Wednesday, April 05, 2017

It's Novel Fair Time Again

Last year, more or less on a whim, I entered the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair. I was about halfway through writing a book I thought was properly good, and was certainly topical, and I wanted a deadline to give myself the push to finish it. So, I paid over my €50 as soon as the Novel Fair opened, then spent the period between April and October getting my first 10,000 words into as good a shape as I could get them.

I took a couple of very useful courses. I know some people doubt the value of courses. Another writer told me that his colleagues make fun of him for taking courses in writing. "Don't you know how to do it by now?" That kind of thing. But people go to yoga classes every week for years. And art classes. And dance. So why not writing? There's always something new to learn. And there are always other writers to meet. Plus, you know, you can steal people's ideas. (Just my little joke. Obviously I do not do this.)

I paid an editor to polish my entry (missus). This was extremely valuable for a whole lot of reasons. Obviously, the main one is that a good editor lifts your writing from readable to really pretty good. Another is this: did you know that you don't have to make every change the editor tells you? After twenty years in the tech writing business, hewing closely to the style guide at all times and bowing to the superior knowledge of my editor/SME, I found it very freeing to realise that if the editor wanted to swap "handsomeness" for "good looks", I could refuse to make the change.

I got a synopsis written. This is horrible, and everyone hates it, and somehow it's much harder than writing the whole actual book, but I got it done.

And, hey, I must have done something right, because I was shortlisted.

I got my novel finished, edited, beta-read, and re-edited. And people who read it liked it. I met the other writers. We flapped about how worried we were. We discussed bindings and bulldog clips and Strepsils. So much excitement and validation and fluttery nerves and camaraderie.

The day itself was a lot of fun, too. Obviously it did not go as well as I would have liked, but that's alright. It did go very well for other people.

But, you know, Jacob turns the wheel, or whatever.

A few years ago, I read an interview in the AV Club with a blogger who had been a contestant on The Biggest Loser. She talked about the close connection all the contestants end up having with the trainers, and how it all gets very intense, and the trainers promise they'll keep in touch when contestants leave and the season finishes. But, this person said, you rapidly discover that the connection, as deep as it might have been, is temporary. Eventually, even the neediest former contestants get the hint that they had their turn, and they have to get out of the way and let someone else have their turn.

The 2018 Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair opens for applications soon, and in another ten months or so, there'll be a new crop of writers getting the phone call. Maybe they'll actually be expecting it. I hope it makes them as happy as it made me.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Arrival of Spring

The biannual changing of the clock has happened again, and, as usual, it seems to be too much for people to deal with. Not only is Twitter full of people making the same Stonehenge joke, but the 6 Music news this morning carried a report from a group that wants to keep BST all year round because "it would create 38,000 jobs in the leisure industry," because apparently it's the clocks changing that makes it get dark early in the wintertime, and not, I don't know, our latitude or something.

Anyway, ever since the time a friend accidentally turned up two hours early for a breakfast date on the first day of BST, I've developed a method of coping with the forwards/backwards motion of the year. In the autumn, when we get an extra hour, I watch a crappy film. The kind of film that makes you say, "that's two hours of my life I'm never getting back," because I can at least get one back on that magical night in October.

But in the spring you lose an hour, so it's important to spend that Saturday night watching a really good film so that the three hours you've spent on it will have been worth it.

Arrival is one such film.
Amy Adams tries to remember whether it's now 9am or 11am

If you haven't seen Arrival, I recommend you learn as little as possible about it before you do see it. (Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you anything about it). That's what I did, anyway. I saw the very first teaser, said "yes, I will see this film," and then made sure to avoid all discussion or reviews of it, so I had no idea what to expect. And I can tell you that it is very much the Deep Impact to Interstellar's Armageddon.

Saying that made me wonder what Michael Bay's Arrival would look like. If I were one of those YouTube people, I would now cleverly cut some clips together to make it look like Nicholas Cage was in Arrival, and he would maybe try and hand a bunny through the barrier to the... but Michael Bay didn't even direct that film, which is why it's the one that's good.

Certainly, it would have involved a lot more shouting. That is one thing I really, truly loved about Arrival. It has almost no shouting in it. Oh, and no hilarious paedophiles. Or Aerosmith. Or close-ups of Megan Fox's arse (I realise some people might see that as a negative). I won't say any more, in case I give anything away.

