YA fiction rules!

What kind of teenager were you? They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are charming, some less than charming, many are a combination of the two. I think I was of the combination variety (not that I’m likening teenage-hood to a choice on a Chinese menu). My charming side took the form of a certain bounciness and energy, not unlike a chubby, freckled Tigger (I’ll leave it to those who knew me as to how often the charming factor kicked in – not too often, I suspect). The not so charming side was monosyllabic and sullen – a phase I grew out of, to my family’s eternal gratitude.

But there are many types of teen, from the zombie kids; you know, the ones that walk around eyes down, hair in their face, with that shambolic gait that just looks like they haven’t grown into their limbs yet; all the way to those kids that have energy seeping from their pores, they’re constantly moving, constantly scoping for the next distraction.

Which brings me to my main point: for every type of teenager there is an equal and compelling range of teenage fiction. I wish this stuff had been around when I was that age. The best we got were the Sweet Valley High books or the Flowers in the Attic series – neither of which I read. Well, all right, maybe a couple of Sweet Valley Highs, but I’m not a natural romance reader, and that applied even at that hormone-addled age.

Today, the breadth of YA fiction is huge. There are whole blogs, Facebook pages, Instagram accounts and Twitter feeds devoted to it. And the thing I realised soon after I started reading it was how very smart and emotionally switched on it is.

Take the John Marsden series Tomorrow When the War Began. This could have been just a rollicking adventure series about a bunch of Australian kids who form a guerilla fighting group when the country is invaded by some foreign enemy. But Marsden really gets into their heads and helps us to understand them. After all, these are 16- and 17-year-old high school kids who’ve lost everything and have been forced into a situation where they’re taking the lives of others in order to save their own.IMG_20140817_190219

Charlie Higson’s The Enemy books is set in a world in which everyone over the age of 16 has fallen victim to a virus that renders them undead. All right, I know it’s a zombie story, but bear with me here, this is good zombie fiction. The kids left alive in London form themselves into a series of tribes and so not only do they have to manage the fact that Mum and Dad have become flesh-eating monsters, they also must negotiate the different tribal groups. Each group is governed by a very different set of rules that evolved from the strongest personalities involved.

In Michael Grant’s Gone books everyone in the world over 14 has disappeared. Just poof, up and gone one day. (Funny thing is, the fact that I’m old enough to be one of the people who has been are zombified or vanished doesn’t come into it. I’m happy to delude myself enough that in my head I’m one of the kids – there’s a little bit of teenager left in all of us, I suspect.) The plot device means the kids in this series are thrust very suddenly into adult roles – after all there’s no-one else left to do it. Good way to help kids contemplate the fact that this will happen to them one day (and maybe even appreciate Mum and Dad a bit more when they put the book down – nice).

YA novels are heavy on the moral dilemma stakes. Whether the protagonists are demolishing a bridge to keep an invasion at bay, or slipping on the entrails of nice Mr McCleary from next door who now just wants to eat your left calf muscle for lunch, the teenage characters have to make choices. Often they’re based on fear and self-interest, but there’s always some selflessness and heroism thrown in there as well. The dilemmas are stark and in that regard I find young adult fiction very honest because the trauma, self-reproach, doubt and fear the teenage characters feel would really be the same for us mangy old gown-ups. Only, we don’t tend to be as forthcoming about it.

The one thing that YA novels can’t be is boring. There will always be teenagers and pre-teens who are natural readers, but you also want to capture the ones who would rather chew off their own leg then sit down with a book. So these novels have to grab a reader’s imagination quickly and hold it. I imagine one of the trickiest aspects of putting a YA novel together would be the editing. Keeping the prose tight and making sure the pace doesn’t lag would be fine arts in themselves.

My reading list is wide and varied, and I always intersperse my YA reading with plenty of fiction for those of us who are more chronologically advanced (after all, there’s only so much teenage angst even I can handle), but there’s such an abundance of good stuff out there in this genre that I think it’s going to be occupying my reading shelf for a while to come.

