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I woke up in the middle of the night last night, to discover a message froma friend on Facebook. he’d been thinking of writing a novel, he said, and wondered what advice I had. This is what I wrote back, still half asleep.

Write what you love to read. I’ve read a ton of books about writing but This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Moseley is short and sweet and covers everything….I read it the year I did actually write most of my novel, but that may just be co-incidence. It’s pretty simple and clear and as a result I think it gave me confidence.

There are different views about how to do it – my American friends call it plotting vs pantsing. Plotters outline in detail and then write it all up, Pantsers make it up as they go along. In reality everyone must do a bit of both, but I think we probably all have leanings one way or another.

What held me back for so long was the idea that I had to get the whole thing into my head before I wrote it. But there’s a saying by E L Doctorow that speaks to me -’Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’

But personally I do think you have to have some idea where you’re going. An idea of where the twists and turns might be, and perhaps what the ending is. But I do like it to be vague, because it all changes along the way.

Even a short novel is a long project, so it had best be about something that matters to you. Which isn’t a bad place to start. Perhaps you could think about what your favourite novels and films and TV shows are, and work out what they have in common, what it is that draws you in. But you need more than one idea – I think it really comes alive when two or three ideas bump into each other. A Margaret Atwood quote here, I think. “There has to be some blood in the cookie for the gingerbread person to come alive.”  A few drops of blood though, I think. Not by the bucket load. By which I mean let your own feelings and experiences inform your writing, but it’s fiction not autobiography. Unless you want to write memoir, just make stuff up. It’s fun.

The basics of story can be found in lots of different places. I don’t think about them much at the beginning because I think we are all natural story tellers, but when I get stuck I go read the Wikipedia article on the writer’s journey – based on the Joseph Campbell One Myth to Rule Them All – the Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s so universal that sometimes it helps me see where you’ve got stuck and what needs to happen next.

Other than that you can’t go far wrong by torturing the character – let them think they are close to what they want and then snatch it away. Character torture – and reader torture – is what it’s all about.

I would spend some time before starting roughing out a few things…an overall theme, something that interests you. And a character or two, some names. Perhaps a place – some people are inspired by a place. It’s possible to just dive right in and wrote and see what happens, but every time I’ve done that, I’ve gone astray. But if I go too far the other way, I don’t write it either – I get bored. So somewhere in the middle, according to temperament and how much you hate revising. I like revising – I didn’t mind at all doing 24 drafts and cutting out thousands of words. I hate writing the first draft.

Oh, and have fun. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but there was nothing to beat that feeling when I completed the first draft and had finally written a novel.

My other favourite quotation – another comfort blanket. I don’t know it was originally, but I heard Neil Gaiman say it… “a novel is just a long piece of prose with something wrong with it.”

Hope that helps :-)

I think that’s a reasonably good summary of what I’ve learned over the past few years. Now, back to working on the second novel, where I’m currently about half way through the second draft.




The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman

My review on Goodreads -

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A really magical and mesmerising read. The book opens and closes with an adult narrator who has gone back home for a funeral. He has an impulse to escape and he finds himself back in the place where he lived as a child, as a seven year old.

As we are drawn in to the narrator’s experience, we remember what it was like to be a child. How the world was an exciting place, but how powerless we were, and how little we understood what was going on. We also entertained the delusion that adults, somehow, really did know…

Childhood is a place where there are monsters too. Fear of the dark, leaving the bedroom door open for the security offered by the hall light… These are memories that many of us will share. But the monsters are not all imaginary creatures of the night. Memory, myth and reality bleed into each other. In the real world of the narrator (not Gaimain’s – I think we have to accept his word that this is fiction, although we know some real events inspired it)there was a lodger who committed suicide, there was an angry father who turned malevolent when glamourised by the vampish, monstrous au pair. Those things, and the financial problems, are monsters that many adults know can undermine their security, make home a place of fear and not one of comfort.

The narrator finds his own ways of fighting back. He reads myths and escapes into an alternate reality. He reads his mother’s collection of school stories, loosing himself in the plucky heroines, who battle through and save the day on their own. He reads Secret Seven novels under the covers. All those books in which the adults cannot be trusted, and children have to save themselves.