In case you're wondering, I've picked out my candidate for this October. It's this. Who's with me?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

I don't have to outrun the lion...

Because I like to be about six years behind any trend, I have recently started running. As a very large woman, this was difficult for me for many reasons. First, it's physically hard to move when you're essentially carrying a particularly lazy full-grown adult around with you everywhere you go. Second, people can be very mean. Like others, I've been sneered at because of my weight for a very long time. You know, whatever. Alison Spittle covered this ground pretty well in a recent article for HeadStuff, so I won't go into much more detail than that.

So when I started running, I had to make sure that nobody, and I mean nobody, could see me making any kind of physical effort. I'm luckier than some in this regard. I live by the sea, next to a long, flat, hard-packed beach that's great for running on and is largely inaccessible to cars, which means you can run on it in the dark without worrying about people being able to see you. I also have dogs who need to be walked, so I have to go out every single day anyway, in all weathers. So I might as well be running as walking. I can also run without my glasses on, which, I understand, is a big deal. Best of all, though, it turns out I really enjoy running.

I accept that what I do can really only be called running in the strictly scientific sense: both my feet are off the ground at the same time at some point during my stride, and it's that, not speed, that marks the difference between running and walking. But look: I can do that for an hour. A whole hour.

And that's the real point of this post, and of the posts I will write about this in the future. I can run for an hour. And if I can get to that stage, almost anybody can.

It's a bit of a fudge to say that I started running "recently". I actually made my first attempt at a couch-to-5K programme in October 2011. Your first week is meant to go like this:
Run 1 minute.
Walk 1 minute.
Repeat x 8 (or something like that).

Mine was more like this:
Run 1 minute.
Walk 4 minutes.
Run 1 minute.
Walk 6 minutes.
Run 1 minute.
Realise that an ambulance can't reach you here, and just walk the rest of the way.
Lie down for three days.
Repeat x 8.

It took me two months to get to Week 5 of the programme, at which point I got a massive chest infection and had to stop.

The next winter, I tried again, and this time it only took me five weeks to get to Week 4 of the programme, but I still had to stop because of illness. I tried it a third time the following year with similar results. Then I just gave up, figuring I wasn't meant to run.

Then, in May last year, I met a man. I'd seen this man out running along the Golf Links Road quite a lot over the previous few years. In the beginning, he was a very big man, and he shuffle-ran like a big old man would. He just wore an ordinary jumper and trousers while running, but had a brand new pair of running shoes. I used to see him huffing up and down the road and I would think, there is a man who has been told by his doctor that he needs to lose weight and get fit. By May 2015, he had a proper tracksuit and was about half the size he had been previously. When I met him out with his dog for the first time, I told him that I'd seen his transformation over the years and I congratulated him on it. He told me that he'd been in a very bad car accident, which had put him in a coma for thirteen weeks. The doctors told his wife three times to turn off the life support, but she wouldn't agree to it, and eventually he woke up. When he woke up from the coma, he weighed 25 stone. He felt that after all his wife had done to make sure he didn't die after the accident, he needed to make sure he lived as long and as well as possible from then on, even though he had other illnesses. So he joined Slimming World, took up walking and running, and began walking or running 10K every day. He eventually lost 10 stone.

Sadly, he passed away a few months ago.

That man's story inspired me to give it another go, and now look what's happened. The other week I got my first ever race number for the Race for Life in Cambridge (perhaps you would like to sponsor me?) and now I sometimes even run in the daylight where people can see me (although I do still like running in the dark and the cold with just my head torch and the sight of my own breath for company).

If I can do this, there's a really good chance you can do this too.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Crafty hen