YA books I’m looking forward to reading:

  • Hollow City by Ransom Riggs. This is the follow-up to his book Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children which was utterly fab.
  • Riders by Veronica Rossi. A boy who dreams of being a US. Army Ranger wakes from a nightmare to find he’s become one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – dilemmas galore.
  • The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Alice Oseman. A book about growing up in Alaska in the 1970s – that’s all I need to know.

Has anyone else got some good YA recommendations?

 

 

Hobgoblin of self-doubt

Who hasn’t suffered self-doubt? That nasty little hobgoblin that sits in your head and tells you you’re pretty rubbish, that nothing you do is much good and that every attempt at creating something meaningful will be laughed at and widely ridiculed. You know, that self-doubt.

If you haven’t suffered it, then well, good for you, but stay away from me because it’s possible you’re a sociopath. Self-doubt is part of the human experience. And it can be a useful thing, too. It plays a part in making you go back to the manuscript, essay, brilliant idea and tinker with it until it’s even better than it was before.

Unfortunately, it can also crawl into your head and make itself nice and cosy, really settle in for the long haul of torment it intends to create. And it will, if we let it. It will nestle in there, latching on to your fondest wishes and placing them on the top of a tall mountain, far, far out of the reach of an untalented, intellectually diminished dullard like you.Fotor_146448487377353

And it doesn’t matter what those fondest wishes are. You might work in a chicken factory, but you long to be a hairdresser. Hah! Too easy, says the hobgoblin. Who do you think you are? The chicken factory is as good as it’s ever gonna get for you. If you were a hairdresser you’d have to talk to people, make appointments, wield a pair of scissors without hacking someone’s hair to bits or cutting off an ear. You’d be rubbish. Stay where you belong amongst the headless chickens and the giblet bins.

See what I mean? It’s easy, so easy to believe the greasy words whispered in our ears by the voice of self-doubt.

Now, I’m not claiming to have all the answers here. I still struggle with it, and like most people, will probably always have the voice in my head that’s too ready to be dismissive and derogatory. But what I have learned to do is ignore it and just plough on. Not the most emotionally sophisticated way of dealing with it, I grant you, but one of the few I’ve come up with so far and it works pretty well.

It’s kind of like, if I was in my own head and the hobgoblin was standing in front of me talking trash (I like to slip into prize fighter talk at times like these), then all I have to do is pick it up, place it to one side and then keep walking. I leave it behind me, the voice getting fainter the further I go.

The other trick I’ve used before is to think back on something I’ve done that I feel good about. At times like these you’ve got to be kind to your ego. Treat it like the poor suffering little milk sop it is and give it a boost. It doesn’t matter what you reflect on: Came third place in that 5th grade swimming race? Then rapturous applause all round. Passed that unit in Russian politics at uni without having a small breakdown? Kudos to you. Overcame that addiction to ice-cream that previously saw you face down in a bucket of the sweet stuff with a frozen tongue and a sick feeling of self- loathing? You have my respect. (What are you talking about? Of course this isn’t from personal experience. I’ve never won a swimming race in my life.)

Whatever it is, that’s something you have set your mind to, you latched on to it like a puppy on a posh pair of shoes and you went for it. You didn’t stop to let self-doubt tell you that you can’t swim, that you need that last shovel of ice-cream, that the intricacies of the government of the union of Soviet Socialist Republics are beyond you. You just ploughed on and got the job done. You kicked self-doubt to the dirt (again with the prize fighter parlance). You did it once, so that means you can do it again.Fotor_146448459377352

The other tactic I employ is equally as sophisticated and that’s the blind leap. You have to imagine you’ve done all you think you can. You’ve used self-doubt to your advantage, you’ve fine tuned, you’ve sculpted, you’ve tinkered and now it’s time to stop. But self-doubt doesn’t just magically disappear at this point. Nope, it’s still there like that last dinner party guest that just won’t bugger off, even though everyone else has gone home, the dishes are done and you’re in your jim-jams yawning extravagantly.

That’s when the blind leap comes in to play. It’s the just-do-it tactic – you hit send or post, you say yes to the job, you enter the competition or pay for the adventure tour tickets. Closing your eyes and leaping can be a bit terrifying, but it’s the last line of defence against self-doubt and I guarantee, the more you do it, the stronger you will get.

