Don’t listen to me … it’s just my imagination running wild

To be a writer, you need a good imagination and you need to be very observant. Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? You need to be the sort of person who’ll overhear a snippet of conversation in a queue for the bus and think, “That would make a great plot line”. The sort of person who’ll observe a trait in a friend or stranger and think, “I could exaggerate that and create a wonderfully eccentric character.” The sort of person who reads a news headline and suddenly an idea for a novel is born. The sort of person who constantly thinks “what if …?” Yes, all wonderful traits for a writer.

But what happens when the writer’s imagination spills over into everyday life?

Last week, I was in my office writing. Darkness had fallen. The munchkin was in bed asleep and hubby had gone out to take some sunset photos an hour or so away so would be back late. I happened to glance out of my office window and did a double-take as a large orange flame danced into the air. Eek! FIRE!!! We live at the top of our street so our house backs onto the side of the one behind it and all I could see were bright flames in their garden. On a windy night. Close to their property. Cue writer’s imagination …

Scenario A: They’ve gone out for the evening (the house was in darkness as far as I could see) and a fire has somehow accidentally started on their patio which is going to consume their house and, because it’s a windy night, overcome ours too

Scenario B: They’ve gone out for the evening having deliberately started a fire in their back garden because they’re very angry with the landlord for putting the property up for let again when they haven’t lived there for a full year yet and now they have to re-house their family of 4 children, 1 grandchild and a dog at considerable expense and inconvenience. If they can’t have the property, nobody can. Mwah ha ha ha ha!!!!!

A normal person would have just nipped round the corner to check out the source of the flames. But cue more scenarios …

Scenario C: I leave the property but the munchkin (aged 7) chooses that moment to wake up. Finding the office empty, she calls out for me but there’s no answer. Feeling afraid, she comes looking for me and trips over one of our cats (who can smell the smoke and sense the danger so are getting frantic), falls down the stairs and smashes her head on the tiles in the hall

Scenario D: The fire has been started deliberately (scenario B) and the neighbours are loitering with intent to make sure it really does take hold. They see me peeking over the fence and take me hostage. The fire does take hold of their property and ours and I can’t get to the munchkin and the cats to rescue them

Aaarrrrggggghhhhhhhh!!!!

So I called the fire brigade. I apologised profusely explaining it may be nothing but I could see no lights in the house, it was windy, it was close to the property and I couldn’t leave my young daughter to investigate. The nice 999-lady was very understanding and said she’d send someone out to investigate. Problem was, I didn’t know the number of the house. It’s not on our street so I just told them it was the last house before the turn-off into my road then stood by the window and watched.

I watched as a light came on in the kitchen of the property behind, indicating that people were definitely home (scenarios B and D foiled).

I watched as the enormous flames decreased to something … well … not quite so enormous.

The fire engine arrived. The fire engine went straight past. Crap. I had to leave the property after all to flag them down as they trawled back up the estate. Embarrassingly, the young men in uniform had all piled out and were checking properties. I think they could have done with turning on their hoses on and directing them at my cheeks which were seriously on fire at the realisation that I’d called them out to a big fat nothing!

Directed by me, the firefighters and fire engine moved next-door and I watched them out of the office window with the lights out so they couldn’t see me (I told you I was embarrassed). They looked over the back gate of the property then knocked on the door. Within seconds, they were back in the engine and driving off. I returned to my Mac, head hung in shame.

Hubby came home later. “Oh, they’ve got a brazier,” he said. “They often light it.” Great. Wish I’d known that. Wish he’d been in to tell me. Wish I’d paid more attention to the neighbours. What was I saying about writers being observant? Might need to tone down the imagination in future and work on the observation skills.

I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever let your imagination run completely wild?

Jessica xx

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A blast from the past: Childhood memories before my eyes

Last week I got very excited in Waterstones. I was actually birthday present shopping and Waterstones have quite a nice gift section so I decided to browse. Only it was a really small Waterstones and the gift section was tiny so I had a little browse through the children’s section instead. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the title of a book that took me right back to my childhood.

_MG_4498When I was about seven, my older brother brought a book club leaflet home from school and I was allowed to order a book. I chose one called ‘My Best Fiend’ by Sheila Lavelle. I don’t remember the reason. Maybe I liked the cover, maybe I liked the blurb or maybe he suggested it. Either way, this lovely new book arrived and from the very opening paragraph, I was hooked. It was the very first book I read more than once. In fact, I probably read it a dozen times or more (as you can see from the battered state it’s in!) Imagine my delight when ‘The Fiend Next Door’ was released three years later in 1982. Another gem to be read many times over.

