Monday 27 August 2018

A Bad Train Day, and a spark or two within the fog of #Alzheimer's

On Saturday I had a Bad Train Day.  A few times a year I travel southwards to meet up with my sister and visit our mother in her care home, see other family and friends, and friends of my late father.  

Last week, the journey south was unusually easy; the stretch from Sheffield to Leicester was a positive joy.  A train with eight coaches, and about as many passengers.  I did not only have a table, but enjoyed it all to myself, a situation so rare that I was tempted to empty out the contents of my bag all over the table, just for the hell of it, which made a change from being given dirty looks from the person opposite me because my sandwich and propped up Kindle is encroaching one millimetre into their designated laptop territory.  No grizzling, unrestrained kiddies, no person in the seat behind discussing the ins and outs of the meeting she has just attended, at a volume that suggests this information is of interest to every person in Coach D.

I must have used up all my Good Train Day credits on that one hour-long stretch, for the journey back was what people these days describe as 'challenging'.  When I hit the Leicester to Sheffield leg, I realised that I was to pay for the blissful journey of four days earlier.  Remind me never to travel on the Saturday of a Bank Holiday weekend again.....

The train was so packed that I had to abandon all good manners just to force myself and my extremely heavy case into the coach.  Having elbowed my way past youngsters with earbuds in place who couldn't hear me saying 'excuse me please', I finally reached my booked seat to find that, of course, someone was sitting in it.  I did my usual; I produced my seat reservation, smiled, and politely told the girl sitting in it that she was in my seat.  Her answer: "Yeah but there was a woman with a little kid sitting in mine, like."  

I tried to point out, delicately and politely, that her generosity in giving up her seat and the fact that she was sitting in mine were actually unrelated, to which she said, "Yeah but she had a little kid like," and looked at me as if I'd suggested she make the mother and child walk to Sheffield.  In the end, I decided to make it simple.  I showed her my seat reservation and said, "This is seat B 61A, which I've booked, and I'd like to sit in it, please."  She started doing that rolling eyes and 'tssk' thing to the other people sitting round the table, some of whom joined in, clearly also unable to grasp that though her decision to give up her seat was admirable, it did not qualify her to nick mine.  Eventually a young man sitting opposite very kindly offered me his seat, I believe to stop a fight breaking out.

Leicester to Sheffield

The train from Sheffield to Newcastle was equally sardine can-like.  I oozed into the coach from between several ear-budded, cagouled bodies to find that someone was using the end-of-coach luggage rack as a seat.  He had made himself very comfortable, laptop beside him, and was most surprised when I asked him to get off so I could put my case on the shelf.  He must have been about a third of my age and stood by, most patiently, while I wrestled a case so heavy that it took me three attempts to lift it onto the rack.  I had to admire the way he waited for several minutes without complaining about the inconvenience, hands in pockets, grinning, for me to finish this feat, before squeezing himself back into the space beside it. 

Then I had to manoeuvre my way to my seat by clambering over all the cases in the aisle, because, it appeared, everyone but me was too polite to ask the lad to get off the damn luggage rack so they could use it for the purpose for which it was intended.

Sheffield to Newcastle

But the few days away were worth the struggle of the journey back.  On Wednesday, in the church where my dad used to go, a plaque has been put on the pew where he always used to sit, and the vicar gathered the small congregation round to see it and say a few words for Dad, which was lovely.

In the afternoon we went to see Mum.  She is 92, has had Alzheimer's for ten years, and has been in a care home for about six.  She can still walk around and, although she talks gobbledegook most of the time, now and again she comes out with some understandable words in response to something we've said.  When we visited her in June, there was a chap playing a guitar in the large dining room, and Mum was clearly enjoying the music.  I said, 'You used to sing in a choir, didn't you?' (Kings College London in the 1940s, when she was at university, I believe), and she looked round at me and said, 'Yes, I did', quite clearly.  

Us managing a conversation with Mum a couple of months ago!

This time, Julia talked to her about visiting her godmother, a friend of our parents' from many years ago.  Mum said, 'Oh yes', and tried to say her name. 

She usually recognises us, too.  My friend Zoe, who worked in an old people's home (all types of dementia) for many years, said that she can probably recognise our smell; Mum always picks up our hands and kisses them, as she did with Dad.  Also, she pointed out that as we stay in our parents' old house when we go to visit, we probably bring with it its familiar smell, too.  Thanks, Zoe; I hadn't thought of that.  It's logical, though, isn't it?  Because smell is the most evocative sense of all as far as memories are concerned.

Zoe believes, as I do, that people with long-term Alzheimer's remember and know about stuff all the time, even just for brief moments.  They're not just ga-ga.  Which is why it is so important to keep visiting and talking to them.  When Dad died eleven months ago I told Mum about it, and she didn't say anything, but she held my hand, looked into the distance and nodded; the nurses said she seemed very depressed and deteriorated for a few months afterwards, but has now perked up again.  Odd but true: they said she seemed depressed for the two days before he died, and on the day, before anyone at the home knew about it.  It's in her notes that are written up on a daily basis, to which we have access.