The battle that the narrator takes on is in a mythical world of danger. The Hempstock family – all women – grandmother, mother and daughter – are the heart of the story and the heart of the myth. Another incarnation of the triple goddess that we know from so many other sources – the moon goddesses of antiquity, the neopagan trinity revered by Robert Graves and Jung, the witches in Pratchett…

And the darker and dangerous mythic figure is an au pair, Ursula Monkton, who comes from an alternate universe, who has a beautiful face that some see and are charmed by, but is a rapacious figure who manipulates and enslaves those humans. This battle can be read as a fantasy, a mythic struggle -but it is also an internal struggle. The most frightening parts are when the narrator discovers the worm, the evil creature, has burrowed inside him. He faces it bravely, digging out a chunk himself. Another excision is performed by the young Lettie Hemptock. But the climax of the story comes when it is discovered a sliver of the darkness has remained in his heart – making him vulnerable to the carrion eaters from the dark universe, who are hunting down Ursula Monckton. Another resonance there, from the fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson, and the Snow Queen.

The ocean in a pond, the ocean in a bucket, the ocean in ourselves… It is a vivid representation of the unconscious mind, and the memories and stories are drops of consciousness easily overwhelmed by the floods and tides. The mythic battles are powerful, but they are also firmly rooted in the world of memory and that bridge to reality. The most frightening parts of the story after all are the scenes from the real world of the novel – especially the father who breaks into the bathroom and terrifies, tortures his own son under the influence of the glamour, of his own inner dark forces.

The narrator asks the important questions. Was I worth it? Am I good enough person? And the Hempstock answer is, there is no pass or fail at being a human. But then, Granny Hempstock gives a truer answer – “I think you’re doing better than the last time we saw you. You’re growing a new heart, for a start.”

The story explores what it is to go home. It plays with memory and monsters, childhood and growing up, and developing the courage it takes to be human, and to face the darkness – outside and within ourselves.

In the words of the narrator, “A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent the people in the story change.”

Readers can be changed by a story too. This one is magical.

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Room at the Bottom

of the class… I am re-reading John Braine’s book, How to write a novel.

The first time I read it was in 1976, or so.  It was a school library book, and I remember I kept it for far too long, and read it twice. If only that had been enough…  Reading it again so many years later, I see that so much I needed to know was already there – if only I’d had the wit to recognise it.

Right at the beginning of the book, he says “A writer is a person who writes. A writer is a person who counts words. That is all you need to know.”

Straight forward advice, but for so long I ignored it.  He’s not one of the purists who recommends writing every day – he acknowledges that isn’t always possible. But he does suggest writing regularly, keeping to a timetable (one that suits you) and sticking to a project until you’ve seen it though.

“I have no way of proving it, but I believe that once put aside, the novel is not taken up again.”

I have a tatty old blue cardboard wallet somewhere. It contains the beginnings of several novels. One about a girl in the time of Richard II and the Peasant’s Revolt, that I started when I was sixteen. Another which I started a year later, with a heroine who was a female version of James Bond. Several beginnings of crime novels too…  One fantasy novel inspired by Marion Zimmer Bradley, with a faux medieval society on a planet with a double sun…

Obviously the world is a much better place without those novels, but still I can’t help thinking it’s a pity that I didn’t complete them. But, better late than never, and here I am, back at school, learning what I should have done all that time ago.

One thing is reassuring though. Braine also says the key way of getting into a novel is to find the right tone of voice. I am pretty sure I am there now, and the new opening to the second novel is working quite well.  And I am making slow but steady progress.

The main danger ahead is the one that has felled me so many times in the past, but perhaps I am now wiser as well as older.

Writers write, and at the moment, I can count myself as one of them.







“The civilising effect of literature”

is dicussed in this fascinating interview with Martin Amis. He is always provocative, but in spite of the fact that I frequently find myself rising to the provocation, he is always interesting.