It didn’t just appeal to me at that age. In early secondary school, I still loved it and even wrote a book review on it although I was absolutely devastated when it came back with a low mark and “fiend” corrected to “friend” throughout. To this day, I’m still annoyed with myself for not challenging the teacher to up my marks because I had spelt it correctly. You see, the story is about Charlie and her best friend Angela who lives next door. Only Angela is what we might call a “toxic friend” these days as she repeatedly drops Charlie in it and behaves like a right little madam, hence “fiend” being a more appropriate descriptor.

_MG_4499So, back to last week, I was stunned to spot the books on the shelves. Nobody I know has ever heard of them and I assumed they’d have gone out of print long ago. I quickly purchased the pair for my seven year old (figuring that mine might fall apart if I gave her those) and I hope she enjoys them as much as I did.

For some strange reason, these are just about the only paperbacks I’ve retained from my childhood. I wonder what made me hang onto them. 

_MG_4492Another book that had a big impact on me was one that was read to us at school. ‘Run for Your Life’ by David Line tells the story of Szolda and Woolcott who overhear a conversation between two men and believe they’ve heard a murder plot. They then get into danger trying to prove they were right. I don’t know if it was on the curriculum or if it was just a book our teacher selected but it was absolutely gripping and I can still remember the desperation for them to get home safe and sound. A few years ago, I decided to see if I could track it down to re-read it and was delighted to find it’s still in print.

I’m going to become more predictable now with my final childhood memories. I absolutely loved and adored Enid Blyton. I admit that I haven’t read any of some of her famous works like The Secret Seven, St Clare’s, Naughtiest Girl etc. but I absolutely adored:

  • The Famous Five
  • The Enchanted Wood/Faraway Tree series
  • Malory Towers

_MG_4513      _MG_4511 _MG_4461

I read all of these many times over and I suspect that the reason I don’t still have them is that they were so well-read that they fell apart!

_MG_4502I’d like to say I loved Roald Dahl but I confess I’ve only ever read two books by him: ‘James & The Giant Peach’ and ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’. I don’t know why I’ve only read these (and, again, several times over) rather than trying others. I know ‘James & the Giant Peach’ was one we read in class at primary school so that’s why I got into that one. Perhaps we read ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ too. Really can’t remember. My little girl has a box set and she adores ‘The Enormous Crocodile’.

_MG_4496My final blast from the past is another slightly predictable one: ‘Anne of Green Gables’ by Lucy Maud Montgomery. This is my only other original paperback besides the Fiend books. Again, not sure why I kept it. I actually had it for years and never read it but then I watched the wonderful Canadian TV drama series (1985) on a repeat several years later and absolutely loved it. I read my book and borrowed the rest in the series from a friend. Such a lovely story and what a hero Gilbert Blythe is.

That’s my trail through part of my childhood. It doesn’t represent everything I read but it does represent my absolute favourites. I’d love to hear yours and I’d really love to hear from anyone who is familiar with Sheila Lavelle’s wonderful books or ‘Run for Your Life.’

Thanks for reading.

Jessica xx

 

Shadow(mancer)s of the recent past

The munchkin broke her collar bone on Tuesday. How? By bouncing up and down on the bed at my mum’s house, having a pillow fight, and falling off the bed. Durr. I was in Peterborough with work at the time, four hours away. Typical.

To reward her for being (reasonably) brave going to A&E and having an x-ray, I took her into town at lunchtime today to get her a little present. Hubby was going to the pub with our brother-in-law to watch a football match so we dropped him off and went for a mummy and munchkin lunch. Just as we reached the cafe and I stepped inside, a mournful voice cried, “Mummy, a seagull’s just pooed on me!” Poor little mite. I ushered her back out of said cafe, dug out a tissue and mopped her up as best as I could. They say it’s lucky. I don’t think she felt very lucky as the white and green slime dribbled down her fringe. And I certainly didn’t feel very lucky mopping it up!

But that’s not the point of this post so let me steer it towards that. The cafe we’d selected is called Taylors. It’s a cafe and book shop in Scarborough, North Yorkshire and is managed by two of local author GP Taylor’s daughters. Many people have had a part to play in my writing journey so far and GP Taylor is one of them so I like to visit his family’s cafe from time to time. Let me explain more …

P1050485When I first met hubby eleven years ago and shared my writing dreams with him, he asked me if I’d ever considered self publishing. I confess that, at the time (2003), I hadn’t heard of it. Having said that, I hadn’t really done any research into how I’d get my novel out there because it really was in the very early stages of an idea and a few poorly constructed chapters! He told me that a local Reverend-turned-writer, Graham Taylor, had self-published his debut novel, ‘Shadowmancer’, and hubby had picked up a first edition of it on a display in Waterstones in 2002. By 2003, it had picked up a publishing deal and, not long after, he also sold the film rights. Very exciting and impressive stuff!

