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How to stay alive.

If I hadn’t been so clueless, I wouldn’t be here today.

The only reason I’m still alive is that, rather than gobbling a handful of pills in one go, I took each individually: thirty-five paracetamol and five of my Dad’s blue pills (for his bad back… this was 1989 and Viagra was but a glint in a drug rep’s eye). All this swallowing took enough time that my stomach rebelled and disgorged quite a lot of its contents before I could fall asleep.

I was sixteen years old at the time. And, yes, you have read this correctly. I once attempted suicide.

People are talking today on twitter about #youngmentalhealth, and seeing the hashtag made me realise that, actually, this is something I want to share. I shared it with my own daughter a year or two ago, after a local school student committed suicide, because I wanted her to know that know. I know how it is when you cannot go on… and I know how it is, the morning after, to be woken up, dopily, for your Saturday job at the library, a suicide note in your pocket, your family in shock and bewilderment. Frogmarched into the garden and walked up and down in the biting wind of a February morning. Rushed to the hospital. Stomach pumped. (I’d describe the pumping better if I could, but my brain doesn’t seem to remember it. All I have left is a couple of ‘flashbulbs': a doctor’s white coat gaping open, come on, Lynsey, we’ve got to do this, and the fact that my throat was being awkward, refusing to swallow the tube. (I always was contrary.)

Anyway, not that you need me to tell you this, but it’s horrible. Having your stomach pumped is horrible.

I was sky high for hours afterwards. A psychiatrist came and discussed my most intimate details with nothing for soundproofing except a plastic curtain. ‘These young people,’ stage-whispered the old lady next to me. ‘They don’t know how lucky they are.’

As I said, this was 1989. I’m not sure what it’s like these days, for an over-dosee, but back then they dumped you with everyone else in the general medical ward. You weren’t terribly popular either. You’d made extra work for the doctors and nurses. You didn’t know you were born, and what did you have to be sad about anyway? Your whole life was ahead of you.

That, of course, was the problem. That is the problem, when you’re really sick. A whole life is ahead of you. And what if it’s all as horrendous as this little bit of it?

If this was a story you’d call it far fetched, but a boy from my school was wheeled in, later that night, having taken an overdose of aspirin after a row with his girlfriend (his ears ringing tinnily because of it, which is one of the consequences). Amazingly enough, he suggested I get into bed with him. (Of all the places I’ve ever been hit on, etc etc.) I declined.

This whole time, although nobody told me, they still didn’t know if I’d live or I’d die. Paracetamol has that effect: once the damage is done, then it’s done.

I was lucky.

But the thing is, you see, I did wake up. I didn’t die. I was glad to wake up; I had come to my senses. It wasn’t too late, for me, and I want to say STOP if you’re thinking of ending your life. Stop and think. Stay alive for another five minutes, then five after that. There are good things ahead of you. Honestly. I promise. A porter came whistling in while I lay in that hospital bed, and he stood a vase of daffodils on my bedside table, and he didn’t say anything but he smiled at me. A whistling man, a smile, a vase of daffodils. That’s all it takes, sometimes. If this blog post can be somebody’s vase of daffodils – yours, maybe – then I’m glad I wrote it.

Stay alive, please.

Margaret Atwood

The year I grew balls.

A book, a chair, a glass of wine. Such are the ingredients for a happy evening.

Add Margaret Atwood to the recipe and you have a properly fantastic evening.

Not just Margaret Atwood, but Margaret Atwood at the Book Hive reading from her new collection of stories Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood shaking your hand, Margaret Atwood telling you inspirational tales of Robert Louis Stevenson’s semi-accidental creation of Treasure Island, Margaret Atwood signing the following on your copy of Stone Mattress:

Margaret Atwood

The reason she signed this was because I asked her to. This is what I do now. I decide what I want, and I ask for it.

People can always say no, after all. (On occasion, they do.) They can also say yes.

Last year, 2014, was my annus horribilis. This year, so far, has been awesome. The fun started just before Christmas, at the tail end of the annus horribilis. I woke up one morning with balls, and decided I’d take a quick punt on tweeting a blog post of mine to the pianist and mental health advocate James Rhodes.

Moments later, this happened:

When James Rhodes retweeted me!!!! Hurrah!

Shortly afterwards, Derren Brown (who probably needs no introduction) posted the link on his Facebook page.:

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As a consequence I got my first ‘1K’ likes:

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And I had the HUGE reward of being told, by several people, that my blog had helped them. Really helped them.

Good things do emerge from the ether sometimes, with no warning, but often – more often, it seems – they are likely to happen to those who go after them: don’t ask, don’t get, after all.

And so, in the spirit of living dangerously (NB by which I mean relatively dangerously: you’re unlikely to see me engaging in extreme sports any time in the next century) I applied for a TV game show (and got through the audition… watch this space!) and managed to land a lovely job teaching narrative strategies (posh name for ‘storytelling’) to animation students at the Norwich University of the Arts. I joined the campaign to save our local school from academisation (as I posted about last time) and ended up, somehow, on my soapbox as the opening speaker at Saturday’s demo.

I’ve set up my own Write Club in partnership with Norwich’s Maddermarket Theatre (beginning on April 11th, Norfolk peeps, if you’re interested) and, probably best of all, I made a guest appearance on the youtube channel of a certain Lucylou:

The awesome Lucylou would probably love you forever if you clicked through to youtube and gave her a thumbs up, by the way…

This time last year I was down in the mouth. I was cross and resentful and couldn’t bear anyone to mention my ex, his new partner or even their two little pugs. But things change. Yesterday, among numerous Mothers’ Day treats planned by the aforementioned Lucylou, we took the puggies to the park together.

And, as you can see, it was awesomely fun. If slobbery. Fun things often are slobbery, though, aren’t they?

So here’s to 2015: my year of living both dangerously and slobberyishly. (And making up words if I want to.)

And, finally, let me make clear that the having of testicles isn’t remotely connected to courage or brass neck or bravery. I just like the word ‘balls’.

That boy knew how to lean.

Change and the common girl.

I’m having a bit of a renaissance.

When I was fourteen I went to an all-night screening of John Hughes films at the local ABC and, watching Pretty in Pink, I remember despising (strong word, but the right one) the subplot about Iona, the thirty-something record shop owner, and her pursuit of true love.

Why is she even bothering, thought fourteen-year-old Lynsey? She’s so old, it’s too late, let’s see more of Steff (James Spader) leaning expensively on cars.

That boy knew how to lean.

That boy knew how to lean.

I wasn’t a complete idiot, though. This was always my favourite scene, even then (although I probably, yes, definitely used to have a massive heart-swell when OMD played at the prom where Andie and Blane – yes, you are reading those names correctly – were reunited at last over some oddly-sliced pink silk and chiffon. PLOT SPOILER. Oops, sorry).

Iona, the old-timer, is the disturbingly young looking creature in the pillbox hat.

These hastily-assembled teenage opinions came roaring back to bite me on the bum a few years ago when my daughter made the comment (apropos of something I’ve since forgotten): ‘What do you know? You’re thirty-five, you’re nearly dead!’

So, yes, I am now older than the old-timer Iona. Curiously, I have wound up giving that name to a character in The Novel That Dare Not Speak Its Name, so perhaps she had more of an influence on me than I realised.

What I want to say is that it’s fine over here, on the other side. Over the hill. The big hill that, in my imagination, has the numbers 4 and 0 in the style of the Hollywood sign. (The hill that seems mostly to be a part of the female landscape, IMHO, whereas men, perhaps, really understand this particular hill when they’re closer to 50. Or even 60. But I digress…)

The thing about being over the hill is that you’ve climbed it already. So, first of all, you deserve a goddamn cup of tea, in a fancy flask. And a biscuit. Give your old feet a rub. Have a natter with your fellow climbers about watercolour painting and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and admire a passing bird with royal blue plumage.

And then, oh aged one, hoist those binoculars because there is lots still to see on the other side of the hill. And the going is, well, it’s less hilly. One might say it’s Norfolk. It tends towards flatness.

Edward Seago: 'A Norfolk Landscape'.  In hills, it is somewhat deficient.

Edward Seago: ‘A Norfolk Landscape’.
In hills, it is somewhat deficient.

The thing is, you see, that until you’ve climbed the hill you can’t see over it. You can’t see what’s there. The young still milling about at the base of the hill, or a little way up it, can’t peek yet (or possibly peak) because ‘over the hill’ is a place you can only see once you get there.

And it’s freaking awesome! This won’t be everyone’s experience, I know. And it wasn’t mine, either, until a few months ago. All I could think of, sadly, daily, were the things I’d lost. The ways I’d changed. The wrinkly crinkly face I was growing. The strange sudden urge to throw ice cubes down my top every so often. The inability to walk twenty yards without dripping in sweat.

And, yes, those things still happen. I’m still wrinkly, crinkly and, often, incredibly hot (and not in a good way). But, you know what?

Meh.

There’s so much else to be getting on with. So many dreadful and wonderful things have happened in my life already: the dreadful things – well, no matter how dreadful, they’re rarely forever. And as for the wonderful things, it’s your choice to acknowledge them or not. A wonderful thing (as I said in another post, once) can be watching the wind on a stinging nettle, because so many wonderful things had to happen for you to be watching that wind and that nettle: the gift of sight (and it is a gift), the gift of freedom, liberty, aloneness (yes, they’re all gifts too), alertness. Aliveness.

I did a bit of rabble rousing yesterday, at a rally to save our local school from academisation.

Photo by ace photographer Lucy White.

Photo by ace photographer Lucy White.

I even, briefly (and silently) made the local news.

Angry and be-hatted of Norfolk.

Angry and be-hatted of Norfolk.

When I was younger, I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have bothered, and I wouldn’t have felt confident enough. I was too busy heaving myself up the hill (with a pushchair, to boot). There are lots, and lots, and lots of women in the Norfolk flatlands over that hill who have things to say and do and share. I never particularly thought I was worth it, to quote L’Oreal, because (a) upbringing (we’re kind of mousy in my family) and (b) what if I make an arse of myself?

But so what. It’s no biggie, making an arse of yourself. You always feel better the day after doing something, trying something, than the day after running away from it all.

So, don’t run away, my fellow hill climbers. You already ran up a hill (or crawled, or plodded): the scenery’s lovely, the tea’s hot, the biscuits are chocolate. There’s no going back, and it’s foolish to try. You can no more be 20 again than 11, or 8, or 4… Now is now. You are you. I’ll raise my fancy flask to that.

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Alzheimer’s, and other embuggerances.

Today Terry Pratchett has died. Today Terry Pratchett has died, and although I confess I’ve read embarrassingly little of his fiction this death has hit me harder than any other ‘celebrity’ death.

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This is going to be an odd little blog. A departure from my usual tone. My Dad was diagnosed with PCA, the particular kind of Alzheimer’s from which Terry Pratchett suffered, in the months following Pratchett’s own diagnosis. For that reason, my family and I have followed the very public progress of his illness with more interest than most. I sat down, one evening in (I think) 2007 and watched him, on a TV documentary, failing to tie his tie, trying a new-fangled treatment (a sort of futuristic hat), facing his diagnosis with the good-natured kind of bravery we all, secretly, hope we’d find inside ourselves in the same situation.

It’s a hell of a diagnosis. To face it as sunnily as he seemed to is a wonderful thing indeed. I’ll find myself suddenly, usually when driving, remembering moments, less than a decade ago, when my dad was a different man entirely. When my dad was still my dad. One day, not yet (thank God), there’s a chance he won’t know who I am. There’s a chance he won’t know I’m his daughter. The nerves in his brain are dying. His cortex and hippocampus are shrinking. He can’t read a book, do a crossword. He struggles to put down a cup on a table. It’s hard and it’s cruel and it’s not bloody fair.

As I write this, I’m raising my glass of white wine to my dad (in the full knowledge it ought to be beer, his tipple of choice), because I’ll always, always, be your daughter, even if, one distant day, you no longer know it.

And I’m raising my glass to Terry Pratchett too, this man I never knew, and barely read, for his bravery and his good nature. As a human being, he was top bloody drawer.

Rest in peace.

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The Spam Chronicles: an open letter to Angelina from Minsk, Belorussia.

It’s been ages since I was offered a larger willy.

Last week I was hailed as, variously, an Anal Explorer and a Pussy Sensei (my cats attest to the latter qualification). More recently I’ve been swimming in invitations for lifelong love in the arms of young Eastern European women.

Hello friend, I am writing this letter to invite you to this website, with an intention of meeting you there. Maybe you are the Mr. Dependable, the Mr. Perfect and exactly the one I search for. Well I have always wanted to meet foreigners who are so interesting with their gentle and sophisticated nature and stylish looks. My Prince charming should be reliable, loyal, humble and courageous or in other words the perfect man and a dream-come-true for me. I am Angelina and I am from Minsk, Belorussia. Ours is a small country with lots of political problems but we still try to be happy and live life to the fullest. I am a straightforward and humble girl who believes in finding my true love sooner or later. 

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It must be fun writing spam. (Second only to choosing colours for paint shades.)

As it turns out, replying to spam is also fun…

Hello Angelina from Minsk, Belorussia! I received your ‘letter’ with interest. (FYI in English we call this an ‘email’.) I confess I am somewhat perplexed. You refer to me as your friend (my apologies if we’ve already met and I’ve simply forgotten)! I must confess I am ignorant on the subject of Minsk (besides knowing that Phoebe’s scientist boyfriend, David, was relocated there in Episode 10 of the famous television show, Friends, entitled ‘The One With the Monkey’. Do you receive this programme in Minsk, Belorussia, Angelina?)

I’m sorry to say I shall not be joining you on the website you mention. 

Allow me to tell you my story, Angelia from Minsk, Belorussia, as you’ve been so kind as to tell me yours. Or perhaps… might I call you Angie? You referred to me by a number of touching epithets: ‘perfect’, ‘dependable’, ‘gentle’, ‘sophisticated’, ‘stylish’. You also referred to me as ‘a man’. Dependable I may be, and one might also make a case for ‘gentle’. Sophisticated and stylish are rather less certain and surely, Angelina, you remember the final line of Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like it Hot?’ Nobody, Angelina, is perfect. 

With one of your assertions, however, I must take issue. A moment’s exploratory foraging in the underpantal region has reinforced for me the pre-existing notion that I am, indeed, a woman. On this issue, as so many others, I’m afraid I must disappoint you, Angie from Minsk. 

Minsk.

I’ve never said that word aloud before. I’m saying it now, Angie from Minsk, as I picture you in your small country with lots of political problems. 

It’s only fair to inform you that you are currently competing for my affections with Yoshiko Centini, location unknown, possessor of ample breasts and butt, and Eugenia, a middle-class girl from Petrozavodsk in Russia, whose upbringing has rendered her free-thinking and liberal. (Amplitude of physical attributes as yet unknown). Poor Eugenia, so busy in the ‘computer labs’ of her software firm that she rarely has a chance to ‘mingle’ in nightclubs. ‘Left behind’ in personal life. My sympathies, Angie, are beginning to drift towards Eugenia…

If I just knew a little more of your taste in literature, Angie. What films do you enjoy watching? Do you have any firm beliefs on God’s existence? Where do you stand on monogamy?

Is this you, Angelina from Minsk?

Is this you, Angelina from Minsk?

I’m wondering, you see, if you’ve thought sufficiently of the day-to-day nature of ‘true love’ as opposed to the fantasy version exemplified by your reference to ‘Prince Charming’? One might say that ‘Charming’ and Cinderella have remarkably little on which to base a lifetime together. For instance, does Cinders enjoy long walks, foreign films, nights out with friends? Does Charming have a good sense of humour? Perhaps he is passive aggressive, controlling. He might be a drinker.

It’s hard to be sure of these things from an evening’s dancing together, abruptly severed at the stroke of midnight. Frogs may turn to princes, in the realm of fairytale, and indeed, in the realm of what we call ‘Real Life’, a prince may suddenly, nay shockingly, unleash his inner frog, so to speak, on possession of his ‘princess’. 

