Archive | June 2012

Well that’s a relief!

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia” E L Doctorow

I did wonder whether it was safe to admit that I hear my characters talking in my head and assume their personalities when I write them.  I suppose it’s all about how you actually say it!

I was in a little shop in Whitby (yes, the Whitby, it’s not far from where I live really) and someone asked what I was getting.  I replied “thtuff” in a deep, dopey but enthusiastic voice.  The woman behind the counter heard and looked at me strangely.  I looked at her, grinned and said “sorry, that’s just the dog’s voice in my head”.  Silence, tumbleweed, was that the sound of ambulance sirens?

What I should have said was “that’s the way I imagine my dog would talk if she could” but no, I had to make myself sound as unhinged as possible.  I paid and left quite quickly then waited until I was a distance from the shop before howling with laughter.

I do attribute voices to characters as I imagine them.  My dog was actually the smartest dog I’ve ever met and an incredible judge of character.  I really wish I’d listened to her about the builder – she was right!  To my mind her voice was quite deep because her bark was big and she spoke bluntly and with an innocence that made her sound quite dopey.  She also had a lisp.  No creature with a tongue that could lick your face at fifty paces could fail to have a lisp.  She therefore liked thocks and thoap and thponges and thtuff.  It became a common thing among friends and family to refer to thtuff in the dog’s imaginary speaking voice.  It was perfectly acceptable for me to say that to a complete stranger “it’s just the dog’s voice in my head”.  Only it wasn’t really acceptable, was it?!

I’m laughing just thinking about the Whitby incident.  It sprang to mind the minute I read this quote.  As a writer I create characters in every detail inside my head and then project them onto the page.  They have conversations in my head (not with me, with each other).  That may well tap in to the same areas of the brain that conjure up voices to the schizophrenic.  It might be schizophrenia itself safely channelled.

I admit I’m neurotic, I admit sometimes even mildly psychotic (in a non-violent think it but don’t do it sort of way).  The difference between me and the person that looks at me funny is that I don’t try to pretend that my brain does nothing unusual.  I write it all down, call it my art, and no-one bats an eyelid.  I say it to someone and that makes me weird, maybe slightly dangerous, definitely to be watched, possibly even sedated.

Where is the line drawn between schizophrenic and creative?  If a schizophrenic were given the means to write would they create the most amazing characters ever written?  If they’d written all their lives, would the characters have stayed on the paper instead of usurping the mind of the creator?

This quote means so much to me on so many levels.  I can laugh at myself and understand why people might give me a wide berth when I come out with things like the dog’s voice in my head.  I bet those same people do very little in their lives that’s creative and passionately so.  Food for thought.  I wonder what the dog would have said?


Moral dilemma

Just recently several people, complete strangers until now, have restored my faith in humanity in a quite dramatic way.  I’m reticent to name names because I don’t want to cause any blushes.

Why is this a dilemma?  Well, I plough an awful lot of energy into killing people in often quite horrible circumstances.  That is of course on paper (I couldn’t deal with the mess, never mind physically dispose of the bodies if I did it for real).  Then going back, editing and making it even more traumatic for them than it was to begin with.  I tried writing a happy ending to one of my short stories but simply could not rest, so I went back and killed someone then felt instantly better about the whole piece.  I see dead people.  I made them that way.

What is a girl to do when people turn out to be actually really jolly nice and she has still to maintain an unholy bloodlust?  Should she develop yet more of a split personality?  I can see myself ending up somewhere like Arkham Assylum if that’s the case!

Joking aside, I feel all the more able to do what I do because there are people out there that make it worth writing or taking pictures to entertain and working to help.  If things I say and do have value to just one person, then my objective is fulfilled.  Whether I made someone laugh, gave someone a bit of courage to be their true self, inspired someone to go and write about killing me next, confirmed that indeed someone is completely mad but so am I and it’s not that bad, or was just there at the right time for them; if just that one person gets something out of the things I say and do, I’m happy.

