Sunlight on water

I knew I’d not be posting much over the summer holidays, but I didn’t plan to disappear so suddenly;  I even had a couple of posts half written. But then one weekend morning, after looking at my phone for a bit – probably twitter, or the news, or texting a friend – I realised that my vision was a little – odd. Off to one side, low down, not exactly out of focus, not blurred or blacked out, just distorted.

Just.

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I lay in bed, looking at my vision, staring at the area, closing one eye then another. It seemed to be on the left side and left eye, but even when that one was closed I could see the distortion in my right eye’s field of view. It was as if I was looking through shifting lights, like watching sunlight dancing on moving water and then when you look away the rippling lights are still there over what should be solid.

I knew enough to suspect a migraine and even though my head felt fine I took a pre-emptive painkiller and waited for half an hour as the shimmering lights moved up and over all I could see, fortunately never covering more than a quarter of my vision at a time. And when they had finally passed? Then the searing nauseous headache and nothing for it but to lie in a darkened room for three hours and to wince at bright lights for the next few days.

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I didn’t panic too much. I knew I was overdue an eye test and that my reading glasses were no longer strong enough. I maybe look at my phone too often, and at this laptop. Dr J pointed out that the weather at that time was very oppressive and muggy. Many possible reasons.  I’ve had a doctor’s appointment and am awaiting test results but I delayed writing this, partly because it seems like tempting fate – as soon as I say it was a one off a month ago, number two will come along.

But there it is, an unexpected reason for not blogging and for being absent on twitter. It may have done me some good to have a break – although nothing can shield one from the horror of global news lately. I haven’t read much either, in case that strained my eyes further; thank goodness for audio books and radio 4 and 4 extra dramas and comedy. I apologise if anyone has missed me, or if anyone is sorry to see me return. The end of the holidays approach and I hope to return to full reading, writing and blogging – health permitting. In the meantime, as these recent pictures of sunlight on water show, it hasn’t been a totally lost summer and maybe a little break from electronic light will benefit more than just my eyes.

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Could you write a squirrel killer?

I can never see the body of an animal at the side of the road without terrible pangs of sadness and regret – no matter that their death had nothing to do with me. I know that I’m soppy about all things small and furry, or fluffy or feathered (except spiders, and the mouse that ate my crème egg, and the magpie that killed a baby sparrow – ok, there’s quite a few exceptions) but many drivers must pass roadkill without a second thought, many probably don’t see them.

I started reflecting on this after seeing a dead squirrel while I was driving along thinking about a character in my current wip who has elevated himself from a bit part to being fairly vital to the story. The brief sketch of him I had in my head was fine for his previous role but now I need to know more and be sure he’s not a cardboard cut-out or nothing more than a hastily assembled handful of characteristics – or worst of all a harmful stereotype – just because he’s a villain doesn’t mean that that that’s all he is.

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I read some marvellous advice recently that I heard before, but when you see it a couple of times close together it really sinks in – although that also means I have no idea whom to give credit to. It’s most usually applied to villains as a way to avoid clichés and it’s to simply remember that in his (or her) own story, the villain thinks they are the hero. They don’t sit around twirling their moustache and throwing puppies on the fire to flag up how evil they are – they get home on time to have dinner with their wife, take the dog for a walk and read their kids a bedtime story. They aren’t always in their lair plotting world domination, or if they are, they should have a better reason that wanting to destroy things – you only have to have look at prominent people in power at the moment to see that many of them (and their supporters) truly believe that they are doing things for good reasons and are making the world a better place; they see themselves as the hero saving the world, while we see them as destroying our future.

