Sunday, 8 November 2015

Sunday Summary: What is the use of a holiday without a bookshop or twenty?

I know, I've been terrible - both at updating the blog, and because of all the books I've bought and otherwise acquired this past month. But up to the end of September, I did pretty well, keeping to my "Read 3: buy 2" rule and getting my to-read shelf down, briefly, to under twenty books. And then I realised I didn't like having such a small selection of things to read (not counting rereads) and they were almost entirely sci-fi or fantasy. But not to fear: my birthday was in October, and I have lots of friends and relations who know me well, as is evident if you've read my birthday post a couple of weeks ago. Then, at the end of the month I had two weeks off from work, which included a trip with my friend Sharon to Hay-on-Wye, the town on the Welsh border that is famous for its quality and quantity of second-hand bookshops. The following weekend I met up with Bex and Laura, for my last book-splurge of 2015. Anything I see that I want, from now on, can go onto my Christmas wishlist.

So, with no further ado, let me present to you a gratuitous "Look at all the booooooooks!" (and bookshops) post.

The White Horse Bookshop, Marlborough

It was really nice to travel with a friend who drives; no stress about changing trains, worrying about who sits next to you, or carrying your luggage to the station. We took the car ferry from Yarmouth to Lymington, and driving through the New Forest the scenery was absolutely gorgeous. The trees were in bright shades of autumn colours - much more impressive than we have on the island. When the signs warned us to look out for animals on the road, I did not appreciate just how many times we would have to slow down to let ponies, donkeys, sheep and cows wander into our way without a care in the world. We stopped off for lunch at Marlborough, a decision that may or may not have been cemented by me noticing an independent bookshop called the White Horse, which stocked new titles across three storeys (although I think the basement was for art materials.) After a lunch at the Polly Tearooms, which was recommended by a passer-by overhearing us discussing where to eat, we spent a little time in the White Horse, which had a good range of fiction, a friendly bookseller, and two rooms upstairs for non-fiction: one for travel, and the other had a wide, cosy window seat if you want to spend lots of time browsing. I treated myself to The Bookshop that Floated Away.


We took a roundabout way to get into the town centre from our bed and breakfast, and it wasn't until I checked on the map app on my phone that I realised how close we were to the first bookshop - it was quite literally about two minutes' walk away. Our first stop was the Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, a proper, traditional second-hand bookshop with lots of rooms and corners, where you can get lost in L-Space and potentially find yourself in another city. The shop had only just opened, and one of the booksellers was still hoovering, but made us very welcome as she darted around the shop. The children's section was wonderful, full of the sorts of paperbacks that would have been for sale in the '80s and '90s. I spotted Adele Geras' The Tower Room - the first in a trilogy of fairy-tale retellings I remembered from middle school, before modern fairy-tales were the big thing they are now. I did not buy that one, but immediately broke my "one book per shop" rule and picked up a very jolly old school story called The Girls of the Rose Dormitory, and another called Jane's Adventures In and Out of the Book, about a little girl who finds a book in her family's castle which is a portal to many weird and wonderful worlds. Then, upstairs, where Sharon went in search of a book about fashion through the ages, and I buried myself in the little science fiction and fantasy nook (naturally!) I added Young Rissa to my pile, because second-hand bookshops are wonderful for cheesy old sci-fi.

Next up, we stopped at a gorgeous stationery shop, Bartrum's, where I told Sharon to keep me far away from notebooks - I have a bad habit. We sighed over fountain pens and every colour and brand of ink imaginable - except for the one I actually decided I wanted to buy. There were some really dinky little ink bottles for about two or three pounds, and I did end up with one of them in a gorgeous bright green (to make a change from my usual purple.) I also bought a red leather pen-case which fits two fountain pens and a crochet hook quite nicely, and is more convenient than a full-sized pencil case to keep in a handbag.

The handsomest bookshop...
But genre fiction is exiled to
the basement.
(I kind of loved that.)

Richard Booth's Bookshop was up next, which Sharon described as "the handsomest bookshop." It was a mixture of new and used, with fancy painted wooden signs above each section, and covered three floors. Upstairs was a Folio Society reading room, and on the ground floor was a cafe (although it was closed at the time, so alas no cake break. Naturally I went to the children's section to see how many editions of Anne of Green Gables there were - enough to be counted as a respectable bookstore. But I had a particular fondness for the basement. Yes, it was austere, somewhat gloomy, with very poor lighting in the clearance section, but there were rows upon rows just dedicated to the science fiction: pulpy paperbacks from decades past, TV-tie-in novels for Star Wars and Trek and sci-fi shows long since forgotten. Crime and romance were also down here. So, again, I found another cheap and cheerful, battered old book which could be really bad and could be a hidden gem. There were also some publishers' remainders going cheaply, and I was drawn to a book called Speak about an artificial inteligence being whose personality and memories were made up from different people over the years, unable to do anything but tell their story.

We could not find all the shops on the map, and suspect that some may have closed down or relocated. We went into two branches of Addyman's bookshop - three, if you count Murder and Mayhem, which appears to be a separate building for their true crime and crime fiction. We didn't spend very long in there. Sharon worked for the police from the age of sixteen up until a couple of years ago, and as such has little taste for reading about the worst of human nature in the name of entertainment. I like a good thriller, but have trouble knowing where to start when faced with an entire section, or shop, in the genre. The main Addyman's shop was a treat, sprawling and interestingly decorated - I think the walls came from the interior of a church somewhere, in blue and gold. The entrance of the science fiction room is guarded by a life-sized cardboard standee of Captain Kirk (opposite the Star Trek tie-in books, and a couple of cast autobiographies, but no Leonard Nimoy, I checked.)  Captain Picard stood at the centre of the room itself, giving an odd sensation of being watched if I caught sight of him out of the corner of my eye. There were mostly second-hand books, but again, some well-discounted new; I saw stacks of Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things collection, which I've already got, and I also saw a big hardback of The Art of Neil Gaiman, which I do not own, but I was getting towards the end of my day's budget. I did buy a copy of The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, who I've long been meaning to read more from.

We must have gone into about ten bookshops during our day in Hay, returning to the B&B in the early afternoon to drop off our first batch of purchases, before heading out for more. Other notable mentions were Rose's Books, which specialises in collector's editions of classic children's books. There were a few Chalet School books in there, but well out of my price range. There is a huge cinema converted into a bookshop, and you could probably spend all day in that shop alone - and there were big cases outside, which a very eclectic selection, all going for a pound. I found myself dithering over one book, The Last of her Kind by Sigrid Nunez, before deciding that, if I keep on going back to a book, I'm clearly meant to have it. (I just hope it's good, after that.)