I’d not hurt a fly, say boo to a goose (unless it hissed at me in that very disconcerting way geese do), or so much as pinch a toffee off pick-and-mix.  I’m quite a nice girl really but don’t tell anyone.  It’s a closely guarded secret and would ruin my bloodthirsty, reclusive image.

Strangers are just friends we haven’t met yet and they don’t get much stranger than me 😉

Teensy teaser – Dr Peter Phelps

Tiny little taster from Inkredible, a snippet from ‘crime’ scene number two:

At the mention of his title Dr Phelps came over. “I don’t know what to think, Jim. The torso is like a bag of soup, but the skull and legs are intact. I’ll know more once we open him up, but I’d say his insides are a pulp. I’ve heard of similar things in accidents, people crushed between or under vehicles, but that’s extremely rare, I’ve never seen one, and how it might happen on a sofa in a first floor flat, I couldn’t begin to guess.”

“Ok doctor. No way the body could have been moved?”

“No way. We’re going to have a hell of a job getting him into a body bag without, well, to put it bluntly, without spilling him everywhere.”

The D.S. grimaced and decided he’d rather be elsewhere when that happened.

If you like a bit of grim and gruesome, Peter Phelps is the man.  The plain-speaking blitz-humoured coroner works round the clock to find answers on the rash of gruesome deaths in the city.  Even he struggles to deal with shocking things done to the victims coming in to his morgue.  He starts to see a pattern emerging and only prays someone puts an end to these horrible deaths and soon.

Poetry in the schoolroom

I just read on the Guardian website that the UK Education Secretary Michael Gove has announced plans to make learning verse compulsory in primary schools (first school).  There’s a ‘complete the verse’ quiz to see how much poetry we remember as adults that we were made to learn as young children.  I scored 8 out 10 on this quiz just by reading the preceding lines and guessing.  Although we were taught poetry, made to learn and recite it, none of the poems we covered are in the quiz.

So.  Do I like and appreciate reading and writing poems because I was made to learn it at school?  No.  I was writing them from the moment I could put a sentence together on paper.  My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and older cousins – family – taught me nursery rhymes that were fun and appealing and soon I wanted to make up my own.  I had to learn new words to make rhymes.  I had to learn spelling too, which I mostly did, shock-horror, by reading.  Again my family encouraged me to read.

When the subject of poetry came up in the schoolroom, at first I was enthusiastic – it had always been fun in my personal experience.  Oh, boy.  You will take home and learn the first verse of Wordsworth’s Daffodils.. Ok, that’s easy enough.  The next day, we will recite the first verse of Wordsworth’s Daffodils together.  Ok, I learned it, that should be fine.  Not fine.  I remembered it.  Most of the class remembered it.  Some didn’t.  Some of them hated it and didn’t bother.  Some of them got half way through and fell flat.  Some of them didn’t get beyond the first few words.  We all remembered the last word was daffodils.  Did we stop?  No.  Say it again and again until everyone gets it right.  Can I cry yet?


Tudor writing tools – are we going backwards by forcing poetry on kids?

What this achieved was not the learning of an art form, a thing to be appreciated.  What it achieved was the turning of poetry into a chore, a thing to associate with intense boredom and frustration as a result of reading it.  I still can’t sit and read a lot of it without feeling there must be something more productive I could be doing.  I still can remember the very beginning of Daffodils, but not the subsequent verses that I learned in the weeks after the mass boredom event.

Later on it came to critical appreciation time.  I hated that too.  Who am I to say what was going through someone’s mind when they wrote their great and famous poem that really isn’t all that great but is in all the books?  Comments from the teacher showed he didn’t accurately surmise what was going through my mind when I wrote the poem I handed in last week.  Why should I take his word, then, when he marks my appreciation?  How can you put  tick or a cross on perception?  But ticks and crosses there were.  My interpretation of something you didn’t write so couldn’t possibly know the reason of, is wrong?

