Monday, 19 February 2018

Ten Years and a Ridged Finger Later...

Last night my Internet was slow and it was a frigging nightmare. 

I have started to take my good Internet for granted. And by good, I mean speedy. When I moved into the house I currently live, the Internet was slow but it didn't matter. I was at work most of the day and apart from a look at Facebook or Twitter for a short burst of time, it didn't affect me. I lived Internet-free, for many hours of the day. When I did venture online, I recognised that it took more than a fraction of a second to open webpages, but they still opened fairly quickly. I could have a quick glance at a couple of sites and then put my phone down for the evening. 

 'Ground control 
to Major Tom...'
It's nine years since I moved here and by now, a couple of things have happened. Firstly, my Internet is loads better. (Apart from the inexplicable blip last night.) At some point along the way, an impersonation of a massive piece of NASA equipment turned up on the telephone table, and from mission control the speed of the whole shebang improved dramatically. 

The other thing that happened, is that the Internet began to take over my life. I'm not even being hyperbolic for comic effect. Honest to God, it's true. The thought of a daily slow WiFi speed fills me with dread. These days, my life is run on a daily basis, by the Internet. Every aspect of it. It wasn't a conscious thing. I didn't seek out this state of affairs. But little by little, it's crept up on me. Now, everything I do is based around logging into something. (Or clicking a button that opens an app or site where my login details are permanently stored for ease of access.) And it is all on my phone too. The majority of my work is still a Word document saved to my desktop, most of the time. It's for everything else in my life that I reach for my smartphone. The facts don't lie...

In the past week I have...

  • Checked cinema times and bought tickets (Cineworld app)
  • Built up my weekly shopping list as items have run out (Shopping List app)
  • Listened to music I own that's stored in the cloud (iTunes)
  • Listened to Graham Norton's radio show (BBC iplayer radio app)
  • Voted in the leadership election of the Women's Equality Party (via emailed link)
  • Bid on a coat (and lost!) (eBay)
  • Watched TV as I have fallen asleep (Netflix app)
  • Checked directions (Google maps)
  • Bought shoes (Dune app)
  • Created and bought a personalised birthday card (Moonpig)
  • Chatted to friends and family (WhatsApp and Messenger)
  • Followed a recipe I'd saved (Pinterest)
  • Read news articles, comment pieces and opinions of others (Twitter)
  • Checked houses in my favourite places on a daily basis (Rightmove app)
  • Booked a taxi and tracked its progress (Britannia app)
  • Kept a track of the food I've eaten each day (Weight Watchers app)
  • Played Candy Crush for reasons unknown (Candy Crush game)
  • Scrolled through (mostly) people I don't know's, posts (Facebook)

Nick Nick and the Neph!
Yes, we're wearing underwear
hats! And yes, my phone
is centimetres from my hand.
And that doesn't even count the stuff that isn't Internet-based. The camera, the notepad and the calendar, for example. One thing I do know is my phone is rarely used for phone calls. (Except for when my two year old nephew rang to say 'Erro Nick Nick' the other day.) I don't really text that much, either. And in pointing all this out, I realise I sound ancient. I don't mean to. Most aspects of the list above have changed my life for the better. The Shopping List app is fab. It builds up over the week as things get added. It's become impossible to run out of milk or Lurpak. Likewise, the ease of buying products online from the comfort of home, cannot be overstated. We all know this. Whether it's shoes, cinema tickets or personalised birthday cards, it's so much easier because of the Internet, coupled with the handiness of being on my phone. The Internet and smartphone combo has been a good thing.

So it was really interesting to read this article by Sali Hughes about this book by Catherine Price. How to Break Up with Your Phone. Phone addiction, it appears, is a real problem. The inability to put it down for more than a few minutes, the multi-tasking of watching TV whilst continually scrolling, the gradual reduction in overall attention span - these are all things I experience. Then there is the amount of consolidated time actually being used. A couple of hours a day, I'd have guessed. At Hughes' suggestion, I downloaded the Moments app. It tracks the time I spend on my phone - daily and weekly. Blimey, it was an eye opener. I have a daily average of 6 hours, 30 minutes. I peaked on Wednesday February 7th with 11 hours and five minutes. I have no clue why that day was so phone-heavy. But once again, the facts don't lie. It also explains the ridge in my little finger.

