Friday, December 30, 2011

Tiptoeing into 2012

I'm not keen on New Year resolutions. You know, the sort where you pledge to give up something or lose a ridiculous amount of weight in next to no time. They are the sort which you break almost immediately and then cause you guilt.

But I have been taking a look at my life and how I can better prioritise in 2012. The last few months of 2011 have been a rollercoaster, from a desperate low to a fantastic high and back to low again. It's not been easy and some things had to give, mostly my creative writing, which made me sad.

In terms of writing, my currently small scale commercial work has to take first place, as it reliably pays. I then intend to concentrate on short stories for a few months, whilst I further flesh out my plot for novel two. Having already made one false start on novel two, I've had to go back to the drawing board, and will eventually start to write again in a different genre, with a different main character and more plot points on the scaffold. But I'll get there, I really will.

I also need to start sending Walking on Tiptoe out again. It is currently out with a few agents but I suspect that the silence from two of those can by now be construed as a no. I think that this will be the year when I start sending it out to indie publishers, whilst also looking into electronic possibilities. I'd love to see it on the Kindle one day, but if I go down that route I'd probably need help with the cover and formatting, which is fairly complex, and I don't have the funds to invest right now.

2012 promises to be an interesting year for the boys. If all goes to plan we will be waving Son 1 off to his first choice university in the autumn, whilst concurrently making plans for Son 2's future. This is likely to be less straightforward.

I have a secret project, which I hope to start working on quietly in the background during the year, building perhaps towards something for the future, when the nest is finally empty.

Last, but definitely not least, December has shown me that I need to take even more care to preserve my health. I'm doing okay, but there is still room for improvement, still a need to be more selfish sometimes and take a little more time out for myself. Recently I have felt as if I am spending almost every waking hour either caring or working (I include thinking about work here!) and my body is telling me that it can't continue. It's difficult to balance Hubby's ad hoc work against my needs but obviously the guaranteed money has to take priority at times.

So what are your plans for 2012?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas



Can you believe that Fairytale of New York by The Pogues, featuring the late Kirsty MacColl, was first released in 1987? No, neither can I. Enjoy.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Thirty years on

This time last week I travelled into the West End to meet up with six friends from university. Two I hadn't seen since our graduation day almost thirty years ago, others I hadn't seen for at least seven years and the last meeting with some of those was sadly at a funeral.

It was a reunion which grew out of a chance comment on Facebook and an effort to get in touch with the fellow students for whom I still had contact details, some of whom then brought in others. The only thing we all have in common is that we studied single or joint honours German at The University of Reading in the same year group. But it was amazing how we immediately fell back into easy conversation. Someone brought along the departmental photo (which I'd missed as I was at a job interview) and time was spent trying to recall the names of other students and sharing anecdotes. I was glad to discover I was not the only person who struggled to put names to the familiar faces in the picture.

Some of those present had lived in my hall of residence, others spent the year abroad in the same location as me. As well as the memories we talked about families, jobs and our fears that some of our children will be going out into the world during a recession, just as we did. I wonder if our career paths might have taken different courses if that had not been the case.

Whether or not we ever manage to get together as a group again, the afternoon was life-affirming. It showed that most people's lives don't follow the path they had expected, yet we have all survived. And it proved that friendships based on shared experiences never quite die, however long they are neglected.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Depression in the news

The tragic death of the Wales football mamager, Gary Speed, last weekend brought depression into the limelight.

Now I don't intend to speculate on any individual case, but some of what I read online over the next few days both encouraged and upset me because I think it generalised too much. 'Talk to someone' was the general mantra being bandied about the social media. Now I have no argument with this, CBT and counselling are widely and successfully used in mental health treatment and the Samaritans do a fantastic job. It would be wonderful if everyone with depression could confide in a friend or family member and be gently pointed towards the doctor as a starting point for timely and appropriate treatment.

But real life isn't like that. In real life a person who is clinically depressed or experiencing other mental health symptoms may internalise their pain and confusion to such an extent that they are unable to open up to anyone. In real life a seriously depressed person may be clinging onto everyday life with such success that their true condition is not obvious to even close family and friends. Most of us have an impression of a clinically depressed person as being unable to get out of bed and unable to function, but it isn't always like that. In real life depression can cause paranoia, even psychosis, and can be part of another disorder. In real life medication handed out readily by doctors can, in rare cases, actually make the depressed patient suicidal. And there are significant waiting times to see a psychiatrist on the NHS even after a referral has been made.

So yes, if you suspect someone is depressed encourage them to talk. But if someone is, or appears to be, having suicidal thoughts get emergency help for them. A visit to Accident and Emergency will enable a proper assessment to be made and can be a fast track into psychiatric services. It doesn't necessarily mean that the patient will be hospitalised, as if needed there are intensive crisis services operating in the community nowadays. But it might just save a life.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Creativity as therapy?

I've been taking a brief break from the blog while I toss around a few ideas for future projects. Possibly not for the immediate future, but I'm beginning to see a glimmer of light at the end of a very long tunnel and starting to plan, in my head at least, for the day when I may have more time available. Not just more time to actually write, but time to expand my interests into other writing-related projects.

One of the questions I've been asking myself is why do we write? I'm guessing that the answer to this will be different for every writer. Some may write as therapy, others just to let out the stories which are swirling around their heads. I guess for many writers it will, initially at least, be a combination of the two.

My first novel, Walking on Tiptoe, has its seeds in my own experience. But it's not my story, nor that of anyone I know. It was created from a mish-mash of things of things I've seen, heard and read over many years, with a lot of imagination thrown in. Most of my short stories have started in the same way.

Actual life writing (memoir) is much harder. I find that I can only write about life events from which I now have a considerable distance. When Son 1 was a new-born, struggling for life in intensive care, my writer's instinct told me I should be keeping a diary. But I could only live in the moment, I couldn't even revisit the trauma of earlier the same day. Perhaps my brain was protecting me.

I've only written about our experiences in the neonatal unit once, a poem which is on my website. I rarely write poetry, except for writing course assignments, but almost sixteen years after the event I was compelled to write that one and doing so was hugely beneficial at another difficult time.

I truly believe in creativity being therapeutic. Not just writing but fine art and handicrafts, music and dramatic arts. I've always had the urge to create, to write, to knit and sew, or even create greetings cards and jewellery. I find such creativity both relaxing and occasionally frustrating when things go wrong. It's not coincidental that creative arts therapies are used to much with people who have disabilities or mental health issues.

I wish that more people had the time to explore their own creative sides. The product doesn't have to be beautiful or saleable, it is the process of creation which provides the benefit. Whether we sell our work or not we should be proud of it.

Monday, November 07, 2011

National Short Story Week

I've just started to dip my toes back into short story writing after a break of about a year, when I was concentrating on other forms of writing. So I was delighted to find the website of National Short Story Week, which starts today.

The website is a treasure trove of writing tips and resources for short story enthusiasts, both young and old. I'm particularly looking forward to listening to the exclusive interviews from Sue Cook's The Write Lines radio show.

I'm off to read more and hopefully become inspired. Why don't you join me?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

An MS update

I've just realised that I've not written about my MS for a long time. Now this is partly, of course, because it means that there has been no significant change to write about. Given that it is a progressive disorder, just pootling along in a sort of equilibrium has had to be good, right?

Over the past two years since diagnosis I've become much more body aware than I ever was. I notice small changes that indicate that something is starting to go wrong and I can act accordingly. Luckily my doctors recognise this. After all it's probably not every doctor that would accept that I know a bladder infection is about to start because my eyes feel strange. Especially when the urine test is clear. But the requested prescription always does the trick and gets me back to normal. I've since learned that this sort of weird occurrence is quite common in MS.

I feel at my best in the late spring, early summer and early autumn. My body hates cold and damp weather, but it doesn't like too much heat either. I am conscious that I walk better and further in pleasant weather but I'm not afraid to use a stick or even, on rare occasions, a walker with a seat if that will enable me to do some of the things I want with confidence. I've been on medication for stiffness and the pain of leg spasms since the start of the year and that has helped too.

I've been seeing a lovely physiotherapist for the last few months to work on dizziness and my core stability, as one side of my body is definitely weaker than the other. She is part of a rehabilitation team and that has led on to appointments next week with an occupational therapist and a speech therapist, because I have some functional weakness in my right hand and arm and a tendency to slur words a little when I am ill or very tired. None of this is earth shattering or even too horribly restrictive yet, but such problems are best tackled early if the access to therapists is offered, so my work doesn't become affected.