What did that achieve, then?  Well, when I read poetry, I’m averse to looking for the meaning, even though no-one’s going to tell me that what it means to me is wrong.  Unless of course I decide to blog my reaction.  It was like posting your honest review of  book and someone marking it unhelpful.  Why?  Because I took away something different from it than you did?  No two people read the same book, the same poem, hear the same song.  Art is subjective and I guess that takes me full circle back to yesterday’s post about word counts.

What would I do differently?  I’d get kids to read and maybe even act out some simple poems suited to their age.  To see them as well as hear them. Maybe smell them too, knowing some kids!  I’d let them see for themselves how a poem works, let them know it’s the next step up from nursery rhymes, make them feel like they’re going through a life experience by finding poetry.  Then I’d ask them to write their own using sights and sounds and if necessary smells.  It has to be made about them, not about some flouncy piece of writing from centuries ago.  I’d ask them to read out their poems, pin them on the wall where everyone could read them then I’d get everyone to vote anonymously for the best one and I’d give a prize.  Maybe a book of children’s poems or a CD of them.

For the older kids, I’d show them some examples of critical appreciation and I pick contrasting ones on the same piece so that they could easily see there is no write and wrong.  If I felt they’d missed an obvious point I’d explain that you haven’t got to lose sight of the woods for the trees.  If I didn’t get what they were driving at, I’d tell them that’s something I hadn’t thought of, it would be nice if you’d explained a bit more about what you were thinking.  I’d certainly not make a cross in red pen and leave it at that.

As a teacher I’d no doubt make a lot of work and some expense for myself, but I’d try to think outside the box, the box being the classroom.  How can I make this applicable to life for them?  Tell them it’s great, on a rainy day to sit by the window reading poetry while you have a hot drink.  Tell them that really songs are poems with a soundtrack and a slightly different pattern to make them catchy.  When they’re older, tell them life is a poem with its rhythms and subtleties and it’s enigmatic meaning that’s different for everyone.

I’d be a great teacher but for one thing – I have no tolerance for unruly behaviour, whoever it may be.  Miss Jekyll becoming Miss Hyde, although a great link into a lesson plan on Victorian literature, might not work out for the best.

Try that quiz and see how you do!

Words, pages – who’s counting?

I am, and obsessively so.  I’ve tried to work out averages and it’s not easy to do.  What’s the average paperback length?  What’s the average word count per page?  What does that work out as when you multiply it by pages?  Why am I so worried about it?

If trying to work out averages and finding it hard to do so should teach me anything, it’s that every novel, every story, is different and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s fifty or a hundred thousand words.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s three hundred or a thousand pages.  There will be as many words, as many pages as the story needs.

I think I’ve heard too many times and probably in fiction anyway, that a publisher has paid an advance for the next hundred thousand words and am trying to somehow live up to that imaginary requirement.  I don’t have a publisher.  I don’t have a brief to fulfil.  I have a vision in my head that wants to be written down and that is all.

Of course the dream is that a publishing house snaps up my vision and then I sell the movie rights and retire on it.  But that’s just as imaginary as the brief I’m somehow writing to, especially if I spend so much time counting that I never write anything!

I’ve passed the half-way mark in my self-imposed requirements and I’m trying not to view that in still a long way to go sort of way.  I don’t find it a chore.  I love writing.  I love it when I read back over what I’ve written and think actually, I wrote that and I’m really pleased with it.  Why then do I always return to the reasons to be hard on myself?  Is that normal writerly (yes, I know that’s not really a word but it should be) behaviour?  Is it just that these days everyone has the means to voice their opinions on these things so publicly?  There are an awful lot of question marks in this post!  Do, please comment whether you have an answer or another question for the pot.  I can’t be the only one that worries about achieving an unspecified goal.

