Contact me at because I'm always up for a natter about anything. Well, mostly.

Friday, 30 December 2011

My Favourite Books of 2011

I've read some fantastic books this year. The full list can be found in this post. However, I just thought I'd highlight some of my favourites in a special post. They're in no particular order because these are the cream of the crop - in my eyes there's no picking between them for quality. I found them to be pleasurable reads, though vastly different in content.

Carol by Patricia Highsmith 

This tells the story of Therese and her attraction to a woman she meets in a department store, the Carol of the title. It's a fairly short novel but the prose is wonderfully evocative. You can read my review here.

Girl Reading by Katie Ward

Ward takes seven portraits of women reading as her starting point and weaves seven marvellous little stories out of them. Each individual story is digestible in one gulp but, if you're like me, you'll want to read them all in one go. You can read my review here.

Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult

After splitting from her husband, Zoe Baxter falls in love with Vanessa. Although she's suffered miscarriages which pushed her marriage to the limit, Zoe and her new partner are keen to use the eggs she has in storage. However, her ex has become involved with a conservative religion group and she needs his permission. A very modern novel, and a heartfelt one too. You can read my review here.

Westwood by Stella Gibbons

Gibbons' work is now being reissued and this book absolutely delighted me. Set against the backdrop of WWII, the novel tells of Margaret Steggles and her connection with a richer family she comes across quite by accident. Funny and well-written. You can read my review here.

Uncle Silas by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Adding a sensation novel to my list was, I suppose, a given. This book is gripping and still possessed the ability to scare me out of my wits. Not bad for a book that's around 150 years old! You can read my review here.

Have you read any excellent books this year I should add to my own for next?

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Merry Musical Christmas

Christmas is a funny old time. I think I dislike it but I can never be completely sure. However, one thing I know I don't dislike are the songs associated with it, particularly those emerging from some of my favourite musicals. Here are a couple to get you into the festive spirit, starting with the wonderful Angela Lansbury. She could tell me I wanted anything and I'd believe her so maybe I do need a little Christmas after all:

"Haul out the holly
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again
Fill up the stocking
I may be rushing things but deck the halls again now..."

I'm being a bit cheeky because my second choice is Angela again. Her excellent Christmas film Mrs Santa Claus is one of my favourite festive treats. With a score by Jerry Herman and Angela singing it yet again, I don't think you can really go wrong. This is the title track from the film:

"I'm Mrs Santa Claus, the invisible wife
And Mrs Santa Claus needs a change in her life
I've been manning the business and planning each holiday plan
And I'm tired of being the shadow behind the great man..."

When you think of Judy Garland Christmas songs, I know which one naturally springs to mind. This little gem, though, was part of the score of In The Good Old Summertime. Judy's phenomenal - as usual:

"So be jolly
Have a holiday as gay as holly
May the ones you love be near you
With the laugh of friends to cheer you..."

And just because I'm not a complete tease... This is the extended scene from Meet Me In St. Louis, with Tootie's anxiety about Santa being unable to find them when they move and then her smashing up the snow people the family have built:

"Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now..."

Whatever Christmas means to you, I hope it fulfils your expectations. Merry Christmas. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Reading Challenge: Short Story Challenge

At the beginning of the year I condemned myself for not reading as many short stories collections as I should have. Unfortunately, I haven't really rectified that problem this year so when I came across a reading challenge from the Library of Clean Reads blog specifically to encourage reading short story collections I knew I had to participate. More details about the challenge can be found here.

I'm going for the 'Tales Galore' category which is seven to nine books, mainly because I already have seven collections sitting on my bookshelves. Here is the list so far:

1. Night Shivers - Charlotte Riddell
2. Sensation Stories - Wilkie Collins
3. Wish I Was Here - Jackie Kay
4. The New York Stories - Edith Wharton
5. The Collected Stories - Katherine Mansfield
6. Daughters of Decadence - Various
7. Touchy Subjects - Emma Donoghue
8. ???
9. ???

I'll add the final two collections later and the list is subject to change. I'm looking forward to delving into these collections, several of which have been festering on the shelf for quite some time. Although Riddell and Collins have links to my PhD work, I promise that this is all fun reading.

Reading Challenge: A Classics Challenge

I came across this excellent challenge for 2012 hosted by November's Autumn. Read seven words of classic literature in the year (only three of which may be re-reads) and visit the blog every month for a prompt to write about (although I'm certain I'll be writing a review alongside that). Find about about the challenge here.

The classics I'm going to read are nothing to do with my PhD but have all been gathering dust on my bookshelves for quite some time. Here's the list:

1. Bleak House - Charles Dickens
2. Mary Barton - Elizabeth Gaskell
3. The Mill on the Floss - George Eliot
4. A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway
5. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman - Laurence Sterne
6. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
7. The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy

The list is subject to change. I'm starting with Bleak House but that could take me most of the year! It looks to be a fun challenge, reading some of the books I really feel I should've read already. The only one I'm not really looking forward to is The Mill on the Floss - I've tried to get into that on several occasions and failed miserably. That one may disappear from the list!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Organisational Matters

My office temping jobs instilled in me a mania for keeping things organised - at least as far as work is concerned. I like my bookshelves to be neat, my filing cabinet to be segregated and to know where I'm up to with any specific task. I don't know why it's taken me so long to create the two things I've completed in the last week considering the spreadsheet madness that has taken over my life since I started my PhD but these are two things I'm now using in my writing life:

Scene Analysis Spreadsheet
I'm fairly sure that I saw this idea on someone else's blog (and would credit if I could remember, honestly). I've gone through the latest draft of the first novel I completed. This is the one I completed for NaNoWriMo 2009 and which has undergone major changes since then. Nevertheless, I looked at it and knew there was still something missing. So I created a spreadsheet with the following categories to break each scene down into the sum of its parts and see exactly where I was:

Scene Number
Scene Description 
Scene Type
Protagonist's Goal
Protagonist's Motivation
Protagonist's Complication
Outcome/How Does Scene Affect Growth?

I'm using the exceptional book Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfield to help me with the breakdowns and see whether each individual scene works. I've got thirty one chapters and eighty-five scenes to work with. The novel needs a lot of work but collapsing it into individual units to be assessed may make it seem less intimidating. I am, however, happy with the overall story and structure. That only took two years!

The Book of Ideas
Again, I know I borrowed this from someone else but I can't recall who. I've taken a huge notebook, about three hundred pages, and have listed all the current projects and ideas I have with notes detailing where I'm at with each of them. Each project has a whole page to itself, meaning I've got plenty of space to fill up with details later. It looks quite empty at the moment but I'm hoping that'll change. There are three things on each page - 'Subject', 'Format' and 'To Date'. What's intriguing - for me, anyway - is the breakdown I've currently got in different formats:

Prose (novel) - 11
Prose (short story) - 28
Script (play) - 2
Script (television drama) - 4
Script (radio drama) - 2
Script (film) - 1
Script (musical) - 1
Script (unsure) - 1
Unsure - 5

As you can tell, I have too many ideas! Documenting them like this will help me keep track of them and encourage me to work on the ideas I've already got instead of dreaming up new ones all the time. Well, that's the theory...

Monday, 19 December 2011

Book Review: Starting From Scratch by Georgia Beers

This was an undemanding lesbian romance that was sufficiently interesting for me to read in one sitting.

Avery King lives with her dog Steve, enjoys baking and spending time with her grandmother amongst other things. One thing she certainly isn't keen on is spending time with children but, thanks to owing a favour to a friend, she ends up coaching a sports team for five and six year-olds. Avery finds herself falling for the mother of one of the kids, complicating her life and changing the things she thought she wanted.

As I said, this was an easy book to read. It doesn't offer anything profound but it does tug at the heartstrings in places. One scene particularly towards the end had me welling up. There aren't many passages of character analysis but detail is scattered so delicately through the dialogue that the reader is rarely at a loss to decipher the motivations of any particular characters. I also found the young boy in the story, Max, to be delightful and realistic - not the whining and irritating child you find so often in novels.