I feel lucky to be getting so much help. Sometimes I worry that it is because I am worse than I think I am, but just chatting to doctors or therapists makes me realise that I am at the higher functioning end of MS and that is where I want to stay. I think the input may be influenced by the fact that I am a carer and I am honest about the fact that because of Son 2 I don't get the amount of sleep I should, which is probably a factor in my dizziness. I'm usually pretty good at pacing myself, at taking notice of the spoon theory, but occasionally I forget that even on a good day I can't rush around like I used to and it takes me days to recover. It seems I never learn!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Self publishing

Self publishing is something I've been thinking about a lot recently. In the past, when it was so closely linked to vanity publishing, I wouldn't have even considered it. But now, with the success of the Kindle, it is becoming a much more credible route for a book that is perhaps not commercial enough for the big presses and it's certainly not one I'd discount for the future.

One of the things I've frequently done since I got my Kindle is to download samples, including many of self published books from both sides of the Atlantic. I've been surprised by the variation in quality. Some are easily up there with commercially published books, while some contain enough typos and grammatical errors to make them unreadable for me. Others contain faults which confuse me because I can't work out, for example, whether the author really doesn't know how to set out paragraphs or speech properly or whether the formatting errors are arising in the conversion of a document to a Kindle book.

Now as a writer I'm probably more tuned in to errors than the average reader and I also know none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes, of course, but most of them should be picked up in the editing process. For me more than an odd slip in a Kindle sample will make sure I don't go on to buy the book, however promising the story itself might seem, because I know I'd find it too distracting to read.

Yes, I am a language geek and perhaps I'm a bit anal about this, but I think if a writer wants to self publish it's important to make the book the best it can be before letting it loose on the world. When you've spent months or years writing a novel, why not give it the polish it deserves? If a writer doesn't yet have the skills to edit or alternatively the funds to pay a professional editor, then maybe they are not quite ready to launch a book via the self publishing route.

But please don't think I'm knocking all self published books, because I'm not. There are some really good ones out there and just because a book isn't picked up by a mainstream publisher doesn't necessarily make it bad. It's just that when you read some samples on the Kindle you can start to understand what agents have to wade through on a daily basis and you can see how occasionally books with promise must slip through the net.

There's a lot to think about before deciding to self publish. Whilst I'd much rather find a traditional publisher for my work, if in the future I decided to go down the self publishing route I would want to educate myself on the pitfalls before rushing in.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Pink October


I'm sure you are all aware by now that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and right on cue, today I had to go for my first routine breast screening mammogram.

I did have a mammogram two years ago, when I had a cancer scare, so the procedure was familiar. I knew it would be slightly uncomfortable so I swallowed a couple of paracetamol in advance and was in and out of the screening trailer in less than ten minutes. By the end of October I should have the results.

Breast cancer charities are a cause close to my heart. About a decade ago I knew four women, who were all diagnosed with breast cancer within the space of a couple of years. All were mothers in their prime. Two of them are no longer with us.

When my close friend and godmother to Son 2, K, was diagnosed with breast cancer I bought a lovely pink ribbon brooch sold by QVC in aid of Breast Cancer Care. It was sturdier, and more expensive than a breast cancer pin. When K sadly passed away 7 years ago, following a recurrence of the cancer, I wore the brooch to her funeral. I pinned it to the soft pink sweater I was wearing under a black leather jacket. I remember fiddling with the brooch when we stopped in a service station on route to the funeral. By the time we moved with everyone else to the pub, following the burial, it was gone.

I like to think that it fell off in the graveyard when K's husband fell into my arms for a hug as we shared tears together. I want to believe that it is still there hidden in the grass, bringing me closer to K, my friend through university and beyond.

Every year I try to support a breast cancer charity in memory of K, who inspired me to take my writing seriously. If you do just one worthy thing this month, please consider doing the same. Buy a pin, or any one of the special breast cancer items which many high street stores and charities stock. Give a money donation to any cancer charity, if you prefer.

Breast cancer affects so many, men as well as women. It could be any of us next time, but I'm hoping that the test I had today will be clear.

The brooch pictured above, which I may well buy for myself, is available from Breast Cancer Care here.
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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Taking a brief break

Every so often my time becomes consumed by unexpected events. This is one of those occasions and I'm being stretched in too many directions to have the energy to blog.

So I'm taking a brief break. I shall be back shortly, hopefully refreshed and with lots of new ideas but in the meantime I'll still be reading your blogs.

See you soon.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Kindle anniversary

So it's a year since I got my Kindle.

At the start I wasn't exactly sure how I would use it. But then I downloaded a few free classics, bought a couple of contemporary novels and I was away. A year later I can report that my Kindle has hundreds of books. Well I say books, but some are pdf ebooks and personal documents rather than Kindle books. And nearly 400 of them are samples.

I can honestly say that my book buying habits have been changed. There are, of course, some books which are perhaps not ideal on a Kindle, glossy illustrated books and technical books with lots of charts, for example. But for a straightforward book, which is mostly going to be read cover to cover, the Kindle is great.

A fair few of the books I've downloaded have been giveaways and I think I've found some really good freebies along the way. Others have been heavily discounted in promotions. If a book costs no more than a cup of coffee then I will possibly be interested and may buy it just to read later, despite the depth of my to be read piles. I have a very limited budget for books, but where I would previously have purchased from a charity shop, I am spending the same amount buying a bargain for my Kindle. This has to be good news for the authors, who will at least get some royalties.

My Kindle contains not only novels, but poetry, reference books, crochet and knitting patterns, recipe books, books in German and more. It's truly a portable library I can throw into my handbag. I take advantage of the free books and samples to experiment with less familiar genres, I download both books by very popular mainstream authors and books which have been self-published. I read the samples to help me decide which I feel are worth paying for and I use my sample collection as both a form of wishlist and a quick dip into authors' styles, something invaluable for a writer.

A year on I'm still totally convinced and I'm waiting to see what the rumoured Amazon tablet might bring...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Festival fever

Seeing excitement on Twitter and photos on Facebook of the Edinburgh Book Festival reminded me of the only time I've been to Scotland. It was 20 years ago, I was six months pregnant and we spent a few days in Edinburgh before going to stay with my sister in Falkirk.

We loved Edinburgh. We took in the sights and I managed to climb the hill to the castle, but we spent most of our time at the festivals, watching comedy shows and visiting book tents. We went to one literary event, a discussion about female sleuths between crime writers Antonia Fraser and Sara Paretsky, who was one of my favourite authors. I still have my signed copies of their books.

We left Falkirk swearing we'd go back soon. But just six weeks later I gave birth prematurely to Son 1 and not so long after Son 2 was born my sister and her family moved back to England. I never got to go back, to either Scotland or the Edinburgh Festivals.

But I will. Maybe next time as an author.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Liebster award


A few days ago I was honoured to receive a blog award from Miriam. You can read all about the Liebster award on her blog.

I'm supposed to pass it on to five bloggers I consider to be friends, but you are all very lovely and I really can't choose from those on my blogroll and more.

So if you'd like it, please help yourself and read how to pass it on yourself over on Miriam's blog, where she has described the purpose of the award so beautifully.

(Yes, I know I'm being lazy. And it's just reminded me that I really must update my blogroll...)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Talking in the powder room

I've got a short article on In the Powder Room today. It's a personal piece about how we found out that Son 2 has autism, but it's also very pertinent to some of the themes of my first novel, Walking on Tiptoe (which isn't about me, honest!).

You can find my article here.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Outside The Ordinary World - a review


As a child, growing up in a Seventh Day Adventist family in California, Sylvia is asked to be complicit in hiding her mother's affair. She vows never to become her mother, but then, just when her husband is engrossed in a major home renovation project, she meets Tai...

Outside the Ordinary World, the debut novel of Dori Ostermiller, explores the complexity of mother-daughter relationships and how secrets can have an impact down generations. It looks at the devastating power of unexpected attraction in middle-age and above all it examines the burden of guilt; marital guilt, family guilt and religious guilt.

