, 5 November 2015

November means editing

There are a lot of writer friends doing NaNoWriMo this month - that is, writing something every day during November to hit a 50K word count by the end of it. (Good luck to everyone doing it!)

Now, I've already documented my lack of discipline and my shaded squares method of keeping track of how much/little I'm writing. Recently, I've not been colouring in so many squares - not because I've not been writing, but because I started a new rough notebook and haven't transferred the sheet over. Fortunately, the habit of writing often seems to have stuck and I'm managing more days writing than not, so I'm not too worried about recording it.

Anyway, this month, I shall not be doing NaNoWriMo. Instead I'll be editing draft three of Kingstone. So far, it's going OK. I've got a much better feel for Katia's voice and a style that's consistent throughout the novel. I'm incorporating comments that fellow cloudies have made too; I was fortunate that in the main, they identified areas which I also felt were weak (great minds think alike!) and my aim for this third edit is to get it all hanging together and feeling like a real story instead of just well-written, separate chapters.

So there you go - November with its nights drawing in and fireworks and fair (in our town, anyway!) means editing. I'll keep marking off the squares and see what I've got at the end of the month...

Monday, 2 November 2015

Getting plastered...

Last Saturday, I got plastered.

And before you tell me it's my own fault, shouldn't drink so much, ought to know better, etc, etc...I'm talking about getting plastered in the building sense of the word.

Y'see, Maison Squidge has had another bout of TLC. A few weeks ago it had the end wall (the one that a few years ago was bowing out and had to be screwed back into the joists) re-pointed on the outside, (and some new concrete in the yard to encourage water to go down the drain rather than into the foundations) and all the internal plaster on the same wall chipped away, in readiness for insulating plasterboard to be installed.

The kids quite liked the bare brick look - it looked like a trendy restaurant, apparently. But the inside walls of houses aren't made very prettily if they're going to be plastered over, so we had some sticky-out bricks and channels for rewiring visible. Plus - as you might expect - it was cold! Our walls are solid brick, so I'm thankful that apart from a couple of colder days, October has been a mild month.

Anyway, after putting him off over half term week, the plasterer turned up at 8am (far too early for a Saturday!) ready to begin. However, he didn't get started for a while because he'd never seen our kind of boards before and because of the paper they were finished with, wasn't sure that they'd stick to the brick. (You can stick plasterboard to the walls or screw it to battens, but the latter means you lose an extra half-inch or so on your stairway. We'd bought the stick-on kind...) After a quick search of the internet and a view of a handy little video to confirm that yes, you could stick this board with its shiny finish, the plasterer began.

Poor guy. The wall looked like a jigsaw puzzle by the time he'd finished the sticking phase; there are a few curvy bits so it wasn't all plain sailing. But by 4.30, all the joins had disappeared and we had a beautifully plastered wall, already drying out.

The jigsaw begins...

(By the way, is it odd that I love the feel of fresh, dry plaster? All velvety smooth and cool to the touch. I keep stroking it... Almost a shame to cover it all up with paper and paint.)

Look at that lovely smooth plaster...

Already, we're reaping the benefit of the insulation - the last couple of nights have been decidedly nippy (and very foggy), but the heating kept turning itself off and we're not aware of the temperature dropping on the way down from the loft to the kitchen in the mornings. (Add to that the unintentional insulating properties of the woodpile against the kitchen wall, and I'm almost wishing we could have a REALLY cold snap so we can get the stove fired up and see how warm we really are.) Even with lots of windows open during the daytime to dry the inevitable condensation on the windows, I'm sitting at the computer right now, on a grey and cool day - without a cardi on.

After over twenty years here, I have a warm house!

And in the other sense of getting plastered - I'll drink to that!

Saturday, 31 October 2015

A Night of Hope

We're all aglow at Maison Squidge - with a pumpkin carved in support of 
World Vision's Night of Hope campaign.

Thinking of the children for whom fright night is every night...

Enjoy your Halloween celebrations, folks, if you're having them. Stay safe.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

A Heart for Halloween

I don't really hold with Halloween. Sorry.

Not sure why, but I've never liked it. I do love to see decorated pumpkins and awesome fancy dress, because the creative side of me enjoys seeing other creative people 'doin' their thang' - but I've no desire to join in myself.

