Sunday, 2 August 2009

The Perils of Being a Shrinking Violet

Now anyone who knows me will agree I’m a shrinking violet, of the type to be voted ‘the woman most likely to get the vapors if asked to choose 7 succinct words to sum up all about herself’, so you can imagine my panic at being asked to do just that by Little Brown Dog.

Starting with ‘anxious’ and moving rapidly along to ‘youthful’ maybe stopping briefly at‘stout’ and ‘truthful’ on the way. Alright, maybe not youthful, but it is hard to choose, there are so many that would make an agreeable fit, so I go for the easy way out, but sadly, not the best way to avoid marital strife.

I give him my most winning smile.

ME Sum me up in 7 words, my personality, you know, what I’m like.
(Heart fluttering, this is a man who loves me, who’s known me for years and years. I hope for ‘cultured, calm, sophisticated’, maybe even loveable’.)

HIM (eyeing me skeptically) Hmm! Bossy, Assertive, Indolent, Sensitive, Creative, Reserved and Focused

ME What do you mean BOSSY and ASSERTIVE. You must be joking, Me! Tell me exactly when am I ever ASSERTIVE. Am I ever BOSSY I’d like to know?

HIM (Putting on his cycling shoes) Oh! I don't know. You just are. I’m off out for an hour. (Please remember this is a man who broke his thigh bone only weeks ago while riding like a maniac on his mountain bike.)

ME If you are going on your bike take care and keep to the road, don’t go up on the Downs it’s far too muddy. You’ll come off and this time remember to take your phone. Don’t ride through the village. It’s too risky, they drive like maniacs. And if you’re going past the shop, pick up…

HIM Anything else?

ME Yes I want to know why INDOLENT, why do you say I’m indolent? (I’m on dodgy ground here. I can think of many answers to this one, so I press on quickly before he reminds me, who always makes the tea in the morning, or washes up, or gets up to answer the phone?) And SENSITIVE, am I that sensitive?

HIM (laughing) O.K. perhaps not all the time, but you can be a bit woossy. Perhaps emotional might be better. You get upset easily.

ME Yeh! I GET UPSET ‘COS YOU THINK I’M BOSSY. I can feel the tears pricking at the backs of my eye lids. He knows me so well. Perhaps I am a bit sensitive at times. (I’m thinking sensitive, that’s not too bad and I positively like creative.

ME CREATIVE. Is that ‘cos of my beadmaking , writing and stuff?

HIM (looking at me quizzically), No, not really. The garden, you’re creative in the garden.

ME (I can be creative with the household accounts too. I'm thinking about the two new tops hanging in the wardrobe that he hasn’t seen yet and wondering if I’ve destroyed the receipt. Two for one, I’d call it thrifty though it’s possible HE might have another name)

ME What were the other two. RESERVED, yes I agree with that. As a child I was called shy, but I’m not really. I just like to keep things too myself, sometimes I just can’t be bothered to be more sociable. I’m too idle to make the effort. (Blast - idle/indolent what’s the difference.)

HIM Don't forget focused too. When you start something you go off like a rocket. You can be a bit obsessed. Like all the time you spend on Purple Coo, and writing and your other stuff, um! hobbies.

ME O/K. I’ll accept focused, reserved and creative aren’t too bad, even being sensitive has its good points, but bossy and assertive. You can come up with something better than that, but he didn’t. He escaped out of the door and went off on his bike.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Arvon Calling 3 (for parts 1 & 2 see below)

Following on from the sheer relief of arriving after a long train journey on a particularly hot day, my very first impression was dangerously close to disenchantment and I puzzled why. I liked the tutors. They were supportive, witty and as kindly as they were specific in their criticism. I certainly expected and could have handled a much tougher approach. My fellow Arvonites turned out to be a cheerful friendly bunch, as frank and open as any I could wish to meet, but by the end of the first main day I was confused.
Maybe it was me. Had I expected something more rigorous and academic? I’ve always tended to feel isolated in a group. Was the gossip more than I was prepared to handle, the air of candid self revelation too unsettling? It took me a while to relax and accept I was there to write positive women’s fiction, about love and relationships, the cheerful entertainment often labeled ‘Chick Lit’ or more pompously ‘Popular women’s fiction’, so why not just loosen up and have a good time?