I’m concerned for you, Angie. You’re too pure for this world. ‘Reliable, loyal, humble and courageous’ are certainly good qualities to aim for in your search for lifelong love, but you may find the juxtaposition of ‘humble’ and ‘courageous’ somewhat rare once you move from the digital dating realm to the actual. How ‘humble’, in fact, was Prince Charming in the aforementioned fairytale? I saw no evidence for this. Neither do I feel sufficiently informed to make clear judgement on the issue of his bravery and/or reliability. 

'Charming' is rarely synonymous with the other qualities you profess to be seeking, Angelina.

‘Charming’ is rarely synonymous with the other qualities you profess to be seeking, Angelina.

Let me end this response by wishing you all the very best in your search for love. Had I, after all, decided to pursue the tempting offer of an eight inch appendage with which to give the ultimate in sexy satisfaction all night long, perhaps I could have been your ‘dream-come-true’. Let me humbly, if not courageously, suggest that you search within for the fulfilment of your dreams, Angelina from Minsk, Belorussia. Certainly you shouldn’t count on a prince to fulfil them for you. Indeed, if one can believe the recent revelations with regard to a member of our royal family here in England, it may be a very different variety of ‘happy ending’ that he’s hoping for. 

Yours in sisterhood,

Lynsey

Teacher writing on a blackboard

Other people’s work.

One of the hardest things about being a writer (unless you happen to be Stephen King, Jackie Collins, John Grisham etc) is having to spend the lion’s share of your time reading other people’s work.

You have to do this because it’s notoriously difficult to make a living from actually writing. Unlike bank managers, say, who are able to pretty much exclusively manage banks for a living, writers are expected to also have ‘day jobs’. A novel that takes upwards of two years to write (and some take much, much longer) could earn you far less than the minimum wage. A sobering thought, she writes (reaching for the wine glass beside her).

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An ‘umble writer begging for a crust of bread.

Some of you who read this blog will already know that my ‘day job’ (and, often, my night job too) is Creative Writing Teacher. if you’re interested in seeing the sort of things I teach, I direct you to the Exercises menu up above (i.e. at the top of this screen; it isn’t floating in the sky, I’m afraid. Although I sincerely wish it was). The actual teaching is fine, and often fun, and even though the cows have come home hours ago I’m still talking about writing… which is my silly way of saying I rarely run out of things to say about fiction. I love it. I love helping people get better at writing, and (most of) my students are extraordinarily nice human beings. They send me hampers of Cornish goodies to enjoy whilst watching the tennis and buy me notebooks at art exhibitions and give me ruddy lovely books for Christmas. (Students, you know who you are.) Many of my students have become friends, and that’s A Good Thing.

So I’m not carping. But I spend hours, and hours, and hours reading other people’s work. I spend hours, and hours, and hours writing comments about other people’s work, and then suddenly I turn around and… shit! I was meant to be writing a novel.

Today is one of those days. I literally (I really do mean literally) cannot remember what I’m writing about. Which scene was I on? What’s my novel called? How does one write a sentence that isn’t a response to a sentence already written by a creative writing student? Why does an ice wind blow when I open the Scrivener file with my novel on it? (And while we’re asking questions: is it positive or negative that my dishwasher’s broken? Washing dishes by hand is labour intensive, yes, but Agatha Christie got her best ideas while washing up…)

The weird thing is, I think teaching has made me a better writer. I’m much faster, now, at deciding what I think about a sentence, and landing – with the accuracy of my cats in the vicinity of a spider – on the precise problem that’s causing an ending to fall flat, or the reason a piece feels empty, or the single thing (sometimes the single word) that needs adding to make a thing make sense. I’ve got better and better at structural editing. Words and sentences have always felt either ’round’ or ‘non-round’ to me (round being good…), but now I can feel the roundness or non-roundness of an entire story, or scene, with fairly impressive speed. (Other people’s, I hasten to add. I’m still more tortoise than hare when it comes to my own work.) I’m good at striking out sentences that are nothing but echoes of what’s gone before. If a sentence says nothing new, then you ought to remove it. I’m good on the difference between story and plot, and I ought to have some kind of cape and a tight lycra costume for my superhuman efforts to eliminate the twin beasts of the Info Dump and the Unnecessarily Fancy Speech Tag.

All this makes me better, faster, simpler, more honest. Reading is reading (whether published or not), and writers ought to read. Must read. (I doff my cap here to Andrew Miller who writes, in the Guardian’s masterclass on fiction – ebook available here – that a painter who wishes to paint a tree must do two things: look at trees, and look at pictures of trees. Well said, Sir.) It isn’t the reading, per se, that’s the problem: it’s the mulling, and pondering, and probing, and mulling, and pondering, and commenting, and wondering, and mulling, and pondering, etc that a conscientious teacher does, and does at great length, quite often, while the clock ticks, and the day darkens, and the memory of her own novel creeps quietly into a corner and lightly festoons itself with cobwebs.

I'm not remotely religious... this was the best image I could find of a dusty book.

I’m not remotely religious… this was the best image I could find of a dusty book.

Anyway. That said, I must go. I have marking to do. And dishes to wash. And a novel to write. But that’s another story…

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What’s the point of art?

What’s the point of art, eh?

Does society owe artists a living?

Such were the topics for debate on Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’ today. I listened while hanging out the washing on the multitude of radiators and clotheshorses jam-packed into the tiny flat I share with one daughter, two large pets (having had to say goodbye to our very lovely house-bunny earlier this month), and several hundred books, DVDs, and CDs.

Shelfie.

Shelfie. (The book I’m holding is ‘Jar Baby’ by the very awesome Hayley Webster… which I have been too busy – writing my own paltry novel – to actually read yet… Such is life.)

I carried on listening while various callers rang in to explain the point of art, or to moan that their hard-earned taxes were being relentlessly frittered away by men in tights, or frizzy-haired women sculpting vaginas from plasticine and nasal hair (these may not have been the actual words), or to point out (as if it was axiomatic) that art is a middle class affair for people whose wallets are bristling with fifty quid notes. If art can’t pay for itself, why should we?

Why indeed?

Because of people like me.

I grew up in a seventies house with wood chip walls, and salad cream (instead of mayonnaise), and a packet of dried spaghetti that sat at the back of the cupboard, unused, for at least five years. My dad got drunk in the pub every Saturday. Mum did the ironing in front of the telly. Pot Noodles were treats. As a kid I waltzed round in my brother’s handed-down jeans (which were awesome, with crossed swords on the knees). I never got the Play-Doh hairdresser’s I begged for. When money was tighter than usual I sat, aged seven, concocting a plan: I would cut all the grass in the garden with scissors, thus saving… electricity, I suppose (even though, as I seem to recall, we had a push mower). It seemed like a very good plan at the time.

I was far, far poorer than all of my friends. They had houses with hallways. Their parents owned classical music. They went to the South of France for their hols.

By comparison, we were poor as church mice. I still am as poor as a church mouse.

But I loved to read.

More than that, I excelled at reading. In fact, I was better at reading – and writing – than lots of the wealthier, middle class kids. I mean, look at me: I use words like ‘axiomatic’. (Actually, I don’t, very often. I heard Lou Reed use it in an interview twenty years ago, and looked it up.)

Because of that love for reading, I managed to do well in school. I did well enough in school that I went to university (the first person – the only person – to do so in my whole family). My brother loved drawing, and ought to have gone down the art school route; but didn’t. Didn’t feel able. Wasn’t encouraged at school (because he was less academic than me) and has wound up in one job after another that he doesn’t really like. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the last few years, it’s the value of having a job that you like.

Shall we pause for a moment and think of a world without any literature? Music? Film? Television? Perhaps, now and then, a few shillings are spent on the sort of esoteric, elitist work that’s never going to set the world alight, and perhaps, yes, you could say it’s a waste of the taxpayer’s money when people need hip replacements, heart bypasses, chemotherapy. But the money for hip replacements and heart bypasses and chemotherapy exists a hundred, a thousand, a million times over in the purses of the wealthiest one percent of the country who live, parasitically, off the worker-bee efforts of millions of minimally-rewarded Britons. It isn’t a modern-day restaging of Tristan and Isolde that’s eating into the NHS budget; it’s the fundamental unfairness of the capitalist system. And if you accept (as everyone seems to) that communism – although sensible and fair in principle – inevitably gets effed-up in practice, then let’s all understand the same about capitalism. The cream on the top of the milk is going to fat cats with private planes and plastically-altered wives (or husbands, of course), not frizzy-haired ladies and their plasticine vaginas.

And even if it was… so what? For every plasticine vagina there’s a Rembrandt. For every overly-ambitious Metal Machine Music (sorry, Lou) there’s an Emperor Concerto.

Imagine a world without Beethoven's music... (subsidised, like Mozart's, by the patronage system).

Imagine a world without Beethoven’s music… (subsidised, like Mozart’s, by the patronage system).

A crucial part of art is failure. Another crucial part is waste. If you don’t want to subsidise art – any art – then I hope you like sitting alone in silence with nothing to look at and nothing to read. If you want people to excel in their artistry then you must fund their failures as well as their successes. Of course I wouldn’t choose art over life-saving surgery. But art makes the life-saving surgery worth having. From cave paintings and tales told round campfires to men in tights and plasticine vaginas, humans need art.

What’s the point of life without it?

Blog book quiz

Lynsey’s completely arbitrary, rather silly, possibly unfair Literary Quiz.

It’s Sunday and I’m in a silly mood. I’m also in training for an upcoming audition for a certain ITV quiz show… hence I’m currently boning up on UK PMs and US Presidents and Kings and Queens of England and/or Scotland and even the periodic table.

Which got me thinking…

Q: How come I’ve never had a quiz on this blog?

A: Because I’ve only just worked out how to do them.

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Anyway… For those of you, like me, who enjoy answering random questions of a Sunday morning, here’s my (fairly pointless, just for fun, absolutely no cash prizes) Literary Quiz… I would be tickled pink if you’d post your scores in the comment box!

My face when someone asks about my novel.

When I’m Queen (PS this book is driving me fricking crazy)

If words were beans you could feed the whole world with the words I’ve expended in writing this novel.

You could paper the walls of houses up and down the length and breadth of England with the drafts I’ve printed out and chucked away.

If you stood all my sentences end to end they would stretch to the moon.

if you broke them all up into letters you’d need a Scrabble bag the size of Russia to hold them.

And yet… and yet… and yet…

I still haven’t finished it.

That word haunts me. Still. As in: ‘You’re not still writing that novel, are you?’

Another favourite is yet. As in: ‘Haven’t you finished that book yet?’

My face when someone asks about my novel.

My face when someone asks about my novel.

When I’m queen we shall outlaw ‘still’ and ‘yet’ in all public discourse on the subject of printed works and their nearness to completion and/or the duration of time thus far expended with the purpose of completing said printed work.

We shall, in addition, outlaw the asking of these questions by all persons not sufficiently, themselves, acquainted with said process.

Prithee, kind sir, refrain from your impertinent questioning.

Prithee, kind sir, refrain from your impertinent questioning. Instead, bringeth cake.

When I’m queen, those persons who, personally, have no prior, personal experience of the production of a printed work of novel-icular length, shall be disallowed from the raising of eyebrows when excuses are made responses are given. Any and all persons encountered by the person encountering Herculean labours in novel-icular service shall select from the list 7(b) to be found in Appendix 12(f), titled: Soothing Statements. Under no circumstances should comparisons ever be drawn with rocket science or coal mining. In such cases (as indeed sanctioned by the Pope himself) a punch in the face may be forthcoming.

To speak plainly…

I think I may have stuffed up my novel.

Gulp. (And other four letter words.)

So, yes, I am still writing my novel and, no, I haven’t finished yet. Soothing Statements gratefully received.

Cigar-smoking Princess Leia.

The Four Horse Pills of the Apocalypse.

A couple of months ago, my doctor prescribed four horse pills every morning.

They’re bloody HUGE. And I hate taking them. Admittedly they’re not as big as lemons… but at least if they were lemons, I’d know to make lemonade with them.

So what do you do, dear readers, when life gives you horse pills?

Answer: make art with them. (On second thoughts, maybe that ought to be ‘art’…)

Handily, I also take other pills of varying sizes (as you’ll see), and I present a few of the highlights here for your viewing pleasure. LOOK AWAY NOW IF OFFENDED BY PILLS IN THE SHAPE OF WILLIES.

Medication giraffe!

Giraffe.

Flower.

Flower. Somewhat denuded. (He loves me, he loves me not, etc.)

One-armed tennis player...

One-armed tennis player…

One-armed ballerina (or stereotypical librarian) holding lollipop.  Of course.

One-armed ballerina (or stereotypical librarian) holding lollipop.
Of course.

Man on Segway looking at a Mondrian.

Man on Segway looking at a Mondrian.

Cigar-smoking Princess Leia.

Cigar-smoking Princess Leia.

One-armed man. Essentials intact.

One-legged man. Essentials intact.

One-armed man semi-impressed by Fifty Shades of Grey.

One-legged man semi-impressed by Fifty Shades of Grey.

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Fifty Shades of Hurray! Why you shouldn’t wait for Christian Grey to come spank you, but should, in fact, spank yourself. Or something.

I was three when I learnt how to read. It was awesome. ‘Oh brave new world,’ I (probably) said, ‘that has such goodly creatures in’t!’ It felt like a secret. A secret that adults were keeping. And now I was part of the club. There were all these black words on white pages, and under those words, or inside them – by some kind of alchemy – there was all this cool shit going on. I mean, WHOAH. While your body was under the covers, lamp on, with one eye closed and the other one squinting to carry on reading a little bit longer, your mind could be anywhere. Anywhere! And you didn’t even need to take a sick-bag for the journey.

Me being me, I didn’t journey terribly far. I was too poor to bother with Swallows and Amazons: that was for middle class kids (they had posh schools and trips to exciting places in real life; literature had to work harder to give them a thrill). As for me – stick a toasting fork in my hand and gently swell my bosom with a sense of school pride, and I’m happy as proverbial poo-covered pigs.

Words were everywhere. Hell, yeah. And even though some of the words had clearly missed a trick (to this day I remember the deep sense of personal affront on discovering that chimleys were actually, disappointingly, not chimleys at all but chimneys) I loved them as if they were tiny, mewling kittens with pink noses. Carrying fifty-pound notes in their mouths. And sitting on top of a freshly-mixed gin and tonic.

All of which is to say:

I like reading.

I like reading so much that I’m not even opposed to ebooks. (Back in the day there were probably monks who thought the printing press was the work of Satan.) Yes, I own a Kindle. Sorry, decent citizens who have their priorities properly in order: for me, morals are quashed by the need to have more books now, now, NOW from the world’s biggest book shop – and if you’re not excited by the idea of the world’s biggest bookshop AT YOUR FINGERTIPS then clearly your inner reading geek is less vocal than mine.

I don’t love ebooks: they’re ugly and they don’t smell of paper (yet) and I weep for the absence of page numbers (because that’s just wrong, damned wrong), but a train trip with a Kindle is a happier thing than a train trip with a paper copy of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests or Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (and I can say this because I own the mega-beast olde worlde versions of both books). My failure, so far, to finish The Paying Guests is partly due to the relentless world-building where there ought to be plot, but mainly because it’s too big and pointy (hardback copy) to be read in bed.

Where’s the Fifty Shades stuff, you’ll be wondering round about now?

Well, a long time ago I was reading (of course) about star signs. Mine is Virgo. ‘Virgoans make great bus drivers,’ the book said. ‘They’d rather read than have sex.’

One of my fellow Virgoans.  (Fairly sure he preferred sex to reading, though.)

One of my fellow Virgoans. (Fairly sure he preferred sex to reading, though.)

In a similar vein, I gave books to a friend once for her birthday (we were seventeen at the time) and her younger sister, who witnessed the gift-opening, looked up at me with jaw a-gape and said, ‘Lynsey, why are you so boring?’

A boring, celibate, bus driver. That’s me. Apparently.

Just occasionally (Henry Miller, anyone?) books are so saucy they make people want to have sex while reading, or immediately afterwards (one hopes, for the sake of secondhand book-buyers). One of those books, as you can’t fail to know, is Fifty Shades of Grey. 

