Monday, 30 September 2013

Taking the Day Off to Chat to Tina

Yes, I know it's Monday; I know I've just had the weekend off; I know I should be working today - and right at the top of today's 'To Do' list is the usual entry: write this week's blog post.

Well, I've decided to play hooky, to take the day off, and go chat with my friend Tina - and you are all welcome to join us! Over on Tina K Burton's blog, we're chatting about what got me into writing fiction, what I've done in the past few years, and what's next writing-wise. Do pop over there and say 'hi'.


Thursday, 26 September 2013

Stone Guardian

Today's snippet comes once again from one of Morgen Bailey's prompts on 25th February 2013. This beautiful picture just jumped off the page at me - and this is the result.

Sourced from and reproduced by kind permission of Morgen Bailey

Long white gown floats above bare feet; grey, curving wings wrap protectively around his back; crossed arms hold flowers, crushed to his breast. He mourns the death of ‘his’ child. She had lived for seventy-nine years, healthy, happy, successful and joyously married. She was tired, ready to leave, quietly, peacefully. Friends and relatives celebrate her life, as she embraces her beloved George once more.
But to her Guardian Angel, this lifetime is but the blink of an eye, the flick of a wing, the breath of a prayer. How can you measure the years of a human life against eternity and find it sufficient? Was there something he should have done, could have done, to keep her here a little longer, give purpose to his existence? As her life seeped away, there had been silence in the room, but in his head he was screaming.
Now, all he can do is watch over her as she rests, and so he stands, frozen in time, like a beautiful, terrible stalagmite, leaning towards her grave. As the stone settles around him, grows into him and his flowers become fixed in time, he hears a sound: a baby’s cry. A new soul is looking for a guardian, a protector, a guide. But it’s too late for him, too soon for him; for now he will wait and guard. Maybe in another lifetime’s span...

Monday, 23 September 2013

Collecting Certificates

Today, in Exeter and presumably in other towns and cities, students are waking up to a new academic year. Some will be nervous, especially those who are away from home for the first time, aren’t sure whether they’ve made the right choices and are wondering if they’ll ever earn enough to pay back their student loans. Others will be raring to go; maybe beginning a postgraduate degree, knowing what to expect and looking forward to the academic rigour. Others will just have a really thick head and be wondering how they got back to their room after the last night of Freshers’ Week.

This is also the time of year when the more mature among us start studying once more. We sign up for evening classes in an art or a craft that we’ve long wanted to learn about; or we start work on an Open University module, either as a stand-alone or as part of a longed-for qualification. Some of us even go back on campus and try out the life of a full-time student once more.

But why, I wonder, do we continue to chase after those certificates, those little bits of paper that mostly get pushed into drawers until copies are required when applying for yet another course later in life.

I seem to have spent half my life working towards one certificate or another. I still cherish the ones I got as a child, charting my gradual improvement in swimming, and the eight I gained for piano practice and theory, even though the only keyboards I play these days are on my laptop or my phone. I had forgotten until today that I got my two favourite certificates less than a month apart. That must have been an exciting time in the Ducie household!

I have a fist-full of ‘O’ levels in subjects I have long forgotten and some fair to middling ‘A’ levels. I was one of a very small number from my class who got into university at the first go — and then nearly threw it all away when too much partying and too little reading led to my failing my exams at the end of the first year. After a year out to re-sit,  I went on to finish my degree — but have to confess to remembering little or nothing from the modules that gave me yet another certificate. 

I have a piece of paper telling me I have a doctorate from London University, plus one for a Diploma from Imperial College. I remember very little of the work that kept me bent over a microbiology bench for three years, although the occasional fact relating to the toxicity of ethylene oxide does drift across my subconscious. I still use the title ‘Dr’, but confess this is a hangover from my more feminist days when it saved me from having the Ms. Versus Mrs. argument yet again.

In the late 1980s, I studied for an MBA. One finance exam in the final term was so dreadful that I finished the paper by writing an apology to the lecturer and then declaring tearfully "that was the last exam I will ever take!" My sister, much wiser than me, said “Yeah, right — until the next time”, but it took nearly twenty years for her to prove me wrong.

