Indelible

I wrote this as an exercise for my fiction workshop (though it’s really memoir, and not fiction at all), after I’d read The Buddha in The Attic, in which Julie Otsuka masterfully uses the “we” point of view and anaphora (a repeated phrase at the beginning of a sentence) to tell the story of the Japanese picture brides. My subject matter is completely different, though. 

On the road we sang Jean-Jacques Goldman. We sang about love. We sang about dark grey and light grey. We sang about the lure of communism and anarchy and the dream of flying away from responsibilities. We sang about Jewish children in the war. We sang about a woman who leaves breadcrumbs on her balcony for the pigeons, who lives her life vicariously, though we had no idea what vicariously meant. We sang, improbably, about women having babies without men. We sang about the indelible footprints that people leave on our lives when they go.

We sang though we should have been sleeping. At four a.m. we had been up, the countdown over at last, school out for two glorious months, all the maths and the Latin and the Dutch lessons done until September, which was an eternity away, so far away that there was no point thinking about it, because it did not exist. At four thirty we had picked up our heavy duffle bags, tried again to squeeze our sleeping bags into their covers, failed, and told ourselves it didn’t matter, that we would just fold them up and sit on them all the way down to the South of France. And at five there we had been, in a pre-ordained car park on the outskirts of an ugly Belgian industrial city which we loved because it had come to symbolise tea towel fights and midnight snacks, whispered secrets and campfires.

On the road it was dark and cold. On the road it was warmer and lighter and then almost unbearably hot as we drove south through France into the heat of the day. On the road it was mostly monotonous motorways until it was windy and nauseating, but we didn’t care about any of that because we had landed a space in the Mahieu family van, and that was the only place in the world we wanted to be. Singing to the same 80s pop cassette. Sharing out sweets and biscuits. Unwrapping sandwiches that had been lovingly wrapped in tin foil by our mothers. Poking small cartons of orange juice with straws and spilling the sticky drink onto our laps. Laughing with Marianne, who sat in the front rubbing her belly, pregnant for the fifth time, dispensing instructions on driving and life to her long-suffering husband.

The first night we slept in beds in the stone house. It was late and we had earned it with all that sitting, and no one had the energy to pitch tents. We wriggled into our sleeping bags and whispered about who would be in which team for the week’s competitions. We thought about the boys we had crushes on. We wondered who would be new this year and hoped they would fit in and not mess with the well-established order of long-held friendships. And in the morning, we waited.

We waited for the others to arrive, cars and vans full of Belgian adolescents. We waited, feeling as though we were the owners of this paradise, preparing to welcome guests to our home. We waited, slightly smug that we knew already who was going to be on washing up duty tomorrow.

We put on suncream. We put on shorts. We put on t-shirts, and the boys took theirs off again by lunchtime. We put on the blue and red scarves that said we belonged together. We put up the big blue tent and chose our sleeping spots, rolling out our sleeping bags over our airbeds and saving a space for Hélène next to us. And we waited.

The vans arrived and tired families tumbled out, families whose parents were leading the camp and had all of their children in tow, from the eldest who was one of us to the baby in a carseat. The cars arrived and holdalls and rucksacks were lugged to the tent. The cars arrived and we kissed  everybody’s cheeks three times, Belgian-style, introduced new people, and the sounds of anticipation and welcome echoed throughout the grounds, from the stone house to the back of the field where the next day we would play handball and chase each other with water pistols.

In the girls’ tent, all was order. In the girls’ tent, we put our bags at the foot of our airbeds and took out our torches and maybe our Bibles for the morning. In the girls’ tent, we lay facing each other in two rows of eight. In the girls’ tent we inwardly cheered that we had made it this time, that at last we were in the inner sanctum, right by the people we most wanted to be close to, the people everyone wanted to be close to, not like the last year’s camp when we had been put in a room with all the other misfits and new girls. This time we were next to Hélène and across from Anne-Laure and this was the way life should be. In the girls’ tent, we giggled until we saw the flashlight against the canvas in the darkness, and knew that it was time to be quiet because we did not want to be told off on the very first morning. We did not want to be told off ever, because we were good girls who wanted everyone to like us.

In the mornings, we listened to the crickets from our airbeds, our airbeds which made us all smell faintly of rubber. In the mornings, we ate bread and chocolate spread for breakfast. In the mornings, we lined up, waiting for our turn to have our hair French plaited. In the mornings, we sat in the chapel and sang again, not Jean-Jacques Goldman this time but our favourite church songs about days of joy and days of victory and about God being love and listening to us when we called. In the mornings, we sat under the shade of the tree across form the tent and talked. We played volleyball. We were called in for potato peeling duty. We were told to chop vegetables and were too scared to say that we never did it at home and didn’t know which way to cut an onion.

We sang in the mornings. We sang in the afternoons. We sang in the evenings, in the chapel again, but different songs this time. We sang about the story of a sock with holes weeping on the edge of a bin. We sang about spending the night walking around the Champs-Elysées. We sang campfire songs that made no sense but whose sole purpose was to get louder and louder until we almost lost our voices.

We didn’t have mobile phones. There was no phone at all, or maybe one, but long-distance calls were expensive and unnecessary unless someone was dying, which of course no one was, because we were young and invincible. There was no post, even, because our parents would have had to write to us two weeks before we left so that we got the letters on time. There was no Facebook. There was no Twitter. Some of us had cameras but not a lot of pocket money for films or to have our films developed, and so we took twenty, maybe thirty, photos in total over ten days and we hoped for the best and later we were excited when the photo of our favourite family came put well enough to be blown up and framed and hung on a bedroom wall in memory of the perfect summer. We lived in the moment and years later we marvelled that our memory had taken its own photographs. This, too, Jean-Jacques Goldman had sung about, so we should have known.

We had crushes on each other. We had crushes on the same two or three boys, the same two or three girls. We had crushes, some of us, on the unexpected people. Someone had a crush on us and we didn’t quite know what to do about it, but he was nice and so we became friends with him. We hoped nothing would happen. We hoped something might. We hoped that if it did we would know what to do.