Outside the Ordinary World is literary women's fiction and as such is more character than plot-driven. Dori Ostermiller writes beautiful prose which is fluid and sensory, with evocative description which occasionally moves into dark areas. The story switches effortlessly between California in the 1970's, when Sylvia and her sister Ali were growing up, and New England of the present day, where Sylvia and her husband Nathan are raising their own daughters.

I absolutely loved it and will certainly be looking out for future books by Dori Ostermiller.

(Thanks to MIRA for giving me the opportunity to review this book, which is released on 17 August)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

This week in London

I've lived in London for nearly 30 years and this week, for probably the first time, I was ashamed of my adopted city.

I'm sure there will continue to be be many inquests about what happened and why, but nothing can excuse the behaviour we've all witnessed in the media. The furniture store in Croydon, owned by the same family for nearly 150 years, razed to the ground. Young men clambering over roofs in Peckham (I believe). Not, as I first thought, to vandalise the buildings but to escape a ferocious fire raging in a shop below. A woman jumping from a window to escape flames. A young student, recently arrived in this country, physically attacked but then mugged by men who seemed to be offering him assistance. The video went viral but I find it just too distressing to offer a link. Looters stripping stores bare and running off with expensive trainers and electrical goods. Small shopkeepers staring at the wreckage of their livelihoods in tearful disbelief, families left homeless.

My husband worked in Camden for many years and we've both lived in Hackney. We know those boroughs well. Their quirky charm comes along with all the usual problems of inner city areas, but we've seen nothing on this scale before. The police seemed to be initially caught off guard when trouble kicked off in Tottenham and there was a total lack of political leadership in London for a few days. It is truly scary and saddening that the violence and looting spread so quickly to other areas and other cities in apparent copycat actions.

But some good has come out of it. The subsequent use of social media, not to incite riot but to organise clean-up operations, was impressive. Communities are pulling together and, thank goodness, the race card is not being played much. Perhaps the most impressive and moving response so far was the dignified speech yesterday by Tariq Jahan the father of one of the young men fatally mowed down whilst protecting their community in Birmingham.

Here in our borough there was heavy policing from Monday evening onwards. Shops and leisure destinations were closed early and I believe the main tube station was shut for a while. Any attempts at causing trouble in the town centre were peacefully repelled. We've had a lucky escape so far but the week has left a very nasty taste and an undercurrent of fear.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Summertime blues

We are just over one week into Son 2's summer holiday. Now we are lucky, because he gets a shorter vacation than most, four and a half weeks rather than the normal six, and we do have some respite. He will be attending a local special needs playscheme for two days, that is ten hours, a week.

Those hours are precious. They give a chance for us to recharge our batteries, for me to write. In the past I had to try to fit my own errands, as well as fun for Son 1, into the precious free time. It's easier now there are two of us around and of course Son 1 is independent, apart from the occasional lift.

Son 2 just doesn't do going out. He likes routine and familiar places, such as the playscheme which he has attended for years, but he has a huge fear of the unknown which permeates his life, whether at home or at school. This, of course, affects the whole family. For years now holidays and even day trips have proved impossible. We tried, we really did, but having to put your child through what is for them a form of torture is no fun for anyone, including innocent members of the public who happen to witness the resulting distress. As a child gets bigger the expression of anxiety becomes less socially acceptable and more difficult for carers to physically handle. And as children get older they can and should make their own decisions about what they want to do as leisure activities. But it is something that other parents, even those with differently affected special needs children, don't always easily comprehend.

Of course this time next year Son 2 will be under the adult social services team. His playscheme is run by a children's charity and not linked to his autism-specific out of borough school, so he may have nothing and that is a worry. It would be lovely to think that with maturity he will become more adaptable, but I seriously doubt that will happen.

For now we are spending our summer largely bunkered up in our own house and occasionally, as long as Son 2 can't hear any emergency sirens, the garden. I try not to get into conversations with friends about their wonderful holidays and fun camping trips. And I take vitamin D tablets to try to counter the lack of sunlight which is implicated in MS.

There seems to be an agoraphobic tendency running down my family, though thankfully one I escaped. We've developed our current approach to the summer holiday in order to preserve Son 2's mental health and existing behaviour levels, as a deterioration in those would affect us all year round, as well as his potential adulthood care. It's worth it.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Charity funding crisis

The BBC reports today that small charities are fighting for survival due to the loss of funding from local government.

I've worked for and with several local charities over the last twelve years on a voluntary basis and I know this is true. Many of the services they have offered in the past have been partially or wholly funded by grants from the local authority from various pots of money. Funding from central government to local government has been drastically reduced with the inevitable knock-on effect.

There are of course other sources of funding such as the Lottery, the big media-promoted annual fundraisers such as Children in Need and various trusts. Each one requires a not only a stringent project proposal and budget but also a carefully worded form. Many charities will need to apply for pots of money from several different funders to keep a service afloat.

It all takes time and many small charities don't have a member of staff dedicated to such fundraising. Charities are struggling and some are merging with another compatible local organisation to reduce core costs (admin expenses, rent etc). Valuable community services are closing down due to lack of funding, staff are losing their jobs and it looks as though things will be much worse in the next financial year. So much for the Big Society.

I'm currently starting to work on funding bids with one local charity I know well. It's a side of business writing I hope to do more of in my future as a freelance writer, because it draws on both my writing knowledge, my Open University studies and my previous career as an accountant. I've served my time as a charity volunteer, now I hope I can sometimes use my skills to help others as part of my work.

Of course I'm not giving up the fiction, just broadening my writing horizons.

Monday, August 01, 2011

The river flows on

I posted my final small stone for July this morning, as I forgot yesterday. How annoying not to have fitted them all into the calendar month, but at least I did create a small stone for each day.

If you want to see how I got on you can find all my small stones here and I intend to carry on posting small stones there as and when, so do check back from time to time.

Just a reminder, you can find all my original small stones from the January river of stones here, on this blog, under the aros label

And many thanks to Fiona and Kaspa for creating the river of stones. Why don't you take a look at what else they have to offer?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tragedies

This weekend has been full of sadness.

We watched the news in horror as heartwrenching photos of dying children in Somalia were replaced by those of a bombing and a massacre in Norway. At present the death toll is 93, most of them adolescents attending a camp. As the mother of teens I can barely comprehend the enormity of this tragedy and its aftermath, it almost seems disrespectful to even write about something which will have such profound repercussions for so many families and my heart goes out to them.

Then there was the death of Amy Winehouse yesterday and as soon as it was announced the social media started to buzz about her well-documented issues. Some people had little sympathy for her. But in amongst this I started to think about her family, about how helpless they must have felt over the last years. Because addiction, whether to a substance or a person, is a destructive illness and like most mental health issues it is not something you can switch off at will, even with the best professional input. This seems to be a point missed by many. I know from personal experience that caring for and about someone with a mental health problem, knowing that there is little you can do to help, is one of the hardest things. We don't yet know the exact cause of Amy's death, but addiction and despair can hit anyone and they are certainly reflected in Amy's music.

So I don't think yesterday was, as some have complained, about the perceived value of one famous life over many young ones. It shouldn't be about glamourising or demonising addiction either. It should be about remembering both the numerous young lives lost before they'd hardly begun and a tremendous talent who will never be forgotten.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A gentle reminder

In case you hadn't noticed the badge in the sidebar, I'm doing the river of stones project again and you can find all my stones on a separate blog, small stones in a river.

Do pay me a visit there.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Writing update

You are probably wondering what has happened to novel two, as the word count doesn't appear to have risen in a long time.

Well the truth is that I forgot to update the word count meter. The novel was growing, slowly, but all the time it didn't feel quite right. A lot of thought, and a few random online conversations, convinced me that this one has to be a literary novel. I was trying to write commercial fiction, with a 21 year old main character fighting for attention with two older complex characters and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it just wasn't working. So I deleted novel two before I got to 10,000 words and I'm about to start again, with another woman as the main focus. It will still be the same three main characters and the same story, it will just have a different slant. Wish me luck.

In the meantime I have been turning my attention to writing and submitting shorter work ( both fiction and nonfiction) and developing potential commercial writing opportunities. I'm currently doing some pro bono work for a local charity, which I hope will eventually lead to more paid opportunities and I've created a page on my website for my business writing. I have years of past experience working with small businesses and charities, it seems silly not to try to combine that with the writing which is now my main career focus and I've been learning copywriting skills.