As a resident of Planet Earth it’s equally hard not to know the following two facts:

1. Valentine’s Day is coming.

2. Fifty Shades of Grey THE MOVIE is also coming. (Oh yeah, baby, it’s coming. It’s coming right in your face.) Fifty Shades of Grey THE MOVIE EVENT OF THE CENTURY is, purely coincidentally, coming right in your face the day before Valentine’s Day. And if you didn’t want a spangled riding crop and a set of fluffy handcuffs for your Valentine’s gift the following morning then, tough shit, because – if you’ve been to see the movie with your other half, or intend to see the movie, or even once remarked over your morning cornflakes that the movie was showing at your local multiplex – that’s what you’ll be getting.

Okay, listen up, everyone. I’ve read two chapters of Fifty Shades and, as Bill Hicks once said (with his usual Anglo-Saxonisms) of Basic Instinct… 

If you don’t believe me, try this test.

Reimagine every scene with John Major in the place of Christian Grey.

John Major is grey. He is also (probably) a Christian. He even gets angry (real angry, baby).

Look how angry he is. If you don't pay your poll tax he'll come and spank you.

Look how angry he is. If you don’t pay your poll tax he’ll come and spank you.

While Prime Minister of this jolly old isle he was shafting this woman:

Is that an egg she's holding or did she *actually* break his balls?

Is that an egg she’s holding or did she *actually* break his balls?

And you may find it helps to imagine her in the role of… hold on while I google this. Anastasia Steele. (Ah, yes. How clever. She, in fact, is the ‘steely’ one. Do I pass Dickensian Naming 101?)

(Unspecified time passes, during which you reimagine the entire book with Prime Minister Major and Edwina the Ball Breaker… the entire trilogy, if you’re a hardened case… or if you have a secret thing for greying politicians, in which case I cannot help you).

Okay.

You’re back in the room. Back in reality.

Still feeling horny?

Excellent! And now that you’re not feeling horny anymore, you can read with your brain instead of your loins.

50 shades

Where was her editor?

Unknown-3

I’ll just have a quick look at the inside of my eyelids…

Maybe the red ink ran out – I mean, literally, the entire world’s supply of red ink – and the editor (waking, startled, from her impromptu nap, cheek coated with dribble) thought: ‘Ah, what the hell. They’ll be too busy masturbating to notice the adverbs’ and went back to sleep.

That’s the ONLY possible explanation.

So what’s going on, world? Can it really be true that 97% of the adult female population wants to be spanked and bossed by exceptional entrepreneurs whose time is extraordinarily precious? Are we yearning and burning for the egomaniacal attentions of some mega-industrialist tycoon we’ve never heard of? I mean, damn my hair if I’m wrong, but isn’t that all a bit Super Soft Shampoo 1975?

Here I am sighing. And it’s not even a sigh of post-coital contentment. What I want to say to everyone who NEVER NORMALLY READS, BUT HAD TO READ THIS BOOK is: bugger off back to your back issues of Cosmo. 

If you don’t bugger off back to your back issues of Cosmo, then eventually the book trade will only ever want books this badly written. Worse still, men will only ever want women who submit to their every whim, and women will think it’s okay to choose men who are rich and want to hit them, and all manner of disturbing shit will happen.

Let me put this out there into the universe: I don’t want to be spanked. I don’t fancy Christian Grey. I won’t be watching the film, hot-faced with embarrassment in the darkness (because, seriously, who wants to watch a porno in a cinema?), and I won’t be receiving anything – not even a nipple clamp – for Valentine’s Day. That doesn’t mean I won’t be celebrating. I’ll be celebrating the fact that I’m happy by myself.

I’ll be having a chilled white wine or two in the company of the yellow roses I bought myself the other day and watching a film of my choosing and reading in bed with my one squinty eye. It’s all right, you know, being single. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t. It’s fifty shades of hurray, if you secretly like spending more time in your head than hanging out with other people.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bus to drive.

Settle down, children. The lesson is about to begin.

101 Hand Gestures for Teachers: A Manual

If I didn’t have hands, would I still be able to teach? My lovely daughter came to my class with me last week to take some promotional pictures (watch this space). I’ve never seen myself teach before.

And now I have.

I’ll say no more.

Settle down, children. The lesson is about to begin.

Settle down, children. The lesson is about to begin.

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Basic Numeracy is a government requirement, students. You can use your fingers if it helps.

I was all, like, WTF?

I was all, like, WTF?

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I’m not even kidding. It was *this* small.

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HahahahahaSNORT

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So I caught this fish…

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Secret Teacher Hand Signal: ‘Class is sucking. Activate the ejector seat.’

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I’m not entirely agreeing with what you’re saying. But I’ll listen anyway. And then I’ll pounce.

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Roight, you. See me after class.

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Mwa ha ha.

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Go high on gas, low on electric. Secretly trading shares with those in the know.

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And this is the internationally recognised signal for ‘I am a tourist in your country. Please take my photograph’.

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Anyone seen my false teeth? Pretty sure they’re down here somewhere…

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All right, who’s guffed?

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Let me just chew this over a while.

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You, and you. There’s the door. Get yourselves through it.

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Is it just me, or is it raining in here? (This signal also referred to as The Boob Cup)

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My mouth may be talking about Point of View. My hands have just arranged the assassination of a minor dissident.

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Teacher Pose #72: ‘Looking Down the Nose’.

There was this rabbit...

There was this rabbit…

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There was this lop-eared rabbit…

Oh, there's the bell! Time to go home and watch 'Wolf Hall' on the telly box.

Oh, there’s the bell! Time to go home and watch ‘Wolf Hall’ on the telly box.

Me and my boyfriend.

Being somewhere else.

We all want to be somewhere else sometimes. We all want to be someone else. When I was fourteen I wanted to be Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend, Sloane, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. 

Me and Ferris.

Ferris and me.

I wrote a fictional diary from Sloane’s perspective. I didn’t want to be the girlfriend of Matthew Broderick (who played Ferris B, for all you people who’ve lived under rocks for the last thirty years), because it wasn’t Matthew Broderick I wanted; it was the atmosphere of Ferris Bueller. It was the blue sky of Chicago mornings, the city parade, the Smiths song on the soundtrack, the kids holding hands in the gallery, the race through his neighbours’ suburban back yards to get home on time.

As I write this I’m watching Don’t Look Now for the umpteenth time, and even though the drowning rips to me pieces there’s something pure and clear about it: the water is watery, the grass is grass-like, her little red coat and red tights have a kind of perfection about them: red as red can be. Later on, I like the Venetian hotel they stay in, the stained glass in the church, Donald Sutherland’s moustache, Julie Christie’s nipples in her brown jumper.

Don't Look Now

Don’t Look Now: awful, horrible, emotional… but somehow perfect too.

I never planned to write this post. I was meant to be posting another post entirely, yesterday, while it was snowing (for all of ten minutes), but something about it was wrong. Fake. Squeezed out of me like the pink goop they use to make Chicken McNuggets. And now I am meant to be writing (The Novel), but failing to write it. I’ve poured a glass of wine, lit candles. I’ve listened to music, Coffitivity, ASMR. Nothing’s happening.

So I’m putting on films for inspiration, much as I’ve lit a peony candle to make the room smell pretty. I don’t really watch them; I soak up the atmosphere. I like the being-somewhere-else-ness of a really good film. And I like to be in the presence of art when I’m trying to make it myself. In particular I like Kubrick films for this purpose: 2001 is the obvious choice, but I’ll often feel quite aggressively arty after watching A Clockwork Orange. Other good atmospheres can be found in:

If… (Lindsay Anderson)
Bright Star (Jane Campion)
Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol)

Am I the only writer who does this? When I’m utterly, utterly blocked, like a failed game of Tetris, I’ll take out my notebook and write a description of what’s on the screen. But I’ve got to the sex bit in Don’t Look Now so I think, on reflection, I won’t do that. I’ll return to The Novel, and try to turn the bloody lights out (1970s Britain) without saying they were plunged into darkness. Wish me luck.

A writer in the field, searching for Something to Write About.

The pornographic stapler, and a wee nomination.

First of all, an apology. This was supposed to be with you days ago. (Incidentally, this is how most of my correspondence begins.) Two things account for the lateness:

(a) we’ve only just begun… (if you could imagine this sung by Karen Carpenter, it would help) the teaching term, and I’m knee deep in exciting things called Schemes of Work;

(b) I’ve been working a lot in our lovely library (the busiest in the country, I’m told) and although the library is lovely it won’t let me access my blog (as I mentioned here) for reasons of PORNOGRAPHIC CONTENT. At some point I need to get off my ass and walk to the desk a few paces away and ask them how I might reinstate access to my blog, owing to the fact that IT ISN’T PORNOGRAPHIC, but that would involve taking action (albeit of a very limited sort) and I’m not great at taking action (although I am getting better at it). And the business of getting the best table to work at (the one with the view of Norwich’s spiry skyline) always, immediately, becomes the most important thing when I enter the room. (Although I rarely do get it, just FYI, and yesterday I surrendered it because I was making too much noise with my stapler and I could see the woman next to me would have told me to go away if she hadn’t been English.) (Being English I decided to preempt a possible ‘scene’ and scurry away to a distant table.) One day in the near future I will give up on my dream of A Room Table With a View, and go straight to the desk and sort it all out.

Most days (not all) the library does great things for my writing. Yesterday, having finished my stapling, I sat down to treat myself to a bit of the novel. I put my headphones in (for these are essential for working in public), reminded myself not to talk – or even mutter – whilst working, and opened the latest scene. And then

 

Yes.

A moment’s respectful silence.

The scene was dead.

It was stiff, bereft of life. It definitely wasn’t pining for the fjords, and it wasn’t exhausted after a long squawk.  

It was all, to be frank, a load of bullshit.

I’d already scoffed my blueberry muffin, and ordinarily, being at home on the sofa, I’d have taken emergency action by boiling the kettle (which really ought to be a service provided by an AA-type organisation, do we not think? A network of Emergency Kettle Putter Onners for when you’re feeling a bit limp and defeated). Anyway, what was I saying? Ah yes. When one’s working at the library, one cannot simply Put the Kettle On. So I was forced to sit there, at my distant desk, with nothing but my stapler for company – but here’s where the library environment comes in useful. A woman wandered in, using the end of my enormous desk as a resting place for her bags, and I looked at her face (thinking: get your bags off my bloody table) and something, IDK what, about her general demeanour or the navy windcheater she was wearing or perhaps just the smell of her, gave me a bit of a pulse again, and I was able to dive in with my CPR and my paddles and bring the scene back to life.

As I was telling a class last night, you need to put yourself in the way of experiences. This, above, what I’ve just gone on about, is perfectly adequate as an experience, small as it was. If you feel that 2015 is the time in your life to experiment with attending a rubber wear dungeon party or navigating Niagara Falls in a barrel then knock yourself out (in the case of the latter, you probably will). But the sort of experiences a writer needs needn’t even be new. They need only remind you of something you’ve already done. All the neurons (?) will fire excitedly in your brain and you’ll find you have something to write about. Ah. The Holy Grail. What we’re all searching for. Having something to write about. 

A writer in the field, searching for Something to Write About.

A writer in the field, searching for Something to Write About. She saw something an hour ago, but it was a teenage vampire. Best left alone.

In other news, I’ve been nominated for a blogging award! For which I would like to thank Inger at The Viridescent Consumerwho very kindly named me, and also blogs honestly and movingly about her writing life, and some recent sadnesses, at So You Think you’re a Writer? The latest posts have been genuinely awe-inspiring.

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So the rules for this award are:

  1. Show the award on your blog
  2. Thank the person who nominated you.
  3. Share 7 facts about yourself.
  4. Nominate 15 blogs.
  5. Link your nominee’s blogs and let them know

SEVEN FACTS ABOUT ME

  1. I’m trypophobic. Which means I have a fear of clustered holes. So trypophobic that you’ll have to google this one yourself because I can’t go near any links in case there are images.
  2. I speak to my rabbit in German and my cats in French. When I ‘do’ their voices replying (which I do do: bonus embarrassing fact for you there, a kind of 2(a) if you will) they have Mexican accents.
  3. My idea of humour: the bit in A Clockwork Orange where Alex is naked, being admitted to prison, and there, of course, is the handily-placed box to cover his meat-n-two – and then suddenly, ha, it’s whisked away. And there you have his willy. This makes me laugh.

    Not a job I'd care to do. Although I could make an exception for a young Malcolm McDowell.

    Not a job I’d care to do. Although I could make an exception for a young Malcolm McDowell.

  4. For the first 15 years of my life I was a Mormon.
  5. I’ve danced onstage with Wayne Sleep.
  6. When I was seven my favourite song was the Beatles’ Revolution, because of its chorus: You know it’s gonna be all right… and I’d sing it to myself when I was scared at night. (The actual meaning of the song passed me completely by at that tender age.)
  7. Aged twelve, I did an ad-lib in a school play rehearsal (I was Miss Silicon – laugh it up – the deputy headmistress) that used reincorporation of a symbolic object (and was also, though I say it myself, very funny) and, although the director called me back onstage for a bollocking, the geography teacher (Mr Kent) who had written the play reinstated my change. Stories are in my blood, I think. Writing the novel has helped me remember that, yes, I love fannying about with words, but I love telling stories the most.

My 15 nominees for this awards are…

Actually I’ve only done 7. Seven seemed more appropriate, since I’ve shared seven facts. Also I have to go to work.

This is work-work, of the stapler-requiring variety, but tomorrow, oh hallowed day, I’ll be back in the library. Back to rewriting Part One of the novel. If you have an interesting face that you think might assist me in this matter (or a blue windcheater, or you smell particularly interesting… er, on second thoughts…) please arrange to pass my desk whenever I’m looking droopy*.

*Which is pretty much all the time, since turning forty.
Put the kettle on, love.

Variable 4, becoming westerly 5 to 7 later.

Dear Lynsey,

Whilst blowing an eyelash from your fingertip at 9.42 a.m. on 31/12/14 you radioed a wish for general happiness in the year 2015.

We at the Met Office intercepted this signal whilst sailing the high seas in our yellow sou’westers, scanning the far horizon with our salty binoculars (because this is definitely how we prepare the Shipping Forecast, and don’t let anyone tell you anything different or less romantic).

Owing to God’s absence (which was reliably confirmed by ourselves and our salty binoculars a number of decades ago) and the somewhat vague nature of the ‘universe’ to whom you were appealing, we at the Met Office have stepped into the breach to offer our own predictions for 2015 based on careful assessment of incoming clouds in the Norfolk area and the consumption of a celebratory Bacardi and Coke or two.

Our results are as follows:

Completing the final draft of your novel, entitled Madder Hall: fair, to good.

Sexual intercourse: slow moving with little change.

Defrosting the fridge: wintry showers expected.

Taking more exercise: drifting slowly east.

Submitting novel to agents: rain at times.

Eating less cheese: moderate, becoming poor.

Keeping on top of paperwork: warning of gales.

The general synopsis is moderate, becoming fair, good, poor, then moderate again. But we at the Met Office subscribe to the internet-approved statement that life isn’t about waiting for the rain to finish, but learning to dance in the rain. Here, indeed, is a photograph of a lady drinking tea in the Blitz to illustrate our firm belief in the following: (a) all storms can be weathered eventually; (b) the sun’ll come out tomorrow: a fact on which we have bet our bottom dollar; (c) there are few situations that can’t be improved by putting the kettle on.

Put the kettle on, love.

Put the kettle on, love. (All right, if you think it’ll suit me.)

It only remains for us to wish you smooth sailing in 2015 and beyond.

Yours sincerely,

The Imaginary Met Office.

repent-the-end-is-nigh-ye-must-be-cleansed

Found art: a poem in blog posts

It’s nearly the end of 2014 and the world and his wife (or something less egregiously sexist) are blogging about the year just gone. I was reading this rather good blog t’other day, findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com, and I found a cool idea for assessing one’s 2014 through a very specific lens: namely, the first line of the first blog you posted each month.

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So I tried it.

And?

The results were quite dull, to be honest. It turned out I didn’t like having to choose a particular line, by default.

But I did enjoy skimming old posts for the sort of line that JUMPS OUT from the page. So I put my own spin on the game, and I made a found poem with chronological scraps from my blog posts, season by season.

And here it is…

Untitled 2014

Winter

On a day like today there is cake,
Ten seconds of toe-tickling or
an accidental pin-prick.

Dear People of Planet Earth
I’ve grown cobwebs.
Occasional pinholes appear.