We also stopped off at Hereford on the way home. At the HMV
I bought another copy of Neverwhere - a lending copy, and How

The Marquis Got His Coat Back from the Waterstone's, which got

an approving look from the bookseller.

Bloggers' bookshop mini-crawl

You'd think a weekend in Hay-on-Wye would satisfy my book-buying urges, but if you think that, you obviously don't know me very well. The following Saturday, I met up with Bex and Laura in London, and had a practice run for Bex's planned bookshop crawl early next year. I met Bex first, at St Pancras, and, once she'd passed her children over to her mother's care, we wandered over to the British Library, where she'd seen some advertising for an Alice in Wonderland exhibition, but it turned out that wasn't due to open until later in November. We had a good look in the bookshop, however, where she bought a book and I added to my bookish tote bag collection. Well, I couldn't very well not!

Bex's "Not-Google" map app led us then to Housman's, a political bookshop (political as in passionate about issues, not as in biographies of shiny Etonians.) I kept on being drawn back to the graphic novels and graphic memoirs, and both Bex and I found ourselves making shortlists. I decided on Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, as I haven't been able to find it on the Isle of Wight and keep on nearly-buying it whenever I'm in London. A lack of communication meant that we were heading back to Waterloo station to meet Laura while she was coming to find us elsewhere - and when one tried to phone the other, they'd be on the Underground and without signal, of course. But we found each other eventually, and made for an all-you-can-eat buffet in Chinatown to catch up on all the news.

Our next stop was the big Waterstone's at Piccadilly, where Laura tried to put all her favourite books in our hands, but I was being very well-restrained, only buying books I really wanted and was too impatient to wait until Christmas. I came away with George by Alex Gino and Welcome to Night Vale, the novel tied in with the popular and surreal podcast (which I really need to catch up on. I think I'm only up to about episode 30.) Then, as book-shopping is exhausting work, we had our first cake break.


Then it was Hatchards' turn, with its many rooms and staircases, an awesome kids' books section, where, on learning that Laura was unfamiliar with I Want My Hat Back, I proceeded to read aloud to her. (It is a really great book.) Here, I also found a Folio Society edition of Anne of Green Gables which I kind of whimpered at, but did not buy, because any more than my three reading copies (which is a good number of reading copies, for every purpose) and I will have to go all out and start a proper collection, and I really don't have the space for that at the moment. But oh, it's so pretty. And illustrated. And pretty.

I did, however, buy Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, which is tied in to her novel Fangirl. It is sort of the Harry Potter-inspired fanfiction Cath writes in her book, but sort of evolved out of that into a stand-alone Simon Snow novel. Then it was time for another coffee-break, and then up to Forbidden Planet, to look longingly at all the movie and TV merchandise (Pop Vinyl figures of Firefly characters! I have only one Pop figure, of Spock, and would rather keep him as one special figurine, rather than being part of a collection. But on the other hand... Firefly figures! Kaylee! Wash! Jayne!) Downstairs, in the books section, I got very sad at the "In Memory Of" posters in the Discworld and Star Trek sections - I'm still not over it and will not be for a while. Laura and Bex bought various comics and graphic novels, and then it was time to go to our various homes or homes-of-relations.

I spend the next day with Hannah, one of my friends from university, and her husband Paul. I don't get to see much of them any more, and I wondered if their birthday present to me was meant as a subtle hint about writing more - a Harry Potter stationery set, with a journal, paperweight, letter paper and envelopes, and a proper seal and sealing wax. How awesome is that?! (Yes, Hannah, I will try to write more. Promise!) The Sunday was a quiet day at their home, and Monday Hannah was working from midday, but we drove out to Richmond Park for a short walk, although it was so foggy we couldn't see very much at all. But we had a wander around the Isabella Plantation, which I'd last seen back in February, so it was interesting to contrast it at the beginning of spring with the latter half of autumn.


Once I came home, I spent the rest of last week making a start on my NaNoWriMo project, before starting back at work this afternoon. My plan is to get into a habit of writing 2500 words on days when I'm not working, so that on the days when I am at work, I only need to write 1000, and that'll leave a bit of "wiggle-room" for emergencies. Yesterday I was struggling. I hit my personal word count, and beyond, and yet I had that familiar feeling of "this is rubbish, this story is going nowhere." So I decided to break out of the linear story-telling, and jump ahead a bit to where the plot really gets going, as well as introducing some different characters' perspectives with backstory and subplots. It seems to be successful; I'm feeling excited about the story again, and becoming unstuck in the places where I felt myself getting bogged down. So that's what I'll be doing for the rest of November. I hope to have some time still to read - and that I'll beat last year's grand total of four books in November, of which, if I remember correctly, two were children's stories. But I expect it'll remain pretty quiet on the blog for the next month.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Mini-Reviews: The Gracekeepers, How the Marquis Got His Coat Back

The Gracekeepers - Kirsty Logan

In a future flooded world, just about recognisable as our own after a great disaster, there is a division between the "landlockers" and the "damplings" who live on ships at sea. After all, humans will always find ways to draw lines between each other. North is part of a floating circus, with a manipulative ringmaster, his scheming wife, and his ruthlessly ambitious son, to whom she is engaged but does not love. Her only real companion is her performing bear, and they live and work together as friends, but he will never truly be tame. Callenish lives alone on an island, where she performs the funeral rites for those lost at sea: a mysterious ritual involving a kind of bird called a grace. When the floating circus comes to Callenish's island, her life and North's are tangled together; their paths take them on separate journeys: of escape, for North, and of redemption for Callenish, but always the sea will bring them back together.

The Gracekeepers is a compelling fairy tale set in a strange but believable story world, richly developed, wild, dangerous and hypnotic as the sea itself.

Read if you like: The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.

How The Marquis Got His Coat Back - Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has been promising other stories set in the world of his first novel Neverwhere for a very long time. "How The Marquis Got His Coat Back" was originally published in the book Rogues, edited by George R. R. Martin, and also, I believe, in the latest US edition of Neverwhere, and last month it was published on its own in a mini paperback format. 

The story, as the title explains, follows one of the most charismatic characters of Neverwhere, The Marquis de Carabas, on his quest to retrieve the coat that, he feels, makes him who he is, which was taken from him after an unfortunate but necessary run-in with the terrifying Mister Croup and Mister Vandemar. His quest introduces a new cast of characters, friendly and (more often) malevolent, to the inhabitants of London Below, most of whom may sound familiar to anyone who has examined a London Underground map - but none are quite as they seem. We finally get to see the mythical Shepherds of Shepherds' Bush. ("There are shepherds. Pray you never meet them.") It is safe to say that, as is often the way in the works of Neil Gaiman, they were nothing like I expected, but afterwards could be nothing else. Yes, I said to myself once more, that makes perfect sense.