O.K. so sometimes it felt like I was on holiday with a group of friends, a hen party where we’d temporarily mislaid the bride. When emotions got too heavy maybe it wobbled into women’s encounter group territory, but so what? I needed to let go and enjoy myself and I did.

Katie and Judy were hugely generous in their support

The group may have been driven to write but we also brought our pasts with us, bound up as we were in the minor and profound, comical and weighty ins and outs of our everyday lives,. A few didn’t make it to the end of the week. Some women were so driven they confessed to getting up at five am to write before their kids woke up. Others admitted a significant birthday had left them clamoring for change. All seemed far hungrier than me. I love to write, it’s fun, but I can’t say I’m driven. It is as simple as that.

I finished the week encouraged and inspired. No longer were we a disparate group of learners and tutors but a bunch of friends; we’d cooked and eaten together, shared the wine, the laughter and the tears. After one particularly late evening carousing on the terrace, when wine and secrets were liberally shared, the tutors appeared as bright as ever the next morning, no one would have ever guessed it had been party time the night before, except Judy had forsaken her chic high heels for a pair of very comfy flatties and Katie, as elegant, well made up and cheerful as ever, somehow managed to put her cardie on inside out.

I leant many new things on the Arvon course and not all of them on the published curriculum.
There is such a thing as Obscrab (An obscene version of scrabble),
On a wild night out, a true friend will always carry a scrunchie in her pocket to tie your hair back when you are sick.
A slag bag is what you take with you on the off chance you may meet someone and want to stay out all night (contains clean knickers and a toothbrush apparently.)
Women of maturity are just as able to write ‘fluffy chick lit,' as those of twenty five.

But most important of all I learnt I’ve written a novel that, with luck and perseverance, stood a chance of being published.
My overall impression of the course? It wasn’t as intellectually tough and demanding as I expected, but emotionally it was much harder. I actually got far less real criticism than I deserved and I certainly was less critical of other writers than I anticipated, probably because they were all so very talented. Finally, all I need to do now is a spot of serious rewriting and find a high-quality Literary Agent who’s keen to take on a new author? A doddle!

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Arvon Calling, part 2 (See below for part 1)

Task 1
Do only gifted writers head off for Arvon? It certainly seemed like that on my recent Commercial Fiction course; everyone else was so darn talented. Now I have no qualms about reading my work to an audience, any old rubbish, if approached with the right voice and intonation, can be squeezed by as entertainment and I trusted my theatrical skills, honed by years of reading bedtime stories, would get me through the first task. When I finished reading out loud and looked about me, I felt a rush of relief, a few of my fellow students had been taken in, some even nodded appreciatively. Well I may have fooled a small number of my peers, but not those talented and charming assassins, Katie and Judy.

Following my first feedback I hung my head, the worst sort of failure, a female fiction writer unable to get a grip on her viewpoint. A woman who head-hops, constitutionally unable to imprint her reader on the main character, a heinous crime in popular fiction. I went into the next day with ‘Could do Better,’ weighing down my shoulders.

Judy in full flow.

Task 2.
Write about someone who is stuck in a lift for 6 hours with a person they don’t like. This time, despite severe misgivings at my stereotypical depiction of a teenage hoodie, a nice lady from the church and the perils of drinking too much tea, quite a few laughed and I perked up a bit for the next task.

Task 3.
Write a bad sex scene. A frisson of anxiety ran round the assembled novices.( Is frisson an o.k. word, I'm no longer sure) Our lone male, the alleged S&M pornographer from Edinburgh seemed calm enough, but I watched with interest as my female companions, almost to a woman, folded their arms and crossed their legs in the type of unison that would have done credit to a troupe of chorus girls. Arvon being an Internet free establishment, no one had been able to find out exactly what he dabbled in, but rumors are rife.

“Hmm! Pardon, You want us to write a sex scene badly?” I gawped. ‘Pulsating piston’ alliterating into mind.
Katie raised her eyes a little higher to heaven than strictly necessary, then Judy read out a scene I already knew, from ‘Blowing it.’ It’s good.