I don't even realise
 I'm playing Candy
 Crush half the time.
Next month marks my tenth anniversary of being a smartphone owner. (I was an early adopter!) As a celebration of such a momentous landmark, I have decided to make a few changes. I am absolutely not binning my smart phone. (Have I not explained about the awesomeness of the Shopping List app?) but I do want to reduce my use of it. Mainly because I have been reading the same book since Christmas and I need to lengthen my attention span in order to get to the end. I miss reading before I fall asleep. Actually, I do read in bed, but it's my never-ending Twitter feed. I find myself getting riled about American politicians I don't know, or live tweets about that night's All Stars episode being broadcast in the US. It is not conducive to dropping off peacefully. 

My changes are going to be subtle. First of all, I'm going to buy Catherine Price's book. Then I'm going to draw up some rules about no phone periods. (Only for myself. I'm not a dictator.) I was thinking of meal times, the hour before I fall asleep, when I watch TV - stuff like that. I can work within those parameters. I also need to use my phone more fruitfully. Using the map app, sending a message and looking up a recipe are all positive uses. But according to the stats in my phone settings, I spent 7.8 hours last week playing Candy Crush. I could have read a medium sized book in that time! What am I even thinking? No wonder I was fidgety when the WiFi speed went south last night. 

However, don't be misled by my ramble this week. Reading this blog on your phone is exactly right. It's noble and worthy, and you should continue to do it every week. We need to take this one step at a time. If I suddenly end up with zero readers plus a load of empty hours on my hands, it would be awful. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Speaking of which, I should probably stop using my phone in the bath too. Food for thought, most definitely. 

Have a lovely week, folks.


Monday, 12 February 2018

The Right to Bear Legs, or Not...

I was thinking in the bath the other day...

...Being a feminist means wanting equality between the sexes. The point of equality is, I suppose, the freedom to have choices regardless of sex or gender. So getting to choose how I present myself is, in itself, a feminist act. So yeah...I was pondering all that as I shaved my legs last week(Warning - an honest and non-arousing description of my legs is contained in the following paragraphs. Don't say you weren't told.) 

Disclaimer: These are not my legs.
I HATE shaving my legs (and for shaving, read waxing, depilation, tweezing or any other form of leg hair removal. I've done 'em all!) It's a ball ache. The process is time-consuming, messy (you want to see the bath after I'm done - like a massacre of the entire world's spider community) and on top of that, rash-inducing. For me, anyway. Some women do not suffer from dotty red stingy-ness after running a blade over their pins. And they are lucky biyatches. 

An artful display of grooming
products, casually arranged
on my bathroom floor. 

I should be a window dresser.
The whole thing does my head in. And on top of that, I don't even like my legs. They are wide (I refuse to use the F word. They'd still be wide even if I were a size zero) and they're short. I'm short all over but my legs are shorter than the length of my body implies they should be. (I'm the same height as much taller people when I sit next to them.) The thing is, I accept this and don't care. I dislike clothes that showcase bare legs. As we all know, I ABHOR the summer, so floaty skirts and denim shorts are nowhere to be seen. I'm happy that my legs work and can walk me places. I'm happy that in an airplane or theatre seat, I have all the room in the world. I'm also happy that I don't have sciatica right now. With those happy and accepting thoughts in mind, grooming beyond a basic shower feels unnecessary. My legs are encased in denim, black lycra - or more usually, PJ bottoms - on a 24-hour basis. So why bother shaving them, right? Am I a crap feminist because I continue to play along with this societal expectation? Am I propping up the patriarchy's power structures by funding Gillette so generously?

Me, getting out of bed,
the day after a leg shave.
I suppose it's because I like my legs not-prickly. I like my legs not-hairy. I like the feeling of smooth shin-skin. I like the aftermath of the ball-achy process, even if the journey to get there takes time and energy, and wrecks the bath. Granted, this smoothness lasts about half a day before the prickles come back, but still. For that half day I feel lovely. I sleep with bare legs in cool, clean sheets - who am I kidding? As IF my sheets are clean! - and I wake up understanding what it is like to be an Amazonian goddess, rising from her slumber, legs up to her neck, striding about like she owns the place. (I am woman, hear me roar. Or something. I mean, WTAF is that about?) But for such a small window of shinned-smoothness, it can often feel not worth the faff of hacking through the thicket. But still I do.

As much as I feel no obvious external pressure to shave my legs (guys, they are literally cloth-encased, all the day is long. No one cares!) I am sure the world around me has contributed to this internal conflict on a subconscious level. If I'd grown up with non-smooth-legged women sexily advertising lipstick, I might feel differently. Or if Angela Rippon had done her Morecambe and Wise dance, emerging from the the news desk with week-old stubble, would I still feel like I want to keep up the shaving malarkey the way I do? If I'd seen any woman on any advert, TV show or film, positively depicted with hairy legs, would I have hit puberty with a different outlook? We'll never know for sure. But for now I tell myself it is a choice I make. One that I think I knowingly choose even if the reality is that I've been nurtured to think this way by a shaved-legged society. 