This time last year, I was graduating from Exeter with an MA in Creative Writing. I declared at the time “OK, that’s it; no more studying. Now is the time to get on and do! I’m just going to write!” So why do I find myself watching with envy those students heading up the hill to college — and wish it was me starting lectures again this week instead of my husband who is on his third Masters course, still eagerly reading and learning.

These days getting information about anything — whether it’s how to write, how the human body works, or how to write a blistering marketing strategy — is relatively easy. With the internet, we don’t even have to leave our seats. We can interact with other students online. We can read the experiences and insights of all the experts. So why is it we are continually drawn back to the classic model of one teacher sitting at the front of a class (whether physical or virtual) imparting their knowledge to a group of eager pupils who will later on feed that knowledge back in the hope of getting yet another certificate?

Or is that just me?

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Margaret's Magic Carpet

Yesterday, Chudleigh Writers' Circle was invited to spend the day gaining inspiration from the beautiful property belonging to one of our members. Margaret and Chris were very generous with their time, their home and their cooking. Today's snippet is by way of a thank you letter from me.

Margaret’s Magic Carpet transports me back to Kent where I grew leeks and beans for a man who prefers perfect vegetables from the supermarket; and where we spent fifteen years developing a herb bed, complete with bushy purple sage and six foot bay tree, only to rip it up in order to build a larger kitchen — in which we cooked with shop-bought herbs.
Margaret’s Magic Carpet transports me back further to Warwickshire where I first learned to love the scent of tomatoes in a warm, damp greenhouse, to feel my way from smooth hairy stems to rough hairy leaves; where my father’s green tomatoes became my mother’s mustard pickle, filling the whole house with the aroma of onions and vinegar; and where I first smelled fresh mint and thought it a treat to roll the little blue-handled cutter over the torn leaves on Sunday after Mass.
Margaret’s Magic Carpet transports me back further still to Worcestershire where the summers were always golden, the front garden smelled of French Marigolds and alyssum and I would help my Nan (never Grandma or Granny) hang out the washing with coloured plastic pegs before strolling over dusty furrows picking raspberries for pudding.
 Finally, Margaret’s Magic Carpet transports me home to Devon where the hidden corners of my garden are filled with empty pots and unused canes; where the trees are trying out their seasonal finery once more; and where an occasional rose still blooms delicately among the autumnal foliage.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Enrichment, Recovery and Twitter