Spring

I’m a terrible knitter.

When my daughter was little
(a cup of sweet tea when you didn’t expect it).
But I digress.

What do you do with all this – all this life,
all this shit – if you don’t
write it down?

Summer

Here’s something I hate.

Autumn

By now you may be wondering
how to be interesting.

All the good stuff will happen tomorrow.

The moon has moved on
to a new piece of sky with
hand-stitched lace.

I’ve just been a-Googling and
hey nonny-nonny.

The hairs on my neck must be lazy.
I have fallen through the hole in the
paper. I like the number
eight.

Congratulate yourself. You wait all
day for a pirouette and then
three come along at once.

A little too much about snot.
David Cameron in his underpants.

It’s been a long week.

All the bells and whistles please.
I turned some water into
wine and verily I did drink it.

I’m feeling a little peculiar.

Somebody’s left you a shit in the pan.

Bliss is fragile.

Winter

Everything will probably be okay.
It must be peculiar not to exist.

Don’t neglect your hot meat.

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Hot meat and the skateboarding George Orwell: a thing about voice.

‘It’s one of those places that are supposed to be very sophisticated and all, and the phonies are coming in the window.’

So says Holden Caulfield of good ole’ Pencey Prep (still my favourite ever school name; Malory Towers a close second) in The Catcher in the Rye.

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Image source

I’m a writing teacher. Most of the people I teach are beginners. A few have raw talent that just needs the edges hemmed, and a few have a talent that’s medium-rare to well-done (though they still mightn’t have the discipline for the long slog of drafting again and again) and a few are so good I do wonder if they should be teaching the class instead.

But the things I see oftenest, as a teacher of novices (briefly visualised myself as a nun there, just for a second) is writing that’s meant to be very sophisticated and all but ends up being merely phony.

If I was a different sort of teacher (i.e. a bitch) I might award badges.

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But I’m not. So I don’t.

Not least because I’ve been guilty of phoniness myself on more than one occasion and, anyway, these are beginners. You don’t sit down for your first piano lesson and come out with this:

 

But neither can you ‘allow’ people to carry on writing like phonies without at least pointing out that, hey, there’s another way. And that way is actually lots more fun. It allows you to write with your Own Goddamn Voice, as Holden might put it.

‘Never use a long word where a short one will do, said George Orwell very sensibly (and English-ly) in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946). He also said:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
... and he's cross that you wrote cerulean when you just meant blue.

… and he’s cross that you wrote ‘cerulean’ as a fancy way of saying ‘blue’. You dick.

I part company with Orwell somewhat on the word ‘barbarous’, which no doubt was less of a sore-thumb sixty-something years ago when the essay was written. But otherwise:

  • The fewer blankets of snow, and skies of gun-metal grey, and light flooding through windows, the better.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out without spoiling the sentence’s cadence, cut it out.
  •  Use a passive occasionally for particular effect. (Penelope Lively’s Next Term We’ll Mash You has a perfect example: a schoolboy being borne away by a headmistress)
  • Anglo-Saxon all the way.
  • To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, you are free to do whatever you can get away with. But no one in fiction has ever gotten away with much…

Curiously, since these six rules seem ruddy good to me, and fairly inoffensive, Will Self got his knickers in a twist in The Grauniad a couple of months ago, with an article declaring Orwell ‘the supreme mediocrity’.

The comments, of course, are rife with ‘smug git’s and ‘takes one to know one’ and a reference or two to Self’s affliction with the most socially acceptable of the diarrhoea family: the verbal variety. In Self’s eyes, Orwell seems a Michael Gove-like repressor of young minds, rejecting the language’s tendency to mutate, a bit like a virus, and telling us all we’ll be shot in the face if we dare to use words of more than one syllable.

Talk about making a drama out of a crisis. Or indeed a mountain from a molehill (she says, offending against the first of Orwell’s rules). I was reading, t’other day, about something called ‘outrage porn‘: intellectuals enjoy being irritated as much as Disgruntled of Norfolk in his/her letters to the editor of the local rag about disrespectful youths on skateboards, and Will Self has whipped himself into a froth about Orwell in much the same way. What he’s basically saying is:

Oi, Orwell, your wheels are too noisy, you’re going to trip someone up in a minute, and get yourself a haircut, boy.

Oi, Orwell! You're not big and you're not clever and I'll wrap that skateboard round your fecking neck in a minute.

I’ll wrap that skateboard round your fecking neck in a minute, son.

Self can’t subscribe to the Orwellian way of writing because it isn’t his way. And that’s fine. You only need to catch a clip of Self on the telly, talking the talk, to know that Self is naturally verbose, and erudite, and borderline-pompous. That’s his voice. It works on the page, as it works in person. It isn’t quite enough to make you want to shout Park Life! at the end of each sentence

but that’s only because Self drawls and pauses and generally talks at the pace of a snail in one of those dreams where the floor’s turned to syrup and forward movement becomes an impossibility – but Self, like Brand, wears his vocab on his sleeve, and why shouldn’t he? Nothing wrong with that.

But the chances are that Orwell’s ‘rules’ were intended for novice writers. And, speaking as someone who teaches novice writers, there’s nothing wrong at all with encouraging people to write simply.

Hum Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, for instance. (Even if you don’t think you know it, you definitely do.) Watch the green notes in this piano tutorial:

and note how stunningly basic the tune is, moving in steps up and down the keyboard. And yet, how memorable. And how well it lends itself to development…

 

I love a short word, me. I’m Orwell’s bosom bud in that respect. A favourite exercise of mine is to write a scene using words of only one syllable: the result is always tight, clean prose, and it’s most of all useful for those who must first insert a poker into their derrière before commencing the transference of their thoughts from brain to paper, as if they’ve never actually heard themselves speak and have no clue at all what their own voice is like. Of course I understand that certain of your characters may care to describe the lowering of their denim-clad derriere into the ready embrace of a chintzy armchair whilst relieving a curved fruit of its indigestible yellow skin, but ‘she sat down, peeling a banana’ is a perfectly decent sentence and not to be sniffed at.

Tiny words, I salute you.

Tiny words, I salute you.

 

The ‘hot meat’ of the title has nothing to do (thank God) with the contents of Self or Orwell’s trousers. I gave my most recent class of beginners the task of writing a scene in single syllables – and, because it’s Christmas, the scene was ‘cooking Christmas dinner’. Straight off, turkey’s out the window of course. (Not literally. Although that might have been an interesting way to go…) So immediately your brain’s got to find a host of short, sharp words that it wouldn’t ordinarily have looked for. One student (lovely and smiley, and I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her if she ever reads this) was forced to return ‘the smell of the cooking turkey’ to the Shelf of Mediocrity, and instead wrote the rather joyous sentence:

The cat smelt the hot meat.

Something, of course, that a child could write. But the same argument that applies to modern art (‘I could’ve done that myself!’ ‘Ah yes, but you didnt…’) applies in spades here: yes, a child could write that, but we, as adults, with all our fancy long-syllabled crayons on the table, so often forget that simple can be beautiful. What did the cat do? The cat smelt the hot meat. I understand all those words perfectly, immediately, and my brain doesn’t have to perform an obstacle course in order, BANG, to grasp that image straight-a-bloody-way.

404298099_c60259d30a

Red and yellow and pink and green… violaceous and apricot and cobalt…

 

I’m not saying you can’t play with long-syllabled crayons: of course you can. (Occasionally, sparingly, or all the fricking time if that is your natural voice – or the natural voice, of course, of your first person POV… or third person free indirect… yada yada.) But don’t neglect your hot meat either, because here’s the thing: the most beautiful, lyrical prose has to do with the way – like musical notes – those words are joined together, the music they make on the page, in the ear, for the eye. Even Will Self would agree with that. And if he doesn’t… just flip him the bird as you rumble by on your skateboard.

The sister on the left was said to have died 2 days earlier...

Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

It must be peculiar not to exist.

Your strength is invisibility. You’re excellent at imitation. Your self-effacement knows no bounds.

You’re the wire that hoists actors into the air, or the stunt double donning a wig, or Zac Efron’s crooning in High School Musical, or perhaps you’re even Britt Ekland’s bum double in The Wicker Man.

You’re there to make others look good. (Or, in the latter case, to flash your arse for the cameras, because Ekland refused to flash hers.)

You have numerous names for your numerous roles – but in publishing you are known as a ghost.

The sister on the left was said to have died 2 days earlier...

The sister on the left was said to have died 2 days earlier… Think about *that* next time you’re listening to a Kenny G solo, alone in the house, after dark…

 

Image source

 

This post has been prompted by the ‘news’ that outrageously popular You Tube star Zoella (a name oft on the lips of my teenaged daughter) accepted a six figure sum from publishers Penguin for a novel, Girl Online, that, well, that she didn’t actually write. She did, however, come up with the ‘story and the characters’.

Zoe 'Zoella' Zugg, whose You Tube vlog has over 3 million subscribers at time of writing. This is small fry, of course, compared to PewDiePie who has over 30,000.

Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg, whose You Tube vlog has over 3 million subscribers at time of writing. This is small fry, of course, compared to Swedish gamer PewDiePie who has over 30 million.

After out-pacing Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and E.L. James with her first-week sales, things nosedived spectacularly for the smiley star when rumours arose that the novel was ghostwritten. Zoella tweeted this in response:

It’s fair to say she’d have needed some help with the spelling in her novel, if nothing else…

But we like Zoella in our house. She says useful things to teenage girls about her own anxiety issues, and also she has lovely hair.

I’m not meaning to patronise her (although I have, perhaps, patronised her a tiny bit so far). What I’m mainly saying, is no harm, no foul. Yes, it’s kinda shitty to take a six-figure sum from Penguin (who’ve also behaved kinda shittily from an outsiders’ point of view) when the person who actually wrote the book earned seven thousand, according to my informant (my daughter), and, yes, it’s kinda shitty to let legions of teenaged girls believe there’s no end to your talents (thus, perhaps, doubting themselves just a wee bit in response), but IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME. Hence I find myself feeling a little bit sorry for poor old (actually, young) Zoe Sugg. I think she’s learnt her lesson. I don’t think she’ll do it again.

But, Penguin? They will do it again. As will every other publishing house so long as we, the public, are keener on buying a book because somebody famous wrote it (even though, nudge nudge, wink wink, we all know they actually didn’t) than because of the words inside. The words inside might be good, but it’s usually seen as hack-work, this ghost writing business. A writer who lovingly rubs each phrase till a genie pops out of it is unlikely to let Katie Price or Naomi Campbell take the credit. Instead they’ll hock them any old shit, because no one is buying the book on its merits. They’re buying it because it’s… pink and shiny. (I have tried for literally seconds to think of another reason they might buy a book that purports to be written by the human being formerly known as Jordan, and I cannot.)

(The internet says she also has four volumes of autobiography. To which I say: WTF? Her entire life has been televised, hasn’t it? What is there left to find out, for the love of God?)

Look inside ‘her’ first novel, Angel, on Amazon and you’ll find the following:

Angel by Katie Price

This was, in fact, written by a former journalist called Rebecca Farnworth. Very sadly, Farnworth died recently, of cancer, at the horribly early age of 49, which makes me disinclined to run on at any great length about the quality of this extract – except to suggest that Farnworth herself knew very well what she was doing. And what she was doing was writing by numbers. 

There is more writing by numbers in Katie Price’s recent book, Make My Wish Come True:

make my wish come true KP

This one wasn’t written by Price, either. I’ve made a cursory search online (including the book’s ‘author information’ page) and can’t tell you who did write it, but if Price – like Zoella – came up with the characters (in particular, if she came up with the heroine’s name) then I’m glad she didn’t write the book herself. It’s bad enough as it is. Once upon a time it was curious and new to read of sunlight ‘streaming’ through a window – but it isn’t anymore. Is warmth in any way watery? Why must sun ‘put in an appearance’ instead of simply shining? As openings go, this one is an omni-shambles, to quote Malcolm Tucker. If football pundits wrote novels, they’d write ‘em like this.

An adverb here, a cliche there...

An adverb here, a cliche there…

It’s muzak for the eyes, that’s all. And there may be a stonking good story, once Storm’s finished basting that turkey – but I, for one, will never know, because life is too short to be squandered on Katie Price’s oeuvre. I’ve been known to remark, whilst listening to Radio 1, that if ‘music’ consisted of only this one particular song that my ears are enduring right now (I will mention no names) then I’d rather have silence. Forever. The End. And if Make My Wish Come True was the only book that existed, then quite honestly I’d have to give up reading.

(Ah, who am I kidding? I read the back of cereal packets. I read bus tickets. I read literally whatever’s in front of my eyes. But I’d hate myself while reading it. And I’d hate all of humanity. And I’d burn the book – and myself – afterwards.)

‘Everybody does have a book in them,’ said Christopher Hitchens, ‘but in most cases that’s where it should stay.’

Wise words. You see, having a story to tell is not the same thing as being able to tell it. And that’s fine! Why should everyone be able to write a (publishable) novel? They shouldn’t, quite frankly, and to suggest that they can – that they ought to be able to knock one off in their lunch break – makes a mockery of the profession of Writer.

Most artists can only do one thing really well. Shakespeare didn’t have a sideline in lute playing (that I know of). Margot Fonteyn wasn’t also a talented painter. Picasso didn’t compose symphonies. John Lennon didn’t write novels. The list goes on…

Bob Dylan did write a novel. Reviews ranged from ‘not good’ to ‘unreadable’.

Sylvia Plath was talented with a pencil as well as poetry:

 

sylviaplathdrawings15

More pictures at Brainpickings.org

It’s just that she was more talented as a poet.

The actor Keanu Reeves is also in a band called Dog Star – but we’ll just leave that statement alone, without comment (because speaking frankly I’ve always quite fancied Keanu Reeves, since the long-ago days of Dangerous Liaisons, and River’s Edge shows the nay-sayers that he can act – when he wants to – and quite apart from all that he’s a genuinely generous soul who gives away vast quantities of cash – and I really do mean vast. And, for me, that helps undo the memory of his frankly dreadful English accent in Dracula). 

Let’s look at what happens when celebrity novelists Do It Themselves. (So far as I know…)

Take Judy Finnigan’s novel Eloise, for instance. (Go on, take it.) (Boom boom.)

Here’s an extract from page two. On page one, Chris and Cathy arrive at a cottage in Cornwall, under a ‘smoky-grey sky’ and stoke up the fire:

Eloise

 

For those who don’t know, Judy Finnigan is a TV presenter, latterly famous for the Oprah-knock-off Richard and Judy Book Club, who recently inserted her foot in her mouth on an episode of Loose Women, describing the little-known non-bodily-harm variety of rape. (Like Zoella, Ms Finnigan seems to be taking a break from twitter.) But that’s by the by. I’m not here to judge her opinions on rape (I’ve done that already elsewhere, and do have a look at the Republican Rape Advisory Chart if you’re curious about rape’s many varieties, including ‘legitimate rape’, ‘honest’ rape, and even ‘enjoyable rape’). She ‘misspoke’, as the politicians say, and I doubt that she meant any genuine harm: she once flashed her bra by mistake on live telly; in this case, she just flashed her ignorance.

But I digress. I’m not here to judge her for any of that. I’m here to judge her as a writer.

This really isn’t very good, is it? Could Try Harder, Judy. F for effort. I’m sure there are people who like this sort of thing, but quite a lot of the people who don’t like it have left their own comments on Amazon: ‘boring’, ‘tedious’, ‘amateur’, ‘overwrought drivel’, ‘truly awful’, ‘We Need a No Stars Option, Amazon!’…

Many of us have been misled into thinking that because Ms Finnegan has been the champion of many excellent and previously little known authors she might be able to write herself.
I have learned my lesson… says one reviewer.

As previously noted, even Queen Hilary gets crappy reviews on Amazon (it’s par for the course), but based on the evidence of the Kindle sample these folks have located the nail’s head and struck it with startling accuracy.

Spot the shoe-horning of the Info Dump into Chris’s opening parlay:

‘If you’re not careful you’ll get seriously depressed again… blah blah, Eloise’s funeral… blah blah, let you go to their house‘.

Rules for writing good dialogue #47: characters should speak to each other, not to the reader.

