That time of year again …

I can’t believe it’s December tomorrow!  Well, I can in that it certainly feels like December, but it doesn’t seem like five minutes since the summer. Where did those months go?

Anyway, with the big C looming I thought I’d share a little piece I wrote at Holmfirth Writers on Monday – and am planning to read at a little party/reading event next Monday in aid of Holmfirth Library.  Not everyone is enamoured of all the fuss about Christmas ….

Christmas Lights

An insistent bell broke the silence of the afternoon. Mr Grimshank groaned and picked up the phone.

“Grimshank Undertakers. How can I help you? No – let me guess …”

“Ah, Hello Mr Grimshank. No, it isn’t that, I’m pleased to say. This is Aileen Arkwright, Chairperson of the Town Council. I’m just calling about your Christmas lights.

“I haven’t got any Christmas lights.”

“I know, that’s why I’m ringing. I was just going to ask when you might be putting them up.”

“Well, I’ll have a look in my diary. Let me see, when do I have a free slot to put some lights up? There we are. Never.”

“I’m sorry, Mr Grimshank, but I must remind you of Byelaw 794. ‘All business premises on the High Street shall be required to display Christmas lights during the month of December.’”

“Oh, for God’s sake, it’s only a Byelaw. I can’t be bothered.”

“Well, the Byelaw does specify a £500 fine for businesses that fail to comply. I’m sure that extra contribution to the council coffers would be much appreciated.”

“Bloody hell! Oh, all right then. Can it be any sort of light? I’ve got a security light I could leave on, if that would do.”

“I’m afraid not. The Byelaw specifies that the lights should span the full frontage of the premises. And they should have a Christmas theme.”

“Well, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know, seasonal motifs, like snowmen or reindeer, something like that. Or it could spell out a cheery Christmas message.”

“A cheery message? Outside an undertakers?”

“Ah yes, I see your point. Well, I suppose any Christmas-related message would do.”

“Any Christmas related message, eh? All right then, I suppose I’ll have to see what I can do. I didn’t vote for you, you know. And I shan’t be voting for you next time either after this. I think it’s a bloody liberty. But you’ll get your Christmas-related message.”

“Thank you, Mr Grimshank.

And sure enough, two days later, the undertaker’s shop was festooned with a string of fairy lights spelling out the words:

“Bugger Xmas”.

 

 

photo © Paul Lakin 2013

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Remembering

It’s occurred to me that I haven’t posted here for a while about the novel I’ve been writing about a woman’s relationship with her father as he loses his memory.  Time to rectify that!

First, some news.  The good news is that the novel is finished! (at least for now), following a second round of editing in the light of comments from a couple of writer friends.  I have decided to see if I can interest an agent in it, so I have sent the first chapters out and am now awaiting responses.  So the not so good news is that, given the lengthy and uncertain nature of that process, it is likely to be some considerable time still before the novel – now provisionally entitled Going Down in Flames – sees the light of day.

Secondly, since it is entirely appropriate for this time of year – today being the day after Remembrance Sunday – I thought I would share with you the opening passage of the novel.

 

“Do I look all right, Claire?”

He is not normally a vain or meticulous person, but this morning he has spent over an hour preparing every aspect of his appearance. He is virtually immaculate, but for the sake of showing I care, I straighten his cap a little, polish his medals briefly with my hanky, brush back a few short strands of grey hair that have crept over the edge of his ear. Then I kiss him on the cheek, quickly checking that I have left no smudge of lipstick behind. Today of all days I have to make the most of it, this fleeting moment of intimacy.

“You look great, Dad.”

“Thanks, love. I’ll see you later.”

I hug him and wave enthusiastically as he walks away to join the column of veterans forming up in Stockwell Street. A few minutes later, commands are shouted, bass and snare drums pound out a steady beat and the old boys (and the occasional old girl) begin to march smartly down the road, still remembering the parade ground drill hammered into them many decades ago.

The rest of us – the families, the well-wishers, the curious spectators – stand respectfully still to watch the marchers pass, then follow them to the war memorial in our own shambling, undisciplined way. We watch in silence as they place their wreaths and bow their heads to fallen comrades.