Our junior leaders had crushes on each other too and we knew it, or we thought we knew, or we longed to know. Our junior leaders were old and wise but they were also somehow fun because they were, in fact, only twenty or so. Our junior leaders were enigmas. Our junior leaders strummed guitars and we sat next to them in the shade of the tree, listening, and wished we could be like them. They were everything we wanted to be when we grew up and we could not even quite say why. Our junior leaders knew how to do macramé and we left ours with them for them to finish for us on the day we went swimming in the river. Our junior leaders were the big brothers and the big sisters we wanted or had left behind in Belgium and missed already. 

We all wanted to be friends with the same girl. Mostly we were, because the reason we all wanted to be friends with that she was super sympa. Those of us who were bilingual never used the English word, because nice is so insipid and she was not insipid. Nobody could be accused of insipidness on this camp. Nobody could be accused of anything bad, ever. Years later when we would talk about these memories and people who had not been there would say “it couldn’t have been that perfect”, we would smile to ourselves and try to remember that only those who had been there could ever believe that it was. We would not argue because to argue would be to sully the inviolable.

On the seventh of the seventh one of us celebrated his birthday. He would always celebrate his birthday at camp until the end his life because of when he had been born, a beautifully symmetric day: seventh of the seventh seventy-seven, and we would always remember him on that date even when it turned out that we had, in fact, stopped going to camps after all. On the seventh of the seventh we would forever be able to taste the butter icing from the cake that Marianne had made for him.

All that talk of sevens made us think of forgiveness, the story of Jesus saying that was how often we had to forgive, seven times seventy-seven times, which hurt our brains because the seven-times table had been the hardest one to memorise at primary school and we had never got further than seven times twelve. The maths required thinking about the kinds of things we had resolved not to think about until way ahead in the future when we were back behind our desks for our second or third or fourth year of secondary school. Back where our lives were regimented, governed by a timetable and a mother who demanded that we never get less than eight out of ten for any piece of homework. Back where we were the only Christian in our class and people looked at us strangely even though we had not quite the reached the age for the endless discussions of what you should or should not do with your boyfriend before marriage. And so we did not think about those things, they were gone, poof. It was as if they had never existed, as is they never would. Our brains were full of sunshine instead, and of plots of pushing one of the boys into the fountain.

The days ran into each other. The days ran into each other as we took hikes in the mountain, condensed milk and other essentials in our rucksacks, ready to sleep in a mountain refuge, five of us huddled together on an enormous bunk. The days ran into each other as showers broke down and we washed each other’s hair in the fountain. The days ran into each other as we ate meal after meal of chicken and chips or the leaders thought they would try to feed us something new, quenelle, and we did not approve and some of us threw up and laughed about it later.

And then, inevitably, the end. Sleeping bags were rolled up. Tents were pulled down and tidied away until only the rectangle of squished and yellow grass attested to the fact that we had made it our home for the last ten days, that a part of us would always think of it as our home. Plates were washed up and tidied away for the last time, tea towels thrown into a bag together for washing rather than hung out to dry.

We slept outside on the last night so that we could leave early the next day: à la belle étoile, and the poetry of the language matched the melancholy of the mood. We did not sleep much at all. We looked at the ink-blue sky and felt already the pangs of the awful thing that is le cafard, that perhaps only French-speaking children truly feel because the English do not have a word for it.

Le cafard is nostalgia, but it’s so much more than that. Le cafard is mourning for what once was, and will never be again. Le cafard is the deep wistful longing that it would be again nonetheless, and the fear that it never can.  It’s a leaden weight in the pit of your stomach. It’s the sharp sting of absence. Of silence. Le cafard is waking up in your own comfortable bed after the first good night’s sleep in days, and finding no-one invading your space. No-one to sing grace with before breakfast. No one to make you laugh so hard that yoghurt comes out of your nose. Le cafard is the word for a cockroach, and like a cockroach it is big and black and threatening and indestructible. Le cafard fades to gentler blues eventually, around the time that the first letters start arriving and the photos comes back from the developer. And le cafard recedes, like the tide, but that too is painful in its way, because you feel you are letting go, and you don’t want to let go.

But life goes on. Life goes on and school starts again and maths isn’t so terrible after all. Life goes on and there are flute lessons and Latin declensions. Life goes on and before the next July there are letters and sleepovers and dreams of the boy whom you still sometimes thing about.

We sent letters to each other, long and multi-coloured. We slept over at each other’s houses though the sleeping part was mostly theoretical. We recorded ourselves talking into the night on both sides of a cassette, knowing we would want to listen to our younger selves in years to come, not knowing that cassettes were a passing, fleeting fad, that one day music would come from a tiny rectangular machine, much smaller even than a Walkman.  We looked at photographs and told the same stories over and over again. We played Jean-Jacques Goldman on the piano and sang his new album. We sang about life’s chances and what suffering can do for us. We sang about our mistakes. We sang about what love was not, though we did not yet know what it was.

We wrote our own words to his tunes. We wrote his lyrics out and next to them a commentary, convinced that these songs were for us, that they had been prescient of our lives, of the family we’d chosen for ourselves. We wrote, eventually, our own poems, angsty and never-ending, and we dreamed of being novelists.

We gathered, after a few weeks, to see the slides. We gathered, after many months, at a wedding. We gathered, after a decade, at a surprise birthday party. We gathered, two decades later, at a funeral, when we were still much too young but apparently no longer invincible. Just when we thought we had lost sight of each other, we gathered online.  Some of us gathered in foreign countries when one of us had moved there and another was passing through.

One of us moved to England and was never the same again. One of us moved across an ocean and became American.  One of us refused to fit into the narrative we had built for her and married someone entirely unexpected. One of us joined the army. One of us became a doctor. Some of us were fervent and devoted in our faith. Some of us went through the motions with a lukewarm heart. And some of us slipped away, too often unchallenged by people who would have considered themselves our close friends.

That era is gone. The innocence is gone. The stone house where we ate breakfast on wooden trays has been transformed beyond recognition: gone. Our ability to just be, for ten days, to let ourselves live, to slip away from the world and allow it to go on without us, gone. Gone.

