Monthly Archives: March 2015

Him

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Now that I’ve submitted the third draft of my second novel, I have once again found my mind meandering to novel number three.

The scene that follows flashed into my mind when I read Sara’s prompt this week. It’s really not very cheery, I apologise. But, as these things often do, just writing it has helped me tease out some more details of the story…

It’s rough and ready and might not even make it into the manuscript itself, but I thought I’d share it anyway.

***

This was always the night of the year that she sensed his presence most strongly, and it was almost too much for her to bear.

She thought of their son, of course. Of the pain he had caused her as he had fought his way into existence. They had all said that it would be easier for her to handle, being so young. Her mother had refused to even begin to discuss it with her, and that had suited her just fine, but she’d never quite understood why the midwives hadn’t told her the truth.

The contractions had coursed through her body again this afternoon as she’d struggled to engage Year 10 with the themes of Henry V. More than once she’d had to grip her desk as she’d watched the minutes tick closer to the time when he’d been found.

She knew that it was not the memory of childbirth that had overwhelmed her.

Her colleagues knew nothing of her pain: knew nothing of him. She preferred it that way. She was certain of that, even if something in the deepest reaches of her soul sometimes called out for recognition, for acknowledgement.

She had no idea how they would react if she told them the truth.

So instead she bowed her head and complained of a headache. Of the time of the month. No-one questioned her – they tried to distract her from her agony with stories of their own, pushed paracetamol into her palm as if it might actually do some good. She took it gratefully before secreting it into the bin when no-one was looking.

Even now, alone in her flat with her cat nestled at her feet, she would do nothing that might push him away. There was a bottle of wine in the kitchen. That might have helped. She could have even scored some weed if she’d wanted to, sat with her back against the wall, knees raised and feet flat on the floor as she rolled a joint between them. Her downstairs neighbours had offered often enough.

But she owed it to him to be here, to be present as he was. She owed it to him to feel every molecule of her being shrink, raisin-like. She owed it to him to fully inhabit the gaping holes between those molecules as she searched for him, again and again.

Tears ran freely down her cheeks as she carefully undressed, folding her clothes neatly on the chair by the window. Her pyjamas were waiting cautiously underneath the pillow and she slipped into those now, trying to ignore the silent dripping of saltwater against the wooden floor.

After plunging the room into darkness she scurried beneath the duvet, making herself as small as she could to disguise the shuddering sadness that consumed her.

***

If you’d like to read more about this story you will find further glimpses here:

Smoke

Thirty

Gratitude

mumturnedmom
Nikki Young Writes

Say it with a song

Arthur is having a very musical week this week. More specifically, he is immersing himself in the world of song: he appears to be a sponge for the lyrics he hears, and is managing to reproduce them pretty accurately with very cute (and sometimes very amusing) results.

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He’s always been into music – unsurprisingly perhaps given the gigs and festivals we’ve taken him to and the fact we love to listen to music at home. But this love for lyrics – or the ability to remember them anyway – is a fairly recent thing.

It started when ‘The You and Me Song’ came on the radio. Now I love this song, but I’d almost forgotten about it when Jo Whiley used it to begin her show. She often does that to me – spins a tune that returns me to the recesses of my record collection and has me hunting for my old CDs. I started singing along, and Arthur was quite taken with it too. And before I knew it he was singing ‘you and me always, and forever’ over and over again. I’d like to think it could be our theme tune.

Then, with a bit of a cultural shift, came ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’. This one’s obviously been on his radar for a while, but he surprised me last weekend with an almost word and note perfect rendition of it – right up to the little boy who lives down the lane. I’m still impressed when I hear him sing it – which is good, because he sings it a lot.

The other thing he’s been doing is singing songs from the movies he’s been watching, and this is where it gets especially entertaining.

Like (I hope) most toddlers, he likes to boss me around, often telling me to ‘move it!’ if there is something in his way or otherwise not in exactly the right place. But this week, whenever he’s given me that order, it’s been like a little lightbulb has gone off in his brain, flashing up his favourite scene from Madagascar. And then, with a grin on his face, he launches into ‘I like to move it, move it, I like to move it, move it’. Seriously funny, though I’m not sure I should be laughing quite so much at my little tyrant.

