Another Anniversary

Firstly, apologies for missing my usual blog update schedule – the reason why will shortly become apparent. Following the anniversary of my becoming a full-time writer at the end of July, today marks another anniversary for me: one year since I began writing my new novel, The Silvergreen Sea.
Taking a helicopter view, it’s been a productive year of writing: I have a 105,000 word manuscript, most of it in decent shape, and it should be fully finished this side of Christmas.
Taking a more in-the-weeds view, I’m a little disappointed that I haven’t managed to finish the book inside a year, and I’m more disappointed that my progress is currently stalled thanks to ill health.
Yep, I’m sick again. Not back pain this time (well, not more than usual) but a combination of viral infections, bouts of ME in between and, on top of all that, eye strain caused by too much staring at screens. Nothing too horrendous but it’s been persistent and has caused me to miss a number of engagements, including a 30th birthday party and a trip to Madrid to visit an old friend. And I’ve been unable to work on my novel, or this blog for that matter, which has caused a lot of frustration.
Oh well. Like anyone else, I can only play the cards I’ve been dealt. I’ve been trying to look after myself, listening to audiobooks to rest my eyes, and trusting to slow but sure recovery. It’s times like these that it’s important to remind myself of the good things about my situation. Like, I don’t have to call in sick to anyone, I can manage my own schedule of recovery, and I don’t have to juggle writing with other eye-straining commitments like a desk job. I’m very lucky, and while my current situation is frustrating, I need to remember it could be an awful lot worse.

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High Resolutions

So, it’s 2015 now, which is officially The Future. Although I think my hoverboard seems to have got lost in the post, sadly. While waiting for it to turn up, I’ve been asking some of my family and friends if they have any new year’s resolutions. Responses have ranged from the straightforward – ‘I’d like to lose another stone’ – to the mysterious – ‘Well, I have my own aims, but they’re not tied to anything as prosaic as what year it is’ – to the minimalist – ‘Survive’. I’ve also seen someone on Twitter with the commendable resolution to ‘continue bumbling along in the same half-arsed fashion as heretofore’.

What’s my plan? My main aim is to finish – not just first-draft finish, properly finish – my current work-in-progress, The Silvergreen Sea. How long that will take remains to be seen, so at the moment I don’t have any other writing resolutions. Ideally, I’d get another book done, at least in first-draft form, but if The Silvergreen Sea requires extensive revisions, that might have to wait for 2016.

I’ve also been thinking I should really do something that isn’t writing, to keep things varied and get me out of the house: do some voluntary work, and learn something: French or Italian or BSL or piano or algebra. But I haven’t yet quite get my head round what I’ll have time for, or what would be most beneficial. Perhaps my first non-writing resolution should be to work out what non-writing thing I want to resolve to do.

Finally, I have not a resolution, but an aim: to try and get myself flying again, so I can get further from home than Kent. I can’t control my back pain, but I can at least try to manage and improve it through exercise and medication, and – I hope – enable myself to do the things most important for me. Like go on holidays to see some friends and family later in the year, so we can compare notes on how all those resolutions are going.

I hope everyone achieves what they want to (unless your resolution is ‘achieve annihilation of the human race’) so we can make 2015 the year it all happens. After all, we’re now living in the future.

2014 Roundup

So, here we are, my last blog post of 2014. And what a year it’s been. At the start of the year, I was still suffering such terrible back problems I could barely sit at my computer for long enough to write a blog post. Now, I’ve managed to churn out 65,000 words (and counting) on my new work-in-progress fantasy novel, The Silvergreen Sea. Then, I was on extended sick leave from my job at Rolls-Royce. Now, I’ve quit the day job to devote myself to writing full-time. Then, I could barely get beyond a walking radius of my house, and gainful employment was a distant dream. Now, I’ve managed extended trips as far as visiting relatives on the South Coast, and day trips to London. I’ve also taken a temporary Christmas job selling books at Waterstone’s. Which is great when I get to hand-sell books by authors I enjoy, like Robin Hobb, Brandon Sanderson, or Ben Aaronovitch: and less great when I have to deal with customers who say things like ‘I’m looking for a book – I can’t remember the title, or the author, but it’s got a red cover.’ But overall, I love being able to spend lots of time surrounded by thousands of books, and it keeps me out of trouble. Mostly.

Money is a lot tighter now; only this morning I’ve had to turn down a posh Christmas dinner – something I would have said ‘yes’ to unthinkingly two years ago – because I simply can’t afford to go. But then, one year ago, I would have had to turn it down because I simply couldn’t have sat down for long enough for eat a seven-course meal. I know which situation I’d rather be in. And, let’s be honest, if I check my privilege, I know I’m still better-off financially than the majority of my fellow citizens, so I’ve really got nothing to complain about there.

It hasn’t been all good, of course. Efforts by me and my agent to find a publisher for either my first novel or the in-development second one have met with disappointment thus far. But hey, maybe 2015 will be the year that we crack it. And I’ve now got enough time available to write my books, so if the first one doesn’t make it, maybe the second one will, or the third, or even the fourth. One thing I’m certainly very, very rich in is ideas. So I’ll raise a glass of what a friend of mine refers to as ‘aggravated wine’ to the festive season and the end of another transformational year.