I spent Saturday at the RSA South West conference in Taunton. The RSA (or the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce to give it its full title) is a charity with the strapline of ‘21st Century Enlightenment’. On the website, it describes itself as: “committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges. Through its ideas, research and 27,000-strong Fellowship it seeks to understand and enhance human capability so we can close the gap between today’s reality and people’s hopes for a better world.” I’ve been a Fellow of the RSA for more than twenty years, have used ‘The House’ in John Adams Street as my London office to hold meetings with clients; dined in the elegant restaurant in the vaults; and listened to interesting lectures in the state rooms, including a memorable one by management guru, Charles Handy. And, like millions of others, I have marvelled at, been entertained by and educated by the Animate presentations, (developed by the RSA with Cognitive Media), particularly the brilliant discussion on Changing Education Paradigms from Sir Ken Robinson. If you've ever thought there was something wrong with how we educate our kids (and who hasn't at some point?), then do take a look at this presentation next time you have a spare 10 minutes.
But until now, I haven’t managed to really get a handle on what the organisation does — or why I am involved in it. At the conference we met the new Chairman of the RSA, Vikki Heywood, who gave me exactly what I was hoping for. In addition to the strapline, I now have an elevator speech I can remember: enriching society with ideas and action. The RSA is the only organisation with which I’ve been involved which doesn’t really provide benefits for the members; it’s more a case of what the members can do for others. And yes, I know there are lots of other organisations which have the same focus, from Rotary and Round Table to the Mothers’ Union, but this is the only one to which I have belonged. So it's nice to finally understand what it's all about.
One RSA project which is dear to my heart as a former production manager is The Great Recovery. The idea is to work with designers and manufacturers to develop products which at the end of their life-cycle can either be repaired (remember when we used to repair things that broke, rather than throwing them away?) or recycled. Someone described it as ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach to manufacturing, rather than ‘Cradle to Grave’. In a week where we have just bought a new printer and discovered a full set of replacement ink cartridges is more or less the same price as a new printer (complete with cartridges), this is music to my ears.
One of the perennial problems for any organisation of people from disparate locations is how to communicate effectively. Our region covers the three counties of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset and we only get together physically once or twice a year. Someone suggested we might use Twitter to hold regular discussions or get-togethers. Putting aside the fact that many of the people in the room are not Tweeps and have no wish to be, this raised the question in my mind, and not for the first time, what is Twitter for? Do we use it effectively? And is it really an appropriate medium for bringing large groups of people together?
(Yes, I know hens don't go tweet, but these were the only birds I could get close to all weekend!)
At the Winchester Conference forWriters in June, Eden Sharpe from Independent Author Resources described Twitter as a cocktail party for the world, at which one could listen in on all sorts of conversations, and, if invited, even join in on some of them. At the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School in August, someone described it as being in a large dining room with a huge buzz of many conversations going on, some of which you could plug into, but most of which you missed. It’s certainly a crowded arena with lots going on, most of which gets missed and is so transitory, it doesn’t matter.
There is a growing body of work on Twitter etiquette. Molly Greene publishes some wonderful articles on the subject. A recent posting on ‘10 tweets you should never send’ was so popular that it has garnered more 100 comments to date, is still receiving feedback several weeks later - and some of her readers, myself included, have taken to Tweeting a link to the article to anyone who spams us with those awful automatic direct messages: thanks for following me; now ‘like’ my Facebook page/link with me on LinkedIn/buy my book.
Writers who are building their ‘platforms’ are told they need to be on Twitter to market their books. Jonathan Gunson writes great articles on effective marketing via Twitter. I'm a relative novice when it comes to Twitter, so whether I can make it work as a marketing tool remains to be seen.
I occasionally take part in ‘Devon Hour’ a manic scramble to chat to, follow and retweet local businesses, which takes place at 8pm on Wednesday evenings. It’s great fun and I have made some useful connections, especially with the local press; but I don’t kid myself that I have developed a real relationship with any of the other businesses to whom I’m ‘talking’. To do that, I believe one needs to be in the same room; to look into someone’s eyes; to be able, sometimes, to read what they are thinking behind the words they are saying. That’s not possible from one keyboard to another and certainly not possible in 140 characters!
So, do you use Twitter and, if so, what do you think of its effectiveness as a method of communication?

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Danny's Jacket

Today's snippet grew out of  a writing exercise at Chudleigh Writers' Circle. We all wrote the opening sentences for short stories, then shared them with the group. The most popular sentence was then used by all of us - and, as is always the case with this sort of exercise, there was a wide variation in interpretations and resulting stories. I later entered this piece in the Worcester Literary Festival Flash Fiction competition and was delighted to be one of the finalists for the second year running.

The dog sniffed at the bundle, half-hidden in the seaweed, then turned back to Elsa, barking frantically. Elsa closed her eyes against the dizziness as her stomach rollercoasted.  She had prayed her suspicions were unfounded, but there was no denying this was Danny’s jacket. She’d seen the dragon transfer so many times before.
She’d met him on the first day of term, as she stood in the classroom doorway, tugging at the unfamiliar blazer, trying to flatten her unruly curls and wondering if anyone was going to talk to her. He’d been sitting on a desk, tapping his foot in time to whatever tune was playing in his head. He’d looked up and grinned at her.
Everyone told her he was trouble. He came from ‘the wrong side of town’, whatever that meant, his family always moving, never in one place for long. All she knew was he was kind to her, which was a first.
And then one day, he wasn’t there. There were rumours at school, snide comments in the coffee bar: he’d been arrested; he’d run away to escape arrest; the family had run off without paying the rent; he’d joined the army (although everyone agreed that seemed highly unlikely). Elsa didn’t believe any of them — and when he appeared again three months later with tales of a sick grandmother in another country, she’d been so pleased to see him, she hadn’t looked too closely at his excuse.
But now, with the printout of his rap sheet in her back pocket and the sniffer dog’s find as evidence, Detective Sergeant Elsa Jones knew she was going to have to talk to Danny one more time. And this time, there would be no excuses.