Read if you like: Neverwhere, of course.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Sunday Summary: Belated Birthday Post

I've been doing pretty well this year at reducing the number of books on my to-read shelf, until it got down to about sixteen, and I thought I didn't actually like having that few books on the pile. Luckily, my shelf is looking nice and bright and full again, since my birthday, and after relaxing my book-buying rules.

I had a really lovely birthday, which began after work on the day before, when I went out to Pizza Express with a small group of friends, and then on to the cinema to watch The Martian, which hadn't been due out until November, but while I was rereading it during Bex's Rereadathon, I checked the release date to find it had been swapped with another movie (can't remember which) and brought forward to the weekend of my birthday. Nice.

The Martian was a really brilliant adaptation of an excellent novel. It doesn't bog you down with science (my only struggle with the book,) but it shows you what you need to know; it is a smart, tense and very fun thriller, true to the book with just enough changes to keep you guessing even when you know the story. The soundtrack (disco!) was well-chosen with some hilariously apt songs at certain moments, and it was gloriously geeky. Definitely to be recommended.

I had a pleasant surprise to receive a birthday present from my work colleagues (normally we just do cards, but this was a "big" one.) I had planned to keep it until the actual birthday before opening it, but I was surrounded by friends, so I gave in: I had a bottle of wine, a big box of chocolates, and a book token, which lasted a whopping three days, until I bought Man Booker Prize shortlisted A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I'm reading it at the moment; it's the story of four friends who spend their adult life in New York, focusing in particular on the enigmatic Jude. It's rather harrowing in its subject matter - there are reasons why Jude refuses to talk about his past - but it's written in such a way to make you emotionally invested in the characters and want happiness for them. I've an ominous feeling that a happy ending is not on the cards and it will be hard-hitting and devastating. I hope I'm wrong.

From Judith, I had an assortment of things: scented candle, chocolates, Watchmen T-shirt, and the book version of Neil Gaiman's Make Good Art speech, delivered to graduates of the University of Arts in Philadelphia. It's a speech that really spoke to me as an unpublished author, and I keep it on the shelf over my desk for encouragement and inspiration.

Jamie bought me Neal Stephenson's The |Diamond Age, which he'd recommended to me before as one of his favourite (non Terry Pratchett) books of all time.

From Jenny, my sister: a game called Geek Battle - a sort of Trivial Pursuit emphasising science, science fiction, comic books and video games, as well as random geekery - and they are not all my areas of expertise, so her predictions of me winning every time are not likely to come true. I've only played one game, but not properly as you need at least three players and there were only two of us at the time. She also sent me Fun with Kirk and Spock, a spoof learning-to-read book a la Janet and John or Biff, Chip and Kipper, poking fun at some of the tropes of Star Trek. (Somehow she seems to have got the impression I'm a nerd, don't know how she arrived at that conclusion...) Also, from Jenny, the latest book (for adults) by Judy Blume, bestselling and best-known author of teenage fiction when we were growing up.(Just as Long as We're Together will always have a special place in my heart.) My parents bought me a dress and two more books: Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne (special thanks to Jess Hearts Books for her recommendation) and a history book about The Bletchley Girls.

Parcels continued to arrive all through that week. Continuing the Bletchley theme, Ellie sent me The Imitation Game and another DVD, a film called X+Y about an autistic boy who enters an international mathematics competition, which was sweet and funny and moving. Bex sent me the third and fourth books in Holly Smale's Geek Girl series (again, noticing a theme?) Clare, one of my best friends from university, bought me Faulks on Fiction, the book tied in with a TV series Sebastian Faulks presented a few years ago, taking different character archetypes from novels down the years, showing how concepts such as Hero or Villain have changed, and how they have stayed the same. He had some very odd ideas at times (Mr Darcy suffering depression? It might be one way of reading the character, but I don't see it, and Faulks just seemed to take it for granted that it was an integral part of his character. And if Harry Potter and Dan Brown don't fall into the category of "mainstream fiction," then what exactly does? Still, it was a really interesting read, and added yet more books onto my must-read list.

Faulks on Fiction not pictured.

Laura sent me The Three, as well as a DVD of The Incredibles - one of the greatest superhero films of all time. And I had more parcels from Bex: The Book of Strange New Things which was not a birthday present, but a prize from a giveaway I hadn't really been aware I'd entered when I took part in her rereadathon challenge in September. She also sent me a pair of earrings which had a certain quote from the film Serenity in teeny-tiny print inside them. Thanks to you all for your wonderful presents! I really shouldn't have any need to do much book-buying for the rest of the year. (Never mind that I picked up two books in the British Heart Foundation shop last week - they were new books, not even in paperback yet, and only £3 each! And never mind that I'm off to Hay-on-Wye next week, the town that is renowned for being full of bookshops.)

My charity-shop finds

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Accidental - Ali Smith

Ali Smith is one of those authors who, until now, I had repeatedly not read. How To Be Both has been on my radar for a while, highly acclaimed and alluring, but somehow a bit intimidating too. And, when I finally bought The Accidental from the Books for Syria table at Waterstone's last week, and read the blurbs for Smith's back list,I recognised the strangely-incomplete titled There But For The as another book I'd picked up many times but never quite brought home with me. Smith has a reputation for being very clever and lyrical, but somewhat experimental in style, which had slightly frightened me for a long time. But this was for a good cause - a charity donation that gets you a free book, right?

The Accidental focuses on the Smart family: two parents and two adolescents, all of whom have their own struggles and unhappinesses. Astrid, aged twelve, is a lonely teenager, trying to make sense of her world through her video camera. Magnus, who is about sixteen or seventeen, is eaten up with guilt after his involvement in an incident at school with tragic consequences. Their stepfather, Michael, is a creepy college professor with a midlife crisis and lots of affairs, while their mother, Eve, feels the weight of unhappiness of her family, her marriage, and her career as a writer.

Into their lives comes Amber, a strange woman who shows up at their house one day. Everyone thinks she's here with someone else, but who is she, really? Each member of the family perceives her differently, either finding what they long for or need in her, or perhaps projecting their wishes onto her. She is the narrator, probably, of the first-person passages interspersed with the Smart family point-of-view chapters, yet we don't really know much about her. She doesn't quite seem real. Some of the characters think she must be an angel, but if so, she is an unstable, maybe even dangerous one. At the end of part one, she starts to give you a few answers - surprisingly early on, I thought - until: "Well?" she said. "Do you believe me?" I didn't think to do otherwise until that point, but the question throws it all into doubt. But that's all the answer you get.