A few years later (we’re thinking maybe 2008 but we’re getting old and our memories are fading!!!), hubby spotted an advert in the local paper for a creative writing course run by GP Taylor himself so I was straight on the phone to book my place and absolutely bursting with excitement.

There were about 25 on the five-week course, representing a huge mix of ages and genres. I remember going round the room doing some intros on that first session and being really disappointed that I was the only romance writer in the room. I’d hoped to find someone with similar interests and it looked like none of my fellow-attendees were interested in chick-lit. Yet it turned out that one person in the room was very interested: GP Taylor himself! He told me he’d teamed up with his assistant, Clare Connor, and was writing a chick-lit book. He was reading ‘Sushi for Beginners’ by Marian Keyes as research – a book I’d read myself – so we often chatted about this during workshops.

GP Taylor explained that his rationale for running the course was that he suspected there was a lot of undiscovered talent on the North Yorkshire Coast and he’d love to help develop some of that talent. Great reason. I hoped I’d fall into that category of ‘talent.’

P1050481The sessions were a good mix of information and interaction. Graham also set us homework tasks. He started by giving us a pencil drawing he’d found online and asked us to select one of the women then characterise her. He left it up to us how we’d do this. We handed these in and got them back next week. Graham was impressed with mine although he joked it came across a lot like a CV. I was working in recruitment at the time and couldn’t help myself!

Our next homework task was to write a creative piece showing the backstory of the character we’d developed and the final piece was to write a short story or start of a book. I’d chosen the woman in the foreground and named her Charlotte Evans. I’d been surprised not only at how easily her backstory came to my mind but that I’d written it in third person (my preference is first) and I’d set it after WWII when my work has always been set in the present-time. Despite all these changes to my ‘norm’, I loved writing my piece and actually felt sorry to stop at the first chapter as I felt there was a whole book in there.

P1050482Graham handed our work out towards the end of the final session. Before he did so, he said that the pieces had been read by him, his wife and his assistant and they were very impressed with the high standard and talent in the room. However, they were all in agreement that there was one piece of work that stood out above the others as something that could be published immediately. Excitement rippled round the room and I knew everyone would be thinking exactly the same as me: “I hope it’s mine!”

And it was mine! 

If I hadn’t been seated, I think my legs might have given way. That one comment absolutely made my day/week/month/year and made me believe I could really have a future as a writer.

P1050484The following year, Graham’s chick-lit book was out. ‘Rosie: Note to Self” was the first of a series of books. I believe that it’s either a re-telling of a bible story or inspired by Christian themes. GP Taylor and Claire Connor were doing a launch in WH Smith so I went along, bought a copy and got it signed. I wasn’t sure if Graham would remember me but he did and we joked that perhaps it would be me at that table signing my debut book in the not-too-distant future.

Fast-forward to today and I’m at the point in my writing journey where, spookily enough, I feel ready to follow GP Taylor’s footsteps and go indie with my debut series. I’ve visited Taylors a few times and have always hoped I’d bump into Graham and have an opportunity to talk some more about his writing. It didn’t enter my head that today might be the day it finally happened. There’s a room at the front with 4-5 tables, then you go through to a back room with 4-5 more, then up some stairs for 3 more tables and the book shop. Graham was relaxing in the corner seat by the stairs although he was deep in conversation with his companion so it would have been very rude to interrupt. Besides, I was a little flustered by the seagull-papping incident, so I ushered munchkin upstairs (as all the downstairs seats were taken). I wondered whether I should say something to him after I came back down and ordered my food. Would I be brave enough?

No. I lost my nerve.

It’s stupid really. There was my one opportunity to speak to a man who’d made me believe I could make it as a writer and tell him that I’ve written (or nearly written) three books since I met him in 2008 and that I’m going to launch all three in 2015. But I chickened out. I worried he wouldn’t recognise me or remember me as the chick-lit writer whose work he’d loved six years ago. 

The munchkin and I ate our lovely lunch then came downstairs. By this time, I’d psyched myself up but Graham had gone. Missed opportunity. So, Graham, if you do ever read this, I’d like to say thank you. You ran that creative writing course six or so years ago because you believed there was talent on the Yorkshire Coast that you wanted to help. Well, you helped me and one day perhaps you’ll read one of my novels and smile to yourself, knowing that you’ve been part of my journey.

Jessica

xxx

 

So many choices and so few decisions

I have a problem. My problem is that I’ve done a lot of writing recently … but hardly any of it has been novel-related. I’ve written a short story for The Write Romantics Anthology out later this year which I enjoyed and I’ve written several blog posts but I haven’t really progressed with my novels.

Why?

I think the fact that I say novelS – plural – rather than novel could be part of the problem.