This morning he had me in hysterics again. We were walking down the stairs in our pyjamas, me holding his hand as I am wont to do, and he began to sing ‘Let it go! Let it go!’. I responded in my usual gushing, proud mummy way – and he stopped, looked me very seriously, and said ‘let go’. I guess he didn’t want me to hold his hand after all.

I’m finding the development of Arthur’s language skills such a joy, and his ability to reproduce what he hears – and twist it to fit new situations – particularly fascinating. The fact that his current propensity for singing is turning our lives into one big musical is just an added bonus!

I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

 

My word of the week this week is musical.

The Reading Residence

Seven top tips to help you edit your novel

Since I submitted the third draft of my novel last week, I’ve been pondering a lot about how I finally got there. It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure.

I was optimistic when I first got started on the whole redrafting process back in September, but it wasn’t long before I started to flounder. I got things back on track, and completed the second draft almost within my self-imposed deadline.

I knew there was still work to be done at that stage, so it was no surprise when I had to start work on draft number three in January. I had some great feedback to work with, and slowly but surely a third draft began to take shape.

I’m not saying that’s perfect either, but in getting to that stage I’ve learnt a lot about how to go about editing and redrafting a novel: and that is what I want to share with you here.

Tip One: Don’t rush it

It’s easy to get impatient when writing a novel. After the first flush of excitement even getting to the end of the first draft can feel like a slog at times, and that is absolutely nothing in comparison to the arduous process of getting your head round the edit.

Having said that I found that it all came much easier when I was ready. I think you have to trust that if it just doesn’t seem to be working when you’re explicitly focusing on it then maybe your brain just needs a bit more mulling time.

But having said THAT…

Tip Two: Set yourself deadlines – and stick to them

This might not be the way you work, but for me my procrastination skills are so finely tuned that unless I have some sense of urgency I could just drag a task out forever… Especially one as tricksy as this.

Editing deadlines

I found it really helpful to decide on an overall deadline (both times round I gave myself around two months to get the edit done), and then to break it down into daily goals. Those were a bit more flexible. I aimed for a chapter a day, and sometimes I did more, sometimes less. Sometimes I redid what I’d done the day before. Sometimes my brain had been whirring so effectively in between editing sessions that I whizzed through several chapters. But I generally had a sense of where I was at and could therefore balance things out to make sure I got to the end pretty when I wanted to.

And along the way, remember…

Tip Three: Listen to your characters

In my first draft, I think a lot of the details in the story were driven by what I thought the characters might think, or say, or do. But really I was just getting to know them – I had to make presumptions and fill in the gaps because there just wasn’t time to stop and focus and listen.

The bits where I’d just swanned on through were blatantly obvious when I came to look at them later – what was not so obvious was what to do about them. But then I remembered that I wasn’t actually doing this alone. In the process of writing the first draft I’d created several companions to my task – and now they were there, ready and waiting for me to breathe fresh life into their story, I really needed to listen more acutely to them and where they wanted to take things. Even if it wasn’t strictly where I’d thought I wanted to go.

Which brings me to…

Tip Four: Listen to your readers

It goes without saying that you need to find someone you trust to give you feedback at each step of the writing and redrafting process. Preferably more than one person, and preferably people who are avid readers – even better if they enjoy the particular genre that you’re writing in.

But once you’ve found those all-important beta-readers, it can be incredibly tempting to pick and choose what bits of feedback to listen to. It’s your novel after all, right? And if you don’t agree with what they say then it’s your prerogative to ignore it, right?

Except they are in a much better position than you to measure how your novel will be received. Because they are readers – and readers are what it is all about.

There is a big gulf from the novel in your head and the novel that people will read, and that gulf can only be crossed by getting the right words on the page. If you think you’re communicating something, but your readers are telling you that you’re not, then you need to ask yourself why.