I didn’t much enjoy his novel, Lionel Asbo. He talks here about the importance of empathy, but although his fiction is witty and sharply observed, I always feel that he is writing about the characters from outside, and most definitely above.  I read Asbo at around the same time I read JK Rowling’s Casual Vacancy, which I reviewed here, and I was very struck by the difference in them. Rowling also has a sharp eye, but she seem to have more of a heart, whatever class she is writing about.

The Pinker TED talk above is well worth the time, and he makes a very strong case that violence has significantly declines, and that we now live in the least violent age.  I haven’t read Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of our Nature, but it is definitely on my To Read list.

So Amis quotes Pinker, and suggests that one of the civilising influences is literature, because it is one of the ways in which we learn empathy – that we see into other people’s minds and learn that they are like us.

“I think it’s likely that the civilizing effect of literature has done most of the work, and still continues to do. Look at Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It proves beyond any shadow of doubt that violence has declined dramatically throughout the centuries. There are various reasons for it: the rise of the state, Leviathan, the monopoly of violence, children’s rights, animal rights. They’re all positive signs. But, he says, the one he puts his money on is the invention of printing, and, funny enough, the widespread appearance of fiction. He says this taught empathy (he doesn’t like the word, but he says there is no better one). If you read a novel, you’re in someone else’s head, in three, five different people’s heads. Suddenly, the principle of “Don’t do anything to anyone that you wouldn’t want done to you” becomes real in people’s minds. That’s a fantastic achievement if fiction is indeed partly responsible for it. That’s a great thing to be a part of. In the end, then, I don’t know if writers have legislated, but they have civilized.”

It’s an interesting argument…but not a compelling one. I recently read The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, and I think it’s fairly obvious that the human race was sitting around a camp fire and making up stories long, long before the invention of printing. I’m sure the neanderthals were showing empathy when they put flowers in graves. And we see increasing evidence from the natural world that elephants and chimps and whales and dolphins can all show care for the weak and vulnerable. Sometimes I think the only place that hasn’t been detected is in public school educated Tory ministers…  That’s not some kind of fairy story about the natural world being all cuddly and sweet YouTube videos – but it’s just as wrong to write nature off as “red in tooth and claw.”

So are readers and writers more capable of empathy than the rest? I suspect not.  But there are always people ready to lay the blame for violence on movies and games (and once upon a time, bicycles).  Guns don’t kill people, but violent computer games do… Let’s have a little balance and remember that stories, in all their forms, often teach us good stuff too.



Why do we love stories?

Because we do all love stories, don’t we? Whether it’s a book or a film, a TV series or the bones of a long dead king dug up in car park, we are endlessly fascinated by people, and what happened next, and why it happened.

A friend posted this quotation from Carlos Ruiz Zafón on Facebook yesterday. “Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.”

This reminded me of an interview with Blake Morrison, about the writing of his memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father?   He was talking about the difficulty of life writing – that he felt a little self conscious, especially when writing about such personal experiences. Then he added that the reactions of readers surprised him.  He said the most personal details, the ones that felt the most individual, were often the things that triggered a reaction in the reader, that aha response of recognition, of connection.  That he was surprised how it was the most personal and unique that somehow sparked something universal. Or, as Maya Angelou would have it, “In all my work what I try to say is that as human beings we are more alike than we are unalike.”

On the other hand, I also watched this short video from Neil Gaiman yesterday, and he expresses something that to me is at the very heart of my addiction to story.

“Good fiction unites us as humans, because it gives us empathy, because it makes us look at the world through other people’s eyes.” This took me back to being a young teenager and reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. “”You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” When I read these words from the lawyer Atticus Finch, I recall thinking that when we were reading was one of the few times that we really get to see the world from someone else’s perspective. That was what I always wanted to do. I wanted to escape into a different world for a while, yes. But the impulse wasn’t purely escapist. I wanted to come back to my world with the real treasure gleaned from the fields of fiction – some extra insight that would help me make sense of reality.

A good novelist will always show us several different ways of seeing the world through their characters – but more than that, our whole experience of a novel shows us the world through that novelist’s eye. Reading Jane Austen, how can we fail to enter into that sharp observation of the world she inhabited? We can identify with the characters, true, but we also see them with the detatchment of the author. When we read Persuasion, do we not have that shock of recognition when Anne Elliot wryly sees that her reality is not at the centre of anyone else’s. We just know, as readers, that the character Anne’s view of the world is a great deal closer to that of her creator, than is the view of her vain, mirror loving father Walter.

