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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?