In related, but slightly different news, I watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri the other day. It was fabulous and there's a review here for those that want it. When I came back from the cinema, I googled to see what other people thought, to check if they agreed with me. (It's fine. They did.) But I also stumbled across a couple of articles about the lead actress, Frances McDormand. Happily, they were wholly positive in tone and referred to her recent Golden Globe win where she chose not to wear make-up for the awards ceremony. On the one hand, oh for the day when this isn't noted. But on the other, hurrah for Frances McDormand not giving a shit, and making choices that worked for her. She looked ace, by the way. Her face did all the acting in Three Billboards so I get why she wouldn't want to mask it with feature-altering coloured-grease. Plus she won! Her face was chock-full of expression and emotion. And her speech was witty, meaningful and sincere. Inspirational and aspirational in equal measure. Yet for all that marvellousness, this morning I spent twenty-five minutes applying make-up to my face, for a day spent largely alone at home. 

And this is just the everyday
stuff. You want to see me go
to town in a Sephora.
It's back to the internal struggle again. Do I wear make-up because society tells me I should? Is this really my choice? Do I want to waste twenty-five minutes of my day this way? I'll be honest, this one feels less of a struggle than the leg-shaving question. I've realised as I've got older that I actually quite like make-up. It's fun. It makes my eyes look bigger. I find the process relaxing and creative. I enjoy its application as well as its result. I didn't have to put any on today. No one forced me. It isn't a job requirement. It was a pleasurable experience. And on Sunday when it's my have-a-shower-then-put-on-clean-pyjamas-and-watch-Netflix day, I'll be barefaced and choosing that look just as much. I love that I get to choose, just as much as I love that Francis McDormand got to choose how she looked for her Golden Globe win. At the Cheltenham Literary festival of 2011, Caitlin Moran said that we'll know when feminism has worked, when a woman accepts a Best Actress Oscar in flat shoes*. I have no idea what shoes Frances McDormand wore to the Golden Globes, nor do I care as long as she was happy with them, but I'd bet money they were her choice and not the urgings of a bossy stylist, pushing this season's latest impractical offerings.

Classic Bond - late 90s to late 00s. 
So far I've (over) shared that I shave my legs and plaster on the slap. I choose to do things that, on first glance, look like I'm supporting the patriarchy, even though exercising the right to choose what I do, is enough. But when it comes to shoes, I am a million miles away from the patriarchal construct of high heels. (Although the appearance of longer, slimmer legs and a higher arse is something I could probably manage to accommodate, if pushed.) Regardless, I am so over heels. I'm currently on the look out for what to wear for my 40th birthday and it's going to be flat shoes all the way. I want to be able to walk, stand up all night, even dance if I get pissed enough. I do not want to be up on tip toes, carefully and deliberately placing one foot in front of the other, feeling the creak in my knees, worrying about the heel skidding from under me on a shiny floor, and taking twice as long to walk to the loo than I should. I don't want to feel the aching after-effects in my back for the rest of the week, I don't want to waste silly money on something I'll kick off after twenty minutes, and I don't want to fall arse over tit. Reader, I am no stranger to any of these experiences. I'm done with them. No more.

Unfortunately in my quest for the perfect pair of flats, I've purchased four that aren't quite right. They are very nice (and obviously I'll be keeping them) but they're not what I want for the event in question. By the time March comes, I'll be fully stocked in walkable, formal shoes for a life time of conscious and knowing feminist choices. 

Have a lovely week, folks.

* That was totally paraphrased. I'm casting my mind back seven years here. However, Caitlin has a whole chapter on fashion in How To Be a Woman, and a decent rant on heels. One of my favourite quotes about the topic is on p202.
"The very few who can walk elegantly in them look amazing, of course - walking in heels is a skill as impressive of being able to tightrope walk, or blow smoke rings. I admire them. I wish them well. I wish I could be them. But they are a tiny minority. For everyone else - the vast majority - we look as inversely elegant as we think we will when we purchase them. We waddle, we go over on our ankles, we can't dance, and we wince incessantly, whilst hissing, 'These SODDING shoes. My feet are killing me."
I hear you, Caitlin. I really hear you.


Monday, 5 February 2018

Breaking News: I Drink Too Much Tea...