So which is more important, for our reading habit. Is it that we find ourselves in fiction, or that we get a glimpse of other people? I think it has to be a little of both. Finding ourselves there is the basis for us trusting the writer. It’s why we can suspend our disbelief, that recognition that we have some shared experiences. But I suspect the real driver is the need to get into someone else’s head.  That’s information we need to be able to survive in a social world. It’s one way we construct a theory of mind, as they call it in dry academic terms. How we get an idea of how people tick. Or tock.

We are always, in the end, struggling to understand the other people in our lives, who continue to surprise us even when we think we know them.

Who are you?  What is it that is essentially you, and not anyone else? That’s what I always want to know. It’s all about making that human connection.




The Big Fight

Only the start of February, and already Ryan and I have had one of our occasional big fights.

It was about nothing of any importance, really. Just that he did something unthinking that reminded me of stuff my stepmother used to do all the time, and I responded by saying something horrible that reminded him of how his mother used to behave. So a simple bag of peanut M&Ms started an argument that lasted an exhausting couple of hours, involving shouting and and stamping of feet and slamming of doors.

Eventually we both calmed down and normal service was restored. It’s a pity that there’s no way of simply putting my stepmother and Ryan’s mother together in a padded room and letting them fight it out…

So life goes on as normal. Our usual fight accounting conventions kick in – and we write off the blame at fifty-fifty. On the grounds that we are in general quite evenly matched, even in stupidity and stubborness. It all balances out in the end.

So we only have a big blow up like this now once or twice a year. The first seven years of our marriage it was pretty much non stop. Where did we find the energy? On teh bright side soemwhere along the way we learned to spot some areas where our least rational selves collide. Even if it still does take a couple of hours for tempers to cool and reason prevail.

At least I have plenty of material when it comes to writing emotional and angry characters, I only need to look in the mirror.

So, until next time…




The best books about writing

OK, I know. Reading about writing is not writing. Writing about writing isn’t much better…

But as I work to get better at writing, I have spent quite a few procrastinating hours with some helpful books. The best kind of procrastination this – it has a useful payoff. So I thought I’d make an attempt at compiling the beginnings of a reading list for writers. Please do let me know what your favourites are, and why.

Before we begin, Ira Glass on the Creative Process…

1. First, Stephen King’s On Writing. Even if you don’t like King’s novels, this one is well worth reading. The man can write and he combines two books in one here – a memoir about his life as a writer, and advice to would be writers. I keep thinking I must go back to it, there’s so much to learn.

2. Now, an unusual one.  It’s not really about writing, and I resisted reading it for so long, because I didn’t think I could learn anything from a choreographer. I was wrong. In the middle of reading this I figured out what was wrong with one of my stories, and I immediately rewrote it and sent it off to the Asham award. That’s s till my best story, because I am not naturally a short story writer. But if you are only going to read one book on creativity and writing – make it this one.

Twyla Tharp – The Creative Habit

3. Kate Wilhelm - Storyteller, writing lessons from 27 years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop

Again, this one is a mixture of memoir and writing advice. If you are interested in science fiction and fantasy writing, then perhaps you already know how many brilliant writers attended the Clarion workshops. And even if you aren’t, there’s plenty to learn. However it may make you yearn for the chance to attend a Clarion Worskhop yourself….  It did me, and I am pretty sure that crime is always going to be my genre.

4. Samuel Delaney – About Writing : Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews.

But again here we are with a writing advice from a science fiction writer. I must confess that there’s a huge amount of this one that went right over my head. However, I recommend it for just a few pages, where Delaney goes through the very basics of constructing a scene. It’s the best description of the actual process of writing that I’ve seen anywhere, and it fundamentally changed how I settle down to work with the blank page.  Much of the rest of the book was very academic, but this was real nuts and bolts stuff.