Since I became a fully fledged layabout... I mean, self-employed writer and proofreader (reasonable rates! Quality work! Hardly any crying!), I have developed some terrible habits, including playing Bejeweled Blitz till I have a cramp in my arm and watching Eggheads.
In order to rid myself of at least one of these habits, I started knitting. Well, technically I restarted knitting, because obviously, like all Irish women my age, I actually learned to knit when I was a child. I just didn't keep it up because it was girly and a thing nuns liked you to do, and because my mother was so very good at it, there seemed little point.
I've been really enjoying it since I took it up again, even though I'm not very good at it. Reading patterns is a struggle, and Fair Isle with two hands still eludes me, largely because my left hand is rubbish, and since I stopped wearing a watch regularly, it's become nothing more than a glorified cupholder and wedding-ring display unit.
What amazes me, though, having been drawn into this world of selvage stitches and thumb casting, is how other people (so far only women, but you never know. After all, there was a boy in my ballet class for a while) are able to tell you exactly what you need. I want to knit a hat for a man, I say. You will need this much wool, they say. Start with this much for the rib, then switch to this and knit this stitch. Start to decrease it after this many rows. What do you mean, you need a row counting app to help you count your rows? Can't you just eyeball it?
Well no, I can't. I was complaining about just this thing to my mother the other day, over my knitting. Other people have special skills, where they can use their years of experience to eyeball things and know what's right and wrong. When we were kids, my older brother could do this with the BASIC computer programs in magazines. If there was a line wrong, he could find it and correct it. My mam can do it with knitting and sewing (and linear accelerators as well, for what that's worth). I watched Mary Berry do it time after time on the Great British Bake Off: "I knew that cake would be huge when you said you were putting six eggs in," or "yes, this is too dense because you overworked the pastry."
"I don't have any of these skills," I said to Mam. "I am nearly 43 and I have no useful skills."
"Yes you do," my aunt said, "you have skills with words. You can look at things and see if they're written well or spelled correctly."
"Oh great," I said. "So everyone else gets things like 'you need to put more flour in if you want that to turn out right' or 'here's how you fix a dropped stitch'. I get 'it's fewer not less' and everyone tells me to fuck off."
Well, I can knit a bobble hat now, so it is you who can fuck off.

Friday, February 22, 2013

History! (6: Sian Rees - The Floating Brothel & 7: Barbara W. Tuchman - A Distant Mirror)

In the last week I finished reading not one, but two history books. One of these was a long, broad book taking in the whole sweep of 14th-century Europe and concentrating quite hard on the Hundred Years War, the Avignon papacy, and a lot of minor French nobles. The other was a short book about the first group of female convicts to be sent to Australia, which featured the sea, transportation, ships, and world travel.
One of these books had such a boring first thirty pages that I struggled to get through them and ended up taking weeks and weeks to finish the book. Can you guess which one?
Yes, it was The Floating Brothel, by Sian Rees. I spent weeks trying to get through the painfully dull descriptions of court proceedings and petty crimes, only to find that many of the women mentioned in these early pages don't even end up on the transportation ship the Lady Julian, leaving me wondering quite what the point of it all was. (I suppose the point of it was to explain something of how the justice system worked, but god, couldn't someone have told her?)
Once the Lady Julian leaves London, the story gets more interesting and you learn all sorts of things about 18th century sanitary arrangements (not good), attitudes towards women's sexuality (not good), the state of the early colonists in Sydney Cove (not good), and the sanctity of shipboard marriages (not good). Despite the surprisingly affecting narrative of ship's cooper Jon Nicol to help her, though, Rees never really manages to maintain a good balance between the context and the detail, the backdrop and the specific story. Disappointing.
The same could certainly not be said about A Distant Mirror, by Barbara W. Tuchman. After reading this book I felt a little dizzy from the sheer amount of information in it, but also genuinely educated, as though I understood something fundamental about the way the world (or, at least, western Europe) is organised that I had hadn't understood before. I normally have tremendous difficulty with broad-stroke histories, especially ones that feature a lot of campaigning and land battles (I mean, really, land battles? How tedious!) and similarly-named kings and popes following on from one another and more or less doing the same thing over and over again, but Tuchman's ability to leaven this relentless march of the gowned and bearded with exciting incidental stories about bizarre religious sects, people being set on fire, the horrors of the Black Death, and knights, knights, and more knights gave my brain a break whenever I needed it.
Unlike Rees, Tuchman makes her focus clear from the very start: she uses the noble French noble de Coucy family as the backbone of her narrative, and her choice is a wise one. Enguerrand de Coucy was a prominent landowner in both France and England, was an important military leader who was centre-stage for key military and political developments, and was married to Edward III's daughter Isabella (a woman who, let's say, knew her own mind). He might not seem a particularly heroic figure by today's standards, Tuchman admits, but he exhibited genuinely noble attributes and did his duty as best he could despite his divided allegiance. He also stayed alive for quite a long time, which important for the central figure of a book about a whole century, and more than many of his contemporaries managed.
Everything from clothes to tax systems to religious observances is covered here. The Peasants' Revolt, flagellantism, the oppression of the Jews, art, literature, the beginnings of the age of exploration, the end of the Crusading spirit, the hypocrisy of the chivalric ideal, and proof that just about everything that happens in A Knight's Tale is historically accurate, yes, even the Queen songs. What more do you want?
Alright, maybe not the Queen songs.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

