Sunday, October 31, 2010

Blogging times change

I started this blog in October 2006. Yes, four whole years ago.

I was full of enthusiasm. I'd just finished an Open University course and was about to take my writing more seriously. Life had just thrown us a huge curveball, but it meant that I would be at home much more, that I had time to write.

I couldn't have imagined then that I was already into the most challenging years of my life. Years which have been documented, in a censored fashion, on this blog.

This blog is both a record and a painful reminder and I'm no longer sure whether I want it all to be so public. The internet world seems to be changing. We appear to be losing enthusiasm for blogging. Communities built up over a number of years seem to be dying, or pulling apart in a destructive manner. Perhaps it's something to do with the recession or maybe, with the explosion of social networking, we are all just realising that we have been too open in the past.

What I'm trying to say is that I'm no longer sure where this blog is going. I think at some point soon I shall be separating my writing posts from the more personal stuff. I've already started to create a new writing blog which will become the one linked to my website and will be solely about books and writing. I may eventually mothball these ramblings.

Whatever I decide to do I'll be sure to keep you all posted, if you'll forgive the pun.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Back to the day job

The last two weeks have been half term, so my waking hours have been consumed by being Son 2's carer. It is something of a mental leap from being merely a parent to a carer but Son 2 is now 16, he should be trying to sneak out to the pub rather than watching CBeebies all day and when I look at the independence of his brother, I can make that transition. I can accept that it is a day job, if a very poorly paid one.

This holiday has been about broadening Son 2's musical tastes. He loves music, he actually spends all day plugged into an mp3 player in a most age appropriate manner, although for a long time his musical choices were not so age appropriate. Then a few months ago he stole an mp3 player from me. Yes, it's a pink mp3 player. Get over it. On it were some of my favourite tracks of all time, the soundtrack to my life. Son 2 loves it. But again, the music is not exactly what your typical 16 year old listens to. I'm out of date, I don't know what to offer him.

So this, dear readers, is where you come in.

Son 2 likes ballads and more up tempo tracks with a definite tune and perhaps a little bit of drama. As he is nonverbal the music is more important than the lyrics and he likes classical music and chillout tracks. I have found him listening recently to Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Adele but he also really likes Take That (Patience), Coldplay (Viva la Vida) and the Motown and soul of the Sixties and Seventies, while yesterday he was listening to Lady GaGa's Bad Romance over again on YouTube. I realise that his musical tastes are currently somewhat limited by our own and I want to download more contemporary tracks for him.

Any good suggestions?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Jane Austen and the editor

I discovered Jane Austen at a ridiculously late age which is a shame, because if I'd been introduced to her work by the age of 16 I think I might have continued with English up to A level. But I digress.

The latest literacy buzz is that it appears that Jane Austen had an editor. Shock, horror. And that follows on from a revelation that the style of Raymond Carver's model short stories was highly influenced by his editor.

But why should we be surprised? Surely all writers need an editor, an outside eye to pick up what works stylistically and what doesn't, to spot errant typos and clumsy prose?

I'm possibly a little unusual in that I really like editing. I love the self-editing stage of writing, the honing of a rough first draft into more flowing prose. I don't mind my work being externally edited, because I can usually see that the suggestions will improve it. And frustrating as it is, I even masochistically enjoy the inevitable picking apart of the work to amend the foreshadowing of edited scenes where necessary.

One of the things that is drummed into students on the Open University creative writing courses is the importance of revision and editing and I have to say my own writing improved immensely when I started taking all that on board. I realised that prior to that my 'editing' consisted of little more than spellchecking. Now I pick my prose apart with a much closer eye.

But the downside is that I also pick apart the work of others and as I am reading I sometimes become distracted by something as simple as an errant comma. I guess that's what they call reading like a writer.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A ray of light in the gloom

Time is running away again. The to-do list is growing, I seem to add several things every week but feel happy if I can cross just one item off. And now it's half term again. Where did those six weeks go?

Last week the doom and gloom of the economic crisis, both national and personal,was temporarily lifted by the rescue of the 33 miners who'd been trapped underground in Chile for 69 days. I shed tears at each and every emergence I watched on the news channel. Thinking I was stupid and, it has to be said, hormonal, I turned to Twitter where I found many others were doing the same. It was a triumph of hope over adversity, caught for posterity in pitch perfect media coverage.