Though you mustn’t forget the most important thing…

Tip Five: Trust yourself

This might seem to fly in the face of everything I’ve just said, but it really doesn’t. You may well receive conflicting feedback, or feedback that really doesn’t sit comfortably with what it is you’re trying to achieve. And if you do the you need to remind yourself that, ultimately, you are the author of this work.

As long as you don’t dismiss things out of hand, as long as you really consider how you might be able to make the changes people are proposing, then it’s ok to stick to your guns and find a way to make your way work.

Just remember…

Tip Six: It’s ok to get rid of stuff you like

Writing a good novel is not just about good writing. It’s about how all of your words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters sit together to create people and worlds that are meaningful to your reader.

Some of the bits you end up cutting might be pieces of writing you love. Keep them! Just don’t be afraid to recognise that they might not work in this manuscript, here and now.

Editing a novel

And whilst we’re on the subject of fear…

Tip Seven: Don’t be afraid to experiment

Once you’re past the relatively liberating stage of writing the first draft, you might find a desire for perfection creeping in around the edges. You might feel like you have to get your next draft just right – perfect, in fact. And that – I speak from experience here – can be pretty paralysing.

The only way I was able to move forwards was by freeing myself up to experiment. To try things out, even if I wasn’t entirely sure they worked. To take things in a different direction. For me this was especially true of the second draft. I got rid of lots of those experiments by the time I got to draft number three, but the residue they left behind had undoubtedly made the manuscript stronger.

And that’s it!

There are other things, too. I’ve already written about the more prosaic things that kept me going when the going got tough. But for me the thing that really helped me bring these edits to a conclusion was getting myself into the right mental state. And it is that I hope these tips will help with.

 

Writing Bubble

 

The List

Why chefs need to take responsibility for what is in their food

Two weeks ago, a group of ‘chefs, restaurateurs, hoteliers and caterers’ put their names to an open letter published in The Telegraph. In this letter, they rallied against the recent regulations introduced by the EU designed to make eating away from home an easier option for the many people, like myself, who suffer from a serious allergy.

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It was on my radar at the time, but it has taken me a little while to fully digest the implications between the lines of their sparsely worded letter and to formulate a response which is not merely an outpouring of fury at the ignorance and arrogance which underpins their declarations.

On one level, actually, they’ve done me a favour: I now have a clear and categorical list of the establishments and proprietors I need to ensure I avoid whenever I fancy a meal out. I enjoy good food, and I love eating in restaurants when the occasion arises, but it simply isn’t worth risking a life-threatening allergic reaction if the person preparing my food isn’t willing, or able, to tell me whether it might contain nuts.

It is for this reason that the publication of the letter strikes me as an extraordinarily bad business move – ironic, really, when its signatories are aligned behind an organisation called ‘Business for Britain‘. Clearly it is more important for them to take a swipe at the EU than to consider the needs of a significant portion of their customer base. Conservative estimations of people suffering from acute, severe food allergies in the UK put the number at around 500,000. Other studies indicate that 6-8% of children in the UK – that’s over 1 million – have a proven food allergy. Whichever way you look at it, there are an awful lot of people whose health – and life – relies on knowing what is in the food they eat. They all have families and friends whose dining habits will be influenced by the allergy sufferer. So why exclude so many potential customers from your business?

This issue of exclusion is at the heart of my anger towards the signatories of this letter. Allergy is not a lifestyle choice. It is not something that causes mild irritation to its sufferers. It can – and does – cause death if the allergen is inadvertently consumed: there are between five and fifteen fatalities each year directly caused by food allergy in the UK. Many of these are due to meals eaten outside the home – and, as with the 18 year old who tragically died in Manchester earlier this year after eating a burger, allergy sufferers tend to be very clear with restaurant staff about the food they need to avoid. I mean, you would be, wouldn’t you, if you knew that eating the wrong thing could kill you?