So, use self-doubt to your benefit. Use it, abuse and then throw it away like yesterday’s cat food. Because we’re all way better than the nasty hobgoblin that lives in our head. And if you’re around about my vintage and wasted too many afternoons in front of the TV as a kid watching Monkey, then you’ll recognise this sage quote: “Tathagata the Buddha, the Father Buddha said, “With our thoughts we make the world”. And who can argue with the wisdom of Monkey?

What do you guys do to overcome self-doubt?

 

Into the past

The way you read a book is very dependent, I believe, on what stage of life you’re in at the time. It means that there is a perfect and a perfectly dreadful time to read every novel.

We were talking about this at work the other day. Specifically, we were chatting about what books we once loved that we’d like to reread (clearly, engaging in any actual work wasn’t high on the agenda at this point). Now, typically, I’m not much of a rereader ­– which renders my acres of bookshelves a little redundant you might think. But my bookshelves are both a big heavy comfort blanket and my armour against the world, so those puppies aren’t going anywhere.

Anyway, as I said, I’m not really one for rereading novels and in general I’m not really one for harking back. I have certain very beloved friends I have kept for years, but I don’t like to revisit the past so much. I’ve never been to a school reunion, for example. I just assume that they would descend into a competition to see who’s the saggiest or most successful before you all regress to playing the pimple faced roles you occupied as 17-year-olds. Or maybe they’d be a load of fun, who knows? Who cares? I won’t be finding out any time soon. Anyway, suffice it to say, I feel the same about books.IMG_20140817_190219

When I read Wuthering Heights I was about 16 and I thought it was the cat’s meow. I suspect if I read it now I would just get irritated by all that brooding obsession. I read The Great Gatsby when I was around 19 – that beautiful, heartbreaking book that’s really like an instruction manual for the early 20th century stalker. And that’s the thing – I loved that novel and I don’t want it to be overlayed with some of the junk that’s accumulated in my head in the years since I first read it.

Maybe you think I’m being a bit of a literary coward, and perhaps I am. But I know, for example that when I tried to reread A Catcher in the Rye a few years back it was big mistake. I originally read this when I was 20 and still young enough, I guess, to empathise with Holden Caulfield.

Thing is, I feel like I’ve become a more empathetic person as I’ve aged, but clearly my capacity for empathy has waned somewhat when it comes to whining, privileged teenage boys because when I read it anew, it just annoyed the living snot out of me. I couldn’t stop the internal voice that was shouting, “Oh for God’s sake kid, just get over yourself!”

And there you go, a fond book loving memory killed dead. So you’ll have to forgive my trepidation on these matters.

However, I do think there’s a case to be made for revisiting certain books. I think that in the current, clearly insane, world that is the American political landscape, there is a strong case to be made for revisiting Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She wrote this at the beginning of the Reagan era in the States when the far right Christian lobby groups were making inroads into the political scene and creating some real influence. I assume she wrote it as a cautionary tale, a tale of where any kind of fanaticism can take you and I think it’s just as relevant today.Fotor_146403937480591

I’ll also be giving Jane Austen’s Emma a try. Now, this is a bit of a cheat, because I’ve never actually finished this one, given that I couldn’t stand the main character, Emma (something Jane Austen expected from her readers). But I feel like now (as opposed to when I was in high school), I’ll be able to appreciate the subtleties of her character that made her one of Jane Austen’s favorites. And hey, I’ve watched Clueless loads of times, so I figure I’ve got a handle on this.

So, I will be taking some of the oldies down off my shelf at some point this year. I’ll let you know if they’re still beloved or if I felt like taking them out to the backyard and setting fire to them.

Like mother, like daughter

My mother is the reason I read. Mum is the one who read to me as a child. Mum is the one you’d often find with her face in a book. Mum is the one who went to bed with a novel in her hand every night. And in that regard, I’m a carbon copy.

There was one memorable (if very brief) period when I was about 6 when she decided it would be a marvellous idea to record herself on the tape deck reading my book out loud, (it was the 70s, so this was a pretty high-tech innovation on Mum’s part). She figured I’d be happy enough just listening to her reading my latest book from the tape.