As for novel one, it is still out there. In the autumn, I shall take a decision about whether to stop submitting to agents and to send it instead to indie publishers or even consider self-publishing. I still believe there would be a market for it, but I also realise that certain aspects may need a little more work and I'd obviously be very happy to do that with proper guidance from an agent or publisher. In the meantime I'm somehow resisting the temptation to fiddle with what is a clean draft.

The summer holiday is nearly upon us and I'm just trying to remain as flexible as I can and not drop any balls. Which reminds me, I'm also now having to fit physiotherapy appointments and new exercises into my schedule...

Friday, July 08, 2011

Music for a rainy Friday

One of my favourite singers performing one of my favourite songs:

Friday, July 01, 2011

The Midwife's Confession - a review


I have to admit that until last Christmas, Diane Chamberlain had passed beneath my radar. This is somewhat surprising, since I like to write issue-led fiction myself and Chamberlain has been likened to Jodi Picoult, an author I have enjoyed reading for several years.

But then I spotted Diane Chamberlain’s novel The Lost Daughter in a Kindle promotion and I was hooked. So I was delighted when I was offered the opportunity to review the latest novel, The Midwife’s Confession for her current blog tour.

Noelle, Tara and Emerson had been best friends since their college days nearly two decades before. Noelle had followed her dream of becoming a midwife and delivered both Tara and Emerson’s daughters. But after Noelle’s shock suicide the women find a letter hidden in her belongings that turns their world upside down. They begin to realise that the passionate woman who had loved her job as a midwife and who seemed to embrace life, had lived with a legacy of guilt that had consumed her and that would ultimately change everything they had come to know about themselves.

The Midwife’s Confession is a rollercoaster read, seen from multiple viewpoints. Short chapters tell the story in the first person voices of Tara, Emerson and Tara’s teenage daughter Grace. They are interspersed with chapters disclosing the hidden parts of the story, told in the third person from Noelle’s point of view. As Tara and Emerson search for the truth about their old friend, secrets and lies are revealed in layers, like an onion being peeled back. At one point I thought I’d guessed the answer, but no, there were many more twists to come. The sheer pace of the narrative keeps the reader totally engrossed through 400 pages, though I did occasionally get confused by the number of minor characters. This may have been because I was reading so fast, eager to discover Noelle’s secrets.

Diane Chamberlain’s prose is smooth and very readable, and I’m looking forward to discovering more of her work. Her background as a psychotherapist shines through in bringing to life the complex psychological depths of female relationships, both between friends and mothers and daughters. I was truly left wondering how I would have reacted if Noelle had been my friend.

Diane Chamberlain, has been described as the ‘Southern Jodi Picoult’ and is the award-winning author of 19 novels. Her emotionally complex, powerful stories are born from a former career as a psychotherapist working primarily in hospitals with adolescents. With a keen desire to understand people, and themes that often explore the havoc wreaked on friendships and family by past actions, her characters are brought to life by moral dilemmas that challenge the reader’s assumptions.

Fully aware of life’s twists of fate herself, Diane was recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and now has to type using voice recognition software. Diane’s UK debut, The Lost Daughter, was one of the bestselling fiction titles of 2009.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Small stones in July


Do you remember the river of stones project in January?

I enjoyed it very much, but I have to admit I've not found the discipline to continue writing small stones on a daily basis. So I was pleased to hear that Fiona and Kaspa are running a new project through July and I've signed up again.

This time I've set up a new blog for my small stones, you will find it here. And if you would like to join me, the full details are to be found on the river of stones blog.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

And while we're on the subject...

...of bands I saw when I was at university, I don't suppose anyone else is old enough to remember the early songs of Joe Jackson. I saw him twice and this video is a great reminder.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Going back in time

Today I went to visit a university with Son 1. Not just any university, but the very one from which I graduated 29 years ago, almost to the day.

We went with Son 1's girlfriend, one of her friends and her mother, A, who by coincidence also studied there, a year behind me.

For A and me it was an exciting day, a trip down memory lane. Whilst there have been considerable changes for the better over the intervening years, many familiar landmarks awaited us and I think I can say we both fell in love with the place all over again. I remembered all the good times and conveniently forgot the occasional heartbreak, perhaps she did too. And most importantly for me, Son 1 fell in love with the university too. He could see himself there and I think it may be a dead cert for his UCAS application.

As we looked round the sparkling new function hall in the Students' Union I couldn't help remembering some of the bands I saw in the tatty old place. Here's The Tourists (the precursor to the Eurythmics)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A makeover

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that this blog has changed again.

I'd tired of the old design, which was intended to resemble a notebook full of doodles, and a revamp of my website this week led me to redo the blog too.

The aim was simple, to tie up the various parts of my writing media strategy (website, blog and Twitter) as closely as possible in design concept and colour. Now I'm no web designer, so I know it's far from perfect, but I'm quite pleased with the result using standard templates and just tweaking the colour schemes.

What do you all think?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Carers Week

This week is Carers Week in the UK, a chance to publicise and celebrate the vital role of carers in our society.

Twice I've started to write a bog post on this and twice I've deleted it as it sounded too whiny and self-indulgent. So instead I'll just give you a few vital statistics and leave you to draw your own conclusions:

Carers save the UK £119bn a year (Carers UK).

Carers Allowance (for carers who care for a person of a qualifying medium or high level of disability for a minimum of 35 hours a week) is currently £55.55. The carer can earn no more than £100 a week on top of this, otherwise the allowance is lost (Directgov).

The current UK minimum wage for an employee over 21 is £5.93, that is £207.55 for a 35 hour week (HMRC).

Aound 50% of carers have health problems as a result of their caring duties (NHS).

More than 80% of carers are worried about cuts to services (Princess Royal Trust for Carers).

If you are interested in finding about more about carers, including young carers, there is further information on the Carers UK and Princess Royal Trust for Carers websites as well as from the NHS.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Half term blues

I'm back.

I've had some hopefully temporary problems with Blogger, which have made posting and commenting difficult.

I've also been battling my way through half term, feeling guilty about the amount of work I'm able to do (or rather not able to do). I tend to use school holiday time for catching up on reading, rather than writing, but during this long half term even that has proved difficult, due to Son 2's constant noise levels. Right now he has the radio on in the kitchen (it was a pop channel, Radio 1 perhaps, but has just been changed to classical) and at the same time is watching YouTube videos on the computer in the living room. I often feel as if my head is going to explode.

My mind is also flitting in a very haphazard manner between different writing projects, some started but none completed, and I need to rediscover my focus. Son 2 is back to school tomorrow, after 17 days at home, so that should help.

Novel one is back out there and I'm at that stage of checking my email regularly, hoping, hoping...

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Panorama on care home abuse

I haven't blogged for a while. Sorry, but there have been family matters to resolve.

Firstly we had to take Son 2 to see a neurologist and the appointment came through more quickly than we had expected. He has been started on a small dose of some medication so we are having to monitor him for changes and possible side effects.

On Tuesday I had to attend a meeting with Son 2's social worker and the lady from Connexions (the careers service) who deals with special needs in our area. It was a meeting to kick off the planning for his transfer to adult services for continuing education and residential care. Despite my best efforts, I went into the meeting feeling rather unprepared, having failed to find out some of the information I needed, however the meeting actually went fairly well. I don't think there was much disagreement about what he actually needs, but I am under no illusion that this is going to be easy and we have to start looking at what will realistically be available to him when he leaves school at 19. But with such savage cuts, and services which are budget-led, who can predict anything?

Then I came home to face the BBC Panorama programme about the abuse of young adults with severe learning difficulties in a specialist care facility in Bristol. I didn't actually watch it, I couldn't, as even what I'd read in advance made me feel sick to the stomach. The media reports, including this in the Daily Mail by the BBC undercover reporter, were more than enough for me.

I'm glad the abuse was exposed and I hope that the programme will lead to improvements in standards in both the inspection procedures and rogue care facilities such as that one. But I think it's also important to hang on to the fact that not all care homes are like that and Casdok has written a very good blog post about the response to Panorama from her own son's care home. As parents and carers we have a huge responsibility to search out the best for our children and to monitor it for as long as we are able, because it's possible that nobody else will give them a voice unless they are in one of the good care homes such as that one.

But when we can no longer do that, then what?

PS And while I'm on the subject of the Panorama expose, you might like to conside signing the petition the National Autistic Society has set up in the aftermath. You can find it here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Good news

No, not mine. Not yet, anyway.