As for Chris’s lurch from ‘growing impatience’ to ‘studied patience’ within the space of eleven lines (yup, I counted them)… goodness gracious me. Page two of the novel and the Ideas Engine has run out already.

Husband Richard (of afore-mentioned Book Club infamy) has muscled in on the fictional action himself. Here, dear reader, are the opening lines of The Way You Look Tonight (great title, also, Richard):

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Imagine the very first line in the voice of Victor Meldrew and it’s a helluva lot more enjoyable.

Again, you can entertain yourself by spotting the shoe-horns. This is rather a lot of boring back-story in exchange for four shit words of forward motion, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Here’s Richard again with Some Day I’ll Find You (not if I see you first, Richard):

RichardMadeley

So many questions. Why is Diana searching for the weather forecast? Might there perchance be a ration enforced in rationed-to-the-hilt England? (Perhaps we need Diana’s father to step in and remind us four lines after you first mentioned it.) Is it colder in England than it is in France? Could you possibly tell us more about the weather, Richard, because after all that is widely acknowledged as the best way to begin a novel…

You’ll have realised by now: it’s not my cup of tea.

Am I being a Massive Snob? The answer is: yes, a bit and no, not really. I’m trying really, really hard to write something myself and, although I also play the old Joanna to a reasonable standard, this here – this writing lark – is My Thing. (Even if no-one else agrees; in my heart, it’s my thing, and will always be, whether Madder Hall makes it to print or not.) I am genuinely putting everything into it. All you need do is bleed onto the typewriter, as Hemingway said. Did Judy bleed? Did Richard? Did Katie Price?

In my humble opinion – no. No. Most certainly no.

I imagine the conversation went something like this: ‘We’ve read lots of books, Richard, haven’t we?’

‘Why yes, Judy, we have.’

‘Our names have become entwined in the UK’s consciousness with the concept of a Best-selling Novel?’

‘Why yes, Judy, yes they have.’

‘And selling the books will be a Piece of Piss!’

‘Why yes, Judy, yes it will.’

Perhaps I’m being cynical.

Before you go, Lyns, what’s to do with the title of this here post?

Why, thank you for asking. It’s the epitaph of the poet John Keats, inscribed on his grave in Rome.

And what’s it got to do with celebrity writers, pray tell?

Well, Mr Keats? Over to you.

John_Keats

‘If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’

Unless, of course, Ode to a Nightingale was ghosted by an ancestor of Miss Katie Price. In which case, I’ll look a bit of a fool.

Stranger: 'Do you have any hot soup?'
Twitter: 'No.'
Stranger: 'Do you have any coffee then?'
Twitter: 'No.'           
Stranger: 'Do you have any, uh, hot chocolate?'
Twitter: 'We've spirits and beers. If it's something hot you want, have tea.
Stranger: 'Then you have tea.'
Twitter: 'No.'

If twitter was a pub.

Welcome to twitter. Please enter quietly, and close the door behind you. Turn off your phone. We highly recommend the purchase of ale or stout in preference to Babycham or Bacardi and coke, as refusal often offends. The bar nuts may be covered in wee, but avoidance of said nuts will be viewed by the clientele as snobbery (village urine not good enough for you, eh, Londoner?) so get ‘em in your gob and swallow, and, whilst we’re on this theme, there’ll be nothing but icy water in the toilet taps and if you want soap I suggest you go back to London. (There may be a morsel of soap, the approximate size of a cough lozenge, under one of the sinks, but the odds are it’s fallen in something you’d rather not touch. It’s a swings and roundabouts situation.)

The best chairs are already taken. The best chairs will always be taken. Contrive to stand artfully, casually, with an arm draped on the fireplace, and await an appropriate moment to join the conversation. The conversation will not stop for you. The conversation does not want you.

Stranger: 'Do you have any hot soup?' Twitter: 'No.' Stranger: 'Do you have any coffee then?' Twitter: 'No.'            Stranger: 'Do you have any, uh, hot chocolate?' Twitter: 'We've spirits and beers. If it's something hot you want, have tea. Stranger: 'Then you have tea.' Twitter: 'No.'

Stranger: ‘Do you have any hot soup?’
Twitter: ‘No.’
Stranger: ‘Do you have any coffee then?’
Twitter: ‘No.’
Stranger: ‘Do you have any, uh, hot chocolate?’
Twitter: ‘We’ve spirits and beers. If it’s something hot you want, have tea.
Stranger: ‘Then you have tea?’
Twitter: ‘No.’

 An American Werewolf in London

Compose your opening gambit with the sort of care otherwise reserved for wedding vows, eulogies, excuses for why you weren’t, in fact, working late at the office when you claimed you were. Charming self-deprecation is the way to go. ‘Tiptoeing onto twitter with all the panache of a geriatric tortoise’, for instance, although it’s possible someone (currently writing a blog not a million miles from here) may have used that one already. At any rate, it’s wise to be inventive with your self-deprecation. ‘I really don’t know what I’m doing!’ or ‘What’s this all about, then?’ have all the freshness of the year-old turd you will find down the back of the gents’ toilet if you poke about for a bit.

Whatever you do, incomer, don’t announce yourself with a pocketful of flyers. It’s advisable to buy the clientele a round of drinks before trying to sell them your book/film/interpretative dance project. Twitter is a conversation. Peruse the word ‘conversation’ in your dictionary. Reconsider your pre-planned material. Respond, instead, to a topic in mid-flow, unless you’d quite like to be chased all the way to the village green by strange men wielding pitchforks and banjos. I mean, picture the scene: there’s a nice juicy chat going on, the beer’s flowing, another few logs have been thrown on the fire… and up you jump, the cuckoo clock of the pub customer, with a frankly shit line from your novel. And picture, too, the peculiar looks you’d earn if you’d brought along your coterie of ventriloquist’s dummies, and every hour, on the hour, one of those leapt up as well with a frankly unbelievable review of your novel. And everyone could see your lips moving.

These things will not endear you to the clientele.

images-7

This is a local pub for local people.

And then, suddenly, before you know it, you are the clientele. You’re in one of the chairs. (Not the chairs by the fire, but still… small mercies.) You’re composing blogs about how to behave in this pub that you think of, now, as your own. You look up, disgruntled, from your oddly-named ale, at the stiff blast of wind when an incomer opens the door. You tut when ‘something white, not too dry’ is asked for at the bar. ‘What’s wrong with the nuts?’ you say quietly. You have long come to terms with the fact that some of the cleverest things you say will slip soundlessly into the ether. You don’t even mind.

Because this is a noisy pub. And on twitter, as in life, it’s not always about you. 

Mine’s a vodka, if you’re asking.

harold-lloyd-s-safety-last-kicks-off-the-flatpack-festival-314652517

Everything will (probably) be okay (in the end).

When is a writing blog not a writing blog?

In the case of this particular blog, the answer is: today.

Ordinarily, I write about writing. You can see it right there in the tagline. I’ve just done thirty posts for thirty days of nanowrimo (which you’ll find in the Recent Posts to your right), or let me direct you here or here or here or here if you’d like to take a pot luck stab at an older, more writer-y sort of a post.

Today’s post is about depression. If I was the sort of a person who understood Venn diagrams, I might use a Venn diagram here:

Blank space where a Venn diagram should be.

… with writers in one circle, and sufferers of depression in the other circle, and I’m willing to bet (all of twenty pence) that the overlap would be LARGE. It might even be XXL. Here’s a roll call:

Sylvia Plath
Ernest Hemingway
David Foster Wallace
Virginia Woolf
Anne Sexton
Primo Levi
 

And those are just some of the ones who, very sadly, didn’t make it out alive.

But I’ve talked before about writers with depression, and that isn’t the point of this post. The point of this post, as 2014 rolls to a close, is to write an ending to my own Depression Story, as detailed in my previous wafflings. 

Above all, what I want to say, as I pretty much said in the title, is that everything will probably be okay. Eventually. You just have to hold on. That isn’t to say it won’t be not-okay, again, at some point in the future (this wasn’t my first spell of depression, and, much as I hate writing this sentence, I have to face facts: neither may it be my last), but then, after that, it will be okay again and… I’ve just tripped over my own fingers writing this sentence.

But saying that ‘things will probably be okay’ is chocolate-teapot-ian in its uselessness if I don’t back it up with some rock hard evidence, right? So I offer the following neatly bullet-pointed list, containing everything I did to get better, and if it’s raining in your head right now you may choose to try some of the things on the list.

  • I took drugs. Still take drugs. Specifically Sertraline (Zoloft in the US) at a dosage of 50mg. The first 24 hours weren’t very nice. I began to wonder if Sertraline was, in fact, a mega-dose of Blue Smartie. It was hard to sit still. I was thinking at twice, or even thrice, my normal rate, and the thoughts were universally horrible. If you’ve ever poached an egg without the assistance of an egg poacher, you’ll know that the water needs to be swirling, fairly dramatically, before you can drop in the egg. After 24 hours of swirling, I snapped my pills in half and took 25mg instead for a week. The water stopped swirling. The egg still poached, eventually. I also took Zopiclone, which helps you fall asleep, and (best of all) releases a dose of feel-good chemicals that your joy-starved brain can party with for twenty minutes or so before nodding off.
  • I took ten to twenty minutes of exercise every day. This was usually a bike ride through the woods. Sometimes it was indoor exercise of the close-the-curtains variety (which has created an unduly masturbatory aspect, I now realise) accompanied by a cut-price DVD (not helping myself, am I?) of a go-get-‘em American woman assuring me I’m the best, I can do it, etc (could I dig this hole any deeper?)
  • I wrote down three new things every day that I was grateful for. They have to be new. You have to be actively beach-combing your day for the shiny shells amongst the crisp packets, condoms, and dog faeces. Even tiny things can be shiny. One day I was grateful for the wind on my face. One day I was grateful for seeing the beauty in a windblown stinging nettle. (NB: there were other things not involving the wind.)
  • I focused on other peoples’ life stories (radio 4 has a good cache of this sort of thing, in particular their One to One strand), and looked outside myself. I listened to BBC reporter Frank Gardner describing the day he was shot in the spine and his subsequent life in a wheelchair. I read a book about living in North Korea. I reminded myself every day, several times every day, that, yes, some people (appear to) lead Charmed Lives, but those people are best ignored when you’re feeling depressed (unfollow anyone on Facebook, for instance – you don’t have to unfriend them; they need never know – who fires heavy photographic artillery of the My Life is Amaze-balls variety). Open your heart, instead, to the elderly man who’s had nothing all week but frostbite and shit telly for company, or the children who mightn’t eat tonight, or the factory worker who stitched this onto a Primark label:

6240943-large

  • I learnt about radical acceptance. If your depression has a particular cause (as mine did) you may find this helpful. The principle is this: when things go wrong in our lives we have four options. (1) Solve the problem (if it’s possible to solve it). (2) Change how you feel about the problem. (3) Remain miserable about the problem. (4) Accept that you can’t solve the problem, but life can still be worth living. So if (1) isn’t possible (as it wasn’t, in my case) you must radically – by which they mean fully – accept that there’s bugger all you can do about it, and perhaps (as in my case) you can’t do number (2) either, because it isn’t possible to feel positive about some things, is it? It just isn’t. So, instead, you have to ‘turn your mind’ (as it’s called) by stopping the endless flow of Why me? This shouldn’t be happening… Perhaps God or Zeus or Paul Daniels will wave his most magic of wands and make this not have happened, if I don’t do anything else wrong, ever, for the rest of my life… You have to watch out for this shit, like red lights when you’re driving, and turn your mind to acceptance instead – for which the phrase shit happens comes in very handy. There were days when I read and reread the stuff on this site and then read it again, and I clung to those pages as Harold Lloyd clung to the hands of the clock in Safety Last. So, yes, although radical acceptance does sound a little mung-beans-for-dinner-and-breast-milk-in-your-tea, it’s actually just bloody wonderful.

harold-lloyd-s-safety-last-kicks-off-the-flatpack-festival-314652517

  • I asked for help. Sometimes it was horrible, asking for help. One GP leaned back in his chair, like the cock of the walk, while pondering whether or not he would give me the drugs I wanted. I sat for two hours in a Sunday morning emergency waiting room with my greasy hair over my face. I was pushy, I argued, I insisted. If you’re not in a place to be pushy yourself, find a friend or relative who is happy to go a bit postal with the medical service on your behalf. (Some friends actively enjoy this sort of thing and are only too happy to have an excuse.)
  • I took fish oil. As recommended in this great TED talk from Shawn Anchor.
  • I practised mindfulness. I didn’t realise I was practising it (I was told, years ago, that mindfulness meant staring at a raisin for a really long time, which, in retrospect, probably wasn’t entirely useful or accurate). If a piece of chocolate tasted sweet, I noticed that it was sweet. If my head felt comfortable on the pillow in bed, I noticed that too. My brain was a child that wanted to play in the Past Failures ball pool. Mindfulness was the parent who ushered them towards the All That Really Exists Is This Moment slide instead. (Alton Towers, you need one of those.)
  • I watched videos about ballet dancers. Now, this one may be specific to me. But you can customise it. It’s soothing watching physical activity, especially if it’s set to music, and especially if men with shapely buttocks are wearing lycra whilst doing it. It gave my eyes something to focus on that was mentally undemanding.
  • I took up knitting. This gave my hands something to focus on that was mentally undemanding.
  • I played video games. This gave my hands and eyes something to focus on that was mentally undemanding.
  • I swore a lot to myself. I borrowed a catchphrase from Withnail in Withnail and I, and I said it (silently or aloud, when alone) if I felt my mind drifting towards things, and people, that in all honesty it was better off avoiding. Some people have om as their mantra. Mine can be found at 1.21 in the link below:
  • I watched ASMR videos on youtube. Relaxation videos don’t work for me: being told to relax is tantamount to telling me not to think of elephants. I need to secretly relax myself whilst my brain is distracted by people doing relaxing things. And if you think that’s something you’d like to try then read more here.
  • I drank Complan when my mouth refused to eat solid food. I’d lost two stone in less than a month. It was time to take action.
  • I talked to my friends by email when I couldn’t talk in person. 
  • I googled depression and anxiety and sadness and read everything I could find on the subject. 
  • I let myself cry when I wanted to cry.
  • I took a break from work. A long break. As long as I needed.
  • I had a few therapy sessions.
  • I cuddled my daughter.
  • I tried to watch funny things on TV.
  • I read biographies when fiction was too much.
  • When I was able to write, I wrote. When I wasn’t, I didn’t.
  • I stayed alive even though I didn’t always want to.
  • I wrote an occasional blog about being depressed.

And now we appear to have come full circle. To the best of my memory, this is everything I did on the way to recovery.

I’ve been thinking for ages now that I ought to write this post, because – thinking back over my annus horribilis as Queenie would say – it was posts like this that kept me occupied for five, or ten, or twenty minutes and five, or ten, or twenty minutes of calm sailing is all you can ask, sometimes, when the wind blows.

And now it seems I’m back to wind again.

There’s an awful lot of wind in my novel, too. But that’s another story…

Excuse me a second while I just open the door to let these folks in...

30 Days of Nano: Praise the Lord, it’s Day Thirty!

Am I sad or happy that NaNoWriMo, and hence my 30 Days of Nano blog challenge, comes to an end at midnight tonight?

I’m a mix of the two: I’m shappy.

I didn’t do any writing at all yesterday. I’d already locked and loaded the day’s blog post ahead of time, so I didn’t even write a blog. (Boo! Hiss!)

Statler: I hear they're calling this the Medium Blog.  Waldorf: Well it certainly wasn't rare or well done!

Statler: I hear they’re calling this the Medium Blog.
Waldorf: Well it certainly wasn’t rare or well done!

But the day before that, I finished the first draft of my novel.

I don’t think you heard me.

I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY NOVEL!!!!!

Oh yeah. Go me.

Oh yeah. Go me.

 

I had my headphones in when I ‘validated’ on the nano site, and was promptly deafened by their cutesy recorded cheers. But I get to call myself a Winner. Hurrah! I like being a winner. Although it’s possible I’m only a winner for the remainder of 2014…

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

But at least I’ll have a month off from being a loser!

What have I learnt from this year’s nanowrimo?

We could really do with a Team America montage round about now.

