Monday, 25 August 2014

West Side Stories

When Tom returns during the interval of West Side Story and hands me a small frozen tub, I know before he says anything that we’re of the same mind; it’s ‘interesting ice cream’ time. The phrase was coined when Rose was (reluctantly) taking French horn lessons and her music teacher was in the band supporting an am dram production of Ruddigore. As Tom’s a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan we gamely decided to go, but were advised by Rose’s teacher to ‘buy an interesting ice cream.’ Boy, did we need it! Ruddigore? It was certainly ruddy awful.

It’s not that this performance of Bernstein’s classic musical at the Millennium Centre is awful, in fact it’s had great reviews, but it feels rather lacklustre, especially after our last trip here which was to see the truly extraordinary Matthew Bourne production of Sleeping Beauty. Tonight, though, there are some dodgy accents in both gangs; the Jets have lots of trouble in ‘the pork’ and some of the Sharks sound more valleys than Puerto Rican. There are pregnant pauses which make me squirm, the choreography is flat –all the focus is on the leads with everyone else standing around watching – and most of all there’s a distinct lack of menace from the two gangs.

The last time I saw West Side Story was in Wandsworth Prison with my dear friend, Jill. Not at Her Majesty’s pleasure, of course, but because Jill’s sister, was involved at that time with the Pimlico Opera, the touring company working with the prisoners to stage the production. I can tell you that the smell of prison and all the security measures certainly creates a sense of anticipation, apprehension even, but the performance itself – imagine, if you will, how the Officer Krupke number played out in that setting – was unforgettable. Whilst I’m on the subject, I can also claim to have been in prison with Penelope Keith when she was High Sheriff of Surrey and I was trying to Make A Difference. Isn’t it strange where life sometimes takes you?

Meanwhile, back at the Millennium Centre, the band, at least, is in great form and there are plenty of good tunes. We have a thoroughly enjoyable evening, all thanks to a very generous gift from Lily, Rose and our sons-in-law.  To round it off, we finish with a short stay with Lily and Russ. All in all, it feels like a proper break.

And finally…
After writing about exam results last week, my niece did brilliantly in her GCSEs - huge congratulations to her. As for me, I’m really enjoying my ‘Understanding Numbers’ MOOC – what’s more, those numbers are even beginning to make sense!

Monday, 18 August 2014

In Search of Lost Knowledge

It’s that time of year again when exam results bring stories of triumph and tragedy up and down the country. Seeing those TV images of students scrutinizing their result slips still brings back memories of my own school days and the intense pressure of cramming for one three hour essay-based question paper in the morning then trying to disregard all that knowledge in order to tackle another three hour paper in a different subject in the afternoon. My collection of O Levels (those were the days!) include French, Latin and Maths (big celebrations about that one), I have A Levels in English, History and Zoology, a degree in European Studies with German (I spent a memorable summer studying at Heidelberg University) and I’ve picked up a few other bits and bobs along the way (Institute of Personnel Management Part One, anyone?). 

But somewhere along the line, I seemed to have forgotten a lot of what I’ve learned. Probably through sheer neglect. ‘University Challenge’ is a big favourite in our house; Tom and I love shouting the answers at the telly, but these days although I can make a stab in the right direction, say the circulatory system of plants, I struggle with the specifics. Is it xylem or phloem? I just can’t remember. Unfortunately every song I’ve ever heard seems to stick like glue; A Tribe Called Red, Rudimental, Little Dragon, Alt J, yep, they’re all there in a couple of beats.

Despite claims to the contrary, it’s my opinion that completing a 90,000 novel requires more than the ability to put words on paper. Obviously, it requires verbal intelligence (or not, she says, still smarting from the ‘shockingly bad drivel’ remark), but it also demands a degree of psychological insight in order to create convincing characters, some understanding of logistics to get them on their journey and some spatial awareness to decide where they all are – in every sense of the word. However, whilst I love creating my fictional worlds, I’ve decided to revisit the real world to try to rediscover some of the knowledge I’ve forgotten. I’m very much enjoying re-reading Ralph Buchsbaum’s Animals without Backbones (although I was a bit traumatised by the description of an experiment where a poor bit of amoeba left without a nucleus valiantly tries to live normally) and I’ve just started a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in Understanding Numbers which is probably a bit more up-to-date than poor old Ralph. I’m looking forwards to giving my brain cells a rinse and doing something different – and if I can beat Tom to a few answers on 'University Challenge' which are not to do with rubbish pop songs, so much the better!

Monday, 11 August 2014

Running, Climbing and Tumbling

Waiting at the top of the road for a GPS signal
Come on, let’s go for a run. I need to blow the tiredness away, that big ol’ August moon last night kept me awake, walking the garden and lighting up the house the way it did. Four miles, okay? We’ll talk along the way.

First, get a signal then it's uphill all the way...