(When we first moved into our house, I admit we did have a Halloween Housewarming; we'd moved into the house on the 4th July, but it took us months to get enough furniture to invite our friends round... no other reason. If I remember right, I was a red devil...and one of our friends was the 'Not-so-grim Reaper'. Which is what you get when the black dye doesn't take on your nylon sheets...!)

Anyway, this Halloween I AM going to have a pumpkin light on my doorstep. Not carved with a scary face to encourage the ghosts and ghoulies, but with a heart in support of World Vision's Night of Hope campaign. You can find out more about the campaign and details of how to make a donation (should you wish to do so) here.

I sponsor three children through World Vision so I often get email or facebook updates and videos sent to me. I've been moved to tears by some of the stories they've shared, particularly this recent one:

Ahmed is the same age as my own son - 14. The contrast between T's life and Ahmed's is just unbelievable. It near broke my heart listening to him tell how he survives in the refugee camp - yet still manages to smile.  

Sadly, Ahmed's story is not unique. There are many more children throughout the world where life is constantly frightening for a variety of reasons. My £5 donation is just a drop in the ocean, but it will reach trained volunteers on the ground who can help these kids find hope again. 

Here's my pumpkin, carved with its symbol of hope for all the children for whom 'fright night' is every night... especially for the kids still living in war-torn countries and those trying to survive in atrocious conditions in Europe.

My hearty pumpkin.

I'll add another pic on Saturday, when the pumpkin's lit up...

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

An awfully big adventure begins...

First - apologies for not blogging for almost two weeks! Disgraceful of me, but it's been half term and I've been playing around with Kingstone issues and trying to write flash for the Randoms...but I'm here now. And ready to blog.

In January, I'm going to go to India for ten days.

Some of you reading this may say 'So what? Loads of people go to India. Nothing unusual, given how small the world is with air travel now.'

But for me, it's an awfully BIG deal. I've always wanted to go to India - have been envious of others who've been - but somehow I've never had the time or the money... Actually, scrub that. If I'm totally honest, *whispers* I never had the courage to go. Y'see, the only places I've ever travelled to have been 'Westernised'. (Apart from a 24 hour stopover in Bali on both legs of a journey to New Zealand many years ago - and what we experienced there was a sanitised Balinese culture due to time restraints). I have never experienced a culture that is vastly different to my own. And I've never travelled anywhere without Mr Squidge or my kids, so to volunteer to go to Tamil Nadu in South India as a representative of my church with two priests instead of my family is a mahoosive deal.

It all started when I was asked to go on a diocesan conference last September, where I met clergy from our link dioceses in India, Tanzania and the US. Our curate at the time - who was also on the conference - suggested we link with a church in India, to encourage one another in our spiritual life and to offer practical support if and where we could.

I sort of felt drawn to this idea, and after several meetings with a few like-minded people who proposed a scouting trip to see how such a link might work for mutual benefit, I really felt that God was telling me I ought to be going on it. (And when God wants you to do something, it's my experience that he keeps nudgig you until you say yes, regardless of the excuses you come up with to try and get out of it. *see above for mine!*) Anyway, we recently got the go-ahead from our Parish Council to send three folk from church to Tamil Nadu where the possible link church is based - and I said I'd be one of them.

Fortunately, the two gents I'm going with have both been to India before and at least one has travelled rather widely, so I am thankful that I am in good company. (Although they might get fed up with all my questions...)

The preparations are in hand; so far, I've had my Hep A/B Combo, tetanus and typhoid/diptheria/polio jabs. The flights are booked. I FINALLY got a photo that ticked all the boxes for my visa, and submitted the application yesterday.

My visa pic. This was the best of them, honest...

I've bought some rather fetching walking sandals, several bottles of hand cleanser and three pairs of harem trousers.

I have read up the Rough Guide to South India, and have been practising Tamil so I can at least say hello and please and thank you. I've also been reading up about how the Dalits are treated in India, particularly the women. (Here's a blog I wrote during last year's conference, about just one of the issues)

Next on the list is insurance, a new memory card for the camera, notebooks and pens for the writing I'm bound to do, and research into bus times to Heathrow...

I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Autumn, according to NIBS

Last night was our monthly get-together for NIBS, the creative writing group I help to run. I chose an autumn theme, and went armed with some autumny pictures (everything from pumpkin soup to rutting deer and fantasy figures in dresses made of leaves), a basket full of coloured leaves, conkers and berried branches, and some quotes about autumn from Goodreads. (If you see anything here to get your writerly juices flowing, why not have a go and post in the comments below? Or link back to your blog space, if you have one?)