There seems to have been a flurry of good news in recent weeks on Twitter and in other writerly places I frequent on the internet. Writers landing an agent, writers getting book deals. It makes me happy, because it gives me hope. There are many good writers out there fighting for so few opportunities, but to see people I know online or in real life actually achieving that success now is highly motivating.

In the meantime I've just about finished this round of submissions for novel one. I'll probably send off one more this week, then I shall take another breather and try to decide whether it is almost time to bypass agents with this novel and starting approaching a few of the indie publishers who take direct submissions. I've always known that it is likely to be a small press book, but ideally I would love to have an agent to present it properly for me. An agent who can also tell me what, if anything, needs to changed or improved before it goes out to publishers and who could deal with the complications of publishing for me, leaving my precious hours free to write.

I learned a lot writing novel one. There's an article by the ever brilliant Emma Darwin on the website of the Romantic Novelists' Association, which I think explains the problems with which I struggled far more articulately than I ever could.

Maybe I tried to be a little too ambitious for the first book I ever completed. It was, after all, originally conceived as a potential project for an MA which I will not now be able to study. But I've always thrived on a challenge and I don't give up easily.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A confidence boost

This week I spent a day working with student health professionals at a London university, talking to them about what it is like to parent a severely disabled child. It's something I've done for a number of years now and every time I come away feeling enthusiastic about the potential those first year students have to become caring and understanding practitioners in the future.

But these days out don't just benefit the students. They remind me that I was once a professional myself, that I did training of student accountants, that I actually had a workplace other than my own home. They remind me also of why I was glad to give up commuting into London each day, even though on this occasion my fellow speaker and I were able to travel at the very end of rush hour and missed the worst of the crowds. This year, for the first time ever, we avoided changing trains at a busy interchange and instead rode on a couple of stops to a smaller station, with the aim of getting a bus to our final location rather than walking. I'd researched bus routes in advance and it all went like clockwork.

The journey reminded me that when we lived in inner London I frequently used buses. I still do out here in the suburbs, but I'd taken to only using the underground when I travelled into town, walking whatever distance was necessary at the end, because the number of bus routes was confusing and I wasn't sure where to get off. Now that I can only walk relatively short distances before I need to rest, a trip into London was becoming an increasingly daunting prospect and sometimes I found my anxiety led to excuses not to go.

I was so out of touch with bus routes that I'd never really considered the power of the internet. Using Google maps and the Transport for London website it really is possible to plan any bus journey with a degree of confidence. I think I'll be making more use of the buses next time I venture up to town and I hope it will give me the confidence to spread my wings a little further again. I'm not just the mother of a disabled child, I'm a writer and I want to be able to develop that side of my life even more over the next few years, without being limited by my own physical weakness.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dropping a ball

Do you ever find you are juggling so many balls that you spend most of your time worrying about which one you are going to drop first?

Well that has been me since Christmas. I've been juggling health issues, first my own and now Son 2's. Small amounts of work, which is currently mostly unpaid but very relevant to other areas of writing I want to develop. Non-fiction writing, just a few small speculative pieces but one of which has been accepted for publication. Further research for novel two, as my ideas take me in new directions. And most importantly trying to accept the need to catch up on sleep in the day sometimes, because I am often up with Son 2 for hours in the night and my body is complaining. I don't like life eating into my writing hours like that, but sometimes it's necessary.

Novel one had been put on the back burner for a short while, but I've finally started to submit again. Unfortunately I accidentally lost the long list of targeted agents I'd prepared last year, and although I can remember some of them, I'm having to research others again. That's not entirely bad as things do change, agents come and go or close their lists. I'm finding new books to which I can compare my writing in my submission letter. I'm feeling positive, but I know I must push on with novel two as a matter of urgency. A two week half term is nearly upon us...

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Hardest Hit

Yesterday thousands of disabled people, their familes and carers marched to Westminster to protest about the proposed changes to disability and sickness benefits, which are likely to plunge many into poverty and a housebound existence. There was a distict lack of media interest in this already vulnerable and disenfranchised group, but you can read a Guardian report here and a BBC report here.

Today it is reported that research by Carers UK indicates that carers save the country £119bn a year, often at a huge cost to their own health and financial security.

It made me wonder what would happen if all we carers suddenly decided to show the same lack of respect for the sick and disabled as the government clearly does. I had hoped that David Cameron might show just a little compassion and empathy in this area after his own experience of parenting a profoundly disabled child. I was clearly wrong.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Realisation

Sometimes something unexpected happens to change the course of the life you had imagined, but you don't understand why. Over the years you slowly rebuild, discovering some pieces of the jigsaw along the way, but there is always one missing and you still don't fully understand. The ensuing self-doubt permeates everything you do, if you let it.

Then, thirty years later, the country is focused on something else and suddenly there is the missing piece. It had been in front of you all the time. You finally understand that the original event was never just about you and you wish you'd realised sooner. You wish you'd reacted differently back then.

But you've also long known that it was probably for the best.


(Yes, I am being deliberately cryptic and today the world is preoccupied with something different, but I'd already drafted this post...)

Friday, April 29, 2011

On the royal wedding day

I drafted a blog post this morning, when I wasn't intending to watch the royal wedding. I'd got rather fed up with the build up and how it took over the media, when there are so many other important things going on in the world. And those of us old enough to remember the nuptials of Charles and Diana in 1981 know that a fairytale wedding is no guarantee of a happy ending.

But somehow I got sucked in. I was in charge of Son 2 this morning and there is no way he would let me turn over from CBeebies, so I tried to watch the wedding online. I tried the BBC, ITV, Sky News and the Royal Channel on YouTube, but every feed broke up, so I only watched a few minutes at a time. But it was enough to see Kate arriving at the Abbey and to admire her classy dress. I heard little of the vows, but I saw them walk back down the aisle, William looking elated as if, right to the last minute, he really hadn't expected her to actually go through with it. I saw the carriages and the crowds, the balcony appearance and the fly past. I smiled at the relative simplicity of their going away, which I only caught due to feedback on Twitter. It somehow reminded me of how Hubby and I simply walked away from our own wedding reception.

I wasn't expecting to get so involved, but I've lived in London for nearly 30 years and these occasions are what London does so well. The Brits are perhaps some of the best in the world at putting on and appreciating pageantry and if it raises our profile and attracts more tourists to these shores it can't be all bad. Just don't expect one happy day to make things right. It didn't cure a recession in 1981 and it won't now.

And the blog post I originally drafted? I'll save it for another day.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rediscovering the personal

When I first discovered blogging, five or six years ago, I followed a small selection of blogs which had something in common, namely great writing. Some of these blogs were written by writers, others by bloggers who had a gift for writing, yet no ambitions in that direction.

The blogs provided snapshots of the bloggers' lives, both past and present. Life, death, children, broken and new relationships were covered and sometimes I would smile as I read, on other occasions I would cry. Those blogs led me to a continuing interest in the therapeutic use of journalling and creative writing.

Many of those early blogs now lie abandoned or are seldom written, though I still have links in my blogroll and on Google Reader, keen to catch any occasional post. Blogging seems to have moved in a new direction, away from the personal and over to the promotional, but I'm afraid I soon lose interest in blogs which do little other than promote freebies the blogger has received. I think we've all become rightly wary about how much personal information we disclose on our blogs and as a result something very creative is in danger of being lost.

But there are still many fascinating and beautifully written blogs out there and in the last few weeks I have found myself crying at blogs again. I have read blog posts which were truly heartfelt, yet so personal that I feel it is not right to link to them here. At a time when my own blog has been feeling very stale, I've been reminded why I first started blogging. It feels good.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Having a teenager with ASD

I was warned by friends that the teenage years with Son 2 would be hard. But he's 17 now and up until Christmas I thought we'd largely got away with. So the change from a calm boy into an often manic whirlwind, who seems to need no more than four to five hours sleep a night, has come as rather a shock.

All this comes at a time when the old support systems start to crumble. Support groups, whether online or real life local ones, tend to concentrate on families at the start of the journey and there are few parents attending who are embarking upon the challenges of decision making for their child's adulthood. Every young person presents with a unique set of circumstances, every local authority offers different services and the spending cuts add an unwelcome additional uncertainty. We should all be supporting each other, yet as parents further down the line we start to feel excluded.