5. Walter Mosely – This Year You Write Your Novel

Finally, a how to book by a crime writer. And it’s a very short book, but none the worse for that. Because at some point you have to stop reading about writing – and get on with actually doing some.

6. Elizabeth George – Write Away

This is another useful book by a crime writer. Elizabeth George writes the wonderful Inspector Lynley series, and in this book she tells us how she set about writing her novels.

7. Linda Anderson and Derek Neale - Creative Writing, A Workbook with Readings.

Also known as the Big Red Book, this was the course book for the Open University course in Creative Writing. Even if you don’t do the course, the book itself is very useful, and I still go back to it from time to time. The follow up (book and course) is also useful.  Start at the beginning and dig into the section on the creative process. It covers fiction and poetry and life writing too.  the second book, and course, also covers dramatic writing – not just plays and films, but also how to use dramatic techniques in writing fiction.

And to finish off, here’s Kurt Vonnegut, on how to write a short story

Please do share your favourite books about writing.




Perchance to dream

Vivid, memorable dreams – the enjoyable side effect of amitriptyline.

This morning I woke up in the middle of dreaming about Mrs B, our landlady when we lived in a bedsit in Wolverhampton. After University we found a flat in Liverpool 5, near the Piggeries. All demolished now, of course, which was probably A Good Thing – although there was a real sense of community and a sense that people stuck together and looked after each other. I’m sure it can be recreated again, by forcing people to live together in desperately poor conditions. Perhaps that’s what Cameron means by the Big Society. Let’s remember though, it brings out the best in some and the worst in others. I’m inclined to think it simply exaggerates our natural tendencies.

Anyway we escaped from that place, out of the frying pan… From one place where applying for jobs was pointless and soul destroying, to another. Albrighton in the west Midlands, where Ryan’s mother lived. Or as I like to call it, The Village of the Damned.

We lasted ten weeks with Ryan’s mother – it was a race to see which of us snapped first. Me, by a nanosecond, in the end. But it wasn’t just the joylessness of living with her; it was also the lack of work in the small village, the difficulty of travelling without our own transport. So we found a bedsit in Wolverhampton.

It was quite comfortable. It was at the back, the bottom floor of one of those big old Victorian houses. We had the kitchen, a large square room with a table in the middle, and what might have been the breakfast room, and a huge understairs cupboard for storage. In the large room we had a mattress on the floor, a bookself, a couple of old armchairs and a desk. We also had access through the backdoor, to a covered outhouse, with an outside toilet. This was a real occasion for joy – although it was outside, we didn’t have to share it with the other inhabitants of the house.

Anyway, in my dream, there she was, Mrs B. Large as life. I dreamed I had to go to the loo (never a good sign in a dream, is it?) and I had carefully closed the door, and to my utter astonishment there was another door and she came in through that just as I was sitting down…

To do her some credit, that was one place she didn’t intrude. She did however, use her key and walk in on us. Over and over. Which is ironic as one of the reasons we left Ryan’s mother was…

Anyway, things did improve. Ryan got a job, and then I did. Mrs B employed me as cleaner of the shared spaces in her various houses. There were three houses, some distance apart. There was a lot of walking, which I liked. I also acted as rent collecter, and I collected the money from the gas and electric meters.  There’s a long story in that for another time.

But the snow has reminded me of some sad stories from that time. A couple of the other tenants in the house were old men. Albert was one of them.  He was a nice man. He bought boiling fowl from the market and made his own soups. He was the person who taight me to make chicken stock – from the carcass of a roast chicken or from the boiling fowl. Showed me how to clean them – chop off their heads and feet, remove the giblets, all that.  And then to simmer it long and slow with leeks and carrots and onion.

Anyway, he couldn’t get around so easily in the snow, so every morning I would knock on his door and he would give me a list for the shop. Except one snowy morning, he didn’t answer. As I was rent collector, I had the master keys. And after knocking for five minutes and no answer, I used them, and opened the door.