And yet. And yet.

Those indelible footprints.

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Plotting my Novel with Post-Its: obsessive compulsive much?

I’ve been pondering how best to plot my second novel for a while now. Not as in what the story should be but as in how, physically, to write down what should happen. Some authors use index cards. Some use computer programs like Scrivener.

Some, of course, don’t write anything like that down at all: those authors are known in the trade as “pantsers”, as in “fly by the seat of”. That was how I wrote my first draft, which consisted mainly of one plot line: Louisa, who’s an evangelical Christian, falls for Aaron, who isn’t, and whom she consequently is not advised to date. There were occasional references to the primary campaign they were working on – mainly to move them from place to place and give them temptations like beds in hotel rooms – but that was it.

But I called it Primary Season for a reason. (Apologies for the terrible and unintentional rhyme there.) I didn’t want to write just another doomed love story, fun as those are. I wanted to explore what it might be like to work on a primary campaign in the – gasp! – Democratic Party as an evangelical Christian, and I wanted to do that from several angles. I also wanted to write a book that the kind of women who miss The West Wing might enjoy.

This means that I need more than one plot line. (Every novel does, in any case.) I need to weave in various scandals and debates and ad campaigns and press leaks. And I am not (yet?) skilled enough to be able to hold all those things in my head and mesh them together without the use of coloured Post-It notes.

Not only are there the plot lines to bear in mind, there’s also the timeline. Aaron and Louisa’s non-relationship needs to move along at a realistic pace, and needs to somehow fit into the schedule of primaries and caucuses and town hall meetings. It all becomes a delicate balancing act.

I also want some kind of system that shows me clearly which scenes I have already written, and which scenes I still need to write.

I could not come up with a system that did all of those things at the same time, in a clear, visual way, preferably not involving a computer. The nearest I’d come was this graph-like structure:

 

 

That works quite well as a general outline, and I may still use it, to show the main plot points and the fluctuations in the Candidate’s numbers as well as in Aaron and Louisa’s non-relationship (which would be in a different colour, just above the yellow Post-Its.). But it doesn’t help me with the kind of detailed outline that I need – scene by scene – and it also doesn’t provide a way for me to easily see which scenes still need to be written.

 

Cue a Google search of “planning my novel with Post-Its”. I discovered Julie Cohen’s blog, and her solution seemed to work well for me. Best of all, she was doing it with Post-Its and paper. But she didn’t have a timeline that I could see – and she didn’t have the issue of needing to separate finished and unfinished scenes.

 

Then – possibly in a midnight epiphany – I remembered this pin I’d liked on Pinterest. (The idea, and the picture, comes from jenhewett.blogspot.com.) If I adapted the model a little, I could use a left hand page for scenes written, and the facing right hand page for scenes yet to be done. Once I’ve written a scene, I move the corresponding Post-It from the right hand side to the left hand side.

 

 

 

And as for the timeline, each set of 2 facing pages of my Atoma notebook can be used per month of the campaign. Why an Atoma notebook, I hear you ask? Because you can move the pages around. So if it turns out that I have more scenes in August than will fit on the two pages, then hey presto, I just add a page to August (without having to calculate how many pages I think I might need and then panic when the system threatens to break down). Plotting needs to be flexible – which is why I like Post-Its; they’re so easy to move.

 

Obsessive compulsive much?

 

I had fun tonight. Step 1 is to take each plot strand and break it down into scenes (and believe it or not, this whole process helps me think up new scenes, too, since it helps me to see a logical sequence of events). So, below, we have one of the storylines that I will be threading through the novel. Mostly, it’s a campaign-based storyline – hence the blue (for Democrat!), but there’s also a bit of Aaron-and-Louisa (in purple), and Louisa-on-the-campaign (in light green). And where there are two Post-Its (thank you, Julie Cohen), it’s to show that two of the plot strands are being developed at once in a scene.

 

 

 

 

When I’ve done this for all the various strands (assuming Viking Direct Belgium get their act together and finally deliver the next lot of Post-It notes, since I need more colours), the fun (and the headaches) will really begin: threading them together and pacing the various stories so they fill the months required.

 

If you’re really lucky, I’ll write another post, complete with a photo or six to show off my efforts.

 

Oh, and then, all I need to do is write the thing.

 

 

 

 

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“What’s happening with your book?”

It makes me happy when people ask me what’s happening with my book. It also bemuses me a little, since I often assume that by now my entire entourage know that if I had any kind of news, I would be plastering it all over the internet.

But in any case, if you missed the excitement in my tweets and Facebook profile a few weeks back, here are the three main things happening at the moment.

– Inevitable is now at number 4 on Authonomy.

This, theoretically at least, means that it will make the top five on 1st May, after a year on the site and many more hours faffing around on it than I care to count. Every month, the five at the top of the list get whisked away to the desk of a HarperCollins editor (at least, we all hope it’s an editor and not a junior editorial assistant in her first week of work experience), and several weeks or sometimes months later an extensive comment is received. We all hope it’ll be accompanied by the instant offer of a publishing contract, but it hardly ever is.

Still, though, reviews can be very useful if you are seeking to make changes prior to self-publication, or if you want to write to agents with soundbites like “HarperCollins said this book had an interesting premise.” And I just want to get there now. (Which, by the way, you can help me with, if you go here, take thirty seconds or so to register, and then click “back the book”. Thank you!)

– Meanwhile, I’ve also paid to have a couple of professional reviews done. The first from the London Writers’ Club, which is run by two literary agents who offer to report back on your first 50 pages, plus – crucially – the query letter and synopsis that have, in my case, failed to enthuse anyone in the publishing world so far. That one was kind of devastating – mainly because I felt as if they hadn’t “got” my book, but had tried to pigeonhole it into something it isn’t, and doesn’t want to be – but it did contain nuggets of helpfulness. The second was much more useful – it’s a wonderful scheme for new writers run by the Romantic Novelists’ Association, in which you get an in-depth critique of the whole novel from an experienced writer. I got a detailed six-page report which was encouraging but not pandering and gave me many useful pointers.