 

Instead, have some bullet points:

  • The more often you write, the easier it gets.
  • Dorothea Brande was right: the subconscious will provide, if you let it.
  • The more you write, the more frequent your typos.
  • The more you write, the less inclination you have to amend those typos.
  • Sometimes, when you’re writing a lot, your brain attempts to reread, reflect, revise with every random thought you have, and this is almost as annoying as an Agadoo ear worm when you’re trying to sleep.
  • An insight scribbled in your notebook at four in the morning is better than two insights in a bush.
  • Two years of planning and writing and failing and writing and failing and tearing up plans and despairing and agonising and shredding and howling at the moon are all worth it when you’re not even writing your final scene: you’re following it, like a child in the Pied Piper’s wake, and you eat dinner because you have to eat dinner (you’re a human being, natch, and human beings need dinners) but you are eating with your left hand so you can carry on typing with your right.

Over the coming weeks and months it will all go pear-shaped. Of course it will. Bliss is fragile. I’m enjoying it now, because I can. I haven’t read my first draft yet. Why would I? I’m enjoying my honeymoon. You don’t go checking your new husband’s internet history when you’re on your honeymoon, do ya? No siree. You leave that for a rainy day in the future.

It’s not raining today (yet). And it’s too soon to go back to it yet. Fireworks and first drafts: leave ‘em alone, for the love of God! 

But I have got a nagging awareness of the ‘project notes’ in my Scrivener file, where I noted down inconsistencies as I thunk of them. And I’ve sent Nancy Drew on the case of The Missing First Four Chapters and she’s presently teaming a rib-knit sweater with a pair of capri pants and enjoying a morning coffee with her kindly-eyed housekeeper Hannah Gruen, but she’s made some preliminary observations already:

  • At 8.04 a.m. the chapters were seen to be partially assembled.
  • They seemed not to be written in English, but gibberish.
  • Consultation with relevant sources suggests that it’s easier to write the beginning once you’ve got the end.

So, mainly because I find that I want to be writing today, and every day thereafter, I’m heading back in to the war zone with my dictaphone and my camera to start fiddling around a bit. (NB: Not to read the draft. Oh no. I don’t want to blow my face off with an unexploded rocket, thank you very much.) Expect further dispatches at some point in the future:

Novel is shit stop send reinforcements stop wondering if I should just stop 

And what have I learnt from my 30 days of daily blogging?

  • I should never compose a post in public, because I find myself quite funny sometimes (and that isn’t socially acceptable).
  • Some posts are bigger than others. (As Morrissey almost said.)
  • If I had to blog every day for the rest of my life, I probably could. But I don’t, so I won’t.

I do like blogging, though. And I like it when folk like my blogs.

This is me in the internet pond:

4496504859_3e846f5198

Image source

This is not me:

That's me holding the fish. Kidding.

That’s me holding the fish. Kidding.

Image source

But that’s cool.

Sometimes a few people stop by. They get snagged on some click bait in a tweet I wrote, or they google a search term that whisks them my way, or they (just occasionally) set out intentionally to come here. They put on their shoes, and coat, and gloves and they strap their binoculars round their neck and they brave the harsh winds of the internet in winter to peer through the fast encroaching fog for the faint glow, up ahead, of lynseywhite.com, where legend has it there are comfy chairs, hot tea, fluffy slippers for frostbitten feet, and a roaring log fire full of clichés. Not to mention willy jokes.

Excuse me a second while I just open the door to let these folks in...

Excuse me a second while I just open the door to let these folks in… they’re cold and tired and mightily in need of a joke about members.

Blogging gives me something (an outlet for my lunacy) that I don’t get from fiction – or don’t get so quickly, and easily, from fiction. So, whether or not there’s anyone out in that snowstorm searching, there’ll always be a brew on at lynseywhite.com (tea only; I don’t do coffee). It’s just I’ll be boiling the kettle slightly less often from December 1st…

We’ve had muppets, and fireworks, and insights in bushes, and weary travellers, and tiny fish… and if that ain’t enough confusing analogies for ya, then let me point you to some of my favourite posts from this whole 30 Days of Nano experience:

Day 18: in which Nano comes of age.

Day 10: my homage to Lorrie Moore’s How to Become a Writer

Day 28: on being an older writer. (The internet liked this one the best.)

Day 6: something quite sensible about finding your ‘seed word’ (as Scarlett Thomas calls it).

Day 29: in which nanowrimo reports on my progress. 

December, here we come.

Report Card

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Nine

If NaNoWriMo wrote report cards…

Report Card

In general we are pleased to inform you that Lynsey has worked well this month. She completed a total of 74,435 words, amply achieving her personal monthly target of 70,000 with 24 hours to spare, and as regards the story contained within those words we are pleased to describe the present status as ‘motoring along nicely’.

English

Lynsey has shone in this subject, and frankly, considering what she does for a living, it would be bloody worrying if she hadn’t. 

Biology

Lynsey has demonstrated a thorough acquaintance with the human body, in particular the breasts, buttocks, and genitalia and, indeed, writes so frequently about these three areas that one might even describe her as ‘fixated’.

Chemistry

Lynsey has survived the month with no recourse to illegal chemicals, with the exception of the occasional syringe of heroin for medicinal purposes.

Physics

In general, Lynsey has excelled at battery management as regards the use of her laptop in various cafes, except for that one occasion when she didn’t turn the plug on and, consequently, achieved very little actual writing with the 2% remaining of her battery life. She had to read a book instead.

Physical education

We regret to inform you that Lynsey’s progress in PE has fallen far short of the minimum standard required to maintain the healthy functioning of a human body. Indeed we are surprised she’s still alive at all.

Home Economics

Lynsey has used the microwave this month rather oftener than we’d recommend. She did, however, serve vegetables at least twice, and only once, on a wet Wednesday, did she have recourse to a packet of Super Noodles. 

Mathematics

We cannot congratulate Lynsey on her success in this subject. Indeed we are curious as to who she actually is, having never once seen her in class.

Art

Lynsey spends a long time gazing at images on the internet, and although these fall largely under the ‘fine art’ umbrella, as opposed to the ‘hard porn’ umbrella (and frankly we hope never to see such a thing as a hard porn umbrella), she has yet to exhibit any personal skill with a paintbrush. In addition, she has a tendency to daydream. There are those of us in the art department who strongly suspect she’s imagining future book covers.

French

Zut alors! La plume de ma tante. Etc.

German

Efficiency has risen notably since we, in the German department, refused to participate in these fake report cards.

Information Technology

We are quietly pleased with Lynsey’s progress. She has learnt how to arse around on the internet conduct research via google, how to embed tweets and youtube videos in her blog posts, and how to use the strike-through function with the aim of making said blog posts more amusing. We await the examiners’ decision on the success or failure of the latter point.

Religious Education

We gave up on Lynsey a long time ago, and can only report that she needn’t pack woollens for where she’s going. 

History

We are pleased, or perhaps disappointed, to report that Lynsey has utterly failed, this month, to let history repeat itself. Whereas, previously, she might have sat on her arse all month eating biscuits, this year she sat on her arse all month eating biscuits with one hand whilst typing with the other.

Geography

By and large Lynsey has remained in one spot. All month. Thus proving Hemingway’s dictum that writing broadens the ass as well as the mind.

pd james

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Eight

Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head… and decided this twenty-eighth post of my 30 day challenge would be about ageing.

And then, because I’m in the magic zone where synchronicity just happens, I read an interview with novelist Marilynne Robinson while drinking my morning tea and, abracadabra, these words appeared on the end of my wand:

ROBINSON

I have a sense of urgency about what I want to get done and I discipline myself by keeping to myself. It’s a nice opportunity to be able to know these people, but I have to do other things, which take hours, days, weeks.

INTERVIEWER

Have you always felt that urgency or is this something new?

ROBINSON

It’s a little new. Years ago, I was younger than I am now.

You can read the full article here (which appeared, in 2008, in the Paris Review: and why, when I’m reading the Paris Review, do I always glance down at my clothes, and my choice of beverage, and the shabby chair I’m sitting on, with the airy disdain of a Parisian waiter and remember all over again that I’ll never be truly cool?).

But I digress…

Years ago, I was younger too.

I had the heartwarming experience yesterday of bumping into an old work mate, and being told I looked younger than ever – ‘like a schoolgirl’! (It was a dark street.) Perhaps, with some vaseline on the camera lens, I could just about pass as a schoolgirl of the Grease variety, where Rydell High was patently populated by students pushing thirty, but, no, I am not a schoolgirl and do not look like one. Even though I do wear bunches sometimes. And my management of my finances is positively schoolgirl-ian in its consistent focus on instant gratification.

Perhaps do something clever with soft-focus lenses, a la Joan Collins in a 1967 episode of Star Trek. (William Shatner's focus was warts-n-all sharp as a tack.

Perhaps do something clever with soft-focus lenses, a la Joan Collins in a 1967 episode of Star Trek. (William Shatner’s focus was warts-n-all sharp as a tack.

Like Kit Williams in MasqueradeI’ve laid a trail of clues in recent posts as to my exact age, so, ahem, we won’t mention it here. But I’m quite a lot older than I was when I first had a sniff at a publishing deal (I was 20, Fact Fans). And the 17-year-old Lynsey who tore open her acceptance letter from The Rialto and positively floated to school because she was going to be A Poet… would have to wait an awful lot longer than anticipated for her next piece of work to be published. (Twelve years, Fact Fans. Although two came in the same week, which reminds me of something about buses… and men…)

And now here I am, X number of years later, writing my first novel at the age of… let’s just say I’m une femme d’un certain age and leave it at that.

For a person who’s always written, since the age of 6, it’s a fairly clear indictment of the way I live my life that I’ve made so little finished work in that time. When I say ‘always’ written, I mean: ‘always thought of myself as a writer’ – when others, assessing the ‘work’ they’d produced so far, might have slipped by the wayside and started to call themselves other things: butchers, bakers, candlestick makers. Hah, kidding! I meant, of course, productivity managers, process administrators, data coordinators.

(In the process of writing this post I’ve just discovered a job I’d never heard of before, Penguinologist, and now I’m not entirely sure I want to be a writer anymore. Is it too late to swap?)

Gratuitous penguin pic.

Gratuitous penguin pic.

Is it good or bad to be an older first-time novelist? (I’m going to proceed as if it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll get my book published, if that’s all right with you; because proceeding on the basis that I’ll have to resign it to the digital graveyard is a bit too annoying to think about at this late stage in the writing.)

Let’s look at the pros:

  • I have never before known as much as I know at this moment. (Not even when I was sixteen, when I knew everything.)
  • I do not believe that alliteration alone is enough to carry a sentence.
  • I have evolved to the stage where I need/want/have very little in the way of social life.
  • My daughter’s on the waiting list for surgical attachment to her iPhone, and no longer requires my presence now, now, now at all times.
  • I’ve been down this jolly old road before, and succeeded a bit, and failed a bit, and I know life carries on no matter what. (Writing carries on, too, no matter what.)

And now the cons:

  • I won’t look like Zadie Smith in my author photos. (Did I before? Er… well… no. But you know what I’m saying here.)
  • Assuming the publishers wanted one at all, I would probably be encouraged to have a very small, stamp-sized author photo as opposed to a full cover close-up.
  • There can’t ever be a publishing frenzy about the Hot Young Author called Lynsey White.
  • My chances of making the Granta Best British Novelists list are dead in a ditch.
  • If there’s ever a launch party for my book, I won’t especially want to go. I’ll want to be home drinking cocoa.

Try as I might, I cannot find a single ‘con’ to do with the actual writing. (Oh, hang on! Here’s a tiny caveat: sometimes when I have a great insight, I go to my laptop to write it all down and… ah, now, what did I come in here for again?)

All the cons have to do with publicity, and marketing, and USPs, and sales graphs, and the fact that a publisher is buying you as well as your book. Graham Greene could refuse to be filmed during an interview, but very few have that luxury now. Not that I’ve got anything against interviews, per se: it’s quite clear to you all, by now, that I really like to talk about myself. (Shutting me up would probably be the issue.) But, no, I’m no spring chicken, no whippersnapper, no Mozart-ian genius sprung from the ether.

But writing is an art that doesn’t lend itself to Mozart-ian genius. Having a ‘way with words’ is all very well – in fact it’s wonderful – and you will need a way with words if you’re hoping to write literature (and a ‘way with words’ is fairly impossible to learn, I think: in that respect, yes, there can be a Mozart-y element to it all). But pick up ‘a way with words’ and rattle it and – yes – it’s empty. Until you have something to say, it will always be empty.

I’ve read books recently (Jennifer Egan’s first) and even a Booker Prize nominee (won’t say which one) that left me thinking: clever, but empty. Step away from the Mozart Model of creativity, and turn instead to Beethoven, who said that mistakes were forgivable; what wasn’t forgivable, was playing without passion. Music schools today are crammed to the rafters with kids who can knock off a Flight of the Bumblebee with the effortlessness I reserve for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star…

…but that doesn’t mean they’re making music. (They might be; they might not.) Flying fingers are a conduit to making music, not an end in themselves, no matter how fantastically impressive it all looks – and is (don’t misunderstand me: if I could play like that I’d be doing it right now instead of writing this post). But without emotion, it’s only sport; not art.

My fingers could fly twenty years ago, but it would have been mostly sport I was offering. And so, at the ripe old age I am, I feel properly (honestly!) glad that I didn’t get published twenty years ago. I didn’t know what I was doing.

still don’t know what I’m doing half the time. But at least now I know I don’t know what I’m doing…

This post is dedicated to PD James, who died yesterday. She never knew it (and doubtless would have been unexcited had she known) but she was the subject of my GSCE Extended Essay in 1989. For which I got an A. So, thank you, PD James, for my A grade, and for proving that women writers can be wanted, welcomed, accepted, even though they don’t begin until they’re pushing forty.

pd james

Thank you, PD James. Hope there’s a really great library up there in the sky. You deserve one.

 

'Hallo, ich heisse Hedwig.' 

'Verklockenblockenknocken.'

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Seven

How to Be a Blogger.

First link to the companion piece, How to be a Week-Two NaNoWriMo Writer that ‘inspired’ this post (by which you mean ‘gave you an excuse to recycle something you’ve already used’).  

Sit down at the keyboard to write today’s blog post. Seconds later, find yourself standing, instead, in your kitchen in front of the kettle.

Sit down again at the keyboard. Armed with a nice cup of tea, you will definitely now start writing.

Very quickly check your blog traffic. Fall into the gaping maw of an existential crisis (if nobody reads my blog, does it really exist? Do exist?) Compose funny lines about writers shitting in forests and nobody hearing them.

Drink tea.

Reconsider your ‘funny’ lines about writers shitting. Reach for the bloggers’ friend: the delete button.

Attempt to stroke your cat; get scratched.

Check blog traffic again; get scratched – inside your soul.

Feel quietly pleased, surprised, confused (while realising that if you were German you would have a single word to describe all three of these functions simultaneously, and that word might be Verklockenblockenknocken) by the occasional site views in countries you’ve never even heard of. Wonder what they might be gaining from your blog. (Whilst secretly knowing, deep in your soul, that they wound up here by accident and went straight back out again, like you do in a public toilet when somebody’s left you a shit in the pan).

Feel shame for your xenophobic German joke. Mention your German ‘A’ level. Write for a bit about how you’re one of those rare folk who actually likes the German language; that you’ve actually read The Catcher in the Rye in German (or at least, the whole first half of the first page) and the opening line of Heinrich Böll’s Das Brot der frühen Jahre is one you will always remember: ‘Der Tag, an dem Hedwig kam, war ein Montag…’

Decide you will appear both more intelligent and enigmatic if you leave these lines untranslated.

'Hallo, ich heisse Hedwig.'  'Verklockenblockenknocken.'

‘Hallo, ich heisse Hedwig.’
‘Verklockenblockenknocken.’

Das Brot der frühen Jahre (1962): so good they filmed it

Realise you’ve backed yourself into a bit of a corner. Where can one go from a xenophobic joke?

Leave the wasteland of your blog traffic behind, and head into the London-Congestion-Charge of your spam queue. Wish everyone was as keen on your blog as ‘nike pas cher’ in:

{Idaho|Carolina|Ohio|Colorado|Florida|Los angeles|California}! 

who was:

{bored to tears|bored to death|bored} at work

so decided to:

{check out|browse} your {site|website|blog} during lunch break.