He was dead. I knew it immediately, his skin tone was grey.  There wasn’t a landline in the house, and there were no mobiles then. I ran up the hill to the landlady’s house and Mrs B called an ambulance. They arrived quickly, and were followed by police. I was questioned, quite harshly, about why I’d let myself in. They seemed inclined to think I was a thief too – then they found his stash of money. He had the best part of £500 in his chest of drawers. Then they questioned me about how cold it was, and why he hadn’t used his money to heat the room. It was all very strange looking back… One minute they were questioning why I would open his door, and doubting that I’d been regularly doing his shopping. the next they were acting as if I should have been looking after him, making him put money in the gas meter.  In the end they believed me.  I was obviously completely clueless. That evening his daugher came knocking at our door. She thanked me for looking after him, and promised she would send me some flowers as a thank you. I said there was no need. Clearly she took me at my word.

Mrs B was all of a flap. I got extra pay that week, helping her to clear out Albert’s room, and clean it up for the next tenant.

She’s on my mind at the moment. She was such a large figure who dominated my life for a whole year, yet looking back, in every way that mattered she was small. She expended a large amount of energy sitting in judgement on everyone. She used to burden me with her very worst thoughts about every tenant. She never seemed to realise that I would know that behind my back, she would be pronouncing judgement on me.  Small minded and petty, she was. And yes, I get the irony ;-)

Just a drop or two of her blood, I hope, will make the gingerbread person come alive. I hadn’t thought about her in so many years, and yet there she was waiting at the back of my mind, in her own little cupboard, ready to come and inhabit one of my characters when she was needed.

I have a fetish about memory, and truth. I like to fix it as clearly as I can, and not distort it. So whenever I am about to let some real incidents infuse my fiction, I always write up what I can remember first – to keep a record. I know only too well how we retell all our own memories as stories with ourselves as hero, and change them anyway, and turning them into fiction is even more of a distortion. So, back to working on the novel, with another drop or two of blood, and more snippets of reality to transform into fiction.


Living with the Wolf

That’s how I’ve come to think of it, over the years. I’ve lived with SLE, lupus, for over half my life now, and it’s not getting easier. Casting it as my own personal fairy tale used to leave me feeling that I have some influence, some control. The sad truth is, that I have very little. Maybe none.

When I see those platitudes flying around on Facebook – the ones that say we all have control of our attitudes at least, it makes me want to scream.

I wonder how much control I am supposed to have, when I look back and see how much my life (and Ryan’s – somehow that hurts more) has been constrained by this illness that I didn’t choose. New Age claptrap suggests that we have somehow chosen our own destiny, that our lives teach us something and it is a lesson we need to learn. Bullshit of the highest order. I’d rather have chosen to learn how to live with astonishing wealth, or beauty. Instead, I married Ryan…

Apart from an occasional whine on FaceBook, I haven’t written much about being ill. Most of the time I try to ignore it – it constrains every moment of my life but if I squint I can just about avoid seeing it. I can enjoy those things that I still can do, I can imagine I’m living as freely as I would without the wolf. I pretend.

This last year it’s been impossible to pretend any more.

So this week comes the anniversary of the latest dirty trick the wolf has played on me – Trigeminal Neuralgia. It started as I recovered from the flu – so I always suspected it was a lupus thing. But I’ve seen lots of different specialists – from my GP and my dentist I was referred on – the rheumatologist, a specialist dentist with an interest in jaw problems, a neurosurgeon. I am still waiting to see the specialist in trigeminal neuralgia, but the general verdict is that it’s lupus. That seems to be confirmed by the way it switched sides – half way through the year it jumped from the right side of my head,  to the left.  All that remains is to find a better way to manage the pain.

Currently I’m taking amitriptyline. Not much, but it dulls the pain and makes it just about bearable.

It dulls me too.

That isn’t bearable. I can fart around on Facebook, I can just about get by doing the bare minimum of the stuff I have to do. I’ve always struggled with numbers, doing the accounts – now it’s more than a struggle, it’s a nightmare. I can even do a bit of writing. It’s just harder than it was. It doesn’t flow as well. I get tired. There isn’t a word for just how tired I feel.

For months I was also taking NSAIDS – more than I should have been, really. Paracetamol too. Some of that was purely based on fear, because for six weeks nothing worked. For six weeks I was ruled by pain, and fear. The fear stayed with me, and if I’m honest, it’s still there.