The Accidental is a story about story, structured tidily into three parts: beginning, middle and end. About how stories grow and change in the telling, mutating and shaping the perception of truth. We see this expressed in different ways throughout the novel, for example in Eve's book series called "Genuine Articles," in which she takes real stories from history, but rewrites them to give them happy endings and "what ifs."

The language is lyrical, poetic - one section being made up of actual poetry, in Michael's "middle," the changes in form showing his world and his mind unravelling somewhat as the style turns from conventional sonnets in the Shakespearean rhyme scheme, to a frantic, disjointed style, to words just apparently thrown at a page. For Michael, Amber represents an incorruptible purity, and is the woman immune to his attempts at seduction. And his sense of entitlement can not deal with rejection. He is a repulsive creature.

Ali Smith's narrative contains some stream-of-consciousness, luring you to read on, but also to take your time thinking about her word choices. I found The Accidental engrossing with lots of food for thought, and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. She's not necessarily a new favourite author, but definitely someone I want to read lots more from in the future.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Month in review: September

Hello. Sorry I haven't posted much recently. I'm expecting it to be quiet for another couple of months here on the blog, as I'm trying to focus on my novel-writing, and next month being NaNoWriMo I don't expect to get a lot of reading done. But I've been reading lots and plan to at least do some mini-review posts over the next few weeks. I've also got an idea for writing about modern adaptations of classic novels, in book, film and webseries formats, so watch out for that.

I've managed to carry out my read-2-buy-3 rule up till the end of September, getting my to-read pile down from 38 books to 21 (22 if you count what I'm reading at the moment.) But this month, being my birthday and having scheduled a couple of book-shopping trips, I don't expect to keep to it. (I know that's another £20 I owe to the Beanstalk fundraiser, Bex. I'll pay that next month. I'm keeping track.) November and December I don't intend to buy any books for myself, due to NaNoWriMo and Christmas, so hopefully it'll balance out by the end of the year.

What I've bought:

I've been quite restrained with my book-buying over the summer, I think, but last month I've had a bit of a splurge and brought home the following:

  • You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) - Felicia Day
  • The Gracekeepers - Kirsty Logan
  • The Teahouse Fire - Ellis Avery
  • Love in Idleness - Charlotte Mendelson
  • The Children who Lived in a Barn - Eleanor Graham
  • The Girl Who Couldn't Read - John Harding
  • All of the Above - James Dawson
  • Finn Fancy Necromancy - Randy Henderson

And today, I bought The Accidental by Ali Smith from the Waterstone's Books for Syria table. Guilt-free book-buying, as it all goes towards helping your fellow human beings.

What I've read:

  • You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) - Felicia Day
  • Goodnight Beautiful - Dorothy Koomson
  • The Shepherd's Crown - Terry Pratchett
  • The Martian - Andy Weir
  • First Term at Malory Towers - Enid Blyton
  • 11.22.63 - Stephen King
  • The School at the Chalet - Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
  • Charlotte Sometimes - Penelope Farmer
  • The Girl in the Blue Tunic - Jean Ure
  • Fingersmith - Sarah Waters
  • First Term at Trebizon - Anne Digby
  • Cell - Stephen King
  • Miss Brill - Katherine Mansfield (a Penguin mini classic)
  • All of the Above - James Dawson

I haven't made a to-read pile for October, as it's my birthday on Sunday and I expect I'll get some more books to add to my list (at least, I hope so.) But I'm excited about reading The Gracekeepers, which the bookseller I bought it from raved about, and which I've had my eye on for a while. Ali Smith is an author I've kept coming across in the past few years, but I've never actually had any of her books until now. And I'd like to read some more of the proper sci-fi and cheesy sci-fi I've picked up over the last year, mostly second-hand.

I'll be turning thirty this weekend, which I've been dreading for a long time. When I left university in 2007, I consoled myself with the thought that it might be a struggle figuring out what I was going to do with my life, but by the time I was thirty I'd surely have things sorted. And the years passed by, quicker and quicker, and I still have no idea what I'm meant to be doing after all. But in the last few months I feel more at peace with that, My life may not be where I thought it ought to be at thirty, but I'm seeing the good in my situation. I work part-time - but that means I have more time which I can focus on my writing. I am writing again, and that means I feel like I've got back in touch with who I'm meant to be. No, I'm not published yet, but I'm walking back towards what Neil Gaiman referred to as my "mountain" - I'm heading towards of my goal. It might be a long way off still, but I'm walking in the right direction again.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Rereadathon 2: Epilogue

Apologies that this blog went silent after about the first week of the rereadathon. I've been keeping up my rereading, fitting it around work and writing, but haven't been making notes as I went along. But it's been a great fortnight of rediscovering old and more recent favourites, and although I didn't get through my entire pile, I read the books I realistically expected to.

Final Stats:

Number of books read: 8
"Big" novels: 3
Which were: The Martian - Andy Weir
11.22.63 - Stephen King
Fingersmith - Sarah Waters
School stories: 5
Which were: First Term at Malory Towers - Enid Blyton
The School at the Chalet - Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
Charlotte Sometimes - Penelope Farmer
The Girl in the Blue Tunic - Jean Ure
First Term at Trebizon - Anne Digby
Total pages read: 2402
Favourite reread: 11.22.63

A few last thoughts.

It was an absolute joy to reread my two favourite books from last year, and one which I reread a couple of years earlier. Of these three "big" books, 11.22.63 was the one which kept me every bit as gripped as on the first reading, and has probably earned itself a place in my top five books of all time. I wanted to read The Martian again before the film was released, not realising it's coming out at the end of next week - just in time for my birthday! It's a really believable science fiction novel, a tale of survival, and a celebration of human creativity and spirit against incredible odds. I'm really looking forward to seeing it on the big screen. Fingersmith is a mischievous adventure full of scoundrels and rogues, skulduggery and double-crossing, although on a second reading I was a little bit more critical than the first time around, noticing in a few places when the plot was just a bit too contrived. But it's a lot of fun, nonetheless.

On boarding school stories

I read through a range of boarding-school stories in preparation for my NaNoWriMo project for this year, written between about 1926 and 1997. It's interesting just how many books and series in the genre begin with the protagonist being a new girl in her class, when everyone else has settled into school for a few terms and got to know each other - four of the five books I read conformed to that pattern, and in fact I intend to use it myself this November. Harry Potter, while drawing on the grand old tradition of British Boarding School literature, is unusual for introducing an entire new class at the same time - there are never any new kids or transfer students at Hogwarts, except for the first years each September.