This advice of course holds for every character in a book, they are the hero of their own story. Sometimes this is obvious in a series where past and future protagonists show up; the fact that the author knows everything about them shines through, their voice and motivation are assured, their physical description is neither heavy handed nor sketchy or inconsistent, they leap off the page (occasionally to the detriment to of the supposed lead characters.) I’ve been guilty of having speaking characters who could just be farmer 1 and farmer 2 but that’s what later drafts are for, fleshing out those people and thinking what their story might be. It won’t impact the current story at all, but their voice will be more authentic. Even the person who shows up to deliver one piece of important news and is never seen again – we may not even know their name but they have a full life off page waiting for them to return.

Jennifer Crusie wrote a blog post some years ago when she was trying to nail down a character – I have searched for it to no avail, I think it was on a blog for one of the collaborative novels she wrote and looking for it means I have lost most of this morning reading the archives at Argh Ink, I’d almost forgotten how much great writing advice was there, along with possibly even greater humour. The gist of the post as I remember it was that Jenny asked “what would this character do if they hit a squirrel with their car?” I remember thinking “well I’d be horrified and upset – who wouldn’t? What character could I write who’d not feel that way? They’d be a monster.” Jenny went on to say that her character would feel remorse, but (possibly, I can’t quite remember) also annoyance and it gave her the key to that protagonist as being a reckless driver – not dangerous or cruel or unkind, just going a little too fast and not looking ahead for the pitfalls on the road, or in life.

I hadn’t used that particular device before when thinking about a character but it’s been invaluable this week. Many writers talk about interviewing their characters or have long lists of their likes and dislikes and taste in music, clothes, food etc. I have tended to plunder their pasts to see what made them this way, to ensure their motivation is strong enough, and I wrote about how what was on their book shelves or how they decorate their room can show the reader so much, rather than telling them.

I would never have thought I could write a character who wouldn’t care if they killed a defenceless animal by accident, even though I have written villains who have killed humans (always for what they think are valid reasons.) Maybe it’s the senseless nature of hitting an animal with a car, it can’t always be avoided but then most people would feel remorse or guilt. But what about the person who has just had such terrible news that they see nothing but the goal towards which they are driving? The parent dealing with squabbling children in the back seats? The lorry driver concentrating on some precious or fragile load? And conversely, just because an assassin is on their way to their next kill, they might still feel sadness or remorse if an animal starts across their path, as might the ruthless CEO who has just axed 500 jobs – or will he be more worried about his paintwork and coldly inform his chauffeur to clean the car as soon as possible?

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There are many questions or scenarios to consider when fleshing out a fictional character and Jenny Crusie’s example has always stayed with me, even if I hadn’t used it. But as I pondered my secondary character and how vital he is making himself to the plot, I wondered how he would react if a squirrel darted in front of his car? I already know that his key emotions when dealing with my hero and heroine are selfishness and carelessness – the sort of person then who might not give a squished squirrel a second thought – but no, I knew that he would care, would be frustrated and annoyed at the incident, angry at the waste of life (even though he’s a man who shoots game birds competitively and for food.) Why would he care about a squirrel more than the effect he is having on my lead characters?

Selfish and careless; how he has become like that is not as important as what happens when he sees himself like that, when he finds out how others see him and what he has become by tiny steps – he doesn’t want to be an accidental squirrel killer, he wants to be the one who stops and takes it to a refuge to be healed – no, more than that, that’s what he thought he was, he does a huge amount for charities and good causes, but in his day to day life he’s forgotten to care. The book literally ends with him stripping naked, remembering the man he was, the one he thought he was, and the one he plans to become, discarding the trappings of power and revealing another truth he has hidden from himself, and from us. And meaning I have to write his story as well now.

So I have gained lot of character background and new insights into my villain, and therefore new thoughts about how he impacts my hero and heroine and how they will react.  Everyone’s’ goals and motivations have been sharpened and more focussed as a result, and I’ve gained a sequel. All from looking at a deceased squirrel. Maybe its death wasn’t totally in vain.

 

Books as an escape

A book can transport you anywhere; to worlds both real and unreal, to lives and loves better or worse than our own. Every unread book holds the tantalising potential to make us see and feel something completely new. They can offer insights into everyday matters that we may be struggling with, or they can offer a brief escape from our day to day existence.