5: Virginia Woolf - Orlando

I'm not sure I can add an awful lot to the millions of words that have been written about Virginia Woolf and about Orlando--about its playful, affectionate look at 300 years in the life of a colorful character who is first a man and then a woman but always someone aware of his/her place in history. It's full of lovely observations about the differences between the sexes and how many of these differences are imposed from without in such subtle ways that they appear to be coming from within. For instance, Orlando observes that women can't carry swords because in order to use a sword, you need to have a hand free, and how can you have a hand free if you need your spare hand to fix your wrap when it slips from your shoulders? And now, because you don't have a hand free because of your wrap, you need a man to help and protect you with his free hand.
It's also a book chock-full of beautiful prose, from the gorgeous winter skating party to my very favourite passage, the couple of pages where Woolf describes the passing of the 18th into the 19th century, and how everything just becomes damp, and as a result of the damp all the men grow huge beards and everything gets covered in ivy and the clothes become sombre, and books become massive and self-important and unncessarily long, and all, apparently, to keep out the damp. I read this four times because it was just that lovely.
Because Orlando's long life is never explained, I suggested during book club that maybe the whole thing had been part of a fugue state or a dream, of someone wandering in a museum and imagining him or herself to be the people in the paintings. Eoghan pointed out that that couldn't be the case in a book of this period (1928), but would almost certainly be the answer if the book was written today. Mark, though, came up with the most plausible explanation, which is that Vita Sackville-West (and probably many other people in Woolf's circle), would have lived in places that were basically private museums, so they would have been constantly aware of their own places in history and the idea of themselves as just another iteration of the same familial material.
Much has been made of the fact that this is a love letter from Woolf to Sackville-West (the nature of whose relationship seems to have been as hard to pin down as Orlando's sex), but to me it read like a whimsical children's book a lot of the time. It would look great with Pauline Baynes illustrations.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

4: Gillian Flynn - Gone Girl

It's ages since I read one of the books everyone is talking about. In fact, I don't think I've done it since I stopped working in Oxfambooks, when I read several Dan Brown books, one after the other, standing behind the counter during slack periods in the shop.
This is far, far better than any Dan Brown book, but it did have a couple of similarities. I ate it up over the course of a weekend, not wanting to put it down, just wanting to keep those pages turning. But when I'd finished it, I felt... not cheated, but slightly grubby. The people in this book are either amazingly unpleasant or else they feel like they've been deliberately toned down to ensure there are one or two genuine humans in the mix. Not that there's anything wrong with unpleasantness, per se. God knows I've read enough horror books where people are unpleasant and find themselves in rotten situtations, but there's usually someone to root for. Usually at least one of the protagonists is good, sympathetic, semi-normal. Not here. These people are all awful.
Not only that, but I felt uncomfortable with the characters' gender roles and the whole issue of men versus women that I felt was a thread throughout. You will just have to take my word for this, though, because I no longer have the book to hand. I mostly read it on a plane, and now I've loaned it on to someone else to read on a plane, because it's that kind of book.
Much of this criticism stems from the fact that Gone Girl, despite being good, is not perfect, and I feel like it could have been. Certainly there's a whole heap of excellent writing in here. The story--in which two married writers of useless fripperies are crushed by the recession and the death of print and must return to his home town to help take care of his dying mother and try to make some kind of normal life and instead end up playing the most monstrous mind games with each other to the bewilderment of all around them--is very clever. The way it ties in the recession, the extreme poverty of much of middle America, and even the selfishness of people in propagating the species even when there's no apparent future for the offspring, is deftly done and makes some serious social points pretty lightly. The way the story of their relationship is woven into the book's main action is skilful and adds to the book's page-turning power. I even liked the ending, which has apparently divided readers and made the book quite the talking point. And what author doesn't want that?
But I couldn't love it. Because I didn't like the characters, I couldn't care about their fates that much, and even though I know it was meant to be funny in a way, I just found it overwhelmingly bleak.