Lucky

It’s Halloween today – which, for most people, means either the joy of jack o’ lanterns and the perfect excuse to dress up in the most outrageously slutty outfit imaginable, or the annoyance of children knocking on your door to pester you for sweets. But for me, it now signifies a rueful anniversary: one year since I did my back in.

It’s been an interesting twelve months: living with chronic pain takes some getting used to, and I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been a lot of frustrations. Cancelled holidays. Agonising journeys. Living a very restricted life, for many months. But the thing which strikes me mostly powerfully, when I look back and reflect on the past year, is how lucky I am. I mean, yeah sure, I had some bad luck with my injuries, but that is more than made up for by the good luck. I was lucky with my work; I had an understanding boss and a generous sick pay provision, so I could concentrate on recovering rather than worrying about getting fired. I was lucky with my home; I have a spacious and beautiful house, so spending so much time at home didn’t drive me stir crazy. I was lucky with my family and friends, and most of all my husband, who were all loving and supportive. I was lucky with the area I live in, surrounded by safe and pleasant streets and parks, so I could walk around and get my exercise without it ever feeling like a chore. I was lucky in any number of ways, so that, while I can’t claim it’s been a good year, it was a whole lot better than it could have been.

At this point, I’ve recovered a great deal from the state I was in last November, and although I’m still far from back to perfect health, I’m now able to do most of the things that make up a satisfying life. So long as I remember to do my stretches and take my cocktail of painkillers. Ideal? No. Better than many? Yes. Enough to get on with the things that are truly important? Definitely.

I’m hoping that, by this time next year, I might be taking fewer drugs, and able to fly off on holiday to the Med. Maybe I’ll get there, maybe I won’t. But more than the physical improvement, I want to make sure I remember what it felt like, and how much worse it could have been. To remember how lucky I was, how lucky I still am. I believe the old school phrase is to count one’s blessings. So I will. And I may as well check my privilege while I’m at it, to bring myself bang up to date.

A Roundup of Randomness

It’s been quite a tiring couple of weeks. After almost 5 months of severe back pain, my activities largely restricted to walking round the park, drinking cups of tea, and watching old music videos and Game of Thrones teasers on YouTube, last Monday I finally went back to work. The pain hasn’t gone, but it’s sufficiently under control to start a phased return to the office, trying to remember what on earth I’m supposed to be doing (something to do with overhaul of jet engines, I think). I’ve been doing just two hours a day so far, but it’s astonishing how drained I feel afterwards. Still, this week was much better than last week, so it’s progress, and I was genuinely touched by how happy all my colleagues are to see me back. So, in the absence of more significant inspiration, I figure it’s time for a quick roundup of my latest thoughts and deeds.

1) Game of Thrones season 4 has started. This is, quite literally, the most exciting thing to happen to me in the last six months. My favourite bit – apart from Arya and The Hound, obvs – is the opening credits: although I have to confess that my heart sank just a little bit when Meereen showed up, I do love the way they’ve made The Dreadfort look like meat tenderisers. The Dreadfort, for those who don’t have the same encyclopaedic knowledge of Westeros as me, is the seat of Roose Bolton, who isn’t a terribly nice guy, even by GoT’s bloodthirsty standards. Incidentally, he looks just like Vladimir Putin.

2) I’ve been listening to a lot of Team Rock Radio lately, a station which promises no adverts, although it does spend a lot of time telling you all about what’s in the latest issue of Classic Rock Magazine. Clearly an underhand marketing tactic which won’t work on me. So in the latest issue, I’ve been reading all about KISS. God, they’re rubbish. But I salute their stroke of genius in adopting that crazy face-paint look back in the 70s, thus ensuring that: a) nobody would find out how ugly they all were; b) nobody would recognise them off-stage; c) they could replace band members without anyone noticing; and d) in forty years’ time, when their pretty-boy rivals’ faces had all melted, they would still look exactly the same.

3) Last Christmas I decided that my 2013 reading challenge would be ‘In Search of Lost Time’. I managed about half of it, so I’ve decided it’s actually a 2013 and 2014 reading challenge, and I’m currently working my way – slowly – through volume 4, ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’. I’ve also baked some madeleines, which I think counts as further progress.

4) On Monday evening I jointly led a session at my writing group, Derby Scribes, on the topic of submissions to agencies, magazines, and anthologies. At one point the discussion turned to font choices, and it struck me that you can always tell a true writer by how impassioned they are on the topic of serifs vs sans, Courier vs Times New Roman, or Verdana vs Calibri. We even had a couple of people sticking up for that most reviled of all fonts, Comic Sans. FWIW, my personal font of choice is Palatino Linotype.