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None of that is going to be news to anyone who reads regularly, and especially those who read romance. One of the most oft quoted appeals of romance novels is the escape they offer; it’s why over the top premises with billionaires, royalty, vampires, or FBI agents are so popular – protagonists that we are unlikely to meet in everyday life, can for a few hours, seem like people we could meet, know, like and fall in love with; people and plots we would hate to cope with in real life but which are exciting on the page at a safe remove. Then there are the romances with more prosaic day to day lives and loves and problems, they offer hope in their familiarity but with a guaranteed Happy Ever After – something most of us still work at every day.

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It’s why books have been even more important to me, and to so many others, in the last year or so. As disaster after disaster has occurred and the political norms around the world have shifted, people will seek escape and hope wherever they can. I’m far from the only writer to have found it hard to sit down and create tales of people falling in love against the odds when acts of terrorism have been taking lives all around us and when peace between nations seems to be an increasingly fragile thing. Can I still believe in Happy Ever After when so many lives are being cut short and families ripped apart? Well I have to. Hope and love are two powerful forces and they may be what separates us from those who want to destroy our way of life – whether they be terrorists or politicians.

I’ve personally found it almost impossible to write in the last ten days given the appalling verdict on the death of Philando Castile in the US and what has happened at Grenfell Tower in London. Not even the amazing heroism of the firefighters can stop me from thinking of the people trapped and knowing what was going to happen….no, can’t do it. So I have been reading far more than usual these last few weeks and decided to post a few pictures of my years reading so far; if nothing else to remind me of how much pleasure books have brought me, how much of an escape they have offered, and to help me get back to my own writing, no matter how hard.

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The first photo is of the Harlequin Romantic Suspenses I have read so far this year; it’s already almost as many I read all last year due to my giving up my reading time to write regularly back then. This year I’ve got better at managing my time and have also sacrificed tv watching to get back some precious reading time. I also didn’t read that many books in the latter half of last year as I (foolishly) decided that the way things were going politically and globally, it would be a good time to re-read 1984 and be reassured that things weren’t all that bad. Wrong. I posted a few thoughts while I was still part way through and I hope to write a longer post about it soon. As I also hope to do about The Secret History, a book I have been meaning to read for years and finally did and that (mostly) lived up to the almost impossible weight of expectation. It reminded me that this was why I started reading the classic Greek tragedies in 2015 – I knew I ought to have read the Bacchae before starting the Secret History but I became so caught up in the joy of reading the originals that I forgot to move back to the book that had inspired me! Again, the delightful morning spent in Foyles in London comparing translations of Euripides deserves a longer post.

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Having bought the last Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, I went back and re read the previous Tiffany Aching book, I then struggled to read the Shepherd’s Crown, partly because of the thought that once it was finished, that was it, there would never be another Discworld novel; but also due to the slightly diminished style of the writing. Terry Pratchett was taken from us far too soon and I treasure all his books, even when his flashes of brilliant wit were fading and finally cruelly stopped before he had finished his last book as he would have wished. I can still remember the day my mother first gave me one of his books to read – Equal Rites – and how impatient we got for each new book (and ended up buying them in hardback as we just couldn’t wait.) It feels so wrong to have outlived the series. Indeed, because I was struggling with the Shepherd’s Crown I started another book – back when I lived alone I would have 3 or 4 books on the go at any one time as I discussed here, when talking about how I read, and I also said that the last Ian Rankin I had read had been a rare book where I could read a hundred pages a day – and it happened again. I think I read it in 5 days which is possibly a record for me, although it’s also a sad reflection on how much in the real world I was trying to forget.