But she figured wrong, my friends – I was having none of it.

Fotor_146266395142077I let her know in no uncertain terms that her presence was required and I would brook no argument (although possibly I didn’t use expressions like ‘brook no argument’ at six). My poor weary mother, who I dare say just wanted some quiet time with her chamomile tea and a little telly, was marched unceremoniously back into my room for bedtime reading duty.

But apart from that one blip Mum remained my constant reading inspiration.

She’s also the one who first taught me to write. I remember it clearly even though I couldn’t have been more than about 3 or 4. I was about to start pre-school and Mum wanted me to know how to write my name beforehand. I remember how excited I was as she sat me down at the table with a sheet of paper and coloured pencils. She asked me to pick one up and hold it in each hand to see in which it felt most comfortable. I remember the sensation so clearly and it was a close call (my dad’s a lefty so it could have gone either way). But by a margin, the right hand won out and I was on my way to understanding the mysterious sequence of lines and circles (as they appeared to me) that was the written word.

I took to it like a dog to a mucky pond. Although, for a while, I didn’t quite understand why my name, Trudi, had to start at the ‘T’ and not the ‘I’, so I had a number of Golden books from that period that read, “This book belongs to Idurt Nivals”.

So, these days when I talk to Mum on the phone, our conversations often drift on to what we’re reading. And although Mum’s reading tastes are a bit different to mine (more historical novels and no monsters, alas), I still enjoy hearing what she’s recently added to her very tidy and strictly alphabetised bookshelf (my sister inherited the tidy genes. Mine got lost in transit sometime before I was born).

Mum doesn’t really believe in Mother’s Day and never has; “It’s really just commercialised rubbish” is a refrain I remember from my childhood. But I thought I’d make this post about her anyway.

She taught me to love books and vegetables, walking and animals, people watching and old buildings. She taught me to question authority and think outside of conventional assumptions. She showed me what it’s like to have someone look at you with absolute love. I’ve always enjoyed her company and she’s always laughed at my jokes no matter how lame.Fotor_146266494656162

I’m eternally glad she’s my mum and I wouldn’t have her any different to the book loving, dog walking, lovable obsessive compulsive that she is.

I won’t wish her a happy Mother’s Day because that would just annoy her. But what I will say is thanks, Mum, for my reading habit ­– now I know who to blame for my growing book mountain.

The agony of decision

I love auditioning a new book. It’s a particularly delicious part of the reading process and the only good thing about finishing the novel I’ve just read.

I take three or four books down from the shelf (the ones that have been in a waiting-to-be-read holding pattern), I sit down with them and I open each one carefully.

Choosing the book I want is easy. I read the first few pages and if I feel like I want to keep reading, then that’s the book that becomes the chosen one. The rest of the poor dejected novels go back on the shelf like the little wallflowers they are, waiting and hoping desperately, I have no doubt, to be picked next time. What? Books have feelings, too, you know.

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Should I do it?

What book I want to read comes down to a mixture of magic and psychology that I don’t pretend to fully understand. I do know that for me at the moment, my scary books have to be reserved for the daylight hours and the novel I take to bed must be of the cosy or certainly non-plague ridden/ghost filled/desperate fight for survival variety. I’ve found myself of late waking in the wee small hours with the uncanny feeling something malevolent is waiting for me in the darkness. Great fodder for the horror writer in me. Not so great for the me who just wants to get the hell back to sleep.

And I certainly don’t want to return to days of old (well, if last month can be classed as such) in which I flee from my bed in a sleepwalking frenzy, trying to outrun whatever night terror has rudely interrupted by nice little dream about George Clooney and a warm bath of melted chocolate.

I’m a sleepwalker from way back and for those who think it isn’t a big deal, try waking up at one in the morning in your back yard, wearing a baby doll nightie, with a drunk wandering up the road next to your house barking at you. A little disconcerting to say the least.