“Now, all you have to do is write a scene about bad sex, either funny or sad, but try to keep off the clich├ęs.” The last part was said with unnecessary emphasis in my direction, but it could have been me being touchy.

I completed my piece of writing that afternoon, keeping it serious and brief,
"A one night stand with a resulting pregnancy should do the trick.Get it all finished in a couple of paragraphs and a bit of dialogue. Best to get it over and done with quickly." Next day I maneuvered into a position where I’d be among the first to read and it passed off reasonably well. One or two other writers were serious, the rest hilarious. If you ever come across a timeless love scene involving intimate massage oil, passion in the sand dunes and something I won't mention, having the appearance of breaded haddock, I heard it first at Arvon, far too rude for a family friendly blog, probably not very funny the way I’m retelling, but hysterical at the time.

As for our man from Edinburgh, left till last he was surprisingly tame. Young lovers and a tryst in the heather and a nasty encounter with midges just outside Oban, so there were sighs of relief all round.
(I'll tell the final truth tomorrow)

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Arvon Calling

Ted Huges looking down on us all

After the relief and euphoria of arrival, Earl grey tea with walnut cake, a pretty bedroom, stunning views and rain on what was proving to be one of the hottest days of the year in every other part of Britain except Heptonstall in Yorkshire, I decided it was worth booking into Lumb Bank if only for the scenery and ambience. If I managed a spot of writing, so much the better, and all under the watchful eye of a faintly disapproving Ted Hughes.

Looking around we were a mixed bunch. In age somewhere between thirty and sixtyish I guessed, with a fair smattering of rural and urban, from Orkney to Stoke Newington, with at least two Welsh farmers, (one retired), a surprising number of chain smokers, a smattering of hard drinking journalists, keen to write fiction of more than 2000 words, a sad faced accountant, a brace of bright young lawyers and a lovely girl who confessed to having once set her laptop on fire when she opened the lid onto a scented candle. All women except for a quietly spoken pornographer from Edinburgh who dabbled in web based errotica of the S & M variety. I was told later by a regular Arvonite that you always got one of those. She maintained their inclusion was so common as to be compulsory.
The two contrasting views from my room
Though not an outgoing type myself I was on nodding terms with the woman I’d shared a taxi with from Hebden Bridge, who at sixty feared she was too old to write fluffy chic lit, so had opened a farm shop just in case. (Later to prove the unlikely author of a witty sex scene involving an over enthusiastic lover called Bill the Bonker, nail varnish and a chicken shed, but more of that another day.)

At the end of my first meeting with the other Arvonites, before we’d even been introduced to the tutors or explored the possibilities of the garden, I realized booze would prove significant.
“Wine to accompany supper is provided on the first night,” we were told, and any more had to be ordered from the village.
Julie, later known as The Wine Monitor, grabbed a sheet of paper.
“Jot down what you’ll drink over the remaining four days and add your money to the kitty accordingly.” Determined to remain clear headed for the tasks to come I scribbled ‘2 bottles, red’ and handed in my cash, feeling hopelessly outclassed by the 6, 8 or even 10 bottles noted down by the majority of my fellow students. Clearly writing exciting commercial prose wouldn't be the only pleasurable item on this Lumb Bank agenda.
The garden
Our tutors, Judy and Katie, joined the group for dinner and after coffee and a few mutterings as to the meanness of the evening's wine ration, we settled back to take in the week’s programme.
An early riser, I was surprised to find morning sessions weren’t to start before 10 am but I kept this to myself, allowing us time to write in the morning I presumed. We were to start with dialogue, viewpoint and other general stuff. Our intoductory task, to write a first meeting between two characters, getting over a sense of scene and place, with dialogue…. Show not tell and steer clear of adverbs, we were warned. A doddle I thought innocently, unaware my 'viewpoint' was about to be slapped down in no uncertain manner. Never again will I include 'shiver' and 'pleasurable' in the same sentence.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Reasons to be cheery

A few pictures from my garden with never a word in sight.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Get your kicks on route 6

‘Should you ever plan to motor west’ well north actually, but I was staying at Wester Lix, just off the A85, before you get into Killin (Perthshire) and it was route 6 not 66, and I was on a bike, but hey, when you’re on holiday your allowed a bit of poetic licence.

