Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pacing myself

Today I hit the 70% complete mark on my novel. Now for those of you who know how long I've been trying to write it, that may not seem very impressive. But for me it seemed like a huge milestone.

One of the things I have been most concerned about whilst writing was the pacing of the novel. This is the first time I've attempted a piece of work greater than 4000 words. Although I started off with a rough structure...I knew the beginning, the end and the two main turning points in the middle...I have been having to fill in the gaps as I go along. I prefer to work that way rather than having everything planned chapter by chapter, simply because, as the story progresses, the characters themselves can suggest new routes forward. But in some ways it is also scary, as at times I can't see the way and I get blocked for a while. It also leaves me constantly concerned about the pacing of the story, but I suppose we will only be able to judge if that has worked once I reach the end.

I am also having to learn to pace myself in daily life. One of the impacts of my MS is that I can no longer rush around as I used to. I can still walk, often with the aid of a rather pretty walking stick, but I now find that after a day when I have walked a lot I have to have a quiet day at home. Yesterday I walked a lot, but today, when I went into town as I usually do on a Saturday, my legs and even my arms were quite wobbly. It was lucky that I didn't have much shopping to do, as I spent much of the afternoon recovering in Starbucks with a magazine and a dark cherry mocha. I should have known better than to go out two days in a row...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Children in Need

Love, love, love it!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Just so you know...

...last weekend I finally fell out of love with musical reality TV.

Yes, I'm talking about The X Factor. Now I'm not stupid. I've always known that these programmes are about manipulating the public. Sometimes, of course, the public like to get their own back. Remember Gareth and Will? The first series of Pop Idol produced possibly the most successful reality winner in the UK, but it wasn't the one Simon Cowell wanted.

This year, however, The X Factor has just got nasty. The very personal insults thrown at Danyl by the judges and the press, from week one of the live shows. The whole Jedward phenomenon and the audience heckling of them every week. Simon Cowell's inexplicable actions last weekend.

Sometimes I think the judges (and audiences) forget that many of the contestants are just teenagers. None of them deserve the sort of crap they have been getting. The music business can be tough, but this is a baptism of fire.

Sadly, I bet I'll still watch it on Saturday, though possibly from behind my fingers. What I won't do is vote this year. Not even during the final.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Berlin Wall

Seeing the television picture yesterday of the celebration to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, reminded me of perhaps one of the most scary and foolhardy things I have ever done.

In 1981 I was 21 and studying in Northern Germany, along with two fellow students, as part of my degree. It was getting towards the end of the academic year and although we had done a lot of travelling, we hadn't been to Berlin. Two of us decided we had to go and booked train tickets and beds in the youth hostel (which was often fully booked). At the very last minute my friend caught a nasty virus and couldn't travel but, wanting to seize the moment, I decided to go alone.

We had often seen the fortified border between West and East Germany when travelling by train, but this would be the first time I had crossed it. The train stopped at a dedicated border crossing and heavily armed East German guards got on. They scrutinized passports thoroughly, with no discernible facial expression, then stayed on the train as it crossed the dreary East German countryside without another stop.

On arrival in West Berlin I could have been in London or Paris as I took in the shops, a modern art gallery, and McDonalds. But there was always the spectre of the huge wall, heavily graffitied on the Western side, which divided the city between communism and capitalism. The little museum at Checkpoint Charlie told of the fate of those who had tried to escape from East to West.

On my last day in West Berlin I decided to travel into East Berlin. On my own. Access was via the only underground station on the Eastern side of the wall which was still in use, and once again I had to go through rigorous passport control to be allowed a day visa. A mandatory amount of hard currency had to changed into the East German currency, Ostmarks, and this could not be brought back out of the country.