All of this is to say, my book audition must be divided into two distinct categories: daytime and nighttime reading. In the daytime category I have:

  • The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (Am told by a very clever fellow book nerd that this is the bees knees)
  • Fellside by M. R. Carey (I loved, loved his novel The Girl with All the Gifts).Fotor_146214957786584

On the non-nightmare inducing side I have:

  • Stoner by John Williams (described to me by someone as “the perfect novel” – no pressure John Williams)
  • Room by Emma Donoghue (which may not really fit this category, but I read and loved another novel by her called Slammerkin – seriously brilliant stuff)
  • Stone Mattress by Margaret Attwood (have had a literary crush on Ms Attwood since I read The Handmaid’s Tale in high school. She can do no wrong).

Oh the delightful agony of decision. But really, all practical considerations aside, what book I choose boils down also to the magic part of the book auditioning equation.

Fotor_146215043091842What grabs me in that particular moment is part of a dark art I am happy to surrender myself to. There is a right and wrong time to read any book and something that might carry you away one year can leave you cold another. That’s why all of my little wallflowers can take heart in the fact that they’ll not be on the shelf forever. They can at some point expect to be read and either loved forever or flung across the room within the first 100 pages.

It’s all part of the fun.

Anyone else got something good they’re about to read?

Fashion don’ts

Sartorially speaking, I have committed some interesting faux pas over the years. There was the time aeons ago when I went to a nightclub in a pair of rather brief shorts and black patent leather stilettos. Now, there are many women who could pull off this look, but being short, pasty and more than a little on the padded side, I’m not one of them. Add to this the fact that I have never mastered the art of walking in heels and, rather than the vision of an alluring vixen I had been aiming for, I looked more like a chubby, plucked chicken.

Then there was the outfit I wore to my Year 12 formal: a yellow, polka dot, drop-waisted dress. This was something most grandmothers would have been proud to have in their wardrobe, but what the hell was it doing on an 18-year-old?

And let’s not forget the Jenny Kee rip-off jumper I wore at uni. I considered myself quite the funkster in that riot of bright colour that did little for my freckles and already rectangular figure.

What the hell?

What the hell?

But all of this pales in comparison to what I’ve been seen schlepping around the house wearing on the days I work from home.

Now, I like clothes, they’re fun, they’re a good way of expressing myself and they cover my shameful nakedness. But when it comes to what I wear when I’m sitting at my home computer, the word that best sums up my fashion style in the recent past is: stretchy. Give me an elasticated waste and an over-sized top any day I always thought.

Now there’s room in everyone’s life for an elasticated waist, in my opinion. Who wants to feel corseted when you’re lounging on the couch watching a movie and eating your body weight in chocolate? But when your life starts to become little more than tracksuits and yoga pants, something has been lost in the sartorial splendor department.

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Before

And then of course there are my ugg boots. Ancient and floppy they are now so devoid of wool inside you’d think they were made from a sheep afflicted by alopecia. They also have a hole in the end through which peaks my big toe like a little helmeted hermit peeking out his front door.

All this goes to say that when you work from home standards can slip when it comes to the old personal grooming. I’m not saying that teeth are unbrushed and hair is uncombed (although the latter has been treated as optional on occasion), but the ‘outfits’ I have been donning in recent times veered little from the fleece-lined jersey variety.

So I have decided to break free from my slob clothes and dress anew on the days I work from home. I’ll not only be applying a little more finesse to my at-home work outfits (see the ‘after’ photo) but I’ve decided I’m going to take the opportunity to wear those items I’ve bought in the past but haven’t been brave enough to wear out in public.

After

After

There’s the electric blue suede cowboy boots, they’ll get a few outings; the baggy legged skant (pants with a skirt over the top) that’ll get a work out; and then of course there’s the floor length grey wool maxi skirt I bought a few years ago. I know maxi skirts are a thing but this one is less 21st century fashion and more “Hello, 1893 called and it wants its clothing back”.

So I know I may look a little like someone’s mad Aunt Martha in these items but who’s going to see me? (Apart from Gerry but, God love him, he’s used to it.) I may frighten a few deliverymen and the odd Jehovah’s Witness, but I think they’ll survive. At least they won’t be greeted by a tracksuit wearing nightmare sporting a lumpy red cardi and a pair of ugg boots that should have been euthanised years ago.