Dear Grandma, shush

Dear Grandma,

The other day I couldn’t write a thing.  Your voice in my head was telling me again that what I’m doing is a waste of time and isn’t proper writing.  So I’m addressing you with this post and I hope there’s some way you can read it from beyond.  I’m not sure what you believed proper writing to be.  I never saw you read a book, although you did read some autobiographies, or so I’m told.    Well, Grandma, when I was a kid, I hadn’t really been around long enough to write a substantial story of my life but I had so many ideas for stories that created lives.

You’ll be pleased to know, Grandma, that Paul has written a fantastic autobiography, but he’s had a full and action packed life that people will want to read about.  Me, I’ve never been very far or done very much really, and that seems more and more unlikely all the time.  I didn’t mean to get this illness in childhood that took away my physical energy.  I didn’t mean to start falling apart in my thirties.  I didn’t design my own genome and if I had, I would have still added the drive to write.

After talking to Paul though, Grandma, you need to know that the writing drive comes from your bloodline.  I’m taking my publishing name from your bloodline and very seriously considering making it legally my name.  So what I do is as much because of you as in spite of you.

Paul and I talked for nearly an hour and we have very similar things to say about our early lives.  the difference between he and I though, is that he went out and did what he wanted to do early on.  Me, I’ve waited until no-one can stop me and I’m only sorry that Mum isn’t here, because she would be so excited for me and for Paul.

So I’m ever so apologetically going to have to tell you to shush, Grandma.  I can do this and you never know – it could be the start of something good that you would never have let me achieve.  Getting a book out is an achievement in itself.  You should be pleased for me.  Your granddaughter knows what she wants to do, always has, and she’s doing it.  If we ever meet again, if there is an afterlife, I hope you can smile and introduce me as your granddaughter, the writer.  I’ll even give you signed ethereal copies if you think you can stand to read some fiction and be gracious about it.

Now please excuse me.  I’ve set myself a task to write as much as I can today, whether you approve or not.

Your granddaughter, the writer


Winged Warriors

So proud to announce on this blog, my heroic cousin’s memoirs of an astounding air force career, Winged Warriors: The Cold War from the Cockpit is now available to pre-order.

Paul McDonald’s 34 year RAF career has taken him far and wide to see and do things most of us only dream of. This is the stuff novels try to encapsulate, only here it’s all true.

Read extracts, a short biography, synopsis and view photographs at

I’m so proud of Paul. Not only did he do all of the things in this book, he also chose to share his experiences and tell it like it really was. From cadet to OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 1995, his are memoirs worth reading.

Visit the website for more information, or click the image above to go straight to the Amazon page (here for my friends in the US).

Farewell to Ray

What writer could let today pass without thinking about the enormous influence of Ray J Bradbury on the craft?

He had a huge impact on me and how I think about my writing.  His ability to take anything and turn into inspiration for a story rubbed off on me quite dramatically.  I would imagine he went through the same era of funny looks from his peers because of the tangents he could follow from the simplest of beginnings.  He made me less afraid to pursue tangents and see what could become of them.

He made me less afraid to leave my readers with questions.  But why did it happen?  Just because.  But what happens next?  We don’t know – that’s in the future.  Writing Bradbury style stimulates imagination, provokes thought and a hungry mind just loves it.  For many it isn’t to taste.  For many, being left with questions is an uncomfortable experience.  To me that’s like expecting the writer to continue forever with the same story.

A writer is omniscient in the moment and the past.  They don’t know the future of the characters.  They only know where they left them.  So why not say they waited to see.  It’s no less frustrating than they all lived happily ever after.  What’s happily?  Did they fulfil all their dreams?  Did they only live another fortnight?  Did Cinders get pregnant and give birth to pumpkins?  Everyone has an idea of what happily ever after is, but it’s based on individual hopes and experience.  Why can’t ‘but it’s all over for now’ be the same?