5) My friend Tamsin has roped me into doing a 10k walk, starting at 10pm, to raise money for Treetops Hospice. It’s called the Moonlight Walk, but it’s actually scheduled for the night of the new moon, so clearly we need all the help we can get. Our team is called The Tea Ladies, and if we make our donations target, I’ll do the walk wearing my English breakfast tea cosy on my head. http://www.justgiving.com/the-tea-ladies/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=fundraisingpage&utm_content=the-tea-ladies&utm_campaign=pfp-share

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I will wear this on my head if you donate enough money to our cause

 

Seasons in sickness

I have to confess that I am generally not very good at reading other blogs, but one I have been following is by Alison Clayton-Smith on the Mslexia website, about life as a writer with chronic health issues, and, while we have different problems and different approaches to life, I do identify with quite a lot of what she says. Here, for what it’s worth, are my own thoughts.

Today is the 28th of February. Next week is Shrove Tuesday. The last day I was at work was the 30th of October. When I went off sick, it was autumn: now, winter is on the cusp of spring. A whole season has passed, a third of a year, and I’m still laid low with back pain, unable to do most of my normal activities. I’ve had an MRI scan (an experience I thoroughly recommend for any horror writer wondering what it might feel like to be buried alive) but no results yet. Now, there could be a serious problem, but I’m suspecting/hoping that it’s actually ‘just’ a muscle strain which will heal itself in time, and nobody so far seems able to answer the question ‘How much time?’ Meanwhile, I’m stuck in limbo, a life revolving around taking painkillers, having cups of tea, baking in my polka-dot pinny, doing my prescribed gym ball exercises and going for walks around the local parks.

Sounds crap, doesn’t it? Several people have said to me ‘oh gosh, you must be going stir-crazy’ or words to that effect. The truth is it’s actually not all that bad. I’m lucky enough to have a supportive husband, a spacious and pleasant home, a circle of lovely friends to have cups of tea with, easy access to walks along the river. I don’t have to deal with most of the stresses of everyday life. I have, essentially, become accustomed to my restricted lifestyle, lowered my expectations, moved into the mindset of the long-term sick. Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not bored, most of the time. Access to the internet in general and social media in particular helps, of course, but so does the fact that I’ve always been happy in my own company, largely content with the inner life. Solitude is an essential component of life as a writer, and, while I haven’t been able to do much actual writing, I have been able to do a lot of thinking, working through ideas for future projects. Right now poor health has put my life largely on hold, but hey, I may as well take the opportunity for some reflection. When life gives you lemons, make gin and tonic.

Link to Alison’s Mslexia blog: https://www.mslexia.co.uk/blog/2014/02/writing-to-make-life-easier/

A daisy chain of writers!

I have been asked by my friend and fellow writer-cum-blogger Helen Ellwood to participate in a blog chain, in which I have to answer four questions and then send those questions to someone else, thus linking both forwards and backwards to other writers.

Helen writes fantasy and also non-fiction adventure about her own improbably exciting life. She has a three-in-one blog about writing, living with disability, and arts and crafts, which can be found here: http://helenellwood.blogspot.co.uk/

And here are the questions, with my answers:

 
What am I working on?
At the moment, not a great deal, since my back pain is preventing me from doing much actual writing. My second novel, ‘Forever 27’, has been progressing in fits and starts, and I am hoping to get stuck into it in earnest soon. I am billing it as ‘a tale of sex and death and drugs and magic and rock and roll’. Inspired by the ’27 Club’ of musicians who have died at that age (eg Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison), it tells the story of a journalist with magical powers and her stormy relationship with a rock star who’s convinced he’s doomed to join the club.
 
How does my work differ from others?
An interesting question. My first novel, ‘The Heartland of the Winter’, currently out on submission with publishers, is a fantasy novel, but one with a story driven by human characters rather than dragons. In it, I explore the impact of a harsh climate on society, and how a young individual copes with being introduced to that society.  It’s an imagined world, but I’ve kept the fantastic elements – ie magic – to a minimum. I wanted to create characters the reader could relate to, and push them to the extreme, without giving them any magical get-out-of-jail-free cards. So I think it’s different from other fantasy books because, while the main characters’ situation has supernatural causes, they don’t themselves have any powers or resources which wouldn’t be available to the reader.
‘Forever 27’ is more of a magic realist work, set in the real world (or at least a version of it!). It’s not whimsical, but it certainly has its share of the macabre. Since it’s a work-in-progress, I don’t yet feel quite confident to say exactly what will set it apart, but I can say that at least part of what I’m trying to do is to explore what makes people creative, and how creativity can be used, burned out or even stolen.
 
Why do I write what I write?
 I was initially drawn to fantasy because I enjoy reading it, and because I like having my own little world in my head where I can make up whatever stuff I like to torment imaginary people. If that sounds rather like a kind of mental illness, well that’s probably about right.
I was drawn to write something about the 27 Club firstly because of my love of their music (you can blame my Hendrix-fanatic father for that), and also because I think there’s something very interesting about the way some creative people burn out young and others manage to keep going and going – just look at The Rolling Stones. Founder Brian Jones loses it half way through the 60s, drowns in his swimming pool (at 27), while Mick and Keef just carry on rolling into the 2010s.
 
How does my writing process work?
I’m not sure I’m organised, or experienced enough to have anything that can really be called a ‘writing process’. I just bash it out and hope for the best.
 
Link to next writer in the chain to follow soon!