– The most exciting thing to happen so far has been that through a connection with an author whose work I love, I got to send Inevitable to an editor at a major New York publishing house. (You don’t usually get to do that except through an agent, and I haven’t managed to snag one of those yet.) I haven’t heard anything back, and in a way I’m not surprised – but the set of circumstances which led to this were fairytale-like and inspired the plot for my third novel, so that’s good enough for me. Well, almost.

So now I have a choice. Either way, I am going to work on it some more, but then what? Self-publishing? I was dead against this a year ago, but am coming round to the idea. Most importantly, it gets your work out there rather than keeping it sitting in a draw. It’s so cheap, so easy, and people I know are making decent money at it. But should that be the main consideration? No, it shouldn’t. In a way, I wish I’d never looked into the world of publishing. I deliberately avoided all of that in my first 18 months of serious writing because I wanted to write for the pleasure of writing. And that childlike innocence is not something I’ll ever be able to recover.

Since I’m hopefully about to spend two years working on my writing – and, crucially, getting coaching – I am thinking I should probably hold off in any case. If, by the time I have my MFA from American University (sorry, I just have to keep saying that!) and have reworkedInevitable and met several agents, there is still no interest, then I probably will take the plunge. Or, by then, I’ll be wise enough to know not to bother. Either way, though,Inevitable will always have a place in my heart and I think I’ll always be proud of it.

Meanwhile, I’m working on my second novel. Primary Season tells the story of an evangelical Christian named Louisa Perry who works in Democratic politics. It’s not always easy, let me tell you, and it’s not made any easier by her crush on the maddeningly attractive Aaron Rosenberg. A lighter read? Welllll, maybe. Hopefully not a predictable one, though.

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Book Review: Come to the Edge, by Christina Haag

 Every once in a while, a book casts a spell on me. In 2010, it was The Song Is You, and you know that, because I still talk about it, I still recommend it, I still insist that it deserves to be better known. In 2012  – is it too soon to say? – it will be Come To The Edge.
 The elegance of the writing, the beauty of the story: “haunting” is how I have seen it described, and that was the word I would have used too. I don’t remember the last time a book kept me awake and away from even Twitter for two hours at a stretch.
Christina reminds me – perhaps inevitably – of Kate, the heroine in my first novel. “I did not know,” she says, “how long it took to get over such a love, and that even when you did, when you loved again, you would always carry a sliver of it in your stitched-together heart”.
I want this quote at the front of my book. I want to show it to people who read a chapter ofInevitable and say, “yeah, see, I just don’t buy that after all these years she would still be thinking of him”. I knew it! I knew that it happened like that sometimes. Because I am a hopeless romantic too. Maybe that’s why I was tempted (but only tempted) to rush past the background, the childhood, the descriptions, to get to the wooing, to get to the romance. And maybe that’s why I felt something like a twinge of pain in my belly on so many pages: yes, my heart broke for Bradley Whitford when they split up. But it broke for Christina then too, and then time and time again afterwards. (And I want to call her by her first name. Although I know it’s an illusion, I feel, after she has shared her soul with me, that we are friends.)
Come To The Edge is a book full of emotion, not in a trite, schmaltzy way, but the way it’s supposed to be, the way that people tell you to do it at writing workshops: show, don’t tell. Christina takes us by the hand and she shows us what it means to be her, what it means to be John, what it means to be with John, what it means to no longer be with him. She makes me want to travel to places in America that I’ve never heard of. Her writing is quite simply superb, her vocabulary varied – it sounds like a small thing, but it’s one of the small things that makes a book worth staying up until two a.m. to finish: when was the last time you came across the word “epiphyte”? On almost every page there was a turn of phrase I wish I could have written.
So, her writing: study it, aspiring authors. Particularly aspiring memoirists. Study it for colour and depth and how to bring the past back to life and how to convey the magic of childhood and of love. Study it to learn description and how to draw out character. Study it for the poetry of the language.
If you follow this blog, chances are you’ll know what led me to this book: it wasn’t the main story. It was a subplot about a man Christina dated for three years. You know the one. But I’m glad my endless fascination with him led me there. I’m glad that, after telling myself that it was a ridiculous reason to buy an overpriced hardback book and that it was probably really badly written anyway, I travelled to America when Amazon had it on special offer and I read some reviews that praised the prose. I thought, you know what, beautifully written tragic love stories set against a political backdrop are my thing. They’re what I write. I should read it for research.
But the stories I write are made up. This one, this heartbreaking one, is real. It can’t have been easy to reach into the past for these memories, to draw them out and have the emotions rush back. But if I ever get to meet Christina Haag, I will thank her, because this is a story that needed to be told, and that it’s told so deftly means that it will reach the kind of people who don’t read celebrity biography. Literary snobs, if you will. People like me.
And then I will ask her to please keep writing. I’ll tell her that I go to a Monday Night Writers’ Group too. I don’t know why I’ll tell her that. Probably because I babble when I meet people I admire.
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Book Review: Dirty Sexy Politics, by Meghan McCain

I’ve seen some scathing reviews of this on Amazon, but they were really not warranted. If what you’re after is in-depth analysis of policy, politics or campaign strategy, there are plenty of other books – notably The Audacity to Win, which is excellent – that will do that for you. This book does what it says on the tin: tells the story of a Presidential campaign from the point of view of an insider who also happens to be a young woman – and how many other books do you know who do that? None. Precisely none. Well, unless you’re counting Sammy’s House, by Kristin Gore, but that’s fiction. Although, the author being who she is, there is probably a little truth in it too.

It did nothing to convince me of the appeal of the Republican Party, though I was reassured that at least one person was calling them out for their increasing radicalisation and homogenisation. But really, I’m not sure it was meant to. It was easy to read, engaging and honest – what you see is what you get with Meghan, and that is one of only a very few traits we share – and you know what? To my shame I almost welled up when John McCain lost.