It's been a funny old week in the breaking news department. Hidden within the usual litany of grim crimes and political folly, some truly disastrous world events have been reported. GLOBAL CHICKPEA SHORTAGE screamed the headlines last Monday. Forget nuclear war or global warming, THIS is catastrophic. Not three months after Weight Watchers declared chickpeas a zero point food, world stocks have plummeted. The future of the chickpea is precarious. Damn those millennials and their incessant need for hummus. It's enough to make you reach for the crisps. Then if that wasn't enough, another story quietly emerged. One that, on top of the recent chickpea revelations, had me rocking in a corner. Have We Reached Peak Costa Coffee? the papers reported. 'Nooooooo,' I yelled into the void - both in answer to the question as well as with deep existential despair.

Read the article by all means but let me fully respond to the query posed in the headline. It's a no. No we have not. Not at all. We have not reached peak Costa Coffee and we never will. Costa is my safe place. It's my familiar friend in an unknown town. It's my floating high street office. I will not tolerate it being maligned.

Prior to 2011, I don't think I'd ever been in a Costa. Mostly because I had a full time job and my downtime was spent sleeping. I'd heard of the brand of course, but I'd also heard of its competitors in equal measure. As I had no time to bother a Starbucks or a Cafe Nero either, all coffee shops remained unpatronised. But then times changed. All at once, a bunch of circumstances altered my drink needs for good. I started writing at home, I felt the need to get out and see daylight once in a while, and I quickly tired of making my own drinks. (One-cup-of-tea-a-day as a teacher, jumped to thirty-six-cups-of-tea-a-day as a writer.) It was time to find myself a coffee shop.

Not all teabags
are created equal.
As usual, Tina speaks for
me (although I don't have
a gold sparkly dress.)
I am not here to slag off companies and get myself sued. So I won't. All I know is that not all teabags taste the same and some colour schemes create a more relaxing environment than others. And if there's no skimmed milk then don't even bother. THERE. IT'S DONE. I'VE SAID MY PIECE. So having forced my hand with their better business choices, I went to a Costa with my laptop. And before you all shout at me for ignoring hard working, independent coffee-shop owners, I know. I get it. They are marvellous. But at no point did I want to be anything other than anonymous. I didn't want to get to know strangers or say hi and make convo whist waiting for change. I had no interest in being remembered from visit to visit. Sitting in a corner, blending in and cracking on, were my sole aims. When I have all the time in the world and am being social, I'm there. But not for work. For that, I needed a chain. I needed my place.

Look. I'm
drinking tea!
I'm drinking
tea again. Larks!
And I found it. I found my place. Fast-forward seven years and I'm always in a Costa. In the past week (and it's been a fairly routine one) I've been to three separate branches on three separate days. I have six that I use regularly. All of them have different vibes, all of them give me a different experience. The one on the corner with three walls of windows, is my place for writing happy chapters. The one with the back room and the low lights, is my place for writing emotion and brooding drama. The one with the room upstairs, is my place for writing stuff that makes me laugh out loud. They all have their moods and they all contribute to mine. 

So, reading that Costa may have had its day feels like a threat to my own existence. What will I do if they start closing? Well, let's just chill out and calm ourselves for a moment. They haven't made as many millions last year as the year before. I think they'll cope. And now it's been announced that Coronation Street will be featuring its very own branch in a product placement deal. My lovely surrogate office has moved into the big leagues now. It's exactly like Diet Coke and Apple. It'll be sponsoring the Super Bowl next. There'll be dancing baristas with giant jammy dodgers being thrown into the crowd. Fair play, Costa. I only hope you still find room for my 'one drink per hour and a half' consumption rate now you're all over Weatherfield. Don't let fame change you. Not when I've loved you all these years. 

It will all be fine. There's no peak just yet. And now I've got that off my chest, I need to get myself a cup of tea. And stockpile the chickpeas, obviously.

Have a lovely week, folks.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Slithers of Silver, Twinkling in the Breeze...

'Sometimes it's haaard to beeee a woman..'. sang Tammy Wynette so memorably. Sadly, rather than go on to lyrically opine about the pain of a misshapen underwire or the rumbling womb-grind of an imminent period, she inexplicably implored us to love our men regardless of their short-comings. It feels an opportunity was missed to pass on real insight.

For indeed, it really is hard to be a woman at times. Rape Crisis reports that in the UK, 85,000 of us are raped every year. Women's Aid tells us that two women are murdered by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales on a weekly basis. And the Office for National Statistics states that women are five times more likely to experience sexual assault than men. Not the cheeriest set of stats I've read, I'll be honest. And if those awful fates are avoided - through the arbitrary good luck of not being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong person - there's all the other shit around which we have to navigate. The stuff that just bubbles away in the background. Let me share the first few that come to mind.