A basketful of autumn...

Autumn words and pictures

We started off with a quick reason-write; Exactly why are squirrels gathering all those nuts and berries?

The first one read out had us in stitches and stole the show; did you know that squirrels are working towards world domination and the berries are just a front for their weapon-making collaboration with the moles? We even got an evil laugh at the end of the reading... There were some great ideas coming through and it gave us a bit of time for everyone to arrive as unfortunately, there'd been an accident on the road up to church which meant a couple of folk had to turn back and come the long way round to get to us...

And then, for the first time at NIBS, we just did what we wanted. Normally, we try a few writing exercises, but this time, because everyone's fairly confident now at producing something off-the-cuff, we just went for it! Faced with the props I'd taken, there was free choice as to whether to write poetry, a story, a memoir - so long as it had an autumn theme, it really didn't matter.

We wrote for half an hour, and boy, did we end up with some beauties...

 - A short story, told from a conker's point of view, right up to the point of him becoming a 'sixer'. We were all nodding at the mention of being stuck in a pocket or polished on a trouser leg - how many times have we done that  as both children and adults?

 - A beautiful piece of poetry based on the quote 'autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons'. The author usually writes emotively and this was no exception - I was really moved and quite overwhelmed by the finished piece, which compared autumn's treasures to those of the other seasons. Quite beautiful.

 - A really interesting piece about autumn as the bringer of death - would you have ever described the leaves of this season as 'red as blood, yellow as pus in a wound and brown as crisp as burnt flesh?' Thought not! The author admitted afterwards to not liking autumn: it showed! And made a lasting impression...

 - Another took as their prompt the picture of a woman in a leafy dress, walking with her owl through the woods. The narrator was hidden in a tree, watching - we never found out why, but there was so much longing coming through in the writing, a real yearning for...something.

 - One author was fascinated by a particular leaf I'd brought - she wrote a short but gorgeous poem which made us feel the beauty of the colours and the contrast between the 'last crescendo' of the life of the leaf and its ultimate death.

Me? Well, I had a go at a poem and then did a bit of a 'five senses of autumn' thing, where I listed lots of things that mean autumn to me. Can't say I was entirely happy with either - I would have loved to have evoked some of the imagery that the rest of the group managed, but I tend to be a bit more matter-of-fact in my writing - plain speaking, almost - which doesn't have quite the feel I'd loved to have achieved. But I'll share the poem with you and leave you to judge. It was based on the quote 'October, baptize me with leaves!' and I've tweaked it a bit overnight. Here goes...

Autumn's baptism.

October, baptize me with leaves!
Pour your fiery shades into this chill, fresh morning.
Bright sun with no heat illuminates copper and gold and orange and brown
as the cold night forces the branches to finally loose their hold
and the leaves are let go.
They float down on a whispering breeze
which turns these thousands - millions - of individual deaths
into a short, illusory dance of life,
until they lay still on dew-damp grass.
I scuff through the crisp, rustling shell that blankets the earth
as summer heat is washed from the world
and I am baptised afresh in autumn's leafy waters;
a final blaze of glory before bare branches and glittering frosts bring winter.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Loogabarooga Festival

'Incredible Illustrations - Brilliant Books'

The Loogabarooga Festival is a new literary festival for families, to be held in Loughborough 22-26 October this year - ie the tail end of next week, our half term here in Leicestershire. It's thought to be the only literary festival that focuses on illustrated stories, and has come about because Loughborough is the birthplace of Ladybird Books, who celebrate their centenary this year. In fact, there's an exhibition in the Charnwood Museum which charts the history of Ladybird and shows some of the original artwork, as well as supporting talks by some of the people who worked at Ladybird when the factory was still based in town.

There are LOADS of activities planned during the festival days - some free, some needing payment - and all the details are on the website or facebook page. You can design your own book cover, go to a Mad Hatter's Tea Party, watch Nick Butterworth and the illustrator of Dennis the Menace at work, plus a hundred other things beside! Book benches have been commissioned and placed around town, reflecting some of the town's favourite Ladybird books (Remember Books About Town last year in London? Like those)...a treasure trail is planned in the can get festival food offers at certain restaurants...and the town has been decked out with yellow and purple flags. It promises to be an exciting week.