In the few years that I have been bringing him to this event, we have developed a little tradition of our own, Dad and I. When the ceremony has finished, I do not rush to separate him from his friends and shepherd him back to the car; nor do I seek to insert myself into conversations between old men to which I have nothing to contribute, about matters that I am not privileged to know. Instead, I go to a little café fifty yards up the road. I buy myself a cappuccino and a small cake, and I wait. On this occasion I make a half-hearted attempt to read a paperback novel, putting it down when my mind obstinately refuses to pay any attention to the characters. I eat my cake and drink my coffee, then I stare out of the window and tell myself how appropriate November is for an event like this, with its miserable grimy sky and its damp, cold air and its naked skeletons of trees. I am almost sorry that it is not raining.

After about half an hour, my father walks into the café. We acknowledge each other with silent nods. He sits down and, by unspoken agreement, I go to the counter and buy him a cup of tea. He drinks it, sip by tiny sip, over the course of twenty minutes, slowly restoring some small portion of the vitality that has been visibly sucked out of him. In previous years, there have been various questions I would try to ask him during this time. Questions like “would it help to talk about it?”; “Wouldn’t sharing the pain help to soften it?”; “Doesn’t bottling it up inside just make it worse?” Nowadays I know better than to ask such questions at this or any other time. My mother could have told me, and did, when I finally talked to her about it. She had fared no better, in the days when it was she who came with him on Remembrance Sunday.

“They never talk about what really bothers them, men,” she said. “Their Dads beat it out of them when they’re little boys. Teaches ‘em to be manly, they think. More like child abuse, if you ask me. I’ll always do the best I can for him, like, but I gave up trying to get him to talk about it years ago.” For all her fierce determination to be the sort of wife who stands by her husband at moments of high emotion, I think she may have been quietly relieved when a dodgy hip released her from this annual duty.

It seems to be duty that drags my father back here every year too, as far as I can tell from his monosyllabic answers in the days when I still ventured to ask those questions. This man who prays to no God, who expects no afterlife, still feels inexorably bound by obligations owed to men who died long ago. For them, each year, he opens up his wounds, sheds fresh blood, relives ancient horrors so terrible that he cannot speak of them. He is not like his Air Force friends: on days like this, you may often hear them laugh, see smiles upon their faces. Not on his. He can joke and tell stories with them for hours on other days, when the focus of their attention is on the good times they had together rather than the grim business of war itself, but there is no escaping that today. What experiences he went through that had this effect on him, I don’t suppose I will ever know. They remain closed off, sealed inside a bubble. I don’t know if he even talks about them to his friends – there are certainly some things he talks to them about but not to me. If he does, they are not telling – don’t think I haven’t asked them.

So for those twenty minutes, we communicate not in words, but with smiles and glances. And by touch – sometimes I will place my hand over his. I like to think it helps. I have learned to chart his progress at these times by the movements of his eyes and the muscles of his face. So it does not come as a surprise when at last he gives a long, deep sigh, as if flushing the last of the badness out of him, and finally speaks.

“Well, I suppose it’s about time we were getting back, then. Your Mum’ll have something nice on the table, I reckon.”

“It’d be a shame to let it go cold, wouldn’t it?”

“You’re right, it would.”

And it was true, she always did cook something he particularly liked on these days – toad in the hole or steak and kidney pie, something like that. It was her way of helping, I suppose, now she could no longer come with him.

Once the silence had been broken, the words poured out of him as we started walking back to the car. Not deep, revealing words but ordinary, inconsequential ones about anything that came into his head, filling the hole left by what could not be said. A kind of healing.

 

[Photo by mattbuck, CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

Why I don’t do NaNoWriMo

I’ll start this post with a few words for the benefit of those readers who are scratching their heads wondering what that weird title means. The month of November has become known in certain circles as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. People commit to writing an entire novel of 50,000 words by 30 November, and during the month they report on their progress and receive encouragement as their word count grows. I know lots of people who have had a go at this, and some who do it every year. Good luck if you’re doing it this time! But I’ve never done NaNoWriMo myself, and probably never will. Why?