I have the flu again, you see. I’ve been ill since Boxing Day. I have a cough. The cough sets off the pain – simple mechanics I suppose. Now the cough is fading. I can breathe through my nose again, most of the time. But the insomnia has returned. That’s not a good sign. And when I go outside, try to walk, my limbs feel leaden. I look at the horizon and instead of filling me with joy, I feel nothing.

I am tired of it all. Too tired.

So of course all that irritating bullshit advice has a point. My attitude probably does make it worse. The fear of pain probably makes pain more intense. But I would defy anyone to live through those six weeks, and not be afraid of it coming back.

This is my fairytale, and it’s grim.

I sometimes imagine being Rapunzel. perhaps I could live in a tower, safe from all the nasty little bugs and infections that every single damn time seem to trigger a new lupus flare up. I’m not so sure about the witch though, and definitely the Prince can just forget it. Probably riddled with germs, him.

Cinderella – no thanks. Anyway, 2011 was the year of the swollen left foot. That also saw a succession of different specialists only to be written off as another lupus thing. So no glass slipper for me, and I’m not so taken with the role of the ugly sister. In any case, I refuse to force my poor feet into tight shoes and yes, that means this winter I am wearing sandals with socks. If I can get over that so can you, by the way. So please, all you kind and helpful people, if you have an opinion on this keep it to yourself. Unless you happen to like my socks. That’s okay.

So you may think I’m stuck with Red Riding Hood. I’ve seen the most beautiful silk red velvet coat, and in my size too. So tempting, but far too expensive. And anyway, there are other fairy tale wolves. I think those can serve me better. An Angela Carter version, maybe. But no, there are better stories. Less known Native American tales about living with the wolf. Some of them can be found here...

For a long time when I was first ill, I believed it was all about fighting a battle. I went round and round in my head, thinking it was something I could defeat by logic. I searched for cause and effect in everything I did. I gave up coffee. I  gave up dairy. Gluten free. Any crackpot diet or therapy – I tried it. I pushed myself. I refused to give in to the tiredness. I refused to rest – unless I had no choice. Then when it did catch up with me, it left me wiped out for weeks. Sometimes months. My worst year, I was so ill I couldn’t bear to listen to music, or watch TV. I couldn’t even read new things. All I could do was re-read my favourite series of books, Dorothy Dunnet’s Lymond Chronicles.  I already knew the story so it wasn’t too hard. I knew what would happen next. I knew that there would be heartache along the way, but I knew it would be happy ever after.
My fairytale is unlikely to end well.

Fighting it doesn’t work. Lupus is not an external enemy – it’s my own immune system. When it stops fighting the flu, it doesn’t know how to switch off. It carries on fighting, but it fights healthy tissue. My joints. My muscles. Whatever it chooses to pick on. I think it picks on stuff that is weak- and I’ve always have problems with my jaw – a crack, episodes of milder pain.  Sometimes these things just go away. It might even go away again. I think it was getting better – until I got the damn flu again.  And yes, I had the jab this year.

Fighting it doesn’t work, even though it’s the most natural response. I have to find another way through. Even though I am so, so tired. That means all those boring everyday things that are harder than they sound. Pacing myself. Not getting stressed out. Controlling my fear. Walking when I can – but not too much. Looking after myself. But still living. Still somehow being a participant. Still doing enough of the things that make life worth living, the things I enjoy. But not so much of them that the price bankrupts me.

If only I could find a fairy tale ending – chop off the wolf’s snout and paws for a fairytale transformation. I’d like to believe that was possible. But there’s only one end that I can see for the wolf, and that’s not a good thing.

The wolf isn’t something I can fight off. It isn’t something I can overcome with medication, mindfulness, meditation. I have to find a way to live with it.

The wolf is me.


Alternate Histories

I am currently reading Dominion, by CJ Sansom.  “All events that take place after 5 p.m. on 9th May 1940 are imaginary,” we readers are warned as the story begins at 4.30 p.m. that same day.  The key difference is the outcome of the cabinet meeting – in reality Churchill became head of the National Government – in Dominion, Halifax did. I stayed up half the night immersed in an alternate reality where one difference altered everything.