I'm not writing much right now. But I am researching, looking at photos and reading about some pivotal movements in twentieth century history, trying to integrate hope and despair into the new novel. The coverage of the miners brought home both emotions in such an immediate and visual manner that I felt inspired.

And now back to work, it's going to be hard enough to snatch time to write during the next two weeks of school holiday...

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hmm, I wonder...

I often wonder why son 2 has autism. There is no obvious genetic link as nobody else has the diagnosis on either side of the family, even though one or two family members might be considered to have some quirks. But don't we all?

I've got past the guilt of wondering if it was something that happened during pregnancy. I do believe that son 2 showed some signs of autism right from the earliest days, but it was a planned pregnancy, I was ultra-cautious and I wasn't even working at the time, so was as stress-free as one can be whilst looking after a toddler.

But I went into early labour with both my boys, so I was interested to read the new research on a possible link between neo-natal jaundice and autism. To summarize: a full-term baby born between October and March, who has suffered neo-natal jaundice and is not the mother's first child, is 67% more likely to develop autism.

Now let's look at my evidence. Son 2, born in March, was not full-term, but at just over 36 weeks he was only a few days short of being considered so. The only issues he had were jaundice and minor feeding problems. Unlike Son 1, born in October, who was a 34 week baby and spent 6 weeks in the neonatal unit where the jaundice was the least of his problems.

So, both boys fall into the risk category for month of birth and having suffered jaundice, but Son 1 was born earlier, was more sick and was my first pregnancy. You'd perhaps expect him to be more vulnerable but the antibodies would not have built up and according to the research that would have protected him.

Son 1 has, of course, had his own issues, some of which may have a root cause in his prematurity (there is research to support this too). But he does not have autism, in fact he is a very sociable young man now. Son 2, however, had all the risk factors and is severely autistic.

Perhaps there is something in all this research...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Life begins at 50?

She probably won't win The X Factor, but wasn't it lovely to see Mary Byrne get such a wonderful ovation from the studio audience last night?

(And if anyone can explain simply to me how I can embed the YouTube video without it stretching right over the sidebar of my blog, I'd be really grateful!)

Friday, October 08, 2010

Strong women

A couple of people who have read the draft of my first novel, Walking on Tiptoe, have asked if the main character, Emma, is actually me. The answer to that is always no. True, small parts of Emma's life are based on my own experience, but she is very much a composite character, inspired by the many strong women I know. My second novel is also shaping up to have strong female characters, two of them women who have had extraordinary experiences.

When I was first wanting to write,in my twenties, the traditional romance genre was my aim. But now that I am actually writing novels a totally different type of heroine is emerging in my work, a heroine who gets on with life and can look after herself, a heroine who doesn't need an alpha male. Because, let's face it, for a lot of women that is the reality of life.

My own immediate circle of friends includes a widow, single mothers, women bringing up severely disabled children, women who have suffered the distress of infertility and miscarriage, women caring for sick, elderly parents and women who are suffering circumstances I wouldn't blog about. The one thing that they all have in common is their inner strength. They just get on with life and make the most of it.

I think I've always been quite strong. Perhaps being the older sibling had something to do with it, perhaps knowing that I had to make something of my life to get away from a hometown which suffocated me. That strength made me very independent, but it is also now causing me difficulties as I have to recognise that I do have some physical limitations. It's been quite a journey to get my head around the fact that I have a degenerative condition, but twelve months on from diagnosis little has changed. The prognosis is still quite good.

I need to learn not to get so frustated when I can't do something, not to stress that I am letting others down. I need to learn to accept help. I need to redirect my strength into my writing. I think a lot more characters like Emma may just emerge.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Interview with DJ Kirkby

I'm delighted that DJ Kirkby has agreed to be interviewed here to celebrate the official launch of her debut novel, Without Alice which I found to be a compelling read, written by a true storyteller. The interview is long, but please bear with us, as it covers subjects close to both our hearts.