Learn from ‘clashofclanshakez’ that you’ve ‘ended his 4 day hunt’. Remain unenlightened as to what he was hunting for.

Rather like this one from ‘air max pas cher’ (while also enjoying the fact that you know this means ‘cheap air max’ in French, thus affording you an opportunity to show off your French A-level):

Typically the feathers seem splendid.

Congratulate yourself on your splendid feathers. Scroll down to the foot of your last three posts and find yourself, all three times, invited to ‘be the first person to like this!’ Have a cry. Or some tea. Or some wine. Or some heroin.

Hope people who’ve read How to Become a Week-Two Nanowrimo Writer will get that you’ve repeated that line deliberately, the way Martin Amis says it’s all right to repeat things, and not because you’re lazy (even though laziness is partly the reason you used it).

Wonder if more, or fewer, willy jokes is the way to go.

Glance up; see the bright orange glow of the new subscriber box, like a bottle of Perrier at the foot of a Saharan sand dune. Somebody likes you!

You’re on a roll now. You’ll cast your net and catch some more followers… With this in mind, tweet your blog for the twelfth time in seven minutes. Fiddle about with the tag line:

This nanowrimo writer posted a blog! And then THIS happened…

Here be words and willy jokes…

Wonder if all this is the twitter equivalent of Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle with her tea tray…

Ah go on, ya will ya will ya will ya will ya will... read my blog.

Ah go on, ya will ya will ya will ya will ya will… read my blog.

Decide that, since you’re on twitter anyway, you might as well click on that link to another writer’s blog…

Laugh smugly to yourself. This is balls of a magnitude rarely witnessed. As if anyone would willingly read this pile of—

See that the post has 359 likes. 1.5K tweets. 972 comments.

Consume tea, wine, and heroin all in the same cup.

Tara Tree-tops. She inspired me to make a character fly.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Six

As Tigger very nearly said: the wonderful thing about writers… is writers are wonderful things.

Er, no. Let’s try that again. (Some of them are wonderful; some of them aren’t. At all.)

The wonderful thing about writers… is that writers are full of wonder. And if they’re not, they jolly well should be.

Oh, look! Turns out writers have something else in common with tiggers... they wish (yes, they do – they really really really secretly do in their innermost souls which are made of slugs & snails & puppy dogs' tails wish they were THE ONLY ONE and no one else had worked out how to do it. Even nice people like Hilary Mantel secretly wish this. Martin Amis definitely wishes it.

Oh, look! Turns out writers have something else in common with tiggers… they wish (yes, they do – they really really really secretly do in their innermost souls which are made of slugs & snails & puppy dogs’ tails) that they were THE ONLY ONE and no one else had worked out how to do it. Even nice people like Hilary Mantel secretly wish this. Martin Amis definitely wishes it.

Who else in this world is full of wonder (or jolly well should be)?

Children.

Aw.

Perhaps, right now, as you’re reading this blog, you are not feeling especially full of wonder. Perhaps you are meant to be writing something. Perhaps you are struggling. Perhaps the stone doesn’t feel remotely stony; perhaps the stone isn’t there at all. 

What you need, struggling writer, is a dose of Childlike Wonder™. You need to be curious about the world again.

How, Lynsey?

Well, the really excellent thing is that you were a child once. And if you stop being a bloody adult for two minutes, you can remember quite a lot of what being a child is like. As the Jesuits famously said, ‘Give me the child for seven years and I’ll give you the man’ (which would, frankly, be a miraculous achievement if that child happened to be a girl, you sexist old so-and-sos) and as Shakin’ Stevens (all the high culture references on my blog, readers!) nearly said : there’s a whole lotta shapin’ going on… in those formative years. (He didn’t say formative years, of course. In fact, where was the shakin’ going on? Was it all just in Shaky’s trousers? Life is certainly too short to google a Shakin’ Stevens lyric.)

I won't, thanks, Shaky, if it's all right with you. (Who knew Shaky was involved in illicit organ harvesting?)

I won’t, thanks, Shaky, if it’s all right with you. (Who knew Shaky was involved in illicit organ harvesting?)

Q: Why is a writer like a child? A: Because s(he) is spoilt, demanding, and self-centred to the point of alienating everyone s(he) knows eternally curious. Any one who’s raised a child, or indeed sat within earshot of one on a bus or train journey, knows that children ask lots of questions. Why is the sky blue? Is the moon following me? Can you please provide, in front of these people on this train, Mummy, the answers to the following: how the train works; why the sun shines; where babies come from; why that man is having a baby; why that lady’s drawn those funny eyebrows on her face. Etc. And so on. Forever.

Funny, but sweary bit from Louis C.K. on the wonders of childlike wonder.

Asking questions is a writer’s modus operandi. The writer’s job isn’t to answer those questions (hurrah!), but simply to formulate the questions ‘correctly’. (Here I’m paraphrasing Chekhov on Tolstoy.) Literature aims to provoke thought, not tell you what to think. We leave that to the school teachers. Bastards.

So, for writers, it’s not what you know, nor even who you know: it’s what you don’t know – but really, really want to find out – that makes for good novels. The writer needs a ‘grain of stupidity’ (said Flannery O’Connor). And a willingness to think about things for a really long time. And perhaps you know that the moon isn’t really following you, but a story in which the moon did follow you might be kinda interesting, right?

The State of Wonder: where all the good shit happens.

Go on, let’s pretend we’re still kids for a minute. Let’s look at some picture books.

Was I freakishly weird, as a child, or did you too sit staring and staring and staring at your favourite pictures until they were seared on your brain? Where the Wild Things Are, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Tiger Who Came to Tea… These are books you may have read yourself. You, too, might have pushed your miniature finger tips into the holes left behind in the fruit by the ravenous – and titular – caterpillar.

IMG_1131

He just wants to get to the page with the lollipop on. (Don’t we all.)

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Perhaps you, too, had a secret longing to feed finger sandwiches to a tiger.

...and he drank all the milk, and all the orange juice, and all Daddy's beer, and all the water in the tap... but fortunately Mummy's wine was left untouched! Hurrah!

…and he drank all the milk, and all the orange juice, and all Daddy’s beer, and all the water in the tap… but fortunately Mummy’s wine was left untouched! Hurrah!

All good fun. But two of the books in our house that I stared, and stared, and stared at were slightly less jolly. They gave me a frisson, a thrill, when I looked at them. The first was the Butterfly Ball: 3534192302_9261e1759c

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and the second was Kit Williams’ Masquerade. 

I have crazy goosebumps looking at this.

I have crazy goosebumps looking at this.

Excuse me while I have A Moment here. Since the internet was invented, I’ve never once thought – till now – to google the Butterfly Ball, and I’m feeling a little peculiar seeing the pictures again.

It's not just me, is it? That's quite disturbing.

It’s not just me, is it? That’s quite disturbing.

Wikipedia tells me The Butterfly Ball was not only a book, but a poem, a concept album and a rock opera. Well, I never. This post has all the pictures, if you’re brave enough… I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that illustrator Alan Aldridge may possibly have been within sniffing distance of a psychedelic drug or two.

Come on, now. At the very *least* he ate some funny mushrooms.

Come on, now. At the very least he was eating some funny mushrooms.

This, I think, was my book porn. Something I felt a bit weird about wanting to look at (like the nudie lady weighing herself on the cover of a ‘health and well being guide’ my parents had… I don’t think that’s a euphemism; you’d have to ask my mum and dad) but, weirdness be damned: I couldn’t quite stop myself wanting to look.

I was nine, I think, when I got my copy of Masquerade, and by then the famous riddle contained within its pages (go here if you’d like to know more) had already been solved, and the treasure (a gold hare) retrieved from its grave, near the Catherine of Aragon monument in Ampthill Park.

Not that I’d ever have solved it in a million years. I’m a numbskull. (It had something to do with fingers, and eyes, and blah blah blah: I couldn’t even concentrate long enough to read the solution, let alone deduce it myself.) But I was very drawn to the pictures. They gave me the goose pimply feeling the insects did in the Butterfly Ball. 

More, importantly, though, they were perfect writing prompts. I was twenty, and finishing up my English degree, when I wrote an odd story inspired by a curious mix of these two pictures:

Tara Tree-tops. She inspired me to make a character fly.

Tara Tree-tops. She inspired me to make a character fly.

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Run, children!!!!!

This one inspired some nightmares.

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And as for this boy gazing dolefully at a jelly… page10

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This mightn’t make sense in a logical way, but I think there’s a bit of this picture – a bit of the feelings it makes me feel – in everything I write, somehow. (I like feeling my way through a story, not puzzling it out like a sum.)

I’ve a theory. It’s this. The things that you see when you’re young, you see forever. We adults – we’re here, we’re there, we’re everywhere: we’ve seen everything twice already and, yawn, it takes something incredibly shocking, or rude, or unusual to make us really see. But the writer must keep hold of, or retrieve, that State of Wonder. Wide-eyed wonder.

You may not have owned the Butterfly Ball or Masquerade. But the odds are you had your own pictures you loved to pore over, and, equally, the odds are you’ll find them somewhere on the internet (if the pesky old paper copy’s gone walkies). Who knows what might inspire a story, a scene, a character?

I’ll leave you with Jan Pienkowski’s Haunted House, and my own realisation that even a pop-up book can seep so thoroughly into a child’s subconscious that she ends up – very slightly, subtly, not so anyone would ever notice – borrowing a little something something from it for the novel she’s writing thirty-five years later.

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‘Let yourself in’. Mwa ha ha!

Wake up, dude! There's, like, a ghost in your bed!

Wake up, dude! There’s, like, a ghost in your bed!

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Thirty-five years later and my saw still works. There are benefits to being a spiteful bitch who won't let other children touch her things.

Thirty-five years later and my saw still works. There are benefits to being a spiteful bitch who won’t let other children touch her things.

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Come play with my comments box, children, if you read these books yourself as a kid. Or have weird ‘uns of your own to share…

Erm...

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Five

You know what? I’m bloody marvellous at being myself. I absolutely bloody excel at it.

Not you, though. You’re shit at being me. What are you good at? Why, you’re good at being you. 

A concept so simple that even Sarah Palin could find it on a map. But why, if it’s so very simple, does it take so very, very long for each one of us, as human beings, to absorb this most simple of facts into our complicated little noggins?

I’m so old now that, TBH, I am over the whole palaver of wanting to be someone I’m not. I was watching an interview with Evgeny Kissin the other day, as you do (or, rather, as do; you probably don’t – being yourself, and all, instead of me) and he mentioned a Yiddish proverb that was so good I (yes, folks) tweeted it (when I’m tweeting about scratching my arse you’ll know we’ve hit the nadir of human existence).

What the bally-hooing-hell has this got to do with writing?

Well, you, being (possibly) sane, probably wouldn’t use the word bally-hooing-hell. I’m not sure why I used it either. But, I did. And that’s the crux of it. I use words that you wouldn’t. I order the words in my sentences (I’ll have five ‘and’s and a pair of ‘cock’s please, waiter) in a way that you wouldn’t. I choose subjects you’d turn up your nose at. I notice things you don’t.

And vice versa, of course. Because you’re busy noticing your own things, and ordering your own words, and choosing your own subjects.

And sometimes I’ll like the things you’ve done better than the things I’m doing. But I can’t do them. I can’t be you. I can only be me.

Philip Larkin once said that readers shouldn’t blame the writer for wot he wrote. (I’d like to say for what ‘he or she’ wrote, but the odds are that Larkin probably didn’t say that… although he might have done. If you have the precise quote to hand, do enlighten me – by which I mean, show me up). The reader shouldn’t blame the writer (whether or not the writer was blessed, or perhaps burdened, with a pair of testicles) because the writer could only write what the writer was capable of writing. That’s quite a mouthful. After the writer had finished writing, he went off to the forest to help a poor woodchuck who wasn’t sure how much wood he should, or indeed could, be chucking.

Philip Larkin. Poet. Librarian. Staunchly against effing up your children's lives. When I was 17 I received a fan letter (on hedgehog paper) from a man who said he'd known Larkin. The letter mentioned the 'ejaculation of the Oh' in one of my poems, which slightly startled my parents, who weren't massively keen on a grown man writing to their teenaged daughter about any sort of ejaculation, thank you very much.

Philip Larkin. Poet. Librarian. Staunchly against effing up your children’s lives. When I was 17 I received a fan letter (on hedgehog paper) from a man who said he’d known Larkin. The letter mentioned the ‘ejaculation of the Oh’ in one of my poems, which slightly startled my parents, who weren’t massively keen on a grown man writing to their teenaged daughter about any sort of ejaculation, thank you very much.

What’s the moral of this blog post? I suppose, if you like your morals contained within nutshells and liberally coated with cheese, it’s probably this:

Go where your heart is.

In a writing class, recently, with some very lovely beginners, I touched on the issue of Mills and Boon. Many years ago, in a hare-brained moment, I’d convinced myself I would write one. I first had a try at a Black Lace style short story… hmm, hang on a sec. Is Black Lace the erotic fiction publisher, or is it the men who inflicted Agadoo on the universe in the 1980s?

Google, google… It seems to be both.

SORRY.

I probably will burn in hell anyway, so no need to wish that fate upon me for this particular offence.

Come and dance every night… sing the hula melody…

Ah, those were the days! Here’s the link to the Black Lace I was actually talking about. ‘How to Seduce a Billionaire’ and ‘The Accidental Call Girl’ are two of their titles they’re touting at the moment… How does one become an accidental prossie, I wonder? (And if they’d called her a prossie, instead of the glossier call girl, it wouldn’t have had quite the same… appeal, I suppose. ‘How to Be a Toothless Crack Whore’?)

The fact I’ve been writing about Black Lace for about four seconds and already started taking the piss is all the proof you need that I could never actually write one. I tried. I did try. It probably still exists somewhere on one of my old computers (that I’m now thinking of taking an axe to) but it was awful. It was dire. It was the Agadoo of erotic literature. (Oh yeah, baby, come on, push those pineapples… push those pineapples real good…)

I pride myself on sort of, on a good day, when the wind’s in a southerly direction and the going is fair to good, being roughly just about OKAY at writing sex scenes. (I can’t say I’m good at it. I’m English.) But they’re not sexy sex scenes. They’re usually (a) horrible (b) wonderful until they go tragically wrong (c) peculiar and twisted. And more importantly they’re not about sex. (Just another, slightly stickier, way of showing how characters relate to each other.) Describing the whole in-out Fifty Shades of the process can be about as erotic as describing two people assembling a jigsaw puzzle. (Unless you are twelve, and male, the mere use of the word ‘willy’ in proximity to the word’ fanny’ is probably not enough to truly yank your chain.) Conversely, two people could work on a jigsaw puzzle without so much as a heaving cleavage or a purple, pulsating member and yet the whole scene could crackle with sex.

Be honest. You're a little aroused by this, aren't you?

Be honest. You’re a little aroused by this, aren’t you?

I’ve said this before, and the reason I’m saying it again is this: I might think that my writing (on a good day, with a southerly wind, etc) is better (on some level) than the writing between the elegant covers of a Black Lace novel, but that doesn’t mean I can arrogantly think I’ll dash one off (a book, I mean) with the same effort it might take to buy milk, for instance, or hoover the living room, or boil the kettle, and expect the folks at Black Lace to bow down in wonder at the feet of this mystical being who has four hundred ways to describe someone’s eyes but not one of them is ‘vivid and dark with desire, aquamarine and too brilliant to be natural’. They’d – rightly – say, bugger off, you big headed cow and stop wasting our time.

Erm...

Erm… Things were different in 1952. A Golden Oldie from good old Mills and Boon.

Likewise for Mills and Boon, who have more author guidelines than I have cunning descriptions for eyes. I mistakenly thought that the prose in a Mills and Boon would be simple. Oh, no! Far from. In fact (in the half page I managed to read for my ‘research’ before realising I couldn’t possibly ever write one) there wasn’t a single ‘cat sat on the mat’ piece of straightforward sentence-writing in sight. This was literary spaghetti. By the time I’d arrived at the end of the sentence I’d already forgotten how it started.

So, no. It’s not for me. My heart isn’t in it. My heart is in freakish and slightly disturbing depictions of horrible sex that end terribly for everyone involved. So that’s what I’ll carry on writing.