There's one thing I'm a bit sad about though. As a local author, I got in touch with the team to see if I could be involved; after all, I love books and Granny Rainbow's two books are illustrated. Although I was told my details were passed on, I've heard nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. I even met one of the team in my local Waterstones branch when I asked them about getting involved; the lady avoided eye contact, took my details (again) and said 'the programme's sorted for this year. Maybe next?'

I wonder whether I should have pushed it more? Gone off and done my own thing? But everything seems to be going through the Loogabarooga team...

I'll try again next year, anyway... and in the meantime, I shall go and have a sit on the Cinderella bench in the market place, try and spot the book titles in shop windows, and take advantage of money off my meals - while spreading the word far and near that if you like Ladybird books and illustrated books, this might just be the festival you've been looking for!

Oh - and if you're wondering about how the name 'Loogabarooga' came about, it's because a lot of foreign folk have trouble pronouncing 'Loughborough'. It actually sounds like 'Lufbra' when you say it, but looks nothing like that on the page... You'll also see on the poster our famous Carillon war memorial (its green top can be seen for miles around) and the Sock Man, a distinctive town sculpture who pays tribute to the hosiery workers of years gone by...

Saturday, 10 October 2015

A second blog

You're probably aware that I do a bit of flower arranging...and I often blog about it here. I've blogged about things like the Miss Piggy Rose, and Lonely Bouquet and our church's Flower Festival for example.

For some time, I've been toying with the idea of setting up a separate blog just for flowery things. And as most of the time the displays are created for church, I've set one up as 'Flowers at St Mary in Charnwood Church, Nanpantan.'

I'll probably still post here about flowery things - they won't suddenly disappear from the Scribbles! But the second blog is more of a reference site I suppose; a record of ideas and themes and inspiration for other interested flower arrangers and church flower teams, rather than an ongoing conversation like the Scribbles. I'll aim to blog at least once a month and build up the Flower Festival pages over time.

So if you want to pop over and see the many ways we decorate our 'little church in the woods', just click HERE...

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

In Support of Bookshops

I love books. Real, paper-and-card books.

I know I read ebooks occasionally, but you just can't - in my opinion - ever replace the physical book. The weight of it, the smell, the fact that you can go back to it again and again until it's dog-eared and yellowed and the spine's faded...

Because I love books, I love browsing in bookshops. You might remember my trip to Barter Books in Alnwick last year, or the Age UK charity bookshop I found in town?

Last week, I discovered another, though it's a little too far away to be visiting regularly! Topping and Company have a shop in Ely, where I picked up a signed copy of Half a World by Joe Abercrombie... (I was in Ely for the licensing of our ex-curate in her new role as team vicar - a beautiful, blessed event.)

Ignore the optician's window -
the rest of this building is ALL books...

Ely cathedral - view from the top floor.

Anyway, this shop has the best children's section I have EVER seen. Just look at it!

This is the point where the section starts...

Tables piled high with books...

Shelves crammed with books...

More shelves stuffed with books...(and overspill on the floor)

And a whole section devoted to teen reads...


Topping and Co claim to have more than 50,000 titles over three floors in Ely (they also have shops in Bath and St. Andrews), and the variety is astounding. They also organise the Ely Autumn Book Festival throughout October, with events featuring some huge names (Brian Blessed, The Hairy Bikers, David Mitchell to name but three) and some local authors like Susan Grossey - well worth checking out if you live close enough.

Why am I writing about bookshops, then? Bearing in mind that a lot of you reading this are probably authors or avid readers and I'm actually preaching to the converted...

Well, starting on 8th October - Super Thursday - is a national celebration of UK bookshops, culminating in the Big Bookshop Party on the 10th October. You may have heard of it - Books Are My Bag. You can find out more about the campaign on the BAMB website, but essentially, 'this collaboration between publishers, bookshops and authors is the biggest ever promotion of bookshops. For many people bookshops conjure fond images of book readings, in-store cafes and delight at the discovery of a new author. And in fact, 56% of all book-buying decisions are made by consumers in a bookshop - but we must continue to celebrate - and shop in! - our fabulous high street bookshops (both chains and independents) to ensure they are not under threat.'