Things like...

  • Knowing we are 51% of the population but represented - in an exciting all time high, no less - by only 32% of female MPs. 
  • Enjoying comedy panel shows but recognizing it's an event of epic proportions when female guests outnumber male ones.
  • Seeing ugly rape threats tweeted to women you admire and respect, when they openly express views you share.
  • Watching news programmes and wondering why the male presenter gets to wear a functional suit but the female presenter has to dress up like a wedding guest.
  • Choosing plumbers, electricians and decorators, not on the quality of their work, but on the lack of threat they present when spending time in your home.
  • Walking home from the pub and mentally calculating how quickly you can get your keys in your fist, because you have to pass a guy walking his dog. 

It's neverending. It's always there. 

Jo Brand summed it up best on Have I Got News For You last year. When the panel were being flippant about 'low-level' complaints of male MP behaviour, she stopped their laughing and called them out. It was a moment that made me want to stand up and clap. In fact, the studio audience exploded with applause. It seems they felt Ian Hislop and Quentin Letts had missed the point too. 'If you are constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.' Spot on, Jo. That's exactly it. This environment of constant yet low-level oppression is exhausting. And if, like me, it gets under your skin and you find yourself ranting more than you wish you had to, it's a bloody pain in the arse.

And so to the silver linings. They really are there. Honestly. For reasons of which I'm not totally sure, (although the far-right's rolling back of women's rights has got to be a factor) there have been shimmering glimmers of hopeful history-making, revealed all around. Slithers of silver that shine an increasingly uncomfortable light on the inequality all around. The inequality that's been 'the norm' for so long. Between the uncovering of the Weinstein scandal, the Westminster scandal, the subsequent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Oscar presenters realising it's best to stay at home rather than take to the stage and face potential boos, the (almost) universal outrage of men-only dinners with women-only waiting staff, Carrie Gracie's resignation letter highlighting BBC pay disparity, male TV presenters taking pay cuts to address that disparity, an end to the use of 'Walk-On girls' at the darts, uncomfortable dating experiences being discussed and debated aloud rather than being simply accepted as the norm ...EVERYTHING is getting aired. The shutters have been kicked open and the curtains are fluttering in the breeze. Talk feels revolutionary when silence has masked so much.

And on top of all that, there are 156 women that spoke in court last week at the US Gymnastic team abuse case. One by one they stood and faced their abuser. The now-convicted criminal had to sit and hear each woman speak. They were eloquent, brave, and powerful about the impact of the sexual abuse they experienced as a child. Judge Aquilina let every woman take her turn. No one was censored. Nothing was diminished. When the defendant wrote to the Judge and asked to be spared having to listen to the women's statements for so long, she gave him short shrift. Actually, she spent sixteen minutes responding to each of his points. There are GIFs online that show the three-second clip of Judge Aquilina finally tossing the written complaint aside. Those three seconds represent so much. I chose not to add it here. I don't want to make light of the pain of others with a 'fabulous' GIF. Yet it perfectly sums up a collective disgust built up over time. 

I'm not naive enough to think the recent wave of house clearing has rid the world of abusers and predators for good. Nor do I think all people who are part of the problem will realise it straight away. This stuff has been going on for years in a variety of ways. One handsy stranger in a bar is different to systematic sexual abuse over a period of years. But here's the thing - neither should happen at all. Both situations are wrong. They sit on a spectrum with a bunch of other behaviours in between, but the entire spectrum of crappy to criminal behaviour should not exist in the first place. That's the point. Nothing on that spectrum should be accepted. 

Back to those silver linings though. Bit by bit, the discussions are taking place. People are talking. The shutters are staying open. Tales of 'bad dates' are being debated as to what went wrong and why. Future actions are being considered more wisely. The men with lovely behaviour are asking questions about how they can help. The men with not-so-lovely-behaviour are checking themselves. Hopefully the men with criminal behaviour are scared. And when the dust finally settles, and lessons are learnt as the talk continues, it can only be a good thing for the next generation of actresses, waitresses, gymnasts, politicians, women, men, and everyone.

If you feel that this is coming off as a bit 'anti-men' then please don't allow yourself to be mistaken. It isn't. It's anti-abusive-men. It's anti-entitled-men-thinking-they-don't-need-to-treat-women-as-equals-men. It is anti-those-people. And as long as people are talking openly, there are less secret places for those people to hide. In the meantime, plenty of other men know how to treat people with respect, regardless of gender or sex. And unlike Matt Damon, plenty of other men don't need to be the father of daughters to realise that the non-men around them are also human beings. Perhaps Tammy Wynette should have sung about those guys, instead.