That’s gotta be an improvement, right?

A room of her own

 

Where I would like to write and where I actually do write are in large part two very different places.

I’ve set up a space in our house that we call the writing room. It’s one of our three bedrooms and in it I’ve put my grandmother’s old dining table for a desk (tiny for a dining table, really. Clearly people were thinner and needed far less elbow room in the 1920s). It faces the doors that look out onto the path and rock wall that is immediately outside our front door. On top of the rock wall is our front garden, so the view from the writing room is pretty and green.

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The view from my room.

There’s a side table on which sit various knick-knacks for the cats to knock over with the furry little butts as they clamber by. I have a desk chair, an overstuffed and very disorganised filing cabinet, some bookshelves and a printer. It’s a very fine set-up. And until recently, I almost never did any writing in there.

Where I do most of my writing is sitting in the window seat of a State Rail train. I perch on an inadequately padded bench seat, my laptop balanced on my knees and I write from the Central Coast to Hornsby, every morning for 40 minutes. I don’t write on the return trip because I usually don’t have a brain by that time in the day – it’s been pummelled into submission by an entire day’s gainful employment.

The success of my writing schedule on my commute I believe can be attributed largely to one thing: I am a captive audience. I have nowhere else to go, little else I can do and as I’ve established this routine over (sadly) many years now, I am completely compliant to it. As soon as I step into that sterile blue space, my writing brain just clicks into gear.

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Thank you State Rail.

There are also few distractions: no TV to be watched, no partners to talk to, no cats to feed, no housework to do or urgent eBay research to conduct. The landscape we travel through is too rugged for internet reception, so I can’t go snaking around email, Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, or Pinterest as I do at home. So it’s just me, the laptop, the view and 50 silent and slightly cranky commuters who will fillet anyone who tries to make noise (thank God for quiet carriage Nazis – although one did tell me once I was typing too loudly).

But, I refuse to give up on the dream and indeed am pulling closer to it day by day. The moving ornaments (aka the cats) hang out with me in the writing room whenever I’m in there so that’s motivating. Also, I work from home a couple of days a week now so slowly my beleaguered brain is (in a distinctively Pavlovian way) coming to accept it as a place of work and concentration.

Really, it doesn’t matter where you write as long as you do it. And I’m the last person to hold out for some idyllic place in the country or by the sea, before I can get to work. But I love my little writing room (or a little room to write, as it were – get it?!) I put a lot of time and care into setting it up and dammit, I’m not going to let it go to waste.

What was it Virginia Woolf said? “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. Well, at least I have the latter…

*Where to do you write best? At the kitchen table? In a basement? Taking up a café table in town? I’d love to know what works for other people.

Banishing writer’s block

Sometimes when you write, you sit down at your computer and the words come tripping from your fingers, practically stumbling over each other in their haste to get on the page.

But other times it all comes to a screeching halt and like a gobstopper over your windpipe, suddenly there’s no air and certainly no words. Those tricky little buggers have deserted you and they show little sign of coming back. You look at the computer screen, that cursor blinking at you accusingly and suddenly your 500-2000 word daily limit may as well be an interstellar distance so vast it’s over in the delta quadrant (Star Trek tragics will know what I’m talking about here – live long and prosper my nerdling brethren).

Anyway, mostly I’m lucky because this doesn’t happen to me too often, but when it does, it feels like I’ve been smacked in the forehead by a brick wall. It’s this very sensation that has inspired me, over the years, to come up with a few tricks for getting the word river flowing again. If this has happened to you, read on and maybe some of my subterfuge will trick your brain back to work like it does mine.

 Free writing

I do this to wake my brain the hell up mostly on the train at the start of my long morning commute. Basically, you just write whatever comes into your head, editing nothing. It’s meant to wake you up and help turn off your internal critic. To be honest, mine is part journal, part free writing, but I have to be careful with the journal part because, given that I’m writing it on the train at an obscene time in the morning, my writing can turn into one massive whinge fest. Usually about how tired I am. It’s very tedious. But in general free writing is like applying WD40 to a creaky old push mower and before I know it I’m cutting my word count down for the day.