Three of the books were conventional school-stories of lessons, games and pranks, while two had a fantastical or supernatural plot to them - ghosts and time-travel, the latter of which (Charlotte Sometimes) has a similar premise (in reverse) to my planned story, of a schoolgirl finding herself in a different time period and having to adjust to an alien way of life, while being mistaken for someone else. I was struck by how short the books were - most of them under 200 pages - and am aware that this is going to be a challenge for me, as I have a tendency for rambling on. My current work in progress is at nearly 100 000 words and only just past the halfway mark. I'm starting to grow concerned, although I expect to cut a lot in the next draft. If my NaNoWriMo target is 50 000 words in a month, I want to reach that word count without having too much more left to write afterwards.

What to read next?

Since this year, I've been sticking to a "read 3, buy 2" rule, which has lasted eight months, but now my to-read shelf is looking sadly empty, so I've decided to relax that a little. I'm certainly overdue a good old book-shopping spree, and in October I'm going to Hay-on-Wye and all its bookshops, as well as, hopefully, Stratford-upon-Avon with some of the other bloggers. (Is that still going ahead, guys?) I've picked out a few books for the rest of September, but that is, as ever, subject to my moods and whims. It does look as though I need to buy some books that aren't from the science fiction, fantasy and horror shelves, though!

Not pictured: Wintersmith and Small Gods by Terry Pratchett, and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, borrowed from my dad, and 3 of the 80p Penguin Mini Classics books.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Rereadathon 2: part 2 Wednesday 9th-Friday 11th September

Hello! I haven't had an awful lot of rereading time in the last couple of days, as I was at work Wednesday and Thursday. Tuesday night, for some reason, I just could not get to sleep, and by the time about 2.30AM rolled around, I decided to get out one of my books to help wind my brain down. I finished The Martian on Tuesday evening, and so for that stupid o'clock read, I picked up Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's The School at the Chalet. 

The Chalet School series is one of the longer-running girls' boarding school series, running to about 60 books, begun in the 1920s and ending in the '60s. As you might expect, it changes a lot over the course of the books, and this week I decided to go back to where it all began. 24-year-old Madge Bettany decides to start an English girls' school in the Austrian Tirol, near a lake a little way from Innsbruck. Her first pupil is her twelve-year-old sister Joey, who is a bright spark, with a big heart and a passion for life, but whose physical strength does not match up to her boundless enthusiasm. There are only nine pupils on the first day of term: as well as Joey, there is another English girl from the same school, Grizel; Simone Lecoutier, the shy and clingy niece of the French mistress and deputy head, and six Austrians from the nearby village, ranging from nine to sixteen. It's been a long time since I went right back to the beginning, where there is a really cosy, intimate setting, and you get to know all the characters really well. The school grows and grows, and before long Madge leaves the school to get married, but new teachers come in, and pupils from across Europe and beyond. (Although entirely white, except for one Indian girl in one book, despite a couple of the books having misleading titles. I wanted A Chalet School from Kenya to be about an actual Kenyan girl, not an English child whose parents worked abroad!)

Of course, when Elinor Brent-Dyer started writing her school stories in the mid-1920s, she had no way of knowing that real-world events would force the plot to take a drastic turn if it were to continue in 1939, resulting in the excellent Chalet School in Exile. This is outstanding, not just in the series, but in the literary canon in general, as a contemporary account of Austria during the Anschluss, as seen from Britain. It's a hair-raising tale of adventure and courage, as well as sadness, as Madge and Joey, who, although this point are no longer part of the Chalet School, are still attached to it, have to close down their beloved school which they'd built up from one chalet and a handful of children, and escape and start again. On Guernsey, for a little while, then onto the Welsh border for the duration of the war.

I suppose there are three main segments of the Chalet School series: the Austrian years, mostly when Joey is a schoolgirl, then the war years, during which the school moves around several times, and then, finally, returning to Switzerland for the rest of the series. By this point, Joey is married, and the focus moves onto her eldest daughters, triplets called Len, Con and Margot - as well as an older girl called Mary-Lou, who readers either love or hate. I find her a bit too good to be true. She gets away with more than her contemporaries, has to make a project of "improving" any new girl who doesn't quite fit in, and is far too familiar with the teachers, but this is excused because "it's not cheek, it's just Mary-Lou." She really takes the biscuit in one of the books when she is made head girl of the school and her response is "oh, no, I couldn't possibly" after being the unelected leader of the senior school for years. And then, the very next chapter, she gets a special award for - I don't know - being Mary-Lou. "Oh, no, I couldn't possibly." Stupid or false modesty just comes across as stupid and false.

The other book I've been rereading is Stephen King's excellent 11.22.63 which I'm just about used to writing the date the wrong way round now. The hero, Jake, is currently living in 1950s Derry, Maine, in the aftermath of IT. Now I've read IT, the setting is even more eerie and unsettling, and I'm able to appreciate all the references to the previous novel. I haven't got as far into it as I'd hoped, as I spent this morning having a writing session (forsaking my usual local coffee shop for Starbucks - I am ashamed!) and then wandering around the town, looking in the other bookshops and admiring the autumn fashions, with their turning-leaf colours and chunky knitted jumpers. I've bought some wool to make myself a hoodie, in multi-coloured blue and purple shades, and I've also just started teaching myself to crochet with a new magazine partwork, each one teaching a new stitch or two, and with a pattern for a different kind of granny-square which will join together to make a patchwork blanket. I don't intend to buy the entire series - I've no idea how many will be in this series - but enough to make a variety of blanket squares. But I can't crochet and read at the same time, so I'll start knitting the hoodie this evening.

This weekend is the Bestival festival, at Robin Hill Country Park a few miles from my house. I always kind of dread this festival. the Isle of Wight music festival is closer to home, but at least the music stops at about midnight. It's not been unheard of for Bestival events to keep me awake until 4 in the morning with thumping bass on a Friday night. And I have to get up at half past 7 for work on Saturdays. Ugh ugh. So I'm prepared for a long reading night tonight, although I might also take my duvet downstairs and sleep on the sofa, as I don't think it is as audible from the front room. We'll see.

Bex's Rereadathon Challenge

Last time, Bex asked which is the one book you reread over and over again. This time, she wants a list. Book bloggers love lists, right?