Monday, 9 September 2013

First Day of Term?

A week ago, I sat in the early evening sunshine at a BBQ, arguing against the view that summer was over and we were already into autumn. There seem to be all sorts of views on when the seasons change, but I was brought up on 21st March for spring; 21st June for summer; 21st September for autumn and 21st December for winter.  And on that basis, this wonderful summer still has another eleven days to run.

However, I have to admit to feeling a change in the season this week and the sights in my garden back that up. After the yellows and blues of spring and the reds and oranges of summer, we are now into the mauves and browns of autumn.

But it's not just the garden that's starting to move on. For the past week, Facebook has been full of photos taken by proud, teary parents watching offspring head off for their first day at school. I used to chart the change of season by the commencement of the football - but that seems to have been getting earlier every year. With the onset of Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor, the countdown to Christmas and grand finals has well and truly begun.

On Saturday, Exeter Writers reconvened after their summer break; yesterday I sang in the first post-summer robed choir at church. Today, our group of MA-buddies met for the first time since June, although there was so much catching up to do, we didn't get any work done. Later this week, various Chudleigh committees restart and tomorrow we begin planning next year's Literary Festival.
So there is a definite new term feeling around. Time to sharpen the pencils, take out my notebook and start work. This term I will finish the novel and enter more short story competitions.
I will also try to reach more potential readers. As an independently-published author, I know that increasing one's visibility in the hugely-crowded marketplace is very difficult. I am therefore delighted to have been invited to join Famous Five Plus, a group of indie authors who provide mutual support and promotion. FFP is the brainchild of Pauline Barclay, writer of 'emotional, passionate, beautiful stories' who set up the website and keeps us all in order.
Today, I'm the featured author on the FFP website. Do pop over and say 'hi' if you have time; and have a look at some of the other members of the group while you're there.
But, before you do, how do you mark the changing of the seasons? What signals the end of summer for you?

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Cheat

Today's snippet of new prose is a piece of flash fiction arising from another of Morgen Bailey's Story Writing Exercises: Monday Monologue: Her girl/boyfriend is cheating on her [25th February 2013].
It’s Sally who tells me. She can’t wait to give me the good news; bitch!
“Guess who I saw in The Happy Hunter the other night?” she says.
“Brad Pitt? George Clooney? Arthur Askey — no wait, he’s dead, isn’t he?” I joke, although I know what she’s going to say. I just don’t want to hear it. Until she says it out loud, it doesn’t need to have happened; I can pretend it’s just a mistake. He wasn’t really out with someone else when I was at home nursing a streaming cold, too ashamed of my blotchy face and snotty nose to let him see me. He was sitting at home, watching television — that RomCom we’d planned to watch together — well, I’d planned it anyway; I hadn’t actually got around to telling him, but I’m sure he’d have been okay with it — well he watched it on his own, didn’t he?
Well, no actually, he didn’t, the bastard! I tried to phone him around ten thirty — after I’d given up waiting for him to phone me — and his mum said he’d gone out with his mates. To The Happy Hunter! And I knew what that meant. Girls — lots of girls — free girls — free in all senses of the word, apart from the cost of a few vodka and limes, of course. More importantly, girls who were able to talk for more than a few sentences without stopping to blow their noses. Girls who would be happy to take my Marty away from me.
“Your Marty,” Sally says. “He seemed to be having a great time. Good of you to let him go out on his own like that." The bitch really is enjoying watching me squirm. "Most girls wouldn’t trust their fellas out on the town on a Friday night, on their own. You’re so brave, so trusting.” ‘So stupid’ are the words she doesn’t say, but they’re written all over her face.
I asked him on Monday if he’d done anything over the weekend. He just shrugged and said ‘not much’ and then shoved a bunch of roses into my arms. And not just petrol station flowers this time. This was an honest-to-goodness florist’s bouquet with raffia and pink cellophane, the works.
God, he must have been so bad to need to spring for one of those. I wonder how long I can make the guilt trip last this time. Could be good for some chocolates as well. Now I’ve got my taste-buds back, it would be nice to have something to nibble while we’re watching the film tonight.