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How is everyone else’s reading year going? I am currently stuck trying to decide what to read next. After the Secret History I feel I need something where every sentence doesn’t make me pause to let its beauty sink in – I  loved it and almost want to read more by Tartt right away, but I know it’s too soon. I have many books by authors whose writing inspires a similar – desire I suppose! Their writing makes me fall in love with the written word, and make me long to write half as well. But I still think I need a change of pace, the Rankin and the Pratchett gave me that a bit but I need to be in the right frame of mind to immerse myself certain books – it’s why I delayed the Secret History for so many years. I was reminded today of the Greek Classics, maybe it’s time to re-read Aristophanes for something a little lighter, or back to Aeschylus. It will be interesting to see what my end of year list looks like.

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And most importantly of all, the blessed moments of respite, escape, hope, love and laughter that I have found in reading other people’s books have driven me back to writing my own; maybe I can offer someone else a few hours happiness further down the line.

Wow!

I didn’t dare use the word hope last week. In the last UK general election, in the Europe Referendum and in the US Presidential election I held onto optimism that the compassionate side of voters would win out, that a better quality of life for all people everywhere would be a greater wish than looking after localised interests. After those results I didn’t dare to start hoping that things would change in last week’s election (even, or especially, given the poll results leading up to voting day) and after the weekend I’m still unsure how much actually has changed – for now. Although the turnout in younger voters, if nothing else, offers a tentative hope for the future.

When I started blogging I was sure I would keep away from potentially controversial subjects – I’ve never told anyone how I have voted in real life (a very British upbringing – never ask anyone how much they earn, how they vote or their views on religion. Sex, drugs and music tastes were completely fair game though.) But things have changed radically in the last year and I posted about why my views on speaking up about potentially controversial issues have altered; it is actually my most liked blog post but I have a suspicion some people may have just liked the title and not looked further.

I hope things continue to change around us, that people no longer feel emboldened to commit hate crimes against those they see as different, that the vital services that keep the UK safe and healthy and educated receive more, not less, funding – and how can any of that even need to be stated?! Last week hope and compassion did indeed stand up strong, long may it last. Please.

Time for a cup of tea

Almost exactly a year ago, while still a very new blogger determined to keep to my weekly schedule, I found myself unable to post my prepared piece due to the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox. The events of the last two weeks in Manchester and London have weighed heavily on me as well – this time last week I was in London myself for a relatively rare evening of friendship, culture, drink and food. The atmosphere around the city was wonderful; a busy, hot sunny afternoon and evening. I didn’t myself notice the increased police presence that I knew was already in place after Manchester and the attack on Parliament earlier this year.

To say my heart aches for those whose lives have been cut cruelly short, and for their families, is not enough, but I’m not sure what else to say because it’s the simple, painful, endlessly sad truth.

We will fight terrorism in the only way Brits know; with dark humour, with determination and probably quite a bit of ineptitude. I hope we will remember everyone’s right to life, liberty, justice and human rights.

Today, 8 June is the 104th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davidson. She died for the right to vote. A right that not everyone in the World is entitled to and yet which so many in the UK take for granted or fail to use. Now, more than ever, in the face of terrorism and also in the face of growing hatred and intolerance around the World, I hope all who can, do vote, and that love and compassion are stronger forces than fear and selfishness.

The Skirrid, Ysgryd Fawr

I used pictures of bluebells last week partly because they had all vanished around here, just occasional clusters of purple on shaded verges, or north facing woodland slopes. And then we decided to go and climb the first mountain of the year and guess what we found? In late May.

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I’ve got photographs of The Skirrid from various other hills in the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons but I had never actually climbed it. Sitting apart from the other mountain ranges it looks like a shark’s fin cutting through the lowlands as you approach it from Hereford. It isn’t as high or demanding as many other hills and mountains we have climbed, “an evening stroll” was how Dr J described it and because it took us so long to get organised last week we did indeed come down through dusky woods to find the car park almost empty.