  • Anne of Green Gables. C'mon, you know me better than to expect me to omit this one! I'll reread at least one of the Anne books pretty much every year. Not necessarily the entire series, but I can't go very long without spending some time with my favourite redhead: Anne of Green Gables, Anne of the Island are the usual candidates, but also Rilla of Ingleside (although that is more centred upon her children as young adults.)
  • The Lord of the Rings. Back in my sixth form and student days I just could not put these books down. I'd start reading every November, at first in preparation for the film adaptations, and then because it had become tradition. I don't read it quite so frequently any more, but I have read it three more times since starting my blog seven years ago.
  • Harry Potter. The ultimate in comfort reading; I start getting the urge for a reread about every two years, usually in the autumn or winter.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia. These have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I saw the BBC adaptation back when they used to show serialised children's classics on a Sunday night in the lead-up to Christmas, and when I was about seven, Dad sat me down and began to read: "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." I was thrilled to discover this was part of a series with my beloved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I stuck little pictures to the back of my wardrobe and would sit in there and imagine myself away. And I always try to reread The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe before Christmas, and some of the other books in the series in the appropriate time of the year: The Magician's Nephew in spring, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader at the end of Summer (hmm... must be about time to reread that again...) etcetera, etcetera.
  • Neverwhere. This was the book that made me fall in love with Neil Gaiman's writing. He created a new mythology for London, out of the names of the places, and it just made sense. It was like just scratching away the surface to make sense of a city that is, when you come to think of it, quite strange. I've reread all of his books on my bookcase at least once, I think, except for the Trigger Warning collection which only came out this year. American Gods and Good Omens should also feature on this list, as I've reread them at least three times since buying them. American Gods, in particular, I find new things on every reread (and is also on my reserve rereadathon pile) and Good Omens is just so funny.
  • Discworld. With 41 books, of course I don't do a complete reread every year, but there are certain sub-series within the series that I return to most often. Top of that list are the first few Watch books: Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms and Feet of Clay, as well as the masterpiece Night Watch. Then there are the Witches books: Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies and Maskerade. Hogfather gets read a lot at Christmas, and if I don't read the book, I'll watch the TV film. And Going Postal and Monstrous Regiment are others that appear regularly. I'm filling in the gaps this year; there are now only 4 left I haven't read.
So, what about you? Do any of these books or series appear regularly on your reading list, or are your favourite rereads completely different? 

Monday, 7 September 2015

Rereadathon 2: part 1 - Mon 7th & Tues 8th September


Hurrah! The long-awaited Rereadathon 2.0 is here at last. We had so much fun rediscovering old favourites back in April that Bex decided to bring back a bigger and better Rereadathon for the autumn; just the right time to settle down to a day of reading books that you know you'll love because you've read them before. Guaranteed no duds!

After a lot of deliberation, I've narrowed down my to-read list to a manageable amount (even if the resulting stack won't fit in a single pile on my shelf.) I've chosen five books I've discovered in the last two or three years: The Martian, 11.22.63, Fingersmith, American Gods and Fangirl, but interspersed with these big reads (and some of them really are doorstoppers) I've also picked out a few of my favourite school stories from childhood, to read in preparation for this November's NaNoWriMo project which will draw on that story tradition and mix it up with a bit of time travel and geekery. From my school-stories box I've selected The School at the Chalet and Jo of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer First Term at Malory Towers, The Twins at St Clares and The Naughtiest Girl in the School from Enid Blyton, Anne Digby's First Term at Trebizon (a slightly more contemporary boarding school series) Charlotte Sometimes which features time-travel in a similar but different way from my project, and The Girl in the Blue Tunic by Jean Ure, which is a ghost story. So quite a variety within the genre.

But for today, I'm starting with Andy Weir's The Martian, to remind myself of it before the film is released. I've just discovered that the cinema date for the movie has been moved forward to the weekend of my 30th birthday at the beginning of October - what a treat! I've found it easier to get into this time around, as I've remembered most of the astronaut terms that befuddled me the first time around, but it's still quite a slow start, very science-heavy, and I didn't really like science at school. (More to the point, I don't think I liked science lessons. It was an all-girl class, and there was a lot of pairs work, and I was usually the odd one out having to tag on with another two people's experiments. But I quite liked physics and some chemistry, and science fiction has reignited my interest in actual science, especially if it involves space.)

Monday Stats

Books read today: The Martian
Today's page count: 230
Books finished this week: 0
Quote of the day: "Fear my botany powers!"


I've recently discovered that I can have good reading days and good writing days, but it is very difficult to motivate myself to start a writing session once I've got myself lost in someone else's good book. Yesterday was a prime example of that. I scheduled a mid-afternoon writing session to break up my reading day. That got shifted to after dinner... which slipped back to about ten PM before I actually got started. Whoops! So I determined that today, I would take my laptop down to my favourite local coffee shop for an hour or two before my scheduled hairdresser appointment this afternoon. But it was too early to really set out, so I picked up the first Malory Towers book... just for a chapter or two...

Oh, Katie.

First Term at Malory Towers was my introduction to the girls' school story genre, when I was about 9 years old and would read almost nothing but Enid Blyton books. I wasn't expecting a school story, and was very confused at first by the main character being called Darrell but having female pronouns. (Remind me to tell you about my primary school recorder teacher, Mr Ashley, who wore a skirt and and was referred to as "she." It wasn't until I saw her leaving card when she retired that I learned her name was actually Miss Rashley...)