Have a lovely week, folks.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Comma Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon...

This week I have technical insight and self-reflection to impart. I know. I'm spoiling you. Last week I could ponder neither of these areas with confidence. Yet just five days into the editing of Book #2, I have all kinds of life-lessons to share - for free! You're welcome.

In terms of the editing process, my plan of action was - and still is - to tackle the superficial stuff first. I have a completed manuscript that is very rough. I've mentioned before that the key objective when writing it was to get words on the page. That was all I was concerned with until last week. I wanted to get it done regardless of quality. Now the time's come to shape it into something marvellous. So last week I started to read it from the beginning in order to tidy up the obvious stuff. Things like typos, missed capitals and bad grammar. The basic things that can be neatened up easily before I move on to bigger areas like character voice and narrative arc.

Errors stand out better on paper so I printed it out, took Chapter One and a red pen to Costa, and got cracking. This is where the technical insight comes in. I had only read a couple of pages before I had the realisation. It's something I remember spotting when I saw the first draft of Carry the Beautiful too. Ready? OK, here goes... 

I use commas like there's no tomorrow

Seriously, I really do. They're everywhere. It seemed all I did as I read the pages was cross out comma after comma after comma. I throw them around all over the show - sometimes correctly, but often extraneously. If I had a limited supply, I'd have used them up years ago.

I think I am a bit rubbish with the actual technicalities of commas. I have no recollection of being taught them at school. I distinctly remember speech marks and apostrophes but not commas. Also, when I was a teacher I only had to teach their use in list sentences. And that was towards the end of the year for the more able pupils. Teachers in later year groups did the rest. As a result, I'm hazy on it. I think I know what an Oxford comma is but not whether it's a good idea. I have seen commas used after words like 'because', 'so' and 'but' but other times they are not. Is it just author preference or is one way correct? I also think they come before anyone's name is mentioned. Hello, Nicky. Like that. But I only think it. I don't know it.

These pesky little
beggars get everywhere.
Like all literary technicalities, I have gained my understanding of them from reading. When you read lots and see commas 'in the field', the knowledge seeps in without you realising. But as authors' use of punctuation is flexible depending on the context and effect they are aiming for, it's not necessarily the best place to learn the rules. And do I even need to learn the rules if I am allowed to break them anyway?

It's all a big jumble. However, there is some clarity in my mind. I think I have worked out where the issue has come from. (This is where the self-reflection comes in.) It occurred to me that when I am writing as someone else, I am imagining the character act out the words I write. That means I am thinking about the pauses and delivery of each sentence. I picture the film version of my story in order to make it real for me as I go along. My overuse of commas is merely the frustrated director inside me, trying to give the actors all the cues they need to perform the lines in the way I want. That's where my comma-fest is rooted. Deep down I want to be Sofia Coppola. 

Actually, I have even more insight than that. It's not Sophia Coppola I want to be. I finished that last paragraph by googling 'female directors' to find someone I could use to make the point. (It could have been Bigalow, Jenkins or DuVernay. All marvellous. All emulatable.) But it isn't them I'm channelling. I know exactly who I'm trying to be when I write a line. It's Victoria Wood. Yep, the legend that is her. As anyone who memorised the Kitty monologues at high school knows - and it's definitely NOT just me* - there's a lyrical quality to her sentences. They meander away, hitting a variety of notes before the laugh comes. They are full of pauses and beats. They are written to be performed.

*Not only did I memorise it, I borrowed the book of scripts from the school library, photocopied the ones I wanted to learn and
stuck them in a file. Three house moves and plenty of decluttering later, I have just found it at the back of my loft. ­čĹĆ

So to end this week's ramblings, I'll leave you with one of my favourite Victoria Wood lines of all time. In 1985 Patricia Routledge played Kitty on Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV. Read it, then watch it be performed. This line comes up on the clip at 2.15 but you could do a lot worse than watch the whole thing. 

 'Fortunately, I've just had my TV mended. Well I say mended, a shifty young man in plimsolls waggled my aerial and wolfed my Gipsy Creams, but that's the comprehensive system for you.'
                                              Victoria Wood

There are commas and there are pauses. The sentence does not shy away from layering up the imagery before landing the laugh. It's wordy and wavering. (It's also slightly different than the final version that made it to TV.) I just need to remember that in spite of any inflated ego I might have, I am not actually Victoria Wood. Nor am I a writer/director. I am composing sentences to be read inside someone's head, NOT performed aloud. I need to chill the frig out with my willy-nilly attitude towards punctuation.