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The Skirrid’s west flank, taken from the car on the way home

The most eye catching object from the car park was a perfect view of the nearby Sugar Loaf showing how it got its name. The initially steep climb through woodland was beautiful, plenty of other people going up and down but the trees were alive with birdsong and constant fleeting feathered movement.

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This was taken in the mountains above Tretower Court last April looking towards the Skirrid, in shadow, from the west; the Sugar Loaf is on the right

I made the classic mistake once we were out on the ridge of thinking we were nearly at the summit, only to climb to a false peak and see the ridge rising on before me, it wasn’t too tiring though as stopping to look up at the skylarks singing out of sight was a constant delight. We had our first picnic break in a sheltered dip on the ridge, looking towards White Castle that we visited three years ago.

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The Skirrid from Whitecastle, looking from the east
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Whitecastle from the Skirrid

This is a fairly small hill by Welsh standards, 1594 feet or 486 metres and it really is a pleasant walk, our seven year old bounded ahead and walked twice as far as she needed to and the three year old didn’t demand a carry until the summit had been reached – although as we found two butterflies of different species chasing each other around the trig point the girls amused themselves in racing after them for a good 15 minutes showing that the walk hadn’t exhausted them nearly enough.

At the top a few scattered stones are all that remains of a medieval chapel and below the peak you can make out the bank and ditch of an Iron Age hillfort. The views in all directions are amazing– you can climb Welsh mountains all year and never be sure of the visibility at the top but we spent a lot of time trying to discern which of the mountains to our west we had climbed before and which we still had to look forward to. To the east May Hill, Bredon Hill and the Malverns were all clear, Clee Hill to the north in Shropshire and some further ridge that we couldn’t name for sure. To the south the Bristol Channel and its islands gleamed in the sun, as did Somerset beyond.

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Looking south to the sea

On the way back we took a short sharp descent that curled around the hill’s northern tip and brought us to a valley between the Skirrid itself and the landslip that occurred in the ice age and gave the mountain its Welsh name, Ysgryd, which means split or shattered. We had the second round of sandwiches here and I could easily spend a day reading or writing in the sheltered grove; the ever shifting light under the trees creating myriad shades of green.

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And then we found the bluebells. I had seen a flash of mauve upon the hill as we drove past at a distance, but thought it could have been grey shale catching the afternoon sun. No. It was a carpet of flowers spreading west towards the Sugar Loaf, although as all my photos were taken into the lowering sun I don’t think I did the views justice.

 

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The mountain itself was stunning – it’s shape, the views for miles in all directions, the perfect weather – then we had the bluebells. And then we had a magical Welsh wood. I’ve posted a few pictures of others that have captivated me – and this one was a total surprise. All my previous favourite Welsh woods have been far further from home in North Wales; to find one a little over an hour from home was astonishing. Sadly by now we were all tired and dusk was falling so we mostly kept marching on with me snapping pictures to all sides and not stopping to ohh and ahhh as much as I would like (okay, yes I was already planning how to get there on my own to fully bask in its beauty sometime, sorry family.)

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This was supposed to have been posted last Thursday and I was going to say “next week is half term so there will be no new blog post as I shall hopefully be out enjoying more family days like this.” In fact my determination to get a good chunk of my latest wip completed before the holiday delayed this post, but I am pleased to say that even with typical British Bank Holiday weather, we have indeed had another wonderful – and wet – walk. I should be back soon with more pictures – and hopefully that sounds more like a promise than a threat.

The third best piece of writing advice

There’s a lot of writing advice that sounds great but is not necessarily useful to everyone. Except this; anyone who wants to be published should read their finished work out loud before sending it out or self-publishing.

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I can’t find one specific person to credit it to as I’ve heard it many times over the years. The first time I tried it was with a chapter I entered for Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition in 2012 so thank you to any Harlequin editors or authors who mentioned it back then. Unfortunately I only managed a few paragraphs before the sound of my voice and my self-conscious stumbling over words stopped me. “I’ll just read it really clearly in my head” I thought. Umm, no. That’s how I always read anyway and it’s amazing what tricks your mind makes when it half knows the text already – substituting the words it thinks should be there, smoothing over awkward phrasing, blinding – or do I mean deafening – one to careless repetitions.