The story leaps forward into a version of the 1950s where the Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph is attended by the young, widowed Queen, and we see Rommel lay a large poppy wreath. We find out that Britain surrendered to Germany after Dunkirk – and that the Germans are still waging war against the Russians. There’s a protest, and that’s not covered by the news. Churchill is still around, but in hiding, and at the heart of the British resistance. The main character , who works in the Dominion Office, is a spy for the resistance.

It’s a compelling story.  The scale of the task Sansom has taken on is breath-taking – to create a world that is so different from our own, but which is still recognisable, and which seems completely plausible.  I am fascinated by the way tiny details make this whole world convincing. The jive boys. The family tensions. The politics. The details of daily life.

In a way, I suppose all novels are a kind of alternate history. We make them of whole cloth – but the construction requires work from the reader as much as the writer. Writers pick out the salient details, and hope the reader will fill in the rest.

In The Mermaid’s Shroud, my character Kate is in some ways living a fantasy of mine – she is a textile artist, and I had great fun designing in my imagination  the art she creates for her exhibition. Too much fun – on the recommendation of one publisher I ended up cutting the detail – it was getting in the way of the story.  I started writing the current novel with one idea – about a cleaning lady who gets carried away cleaning up her home town. Over time the idea has developed into something unexpected, and I see another area of wish fulfilment coming through, although it has nothing to do with cleaning. I tried that particular job way back in the dim and distant past, and my experiences provide some inspiration for the story but have been very much transformed.

I am left pondering those moments where one decision changes everything.

There’s one in particular that springs to mind. When Ryan and I started out, all those years ago, he made it plain to me from the beginning that he was still in love with his ex girlfriend. They’d had a long term (for teenagers) on and off again relationship, and she had dumped him, repeatedly, and yet (as I saw it) kept him in reserve as her safety net.  Let’s call her TBR. Don’t ask ;-)

In spite of that we became very serious about each other very quickly. He bought me a ring – platinum, diamond solitaire. It’s in my bedside cabinet where it has been forever – I am not a jewellery kind of person and in the early days I managed to both dislodge the diamond and lose it down the sink – rescued, and reset. Then I lost the ring – left it in the Ladies in a restaurant. The world was clear I should’d really be wearing it.

Still, TBR write Ryan a letter, saying she was visiting Liverpool with her Uni swimming team and arranging to meet. He wrote back and told her we were engaged – and we all met up in the bar at The Everyman on Hope Street, with a crowd of our friends who lived in a house on the same street. The evening was excruciating. They sat and chatted together, and went over old times. Occasionally once of them would remember to include me in the conversation, but it didn’t really work. Then the time came for her to go back to her hotel. Ryan was going to walk her there, and I was going to let them go alone.

One of our friends saw. He asked me what I was thinking. I said, “He always said, and if that’s what he wants…”  Martyn said, “Don’t be ridiculous. If that’s what he wants then make him decide,” and literally pushed me out of the door and I ended up walking with both of them back to her hotel.

She also wrote a letter to him, a month or so after we were married. There was more than a hint in there that she wanted to get back together. Ryan doesn’t do hints.

I’ve always wondered how differently it may have turned out, if I hadn’t gone with them that night. If martyn hadn’t noticed how I was feeling and pushed me out the door. I know, no matter what I think, that Ryan will always have a place in his heart for TBR. It’s hard to object to that, because it’s a central part of who he is.  I know no matter what happens his love and loyalty aren’t lightly given, and that I can always count on him.

In an alternate universe, where Ryan went back to TBR, and how different would my life have been now?  On reflection, in spite of the wish fulfilment elements of my writing, I am pretty glad that I made the choices I did.  And I’m glad Martyn pushed me through that door. Oddly, that moment that was so important in my life, he doesn’t even remember.  Perhaps it’s as well we don’t realise how great an impact the small things we do can have on other people’s lives.

Although I do regret not following that dream and studying archaeology. Perhaps there’s still time…