On finally getting out of the station I was shocked by how drab East Berlin was. Much of the architecture was of modern Soviet design, there were no advertising billboards and I could see no colourful paint. I headed towards the famous television tower and beneath it found a shop. I hoped to spend most of my Ostmarks but could find little to buy except a few dull postcards, because there were few consumer goods on the shelves. I then decided to walk towards the Brandenburg Gate, the big triumphal arch of Berlin which lay right beside the wall itself. But as I walked down Unter den Linden I felt my every move scrutinised by the armed guards patrolling the area. About halfway down the avenue I spotted a tiny bookshop in a side street and thought I could spend some more of my money. But the shop was full of Marxist propaganda rather than the East German literature I had hoped for. I bought a couple of pamphlets and a book of statistics about East German society and fled.

I was too frightened to go any further towards the Brandenburg Gate, so I turned back and headed towards the antiquities museum. On the way I passed soldiers goose-stepping scarily outside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Neue Wache, which was then known as a Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism. It seemed that as a lone woman out on the almost empty streets I was very conspicuous and, even though I spoke German, I did not want any entanglement with armed guards.

Once inside the museum I felt a little safer. I spent some more Ostmarks on a guide book but still I had not got rid of all my currency. I was too scared to consider going into a restaurant, even if I could find one. In the end I decided I'd had enough. I walked back towards the underground station and found East German citizens outside, begging very discreetly. I handed my last change to one and dived inside the station, ready to go through the border patrol once again.

Getting back to the West was a huge relief, I have never in my life felt so vulnerable as I did that day. But I'm glad I did it, because I've never been back to Berlin and if I did now I would find a completely different city.

I don't have photos from East Berlin, I was too scared to take my camera in, but this blog shows pictures of the Berlin Wall in 1981, the very year I was there, and is almost exactly as I remember it. It also provides some interesting history so is well worth a read.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Guest post: Cally Taylor

Today I am delighted to host a leg of Cally Taylor's blog tour. Here is her inspirational guest post:

Day 17 of the Virtual Blog Tour for my novel “Heaven Can Wait” and I thought I’d write a guest post for Cathy about writing, reward and motivation.

In an ideal writing world the words flow effortlessly whenever we sit down at our computer/notepad, we’re never short of ideas, everything we write gets glowing feedback/published and our self-confidence grows and grows until our internal writing world is one big, happy bubble we never want to leave.

You can see the problem with that description can’t you?

The word ‘ideal’.

If you’re a writer the chances are you devoured books as a child. In fact, you’ve probably read, and enjoyed, books your whole life. A good writer makes it look easy, it makes us (and the rest of the world) think “I could do that!” Only the reality is very, very different.

I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t, or isn’t, struggling with their self-confidence. My debut novel has just been published and I’m still wracked with self-doubt and insecurities about my writing ability. Will people buy my book? Will they like it? Will they publish horrible, scathing reviews on Amazon? But what if people do like it and they’re disappointed by my second book?

So if getting your novel published isn’t a magical salve for writerly insecurities how on earth do you cope when you’re just starting out? This is what I did...

Back in November 2005 I took part in a ‘flashathon’ for BBC Children in Need. We were sponsored to write a piece of flash fiction every hour for a maximum of twenty-four hours (I think I managed about 16 hours, with a nap after the first eight hours!). After the competition finished all the flashes were critiqued by the group and the ‘top 50’ were passed on to Leaf Books for judging. Leaf Books had very kindly agreed to publish a book of eighteen flashes and donate the proceeds to charity. I was over the moon when one of my efforts was forwarded to them but I was up against some stiff competition, my fiction had previously been rejected by lots of publications, and didn’t think I stood a chance of getting into the final book. I was gobsmacked when I found out that “Tom Brown’s Spaceship” had been selected – it was going in!

I was so delighted that something I’d written had been published I called my closest friends and invited them round for a champagne celebration in December. My friends all bought a copy of the book (all proceeds to charity) and asked me to sign them! I felt like a superstar! To me the tiny little yellow book I held in my hands was huge! I didn’t care that I didn’t receive a penny for that story – I was thrilled that I’d written something an editor thought was good enough to make it into print. Maybe, just maybe, it meant I wasn’t a terrible writer.

I went out and bought myself a clear plastic folder and put a copy of the book in it. The folder was huge and the book rattled around but that was okay, it gave me something to aim for – I’d fill the folder with more published stories.