And how do I know that’s what happens when you read it silently to yourself? Well for one, because that’s what everyone who gives the advice says. And for two, because when I read my finally complete and polished (I thought) manuscript aloud, I fund so many things to correct in the first few pages. Many were minor, a badly placed comma or a rambling sentence that needed breaking up into two – I think a lot of my changes were grammatical and I may still have got them wrong, but at least I’ve been consistent (I hope.)

I was more shocked by the typing errors that spell check couldn’t catch (or had mistakenly corrected in the first place) barley instead of barely. Then there were the repetitions of favourite words – I had done searches for the most commonly overused (I need help with my “just”s and “all”s, it seems to be an addiction – and I chopped a lot of seems too.) Doing earlier edits had alerted me to the fact that once a word is in my imagination I am apt to use it again in the same scene so I had been on the lookout for repetitions and substituted other words (oh thank you for thesauruses.) But only by reading aloud did I catch others – does the ear hold onto the echo of words better than the mind? How else can I explain all the similar sounding or looking words I identified when reading aloud? Not to mention finding two “squarely”s in three lines that I had previously missed.

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Which reminds me that when my critique partner suggested I had people feeling awe for each other too often, I changed one instance to read “not to mention admiration” and then spotted another use of “not to mention” a page later? I did a check and found the phrase seven times in a 75K manuscript which I think is rather too many. Odd how I wasn’t even aware it was such a favourite expression. Then there was the excess of sighing I found in one chapter – sure the characters are exhausted, physically and mentally, but there are more varied ways to show that.

I knew I had a fondness (weakness?) for alliteration and had put some in deliberately, all of which I kept except the most tortuously tongue twisting teasers. More accidental was discovering how many words like gilded, glisten and glimpse I had used, not all in one chapter, but I began to suspect I have an unusual fondness for G words in the this story. I had to check how often the hero referred to the heroine as his golden girl, not to mention her gleaming green eyes.  It’s possible this only seemed so apparent as the hard G sound is noticeable when reading aloud unlike softer sounds which may be used just as much, but I still changed and moved some of these – another person silently reading might not notice them but I didn’t want to risk jarring anyone else out of the story with an unusual rhythm or word choice.

Reading the whole book aloud took several days (and an enquiry from my three year old about who I was talking to) and none of the changes were necessarily enough to get the book rejected. But the overall tightening of my writing and the elimination of careless mistakes was invaluable. Above all else I want my work to be readable. I want the story to be gripping and emotional and satisfying sure – but the best plot in the world or the most beautiful prose can still be flung aside if it is sloppily presented.

So thank you very much to everyone who has ever passed on this brilliant advice and please, anyone else who feels self-conscious reading their work aloud, do persist, it’s amazing what you might find – including how good some of it sounds when the words take on a life of their own. Oh, and yes, you might catch an odd continuity error or two. Hopefully nothing as important as someone dismounting their horse twice in the same paragraph…

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In case you are wondering about the pictures, I wanted this to not be a text only blog entry, but what to use? I thought maybe some bluebell pictures as recently I’ve taken many photos even though I have folders full from previous years – it doesn’t matter how many I have, I’m always looking for one more perfect picture, or one that catches the true beauty of the massed flowers – or of their individual beauty. Just as read after read of the same work can reveal something new each time. Or, to torture the analogy even further – looking at the work as a whole, editing it silently, is to see the whole expanse of purple spread before you – only by reading aloud, savouring the feel of each and every word in your mouth do you break up the picture and see the intricate beauty, or flaws, in the close up detail.

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Or maybe I just like these pictures too much and wanted to share them.