One of my major difficulties with this book had everything to do with me and nothing to do with the book itself - as an English reader some of the Americanisms just baffled me at times. It made reading something of a guessing game but I don't think altered my enjoyment of the novel much. A more relevant criticism relates to the plot twist that emerges a few chapters from the end. Although it stems out of a perfectly natural occurrence - and the book is reaching a natural conclusion - I found it to be ultimately rushed over in the epilogue. I would rather the twist hadn't been put in as it didn't affect the main narrative much. However, from a character point of view, I understand why Beers wanted to tie up the loose end.

I'd recommend this to anyone looking for a modern lesbian romance without too many strings attached.

I read this book for the LGBT Reading Challenge 2011.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

NaNoWriMo Draft Finished

It may have taken me another two weeks to finish the final chapters after the mad rush of November but the first draft of the novel is complete. It's a little (okay, very) light at 53,756 words but the difficulty I've had in drawing it to an end means I'm just relieved it's down on paper. I've spent a week building up to the big kiss and trying not to write it. Looks like I was as much of a coward as my protagonist!

I feel as exhilarated and as tired as I did when I finished my last first draft back in October. So I've now got four manuscripts I'm dithering about with. Plenty of rewriting to be done on all of them and plenty of PhD work to be done between now and the end of January. Who cares? I've accomplished something else before the end of 2011 and at this stage that's a huge surprise!

I'm going to drift into contentment with Bing to keep me company. This is one of his lesser known songs but I do like it.

Friday, 16 December 2011

200th Post - Getting There Alone

When I was in my early teens my mum gave me a copy of A Tale of Two Cities for either Christmas or a birthday. I read it but it didn't make much of an impact on me. Although I was an avid reader throughout my youth I don't think classics really touched my radar. I think I rebelled against them, probably due to the fact my paternal grandfather had bookshelves stacked high with Dickens, Milton, Fielding and Shakespeare. Who doesn't instinctively feel as a kid that they should be the exact opposite to their family?

Of course, I was exposed to Shakespeare throughout my schooling and appreciated the tragedies enough to see Hamlet and Macbeth on stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I studied the first chapter of Great Expectations for my GCSE coursework and looked at Tess of the D'Urbervilles for an A-Level module. I think Tess proved to be the breakthrough text. Certainly, when I got to university I was more than happy to find myself on a Victorian fiction unit. I remember vividly sitting and reading Jane Eyre in the lounge of my student accommodation, curled up on one of the cheap Ikea chairs and gazing up once in a while to look at the view of Lincoln Cathedral. Jane Eyre was followed by Wuthering Heights then the full text of Great Expectations and other selections. Although these books were part of a syllabus, reading them wasn't a chore (perhaps reading Middlemarch was though). I was then (and still am) a rather shy girl, reluctant to speak in seminars, but I really did enjoy the literature. I hadn't come to the texts on my own as such, but I'd found enjoyment in them because I'd been able to look at them as something other than the books my grandfather enjoyed.

Reaching conclusions about your tastes on your own is satisfying. Most people, unless they're exceptionally eager to please, can't get enjoyment from acting to suit others. When you finally sit down and consider the things you like, there's a certain thrill in knowing that these tastes are yours alone. They may be influenced by the prejudices and encouragements of your past but, if you have even a smidgen of self-awareness, you can pinpoint why you like them and not why people you've known like them.

Look at me and Victorian fiction. From being ambivalent about A Tale of Two Cities I've progressed to studying a minor author at PhD level. Classics of all eras find their way onto my reading piles. I'm intrigued by the literature and culture of the nineteenth-century in particular but I count Tom Jones and Mrs Dalloway amongst my favourite books. But I read them because I want to, not because somebody stern wants me to.

We've got a serious problem in Britain at the moment. One in three children live in houses without books. This is a nightmare and I dread to think where it'll leave us in a few decades. But I don't think pushing so-called 'good' literature on them from a young age is quite the way to go. Some will be receptive to it but a lot won't. It might put them off for life. When I was younger I loved Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and whatever mystery books I could get my hands on. I happily read tie-ins with my favourite television shows - Sabrina the Teenage Witch springs straight to mind. That's a great way to get children from screen to page without much of an effort. Then perhaps when they get older they'll go looking for fiction they might enjoy themselves. Perhaps they'll even discover Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte and Wilkie Collins on their travels... Ah, well, an academic can dream.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Book Review: Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey

This is another book I was drawn to by the cover initially. Because I'm not an avid reader of Young Adult fiction I hesitated a bit but after looking inside and seeing the Victorian setting I was enamoured. This are the two covers of Haunting Violet. The one I was drawn to is the one on the left but I think the second one would've caught my eye too.

The novel's premise is simple: Violet has been a participant in her mother's fake seances since she was young but suddenly finds herself hearing and seeing spirits. Dragged into the life of a drowned girl, she tries to decipher who murdered her. There are many twists and turns in the plot and I have to say that I wasn't bored at all.

The Victorian setting is invoked to great effect, but not distractingly so. There are a couple of scenes that stick vividly in the mind, primarily Violet's trek to the grave of her murdered spirit - an eerie scene that was well written and startled me a fair bit. Violet's mother is utterly self-absorbed and unpredictable, with a little bit of a sherry problem. Colin, Violet's faithful ally, is an interesting character whose assistance is helpful but doesn't overshadow Violet's own role - he's involved in the story but it's definitely her story. The rest of the cast is varied, with a few stereotypes in lesser roles, but all consistently written.

For the most part the language holds to historical convention. Of course, it's a stripped down version and there are a few uses of words that had me raising eyebrows but, as I found when I whizzed through the final third, it ceased to bother me as the plot picked up pace. The ghostly aspect of the novel naturally adds another dimension to the Victorian setting but it's very sensible (as far as ghostly apparitions can be!).

At just over three hundred pages this is a brief read but certainly an enjoyable one. I'm glad the cover enticed me in - it's got all the ingredients of a Victorian sensation novel but with characters we identify with today. 

Monday, 12 December 2011

Rule Breaking

I'm ashamed to say that today I broke one of the golden rules of writing. I mean one of the few rules I agree with. Most are nonsense and can't be applied haphazardly to novels as if they were tightly-regulated experiments. But this one... I wholeheartedly approve of this one. Which one was it? Never submit anything before revising it a million times. I'm heartily ashamed of myself. But I do have a reason.

The competition I've submitted this script to moved the goalposts - last year the deadline was January and this time it was a full month earlier. I found this out in the middle of last week and quickly decided that if I could enter, I should. I had no script prepared so I needed to write one - and quick. Don't ask me how I managed it. Two days of plotting, three days of writing and it's done. It's gone.

I should feel guilty about not rewriting it. I'm not a little prima donna; I know fine well it could've been improved. Yet I feel it was more important to at least try. If it gets shot down then so be it. You've got to be in the running. Would I have preferred more chance to perfect my script? Of course. But things don't always work out that way. This was a once a year opportunity and I'm glad I took it.

What do you reckon? Do I deserve to be put in the writing stocks or am I forgiven?

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

An Edmund Yates Dilemma

What do you do when the subject of your research is accused of not being the author of some of his most popular works? I mentioned this in my previous post on Edmund Yates but it's suddenly become a prominent issue in my thoughts as I prepare my upgrade chapter for submission.

To recap: there was a rumour circulating that Irish novelist, Frances Cashel Hoey, had written some - perhaps all - of Yates's novels. According to sources, Hoey confirmed this privately in the early days of the twentieth-century. However, these allegations were first levelled by two people Yates had quarrelled with in earlier years: his publisher, William Tinsley, and his colleague at the Post Office, Anthony Trollope. Those are hardly lightweight names in the world of Victorian fiction. The allegations were printed in Tinsley's memoir of 1900 and reprinted in many sources thereafter.