And it also gave me a lot of useful background information for my second novel, Primary Season, the first draft of which I wrote for NaNoWriMo. For all its brilliance, The Audacity to Win wasn’t very helpful on how tough it is to be a woman in politics, or on those authentic details – bag calls, weight gain, ephemeral  relationships, the impossibility of having clean clothes – which I need to make Aaron and Louisa and their world seem real.

So thanks, Meghan. Your book was just what I needed.

Book Review: The Ninth Wife, by Amy Stolls

I don’t really read chick lit, and I don’t much like long books. But for some reason I hadn’t quite computed that this was a long book, and it wasn’t pink and glittery, and it was set in DC, and I found it in the Lantern Bookshop in Georgetown for four dollars or so, so I went with it.
I’m glad I did.
Amy Stolls, the author, did the MFA in Creative Writing at American University that I’ve been accepted onto. I remember the piles of her book in Politics and Prose and like to imagine that a book of mine could be in that position in a few years’ time. So I feel a little bit connected to her.(My second choice pen name, which I may well still use, is also very similar to her name.)
Not only that, but it’s the kind of writing that, although it’s very different to mine, aims (I think) to do something like what mine aims to do. (Once I’d realised this, I googled agents and discovered that hers also represents Arthur Phillips – author of The Song Is You, aka the book I haven’t stopped going on about for over a year now – whose writing I am in love with and would like mine to be compared to. A dream agent, in other words, who I don’t think has rejected me yet.)

The Ninth Wife is not really chick lit – at least not the way that I think of it. It’s more in line with the kind of thing I aspire to write – intelligent fiction for women, with elegant writing. And Amy Stolls can definitely can write – there were some beautiful, beautiful turns of phrase, trudging through a swamp of disbelief, letting the whispering winds speak her concern, the route flirts with Pennsylvania all the way, it’s the part of Maryland that makes the state look greedy… There was also a lot of great insight about what it’s like to be in your thirties and single and beginning to despair as you watch everyone else around you turn into couples and then families. So, in other words, it was right up my street.
I can forgive a book for not having much of a plot if it’s well written, and this was.  Although it certainly didn’t lack plot, either.  (At times, I wondered if there was maybe a bit too much of it.) Yes, at its heart, it’s about a relationship – Bess is dating a guy who has been married eight times before, and wonders if she should accept his proposal – but it explores so many different facets of life, of how we relate to each other, parent to child, grandparents to grandchildren, spouse to spouse, partner to partner, of how we grieve each other and deal with the past.
The first half of the book is very different from the second. In the first half, chapters alternate between Bess’s life now and Rory telling the story of each of his previous eight wives. You’d think, wouldn’t you, how ridiculous. No one could be married eight times. And if he was, then you’d want to run. But as you read each of these stories they are (mostly) very believable, and you get to know Rory, and you know what, it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. He had a tendency to get married a little too quickly, so really, it’s like someone having eight relationships before you. Maybe not ideal (at least in the circles that I move in), but allowable at the age of 45.
In the second half, and I won’t say much about this as it’s where a lot of the surprises and twists and unexpected directions come, there’s a road trip, and with it all the expected soul-searching and deepening of relationships and life-changing conversations and all that kind of thing. A cheesy concept, you might think, but the author does that deft thing where the character realises it’s a bit cheesy and so it works. (Not everyone can pull this off.)
What I like about this book – apart from the quality of its writing – is the realism of it. Life is messy, love is complicated, there are no easy answers, relationships don’t look like they do in Hollywood. This book feels like an exploration of what it means to trust and commit to someone given all of that.
That said, it might have been nice if there had been just one example of a happy marriage between two straight adults who loved each other and stayed together. (Bess’ friend’s Gabrielle’s parents might have been one, I can’t remember, but she doesn’t dwell on the point if they were.) Amy Stolls shows us a rich tapestry of the many different kinds of relationships that can and do exist, but that one is completely lacking – and I do believe it does exist. And the author must believe it does, too, since that is what she’s steering her character towards. Then again, it’s no wonder Bess is so tentative about marriage if she hasn’t ever seen it work out in her social circle.
Another criticism would be that there are a few too many coincidences which require a stretch to believe in them. I have to say, too, that I roll my eyes when a woman goes into labour at an inappropriate moment, nobody knows what to do about it, and then she proceeds to give birth pretty quickly afterwards.
It was also as if the author had deliberately populated the book with as wide a variety of characters possible: the black best friend, the gay best friend, the lesbian ex-wife, the special needs relative, the Jewish grandmother, the airy-fairy floaty girl pregnant by the irritating ex-boyfriend. I imagine it was a deliberate choice, but it felt a little too deliberate. I don’t know why – all those people do exist, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they all exist within one person’s social circle – but it felt a little forced. That said, these characters weren’t stereotypes – they all felt very real, in particular Bess’ gay best friend, Cricket. And, as someone has said on an Amazon review, their backstories are complex, and that give them depth. This is a great book for writers to study for hints on characterisation. 
I’ve been ill this week, so lying down for stretches of time has been an ideal opportunity to get into this book. There were times when I just could not put it down: I read it in big stretches and kept thinking, “What? I can’t stop now!”. I suppose that’s the joy of a long book, but it’s also the joy of good writing, characters you get to know and love, and a story that grips you (and yes, even makes you cry a little bit). A great book with which to start my reading year. 

2011: The year in books

This blog post was originally going to be about how I had failed to be wowed by any books this year in the way that I was in 2010 by, say, Arthur Phillips’ The Song Is You or Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin. But then I looked through my list, and I remembered The Grapes of Wrath, The Audacity to Win, the American Future, The Book Thief.

Still, though, I feel disappointed about this year, perhaps because I’ve read a fair few books that weren’t all I had hoped they would be (the subject of a future post, no doubt) and most likely because I will finish without reaching my goal of fifty books. I’ll have got to about 32, which is respectable enough, but that isn’t enough to appease the competitive urge in me.

There are a variety of reasons for this, chief among which has to be the iPad: long gone and almost forgotten are the days when it was too much hassle to turn on my computer for one last play on Twitter before bed. And when in combination with other addictions, like Authonomy, the online writers’ community, it has eaten away many hours.