Objectively, the Malory Towers books aren't very well written. The first one starts off with my most detested trope of all: the character standing in front of a mirror and telling the reader - out loud in this case - what she sees. But it has a really vivid sense of place and character, and I absolutely loved it. But there are a lot of things in the book that have always bothered me, big and little (as well as finding new things to pick holes in later on.)
  • The big one: Gwendoline Lacey. She's a dreadful character: vain and spoilt, lazy, underhand and a bully. And yet I've never felt that the books treated her very well. She's written off before she ever sets foot in the school. No one really gives her the opportunity to become a better person, and she spends six years utterly unhappy. For all that people keep saying "Malory Towers will do her good," we never see this in action, and she leaves school at eighteen just as lonely and unpleasant as she started. It's probably the most grimly realistic part of Enid Blyton's school stories, but stands out because she's so keen to make morals out of most things, but never do we get the sense that the intended moral of Gwendoline's story is, "if a person is dismissed as a spoilt brat she'll never learn to be anything else." They wouldn't stand for that in the Chalet School, I'll tell you that much. And I really want to write an alternative version of events where Gwendoline does find encouragement and friendship at school, and does become a decent human being.
  • What kind of school has its very own operating theatre in the sick room? When Sally Hope falls ill with appendicitis, instead of rushing her to hospital, they call in a surgeon, and because their "usual" surgeon is away, they get Darrell's father who just so happens to be in the area (despite it taking an entire day for Darrell to take the train from her home to school. They had both lunch and tea on the train.) I realise it's needed for plot purposes, but really?
  • The tenth member of the North Tower dormitory is mentioned only twice: a "shy, colourless child" called Violet who no one ever noticed if she was there or not. I notice her, because I always liked the name Violet (at least since I played Violet Beauregarde in my year 4 school play of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Twenty years on, the protagonist of my novel is also called Violet.) By book two, even Enid Blyton has forgotten she ever existed. I'm hoping she got transferred into one of the other tower boarding houses and made some friends there, but I have an alternative headcanon which shows her fading away like that girl (was her name Marcie?) in Buffy, and becoming a vengeful ghost...
  • There's a lot of silliness of exclusive friendships, with Darrell being so disappointed that Alicia already has a friend, because apparently at Malory Towers your best friend is your only friend...
  • In what universe can a brown and orange school uniform be described as "jolly nice?" And yet the Chalet School use the same colours as Malory Towers. I've only ever seen one brown school uniform in my life. It was... pretty drab. When I was a kid, I was always designing school uniforms for my fictional boarding schools. This was never a colour scheme that appealed to me in the slightest.
  • They use purple ink for school work? The climax of the first book revolves around a fountain pen with violet ink. Now I use violet ink in my pen, but for schoolwork it was strictly blue or black, and I would have thought that would have been stricter in the 1940s when this was written. (I told you some of my nitpicks are pretty small.)
I did manage to get a scene written this afternoon, which means that this evening I can concentrate on finishing The Martian. It's really getting exciting now...

Tuesday Stats:

Books read today: First Term at Malory Towers
The Martian
Pages read today: 172 so far
Books finished this week: 1
Quote of the day: "As with most of life's problems, this one can be solved by a box of pure radiation." (This quote from The Martian, not Malory Towers!) 

Friday, 4 September 2015

The Shepherd's Crown - Terry Pratchett

The publication of the forty-first and final book in Sir Terry Pratchett's beloved Discworld series last Thursday was the saddest book launch I've ever known.* I sold two copies to a lady with tears in her eyes on the day of release, and, indeed, every time I pass the display stand I feel that twinge of sadness -  and I have not yet got used to reading the biographical blurb written in the past tense without wanting to hit something. There's been a sense of solidarity between bookseller and customer, a shared grief and love. The effect has been extraordinary.

Of course, favourite authors and people are always dying. Last year so many customers were grieving actress Lynda Bellingham, and we've lost Maeve Binchy, James Herbert and Iain Banks over the last few years; all of whom have been missed. Terry Pratchett was more personal. I first discovered the Discworld series in about 1999, around the time I turned 14 - these books have been close to my heart more than half my lifetime. And for a series for adults running to over 40 books is quite remarkable; I can't think of any others comparable. It's been going on so long it's hard to say goodbye.

But I think there is more to it than that. Terry Pratchett had a reputation as a writer of comic fantasy, a parody of fantasy tropes, and certainly that's how he began. But he was so much more than a sprinkler of cheap gags. As Discworld progressed, it gained a grounding in reality, thanks to its humanity, insight, the profound and hard-hitting truths cushioned with perfect wordplay that makes you think deeply as you laugh. He could skewer the flaws in people with a sharpened phrase; he also knew we could be so much better, and used his novels to spur his readers on, to be the best humans we know how to be - the rising ape. And so the setting became unremarkable, because despite the witches and wizards, werewolves and trolls, it was our world shown in the fairground hall of mirrors - strange, but showing the essence of reality in an unusual way.

"Times they is a-changing."
The Shepherd's Crown may not have been intended as the final book in the series, but there's no doubt that Sir Terry was aware that it could be, and I don't think you can divorce the novel from the context in which was written. There is a sadness within the pages, especially in the early chapters, a sadness but also comfort ant beauty that feels very, very personal, as Pratchett shapes his world with words. It weaves together story threads from throughout the series, especially the witch books (elder and younger generations) as well reflecting a poignant scene from Reaper Man and referring to the penultimate book (one of the four I have not yet read) Raising Steam. It very neatly bookends the series with Equal Rites which, while not being the first Discworld book, is the one that marked the series as being more than mere parody of fantasy.
"There will be a reckoning."
The Shepherd's Crown focuses on young witch Tiffany Aching, who is trying to protect her world from an invasion from fairyland. And these are no cute little fairies who grant wishes; these are the utterly amoral and terrifying. Pratchett creates an atmosphere of waiting and melancholy, of foreboding menace. It strikes me that the Discworld books for "children" have a darkness to them that is not featured so much in the books written for "adults" (although the line between these audiences is very fuzzy indeed.) It's a darkness of difficult decisions and everyday villainy, and Terry never talked down to his young readers.

But there are still lots and lots of punes, or play on words, and cultural references from the roundworld, and one of these made me groan so loudly that I alarmed my dad, who had read a few chapters but not yet finished the book.

There is a note from Terry's assistant at the end, explaining that although there is a beginning, a middle, an end, and all the bits in between, it is not perhaps as finished as it would have been if Pratchett had lived longer. And you can see that it is a bit rough around the edges. There are several very short paragraphs with elipses, and I wondered if they were intended to be longer. And perhaps the language is less polished than usual, the dialogue a bit more stilted, the subplots needing a bit more fleshing out. In some ways, The Shepherd's Crown is a skeleton novel. But Discworld fans know just how much life, warmth, wisdom and humanity can be found in Sir Terry's most famous skeleton. Terry continued to defy his "Embuggerance" to the end, as even in a slightly less-finished state, The Shepherd's Crown is one of the best things he's written in years.

And so, in a mixture of triumph and sadness, we've reached the end of the series, and it is a worthy and satisfying finale. But a world that stretches across continents and decades does not simply come to an end. Sam Vimes and the city watch still patrol the streets of Ankh-Morpork. Rincewind is still fleeing from one misadventure to the next, the Luggage hot on his heels. Right now, Nanny Ogg is probably quaffing scumble and carousing the seventeeth verse of the Hedgehog Song. Great A'Tuin swims on among the stars, and our beloved characters are still continuing about their business on his/her back, even if their exploits go unwritten now. And there are others, too, in another world, and we know that they in the good company of a reaper with a white horse called Binky and a love of cats. And perhaps, too, there is a man with a white beard and a black hat, a fire in his heart and a wit as sharp as Death's scythe.