There are numerous questions about why Hoey didn't come forward in the years between Yates's death in 1894 and the publication of Tinsley's book. It reeks of jumping on the bandwagon somewhat, particularly as she continued working for Yates's the World in the years after his death. I can also state with substantial certainty that the tone of many of Yates's books are the same. His habits of digression, the way he describes characters and his plot progression all feel consistent throughout his work. They also match the tone of journalistic articles which it is certain he wrote. The scholar who has written most on Edmund Yates to date, P.D. Edwards, has said the allegations are 'unlikely' to be true but points out that it's impossible to say for certain. He does, however, make a compelling case against them. His attitude mirrors my own: he suggests that Hoey must have been a remarkable mimic and Yates a scrupulous editor hiding traces of her authorship. To be perfectly honest, I believe the time it would've taken Yates to check through all the work Hoey supposedly produced would've negated the time won by her writing anything in the first place.

In scanning the Internet over the last few days I've come across references to the rumour given as fact in early twentieth-century books. One pointed out that Yates abruptly stopped writing novels in the mid-1870s and suggested Hoey refused to cooperate further and that was why his fiction ceased. I'd counteract that with this: in 1874 Yates set about publishing his most successful periodical, the World. It's supposed that apart from the editorship, Yates contributed many other articles anonymously, nor did his additional work cease. It doesn't surprise me that further novels had to take a back-seat to these ventures. Equally, the popularity of the three-decker and sensation fiction generally was waning. Collins was still going, of course, but many sensation novelists had either sunk or diversified.

I could write a compelling argument of my own against these allegations if I so wished but that's my problem: I'm focusing on specific themes within Edmund Yates's work. I don't really want to engage with every person who held a grudge against him in his long career. In earlier drafts I've written these allegations off with a simple footnote and a reference to Edwards's research on the subject. Is this enough? If it isn't, what is?

I'm beginning to learn why Yates's has been critically abandoned for the last century!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Dental Survival

Likemany people I have a completely natural fear of going to visit the dentist. I have a particular aversion to dental injections. The last time I had a filling I persuaded the dentist to refrain from anaesthetic and to instead just drill indiscriminately. Yep, I preferred the pain of direct drilling to an injection. I'm not what you'd call brave. Today I had a check up and was told I needed another small filling. Instead of booking me another appointment, she did it there and then. So much for a check-up! Mind you, if I'd known I was going to have work done I would've panicked and set sail for the North Pole three days ago.

As I sat in the chair trying not to scream and run away, I searched my brain for something to keep me occupied while *it* was going on. The last song that got stuck in my head for a dental trip was Idina Menzel's 'The Wizard and I' from Wicked. It's forever linked with pain for me now! The first song that sprang to mind today was, rather inevitably, 'Dentist' from Little Shop of Horrors. Not a good one to calm you!

So - with extreme difficulty - I searched for something else. Barnum is full of good fast tracks. I needed something to recite on a loop in my head to stop me thinking and I came up with this:

Alas, this song will be forever linked with the dentist, just as 'Thank You Very Much' from Scrooge is a distinct reminder of my first blood test earlier this year. A small price to pay perhaps. Am I the only one? Does anybody else have dedicated trauma songs to get you through those difficult appointments?

Friday, 2 December 2011

Using Profanities - Pure Laziness?

Caroline Thompson, a senior BBC executive, said recently that swearing in comedies was all right now because there is an "enormous intergenerational difference about what is acceptable". This got me thinking about things I've seen, read and written lately and how they used language which could be deemed offensive.

I have to admit, I'm not a big fan of any current comedies. In my view they just can't match the class of previous decades. This may have something to do with the dependence on cheap laughs, partly stemming from bad language and partly from a buffoonery I just don't find endearing. But, as the article above says, classic comedies such as Porridge and Dad's Army didn't resort to swearing to get laughs. Yes, they sailed close to the wind sometimes but the laughs came out of what they nearly said as opposed to what they actually said. Modern British comedy has lost that to some extent.

But what of other genres? Well, I watch a lot of crime drama and hearing swearing on those feels acceptable to me because of the subject matter involved. I'm never going to get my knickers in a twist about the odd bit of swearing in a programme. My objections come from the fact that many writers (whether directed by broadcasters or not) seem to use coarse language as a crutch and as a substitute for meaningful dialogue. It's certainly easier to have a character swearing at a situation than figuring out a truly funny response to the events.  

I've seen a fair few plays this year. One thing that struck me was how the modern ones relied so much on swearing. It was something noticed by others as well as me - I had several conversations about it later, including with people who swear as often as they breathe in their day-to-day lives. One comedic play had a situation uncovered and two characters panicking about it. Instead of proper dialogue they literally just walked around the stage saying 'f**k, f**k, f**k' for at least a minute. As an audience member, I felt cheated. The word lost its resonance somewhat by the repetition and did nothing to further the plot or the characters. It was a substitute for what I'd deem 'proper writing' (as controversial as that term may be).

When I write I almost always keep to acceptable dialogue - until the situation calls for something else. I've sworn in most of my drafts to date but never just to fill space or to get a quick laugh. Profanity has to stem from both situation and character. It might be funny to have a grandmother spewing out a load of expletives but, unless you've got a reason for it, my patience wears thin.

All this may make me sound straight-laced and boring. I'm not (I hope!). I just want to see writers challenging themselves. How else are they supposed to challenge their audiences or, for that matter, entertain them?

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2011: I Did It!

Don't ask me how I did it but I did. Despite something of a hiatus in the middle of the month, extra childcare duties yesterday that I hadn't factored into my schedule and PhD work that needed to be done quite some time ago, I validated my 50,000 novel with 58 minutes to spare last night. I'm so proud of myself. It's been a hectic month to say the least. The fact that I persevered and managed one heck of a last nine days is extraordinary. But, as was pointed out to me on several occasions, I'm stubborn. Sure, I could've done what some people do and 'make believe' they've won but where would be the fun in that? I'd be cheating myself and I refuse to do that. Here are my stats for the month:

That stationary bit in the middle was my weekend away in Derby. Once I got back I didn't want to continue. So far behind, I figured it would be a losing battle. But the stubbornness persisted. You might also be interested to note that I've done everything in my PhD that I needed to this last month and managed a little sleep in the process.

So what next? Well, I left my characters at something of a pivotal point. It's the penultimate chapter but I stopped writing as soon as I finished this paragraph, having hit 50,004 words: "Still, as Dawn skidded across the floor, they both smiled. Lauren clenched her hands around her mug, aware that they were once again closer than they should be. Shelley, it seemed, didn’t mind the lack of distance. She smiled shyly and looked straight into her mug. As the song built into the second chorus, Dawn jumped up on the end of the bench... Then the lights went off." This is the scene I've been building up to for the entire novel, the one I've had in my head for years. Perhaps stopping here was an excellent idea - the desire to write this scene will make sure I finish the novel. But that's next week! Today I return to the normalcy of PhD reading. Angels, demons and devoted specimens await me. I've never been so grateful to fall into a book of somewhat crusty criticism. Allow me to celebrate my victory with a Stephen Sondheim that is so full of energy I feel like bursting out of my seat:

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2011: Uh-Oh

Is it just me or has November skidded past with barely a wave? I remember the long luxurious evenings of writing ahead as I sat in this very chair on 31st October. It was going to be good. It was going to be fun. It was going to get written.

Well, the good news is that I'm still going. The bad news is that I have to write 5,491 words before midnight tomorrow. That might not sound too bad but my hands are still tied to my PhD: I have to do secondary reading tomorrow afternoon come what may. I'm only holding onto my academic ambitions by the skin of my teeth - one lapse in concentration and I'll miss my deadlines. So tomorrow afternoon is out, along with early evening tomorrow as I go to visit my grandmother. As for today... Well, my afternoon will be spent alternating between the PhD I'm supposed to be working on and reading analysis of George Osborne's Autumn Statement. It's a riveting life I lead but I'm happy with it.