We've all seen independent bookshops close... here's one a fellow Cloudie - Alan (Mr P as he's affectionately known) - found in Wadebridge, on the North Cornwall coast.

Photo: Alan Peabody

Photo: Alan Peabody

When he sent me the photos through, Alan said "Wadebridge is not quite a tourist hotspot, but is apparently a thriving town with significant tourism based on the Camel Trail. Despite the hope expressed in the notice on the door, it appears that no phoenix has yet risen from the ashes and evidently (I asked around) it's been some time..."

Sad, eh? And I'm sure it's not an isolated case.

If books really ARE your bag, please - PLEASE - support your local bookshops, whether they are teeny indies or branches of country-wide businesses.

It's an experience you just can't recreate online...

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The end is in sight...

I've mentioned King Stone a couple of times on the Scribbles so far - it's my current WIP.

It took 74 writing days (as in, I wrote on each of 74 days a varying amount of words, but not necessarily purely on KS) to write a s****y first draft - going from an A4 notebook filled with notes and sketches and questions and ideas to a typed up version on a memory stick.

It's taken me a further 63 writing days so far (again - not all on KS) to have solidified 22 of the 23 (possibly 24, I'm not sure yet) chapters into something that actually reads like a proper, put-together story. I'm hoping that with a push, maybe in another week, I'll have finished and can lay claim to a completed second draft.

Funny thing is, this 'second' draft is actually more like a first. The first type up was simply me, telling myself the story - the second is the 'real' version. I have a theme, I have strong characters, I have conflict...and, I hope, I actually have good writing.

As I've been going along, I've been sharing the chapters with a few folk, testing the story to ensure everything's hanging together well and my characters are coming across as I want them too. The feedback so far is that it does, although of course there's still a good amount of work needed in places to bring King Stone up to scratch.

I am excited by this story. I was excited by StarMark - still am, as it'll be published next year - and I was excited by Rurik when I started to tell his story. But King Stone...there's a whole different level of something here that I can't put my finger on. Something to do with the fact that my confidence has grown, that I have found a distinct voice as an author, that I have told the story that I wanted to - without any of the 'industry' telling me what I should or shouldn't be writing. It's been an amazingly liberating process, and I hope bodes well for stories I might want to tell in the future.

Who knows? If this 'second' draft gets finished and I leave it to rest for a while, I might even be able to plan something new for NaNoWriMo at this rate...

The King Stone...?

Sunday, 27 September 2015

A bit more about StarMark

StarMark is so much a part of my life now, I tend to forget that some folk don't know anything about it. So, forgive this little indulgence of mine, but I'm going to tell you about it.

The book is a middle-grade fantasy (for the Brits, that means it probably sits in the 9-12 age bracket) about a girl called Irvana. The story is built around the fact that Irvana has a secret...but is completely unaware of it. The problems start when someone else discovers this secret before she does - and as a result, Irvana's life is threatened. When she does realise the secret she holds, she has to fight - with the help of friends - to regain what should have been her birthright. The StarMark of the title is a birthmark - black on the skin at birth, but turning to gold when the StarChain is worn at the point of succession by the new overlord of Koltarn.

The story began life way back, around 2008, I think. I sent it off (as you do, when you're an inexperienced newbie writer) to agents and publishing houses galore, only to have it firmly rejected by every single one.

And there, the real story of StarMark's writing begins...

October 2009 - first critique by Writer's Workshop. StarMark is roundly slammed for being inappropriate for children (too many adult themes).

October 2010 - a new version of StarMark is produced, taking into account everything that was wrong in the first critique. Second WW critique with the lovely Debi Alper - who said it had potential.

February 2011 - 3rd WW critique, also with Debi. Finally feeling like it's polished enough to send to agents. Make tentative enquiries with a local agent who asked to see the first few chapters. By the end of the month, I had an agent.

October 2011 - after a bit more tweaking, StarMark is sent out to publishers. All say no. Begin writing another novel - 'Rurik'. StarMark is shelved.

May 2013 - after not managing to tweak 'Rurik' to meet the agent's requirements, part from said agent.

September 2014 - can't let go of StarMark. More work, more editing, with the view of self-pubbing after the success of Granny Rainbow. Took it to York for agent's comments. Was asked by one agent whether I really believed enough in this story to rework it again and make it good? I decided I did.

late 2014 - submitted to Bedazzled Ink firmly believing that they'd say 'no', which would justify me self-pubbing as I'd planned.