Parents with younger children often seem to find hearing about the challenges of adolescence and adulthood upsetting, they don't want to look into the future. But I have a different take on this. When Son 2 was about three and very difficult, a parent introduced me to his son, who was then about 20 or 21. The young man was calm and well behaved in the presence of a stranger. Although he was largely nonverbal he was clearly bilingual, he could point out items when asked in either language and he appeared comfortable in his family home.

I couldn't imagine Son 2 ever being like that. But the father assured me that his son had been as difficult as Son 2 at the age of three. He'd gone to the same school that Son 2 now attends and his father was helping other parents to fight for a specialist education for their own children. That meeting gave me a glimmer of hope which I held on to and now, despite Son 2's current mania, I can see that he too is nearly there. I have high hopes that when the hormone rush subsides he will be like that young man.

I'm lucky that I have several friends who have adult children with moderate to severe ASD. I know who I can turn to for advice outside my previous support groups, from which I am gradually withdrawing as they seem less relevant. Everything moves on, services change, and some of the input we were lucky to receive when Son 2 was small would not be available today. I guess every new generation of parents has to fight its own battles and parents of teenagers with disabilities will continue to float away from these support groups to find advice wherever they can, unless their needs are recognised too.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Kindle sale alert

Amazon UK has a Kindle Spring Spectacular sale until 2nd May. Literally hundreds of books at a fraction of the regular cost, including new releases such as The Beauty Chorus by fellow Novel Racer, Kate Lord Brown, as well as old favourites. I've already bought a few, including Wasted by Nicola Morgan,which I've wanted to read for ages. I think there must be something for almost everybody there, so if you love your Kindle as much as I do, or if you want to read on another device, go take a look.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Testosterone

So Hubby is away for a few days. Son 1, as befits a teenager on holiday, has been out a lot, while Son 2 has been calmer and sleeping better. Although he has still woken at around 2am, for the last three mornings he has been happy to go back to bed and drop off to sleep again, to wake at a fairly acceptable hour. He is still jumping on his trampoline, but not with the manic level of activity we've seen over the last few months.

Anyone else spot a pattern here? Perhaps Son 2 feels that just for once he is the top male rather than the bottom of the pile. The level of testosterone in the house as they battle for supremacy is usually overwhelming and I think it has a lot to answer for.

Why, oh why, did I not have daughters?

Saturday, April 02, 2011

World Autism Awareness Day

As most of my readers know, autism is a subject close to our hearts. I've lived with autism for 17 years now and worked with autism for 10 years, as a volunteer for the National Autistic Society, helping to support other families in our area and set up local services. Over the years I've tried to raise awareness of autism by writing about some of our experiences with Son 2 here on the blog, my first novel has autism as a central theme and I've given talks to parents and professionals. Autism awareness is a powerful tool in the fight for understanding and acceptance and I've tried to make use of it.

Today, World Autism Awareness Day, I'd like to direct you to two other blogs, written by friends I've made in the blogosphere. Although she doesn't blog often now, Casdok's blog Mother of Shrek is some of the most powerful writing I know on the joys and challenges of living with a young person who has severe autism. Please go back and read the archives if you are not familiar with it.

Crystal Jigsaw's blog celebrates her daughter Amy, who is living what must be an idyllic childhood for a person with autism, on a farm. The author of this blog, Kathryn Brown, has just had a novel, Discovery at Rosehill, published and for April is donating all profits on the book to the National Autistic Society in celebration of autism awareness. I've already read the lovely sample on my Kindle and am going back to download the full book. Full details of where to buy the book in print or ebook format are here.

As a family we have received tremendous benefit from the work of the National Autistic Society, as Son 2 has been educated in two of their their specialist schools since the age of four. But most families are not lucky enough to have that level of support, they are fighting for help in a world that does not yet truly understand the differences of autism or make allowances for them. Anything we can do to raise awareness, however small it might be, has to help.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The river of stones book


I've just realised that I neglected to tell you that the river of stones book, pay attention: a river of stones has been published (sorry, Fiona and Kaspa).

The book is available here in both paper and pdf ebook formats. I've been enjoying dipping into it and spotting the contributions of online friends, as well as my own stone. There's going to be a new river project in July, all details can be found on the blog or the Writing Our Way Home forum.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hello sunshine

I was at the doctor before Christmas asking about some symptoms which I thought might be multiple sclerosis related. In passing I happened to mention that my mood was low. I didn't feel truly depressed, didn't want or need medication, yet I still felt not quite right and mood disorders can be a hidden symptom of MS, so I thought it was worth highlighting.

The doctor asked if I ever suffered from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). I said no, because I'd never been aware of any connection between my mood and the seasons before. But now that the sun is out and the weather is becoming milder, I'm beginning to see there probably is a connection.

Like most people with MS I don't cope well in the heat, indeed both of my identified relapses have been in the summer. But almost two years on from diagnosis I can also recognise that I get far more stiffness and pain in the winter, that probably I function less well overall. This winter I've struggled to blog at all and I largely lost interest in social media, preferring just to lurk and only occasionally post because I was finding a number of people and conversational topics on Twitter upsetting. Don't worry, the problem was mine, not yours.

But with the appearance of the sun my mood has lightened. I've also started to take more vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, but that deserves a blog post all of its own one day. I'm at my best in the spring and autumn, I must make the most of it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pausing for breath

Apologies for the lack of posts in the last week. There was a reason for this, I wanted the Authors for Japan post to stay at the top of the blog until the auction finished. Not being in a position to either donate or bid, my only contribution to that very worthy cause could be to use social media to raise awareness in my own limited way. The auction finished last night, having raised an amazing total of £10962.25, so huge congratulations to Keris and her team of helpers.

I'm still doing little actual writing, as we are struggling with Son 2's lack of sleep and the knock-on effects on our own health. I'm feeling a little brain dead, to be honest, so I'm using any time I do have to do a little more background reading for novel two, some of it in German! I also hope to get novel one out to a few more agents either later this week or next. I've had some very positive feedback on my writing, but it isn't the light commercial fiction which agents and publishers seem to be looking for right now. I still have many options to try, so I'm far from giving up, but I think having a few weeks off to take stock has been healthy.

Onwards and upwards.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Authors for Japan

I've known Keris Stainton online for several years now and have been constantly inspired by both her writing and her enthusiasm. So I shouldn't have been surprised when she felt compelled to do something to help alleviate the current suffering in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami.

But what she has achieved in just a few days is mind-blowing. Authors for Japan is an auction where readers can bid for signed books, manuscript critiques and even the chance to have a character named after them in an author's next book. Some items will appeal especially to writers, others to anyone who loves books. All the above, and many more goodies, have been donated by the huge number of authors of adult and children's/young adult books who responded to Keris' plea for help.

Authors for Japan is currently listing 150 items. Bidding starts at 8am GMT today (15th March) and will end at 8pm GMT on Sunday 20th, full details of how to bid are on the website. All proceeds are to go to the British Red Cross Japan Tsunami Appeal.

What are you waiting for?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Feeling grateful

The last few weeks have been difficult, to say the least. On top of the ongoing financial worries, we are having to start planning for son 2's future, for a change which will be very difficult for all of us. As might be expected in these uncertain times the goalposts keep moving and we fully expect that to be the case for the next two and a half years. As part of the process we have had to open up our home and our lives to the scrutiny of social services, something which is never easy, even though we have nothing to hide and indeed got praise for what we have achieved with son 2.

But sitting here in front of the BBC News Channel, watching pictures of the tsunami sweeping in across Japan and listening to warnings for the whole Pacific area, I realise that for all the difficulties that the UK is facing at the moment, we have so much to be grateful for.

My thoughts are with everyone affected by the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami.

Friday, February 25, 2011

More about the small stones

For me the river of stones project run in January was a great success, which got me back into the routine of closely observing my environment and writing a little every day (you can see all my small stones here under the label aros).

So I was delighted to hear recently that one of the small stones I submitted for the forthcoming anthology has been accepted. Interestingly, the selected piece (from 23rd January, if you're interested) was only my second favourite of the ten I sent in, which just goes to prove the point that we all look for something different in creative work!

Fiona Robyn, who set up the whole river of stones project with Kaspa, has just published a related ebook. I've already downloaded it and it looks fascinating. You can find the ebook here.