Going for a walk

Or whatever exercise does it for you – being scandalously unfit, walking is good enough for me. I find this is most helpful when I’ve woken up feeling a bit flat and duller than a blonde brick fence. I know that in this frame of mind my writing will have all the charm and vibrancy of a wet sock and so I need to get the endorphins going. The best thing for that, I’ve found is a bit of exercise. It’s also good for calming the brain if that’s the problem – you know when your thoughts are pinging around like a flea on steroids and you just need to focus. That’s when I use a little mindfulness on my walk. I don’t concentrate on my breathing (if I do this I end up hyperventilating – I’m just neurotic enough that I start to doubt whether I have this breathing thing right at all. Too fast? Too slow? Too shallow? You get the idea). Instead, I concentrate my attention on the sounds and colours around me – calms my brain right down.

Reading over my work

I find that reading the last few paragraphs or the last chapter of what I’ve written can be enough to get me into that writing brain space. I have enough of an ego to be thoroughly entranced by my own words, so I may as well use this to my advantage.

Housework

This let’s your mind wander while keeping you occupied and it’s relaxing enough that I find it helps to get the brain into that creative head space. But you have to be careful that it’s something you’re happy to do and not something you find too tedious and irritating. So for example, the washing up is my go-to activity for a helpfully tedious creative limber up. But putting the washing on the line just annoys the snot out of me because the Hills Hoist is lopsided so every time I put a towel up there the whole the just swings out of my grasp and I have to hang on to it with one hand while trying to get those little pegs up the right way and all I want to do is yank that thing out of the ground with my bare hands and throw it across the yard! I think you get the picture.

Listen to or watch an interesting podcast/documentary

This is great if you’re feeling a bit dull because it can really get the brain sparking with new ideas. I have a number of brilliant podcasts I listen to that inspire loads new stories. And as I writer I’m open to plundering ideas wherever I can get them. Some of my faves are: This American Life, Conversations with Richard Fidler, Criminal, Strangers, Late Night Live and The Moth Podcast.

So that’s it, that’s how I beat the dreaded writer’s block. Hopefully, these tips will be of some use to you, too. But if all that fails, just bear in mind the sage words of author Phillip Pullman:

“If you can’t think of what to write, tough luck: write anyway”

*What are your tricks for getting the creative brain going?

Shameless cat post

I never thought I’d have a cat. I’ve always been a dog person – bouncy, fun-loving friend for life is what you get with a dog. And, I confess, I always felt that utter devotion was a compelling character trait. I didn’t have anything against cats, I just didn’t see the point in them. They didn’t do anything – they were just there, often skittish, aloof and seemingly dismissive of me.

But then our two beloved pooches died of old age, within six months of one another, and we were bereft. I don’t need to explain to devoted pet owners what that feels like. Suddenly, our home was devoid of anything furrier than Gerry and, as affectionate as he is, I couldn’t expect him to bear the weight of attention I used to lavish on our dogs. I tried, but after a while he started to get a little twitchy.

Then the next door neighbours’ cats made themselves at home. Having noticed the house was no longer guarded by two big dogs, clearly they saw their chance.

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Pugsley

At first it was a novelty for us, “Oh, look, next door’s cat has wandered in…”. Then it became commonplace, “Cats with you all day were they?” Then it became addictive, “Where are the cats? Have you seen the cats? They’re normally here by now. Is something wrong, do you think?”

When we moved house and had to leave them behind, I was bereft again. I even tried to get Gerry to go next door and ask the neighbours if they really wanted their cats. If not we’d be happy to take them off their hands. But in the end cooler heads prevailed (Gerry’s) and we bid them a sad farewell.

But I couldn’t leave it there – it was too late, the bug had well and truly bitten. So now we have Frank or Frankie Pantaloons as we call him, because of his fluffy back legs, and Pugsley or the Pugga Wugs as he’s commonly known (I know, revolting isn’t it? But these things are a compulsion when you have cats it seems).