All those factors included, is it plausible I could be clapping by midnight on the 30th? I doubt it to be honest. But I've been told I'll do it because I'm stubborn. That's certainly true enough. I can't see myself coming this far and willing missing it by a whisker. So... 2,746 words today and the same tomorrow? Judy's face sums up my own reaction, I'm afraid.

EDIT: Alteration to my plans since I've been drafted in for emergency childcare tomorrow. It means I'll be staying over tonight losing my chance to write 2,746 words tonight. I think the ending has just popped up in front of my eyes - That's All, Folks! What do you think?

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2011: Catching Up

Hey, I'm still going. That has to count for something, surely?

A look at the stats page tells me I should be at around 43,333 by the end of today. I'm currently at 38,523 but still have an entire evening of writing to go and I expect to hit 42,000 either tonight or early tomorrow. Then I'll be that little less behind. It still seems like a mountain but I'm experiencing something rather odd with this story - I finally picked the right way to tell it and it's still flowing. Possibly flowing like raw sewage at the moment but we can fix that later. As I've mentioned before, this story was once a script in Script Frenzy 2010 and then a failed attempt at a novel in last year's NaNoWriMo. I thought I was mad to try and resuscitate it again but apparently it worked.

Although I only have chapter plans for the next chapter and a half, I'm confident I can write the 11,500 words I need to in order to cross the finish line. The question now is whether I can do it in time. I've got tonight and tomorrow morning and then I'm helping to look after three (adorably difficult) children on Monday. So far my Tuesday and Wednesday are free (although I will be going into political overdrive on Tuesday when George Osborne delivers his Autumn Statement). I'm only hoping it's enough. Seems a shame to fight back to this point and fail...

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Book Review: Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

Slammerkin tells the story of Mary Saunders, an eighteenth-century girl who is attracted by a bright piece of ribbon and pays a heavy price for it. Cast out by her family, she falls into prostitution, though when the winter weather bites she voluntarily enters a home for fallen women. After that she is propelled out to a country town where much of the novel takes place.

I found this to be an exceptional book. While it was thoroughly readable, it was also completely immersed in the eighteenth-century. Something some historical fiction writers struggle with is appropriate tone and language but Donoghue doesn't have this problem. The language certainly feels authentic and that's one of the most important things for drawing you into this novel. Another important aspect is the characterisation of Mary. She's an excellent creation, one completely comprehensible no matter what unexpected lengths she goes to. Alongside her, all the secondary characters are well-drawn and individual in their own right, from fellow prostitute, Doll, down to the child, Hetta, who Mary encounters later in the novel. Nothing felt out of place or wrong.

Donoghue has taken the very bare bones of a newspaper story and made them into something tangible and touching. She explains the basis of the novel in an author's note at the end of the book but I would urge you not to read that until you're finished with the story. I was surprised by the climax in a way I wouldn't have been had I read that note.

One final point: Donoghue creates a gloomy eighteenth-century London which doesn't seem false. Both her descriptions of London and then of Monmouth are excellent and evocative. That was the final jigsaw piece for making this into an exceptional read. As you might've gathered, I thoroughly recommend it!  

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2011: Getting Started Again

Well, after my weekend away I'm at least 6,000 words behind where I should be at. I did have three days when I was unable to write and yesterday I was completely shattered so those are my excuses out of the way. However, I'm not giving up that easily. This is still a completely manageable task...even with a funeral on Friday and helping with three small children on Monday. Oh, and dealing with a mountain of Victorian non-fiction while I battle through my upgrade chapter for my thesis. I'd better stop listing things; I'm rapidly talking myself out of continuing!

Fortunately, while I was sitting through an excruciatingly noisy and painful Smashing Pumpkins gig on Saturday evening I had plenty of time to think about my plot. I had plans for the next chapter and a half but nothing after that. Thanks to my wasted evening I realised that someone had to die (and I know who and I know it has to happen shortly) and my path to my finale became clearer.

I think I have more than 22,000 words still in me for this novel. In fact, I think could ramble on a little longer than that. The characters are really taking shape in my head and they're finally suited to the setting I've put them in. I'm not kidding myself that this won't need a heck of a rewrite when it's complete but I still have hopes of completing it.

My optimistic attitude may certainly deteriorate as the week goes on!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2011: Hurdles

Last night was the first time I gave up without reaching my personal goal for the day. I'd speculated I could get to 29,000 and I gave up at a paltry 27,821. I'd lost my thirst for writing. Although I knew what my characters were doing (driving to Chelmsford, arguing on the way and when they got there) I just couldn't be bothered trying to force it onto the paper. I was in the rather unique situation of wanting to work on my PhD instead. I can safely say that enthusiasm for that area of my life is new and alarming. But, instead of packing in NaNo for the night, I just stared blankly at the screen for two hours. That was something of a waste of time, don't you think?

Anyway, this morning things got more complicated. I already knew I would have no NaNo time Friday to Sunday (I'm going to see the Smashing Pumpkins in Birmingham on Saturday night). When I arrive back during the day on Monday I have to go straight to a Teaching Assistant lecture in Sheffield which I won't get home from until after six. Then on Tuesday I have an afternoon meeting with my PhD supervisor. Again, I'll be home fairly late. All that was fine and booked in but I got word earlier (via text message of all things) that my great uncle died in hospital late last night. He's been severely ill for the last month or so but it still came as a shock because he's been communicative and coherent. Apparently. I never went to see him in hospital. As a consequence of his death, I don't feel much like writing right now. To be honest, the weekend away is feeling like a burden I could do without. I'm concerned about my grandmother (his sister) who was widowed three years ago and has obviously had a close relationship with her little brother all his life. I feel like I need to support her but I don't know how. All I do know is that Ken has been around all my life and has been very interested in me and my education. He was a gentle man and he will be greatly missed by his close and extended families.

We'll see what happens next week. In a few days I might want to hide in my NaNo to get away from the real world. We'll see. For now I hope that everyone else participating is struggling through okay.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2011: Mid-Point

Do you remember the train scene in Dumbo? The engine (Casey Jr to be precise) is climbing up a steep hill in the dark saying 'I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can'. His speech gradually becomes more laboured as he reaches the top of the incline to the point that it looks doubtful whether he'll get over the peak. But he manages it and, as he zooms down the other side, his mantra changes to 'I-thought-I-could-I-thought-I-could-I-thought-I-could-I-thought-I-could'. He's in free-fall! He knows the hard part is over!

I wanted NaNoWriMo to feel like that this year. As I chugged towards the 25,000 mark I had hopes of reaching the top and then flying down the other side as words magically appeared out of my fingertips. I hoped the second 25,000 would be easier than the first. It's easy to see that I was deluding myself, giving my addled brain incentives to reach the halfway mark. The second leg will be as painful as the first and, if the last few days are anything to go by, will result in more yelling and rendering of garments.

That said, I'm still in it. As a fellow Tweeter pointed out, this time last year I was exchanging jerseys. I was a happy failure. If I gave up at this point now I'd be an unhappy failure because I know both me and the novel can make it to the finish line. Something I envisioned as a minor subplot (a domestic situation involving my protagonist's love interest and ex) gained bigger status as I was hurtling towards the halfway point last night. I was desperate to reach my daily goal so my fingers ran away from me and the conversation I've wasted a thousand words on has to come back later.

Can you tell I'm trying to convince myself that I have another 25,000 words in me? It's not working but... 'I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can'...

Monday, 14 November 2011

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2011: At Night

I spent this weekend with a friend I haven't seen for too long (I'll swear here and now this relates to my mad November writing endeavour). We went to see The Vagina Monologues and I spent Saturday night on her very comfy sofa. She has a sixteen week-old kitten, though, who is a bit, well, mad. She was leaping around in the dark, bashing into walls and startling the very haughty and stately older cat (think Hyacinth Bucket in feline form). Every so often I would hear a bang then a hiss. The funniest part of proceedings was when I turned the light on to see why the kitten was so distressed and found her attached to a shoe insole which was flapping around and whacking her on the head every so often.