So now I have to drag myself away from You Tubing Victoria Wood all day and get back to the editing. By this time next week, I'll have discarded several thousand more commas under a sea of red pen. The good news is, it's because my subconscious thinks it's Orson Welles. Definitely not because I'm shite at punctuation.

Have a lovely week, folks.


Monday, 15 January 2018

Need to Refuel? You Need Biscuits and Books...

I'm not really into New Year's resolutions. I am more than capable of showcasing my discarded plans and failed attempts at behaviour change any time of the year. No need to make a song and dance about it come January. That seems to be adding an insult to the injury of taking down the decs and eating wilted greens and steamed dust for the rest of the month. However, there are a few decisions I made several New Years ago, that stuck. Three life rules that have managed to transcend the usual pattern of one week of effort then fifty-one of failure. And what are they? Well let me tell you! 

1. I never click on a Daily Fail link.
2. I only ever leave the house in shoes I can walk in. 
3. I make sure I have a book on the go all the time.

I bought these for R and
S's wedding in 2011.
 I wore them for about 20 mins.
The first time I've ditched
wedding shoes before the
The first two life rules are fairly obvious. I won't show digital (or paper, for that matter) support of views I find abhorrent. My life is all the better for actively avoiding hate-filled bile masquerading as fact. And I've also spent too many nights out walking like a just-born giraffe to waste any more time and money on silly shoes. Since a three-month bout of sciatica last year, I am eternally welded to my trainers. If it means I enter mid-life with 'eccentric dress sense' I don't care. Walking comfortably is not to be taken for granted. 

Sexy? Not a bit.
Comfy? Oh yeaaahhhh.
And then there are books. I do try to keep the always-reading-something resolution going throughout the year. I really do. And it is true that you can't write if you don't read. Reading is the fuel that fires the pen, or something. So I try to read all the time. But then there are times when I don't. If I'm in full writing flow, I worry I'll subconsciously ape the author I am reading. I tend to avoid books in the same genre as the one I'm working on and go for something completely different. But when I'm not in the writing-from-scratch stage, I can go wild. I can read anyone and anything and refuel that pen once again. 

And so over Christmas I caught up with some books I had been waiting to read. I haven't added these to the Reading List tab above, purely because they have all been read in the past couple of weeks. I'll add to that as my reading becomes more sporadic again. But in the interest of sharing, and with a mix of fiction and non-fiction, here's what has kept me busy since mid-December.

This makes me tingle just to think about it. A murder mystery, set in the days before Christmas, in Iceland! What's not to love? At just 215 pages, it was the perfect easy read before Christmas. I had a day off on 18th December and so took myself and this book to a coffee shop to soak up the creepily bleak and atmospheric Icelandic thriller with a large cup of tea. Now I need to forget what happens and read it again at the same time next year.

I never watched Bake Off (I know, I know, it's marvellous, I just don't like being judgy about food) but there are many reasons to love John Whaite aside from his winning baking from back in the day. His last book - Perfect Plates in Five Ingredients - revolutionised my cooking. No mean feat considering how many hours a day I devote to thinking about what I put in my mouth. (Stop it!) His next book was a Christmas present and is just as perfect. Focusing on comfort food, it breaks down into enticing chapters such as  Something Cheesy, Something Spicy and Something Pillowy. His recipes are never fussy and always easy to replicate. This book will contribute to the food I cook and eat at weekends, where the delayed gratification of comfort eating will make it all the more mouth-watering.

I tend to avoid being political on this blog. Sure, I bang on about sexism and the evils of gender stereotyping but I don't mention party politics much. I don't want to alienate anyone first of all, nor feel the need to defend or critique specific party political positions as they arise. And yet when it comes to the US election of 2016, between two very different parties with two very different candidates, there are no grey areas. I can't be even-handed or balanced on here. I am happy to state I was and still am gutted the result went the way it did and I'm watching the subsequent and ongoing investigations with great interest until wrongs are righted. So it's no surprise that Clinton's book detailing the election campaign and her eventual loss is right up my street. What I was surprised at is how accessible it is. As much as I doubt her politician's barriers ever truly come down, there is a sense of honesty and at times vulnerability running through her recounts that makes me really like her. I'm not sure she goes as far as baring her soul, but she certainly shares a lot of insight into the fairly unique position she holds in public life. Like Jess Phillips' Everywoman, it also acts as a call to arms for women to speak out and not be silenced. A really enjoyable, and at times funny book that lifts the lid on recent events with a refreshingly candid take.