Thank you, Sir Terry.

*although E.L. James's Grey earlier this year also made booksellers weep across the world. That was for very different reasons.

Sunday, 30 August 2015


It's getting started that's the hardest part. Sitting down at the desk and being greeted by the blank page, or the new document, and the sure and certain knowledge that no words you put down are going to live up to the glorious vision of excellence that exists in potentia just beneath the surface of all that pure white. That writing the wrong word, an awkward phrase or failing to capture that perfect image will ruin your literary masterpiece forever, set it in stone as inferior to the novel that exists in the library of the never-written.

That's nonsense, of course. There may be book clubs and literary awards in the realm of dreams, but they are of little use in the physical world. Think of your favourite novel. At some point, its author had to push past the idol of the perfect novel and actually commit their words to paper. And aren't you glad they did?

I am a notorious procrastinator. I love writing, I really do. During a dreadful period of writer's block, my friend Hannah said to me with concern, "Katie not writing isn't really Katie at all." Didn't I know it! Perhaps it is reflective of me being unable to deal with reality without an escape into my own invented world, where I am the queen and control the things that are out of my hands in real life. But who's to say that's a bad thing? Perhaps it's true that we humans need a little madness to stay sane. I make sense of the world by translating it through the medium of story. It's how my brain works, for good or bad. And without that, life can become incomprehensible, overwhelming. Getting stuck into a story, moulding it, dreaming it, breathing it - that is when I feel most like myself, like I've found my purpose. And yet, to sit down and start putting words into some intelligible order is the hardest thing in the world. Some of this is the aforementioned fear of the blank page. But even with the acceptance that the first draft will probably be dreadful, (and that doesn't matter, honestly it doesn't, just put it on the page and you can perfect it in the editing stage,) the fact remains that writing is hard work, and, especially now you can get the internet in any room of any house, without even needing to plug in a wire, distractions are everywhere, and easy. I think that is why I write mostly into the evenings, and sometimes into the early hours - out of guilt about having nothing to show for a writing day except a handful of social media updates and perhaps a page of my colouring book for grown-ups.

Since I rediscovered creative writing in time for last November's NaNoWriMo*, I've tried to become more disciplined in my writing habits, and adjusted my outlook on my life and work situation to view living with my parents and working part-time as a gift, an opportunity, not a sign of failure. I'm most productive when I have a routine, especially when I have more than one day off together. Yes, I still waste a lot of time, but I have a collection of useful tools and rituals to help me to get focused.

There was a time when I wrote best in ink on paper, and certainly I still find some benefits in that. For one thing, they have not yet - to my knowledge - invented an internet-connected pen. And there is something about handwriting that makes me feel as though inspiration itself is flowing out through my hand, down the pen and onto the page. I pretty much write exclusively in fountain pen these days, with bottled violet ink. Not only does this make me feel like a "proper" writer, but it must be better for the environment, and in the long run, my purse, than buying dozens of biros that vanish into the abyss in every woman's handbag.

But I really only do my brainstorming and planning in ink. I outline each chapter, scene by scene, in a writing journal, but the stories themselves get typed into Scrivener. I've tried a couple of different writers' programmes, but Scrivener is the one that stuck. Not only does it allow you to create separate documents for each chapter or scene, but there is room for all your notes, character profiles and research, all in one place. The scene-by-scene layout has given me more freedom to move on, knowing I can easily find where I left an unfinished section, to write scenes out of chronological order, or to rearrange my story in different ways. There are tools for searching within a novel, reading all the parts of each subplot together, storyboarding and wordcount targets, even going back to previous drafts if you realise you liked it better before making modifications.

The other useful software I've discovered is called Freedom, which cuts out your internet connection for a period of time, forcing you to work on what you're actually supposed to be doing. But surely just switching off wi-fi will do the same thing? you say. Aha, I reply, but it's just as easy to switch it back on again. Freedom won't let you do that before your time is up, not without rebooting your machine. And that's probably too much effort for the sake of a bit of procrastination.

But even without the internet, there are a myriad other ways to distract myself at home, and if my mind just will not settle, sometimes it's worthwhile to take myself to my local coffee shop for an hour or two.  LoveCoffee in Newport has a spacious upstairs, and is rarely so busy that I feel obliged to vacate my table as soon as I've finished my drink. I can quite happily spend a morning there outlining, journalling, or working on my draft.

For Christmas last year, I was bought the Ready, Set, Novel! writing journal from the creators of NaNoWriMo. Now, after studying creative writing for three years at university, I've concluded that there is only so much writing theory that one can learn from books before one has to learn by doing. And a lot of writers' idea books are more of a distraction than a help, good for brainstorming, but bearing little relevance to an extended project. But Ready, Set, Novel! has proven an exception for me, so much so that I bought a second copy to start planning for this year's NaNoWriMo. Even if you are completely lacking in ideas, Ready, Set, Novel is designed to help you to discover what you're actually interested in writing about, and when you have your initial ideas, takes you through the process of honing them into a novel, fleshing out characters, finding the tone through the use of setting, and discovering not only what happens in your story, but what it's about. It's helped me to discover more about my characters, the shape of the main plot and even to make sure that all of the subplots are satisfactorily resolved.

And then, onto the writing itself. Some people create music playlists to help them to get inside their character's heads, and in the right frame of mind to write. Personally, although I do have music I associate with my characters, I can't have it on during a writing session, because it's another distraction. What I do have is a carefully selected scented candle which is appropriate to the theme, characters or setting of my work in progress - at present I'm using Yankee Candles' "Champaca Blossom." Allegedly, smell is the most evocative of the senses. I'm trying to train my brain into associating a particular scent with settling down to work on a particular novel.

But even so, it takes a lot of willpower to get started. I bully and bribe myself just to reach this word count, to spend an hour writing, to finish this chapter by this date. And for a while my brain protests. It's looking at the clock. It's checking the word-count gadget after every sentence. But gradually, the characters wake up, and sometimes they do what I wanted them to, and sometimes they surprise me. From time to time, I'll discover that I've just solved a plot problem that's been troubling me for weeks, without even noticing until it's there before me in black and white (or purple and cream.)

Maybe your story doesn't really write itself, and maybe the characters don't really make their decisions on their own. But on a good day, the pieces come together in the back of your mind, and the result makes so much sense that you can't quite believe that it came from inside yourself. That is when your story comes to life. It's the best feeling in the world.

*National Novel-Writing Month

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with any of the companies whose products I have mentioned in this post, nor am I receiving any payment for recommending them. Any opinions are my own,
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