The point is, what goes on in and out of the house after your average human being goes to bed is usually a black spot. My novel is set in a laundrette where my protagonist works between the hours of ten at night and seven in the morning. What I have to be careful about before introducing customers is making certain I know why they choose to do their washing in the early hours of the morning rather than at customary times and why they haven't got their own washing machines. Here are my conclusions.

  • Students - As a student I used to do my washing in the early hours of the morning. I have vivid memories of sitting on the floor of the laundry room in my block of flats and finishing off Middlemarch for a seminar the next week. How I expected that to keep me awake I'm not sure! Anyway, students generally keep more flexible hours and the likelihood of those living in private residences without proper washing facilities going to a late-night laundrette is not out of the realm of possibility. None of my major secondary characters are students but it's inferred they make up a large proportion of customers.
  • Viv and Dot - Viv comes in once a week to wash her husband's overalls. She does have a washing machine of her own but just doesn't want to muddy up her own kitchen. Since she and Dot both work late shifts at a call centre their sleeping pattern accommodates their nocturnal visits to the laundrette. Dot tags along with Viv, mainly because she's slightly intimidated by her on occasion and wants to stay on good terms.
  • Alan - He doesn't really come to the laundrette to do his washing. He did a few times to get away from his domineering wife but then he encountered Dot and fell madly in love - in his own special way. He coordinates his visits to fit with hers and brings a few shirts each time as a pretext.
  • Ben - Here is another man who doesn't really need the services of the laundrette. He was enchanted by manager Shelley on a visit when his washing machine was broken and now patronises the place on a Saturday evening in order to manoeuvre his way into her life.
  • Mavis - She was a character who came out of nowhere but I've got her pegged now. She brings all her washing in on a Tuesday evening in a trolley stolen from the local supermarket. She doesn't like people and she hates authority: she comes at the time she does in order to avoid all that rubbish. Also, she's a dangerous driver as far as the trolley is concerned and empty streets suit her purpose. She's an OAP who can't afford a washing machine of her own in the pokey flat in which she lives.
These are the conclusions I came to while listening to a kitten throwing itself down some stairs in the early hours of Sunday morning. I already knew it deep down but it's all concrete now. And, in case you're wondering, my word count's on target. I'm exactly where I'm meant to be at the moment. Let's hope that lasts!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A Pause For Thought: The Cenotaph by Charlotte Mew

This is one of my favourite poems about the Great War. It's not written by a soldier or even a widow but by my all-time favourite poet, Charlotte Mew. I think it encapsulates what the families at home - and those left behind - feel and how quickly the world turns away from the sacrifices made by our loyal defenders. The quest to remember them is why we observe a two minute silence each year at 11:00 on the 11th November but it should by no means be the only time in a year that we think of them.

The Cenotaph by Charlotte Mew
Not yet will those measureless fields be green again
Where only yesterday the wild sweet blood of wonderful youth was shed;
There is a grave whose earth must hold too long, too deep a stain,
Though for ever over it we may speak as proudly as we may tread.
But here, where the watchers by lonely hearths from the thrust of an inward sword have more slowly bled,
We shall build the Cenotaph: Victory, winged, with Peace, winged too, at the column’s head.
And over the stairway, at the foot—oh! here, leave desolate, passionate hands to spread
Violets, roses, and laurel, with the small, sweet, tinkling country things
Speaking so wistfully of other Springs,
From the little gardens of little places where son or sweetheart was born and bred.
In splendid sleep, with a thousand brothers
               To lovers—to mothers
               Here, too, lies he:
Under the purple, the green, the red,
It is all young life: it must break some women's hearts to see 
Such a brave, gay coverlet to such a bed!
Only, when all is done and said,
God is not mocked and neither are the dead
For this will stand in our Marketplace—
              Who’ll sell, who’ll buy
              (Will you or I
Lie each to each with the better grace)?
While looking into every busy whore's and huckster's As they drive their bargains, is the Face
Of God: and some young, piteous, murdered face.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Book Review: A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

A Passage to India was on the list of books I noted in June that I'd bought and never read. Since then I've received several nudges towards it so I thought I'd bite the bullet and finally get around to reading it.

The plot of the novel seems fairly simple: after an incident in a cave an English woman accuses an Indian doctor of assault which sets the English and Indians against each other. However, this brief analysis disregards the complexity of the world which Forster depicts in A Passage to India. Adela Quested's woes are brought on by her desire to see the 'real' India, primarily because the English exist separately from the Indians. The gulf between the two is highlighted on numerous occasions during the first third of the novel, coming to a head after Adela's accusation in the second section. The final third demonstrates that, as things stand, the people of the two nations cannot yet be friends.

All of the characters are well drawn and realistic. If Forster disparages anyone it is the English oppressors rather than the Indian subjects. But he is also at pains to demonstrate the divisions in India between Moslems and Hindus. Things are not as straightforward as England v. India and characters are utilised to show the different shades of life. Mrs Moore, Adela's prospective mother-in-law is the first English character the reader encounters. She has a slight altercation with Dr. Aziz, the alleged perpetrator of the later crime against Adela, about wearing shoes in mosques. She has already removed hers which surprises Aziz. Mrs Moore's attitude is the one which best describes Forster's sympathy towards India and, by offering her as a mouthpiece so early on, all other impressions are judged into relation to Mrs Moore's and often come up short. A few pages after this encounter with Aziz, Mrs Moore's son, the City Magistrate, shows all the contempt we come to expect from the English when he says, "So he called to you over your shoes. Then it was impudence. It's an old trick. I wish you had had them on." (p27) This simple sentence sets up the tensions that dominate the novel.

Forster excels at description and this is used to great effect in this particular novel. India comes alive on the page, in as vivid detail as I can remember in fiction. Nowhere is this more useful than in the very first chapter:

"The sky settles everything - not only climates and seasons, but when the earth shall be beautiful. By herself she can do little - only feeble outbursts of flowers. But when the sky chooses, glory can rain into the Chandrapore bazaars, or a benediction pass from horizon to horizon. The sky can do this because it is so strong and so enormous. Strength comes from the sun, infused in it daily, size from the prostrate earth. No mountains infringe on the curve. League after league the earth lies flat, heaves a little, is flat again. Only in the south, where a group of fists and fingers are thrust up through the soil, is the endless expanse interrupted. These fists and fingers are the Marabar Hills, containing the extraordinary caves." (p6-7)

I'd recommend this book to anyone, primarily because the theme of tensions between two cultures is still as applicable today as it was a century ago.

This is a good essay on the origin of A Passage to India.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2011: Solid Start

A week into this annual pain session and I'm doing relatively fine. A glance at my stats page shows that I should have 13,333 words down by the end of today and, without having typed anything yet for today, I'm already at 14,310.  That all looks positive. However, yesterday I wrote a measly few hundred words. I knew what needed to happen in the chapter and I'd pretty much planned it out in my head but... Well, I couldn't be bothered trying to get it down. In my defence, I'd spent an afternoon being dragged around/stood on/laughed at by two adorable little girls. Once you've flopped down into a chair after that the desire to write goes out of the window. And I indulged in my laziness. I'm a bad person.

Things could really get dicey here. I have the end of chapter nine to write and the three chapters after that all nicely planned out. That should take me up to about 20,000. I'm a little unsure what happens once I get there. I know my ending - and I know my sub-plot resolutions - but I'm not sure I'm capable of stringing all that out for another 30,000 words at this stage. Still, this is what the challenge of NaNoWriMo is all about, I suppose.

My protagonist began channelling my own worst instincts in chapter eight. Having got into a disagreement with a caustic customer, Lauren began polishing the floor in an attempt to send her flying. This little segue came out of nowhere - it was not part of the plan. But then Lauren had an attack of conscience and put out a sign warning of the slippery floor. Unfortunately, in his haste to rush to the rescue of someone he wants to start an affair with, customer Alan fails to heed the warning and crashes into a washing machine. Although it almost knocks him senseless, he's happy because Dot pays him some attention for once: "I was eager to... Well, you understand. When a lady’s in trouble you have to help. It’s part of my DNA I think. Not that it’s served me to great advantage in the past but I feel my luck’s changing. Don’t you?" 