January 2, 2015 - hear back from Bink - who offered me a contract!

September 2015 - StarMark gets a cover.

From September 2015 until whenever - editing!

April 2016 - fingers crossed: publication.

If you take into account the time I took prior to that first critique to actually write the story, I reckon it'll have taken StarMark around eight years to go from conception to publication. There is no overnight success...

What have I learned from the process so far?

Well, I suppose the main thing is don't give up on a story if you believe in it; if it's the one that fires you up, that's a story you simply HAVE to tell, do it!

The second is never stop trying to improve your writing skills. Learn all you can - from courses, from fellow writers, from readers... listen to advice and make it work for you. I certainly wouldn't be in the position I'm in if I'd stuck with the dreadful (I can admit it now) version of the first critique.

So there you go - all you ever wanted to know about StarMark - so far!

Friday, 25 September 2015

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Sharing my love of writing

I've been gratified to receive not one, but two, requests recently for creative writing workshops.

Now, I have to be honest - I'm not a qualified teacher. I do have training in my background; years ago I gained a Certificate in Training and Development when I was designing and running cleanliness courses at work. That learning was backed up with an NVQ Level 3 in Training and Development as an Association Trainer with the Guide Association. I've also spent quite a few years (paid and unpaid) supporting primary school children in the classroom. And I help to run a small creative writing group locally.

And I write. I've even had work published, so I do know a little bit about writing stories.

But does all of that really add up to me knowing enough about 'creative writing' to run a kosher workshop?

Having recently been to York and sat in some fabulous workshops (check out the FOW15 Diaries on dialogue, theme and taking risks), I feel woefully inadequate compared to those very distinguished workshop leaders. Almost like a fraud...

I suppose it depends on what you want out of a workshop. If you want to kick your writing into shape, you most probably need to find someone who's more of an expert in sentence formation and story arcs to run the session.

If, on the other hand, you want to play with words, explore ways of inspiring stories, create characters and settings to get your story-juices flowing...

Well, then I might just be the right person for the job.

That's what's gone into the session plan for now, anyway; I'll let you know how it works out when I do it for real with the children...

Getting to grips with technology during an author visit earlier this year...

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Someone's following me...

I'm always enormously chuffed to hear that someone is following me (and therefore the Scribbles) on Google+. It makes me feel like I'm not talking to myself! I also know that many of you are regular readers but choose not to 'follow' - and I'm just as chuffed when someone who isn't an official follower tells me they've enjoyed a particular post or starts a conversation about something I've shared with the wider world.

I enjoy blogging and sharing my experiences with you all and lots of you seem to enjoy reading, because recently, I've had a flurry of new followers. Well - almost a dozen in the space of five days, which is unheard of for this blog.

Without exception, my new followers are all male, single, and involved in the military.

I have no problem with this. I understand that there are algorithms and the like that search out and suggest people to follow. But it did set me thinking about search engines that exist simply to root out female profiles for men 'looking for a relationship'. And I found that thought uncomfortable, probably because I've never experienced it first hand before - other than to ignore the 'single men looking for women' ads on facebook. I know there is a risk when you 'put yourself out there' on the internet - and I don't mind being followed by people I don't know. That's part and parcel of being a blogger.

But somehow, I don't think I'm going to be providing what these guys are looking for with a blog about writing and life.

That said, if you are one of my newer followers, stick around. I hope you DO find something to catch your eye and keep your interest on the Scribbles.

PS. And I'm not talking about my profile pic or the fact I'm female...

Monday, 21 September 2015

Who Dares, Wins - Taking risks with your writing (FOW15 Diaries)

How often do you get stuck in your writing? You look at what you've written and go 'bleurgh!' because it just...isn't...working?

Sometimes we need something to pull us out of the hole we appear to have dug ourselves into - and this workshop, run by the lovely Shelley Harris (author of Jubilee and Vigilante) looked at some intriguing methods to get our writerly juices flowing again. But it meant taking risks, forcing ourselves to move outside of our comfort zone.

The first thing we tried was character names; we had to write five names that we would never give our characters. When asked why we'd not use them, the reasons were many and varied - but Shelley challenged us to go away and write a colourful character for the boring name, to write Tarquin Roderick Matthias Jameson the Fourth without a penny to his name... I found myself writing quite a few 'upper class' names, or ones that sounded like doddery old ladies. Wonder what that says about the names I do choose and perhaps my prejudices for those I don't...?