Not long ago we had a few days in a cottage to dream of, one that comes complete with sauna, deer in the garden and red squirrels looking cute in the larches, but best of all it has almost immediate access to the Sustrans National Cycle Network, the bit that goes from Killin to Callander. That’s nearly thirty miles of traffic free cycling, mainly on old railway tracks across the highlands.

Now I’m a bit of a fair weather cyclist. I’ve got all the kit, the bike with myriad gears, cycling tights, jaunty red cycling helmet. All I’m lacking are the big strong calves and lungs like a pair of organ bellows, and you can’t buy them in Halfords, but whether you’re a rush at it, macho, keen mountain biker or a more sedate pedal plodder like me, the Sustrans Cyclway is brilliant. (The whole route goes from Inverness to Glasgow, but give a woman a break, I’m not quite up to that level yet.)

From the Wester Lix/Killin end we started off downhill into a chilly east wind; within a few miles we were whizzing through a beautiful fern draped railway cutting and then on to the most romantic old viaduct with spectacular views over Glen Ogle. On the return journey, that same breeze was to prove very helpful. Not having the time (or the legs) to go the whole way to Callander, a round trip of nearly sixty miles, I’d intended in doing about twelve miles before returning. Being downhill for most of the way to begin with is a bit disconcerting, and the faster you go downhill, the more alarming is the thought of the long haul back. Maybe it was an illusion but apart from the very steep bit coming into Lochearnhead, where on the return journey even the ‘Keen mountain biker’ I’m married to, was heard to gasp, “It’s bl**dy steep!’ it seemed to be downhill on the way there and almost as easy on the way back, but maybe my calves were getting used to the pain by then.

Fortunately there’s a convenient refueling stop at the Old Library Tea Room, in Balquhidder, so I made time for a huge slice of poppy seed cake and an Earl Grey tea by the open fire, before making a short detour to pay my respects at the grave of that old reprobate Rob Roy MacGregor, before an unhurried cycle back to our cottage. I know if I was a hard core cyclist I’d have gone all the way, but doing the ride in little bits does leave the remaining twelve or so miles as an excuse for another visit to the lovely holiday cottage, as if I needed one.

(We stayed in one of the lovely Wester Lix Cottages

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Disability Rights for Mice

Now I could never be accused of over sentimentality when it comes to animals. I feed the birds, chase squirrels out of the garden and sometimes pick up the pieces my spiteful old moggy brings home. Not birds, they’re not his scene, he catches mice, in all shapes and sizes, but as far as I’m concerned there are only two sorts, the very quick and the dead.

If alive, he drops them on the kitchen floor, and then calls me. That distinct yowling noise has me running for the cardboard tube, the mouse scuttles up the tube and within minutes is back in the garden, bragging of its adventures, ready to be caught another day.
Dead, they’re picked up by the tail and slung out of the back door, a salutary reminder to others of their kind that, if you’re a walking dinner and only half way up the food chain, gardens are dangerous places. Only this time the dead mouse hanging by its tail about to be slung out, wriggled. If not dead, then maybe injured, fainted, shocked? Into a box for observation and a bit of apple, death anticipated within the hour. But it didn’t do the expected, and we forgot the granddaughters were coming.

“Can we keep it,” they squealed, donning metaphorical doctors’ outfits as they rushed through the door. Two blond heads together over the box, much discussion, a few sunflower seeds and a peanut later,
“We know what’s wrong. It’s sprained a leg.”
“Maybe we should…” I was reluctant; the word euthanasia was left hanging in the air.
“But you can’t, it’s disabled,” they wailed in shocked disbelief at my callously practical solution.

Heads together once more and soon, blu-tacked to the freezer, our instructions.

Anyone know what a wood mouse likes for dinner, ‘cos this one’s no longer stuck half way up the food chain? It fallen on three of its little feet, and busy resting the sprained one. I’m hoping for a miraculous recovery, otherwise it looks like we’ve got a pet.

P.S Grandad is at this moment up the workshop, making a cage.