Well, that's the first hill.
And talking of climbing, Follow A Star received a lovely boost yesterday when it was picked for the Kindle Daily Deal. I’m very grateful to anyone who buys my work. No ‘buts’. In a busy world where mobile devices provide instant access to cheap or free content, it’s a privilege when anyone bothers to make the time to read one of my novels. My supportive friends are often amongst the first to set the review ball going which is always heartening, but I’ve also started to receive some lovely reviews for both Follow A Star and Only True in Fairy Tales from the band of dedicated book bloggers who wade through mountains of books and help spread the word. Huge thanks to them. Of course some readers think my books are pants, but hey, you can’t please everyone.
This pair's been here for months...

The half way mark. Our nearest shop. 
I seem to have recovered from my pulled calf muscle, but Tom and I came home from a day out to discover the glass door on our wood burning stove had cracked in two. It hasn’t even been lit for months! Then on Saturday I was at my desk while Tom replaced some guttering when I heard the kind of crash that you instantly know isn’t a good noise. Tom had overbalanced on the stepladder. Apart from being thoroughly shaken, the worst damage seems to be this scrape – in the great scheme of things he got off lightly, but I think I might just make sure I’m footing the next time he climbs a ladder.

And after that, let's look at something more pleasant. The view across to the Preseli Hills.

And finally, down hill towards the sea and home...

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Stop Press! Kindle Daily Deal

FOLLOW A STAR is available for 99p here ($1.67 here) for today only as a Kindle Daily Deal.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Pulling and Pushing

I’m out on a run doing speed work. It’s tough, but I feel good and strong so I’m pretty happy until a mile before home when something goes ‘ping’ in my left calf. I pull up to investigate and apart from a little tenderness, I think I’m okay. When a van driver stops to offer me a lift, I decline because I’m sure that I’ll be able to walk… but soon, with no one in sight, I realise that getting home might be a slow process because my leg keeps collapsing under me. 
By the time I reach the top of our lane, I’m ready to crawl, but fortunately some neighbours (and there are very few of them!) spot me, bundle me in their car and deliver me to the doorstep. Phew! I’m not known for my patience but with only two months to go until the Cardiff half marathon, I’ve rested, iced, compressed and elevated the injury and generally been sensible – I’m just hoping I’ve got away with it!

Work wise, I’m trying to pull myself together for the next writing marathon. I love the satisfaction of having created a fictional world but dislike having to shout about it afterwards! Promoting Follow A Star and Only True in Fairy Tales has been draining – I’m immensely grateful to everyone for the support and especially to those who’ve been kind enough to leave reviews - a glittering collection of gold stars really wins prizes in Amazon world - but, heck, to use Lily’s phrase, a lot of the time I really do feel like an ant trying to push a boulder up a mountain against so much competition.

Putting Amazon rankings and the tyranny of the computer to one side, Tom and I decide to blow some cobwebs away and test my calf muscle with a trip to Fishguard - where we used to keep our wooden boat, Veryan - followed by an ice cream and short walk at Goodwick. It’s a glorious day, my leg seems fine – and there is nothing like a Belgian chocolate ice cream for making everything feel better!


Tom marks the spot where we used to keep Veryan!

We head back home across the beautiful Preseli Hills stopping occasionally to enjoy the view and take a few snaps, like this one of a shepherd’s hut I’ve always admired.

Lovely, isn’t it? Alas, as we try to set off again, we discover that the car has mysteriously impaled itself on a small boulder, the front wheels are spinning impotently and The Biscuit Tin is going nowhere! I get out and try to push - which achieves nothing. Just as we are beginning to think we might have to live in the shepherd’s hut, an estate car zooms up beside us, a Welsh couple jump out, spring to our rescue– to the delight of their children beaming at us from the back seats – and zoom off again. Whoever they are, we’re very grateful to them!

And finally…
First reports, a couple of Face Time calls and lots of photographs suggest that the little family are enjoying Canada, which is great news.

And congratulations and good luck to Rose who starts a new job with HarperCollins today – don’t worry, baba, you’ll be fine!

Painting is 'Pink Plank' by Tom Tomos

Monday, 28 July 2014

Brave New Worlds

It’s strange to think that when I post this blog, my elder stepson, his wife and their toddler son will be on a plane bound for Canada where they are going to live. Last week we attended a family farewell party for them and the next day Tom and I looked after the baby whilst they said goodbye to their work colleagues. It’s been a time of mixed emotions; we all want to keep our loved ones close, but our daughter-in-law is a French-speaking Canadian who can see the opportunities her country can offer their little family and Tom and I certainly support them in their quest to make a good life.