And finally, a new writing community has been set up for those interested in using writing as a way of connecting with the world. The Writing Our Way Home group can be found here and I've joined. It's so nice to be reminded sometimes that there is more to writing than just commercialism.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The death of a bookshop

On Saturday I wandered, possibly for the last time, into our local branch of British Bookshops. It's a shop I've browsed in almost weekly, a shop in which I've purchased not only books, but cards, magazines, stationery and craft materials. It's closing down later this week and a crowd was picking over the discounted stock.

Further up the street a more recent arrival, crammed with what appears to be mainly remaindered books, is also announcing impending closure. In the village a few miles up the road one of the two independent booksellers closed some time ago to make way for a coffee shop. The remaining bookshop is tiny and whilst it is no doubt good for ordering books, somehow I don't find it inviting for browsing. There's not enough choice.

That, I suspect is the key to this. We've all become used the the huge choice of the online booksellers, to getting exactly what we want rather than what happens to be in stock or what we've heard of. Through Amazon we can even peek inside many books or download a sample on to a Kindle, we can try before we buy just like we can in a bricks and mortar shop, but in the comfort of our own homes.

As a student I worked in a bookshop and I know that experienced booksellers are incredibly helpful and knowledgeable. But I wonder if the online community is gradually taking over that role via social media. My own Twitter stream is crammed with tweets by readers, writers, bookshops and publishers and I regularly read book blogs and other reviews. Because I now find shopping more physically difficult I'm increasingly reading books I see recommended, rather than random discoveries in a shop. I used to love Borders before its demise in the UK, but I'm no longer sure I want to walk around such a big store. My shopping has become more targeted.

We can still buy books here. We have WH Smith and a small branch of Waterstone's and perhaps, in the current economic squeeze, that will suffice. Books are sadly becoming a luxury item for many people, as are magazines, and yet libraries are threatened with closure. That doesn't make much sense to me.

And I'm very sad to see British Bookshops disappear. My Saturday afternoons won't be the same.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Writing update

Son 2 has been getting up ridiculously early for the last few weeks. Despite our best efforts he is noisy, leaving us all feeling like zombies during the day. Add to this the introduction of my new medication, with a gradual increasing of the dosage, and I've not been feeling at my best.

As a result the total number of words written since the 1st January has been disappointing. But I have made a few submissions, of both the novel and shorter work. I've also clarified an important research point for novel two. It is critical to the plot and the backstory of one character, but I'd originally had difficulty finding the exact information I needed, either in the library or online. In the end I discovered it by entirely chance when I followed a link on a random Tweet. Such is the power of Twitter. I'm pleased that I can now progress without the possibility of a major rewrite of this character hanging over me.

So hopefully onwards and upwards. I promise I'll update the word counter when I stop chopping and changing my opening scenes to get into the characters and settle down to a better writing rhythm.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The saga of the dishwasher

Hubby and I were both brought up in families where there was not much money and even in better times our parents continue to live frugally. Although we were more comfortably off it wasn't until we had an extension built on our small 1920's kitchen that we actually had the space for a dishwasher. The extension meant that we had a separate laundry area and could move the washing machine and bring the tumble dryer in from the garage. We filled the space left by the washing machine with a pretty almond-coloured dishwasher which matched the kitchen units well.

Fast forward about eight years and the dishwasher packed up. This was at a very difficult time in our lives, one which we've moved on from and I don't want to drag up again, other than to say that getting a new dishwasher delivered was simply impossible for a while. Hubby volunteered to wash the dishes (after I said I wouldn't) and that is how it has remained, but the deceased almond-coloured dishwasher still fills the space in the kichen and glares reproachfully at me. From time to time I have broached the subject of a replacement, but Hubby didn't want to spend his redundancy money, worries about the running cost, thinks it's not essential, complains it takes just as long to unload one as to hand wash the dishes. You get the picture.

Last December Caroline ran a giveaway from Appliances Online on her blog and although I normally only enter book giveaways I stuck down a comment. I wasn't one of the lucky ones but it started me thinking about a dishwasher again. I'm tired of the piles of dirty dishes and having to wipe down a wet counter and floor after him, but at the same time I can no longer comfortably stand for long enough to do the job myself and I now have a worrying tendency to drop things. I began to plot how I could gradually find the money and work gently on Hubby again in the meantime.

Then, between Christmas and New Year, disaster struck when our washing machine died in a rather dramatic fashion. Having a disabled child means that a washer is an appliance we really can't do without for more than a day or two, especially since the launderette just down the road was transformed into an Indian takeaway. And our tumble dryer had been becoming less and less efficient, so given the impending VAT hike we replaced both, in a package deal. Gulp.

The dishwasher will just have to wait again.


(As a result of my comment on Caroline's appliance giveaway post the company offered me a small non-electrical incentive for mentioning them on here and although I have no personal experience, I was so impressed by Caroline's enthusiasm for the company's service that I agreed. Anyone leaving a comment with contact link on this post will also have possibility of being contacted by the Appliances Online team.)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Writing about issues

I've just read this blog post by Elizabeth Baines (via Rachel Carter on Facebook) and it's got me thinking.

My first novel, Walking on Tiptoe, a novel about a family affected by autism, might be considered by many to be an 'issue' novel. For me it is not, because that is the reality of the only life I've known as a parent. But could being perceived as such actually be damaging? When I planned the novel I agonised over whether it should be literary or women's fiction, as I think my writing style can naturally straddle the two. In the end, because of the female first person narrator and the significance of a young child, I decided it needed to be written and marketed as women's fiction. I still think that was the right decision, but it is a tough market for a debut novelist to crack.

Jodi Picoult currently writes issue-led fiction to great success. I have been interested to see that a writer called Diane Chamberlain, a 'Southern Jodi Picoult' according to a quote I read on Amazon, seems to be currently be doing very well in the UK Kindle charts, following competitive pricing of some of her books. Indeed I have two of her novels currently waiting on my own Kindle. The public still seems to have an appetite for this type of fiction, even if misery memoirs are perhaps fading away. But I wonder if people's reading choices are determined to a certain extent by their life circumstances. Were people more likely to read about 'difficult' subjects when their own lives were very comfortable and will they turn to lighter material in the testing years to come?

Walking on Tiptoe is categorically not my story. The heroine, Emma, is not me. Her son Ben is not my son. They are both composite fictional characters. Their story is not ours, it is pure fiction inspired by snippets of parental testimony I've absorbed over the years from many sources, both journalistic and real life. But I wonder if agents and publishers will erroneously think that it is autobiography?

When I was writing the novel, I was certain about just one thing, that I wanted to be truthful about the realistic level of help to which parents of autistic children are entitled. I didn't want my work to deceive anyone. As that is an area which is changing all the time, even more so in the current political climate, I decided to set the book clearly in the years when Son 2 was young, because I knew I could be utterly truthful about what sort of services some people were receiving back then. If I was to write about what is available currently, which can easily be researched, the reality might be totally different if/when the book is published. It might set up false hopes for vulnerable parents and that is the last thing I would want to do.

But beyond some practical facts, the storyline and the main setting are both fictional. So when I submit the novel do I continue to mention that I have experience in the area of autism and can therefore vouch for the authenticity of certain facts? Or do I keep quiet, to prevent agents thinking it is autobiographical, even though my personal experiences could potentially be a media selling point?

I'm willing to accept that Walking on Tiptoe would probably be a 'Marmite' novel, because it deals with facts that some readers would rather ignore. But with one child in less than one hundred currently being diagnosed somewhere on the autistic spectrum, it is a situation which is not going to go away. Characters like Emma are here to stay, they are at the school gate, in the supermarket and in the park. For them life is not a romantic comedy.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Parisienne Walkways



Can this really have been a hit as long ago as 1979?

RIP Gary Moore and Phil Lynott

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Adieu to the river of stones

Yesterday, along with many other participants, I posted my final small stone for the river of stones project.

For me it was a hugely enjoyable experience. It made me stop and focus briefly, to concentrate on writing a daily posting. (I admit that two were posted on the subsequent day, but this was just the result of me liking to write my stone then leave it as a draft blog post for an hour or two, ready to edit. A couple of times I simply forgot to finalise the posting before midnight.)

I started off, and ended, by writing stones in haiku format and in between I slipped happily into the easier prose format. Some fragments I felt were very successful, others more mundane. But whatever style I wrote in, the posts became addictive.