Last week Julia took this photo of her and me, which I think is lovely. 

This is a picture of her taken a few years before she became ill; I love this one.  Julia took it; one of those snaps that turns out so perfectly.

....and her, me and Julia, 59 years ago ~ I'm the one in the shawl!


Sunday 26 August 2018

Ten More Tips for New Novelists #writers #writerslife #amwriting

Some more suggestions for debut authors, or those who are just starting to plan their first novel ... I haven't written one of these posts for a long time but I've read, or started to read, a lot of books since the last and I've come across a few points that I felt worth a mention.  As ever, I often recognise these mistakes because I made them, too!  One or two I've talked about before, but these are important basics that can't be underlined too often.

Just for the record: this is not an article about marketing or how to become a best seller.  It's about writing a decent book.  Who knows; if you do the latter, the former might follow!   

For ease of reading, I shall refer to the writer as 'he' and the reader as 'she'.

1.  Is that it?
Give the ending as much thought and planning as you do the beginning.  In writing advice articles there is so much focus on hooking the reader in with the first paragraph, but few mention the ending.  Why is this?  Maybe because if you don't hook the reader at the beginning she'll never get to read the fabulous, jaw-dropping end twist ~ fair enough, but it's such a disappointment to read a basically good book with an ending that reads like the writer's been told he has to finish it by noon or he can't go to lunch.  

The last few pages are the bit that will stay in the reader's mind when she turns the last page and tells her friends/tweets about it.  Or reviews it.  A lacklustre, rushed ending might turn a 5* review into a 4* one; by the end, your reader might not even remember that neat hook on the first page. 

Ends that make me go 'ouch':
  • When all the storylines are too neatly tied up, with characters finding sudden and out-of-character solutions.
  • When you expect a crescendo and get a fizzle - if the book's of a type that has built up to a finale all the way through (the discovery of whodunnit, the reunion, the arrival at a destination, etc), you've got to make it a real belter.
  • All the characters getting an HEA.  Too unrealistic, unless it's a romcom, which is unrealistic by definition, and happy to be so.  Generally, it's much better if one or two are left hanging/a tad bittersweet.
  • Plot twists that haven't been properly worked in all the way through; the ones that read as though the author thought of it while writing the previous chapter, or the publisher said, 'give it an unexpected twist at the end so we can advertise it as having a blow-your-socks-off plot twist.'
  • I love cliffhangers, but if you want the reader to dash straight to Amazon to buy the next episode, it's got to really pack a punch.  Like, on the edge of a cliff.

2. Get connected
You may not use social media much, and think of it as something you nip onto twice a week to tweet about your books and have the odd chat with other writers, especially if you're over fifty—you grew up in a time before Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/whatever became as much a part of everyday life as the phone, the telly, or ... okay, breathing.  But if you're writing a novel set in the present day about characters of forty and under, you need to be aware of how big a part the internet, generally, will play in their lives.  

I recently read an otherwise jolly good book in which the world was falling to pieces because of a pandemic, and the main characters, who were in their early thirties, followed its progress on the network TV news.  You know, like they would have done 20 years ago.  Uh-oh.

Pic from Charlie Brooker's Nosedive, Black Mirror Series - if you haven't seen it, do - it's brilliant!  On Netflix

3.  Don't overdo the speech quirks
Okay, so your Californian surfer dude will call you 'man', as may your Geordie fella down the pub.  But not in every sentence.  Your parent may call his son 'kiddo', but not every time he talks to him.  Your teenager will, no doubt, say 'like' and 'awesome' a lot, but you should probably delete a fair few of them in your rewrites; it's better to err with great caution in all cases, as overdoses of these quirks can be irritating for the reader.  In my most recent books, some of my characters are Geordies.  I allow myself one 'howay' per book.  Even if they might say it more than that, you have to be careful not to make characters look like caricatures (I've just re-read one of my older books and realised I did this - made me cringe, badly!).  And please, don't have foreigners say 'how you say' before coming out with a hilariously incorrect English phrase.  It's totally 1970s sitcom. 

4.  Talking of rewrites....
.... if you're not prepared to do loads and loads of redrafting or revising, over and over again, so that you're fed up with the sight of the thing and know some of it by heart, you're probably not ready to write a novel.  You need to be able to edit your own work, before you give it to your editor, if you have one.  I still find sentences and paragraphs that could be written more succinctly on drafts 6 and 7 of any novel I write, and you will, too.  If you don't redraft enough, the book won't be as good as it could be.  'Being a writer' isn't about feeling madly creative and scribbling down this wonderful story that's bursting out of your head, then giving it over to someone else to turn it into something publishable.  It's about knowing how to make it publishable yourself.