And iPad or no iPad, Authonomy must shoulder some of the blame. It may well be that I have, in fact, read fifty books’ worth of first chapters: the idea is that you comment on other people’s books in the hope that they will read, comment on, and vote for yours, edging you ever closer to the desk of an editor at Harper Collins. So you read many books that you would ordinarily not go anywhere near. Some of the writing wowed me, like Rena Rossner in her first novel Blown to Smithereens; some, it has be to said, did not.

Then there was NaNoWriMo. I usually read most when travelling; this year, I wrote instead. I take the train less these days, too, and when I do I sometimes use the time for emails, or Authonomy, or – ahem – Boggle. (Yes, the iPad again.) There are many excuses I could offer, some slightly more worthy than others. Perhaps the very fact of having a goal made it seem a little too much like a chore.

I wonder if there’s another reason for it too, one that renders all the excuses almost irrelevant. Louis de Bernieres said that “love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision…” My love for the English language was a little like that. It came out of nowhere and blew me away, and last year’s voracious reading was a symptom of that. The temporary madness might be over now. Maybe that’s why I had to look at a list to remember the books that wowed me, when last year I could have named them without thinking twice, or barely even once. But, he went on to say, “… and when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part.”

I suppose that’s the stage I am at with my reading. There are moments of awe, of course, but they are fewer than they used to be. But it is inconceivable that books and I, words and I, the English language and I, should ever part. Even though I don’t yet know what my target for next year will be, or even if if I should have one, I’ll never stop reading.

Living the dream: in the beginning…

One day there will be a new blog, and it will be called something like claireindc.wordpress.com, and it will document the beginning of the journey, and the beginning might turn out to be yesterday.

Or it might turn out to be the day I borrowed Emily’s laptop to watch a Friends episode but instead ended up watching the DVD that was already in there, Season Two, Episode Five of a little TV programme called the West Wing and thinking “you know what, this is actually really good”.

Or maybe the beginning was moving back to Belgium: maybe there’s something in the air here, writing stardust or something  Here was where I wrote my first poems, my first “novels”. Here was where people began to talk about me as a writer and believe in me when I was far too young to warrant that kind of title or that kind of confidence.

Or maybe it’s not the dust, or the water, or anything about my childhood. Maybe it’s the chance I got to write articles that reminded me there was far more to my love of language than a passion for correct grammar in three languages.

Or maybe it’s the fact that I moved here with no big agenda, had no television, and one July had no social life either, and the only two things that kept me busy were work and the West Wing, and one day, walking down the street after a lesson with a Russian diplomat I thought, “wouldn’t it be fun to teach Bradley Whitford French?” and suddenly, there was my novel.

Who knows, really, where it began? But yesterday I got an email, the email I’ve been waiting for, except I thought I was waiting for a letter, and I thought I was waiting till March. It said, “It’s the Director of the MFA program at American University. I wanted to touch base with you personally and let you know that you’ve been accepted into the program starting fall 2012.”

At this point, I don’t know much. I don’t know if I will get the scholarship I need to make this feasible. I don’t know if it’s God opening a door, or just me shoving at it really hard.

But I reserved some blog domain names just in case. Just in case I get to write about living in DC, studying creative writing, and campaigning for the Democrats. Just in case, in other words, I get to live my dream and tell you about it.

NaNoWriMo: Where I wrote

Apparently I now go to America in November; it’s just what I do. (Since next year is a Presidential election year, I expect the pattern to continue.) In 2009 and 2010 I thought vaguely about NaNoWriMo and what a shame it was I wasn’t going to be able to do it. In 2011, I came to my senses and realised there was no reason I couldn’t write while travelling. That the writing might make the travelling both more fun and more purposeful and the travelling might make the writing more inspired, more grounded in the city where I seem to keep setting my novels.

So I went to DC, and I wrote.

I began my novel in Peregrine Expresso in Capitol Hill.

The next day, I took a train to Philadelphia, and I wrote.

I went back to DC, and I slacked off for a bit, but then I went to a Write In at Yola in Dupont Circle.

It was my first Write In, and I loved the experience, despite the two girls having a very noisy conversation, oblivious to the fact that everyone, but everyone, around them was studying or reading or trying to write a novel in a month. I met some super friendly people and scribbled for a happy hour or so before meeting a friend to go to see the Capitol Steps.

The next day, I had grand plans to write in the Pain Quotidien on 6th and Penn after church, but NatWest scuppered those plans by blocking my bank card and causing me to spend hours and lots of dollars on the phone to sort it out.

But then, the day after that, I finally, finally made it to Politics and Prose, for an event with Erin Morgenstern (whose successful novel, The Night Circus, started out as a NaNoWriMo novel). It’s a wonderful place – with a name like that, how could it not be – and they have a coffee shop downstairs where I sat with another WriMo and scribbled my way to a writer’s high.

The next day, I went back to Peregrine Expresso to see my new friend who had offered to marry me and my cute British accent so that I could have a visa. (Note to any immigration people reading: I’m pretty sure he was kidding.) While I was there, I wrote a little more, before heading to the DNC headquarters to do some phone banking. (Because, you know, if there’s one thing I love more than phones, it’s cold calling complete strangers who probably won’t understand my aforementioned accent.)

The day after that (we’re on 9th, if anyone is following), I got a few words down in Café Milano in Georgetown before my salmon and fennel dish arrived…

… then I paid a pilgrimage to the soon-to-be defunct (sniff) Barnes and Noble and its Starbucks, where I sat at a high seat by the window…

.,. and then I walked back to the hotel, dropped off the books I had accidentally bought in Lantern Books, and popped into another Write In, this one at Panera Bread at Dupont Circle (you’ll note from the fact that the trees in front are not autumn colours that I borrowed this photo from Google Images). I had trouble with the ordering system, but made it downstairs with my orange juice and my cookie eventually. It was distracting down there: there was a Spanish lesson going on right behind me – it was hard not to think, “hey! When I move here, I could do my lessons in Panera Bread!”. (Immigration people, if you’re still reading, I of course will only do this if I have a visa that allows me to engage in paid employment.)