The sub-plot that needed a kick up the backside was offered a little help by my revenge fantasy. I love writing sometimes.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2011: My Character Introductions

I'm 8,000 words into my novel and I've got one pesky thing out of the way: I've introduced all my major secondary characters. It's something I always find difficult and once they're in there I feel supremely satisfied. I'll worry about more/less detail when I revisit this manuscript (in about three years schedule permitting!) but here how things started from the perspective of Lauren, my protagonist.

Shelley - "A woman came into view with curly brown hair stretching beyond her shoulders. Lauren couldn’t catch her facial expression from this range but she instinctively knew she was good-tempered when the tension in the man’s shoulders gradually disappeared as she sorted out his problem for him. Then the woman calmly disappeared out of view."

Dawn - "A young blonde, probably mid-teens, reluctantly got out while he was shouting at her...On closer inspection, Lauren could see she was a petite girl, though probably with one hell of an attitude. She was dressed in jeans and a halter top, barely covered by the leather jacket she was half-wearing. Trouble was the word which sprang to mind."

Viv and Dot are originally depicted as something of a double act and Lauren hears about them from Shelley before she meets them. This is what Shelley says: "Viv’s got a mouth on her but take anything she says with a pinch of salt. Dot comes across as her sidekick but she’s a bit gentler. You’ll see what I mean when they turn up. Viv comes to wash her husband’s overalls and Dot mainly keeps her company. She lost her job, you see, in the last round of redundancies at the carpet factory. She was in accounts." 

Alan - "He entered looking like a train-spotter, a single bag under his arm that couldn’t have contained any more than four shirts. He nodded to Shelley but still seemed a little on edge with her. Methodically, he removed his anorak and hung it on one of the pegs beside the door. Then he glanced furtively to Viv and Dot who had paid no attention to his entrance whatsoever. A flicker of discomfort crossed his face and he commandeered the washing machine closest to the door."

Ben - "Waiting at the door was a small man in a suit and tie. He carried a holdall in the same way you’d carry a briefcase, utterly unconscious to the fact that the long strap was trailing on the floor. He was a weedy little man with thinning brown hair and thick eyebrows that dwarfed his thin nose. A small smile tugged his lips with effort as he saw Shelley. It disappeared when he caught sight of Lauren hovering behind her."

Trying not to think too much about whether the characters on the page match the characters in my head. Time enough for that later! 

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2011: Things I'm Learning

I've had a good start to this attempt at NaNoWriMo. By that, I mean that 3,000 words in I still have enthusiasm. This time last year I was gazing critically at my computer and wondering what it would look like on the concrete below my bedroom window. No such thoughts yet this year so I must be doing something right. I am, however, learning a little about my own habits as I write.

1. I like starting novels by calling a place a dump. This is the second first draft where I've felt compelled to identify a place as less than pretty. My first line is thought by my protagonist, Lauren, as she looks across the road at her new place of employment: "Even the look of this place was lousy." Short but fitting.

2. I'm slightly Dickensian in my naming style. I didn't have a name for the laundrette until I got to the point where I needed to name it. Is it just me or does Crimbleweed's Laundrette sound as though it could have come straight out of Dickensian Britain (with a few electronic advancements, of course)?

3. When I'm nervous my characters ramble. Shelley offers an example in chapter one: "Hedging your bets, I like that. Now, in all honesty, there’s no need for two of us but the boss insists. We’ve got regulars and then we get people coming in who managed to break their washing machine by lodging a coat-hanger in it. Keep an eye on them, make sure they don’t do it to ours. We’ve got a contract with a repair firm, a local one, but I’ll deal with that." Then again, verbal diarrhoea is not a bad thing during NaNoWriMo!

4. Yorkshire's my bread and butter. I like it and I write about it. And woe betide any non-Yorkshire person who criticises it!

5. I have a thing for cantankerousness elderly women. Meet Mavis: she brings her clothes to the laundrette in a shopping trolley. "After a lot of grunting the woman managed to cram her load into the machine. She pulled out a bag full of coins and inserted them one by one into the coin slot. It was like a day at the seaside amusements without the annoying bleeping in the background. Instead, each drop was punctuated by a raspy cough on the part of the customer. Lauren gritted her teeth and returned to the back room." 

I'm having fun with this. How's NaNoWriMo treating you so far?


Monday, 31 October 2011

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2011: So Unprepared

It was only when I was sat on the train earlier that I realised November begins tomorrow and that, consequently, so does NaNoWriMo. I know I have the idea but I've got very little besides. I like to have some sense of where I'm going before I set off, particularly when faced with the daunting prospect of 50,000 words in thirty days.

Doing some quick flow-charting in my notebook, I've established the plot arcs I see occurring. I've also got the first scene set out in my head, which should be enough to get me through the first day at least. I'll be kicking off this year as I have on my previous two attempts: at midnight on the dot I'll be ready to go. If I can get a thousand words down it'll be a good nudge to continue tomorrow night.

I'm kidding myself if I think I've got thirty days to complete this. A glance at my diary tells me that the three weekend ahead are pre-booked. That's the time I'd really knuckle down to writing because weekdays are predominantly PhD time, particularly as I flounder towards my upgrade in January. If it's a choice between failing that and failing NaNoWriMo... Well, there can't be a contest. However much I want to dither!

So... At midnight this evening Lauren Hobson will walk into a laundrette (I need a name for it...) to start the new job she thinks is humiliating to have to do. She'll meet her new boss, Shelley, and then be thrown into disarray by the arrival of a mouthy teenager who has been abandoned on the doorstep. If I get to that stage I'll be more than happy!

Good luck to everyone else participating this year. Find me on the NaNoWriMo site as CharmedLassie and become a buddy. I think I'm going to need them!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Book Review: Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult

I was fortunate enough to receive this book as a prize for participating in the LGBT Book Challenge 2011 over at the Book After Book blog and now I'm reviewing it for the same challenge. I'd love to see more people participating in this for the last few months of the year because apart from the opportunity to win books you get the chance to discover some gems you didn't know existed. Anyhow, plea over but I'd just like to reiterate my thanks to Book After Book for the challenge and the wonderful Hodder & Stoughton for supplying the book.

Sing You Home has a very contemporary plot. Zoe Baxter has suffered several miscarriages and disasters in her quest for a child. After her son is born prematurely and dies, the strain begins to tell on her marriage to Max. They separate and Zoe finds herself taking solace in her job as a music therapist. Then she meets Vanessa and falls in love quite quickly. They discuss children and the fact that Zoe still has frozen embryos. The stumbling block is that Zoe requires Max's permission and he's been taken into the heart of an evangelical church. I'll try not to give away any more of the plot though, to be fair, all that you would have learned from the dust jacket.

The novel is narrated by Zoe, Vanessa and Max in clearly defined sections. This was a concise way of showing the effects of proceedings on all three characters and it was, I feel, vital to include Max as a narrating character. Without this insight into his mind he could've become a basic villain using religion as a justification to dislike a lesbian couple. As it is, we know first-hand why Max came to seek solace in the Eternal Glory Church. We know about his alcoholism and his loaded relationship with his brother. All in all, this comes across as a very balanced portrayal with Picoult being remarkably even-handed during Max's chapters.

It was a difficult read for me, mainly because religious arguments against homosexuality make me furious. But, as I said before, it's a very contemporary novel detailing the conflicts in modern societies. Living in a more secular country than the USA, I found some of the evangelism alien and, in that way, it was educational. The most important thing, however, is whether a book is a good read and Sing You Home is. The characters are human - they lie and hold things back as any normal being does - and the plot had enough twists and turns to keep me interested. I liked the numerous flashback scenes for each of the characters because they were consistently related to the current events and proved useful in understanding them. A word of caution though: it can be harsh on your emotions. The tiny scene near the beginning of the novel when Zoe holds her dead son haunted me for days.