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My writing buddies

Frank is a black and white tuxedo cat we got from a local pet rescue crowd and Pugsley is a big ginger bruiser we bought from the same place. Both have settled in and made us their servants, as is the natural order of things. They have become my constant writing compadres and each of them loves little more than stretching out on the desk or helping me to invent new words like “bfe93sj9ssb*bie” by walking across the keyboard. So, they’re creative geniuses as well.

Every so often, one of us will look at them lounging on the furniture and we’ll say, “We have cats” in a tone of mild bewilderment. But that’s what cats do – they get under your skin. So much so that they take die-hard dog fiends and turn them into indulgent, fawning serfs willing to do their every bidding. At least that’s what they did to us anyway.

Our two may at some point have a cat friendly dog to torment, but for now they’re the sole bearer of my attentions and they’re coping quite well. At least they haven’t started to get twitchy… not yet anyway.

*Do you have a cat-loving confession to make? Go on, get it off your chest ­ you’re among friends.

Character building

So, I’m trying to nail the nature of the main character in my newest book and as usual the ideas shift and move under me like I’m walking on a pile of old fence palings.

I’ve always struggled with my main characters. I find it easy to create the peripheral ones, they have character coming out the wazoo. I tend to cherry pick character traits, mannerisms and attitudes from real people and cobble them together into my secondary characters to give them colour and depth (making sure no-one is identifiable, of course. Otherwise, talk about how to lose friends and alienate people). But my main? Always a tricky one.

You hear some writers talking about their main character like they’re a real person. You hear these writers saying things like: “I just never know what he/she will do next”. Given my character development predicament, I can’t tell you how I envy them.

The book I’m finishing at the moment, The Outliers, has been with me for, oh 100 years, and when I look back over the old copy, I’m amazed how different my main character was when I started the novel. She not only changed demeanor and speech, but name and fashion sense as well from the first draft to the last. She started life as a short, dumpy, frizzy haired 50-something called Mavis and has ended a tall, skinny, socially inept 38-year-old called Cate. That’s a sign of a deeply rooted indecisiveness, I believe. Or maybe it isn’t.

Anyway, I know you’re meant to draw up a list of character traits for your main protagonist. This is supposed to help you get to know them and you’re encouraged to include everything from the trivial to the profound. But I’ve rarely found that this works for me. I don’t care if they prefer lemonade or Fanta, and while the little stuff can help, piece by piece, to colour your character, I don’t think it helps me to get a handle on who they really are.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been asking entirely the wrong questions. Yes I can ponder their favourite colour and whether they eat breakfast, it does no harm, but what I really need to ask is what drives them? What are their fears? What are their most deeply buried desires and dreams? What is their most shameful secret? Ooh, that’s a good one.

Whether we’re conscious of them or not, these are the things that motivate us, that create our reactions to events and colour our perception of the world around us. They’re the filter through which we see ourselves and our lives.

All right, so now I’m sounding like the end of a Jerry Springer show, but you get where I’m coming from, I hope. I just need to apply a little psychological rigour to the process and, hopefully, it will help.

Hopefully, then I’ll be like those other writers who have their main character stepping off the page and inviting themselves to dinner. Now I just have to figure out if they prefer roast chicken or lasagne. Or maybe they’re vegetarian? What if they have nut allergies? Oh, the agony of decision.

* How do you get a handle on your characters? I’d love to know your process.

Favourite characters:

  • Katniss Everdeen – I’d like a show of hands for all the people who have read these books and didn’t like Katniss. Surely, they are a scant few? Katniss is tough, beautiful, compassionate and protective. She’s the older sister and best friend everyone wants. With a side serving of PTSD, poor love.
  • Odd Thomas – In this series of books by Dean Koontz, Odd starts off life as a short order cook in the fictional town of Pico Mundo. He loves being a short order cook, he loves his girlfriend Stormy Llewellyn, but his ability to communicate with the dead and predict disaster plays havoc with his life over the following eight other novels. But Odd is lovely – warm-hearted, philosophical and kind, you’re on his side right from the start.
  • Jane Eyre – I’m sure there has been a small mountain of papers and books written about Miss Eyre by far more clever and scholarly people then me. But what I love about her is her humility, fierce intellect, independence and backbone. Enough said, I reckon.

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