The people who were writing there were of a talkative disposition, which ordinarily I wouldn’t have minded, but I didn’t have very long, because owing to the distractions of Georgetown I’d got there later than I’d meant to, and I had to rush off after an hour to go and hear Umberto Eco at the 6th and i Synagogue. I was glad I had some moral support around me though, to ease my distress at having penned the words “she was drowning in his blue eyes”.

By 10th, I was hitting my stride, and mourning my imminent departure. After an afternoon at the Newseum and a yummy dinner at America Eats with possibly the most delicious pecan pie I will ever taste, I joined the write in at the now familiar Starbucks on 3rd and Penn. (It’s close to We the Pizza and to where the Hawk and Dove – sob – used to be; i.e. it’s where I would hang out all the time if I worked on the Hill.) Amazing Starbucks, complete with a real-looking open fire in the very quiet and studious upstairs part.

I was just hitting my stride after a twitter break (ahem) when they kicked us out of there, though. I wrote a little more downstairs and then headed back to my hotel…

where I made up my quota with my newfound determination, or possibly to avoid packing, and thus the thought of leaving.

The next day, I boarded a plane to LA, just like Josh Lyman did all those years ago to go and get Sam. I fell way short of my word quota that day, but I did manage a few pages up in the air.

I had ideas about writing some more after I got to my hotel – if you can call it a hotel – in Pasadena, but I was stressed and tired and tearful (perhaps at the prospect of being so close to Bradley Whitford) and so I never quite made it.

The next day was sightseeing and catching up with Brianna (yay), and the day after that when I’d had plans to go to a write in, then All Saints Church, then the mid-month NaNoWriMo celebrations in LA, instead I made a last minute decision to spend the day with her. Which was lovely, and her church was fab, and we visited a posh hotel beloved of Presidents (with good reason), and ate the first cupcakes I’ve actually enjoyed in America, but still, it was one of those times I wished I could have cloned myself and been in two places at once.

We rounded the day off with a delicious meal at Russell’s – so that’s what a hamburger ought to taste like – and then I spent a happy couple of hours in a Barnes and Noble. (“Does Bradley Whitford ever come in here?” “Who?” “He’s an actor… Josh Lyman from the West Wing? He lives in Pasadena.” “Oh,  yes, he’s a regular.” You are so totally making that up, given that a minute ago you didn’t know who he was, but I want to believe you, so I am going to.) Next door was a Starbucks – open till midnight, ah, civilisation, how I’ve missed you – and I planned to sit and make my quota if it killed me. But the seat by the window that I’d had my eye on got taken before I could get there, and the people who sat themselves next to me were very talkative, and wanted to know all about me. I have a hunch they were famous in some way – one of them was very whacky and wearing a weird hat, and the other told me her sister used to live downstairs from Allison Janney in New York, which is confusing since I thought Allison Janney lived in California, but anyway – but to cut a long story even longer, I got no writing done.

So the next day, I was determined. I wandered round Old Town Pasadena and looked round All Saints Church, then spent a happy rest of the morning in Vroman’s, which is an amazing independent bookshop, where I succumbed to a Pasadena tshirt and the novel “Helen of Pasadena” (which actually was not bad, and unexpectedly made me cry. I wonder if Jane Kaczmarek has read it, and if she cried too?). It also has a café, so I sat and wrote there…

… and then, after paying a small visit to the Pasadena Playhouse and sighing over the Artists’ Entrance, where, if any of you would like to donate a few hundred dollars or a couple of thousand airmiles I could potentially meet my hero in just a few months’ time, I went to Sabor 2 which is where some of the write ins were held. The coffee was not that nice and the people were not that friendly, but it was a cool place.

And then I got on a plane, and then another plane, and I came home to frost on the ground, tenacious jet lag, a trip to the UK, and about 40,000 words still to write. By 19th November, I had a choice: full steam ahead or give up. I wasn’t going to be half-hearted about it and get to 25,000 words. I tweeted and asked for advice, and my fellow WriMos were very encouraging, for which I am eternally grateful.

So I wrote in the spare bed at Tim and Jacqui’s flat in Stockwell, and then on the train from London to Oxford for the wedding…

… and then I wrote in Giraffe in Victoria after Church

… and then I wrote in bed, and then I wrote on the Eurostar back to Belgium…

… and then I finally stopped international travelling and wrote some of the rest of my novel on trains between Nivelles and Brussels …

… but mostly at my desk in those final few days when I had to crank over 20,000 words in not a very long time. I could have sanitised and tidied it for you, but this, minus the tissues which I admit to throwing away, is what my writing table looks like. I am an artist. It’s okay to be messy. It’s part of the persona.

I know it’s not pretty, but it got the job done. So maybe the moral of the story is there is no need to be somewhere interesting and different to do NaNoWriMo. Wait, no, that can’t be what I was trying to say…

NaNoWriMo: how I’ll do it next time

1. I’ll spend October getting ready. 

I wanted to do that this time, too, but for the third year in a row the last couple of weeks in October were a little crazy, with translations suddenly arriving right when my pieces for the What’s On section of Away Magazine were due – and there are always more of those in the run-up to Christmas anyway, what with the markets and castles and carol concerts to write about.

So yes, there was time to throw things in a suitcase for my America trip; there was time to go out and carefully select pretty notebooks for NaNoWriMo, and I fitted in reading Chris Baty’s “No Plot No Problem” well in advance. But there wasn’t time to do character sketches or draw up timelines or brainstorm subplots. Which, in a way, is fine. I wanted to see if NaNoWriMo worked when you do no planning whatsoever – as it is, in fact, supposed to. It’s the opposite of how I wrote my first novel – carefully, deliberately, a scene when it would pop into my head, all of which after spending a long time getting to know my characters – and I was curious to see if it worked, and it kind of did, but I also kept thinking how much more productive it would be if I had a better idea of where it was going. And how much easier it would be to start each writing session if I had, as suggested my someone on I can’t remember which website, written thirty index cards, each with a scene to develop.