I'd thoroughly recommend this book. I can't find a negative thing to say about it.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Another First Draft Finished

It feels exquisite to say that I've completed another first draft of a novel. That makes three complete novels I'm rewriting and reworking. Getting to the end of an original draft gives me the ultimate shiver down my spine: it's all neatly packaged away to be looked at again in a few months. No characters hanging partway down cliffs as I dither about what to do with them. I know one thing for a fact: the things I have done to my beloved characters Lizzie and Eve in this first draft will be markedly different to the ones I'll put them through in the second draft. It's a positive thing that I already know what changes I want to make next time around. I don't have any illusions that this baby is ready to be handed over to friends and relatives just yet.

So why did I bother finishing it if I knew that was the case while I was writing the second half of the novel? Well, it's a lot easier to rewrite something if you have a whole to work from in the first place. And, besides, not all of what I've written is junk. It tells me a lot about my characters and their relationships with each other. I wouldn't sacrifice this imperfect first draft for a perfect half draft with no ending in sight. You have to finish to start over.

I can pinpoint exactly when this idea sprang into my head. It was during the Wakefield Drama Festival 2011 at the beginning of June. It all came from noticing the woman sat in front of me. The initial setting altered from a working theatre to a converted one currently serving as a crumbling cinema. I started the draft on 6th June and meandered along with it quite happily. The first third was a lot easier to write than the rest. I admit the last few weeks with it have been painful. I've been forcing words from my fingertips with the promise of chocolate and tea at the end of it. Well, at least the bribes worked!

First draft total word count: 55,033.
Feelings towards my protagonists: still adore them.
Feelings towards my plot: needs work but it's not too shabby.

All makes for a reasonably content Lucy!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2011: The Idea

Here I am again. Despite the fact I'm still debating whether or not to participate in the challenge this year, I'm blogging about my plans! That rather says it for me, doesn't it? Last year, I crashed out at a very early stage and, looking back at my reasons, I think I'm mental for trying this again.

After all, I asked, "Why did I think that something which had slipped between forms, setting and characterisation for the past eight years would settle down so easily?" Do you know what I'm planning to do this year? Yes, that's right: take another setting for this very same novel and mush up the definite characters I've got in my head to create a very different story. Before I hear cries of "cheat", I do solemnly swear that I haven't written a word of this novel before. The alteration of setting means the few thousand words I managed last year are completely useless - I can't use them because a service station is a very different place to a laundrette. The interactions my characters will have are going to be completely different and relationships will build differently as a consequence. While the essence of the idea (the characters I've had in mind for many years) is the same, the story I'm going to tell isn't. It will still be a tale of love and redemption but the way that redemption comes about will be a completely different process to the one I planned last year. I still have to be cautious though. Last year I wrote, "I think it's a non-idea. Or maybe it's meant to be written, just not by me." That doesn't bode well and speaks volumes about my stubbornness.

Something else struck me as I looked at my failure from 2010. I said, "In order for me to still be fighting in December something had to give in November." That sounds familiar, doesn't it? I've blogged about the imminent failure I'm facing in all areas of my life at the moment: do I honestly believe I can throw NaNo into the mix and survive?

I'll leave the answer blowing in the wind until I see what happens. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Book Review: Westwood by Stella Gibbons

I first became attracted to this book by seeing the cover on the Guardian website. The new Vintage Classics edition is striking, as book covers should be, and enticed me towards an author I hadn't heard of before.

Gibbons is one of those authors seemingly lost in the mid-20th century. She has over a dozen novels to her name, though many of them have fallen out of print until now. Westwood was a delightfully amusing book that certainly inspired me to become better acquainted with this author.

The novel tells the story of Margaret Steggles, a school teacher, who finds a ration book on Hampstead Heath and returns it to the Niland residence. Alexander Niland is a well-known artist and his father-in-law, Gerald Challis, is a famous dramatist. Margaret itches to become well-acquainted with the Challis family (and Gerald in particular), despite the fact that they treat her as a glorified child-carer. In a twist of fate, her friend Hilda attracts Gerald one night when he walks her home in the blackout. He gives his name as 'Marcus' while he idealises and courts Hilda, who has no interest in anything he has to say and simply sees him as a kind old man.

Gibbons is an expert at character sketches. There are many people who pass through the pages of the novel but they all have a distinct voice. I particularly found it remarkable that the half dozen or so children are recognisable by their differences. This applies to Alexander Niland's three children and the others encountered throughout the pages, including Linda, a girl with learning difficulties. I especially enjoyed being able to guess which child was talking when dialogue tags were sparse in a section towards the end of the book. If your characters are that distinctive then you don't need to highlight who's speaking on every other line.

As may have been gleaned, the novel is set during WWII. The war seems to be an inconvenience to the lives of the Nilands and Challises. Alexander is concerned about his paintings being destroyed and Gerald notes a significant alteration in the reception of his plays. The backdrop of the war isn't thrust forward on many occasions but that's something I appreciated: life went on in many ways and it was pleasant to read a war story that wasn't actually about the war. Gibbons describes England in very vivid terms throughout, notably when Hilda and Gerald meet in the blackout and when Margaret takes a rowdy bunch of children for a walk. However, I still think the opening description is one of the most evocative:

"London was beautiful that summer. In the poor streets the people made an open-air life for themselves under the blue sky as if they were living in a warmer climate. Old men sat on the fallen masonry and smoked their pipes and talked about the War, while the women stood patiently in the shops or round the stalls selling large fresh vegetables, carelessly talking." (p1)

The narrative swiftly moves on to Margaret's emotions on Hampstead Heath. The first few pages are all description but it doesn't drag: it helps frame the story that is to come against the backdrop of fighting abroad and struggling at home. It's a luxurious read which explores the desires of humanity and their worshipping, infidelity and difficult friendships. It's a novel about life - lightly and comically told - which ends rather ambivalently. Don't read this in search of a traditional happy ending; read it to smile and recognise different types of people who are as familiar now as they were in 1946 when Westwood was first published.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Nobody Calls Me Nobody

I'm a funny one. The only way I can boost my mood to the point of productivity sometimes is to submerge myself in my favourite upbeat (and usually musical) songs. It's almost guaranteed to fire me up. I have a playlist on my iTunes called 'Musical Favs Etc' which currently runs to over 700 songs. If I'm in a mediocre mood I let the playlist run and see what effect it has. If I'm in a terrible mood I'm forced to select the songs which will most improve my mood. These are some of my current favourites:

  • 'Birdhouse In Your Soul' - Kristin Chenoweth & Ellen Greene from the soundtrack to Pushing Daisies.
  • 'We're Gonna Be Alright' - Julienne Marie & Stuart Damon from Do I Hear A Waltz?
  • 'A Parade In Town' - Angela Lansbury from Anyone Can Whistle.
  • 'Thank You Very Much' - James Head from Scrooge.
  • 'It's A Lovely Day Today' - Donald O'Connor from Call Me Madam.
  • 'On How To Be Lovely' - Kay Thompson & Audrey Hepburn from Funny Face.
  • 'The Life I Never Led' - Katie Rowley Jones from Sister Act: The Musical.
  • 'I've Gotta Be Me' - Glee cast version.
  • 'Walkin' My Baby Back Home' - Bing Crosby & Judy Garland.
  • 'A Little Priest' - Angela Lansbury & Len Cariou from Sweeney Todd.
  • 'Old Friends' - Ann Morrison, Jim Walton & Lonny Price from Merrily We Roll Along.
  • 'One Brick At A Time' - Glenn Close from Barnum.
  • 'Down The Lane' - Toni Palmer from Blitz!
  • 'Out There' - Jim Dale from Barnum.
  • 'Just Around The Corner' - Bebe Neuwirth from The Addams Family.
  • 'Another Little Victory' - Sarah Lancashire & Reece Shearsmith from Betty Blue Eyes.
As you can tell from that list, Stephen Sondheim inspires me quite a bit with four songs from his pen. There are many many more songs in my playlist that fire me up. 'A Little Priest' may seem a bit of an odd choice but it's full of energy and venom - sometimes all you need to be inspired. I go through phases with them, relying on various songs to drag me out of different types of doldrums. 