A month later Aesthetica magazine contacted me to let me know that they’d accepted my flash “Odd Socks”. There was no payment but when the magazine was published and I was sent a complimentary that went in the folder too.

I continued to write, I continued to receive rejections, I continued to receive stinging critiques of my stories that made me wonder whether or not I was good enough to be a writer, but I kept that folder close at hand. Two pieces of flash fiction published, I couldn’t be that bad. Maybe, I wondered, if I could get my work published, I could get paid for it too.

In February 2006 I was! It was a piece of flash fiction again – and I won £30 in a small online competition. I held that cheque in my hands for a long time. I couldn’t believe someone had actually paid me for something that, essentially, I’d made up! It would have been easy to chuck the cheque in the bank for it to be instantly gobbled up by some bill or other that needed paying. But I didn’t do that – in my eyes being paid for a piece of writing was a pretty damned momentous occasion in my writing career and I wanted to buy something I could hold in my hands, something that I could look at and think, my writing bought that.

I went on ebay and bought this silver bracelet. I still wear it. And I still remember.

I also kept the email I’d been sent, informing me that I’d won the competition. I put that in the folder too. I continued to push myself. I’d been published in print and I’d been paid for my writing but everything I’d had success with was flash fiction. Could I do the same with short stories? I started entering them into competitions. Lot and lots of rejections followed and I didn’t even make the long list. In April 2006 I almost fell off my chair when I received a phone call from the Bank Street Writers competition to say that my story “Under the Waves” had won. £100! I couldn’t believe it. I continued to set myself goals – to get a story published on X ezine, to have a story published in Y magazine, to place in Z competition. Some of my goals I hit, some I didn’t, some I knew I’d never hit (like placing in the Bridport Prize!) but I kept on trying. My folder full of published stories got fatter and fatter and I had to buy a second one, but I still kept them close at hand to reassure me during inevitable dips in self-confidence.

When I sat down to write “Heaven Can Wait” I felt daunted. Most of my stories were about 2,000 words long – how the hell was I going to manage 80-100,000? I’d have to reward myself somehow. I plucked a figure for my first draft – 90,000 words – out of the air and decided to reward myself with a paperweight for every third of the novel that I managed to write. It sounds silly now – buying myself a paperweight for 30,000 words – but I’d attempted a novel twice before and hadn’t finished either of them. I needed all the motivation I could get!

The first third of the novel came and went, then the second, then the third. Finally my novel was finished and the three paperweights, lined up in the window with the sun glinting off them, was a daily reminder of what I’d achieved. I had no idea, back then, if my novel would ever get published but I was damned proud of myself for doing what so many people talk about but don’t do, actually finishing a novel.

When I got my book deal I rewarded myself again. I’m not married and don’t have a lovely sparkly ring on my finger to signify that special moment in my life so why not buy myself something pretty to represent a different kind of special moment? I went back on ebay and bought a white gold ring, studded with teeny, tiny diamonds. I wear it on the third finger of my right hand.

Why does she keep buying herself things, you might be asking. Isn’t seeing her novel on the shelves reward enough? God yes! But I got my book deal a year ago and a big part of me didn’t believe it was real. I thought it might be snatched away from me at any second. The ring couldn’t be!

So what now? How do I deal with writerly wobbles now I’ve had a novel published? Mostly I do what I’ve always done – grit my teeth and write my way through them – but I’m still collecting things to make me feel better on ‘I can’t do this’ days. I’ve got an email folder where I keep ‘good news’ – emails from my agent, my publisher, feedback from people who’ve read my novel, and I’ve got a copy of all the magazines that have reviewed my novel or featured an interview with me.

Set yourself goals and reward and motivate yourself but more than anything else, keep believing, keep dreaming and keep writing. If you’re a writer you’ve got no choice.

Cally Taylor is the author of “Heaven Can Wait”, a supernatural romantic-comedy about a woman who dies the night before her wedding, refuses to go to heaven and returns to earth to try and return to earth so she can be reunited with her fiancĂ© Dan.