That said, I don’t know. Some of my best writing to date has been when I’ve started with a writing prompt and just written for thirty minutes, the aim being to keep writing, and see where it takes you. NaNoWriMo is, the way I did it, a long experiment in freewriting, and I think there is value in that.

Besides, I can do the character development and backstory and subplots and timeline now, and rewrite and add words as I need to. (And I need about an extra 50,000 words, so those things will come in handy.) Also, it’s very possible that I’m remembering the process of writing Inevitable wrongly or selectively: a lot of the brainstorming and post-it note sticking was done between drafts.

Still, next time I’ll do it the other way.

2. I’ll start on 1st November.

I’m fortunate to live in a country which has two bank holidays during NaNoWriMo – on 1st and 11th November, and if those days fall on a Tuesday or a Thursday, you tend to get an extra day off work thrown in too. My teaching also slows down during the first week of the month because it’s half term here. Which of course has been my excuse for taking that time off to go on holiday for three years in a row now. I’m glad I left on 1st November this year, because if I hadn’t I may not have made it to Philadelphia to see Staging Hope and meet Melissa Fitzgerald. But another year I will make sure I spend as much of 1st November as possible writing – or doing the brainstorming that I yet again won’t have had a chance to do in October. Then on 2nd, I’ll take to the skies. (I assume, by the way, that my next NaNoWriMo won’t be next year, because next year there is an election to win.)

I did start on 1st, and I got 1,000 words or so done, and only had to stop because the whole of Peregrine Espresso was spinning and I started to feel as if I was going to fall off my chair, what with jet lag, sleep deprivation and messed up eating patterns. And my novel starts with Aaron jiggling his leg because on the bus from Dulles to Rosslyn there was a guy jiggling his leg as he spoke very quietly into his mobile phone, and it intrigued me, because when people are stressed enough to be jiggling their legs they are normally shouting. Also, there was something nicely symbolic about beginning my NaNoWriMo novel in DC, where it is set, in a cafe of which I had thought on my last visit, “I would like to come and write here”. But still, it would have been nice to have started, say, 1,000 words ahead, rather than a few hundred behind.

3. I’ll travel.

Yes, it’s great that Belgium gives us writing time in November. But what’s less great is that, like so many things, NaNoWriMo has yet to take off here. The best thing about NaNoWriMo is the community aspect: you write together at “write-ins”, you meet up for half-month parties, you send each other encouraging emails. Yes, nominally there is a NaNoWriMo “region” covering “Belgium and Holland”, but it irritates me that they only send out their emails in Dutch – since just under half of this country speaks French – and there are very few Write Ins, and the ones there are tend to be in Flanders or Holland. Also, I have not found the Belgians to be super friendly when you first meet them, so the thought of walking into a coffee shop to join in with strangers and being met with a blank stare when I say “Hi, I’m Claire” is a little discouraging. In the US, everyone is super-friendly, especially WriMos. In the UK, I’m among my own kind, so I know what to expect. In other countries, there are also more Write-Ins – I love the idea of the California one that takes place on a a train. Write-Ins are a great way to meet people when you are travelling alone, too.

Plus, of course, there’s the inspiration factor. I don’t know if all my novels will be doomed love stories set in DC – though it’s looking increasingly likely – but there is something fantastic about sitting in the Pain Quotidien on 6th and Pennsylvania writing about a date in the Pain Quotidien on 6th and Pennsylvania (although I didn’t quite manage to be that in sync, sadly): about looking around and getting the real details from the real place, about eavesdropping on conversations and making a careful note of them. The dad who told his toddler “senate is in session” by way of explanation of something or other will almost certainly make an appearance in my novel, as will the dogs and small bilingual children in Lincoln Park. This kind of thing makes the place feel more real to the writer and therefore to the reader. Well, hopefully.

4. I’ll hand write.

I almost always hand write my first drafts. Working on my writing is almost the only time that I use pen and paper now, so it signals to me and my body that I am in creative mode. I am a creature of habit, and I found my writer’s voice sitting in St James’ Park writing with a pen and paper, so that’s the way it’ll stay. It’s also how I do my dailyish freewriting exercises. Fewer distractions that way. Long enough for my brain to catch up with my hand.

Maybe by next time I will have mastered the art of sitting at a computer and not flicking back and forth from my writing to Facebook to twitter to Authonomy to Blogger and back to writing. After all, I have been sitting here typing this blog post for quite q while now and resisted the temptation, so you never know. Plus, I have this funky wireless keyboard thing for my iPad now, and it’s a pleasure to type on.

But still, an iPad and a keyboard, light as they are, are more hassle to carry around than a notebook and a pen. You have to remember to charge them, and hope that nothing goes wrong with them, which they rarely do, but it does happen, and if it happens, you can guarantee it will right at that breakthrough moment when you’re typing a pivotal scene.

I also live in constant fear of my iPad being stolen, which is one of the reasons I don’t carry it around with me everywhere when I’m going to be hanging around touristy places. And yes, okay, my whole handbag could get nicked, and if my notebook were in it that would be a real shame – particularly because I back up by taking photos of my notebook, and my camera would likely also be in my bag – but I don’t furtively look around me when I get out my notebook and pen to check no one looks like the notebook and pen stealing type.

Speaking of notebooks, it’s also an excuse to buy pretty notebooks and post it notes. And who doesn’t need one of those from time to time?

5. I’ll count my words every day.

Arguably the best reason for typing NaNoWriMo novels is that the whole point is to get to 50,000 words, and therefore you need to know when you’ve got to 50,000 words. I’ve found my estimations to be wildly inaccurate – well, not wildly, but wildly once you multiply 20 words by 90 pages, which led to a frenzied final day of NaNoWriMo and a collapse in exhaustion rather than a triumphant hooray. This was, of course, after I’d hand counted most of 50,000 words over two or three days. Try it. It’s not a lot of fun. But I really did need to know if I had made it. I think I have. But then again, I might have counted completely wrong. Next time I’d like to know for sure, and I’d like to watch the little NaNoWriMo graph go up steadiliy. I’m sure I can count 1,667 words much more patiently and accurately than I can count 20,000.

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