My latest love is 'Nobody' from Betty Blue Eyes, a musical I didn't get to see but I fell in love with the soundtrack at first listen. 'Nobody' is sung by Sarah Lancashire's character, Joyce, and pretty much embodies the lift I need to give myself at times. Take a look at this live performance:

She's right - nobody gets the privilege of calling me nobody because they don't know the first thing about me. Any wonder this song is currently my favourite?

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Juliet Barker

Last night I was fortunate enough to attend a talk with Juliet Barker, historian and author of what's really the definitive book on the Bronte family from someone so immersed in the family and era that she's practically a walking encyclopaedia on them. The famous 1994 book was fully updated and revised last year and runs to almost 1000 pages. The talk was part of the Morley Literature Festival and was held at the Gildersome Conservative Club. It was packed out and the ticket came complete with pie and peas - how can you go wrong with that?

Barker certainly knows her subject. My father (I bribed him with the pie and peas to be my driver and companion) described the talk as an assassination of Mrs Gaskell's portrait of the Brontes which has endured since publication in 1857, particularly the representations of Patrick and Branwell Bronte. It's as interesting to note why Mrs Gaskell made her conclusions as discovering which elements of life she distorted. But as well as the critique of Mrs Gaskell, there were also little titbits that demonstrated the life in both the Parsonage and Haworth itself.

There were a few questions from the audience, one quite specifically asking about the school where Patrick and Maria Bronte met. I was impressed by Barker's ability to not only reel off an answer but to respond at length with barely any thought behind it. Such a knowledge can only be gained by thorough involvement in - and love for - your subject and her warmth towards it was more than evident in her voice.

I came away with a signed and dedicated copy of the new edition, although I was too timid to go up and talk to her so I got my father to do it (and he paid!). Alas, the book will have to wait its turn to be read but I can't help relishing the enjoyment that's ahead of me.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Book Review: Uncle Silas by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

I blogged last week about the impact the first quarter of this book had on me. I have to say, the narrative didn't weaken. I was kept on the edge of my seat for the duration and it encouraged me to be both more scared and suspicious in everyday life! Essentially, the plot revolves around an orphaned young woman who is sent by her father's will to live with her uncle, Silas Ruthyn. This man has lived in strict seclusion since a stain attached itself to his character many years ago. Lady Monica Knollys, another relation, is extremely worried about protagonist Maud being sent to live with an uncle who will gain her money should she die before the age of twenty-one. It seems she has reason to be.

The plot itself is foreshadowed to the extent that knowing what Silas will eventually attempt is part of the delicious fear that pervades each page. But Le Fanu doesn't rely solely on a sensational plot. He also creates some memorable and vivid characters. My post last week talked about Madame de la Rougierre, Maud's governess, but Silas himself is a worthy creation. This is the first view we get of him:

A face like marble, with a fearful monumental look, and, for an old man, singularly vivid strange eyes, the singularity of which rather grew upon me as I looked; for his eyebrows were still black, though his hair descended from his temples in long locks of the purest silver and fine as silk, nearly to his shoulders. (p187)

A few lines later, Maud adds to herself:

I know I can't convey in words an idea of this apparition, drawn as it seemed in black and white, venerable, bloodless, fiery-eyed, with its singular look of power, and an expression so bewildering - was it derision, or anguish, or cruelty, or patience? (p188)

That's quite a question. More than that, it's quite a face. Le Fanu is adept at portraying figures so entirely memorable that they will stay with me for some time. Silas's children, Milly and Dudley, are identified by their 'country bumpkin' ways but are markedly different. Neighbour and worker, Meg Hawkes, is another outstanding character who assists the plot in unexpected ways. Lady Knollys always seems a lot younger than she is - which is Le Fanu's intention - and makes a welcome change from the darkness on occasion. Maud, however, seems to me the weakest character. Her rebellions against the fate her uncle has in mind are fairly weak and she fulfils the stereotype of the innocent young woman as victim. That's a typical sensation fiction plot device and shouldn't necessarily be seen to Le Fanu's detriment. Some of his other female characters - Madame de la Rougierre, Lady Knollys and Meg Hawkes - prove that he doesn't always place woman into this 'helpless' category. Maud had to be relatively helpless to facilitate the plot but she does have an underlying motivation in accepting her move to her uncle's property: she is staying true to her deceased father's wishes for her.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's a spine-tingling read that doesn't entertain pretensions to grandeur. Since Amazon currently have a copy at less than three pounds I'd recommend anyone interested in creepy Victorian fiction to give it a go. And, even if you not, at that price it might be worth a shot!

Monday, 10 October 2011

Another London Trip

Last week I toddled off down to London again. I'd had everything booked for months but I wasn't expecting to be in such a precarious state when the time arrived. However, when I managed to switch my brain off from PhD worrying, I found it was quite a tonic.

The point (and highlight) of the trip was to see the fabulous Idina Menzel at the Royal Albert Hall. If the pedigree of that Broadway star wasn't enough (Wicked, Rent and Glee) then the identity of her conductor would have sealed the deal - Broadway composer Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line, They're Playing Our Song and innumerable film scores). There was such warmth between Idina and Marvin that it really impacted on the enjoyment of the evening. And, I have to say, the My Fair Lady suite that Marvin conducted during his warm-up was amazing. I can't think of a set of melodies I'd rather hear in the Royal Albert Hall.

Idina was absolutely excellent. Not a dud note as far as I'm concerned. There were so many outstanding songs that I can't list them all but my favourites were probably 'I'm Not That Girl', 'Look To The Rainbow', 'No Day But Today' and 'For Good'. The latter, from Wicked, was sung without a microphone and I can attest that she was perfectly audible from the furthest corners of the building. I'm not sure how many singers have got the vocal power for that these days. As beautiful as her singing was during that number, I was equally entranced by the stillness of the audience. Throughout the rest of the evening everyone was somewhat raucous but during that song everybody was straining to hear each note. I've never known so many people be so well-behaved at any given time. Overall, the evening was fantastic, although I was so tired that I was commenting on the corridor walls moving around as we went for the tube.

Right, what else did I get up to? Well, a little shopping, of course. I couldn't bypass the opportunity to go to the Dress Circle, my favourite London shop bar none. I did set myself a mental limit of £50 but remembered at the last minute that I hadn't got the album I went in there for - the Betty Blue Eyes cast recording. Along with that, I also bought cast albums of Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'be, Matilda and Merrily We Roll Along as well as the DVD of Liza With A "Z" (hugely and thankfully reduced). My favourite find of the day has to be a three disc set of songs by the marvellous Kay Thompson. For anyone who hasn't heard of her, watch Funny Face then do what I did and get absolutely obsessed with an extraordinary woman.

I went a little mad in Paperchase (two notebooks, a card, two bookmarks, a Renoir postcard and some stickers) and also made the mistake of going into Foyles. However, that was for my father's belated birthday present. The fact I walked out of there with Jackie Kay's Red Dust Road and Up and Down Stairs by Jeremy Musson is beside the point. Anyway, I think just the two books in a shop that size shows enormous self-restraint. Well, that and I got lost in there.

I also got to see the Atkinson Grimshaw exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery. For anyone unfamiliar with this Victorian artist, I can't recommend a better piece than this by @Amateur_Casual which gave me my introduction to an artist whose work I'd admired on the front cover of my copy of The Woman in White without knowing who he was. I have to thank my good friend Claire profusely for not only allowing me to drag her round there but for also not looking too bored while I did so. I talked myself into buying the catalogue of the exhibition and I can't wait for an opportunity to put my feet up and peruse it. However, knowing my luck, that chance will be some time coming!

So...that was London in October. Back in Wakefield I find the damp returning to my bedroom wall and the dog ecstatic to see me. At least I have good music, good books and good memories to keep me going!