This view was reinforced after our babysitting stint. It was getting late, but we decided to drive home to Wales whilst the roads were quiet. We stopped at the first takeaway we found to buy something quick to eat, a kebab restaurant in a straggle of run-down shops by a dual carriageway. As we waited for our order, a handful of men also waiting struck up a sexist, racist conversation that was painful to hear – not least because our daughter-in-law is black. Did we say anything? Of course, not – we had three hundred miles to travel and didn’t especially want to end up in an even uglier situation. Now, I’m not na├»ve enough to believe that any place is perfect, but being confronted with such casual racism and sexism, I was simply grateful that night, that my stepson and his family were leaving that particular crowded, claustrophobic and narrow-minded part of the world behind

To the secret beach...
We needed to recharge our batteries after our return to west Wales. The weather’s been glorious and Tom’s been trying to persuade me to visit a little beach he and my stepson discovered some time ago. I’ve dragged my heels as the beach is only accessible by boat or down a steep cliff and I wasn’t especially reassured by Tom’s ‘It’s easy! You’ll be fine!’. And, actually, it was fabulous, although quite a slog (even more so coming back) and I managed the cliffs a lot better than a pair of frail-looking Dutch ladies who practically landed on us. The sheltered bay was perfect for swimming (not without a swimsuit, as Tom told Lily, but without a wetsuit!) and we had a lovely day, so it was well worth the effort and just goes to show that sometimes you just have to be brave!

The sweetest ‘brave new world’ story this week has come from a new Facebook friend, writer Tina K Burton, who was kind enough to buy my novella, Only True in Fairy Tales and liked the heroine, Eloise’s rescued greyhound, Gracie so much that she’s hoping to adopt her own Gracie. Tina’s written a blog about the beginning of the adoption process which I guarantee will have you keeping your fingers crossed for everyone involved – especially when you see the lovely photo of the beautiful girl who’s waiting for a new home. You can read Tina’s blog here.

Painting is 'By the Cliff Edge' by Tom Tomos

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Coverage and Uncovered

Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell has a new book out in September. I know this because Radio 4’s Today programme kicked off by announcing that the writer was trailing his new novel by putting a short story out on Twitter.  A four-minute interview, not to mention numerous plugs throughout the show, gave David Mitchell lots of lovely prime time exposure so that he could explain why he wasn’t ‘a social media animal’, didn’t want to be seen as a ‘gimmick chaser’ and, er, to promote his new book.

Well, good luck to David Mitchell, or his publicist, for garnering so much attention, but I do wonder what made this particularly story so newsworthy. Twitter fiction isn’t news, as any of Joanne Harris’s followers will tell you (and her #storytime treats are exquisite). And although Twitter used to be about conversations, it’s now overflowing with authors flogging their books prompting me, one morning when I could see nothing but promotional tweets, to write this haiku:

Twitter streams gleaming
With shoals of shiny fishes
Sweeping out to sea.

According to recent figures published by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society, authors’ incomes have fallen dramatically, so it’s not surprising that we’re all trying to raise our profiles. Actually, looking at those figures, I can only aspire to even the lower levels of those earnings, so I’m as keen as anyone to come up with innovative and interesting ways to make readers discover my books so that I can keep on writing. Some of these methods, like my Pinterest Boards and Spotify playlists, are useful tools in themselves and help me build my fictional world as I write a novel. Others, like guest blog posts and the occasional short story, are time-consuming, unpaid work which I hope will attract potential readers’ interest or even, perhaps, a four minute pre-recorded soft interview on Today.

Well, you might reasonably say, you’re not David Mitchell. True, I’m a woman who writes romantic fiction, but my novels are far from ‘churned out’ – a label which seems to be frequently applied to genre fiction that’s easy to read. My writing ‘voice’ is often playful, but look beneath the surface and you’ll find plenty of serious issues. There are references to alcoholism, homophobia, neglect of the elderly, rural deprivation, isolation and emotional abuse to name a few, but my personal pact with my Choc Lit readers is never to leave them with the feeling that they want to sleep with the light on and to always end on a happy, up-beat note.

I write slowly, waiting for the characters to reveal their inner natures and carefully, mentally listening to the rhythm of the words as I form each sentence. Oh, and my characters happen to have sex. I’ve had a couple of comments about Follow A Star being a bit saucy, but I never include a sex scene for the sake of it but because of what it says about a couple’s relationship. Cathy, for example, the heroine’s mum in Follow A Star, has been terribly hurt in the past. She’s miserable about ageing, hates the thought of losing her looks and sees sex as an affirmation of her youth and vigour so likes to show off a bit. For me as a reader, explicit sex scenes with graphic descriptions of bits and bobs are a bit of turn-off and potentially disrupt the flow of a story unless they’re written very skilfully. As a writer, I try to make those love scenes all about the characters’ hopes, fears and expectations – albeit, with a sometimes seaside postcard dash of humour. I may not be a ‘literary’ author - so I’m never going to get that Radio 4 interview - but I work hard to make sure that every one of my novels is as good as I can make it.

And as literary writers are forced to mingle with the rest of us on social media, they might even find it a rewarding seam in terms of engagement with their readers. I’ve had some wonderful comments from people who’ve enjoyed my novels. But it would be nice to hope that one day I’ll earn a living from my writing too.

The painting is Bad Moon Rising by Tom Tomos