Then we considered what stories we'd write if no-one were ever to read them. That's because we've all got no-go areas in our writing. Perhaps we choose not to write about our past, because we worry about upsetting people still living. Perhaps we choose not to write about sex or violence, for fear of shocking our readers. (She seems so nice! How on earth would she know about that?)

There are bound to be other examples - these are just what popped into my head as I was writing the blog - but the real reason we don't write certain things is because we are afraid of being judged; we edit ourselves, even before we've begun writing the story. If you could write, knowing that no-one would ever read what you've written, you have edited out instead other people's judgements and allowed yourself the freedom to commit what you want to write to the page. I'm not sure what I'd write if you were never going to read it; I fear my own self-editing rules are etched too deep inside to ever erase completely...

(Both of these ideas were attributed to Susie Maguire)

The next idea Shelley showed us was a morphological matrix. The creative think tank on wikispace describes this as 'a tool for generating options. It provides a structured or systematic way to generate a large number of possibilities including many unique or highly unusual options.'

Sounds complicated, but it's not, really. Draw yourself a grid. Across the top of the columns, add labels like 'jobs I've done, locations I know well, skills/knowledge I possess, favourite smells, current obsession'. Now fill in the lists with at least eight items for each one. Dig deep.

When you've done, combine the items across the grid in many and varied ways - and when you have, for example, egg pickler, the brook path, how to knit socks, lily of the valley and notebooks, (yep, they really apply to me) sit and think about what story you'd tell with them. Mine the familiar - but tell an unfamiliar story. It's a bit like those books you had as a kid, where the page was split into three parts and you could flip over different sections so you had a diver's head with a doctor's middle and a ballet dancer's feet...

On the subject of mining your own life experience, ask yourself questions - do you believe in justice or mercy? In nature or nurture? If you could return to one time in your life, when would it be and why? Complete the sentence 'Most people wouldn't guess that I...' Can you use these things to add to or generate a story?

You could BE your character. At which point, Shelley shared her experience of dressing up as a superhero for a day while she researched her novel, Vigilante. (You can read about her experience here.) Easy, it was not. But without that experience, Shelley couldn't have known what it felt like to put on a mask and hide behind the anonymity whilst trying to do good.

Make the unexpected happen; Pixar story rule #9 states 'When you're stuck, list what WOULDN'T happen next and material to get you unstuck will show up.' Your subconscious inevitably finds a way - which led us onto Petals problem solving.

Now this one was spooky - lots of folk in the room seemed to come up with a solution to a problem using this method - all starting with a single, completely random word from a dictionary. My problem was trying to make a character more active in a scene where she's arriving at an island on the king's ship - I had no idea how to solve that.

Shelley asked for a number, which gave her the page in the dictionary. The second gave her which word to pick on that page; can you believe the word was 'ahoy'? When my problem was ship-based? Spooky moment number one...

On a clean page, we drew a central circle, and surrounded it with eight 'petals'. In the centre, we wrote 'Ahoy' and around the outside - in the petals - we wrote words we associated with it. Mine were all very piratey and sea-faring, as you might expect.

Then the work began. We had to use the words we'd written in the petals to solve our problem. And the weird thing? I did - but I'm not going to tell you because I've not worked it into the story quite just yet. We were asked to share our thinking process; some climbed up into their crow's nest or looked through a telescope to see the bigger picture, and solved their problem that way. Everyone agreed that this method felt 'spooky' because from just one word, we solved our many and varied problems.

The idea is that the apparent randomness isn't really as random as you think. The process simply allows your 'good' mind to step out of the way and allow your subconscious access to the problem; it might have worked just as well if we'd had the word 'bell' or 'foot' in the centre of our flower, who knows?

And the last thing to try, to get your writing out of a slump?  Ask yourself what you'd write if you couldn't fail? And get it written. (Or as Shelley said, The F***-It Draft, or FID) Only to be used as a last resort, mind you, this method can come up with moments of sheer genius because it releases you completely.

In summary, taking risks in your writing is about being counter intuitive, about finding strategies to unloose your subconscious - and, probably most importantly, to stop caring about what others think!

Here's to a riskier Squidge in future...