The power of social media is fascinating. It seems in order to nab me as a customer, all you have to do is live tweet during Eurovision. That's what Scandikitchen did a few years ago. I followed them on Twitter and started to use their online food shop. Then I visited their actual shop when I was last in London. For Christmas I got their cookbook, as well as a hamper of Scandinavian food and drink. All because they enjoy Eurovision as much as me. It's a marketing strategy all businesses should consider. Scandikitchen, the book, is marvellous. Whereas I'll be saving John Whaite's comfort food for lazy weekends, the food in here is perfect for every day fuel. The section on open sandwiches is glorious. You think all you need to do is leave the top slice off a cheese and ham butty? Think again. These are works of art that masquerade as lunch any day of the week. Let's get stuck in!

I love what Robert Harris does. Or at least what he gives the impression of doing. I think he decides he is going to write a new thriller. So he looks at the history books and chooses a nice juicy time from the past. Then he does a shed load of research, learns about the ins and outs of the period, and creates a page-turning-historical-edge-of-your-seat thriller that both entertains and informs in equal measure. It's really quite clever. Because of Harris I know loads (no really, LOADS) about Russian gulags, the Vatican, code breaking in World War II and now 1938 and the talks between Chamberlain and Hitler prior to the outbreak of war the following year. To be fully transparent, I have to say I've not finished this yet. It's my last book-present to read and I only started it a few days ago. But I know once I sit down and get on with it I will love it like I loved all his others. This is because Harris does what he does very well. It's solid story telling and it's gripping right to the end. And my new Mastermind specialist subject will be Hitler and Chamberlain, even though I won't be completely sure which events are historically accurate and which are made up for the purposes of a jolly romp. Hey ho.

And now that I've written this week's blog, I'm going to put my lap top away, pick up Munich and crack on. That pen needs refuelling once again. And with a mug of tea and a load of biscuits, so do I.

Have a lovely week, folks. 

Monday, 8 January 2018

The Joy of Editing...

The decs are down, the tree's been lashed out the back, and the first Weight Watchers class of the new year has been attended. The routine has returned!

In terms of the new book, the routine isn't quite the same as it was last year. For most of 2017, I spent Tuesdays writing the first draft of Book 2. I finished it a couple of weeks before Christmas. And now, as I get back to the grind and plan out this year's writing schedule, I have to decide what comes next. What do I do with the rough, any-old-words-will-do draft that currently sits at almost 80,000 words? Well, what I do is edit.

The stats don't lie!

This sounds simpler than it is. When I was a teacher, I regularly told my kids to go back and edit their work. It was one of the things you hoped they'd remember to do before they showed you what they'd written. They never did, obvs. I would take one look at their story, spot that the first word of the first sentence was in lower case and start doing my pretend smoke-coming-out-of-my-ears routine (to much hilarity!) as I indicated that they needed to have another look. Editing - in Year Four at least - seemed to consist of checking your capital letters and full stops before saying you were finished.

And to be honest, there's a large part of the next steps I need to take that will be similar. After having had a month's break, I know when I look at the manuscript again, loads of errors will jump out. I will read it through from start to finish and spot erroneous commas, daft typos, and less than well-chosen words that need replacing. That will be the first thing I do.

But that is only the start. Some time ago, when I was trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I wrote a list of things to do once I'd finished the rough draft. Here it is.
  • ·      Re-read for spelling/grammer etc
  • ·      Split each month into chapters and ensure cliff hangers and closure in each.
  • ·      Re-read for consistency. Make notes about formats used. (Year Six not Y6 for example)
  • ·      Make sure all kids names in the school are the same throughout
  • ·      Make sure place names are consistent throughout
  • ·      Read for meaning
  • ·      Read for excitement and ebbs and flows
  •        Check the recurring themes actually recur
  • ·      See if clues and suspense need to be dropped in earlier - people need to want to read on!
  • ·      Check characters are consistent in isolation 
  • ·      Edit whole book for pace - no dragging 

So, there you go. Even though I'm not even sure what I meant in some of those points (Read for meaning?) that is my To Do list. The real challenge is to take the entire story and shape it into something that piques early interest and then carries the reader through the comings and goings of a year in the life of the protagonist. Right now it's a shapeless blob. In time, it will be a mountainous landscape of peaks and troughs, highs and lows, drama and contentment. I am allowing five months to get it into shape (including using a real-life editor towards the end of that time), then a couple of months of formatting and making. Never let it be said I don't involve you in the process.

Have a lovely week, folks.