I can certainly see the attraction for someone who has never written a novel before but has often wondered whether they could, and may have had a few ideas lying around for years that they have never pursued. By committing to NaNoWriMo they force themselves to stop dithering and go for it. At the end of the month, they will have a much better idea whether novel writing is for them. If it is, they already have a first draft right there. And if it isn’t – well, now they know.

I can also see the point of doing NaNoWriMo as a one-off challenge, even for those who have already written books. In the same kind of spirit as running a marathon or doing a parachute jump, it pushes you to go beyond your comfort zone. I imagine it is pretty satisfying to submit those 50,000 words, knowing you have met the challenge. And I can well believe that for someone suffering from writer’s block, NaNoWriMo might be a good way of bulldozing through it. But lots of people, including published writers, do NaNoWriMo year after year. They must find value in doing so, not simply as a challenge, but as a creative tool.

As for me, I enjoy writing, but what I don’t enjoy is re-writing material that isn’t quite right yet. The business of deciding what exactly is wrong with it, what to keep and what to cut, of keeping track of the changes you’ve made and identifying what consequential amendments need to be made elsewhere. It’s unavoidable, but I find it difficult and irksome and I’d rather do no more of it than is absolutely necessary. So I try to do as much as possible of my editing as I go along. At the end of a week I’d much rather have 3000 words that I’m pretty happy with than 10,000 words that are going to need a lot of editing later on.

This is where I struggle with the idea of writing 50,000 words in a month. I think I could do that if I had to, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be 50,000 words that I’d be happy to send off to a publisher. I suspect they would need a LOT of editing. There would be a great deal of effort involved in turning those words into something I was satisfied with. And all that editing would take a lot of time, of course. As I see it, what would be the point in compressing the part of the process I enjoy – the writing – and expanding the part I don’t enjoy – the editing? I doubt I would have a finished novel any quicker, and the process would have been a lot less fun.

Perhaps I am just a slow writer. I know people who can write 5000 words a day (I’ve never managed more than half that). Perhaps that kind of writer can do NaNoWriMo and produce not just any old 50,000 words but 50,000 good quality words, in a coherent story that doesn’t need any more than normal editing. I don’t think I could. Then there are people who like editing their work. For them, the process of turning 50,000 rough and ready words into a finished novel is not a chore but a labour of love. So what to me seems like the major drawback of NaNoWriMo is for them a positive boon. Each to their own, I guess!

But I still wonder (and I guess that’s the reason for this blog post) whether I am missing something. Is there some benefit that doing NaNoWriMo can offer even to someone like me – someone who doesn’t write quickly and doesn’t particularly enjoy editing their work – that I have failed to spot? If so, I’m hoping those NaNoWriMo fans out there will tell me!

An Afternoon With 3 Authors

I enjoyed the Three Authors event in Slaithwaite on Sunday. Fellow HWG member Terence Park has done a write up of the event on his blog – including (gulp!) a video of me reading from Revolution Day!

Terence Park - Blog

I go to too few book readings and I suspect this is as much to do with the weakness of the local writers’ grapevine as it is with ivory tower syndrome. It’s also more of a rarity in my neck of the woods. Today I go over t’other side off t’Pennines to an author reading at The Gallery. Enough of the colloquialisms already. Slaithwaite is 5 miles south-west of Huddersfield on the A62. I use satnav – I know how to get to Slaithwaite but my route will involve getting lost on the A62 plus a brief tour of the inner ring road in Huddersfield – I’ve been lost there before so once I gravitate there at least I’ll know where I am, and possibly an excursion to discover if pie shops in Huddersfield open on Sunday. But I haven’t the time, so it’s the M62 and a switchback route…

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Side Effects

31 October, eh?  That sounds like a perfect excuse for a certain sort of story ….

 

“Eye of newt and spleen of rat … ”

The old crone cackled demonically as she added yet more selections from the anatomy of the local wildlife to the foul-smelling liquid simmering away in her cauldron.

The face of the much younger woman sitting before her bore an expression of great agitation.

“How much longer is this going to take?”

“Just a few minutes, dearie,” replied the witch. “That’s all the ingredients done. Now if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I need to have a quick word with His Nibs.”

At this, the old woman shut her eyes and threw her head back, raising her spindly arms to the heavens.