Huzzah!

And when, then I'd written my 9000 words, I turned some water into wine and verily I did drink it.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Four

A first draft is for telling the story to yourself.

The second draft, and the third, and the fourth… and the twenty-seventh… and the four-hundred-and-eleventh… are for telling the story to the reader. In other words: what to leave in (so that everything is not completely baffling) and what to take out (so that you’re not too patronising) and what to rephrase (because that sentence was aesthetically pleasing as the spiral of cat poop that was left for me in the bathtub yesterday morning – not a joke), and so on and so forth.

I wrote 9000 words yesterday, although large swathes of the day were spent on other things, which seems such a miraculous happening that I think we need a spontaneous picture here of some ‘Assorted Saints’ (that’s what the image is called; again not a joke).

And when, then I'd written my 9000 words, I turned some water into wine and verily I did drink it.

And then, when I’d written my 9000 words, I turned some water into wine and verily I did drink it.

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There has been some fall-out along the way. A surprising amount of typos can be made when you’re writing as if the story is a train that you’re racing to catch. I’m aware (as I said in yesterday’s post) (which slightly, old-fashionedly, makes me think I’m inside the postbag, or the postbox, or being squeezed through someone’s letter box) (um anyway…) WHERE WAS I? Ah yes. I’m aware of wanting 70 thousand words, instead of the recommended 50 thousand, from this hectic month of November, but that’s only a back-to-front way of approaching the fact that the story seems to need/want/demand another twenty thousand words or so. (The Story should get together and go on a date with those Markets we’re always hearing about, and have a good chuckle over the power of an abstract concept to enslave humankind.)

Really, I’ll just keep writing until I run out of story. It doesn’t matter if that’s 70K or 170K, and

Unknown-2

 

before you tell me ‘no one ever buys first novels longer than 100K’, because first drafts have their own rules, and one of those rules is: THERE ARE NO RULES! Hurray. Cast caution to the wind

Goodbye, caution!

Goodbye, caution!

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and write your little ass off, as badly – or goodly (erm…) – as you like. You will never, never, never again be as free (with this particular book) as you are now.

Remember those halcyon days at the start of a long-term relationship? When it doesn’t really matter what you’re saying, because the other person isn’t listening: the fact that you’re speaking at all – the fact that you exist – is reason enough for your mouth to be opening and closing, while they gaze at your face through the rose-tinted candlelight and wonder how ever their heart could have bothered to beat in the wasteland of their existence before you – you, oh wonderful creature – walked into their life. And even though you never fart in front of them, if you did it would waft like a squirt of Chanel no 5, because nothing can really be wrong that comes out of your body. You could probably even (don’t take my word on this) have a dump on the ground in front of them – possibly even in their shoes – and get away with it. And they’d still want to snog you.

That’s where I am with the novel right now. It can do no wrong. I think about it constantly. I don’t want to know what other people think: if its breath smells like a month-old egg sandwich, or it once went out in public in a denim hat, or it’s actually a closet Tory, or it wanted to do some really strange things with the last girl it slept with. I don’t want to hear that now! I don’t need to hear it. My story’s on a pedestal, god damn it, and it’s going to stay there.

For now.

After Christmas, when I come out from behind the curtains and sneak up on it, unawares, I’ll have taken my love-goggles off and I’ll see it for what it really is. I’ll cringe when it tells me that anecdote about getting arrested in Prague that it doesn’t remember telling me, already, two months ago – and I didn’t really enjoy it the first time, if I’m honest – and I’ll tilt my head and say, ‘Is that a beer belly under there?’ I’ll stop looking under the sofa cushions for that month-old egg sandwich and start leaving breath mints next to the bed. We’ll be out somewhere for dinner with friends, and I’ll hear my novel braying about privatisation, how that’s a good thing, and I’ll notice the man sitting opposite me at the table, who’s telling his neighbour to boycott Shell, and I’ll think to myself, ‘Now he seems nice. Why can’t my novel be like that? Look, he’s pouring water for everyone else first… My novel’s just taken the last shrimp off the plate, and he’s already had his fair share already and then some… Oh Christ, did he just burp?’

It’s going to be a sad and disappointing time. When I start the second draft, I’m going to think everyone at that table is kinder and sexier and sweeter-smelling than the novel I’ve been lumbered with. And I’m not saying I should stay with that novel forever (god forbid, in fact), but you’ve got to at least try to make it work, right?

No matter how much it stinks.

dal_g_cowboys_cheerleaders_b1_576

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Three

Some of this please:

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And this…

Band_Trooping_the_Colour,_16th_June_2007

And also this…

dal_g_cowboys_cheerleaders_b1_576

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Because this happened last night:

So, yes, all the bells and whistles please. With knobs on. I have ‘won’ NaNoWriMo. Sadly there’s no monetary reward, but nevertheless I feel all warm and snuggly inside and isn’t that reward enough on a dull Sunday morning when the rain is dribbling down my window and I didn’t clean the blender yesterday so in order to have our homemade smoothies I will have to WASH DISHES, which I definitely do not want to do.

But that’s not the end of the story! Regular readers of this ‘ere blog may know that, although I’ve been ‘doing’ NaNo, I didn’t begin my project from scratch. It all began (settle down, children, and I’ll tell you a story) two years ago when a yellow-haired girl appeared in my notebook (I never fought in a war, children, so instead must harp relentlessly on about other matters) and then, yada yada, I got a place on the Writers’ Centre Naar-ich’s (people from Nar-folk will know what I’m doing there) Escalator Literature scheme, followed by an Arts Council grant, and before I knew what was happening I’d committed to writing an actual book about old Yellow Hair. And the rest, children, is history.

The important thing, therefore, having ‘won’ NaNo, was to continue writing immediately. Which I did. I wrote another thousand words last night, and then, goodness gracious me:

And:

And… I just swerved there, when you tried to punch me.

And swerved again.

And I will sleep with one eye open, if you’re planning on coming to smother me.

Can I briefly re-enrol myself for Procrastination 101 and point out that it isn’t a book yet. It’s only a sketch for a book. If I posted a few sample pages you’d all like me again, because there is heaps and heaps of work still to do. My target is 70,000 ‘new words’ + the words I’ve already written = something roughly approximating the length of a novel (82K-ish). A lot of those words will go straight in the bin, but it’s all full of story, story, story, so I’m happy enough. For now.

Is this what it feels like in the end stretch of a novel? I’m genuinely asking. Because I’ve never been at the end stretch of a novel before. Not properly. Not since I was 11, anyway (and thrilled because the teacher wanted to make photocopies of it), and I don’t think it counts.

It’s like being a piñata. And somebody hit me, really hard, on the head, and all the words fell out in a single big burst – and the burst is still happening, it seems, so I’d better get back there and keep scooping up the words before some other writer nicks them.

Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811–1886). Be honest: you wouldn't kick him out of bed on a cold night.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Two

Which dead celebrity would you most like to have sex with?

I don’t even have to think about my answer. There’s close competition from Jeff and Tim Buckley, and I always had kind of a crush on Philip Seymour Hoffman, but give me Franz Liszt circa 1840 and all others pale by comparison.

Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811–1886). Be honest: you wouldn't kick him out of bed on a cold night.

Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt (1811–1886). Be honest: you wouldn’t kick him out of bed on a cold night.

 

(Editor’s note: This is the post that immediately loses me all the new subscribers I picked up yesterday… It’s mostly an extravagant preamble, an Oscar Wilde-style ‘eloquent circumlocution’ if you like, to point you towards my new page – up above – called ‘Music to Write to, which I hope you’ll take a gander at, even if you drop out HERE and read no further…)

Liszt was a rock god before rock gods were invented. Women collected the butts of his cigars and wore them on chains around their necks. They swooned at concerts. They abandoned their husbands for him. They wrote novels about him. I’m certain they’d have thrown their knickers at him if not for the peskily-awkward nature of Victorian fashion.

And did all this adulation turn Liszt into a massive cock?

Well, probably. At first. But he was also (Lynsey pulls sad face) devoutly religious (except for the ‘thou shalt not fornicate bit'; but if you look like Liszt and you play piano like Liszt and you don’t fornicate, you’re certifiably insane I reckon. Even God on his cloud was, like, ‘eh, go on, then, ya scallywag’.) He was a bit of a Big Head, it has to be said: ‘Génie oblige!’ was one of his sayings – nothing to do with a man in silk trousers granting you three wishes, but rather a twist on the ‘noblesse oblige‘ idea that those with money and power were meant to do their bloody bit for others. Likewise, those who were… well, geniuses (oh go on, let him off; he was a genius) were required to step up and… um… share themselves. (All credit to Liszt, he did share himself admirably well.) Génie Oblige finds its contemporary expression in Spiderman’s dictum that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Bet you never thought Liszt and Spiderman would be likely bedfellows, but there you are. We none of us know what life (or, indeed, this blog) will bring our way.

The man in action.

The man in action.

 

All of which is a STUNNINGLY LONG-WINDED way of saying that Liszt played his concerts for free.

For free.

That’s right. Just like the millionaire rock stars of today, who feel they probably have enough money already (how many houses, helicopters, pool tables, swimming pools, etc, does one rock star need?) and they want to thank their fans by…

Charging them as much money as possible.

Lovely.

For years Liszt was nothing to me but a painting on an album cover: a compilation of his Hungarian rhapsodies. Then, one night, I was reading a book about Chopin and, much as I love Chopin, whenever Liszt came striding in he swiped the scene from under Chopin’s pointy nose. While Chopin was pining for Georges Sand and palely coughing, Liszt was charming the copious undergarments from virtually everyone except Clara Schumann (who loathed him) and running away to an island with Marie D’Agoult and being twice as charismatic as Emma Thompson on the Graham Norton Show (and that was a whole lot of charismatic) crossed with Benedict Cumberbum and a side order of Christopher Walken in King of New York. 

In fact, before Madder Hall came along, I was planning a 12-part novel based on Liszt’s Transcendental Études for solo piano… Now, calm down, I know that excites you, but don’t all squeal at once, please: this is an Englishwoman’s blog. I’ll get an attack of the vapours if you keep on like that.

(Heard the oddly-quiffed Evgeny Kissin play this live at the Barbican last year, and practically went into the stratosphere, such was my delight.)

I strongly suspect that everyone’s packed away their pencil case and gone home for their tea now, because you probably all heard the school bell about seven paragraphs ago, while I was enjoying myself on one of my favourite topics. Am I alone now? (As Tiffany nearly sang.) If so, I could literally write anything I wanted to…

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Just getting a cat to stroke…

Right, back now. Plus cat.

 

Watch out for the radioactive eyes.

Watch out for the radioactive eyes.

As I said at the start of this L O N G post, I’m in a musical kinda mood because I’ve just stuck a brand new page at the top of the site, and it has lots of musical links you mightn’t have come across before, and there might just be something to tickle your fancy. So do check it out.

And, partly, I suppose I’m trying out ideas for Book Number 2. Book Number 2 is going to be musical. I don’t mean it’ll come with a birthday-card jingle inside (although, hmm, there’s an idea…) or a Jamie Oliver style CD-to-cook-to (could you be any more twee and middle class and faintly annoying, Jamie?). I mean it’ll be about music. (Except it won’t, of course. It will be about having sex and then dying, which I what I always seem to write about.)

It won’t be about Liszt, though. Because Liszt is sort of in Madder Hall. And if you visit my About Me page you can hear me describing the character he inspired.

PS: for those who’re interested, my NaNo word count stands at 43,726. As of 10.04 this morning.

P.P.S. Just realised I told my friend Jon, over coffee yesterday, that this would be about raspberries. (Perhaps it should have been.)

Here's an otter blowing a raspberry. Just for you, Jon.

Here’s an otter blowing a raspberry. Just for you, Jon.

 

 

The Slave Master made this rather excellent montage of her cats. Numbers 1 and 4 are the ones in our house.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty One

Now I face the important decision of whether or not to hyphenate my twenties.

Decisions, decisions. I’m not very good at them. Which is unfortunate, because a writer needs to make more decisions than an Apprentice project manager in the midst of a cross between a brainstorm and a shitstorm.

You need to make decisions in two places: inside, and outside your novel.

Inside your novel… we’ll come to in a moment.

Outside your novel: simply put, this means making a decision like the one I made at 7 a.m. today. That’s our usual waking-up time on a school day, but my daughter’s not well and after a wee bit of negotiating (in which she made her case very well; guess which side she was arguing?) we agreed that she could embrace that wonderful moment every school kid knows: the one when your mum/dad/gender-neutral-caregiver says, ‘Oh, go on then. Have the day off school.’

 

So now (being an adult who ner-ner-ni-ner-ner can’t be told what to do, not by anyone*) I faced my own little decision: head on the pillow or fingers on the keys?

* If only this was true.

‘I think I’ll do some writing,’ I said to Poorly Daughter.

‘Why would you do that to yourself?’ said Poorly Daughter.

Laughter ensued. ‘Will my typing disturb you?’

‘No,’ said Poorly Daughter. ‘I like hearing you work.’

Spoken like a true Slave Master.

Two things had to happen before any writing could begin: the kettle had to be boiled, and the two large furry cat beasts who dominate our little household had to be momentarily calmed with porcelain dishes of manna from heaven, rubbed on the thighs of virgins and sweetened with the blood of a sacrificial… errrrrr, I don’t really know where I’m going with this. The cats are demanding, anyway. They had some cat biscuits, etc, and became temporarily less demanding. I’ve probably got carried away here.

The Slave Master made this rather excellent montage of her cats. Numbers 1 and 4 are the ones in our house.

The Slave Master made this rather excellent montage of her cats. Numbers 1 and 4 are the ones in our house. Although number 3 actually looks the most demanding here, I have to admit.

So anyway, Decisions inside the novel, she says in a forthright and tally-ho sort of a manner. Now I’m Alan Sugar in the boardroom, loading my firing finger for another fatal shot. (God, I’d love to know if he practises that in front of a mirror.)

Yesterday, after more to-ing and fro-ing than a to-ing and fro-ing thing (I’ve opened my head like a pervert’s purse in a stripclub and all of my similes have fallen out. Except that one. And perverts probably carry wallets, not purses – if that’s not too sexist a comment; it probably is – but damn it I like purse better. So I ain’t changing it. See above, where I said ner-ner-di-ner-ner)… what was the point I was making again? Ah, yes. I’ve been dithering for the longest time about whether or not to have a Dowager Countess in The Fecking Novel. She was in, she was out, she was in, she was out – it was like she was doing the Hokey Cokey! Here come all the similes at once in a veritable avalanche of the bastards: cover your heads, down below! – and I liked writing about her. I liked the way she looked. (Not in that way. Shut your pervert’s purse, please.) She was based, a bit, on my first piano teacher, who was a magnificent turbaned former ballet dancer with perfect turn-out, called Cicely. (She was called Cicely, not her turn-out. Just to be clear. Although Cicely would be a good name for turn-out, wouldn’t it?) She had a Kings Charles called Figgy, who used to sit on the pedals when I was trying to use them, for which I – not Figgy – would be blamed. It was a cardinal sin, during lessons, to glance at the clock. This was the height of rudeness and not to be tolerated. My friend, Kim, was once caught red-handed and claimed, in a rather unconvincing way for a snotty teenager, to be ‘admiring your wallpaper’.

Once, oh hallowed day, I was invited into the Inner Sanctum to run my fingers across the pristine keys of the grand piano that students weren’t allowed to play on. She had a photograph of the bronze cast of Chopin’s hands. I was given a copy of Chopin’s waltzes to borrow.

I went home and told my mum, ‘I’m playing Choppin next week.’

‘Actually, lovey, I think that’s pronounced…’

So, RIP Dowager Countess of Madder. You are cold in your grave. Probably shouldn’t have smoked so many cigarettes. Your only real job was to take your granddaughter to London, but as the plot’s thickened it makes much more sense for your daughter-in-law (who you always hated) to do it instead. Life’s a bitch, sometimes.

And now I’m making the Executive Decision to stop writing this, and get back to the novel. I can do a whole twenty minutes before I have to get dressed, etc. And actually, though you mightn’t think it, you can write a helluva lot in twenty minutes.

Set your timer and see for yourself…