Monday, 2 September 2013

The End of an Era

I’ve just finished reading A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. “OK, you might think, so you’ve read a book; big deal. Many people are readers; we’re all reading books — and finishing them — every day of the week,” and that’s a fair point. So let me start again.

I’ve just finished reading the fourteenth book in The Wheel of Time fantasy series. The series runs to more than four million words and nearly twelve thousand pages. [For comparison, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy comes in at just over a thousand pages, while J K Rowling managed something over four thousand pages about a certain boy wizard.]


Now I know quality is more important than quantity [and you can find out what I thought about the final book by reading my review here] but as I faced my first Jordan-free weekend in a long time, I’ve been reflecting on this journey that’s taken me the best part of twenty years, through employment to self-employment, a change of career, a serious illness and a major house-move.
I don’t remember who first introduced me to Robert Jordan, although I suspect it might have been one of my sisters or a close friend, all of whom read a lot of fantasy. I don’t even remember when I started reading them, although it must have been after 1990, when the first book, The Eye of the World was published. At the time, it was supposed to be a series of six or eight and I guess I was reading them at the rate of one book a year.

I do however have vivid memories of reading the eighth book The Path of Daggers in 2000. I was working in Ukraine and while invigilating an exam one day, I flicked through the  remaining few chapters thinking “he’s going to have to go some if he’s going to bring all the loose ends together by the end.” It was soon afterwards that someone pointed me in the direction of book nine and reports that Jordan was thinking in terms of twelve volumes in total!

For some reason, I didn’t get past book nine that time around. I think it might have been the disappointment over a promised ending not materialising!

Fast forward to 2010, when my husband bought book 13 for me for Christmas. By this time, Robert Jordan had died and his notes for the last volume were being converted into a final trilogy by Brandon Sanderson.

Looking at my bookshelves, I realised I didn’t have books 10-12, which meant I hadn’t read them yet. I also realised that although I still knew the main characters’ names and a vague outline of the story, and although I knew it was one of the most exciting series of books I’d ever read, I couldn’t remember the details of  the storylines that, to me, were only half-way developed.

So I went back to the beginning!

I read the first three or four books straight after each other, which was a bit of a mistake, as the reiteration of stories I’d just finished, at the start of the next book, became irritating. Then I started the final year of my MA and had lists of books I had to read for each module. The Jordan volumes became my holiday reading, my ‘guilty pleasure’ and that made the rereading easier.

By the time I finished the MA, I had reached book eleven and was starting to motor. By book twelve, I had switched from the paperback to the hardback versions: heavier and thus harder to read in bed, but the larger print is much easier on the eyes!

Then suddenly I was on book fourteen — and within two weeks it was all over!
Am I glad I did it? Yes, I think so. Certainly, I’ve enjoyed all the books and spending time with Rand, Egwene, Perrin and Mat, plus Lan and the wonderful Nynaeve; although with hindsight, it would have been better to have kept reading the new books as each one appeared and not having to reread the first nine.
Would I recommend the series to other lovers of fantasy?  Absolutely; although I would suggest interspersing other books and other authors along the way.

Last week, I wrote about writing challenges. This week is definitely about a reading challenge. Next I might tackle Charles Dickens, who I believe also wrote over four million words in total. But first, I’m going to read some short stand-alone books — or even better, some books of short stories!

What about you? What’s the biggest reading challenge you’ve ever tackled — and how did you get on with it?