By the end of November last year, I was absolutely storming it with my writing. I’d finished book 1 and it was out there seeking representation, I’d also finished my first draft of book 2 thanks to NaNoWriMo AND cracked on with about a third of book 3. (I cheated on NaNo. Officially you’re meant to start from scratch with a new book but that simply didn’t work for me timing-wise so I finished one and started the next and, let’s face it, my aim was to do 50,000 words and I achieved it. It made no difference to me whether that was on one, two or even twelve novels! Eek. Twelve. The thought brings me out in a cold sweat).

Fast forward eight months later and I’m in exactly the same position. Book 1 is out there seeking representation (still waiting on the final publisher decisions before going down the indie route), book 2 is no longer at 1st draft but it still needs work, and book 3 is still a third in and I’ve changed my mind about the order of events that I’d plotted out so carefully so change is needed. Problem is, the change is within the third I’ve already written. Typical.

So what I’m doing right now is dithering. I do a bit on book 2, I then move to book 3 and I’m now feeling I want to revisit book 1 again and all of this is not actually getting anything done.

A few thoughts spring to mind as to why a normally-organised and in control person like me is dithering so much:

  1. I’m bored of writing the trilogy, having worked on it for 11 years now and I’m ready to start something fresh
  2. I’m having a crisis of confidence thanks in part to my awful NWS critique on book 2 (where my reader kept saying there were lots of good bits then forgetting to tell me what they were)
  3. I’m genuinely not a good enough writer. I can see there are plot points to be improved upon and I’m not talented enough to do anything about them
  4. There is too much else going on in my life. Between a full-time job with a ludicrous amount of unexpected travel, family time, Brownies, keeping up with social media (as a good writer should) and life in general, I don’t have the time or energy to undertake the amount (or quality) of writing I’d like to
  5. I feel like my life is on hold whilst waiting for three final publishers to come back to me. One of these is several weeks overdue and the other two are due this week (specific timescales they gave me via email discussions as opposed to the general guidance provided at submission time). If I did get the call and if I did accept it, where I go next with the books may be quite different to what I’d do if I became indie so I’m in a state of flux not knowing at the moment

Or could it be all of the above? 

I’d say it is. Except perhaps 1. Eleven years is a heck of a long time to work on a trilogy but I’ve had significant periods within that time when I haven’t written at all (we’re talking several years when I had the munchkin) so it hasn’t been eleven solid, intensive years. I also love my characters, my setting, and believe in their stories so I don’t think I’d ever get bored of them. But perhaps that links into points 2 and 3. Because I love them so much and am so passionate about the stories they want to tell, I panic that I can’t do them justice.

Another problem is that my writing time is so snatched. I may get two hours one evening and then 2 days with nothing. This is hard for the thought process. Approx two months ago, I scrolled through book 2 and wrote on a set of post-it notes the main points of the chapters. I stuck them on a glass display cabinet next to my desk. As I was writing these out, thoughts were whizzing through my mind as to what I could link/change/add in/remove. The next step was to capture these but we were going out so my thought process got broken. A week later, I had time to pick it up again but the cogs that had been turning so well were now dormant and rusty. I tried to look at the chapter details and remember. But I couldn’t. So I put some token thoughts on in other pretty-shaped post-it notes and it all looks very impressive … but it’s not quite right because of that break. And because it’s not quite right, I’m putting off returning to book 2 because I’m still unclear what I want to do to it or why. What I really need to do is do that whole exercise again in its entirety. But where do I have time to do that?

Answer: Take a month off work (at least) and write solidly.

Likelihood of that happening: Absolutely zero.

So how do I overcome points 2-5 above and deal with the snatched writing time so that I can get this trilogy finished to the absolute best of my ability (ignoring the doubts of points 2 and 3)?

I don’t actually know.

One of my day job roles is a coach. I ask questions of others and I guide them to help them reach the solution that they have within themselves. I’m quite good at coaching myself and I like to do this in the form of writing. I’ve found that writing down my thoughts in a post such as this really helps. I explore the options and the pros and cons of each, coming to the conclusion that’s right for me. I’ve effectively coached myself through the problem. I did this with my recent decision to write under a pen name and the exploration prior to that around the indie route. When I started writing both those posts, I wasn’t really sure what I’d decide and the process generated my conclusion.

This time I can’t coach myself because the answers aren’t within me. I will put my hands up (or I would if I didn’t need them to type this) and say I honestly don’t know what to do.

Do I just hang in there and wait for no 5 issue to be resolved and hope the timescales given to me are met? What if they aren’t met, though? How much time might I wait? Time that I would be wasting. Time that I could have been writing. If I could get my act together and write!

Hmmm. Answers on a postcard please or, even better, in the comments section below. I’d love to hear your take on it. Do you recognise yourself in this post? How did you overcome it (assuming you did)? Help!!!!!