What I learned most from Ray was to keep writing.  He said, write and write – you can’t always create something bad.  He’s right.  The chances are that you will produce something good along the way.  He was and still is an inspiration.  I’d like to think I could channel him somehow, but I suspect he’d frown upon that.  He’ll be sadly missed, but what a life to reach out and touch so many millions.  Raise a glass to Ray J Bradbury and then write a short story about something you see when you do.  To Ray…

Meet William Walker

William is an old fashioned policeman.  He follows hunches and doesn’t consult databases.  Nearing retirement, he thought transferring to a quiet country post would be a great way to ease into the years to come.  He was wrong.

“Even in the middle of nowhere, no, especially in the middle of nowhere, you couldn’t keep anything quiet.  The middle of nowhere had a grapevine the like of which you never saw in the city.  Out here everyone was interested.  Everything that happened was news because not very much generally happened.  A broken leg was headline news.  City folk might pay a passing notice to something and that was it, on to the next thing.  Country folk would watch every move with interest, give theories half of which would be superstitious and they would still be talking about it in ten years’ time because nothing else would happen in the meantime.  Walker thought it would be more comfortable out here; less overlooked.  He could not have been more wrong.  Everyone knew he got through a bottle of brandy a week, did his laundry on Saturdays and the Times crossword on Sundays.  With nothing but space for a mile in any direction, you could feel intensely claustrophobic.”

With the discovery of human remains and lots of them, he wishes he’d stayed in the city.  Now he has to find out who these people were and he doesn’t look forward to much help from the locals, especially when it turns out the first seven burials are about 140 years old.  He has a bad feeling and knows this is something much bigger than the experts seem to think.

Little does he know he’s about to be caught up in a current investigation and more mysterious deaths as Inkredible unfolds.

A glimpse at Ivan

Ivan is a misanthrope to say the least.  He doesn’t often go to the city and can’t bear to be around people.  Every time he has to go into town though, he’s struck by the changes in society.  He rants inwardly:

“He was appalled by men who had evolved to have no physical or moral backbone.  People called them homosexual as an insult but they weren’t.  He understood homosexuality – that had always been there and it wasn’t the same thing, although modern society couldn’t make the distinction.  Effeminate and homosexual were not the same at all.  The most masculine of men might have a predilection for other men.  Feminised heterosexual men would at one time never have found a woman that paid them more than a sisterly notice.  Now though, now that women were as free as men to play any role in society, a whole new type of man had emerged, one that knew nothing of what it once was to be a man.  Some women now even sought these men ‘in touch with their feminine side’.  But what good would they be if the world suddenly reverted to what it had been a millennium ago?  It wouldn’t take much.  Men were not all men anymore, and even fewer were gentlemen.  But why was a gentleman needed when so few women were ladies.  He couldn’t relate to these new types of people.  So many distinctions, so many blurred lines, so few solid boundaries.  Did it matter?  Was it of any consequence what impression he made of himself when all were so self-interested anyway?  Of course not.  He laughed a dry laugh.  Human life had tried to infect him with its desperation to belong, but it would have to be cleverer than that!

He found it a strain to blend in.  It made him weary.  Having to listen so closely to what anyone said, having to analyse the tone against the facial expression and both of those against the body language.  People were so seldom sincere, so frequently embellishing the facts, so often using sarcasm and humour to veil a slight.  He wondered how anyone lived and communicated among such a society and survived.  Perhaps they didn’t really.  Maybe that explained the superficiality.  How could anyone afford to feel anything, to register what was really going on, to give more than a cursory glance, when to do so could only open them up to the brutality of the world beyond their tiny existence?  How could they afford to have depth when it would only show them the depths to which humanity had sunk?  Some, he knew, created their own micro society around them and shunned all others.  That had gone on for a long time.  Now it was even more complex and he wondered at the truth of it all.  Who could really live like this without losing sight of true life?  He could not slot in to this world.  But so what?  He didn’t need to make friends, only get by here for a little while.”

His thoughts are many and about everything.  Don’t get him started on architecture!