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Finding your novel's theme (FOW15 Diaries)

Julie Cohen is a great author, a wonderfully bubbly lady and she runs fantastic writing workshops. My last two York festivals, I've attended her Learning story structure from Pixar and Character sessions and got an awful lot out of them.

This year, I put myself down for another one - Finding your Novel's Theme - which was held on Severus Snape Sunday. Why Severus Snape Sunday? Because Julie decreed it so.

Anyway... theme. I can't say it's something I think about consciously up front, but apparently there are people who do - which makes me a discovery writer (pantser!) rather than an analytical one (planner!).

So what is theme? Well, it's the emotional core of your book... The question you're asking... The main abstract idea you're exploring... The problem you keep returning to... The pivot on which your book turns... The cakeness of your cake.

Sorry, have I lost you on that last one? Let me explain - Julie also recommended we look up one of Chuck Wendig's terribleminds blog post about theme, which uses the analogy of CAKE (among other things) to understand theme. Chuck wrote;

'In cake, every piece is a microcosm of the whole. A slice contains frosting, cake, filling. Okay, that’s not entirely true — sometimes you get a piece of cake where you get something other pieces don’t get, like a fondant rose, but really, let’s be honest, fondant tastes like sugary b***hole. Nasty stuff. So, let’s disregard that and go back to the original notion: all pieces of cake contain the essence of that cake. So it is with your story: all pieces of the story contain the essence of that story, and the essence of that story is the theme. The theme is cake, frosting, filling. In every slice you cut. Man, now I really want a piece of cake.'

(To see the rest of Chuck's post, follow this link.)

Sounds simple, doesn't it? The emotional core of your book., if you're like me and you don't start with a theme up front, how the heck do you figure it out so that every single morsel of story contains that essential essence? Does it fall into place naturally or do you have to work at it?

In already published novels, the covers will often hint at the theme - Julie's own novel, Dear Thing, is based on parenthood, reflected by a cover picturing baby shoes. Great for hinting at the reader what they might be getting. But for those of us still working on unpublished stories? Who can't use visual clues?

Well, THAT was the focus of the workshop - we had to find our own novel's theme.

Julie suggested looking at several things;
1. The main character's conflicts and desires
2. The premise of the story
3. The title and/or the first line
4. The main emotions
5. The idea or problem that as a writer, you are exploring
6. The resolution.

I tried it out with King Stone...and came to the conclusion that its central theme is 'doing the right thing'. Which sounds a little clumsy when you consider themes cover such huge issues as sacrifice, abandonment, loss, justice, identity, 'there's no place like home' and the like.

Incidentally - there was another 'doing the right thing' theme in the group, but as Julie pointed out, they would be totally different stories because as authors, we approach the theme from different directions and may choose to focus on different genres.

So, having found the theme, we moved onto a mind-map to explore it further. Here's mine:

Which gave rise to one of my favourite quotes of the weekend; 'How far you take this depends on how far you want to procrastinate.'

So with all these ideas now in the bag, how do you use them in your novel? Well, you could select subplots, using a 'branch' that is separate to your main character's branch. The central theme is reflected, but the subplot is distinctly different. You could design secondary characters to work with or against your MC. You can refine character conflicts. You could even choose your setting - in Julie's case, her parenthood theme led her to schools, hospitals, school playgrounds, antenatal classes, maternity shops and infertility clinics...all related, yet all distinctly separate.

Getting the drift?

I was surprised to see how much of my theme had subconsciously seeped into what I'd already written of King Stone; somewhere along the line, I must've given in to gut feeling and gone with where the story was heading. And as a pantser, I wonder whether that's preferable to trying to plan too much? (Although I think King Stone has been planned more than any other novel I've attempted to write, so maybe I'm moving towards a mix of the two?)

It's an interesting exercise that, having done it, I'm sure I'm going to be able to use to enrich King Stone. I can certainly see how my mind-map works for minor characters as well as main ones... And if it works for King Stone, who knows? My next WIP might start with theme rather than stumbling upon it halfway through the story.

So huge thanks again to Julie for another useful tool to go in my writer's toolkit.

And completely off-topic, I was delighted to see that Lego Hannibal (Lector), who travels everywhere with Julie, also made it to York!

Perhaps I should've introduced him to a few of the Lego peeps from the Squidge household? Next year, maybe...