You make no secret of the fact that you were diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, dyspraxia and dyslexia as an adult. Asperger’s Syndrome is a disorder on the autistic spectrum and people with autism generally have the ‘triad of impairments’ which means that they have difficulty with ‘social communication, social interaction and social imagination’ (National Autistic Society). Do you think that the self-understanding which must have followed the diagnosis has impacted on your writing in any way and do you find writing therapeutic?

I think that my diagnosis was one of the most life enhancing things to have happened to me, and yes it did have a huge impact on my writing. Once I realised just how well I had been coping for my whole life I realised that I could go on to write that novel I had been dreaming of. If I could function in a predominantly neurotypical world so well (as opposed to so badly as I’d thought for many years) then there was no reason why I couldn't write a novel and do a good job of that too. Writing has always helped me make sense of the chaos I see the neurotypical world. Maintaining a neurotypical facade for the entire workday is like performing a play in a language that I have a working knowledge of, but one which is not my first language. So whilst I might come across as outwardly believable, inside I am double guessing myself, questioning my every move and having to interpret the response I get into my ‘language’ to try and establish what, exactly, the person I am interacting with actually meant.

As the parent of a severely autistic young person I've read a number of books written by people with autism, but they were all non-fiction or memoirs (including your own amazing From Zaftig to Aspie). Do you think you are unique in being a person with Asperger’s Syndrome who has had a novel published?

I think every human is unique but as far as I know I am the only openly autistic person who has had a novel published, although there are many talented published autistic authors such as Temple Grandin, John Elder Robison, Claire Sainsbury and Wendy Lawson to name just a few.

Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome suffer from severe anxiety, but I'm always impressed by your energy, enthusiasm and promotional ability. You don’t appear to suffer from the self-doubt which troubles so many new writers. You had setbacks on the road to getting Without Alice published, but do you feel that it was your confidence which got the result in the end?

I am not obviously self doubtful ( it is very easy to hide emotions on the internet) because I have been told by a few successful authors whom I trust that if a writer wishes their work to be taken seriously, then they first, must appear as if they believe it worthy of that. I think the fact that I have always behaved professionally while on the internet has helped me overcome the setbacks I endured with getting my novel published. The writing/ publishing world is very small and most of us have heard of one another to some degree. What my readers don’t see and perhaps do need to know, is that I am as fretful and anxious as the ‘average’ autistic person, and not a day goes by where I don’t suffer sensory overload and question whether I have what it takes to carry on promoting myself as an author. To carry on means that I have to keep putting myself in the spot light, and under scrutiny. Fairly easy to do on the internet where I can take my time and write out my responses – run them past my husband for a social acceptableness check - much more difficult to do in real time during non internet public appearances. For particularly challenging ones such as book launch parties where sensory overload is guaranteed I have my husband or another carer with me and make sure I’ve booked the following day off work but for things like book signings I have to go to them alone and just ensure that I identify a quiet room where I can spend time when it becomes necessary. Usually it is the staff toilet!

I find that people with autism either follow rules to the letter or tend to disregard them totally. Do you follow the so-called ‘rules’ ( e.g. ‘show not tell’) when you are writing and editing, or do you prefer to write more freely?

I think that I am good at showing the reader the scenes simply because I am an outsider in the world about which I write. My characters are neurotypical non autistic people so when I write from my perspective I am showing my readers what I see as an autistic person which works wonderfully in terms of getting a novel written the right way. The areas I struggle with are portraying communication believably, and I tend to use less dialogue than other novelists. If the lack of dialogue is significant from a neurotypical aspect then this is picked up in editing (I paid to have Without Alice professionally edited before submitting it to my publisher), and I then expand the dialogue in the identified areas.

I've tried to plan my own fledgling writing career, starting with courses to learn the craft of writing followed by targeted submissions. I know many people with autism like their life to be highly structured, so have you taken a similar approach or have you just taken advantage of opportunities as they have arisen?