Far too many times when I have asked the necessary questions with regards to my allergy the response of the waiting staff is that they cannot guarantee that any of their food is nut free. This warning is so ubiquitous now on packaged food that at first glance it might not seem so extraordinary, but in the types of establishments I favour – ones which serve freshly made food cooked from scratch – I really do find it quite odd. If it were true, then what else that is lying around in the kitchen might have made it into the food? Bleach, perhaps? Or maybe rat poison? The implied lack of caution about cleanliness and cross-contamination astounds me. In the vast majority of cases, when I push further for a response from the chef, they are happy to reassure me that they can prepare me a meal that is safe. If they don’t, then I can’t eat there. Simple, really.

Putting the issue of cross-contamination to one side, the signatories of the letter decrying the improved regulations seem to take things one step further. In complaining that the rules will destroy ‘spontaneity, creativity and innovation’ they seem to be implying that, as chefs, they have a right to add ingredients on a whim without the irritating distraction of the consumer taking away from their art. They seem to have forgotten that they have a responsibility to the people who are paying them to prepare their meal – and that responsibility includes providing food that is not going to cause illness or death to someone suffering from an allergy.

They complain of the ‘bureaucratic nightmare’ these new regulations have caused, but in reality businesses can comply with the new regulations simply by being able to verbally communicate, if asked, whether dishes contain any of the top 14 allergens. Having taught in the state system for ten years I fully appreciate the frustration that comes with seemingly unnecessary paperwork, but is that really too much to ask?

After recent high-profile scandals around the food we eat not being quite what we thought it was (horsemeat, anyone?), I think we would all like to know what it is we are putting in our bodies. If you have an allergy, this concern becomes even more important.

If you are a chef, I do not believe you have the right to exclude someone from accessing the services at your establishment because they suffer from a chronic medical condition. In fact I would argue that to do so flies in the face of legislation surrounding equality and access – particularly as recent rulings have declared that severe allergy is capable of being a disability.

Of course it would be lovely if we did not need to worry about the needs of others as we went about our personal and professional lives, if we could all act as we wished without concerning ourselves with the repercussions our actions might have on others, but the fact is we cannot. And in fact the world would be a far sorrier place if we did.

We all have responsibilities to others – and that is something these ‘top chefs‘ would do well to bear in mind.

Coming up for air

I’ve been increasingly single-minded over the past few weeks. At the beginning of January, I started work on the third draft of my second novel. This was a pretty intimidating prospect – with every new draft the stakes get higher – and I struggled at first to pick up momentum. But as I got deeper and deeper back into it, helped by some great feedback and a couple of lightbulb moments, I became increasingly confident in my ability to make the changes I needed to. And as I got closer and closer to the end, working on the edit was pretty much all I wanted to do.

And then, this Tuesday, I submitted it to my agent. A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders – now all I have to do is wait and see what she thinks!

Well, I say all I have to do. My single-mindedness has definitely impacted on everything else: my blogging activity has slowed to a trickle, the laundry has piled up, and all my good intentions to do more exercise have come to not very much at all. I have also not been giving Arthur quite as much attention as perhaps I should have been. I mean, I’ve been here. Physically. But my mind has not been entirely present…

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So that was my main aim this week – to begin to re-enter the real world and enjoy hanging out with my awesome son. We’ve spent lots of time at the beach, hanging out with friends and just throwing stones.

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I finally put together the rebounder that’s been cluttering up Leigh’s study and is a key part of my ‘get fit for summer’ exercise plan. That was foiled slightly by Arthur’s insatiable appetite for bouncing… But I’ve had lots of fun getting reacquainted with my hula hoop whilst watching him bounce up and down.

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He’s been asking after yoga lots too, so getting back into that is my next goal – we were doing so well with our morning yoga sessions but those too have suffered in the quest to get this novel finished (again).

My brain is still feeling a bit fuzzy after all its hard work, but fresh air and exercise are definitely helping. I have a growing list of ideas for blog posts, and hopefully soon I’ll find the time to actually write them!

There’s nothing quite like the buzz of adrenalin and sense of achievement that comes from bringing a major project to a close. But there’s something pretty special about the peace and space to breathe that comes in its wake as well – and that’s what I have been enjoying most of all about this week.

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My word of the week this week is breathe.

The Reading Residence