5. Whose point of view?
Even if you're writing in 3rd person point of view (POV), writing from inside the character's head rather than from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator gives the reader much more opportunity to connect with the character.  And watch out for head hopping - this is when you flit from one POV to another with no gap in between.  For instance, if you're describing the row between Sean and Max from Sean's point of view, and then tell the reader that 'Max was furious', that's head-hopping.  You've hopped from Sean's POV into Max's.  Sean will not know that Max was furious, because he is not inside his head.  You could say that Max looks furious, but not that he is.  Only Max knows how he feels. 

6. Get Your Facts Right
By this I mean checking that the flower Gavin is picking is actually in bloom in May, before he picks a whole bunch of them.  Or that Sean could actually drive from Leicester to Manchester in one hour.  Of course we sometimes get facts slightly wrong; I do, we all do, but it should never be because you were too lazy to look it up.  If you're not absolutely sure what a word means, check it.  I find myself doing this every single day, still.  If you don't know how the butler would announce the arrival of the duke, find out.  Don't rely on your editor to do it.  Not only is it lazy, but what if they don't know?  Again: your book should be the best it can be before it goes to the editor/proofreader.

7. Talking to yourself.
Do you?  Really?  I mean, other than uttering the odd expletive when you bump into a door, or urging yourself to get on with something?  Maybe you do have the odd little conversation with your own head here and there, but, generally, people don't have out loud, lone conversations discussing the whys and wherefores of a problem, down to the very last detail.  I've read these in a few books lately, and the last one made me abandon the book.  Don't do it.  If you need your character to be pondering something on his own, use inner dialogue.  It's 100% more convincing.

8.  Beta readers
If you use beta readers, make sure they're people who will can comment on the book objectively; by this I mean those who will understand the difference between personal preference and whether something works or not.  Also, be careful not to only choose friends who will tell you it's great because they don't want to hurt your feelings.  I've beta read on a couple of occasions, and on one of these I sent the author back a list of all the stuff I thought needed looking at.  She said, 'Thanks, this is what I need.  Everyone else just told me it was brilliant.'

9. Proofreading
Can't be said often enough - don't skip this stage.  Ever.  And get a proofreader who knows what they're doing.  You need someone who knows how to punctuate properly, and understands stuff like when words should be hyphenated, put in italics, have capital letters, etc.  Get recommendations, don't believe website blurb.  Your friend/spouse who is good at English is not the person to do this, unless they have experience.  Sorry, but you really will have to pay out to get it done properly.  If you want some recommendations for good editors and proofreaders, feel free to ask me.

10.  Paid promotion
Okay, this one is about the marketing side: if you've seen a book advertising/promotion service that looks promising, check it out first by asking some of the writers featured if it really does increase sales.  There are literally hundreds of book promo services around today, and some of them do very little for you.  I get targeted by some on Twitter who offer to do so many tweets for me for X amount of money.  Often, they have thousands fewer followers than me, and they haven't read my books, so how can they possibly tweet about them in an authentic fashion?  There is no point in paying them to do Facebook posts for you if these posts are not targeted towards hundreds of readers who are interested in your genre.  Etc, etc.  Always, always research!

That's all for now, folks.  Good luck!

Seven myths that can hold new writers back: HERE 

Saturday 4 August 2018

My family's weddings, 1919 ~ 1999

I was inspired to put this post together after seeing this one by Liz Lloyd - thanks, Liz!

The changing face of my family's weddings:

My grandparents, Dorothy and Gerald, getting married in 1919. 

A story that might amuse you: my grandfather was an officer in India during WW1.  When home, he met my grandmother and her sister, Alice, socially, on several occasions.  While away, he wrote to the one who had captured his heart, and proposed to her.  He didn't realise until he got home that he'd got their names mixed up, and had actually meant to propose to Alice, not Dorothy.  In those days, though, a proposal was a proposal...

My grandmother died in 1941; not long afterwards, he married her sister.  Incidentally, the lady in the black hat behind them is my great aunt Alice Theresa, after whom I was named (the Theresa part, I mean!.

A wartime wedding in 1942, I don't know who all those relatives are, but my father is on the far right, aged 13.   My sister informs me that our great Aunt Mildred, who brought my father up, is the lady sitting next to him. 😊

My mother and father's wedding in 1952

....and this picture of my parents, brother, sister and me was taken in 1999, on my wedding day (not the man I am married to now) ~ a lot less formal, and I seem to remember my skirt came from Marks and Spencers!  I remember my mother hating this photo because she didn't realise a button had come off her jacket. 

We had the wedding photos in star sign groups, rather than more traditional ones; here are the two Gemini guests! 

and here are a couple of wedding cartoons, for your enjoyment :)