So, although I won't be continuing to post a daily small stone, I don't think I'll be giving up completely. Watch this space and the 'aros' subject heading in the side bar. And huge thanks to Fiona and Kaspa for creating such an inspiring project to kick off a new year.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Small stone - 31st January

Restorative sleep eases
the mind for hours
lifting constant imbalance.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Small stone - 30th January

Laptop sighs at my request,
like an angry child
it throws another tantrum.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Small stone - 29th January

As the bitter cold descends in the depth of night, the strangulated howl of an urban fox echoes in the empty street.

Small stone - 28th January

For the first time ever he has learnt how to express his feelings appropriately, in language. We are proud of this achievement, though we don't want him to be feeling 'sad' and 'scared'.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Small stone - 27th January

The rich French blue of a pretty top calls out to me from the crowded charity shop rack. When I try it on at home it fits perfectly.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Small stone - 26th January

In the early hours of the morning he thunders down the stairs like a rampaging elephant, the whole house shaking in his wake. I send him back to bed.

Small stone - 25th January

Savouring a few hours alone, I realise how much I miss the peace of solitude.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Small stone - 24th January

The day starts in a fog of fatigue but ends in a glow of productive satisfaction.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Small stone - 23rd January

The green woodpecker blends seamlessly into our uncultivated grass. Only the flash of red, as it bends its head to dig a long beak in amongst the blades, gives away its existence.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Small stone - 22nd January

The bookshop, its windows plastered with 'closing down' posters, looks sadly different. It takes me a few minutes to realise that the racks of colourful magazines have disappeared, replaced by random discounted stationery items.

Who cares?

There is currently a big campaign being mounted about the projected future cuts to disability benefits, and rightly so. But until this week less was heard about the stealth cuts being made to other services, such as respite for the carers who save the state a fortune.

Unless you have been a carer, you will have no idea how hard it is to get respite. Not just a respite service which is suited to the child or adult cared for , but any respite at all. At the moment the only respite we receive is a fairly heavily specialist playscheme in school holidays, usually two five hour days a week if we can book a place. We are very lucky to have that.

This week there has been a bit of media interest following a plea for help on Mumsnet by a lady called Riven Vincent, who had reached the point of desperation in caring for her daughter, who has huge physical care needs due to cerebral palsy. Riven is herself disabled and as a fellow MS sufferer I know I couldn't cope in that scenario either. There are families caring for adults who are similarly struggling and it is happening all over the country. Health and social care has become budget rather than needs led.

Most of my experience of caring is for my children. I was lucky to have been given advice early on about Carer's Allowance, for which I was able to apply once son 2's severe needs had been identified about 14 years ago. This little bit of cash has been a lifeline, as due to his needs I was unable to return to anything more than a few hours part time work from home. At the moment I am not even earning from the writing work I now do after losing my job.

So yes, I get Carer's Allowance. That is £53.90 a week and is taxable if you reach the tax paying threshold. On top of that I can earn up to £100 a week (should I be able to find flexible work) but not a penny more, otherwise I lose the Carer's Allowance. To get the benefit the cared for person has to be on the middle or high rate of Disability Allowance for care (i.e. considerably disabled) and the carer has to be caring at least 35 hours a week. I did a quick tot up this morning and worked out that Son 2 needs a minimum of 80 hours a week care in term time and considerably more in school holidays. By care I mean that due to his non-existent sense of danger one of us has to be in the same room as him or within earshot and constantly checking. We live our lives in fight or flight mode and after 16 years it is taking a toll on our health. You'll notice that I haven't included night time hours in my calculation, as these vary, but again he needs supervision if awake. Whilst Hubby has always helped out with care in non-work hours, only one of can claim the benefit. If you care for more than one qualifying person, as I did for a few years, you can only claim the benefit for one of them.

We can cope with Son 2, just, but he is not as challenging as many severely autistic children. We were lucky enough to get specialist educational help early on which has helped his ability to cope a little. Hell no, we got that help because I, as his carer, fought tooth and nail for it. Carers are constantly having to fight bureacracy and advocate for the person they care for. In the next couple of years the process will start again to find adult services for him and I just don't know how I'm going to do it. Like so many carers, the constant battles have taken all the mental and physical energy from me.

Through his late son, David Cameron has personal experience of disability and being a carer. I really hoped that this might just feed through into policy, but instead the government seems intent on dismantling financial and practical support for disabled people and their carers. Please read this blog post by Catherine Hughes for lots more insight and links on disability cuts.

Life sucks.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Small stone - 21st January

The middle-aged man pushing a woman down the almost-empty street in a wheelchair swears loudly. I can't hear exactly what he says and she averts her eyes as they pass me.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Small stone - 20th January

The commuters crowd the platform so tightly that my eyes, already blurred from cold drops, cannot make out the exit signs. I go the wrong way.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Small stone - 19th January

The thoughtless loud words cut, like a sharpened blade, right to the bone.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Small stone - 18th January

A battered house clearance van stands in the driveway of a house across the road. We worry about the fate of the elderly, wild-haired resident and are relieved when we finally learn she is still alive and being cared for elsewhere.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Small stone - 17th January

I push the tiny white tablet from the foil wrapping and, for the first time, swallow it with my toast. The day is spent in anticipation, hoping that the drug will make a difference but worrying about the clumsiness of my hands. Is it all in my mind?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Small stone - 16th January

Despite cough and temperature he uses every remaining ounce of energy on the trampoline. A sound of dull thudding, punctuated with laughter, fills the room.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Small stone - 15th January

The spiral crazing of the vandalised shop window reminds me of an ammonite. Two empty shells separated by an eternity.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Small stone - 14th January

A sudden craving for chocolate sends me scurrying the newsagent. Hidden within a double-pack of glossy magazines is the perfect-sized small bar of bubbly sweetness. I can't wait to get home.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

My Kindle - four months on

I was lucky enough to get a Kindle soon after they were launched in the UK, so have had a few months now to use and assess it. The considered verdict is that I still love it. Initially I was unsure about how I would enjoy reading on screen, but I find it very easy on the eyes, in fact I think I actually read faster on the Kindle than I do from a paperback book.

One of the downsides of reading on the Kindle is that, unlike printed material, VAT is charged on ebooks and the VAT rate has just gone up to 20%. Partially perhaps as a result of the tax anomaly, Kindle books are in most cases not much cheaper than their paper versions, despite the fact that no trees were killed in their production. Ebooks do, of course, have fixed editorial and set-up costs, but most of the variable costs, other than royalties, of printing and distributing a physical book are lost, so I don't really understand why there isn't a bigger discount.

For anybody existing on a very low fixed income, the cost of even a paperback book has to be a seriously considered purchase nowadays. I'm therefore taking full advantage of free Kindle books and low cost promotions, such as the selection of books for £1 each Amazon offered over Christmas, but my purchase of regular priced books has not increased too much, despite the undoubted convenience of the one-click Kindle store. I have to restrain myself.

A huge benefit of the Kindle is the ability to download free samples of books. I have over a hundred on my Kindle now. Some of these samples are of books I would like to buy or borrow from the library one day, a digital wish list, if you like. Some are for reference, to enable me, as a writer, to analyse the first few pages of a book I don't really want to read in its entirety, just as I sometimes do in my local library. Some samples I just download for curiosity's sake and fairly quickly delete from the Kindle. I have already downloaded a couple of books just on the basis of having been totally hooked by the sample, Sarah Rayner's One Moment, One Morning being one of these.

I find it hard now to remember what reading was like before I had the Kindle. It could never totally replace printed books, as its back and white screen cannot translate illustrations and photographs well, but I do find it easy and convenient for fiction and some nonfiction. I also use it to store some personal documents, such as lists and pdf crochet patterns, though I haven't yet dared put my novel on it!

I'm a total convert to digital books, with the proviso that I will still buy physical books too. Best of both worlds, really.

Small stone - 13th January

Sometimes it takes far too many paralysing hours of heartache to realise that the problem is not yours, but theirs.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Small stone - 12th January

Patients wait, coughing, wheezing.
Head buried in book
I need to relax but can't.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Small stone - 11th January

It won't change anything, but the chat with like-minded friends over lunch is so absorbing that we are the last to leave the restaurant.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Small stone - 10th January

I am reminded just in time to switch on the slow cooker. By the time they all arrive home the smell of simple home cooking gives the false impression that I am a domestic goddess.