“Lord of damnation, I summon you to this place and command you to infuse this elixir with your elemental power.”

She began to shudder and foam at the mouth, and for no apparent reason it suddenly got darker and random flashes of lightning could be seen in the distance. Although the witch – now writhing and uttering low moans – was no longer stirring the cauldron, its contents began to bubble and seethe so violently that some of the liquid spilled out and fell, hissing, onto the fire.

Then, all of a sudden, the sky became light again and the liquid returned to normal. The old woman opened her eyes and, taking a brass ladle, decanted some of the cauldron’s purple contents into a small glass bottle.

“There you go, dearie. Old Mother Black’s constipation remedy. Also effective for colds and flu. Half a teaspoonful twice daily. That’ll be three and six, please.”

The younger woman thrust some coins into her hand. “Now give it here, I’m desperate!”

“Just a minute. I need to give you the safety instructions. Do not take while pregnant or breastfeeding. Should not be taken with alcohol, invisibility potions or human blood. May cause drowsiness. Also, the potion …”

“Enough!” The young woman was adamant. Without another word, she snatched the bottle, and immediately downed the entire contents.

The witch simply composed herself and resumed speaking.

“ … may cause explosions if taken in large doses. You know what, dearie? My work here is done. I’ll be seeing you. Put the fire out when you go.” At this, she mounted the broomstick that was parked nearby and took to the air.

Not a moment too soon. As Old Mother Black reached 500 feet, the sky lit up for an instant and there was a very loud boom.

Welcome. Chris!

Today I welcome Chris (Christina) Longden, fellow member of Holmfirth Writers’ Group and the author of Mind Games and Ministers, a humorous novel with a political edge, whose heroine Rachael Russell fights to save the women’s shelter she runs and becomes romantically involved with a government minister.  On 29 October Chris and I, along with Crooked Cat author Angela Wren (also a recent visitor to this blog), will be reading from and discussing our novels in the Gallery, Britannia Road Slaithwaite HD7 5HE.  Today Chris is here to discuss her second novel, Cuckoo in the Chocolate.
cover Cuckoo in the Chocolate smaller
Welcome, Chris!  Tell us all about your new novel.
It’s drama. With humour. Tackles north versus south prejudice. Plus class bias and socio-political assumptions. Slightly anti-literati – but remaining tongue in cheek. Strong appeal to both male and female, so I am told. Sorry – I’m not selling this very well, I am – BUY IT – IT’S BLOODY HILARIOUS – EVEN MY DAD SAYS SO, AND HE HATES READING BOOKS!
How does it relate to your first one, Mind Games and Ministers?
Same characters – written from Rachael Russell’s point of view as the main protagonist – but ‘Cuckoo’ is about a different excerpt of her life. I spent a long time drafting and editing ‘Cuckoo’ in order that it would appeal to someone who had no idea who ‘Rachael Russell’ is – but that they would truly ‘get’ where she is coming from. I actually found it pretty easy to churn out the words themselves; but the constant re-writing was a much bigger challenge.
To what extent do the novels draw on your own experience. And how much of your protagonist, Rachael Russell, is you?
My early career was in social housing, so every scene that takes placen in a hard-bitten council estate – and juggling the issues that are invariably connected with bureaucracy-filled local authority led politics – felt a tad bit familiar. Similarly, I’ve also spent rather a lot of time with politicians (although not in the ‘clothes off’ dynamic, that Rachael experiences. Honestly!)
I also enjoy arguing a lot as a pastime. Usually with my children, or my husband – if he’s lucky. So I always like to chuck a load of dialogue into my writing.
Who or what has most influenced you as a writer?
There are dozens of writers who influenced me to *want* to write, when I was growing up. But I was never told that it could be a viable opportunity, or even a healthy pastime to engage in. I learned that ‘non fic writing’ – that writing from a business angle – was acceptable. That writing ‘as outreach’ to others, was a wonderfully rewarding and important thing to do. But that ‘creative/imaginative’ writing was not something to think about seriously.  So, it was only when I moved to live in the Kalarhari desert, working and living with the San Bushmen, that I suddenly realised that all of these desires and gifts, could be put into good use.
The best writers that moved me the most to pick up my pen, are not household names – and yet they deserve the kudos and awards more than most. I am thinking of the Quaker writer Jan Arriens, of San bushman activist Willemien le Roux and South African apartheid-era journalist, Peter Younghusband. I”ved loved Margaret Atwood for decades, and Barbara Trapido and Elizabeth Jane Howard encouraged me on a personal level – I was very priveleged to receive personal direction from them. Ditto from Bill Bryson and Jon Ronson – a broad church of incredible writers who took the time out to read my stuff and to advise me.
Aside from writing, what other interests would you like to tell us about?
– Writing to prisoners; For 2 decades, I’ve written to prisoners in the UK and in the USA – plus death row prisoners. I had the privilege of meeting Sister Helen Prejean, many years ago – plus Jan Arriens (above) who revolutionised my thinking about crime and redemption.
– Anti-islamophobia; my dearest family members are converts to Islam, or are born into this faith. The horrors and prejudice that muslims in our society face is outrageous. For the sake of my younger relatives, I feel strongly that much of my work should combat this sort of prejudice.
– Poor farmers overseas; I run a charity that helps support them – the Lorna Young Foundation
– Literacy; my daughter is dyslexic, but I have worked hard to get her to fall in love with reading. It *can* be done – and I love to do talks that tell others how to make this happen with kids, or with themselves.
– Running; I just love to run. Never with other people though. I’m rather solitary when it comes to a lot of things.
– Coffee; my family joined with 2 other families a couple of years ago, to set up the now-famous ‘DarkWoods Coffee’  – a high-end roastery based in Marsden.
What question would you have liked me to ask that I didn’t?
What is the one thought that you think of, more than others?
And what is the answer?
Why can’t I live more than one life? This one is wonderful. But I have so, SO many more that I want to try out…
Thanks for dropping in, Chris. Look forward to seeing you on the 29th!
You can find out more about Chris and her books via the following links:

Man on the Moon

In this little piece written at Meltham writing group a few weeks ago, I exclusively reveal an important scientific discovery about the moon …

 

There was a slight thud as the lander hit the surface. Mason grabbed his helmet and carefully screwed it into position. It took him at least a minute to be sure it was properly fixed to his suit, by which time the other three occupants were already waiting at the airlock.  ‘First time I’ve used one of these,” he said into his microphone, embarrassed. The others were astronauts, professionals. He was an engineer.

As he stepped out onto the lunar surface, waves of sensation and emotion passed over him. The utter blackness of the sky, and within it the fat blue hemisphere of the earth. The weight of his body in the Moon’s gravity – a change from the weightlessness of space, but still odd. And ahead, the impressive bulk of the mining facility, testament to the effort and billions of dollars spent in getting all that steel and glass through a quarter million miles of space.

And now it was ready. Ready for him, Sebastian Mason, to begin in earnest the process of extracting resources from this giant ball of rock. As he inspected the equipment, it was clear that those who had come before him had done a good job setting it up. All seemed well. Time to start the first exploratory borehole, he told them. Let’s drill!  A huge metal rod began to rotate, emitting at first a low hum, which gradually built up to a high pitched roar as it gained speed, then rapidly changed to a brutal grinding sound as it bit into rock.

Mason watched the depth gauge creep upwards. Three meters, then four, then seven. Already they were deeper into the Moon than anyone had ever drilled before. Another ten metres or so and it would be time to extract the first core. Then, to his surprise, the grinding noise subsided, the drill speeded up and the depth gauge rose rapidly. Fourteen metres, sixteen, eighteen …

“Stop it there,” said Mason. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”  They raised the drill and allowed it a few minutes to cool. Then the men removed the long metal cylinder that had followed the drill bit down.

“Open it,” ordered Mason.  At one end of the long rod of Moon stuff was the surface dust and rock they were already familiar with. After that, they had expected granite and, with luck, metal-bearing ores.  But instead – he scratched his head in disbelief – the core was pale yellow, smooth, with spherical air pockets.  In places it seemed almost liquid. The other engineers looked at each other, as confused as he was.  And what was that smell?  On a hunch, Mason picked up a small fragment of the yellow core and put it in his mouth.

“Cheese,” he said.