I have written for so long that it is part of the structure of my daily life. I feel highly anxious if I don’t get time to write. I use it as a method of stress relief and a way of sorting through the events of the day, a way to learn from my mistakes. However, I have never taken a writing course as that would mean even less downtime than I have now. I work full time and having to take an evening (or weekend) course whether in a class or via distance learning would still mean that I have to do more intensive work after a hectic and stressful work day. All I want to do is spend more time with my family, not less and I know that I couldn’t cope with the extra work involved in taking a writing course. I do read a lot of writing books and blogs and learn a lot of what (and what not) to do in relation to writing as a result. This method seems to have worked for me and Without Alice is a novel that I am proud of.

You have launch parties planned for Without Alice. Do you find the face to face promotional aspects of being a writer particularly daunting?

As I mentioned earlier, I am very anxious about the promotional work for Without Alice. I also know that it is as much a part of being an author as actually writing the novel. If I don’t get myself out there and meet my readers, then how do I engage with them and get to know what they want from me as an author? Additionally, because I am published by an independent (small) publisher, if I don’t do public appearances then word of mouth about me as an author wont happen and I need it to for my book sales to happen. I know that even authors who are published by big publishers (with big marketing budgets) have to get out and promote themselves which means that this has to be done even more intensively for an author published by a small publisher. Writing a good novel is only the first part of the job.I consider myself very lucky to have found a publisher who was willing to read a submission from an openly autistic author in the first place and then for him to believe in my writing enough to take a risk in publishing me. After all, all the work and money involved in making my novel actually physically available for readers to buy has come from my publisher. I feel I owe it to both of us to make sure that I do everything I can to engage with readers and hopefully have them like me enough as an author to tell their friends about me and my novel (s). Having said all that, self promotion is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

First I have to get readers interested enough to come in and see me, then I have to get book shops to agree to let me come in for a signing and once there I also need to approach random people who come into the shop. Once I have done so I then need to engage with them in such a manner that they are willing to buy a copy or two of my novel! I do spend time in my bolt hole freaking out until I calm down enough to get back on the shop floor and carry on.

At the book launch parties I will drink wine and wear ear plugs as both help to smooth out the sensory overload long enough to get me through the event. Having said that, I often appear distracted and sometimes talk nonsense. This is because I am paying attention to the sensory overload instead of the person talking to me. I apologise in advance to anyone that I may do this to. I struggle to hear things sometimes because all I can hear is everything around me due to the fact that my brain doesn’t do a good job of tuning out unnecessary noises, so I can hear all the conversations at once, the phone ringing, the door opening, the cash register working the air conditioning or heating, traffic noise, smell people’s perfumes, colognes, bad breath, hair products, hear their clothes rustle, drinks being poured, scents from the street outside and so on. So if it seems like I am not fully focussed on what you’re saying, it’s not that you’re uninteresting, it’s just me being me.

You not only write prolifically, but hold down a high-powered day job and care for your family. What life advice would you give to a young person with Asperger’s Syndrome?

Don’t be afraid of failure. Think of it as an excuse to go back the way you came until you find a more successful way around the obstacle. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help but never use autism as an excuse. You know it isn’t an excuse, it’s our way of being and that means we have to go about things differently to be able to function in society. We know ourselves best and so it’s up to us to find our own way of coping with functioning in a socially acceptable manner. We are all individuals with unique desires and dreams and with the right support, you can do anything you wish to do. Once you get there you may realise that it isn’t actually what you did want and that’s ok too because you can start over and go get something different. Everything will probably seem like very hard work but that is what life is all about and you’ll find coping strategies along the way if you’re willing to try things out until you find the ones that work best for you. Make sure that you have some things that are easy and make you happy, and treat yourself to these things when you need a break but don’t let yourself obsess on them or you won’t get anything else done.

DJ Kirkby has dedicated Facebook pages for her books Without Alice and From Zaftig to Aspie.

Coming up on the blog...

If anyone has noticed that I've been even quieter than usual on Twitter, Facebook and the blog, I should explain that my computer is not happy at present. I've spent much of this week trying to improve its performance, but I think I may have to give in and take it to the laptop hospital next week.

In the meantime, I'm thrilled to have been given an interview with DJ Kirkby to celebrate the official launch of her debut novel Without Alice.
Check back here on Monday to find out how being a person with Asperger's Syndrome impacts on her writing career and life.