Category Archives: About Me

Productivity

I’m uneasily conscious that I haven’t blogged in far too long. I’d say it’s been the month from hell, but it’s more like the year from hell. However, there’s only so long you can exist in an endless round of work-eat-sleep before you have to do something about it. Even if that something is to acknowledge that you’re stuck with it for the foreseeable future.

When it comes to writing, I’m not a member of the lucky tribe that smugly says, “if you want it enough, you’ll make time,” as if wanting time to write will magically make two hours of commuting (by road, so not writing time!) disappear, or reduce your dayjob workload so that it’s possible to do it all without bringing anything home. Some of us just aren’t that lucky.

Sometimes, you just have to acknowledge that unless something changes – you move house closer to work, you get a different job, whatever – writing time isn’t going to happen. And if that’s the case, put the writing away until you do have time instead of torturing yourself with guilt that somehow you’re inadequate because you can somehow magic up the time.

But sometimes, there are tweaks you can do.

My husband and I have recently started getting up half an hour earlier. It saves a few minutes on travel because there’s less traffic on the motorway at 6.15am, but mostly it means we’ve both got more time at our respective workplaces before the day gets into its evil stride. Until recently, I was using that time for writing (until this month, when workload meant that I had to use it for, well, work) and he was using it for work. It was working out for both of us – I had been trying to write in the evenings, but by the time I’d made the dinner, cleared up, and gone for a run, I was too exhausted to think, let alone write. My husband was bringing a lot of work home; he’s finding that he’s more efficient if he does it in the morning – more work is getting done in less time, and for the first time in ages, he’s having some evenings off.

So, just rearranging our schedules a little bit – getting up earlier, going to bed earlier – has made us more productive.

I’ve also made a couple of other resolutions:

  • I’m going to try to do the GTD stuff – keep my to-do list up to date, and actually do the things on it instead of procrastinating and
  • Journaling. People say you ought to do it, and there’s a certain attractiveness to the idea of having somewhere to dump all the whining and complaints (other than into my darling husband’s ears). Plus, a place to just think in print.
    • And, following from the idea of journaling… recording achievements. It’s so easy to go from day to day, always busy, but never thinking about what you’ve actually achieved through all that busyness. What, during the day, did you do that you were proud of? I’ve decided to record my Achievements in my journal.

And where, in all this efficiency and productivity, is the actual novel, I hear you ask?

Well, it’s progressing. Faster, hopefully, when I’ve got a handle on the dayjob workload and I can have my morning writing time back.

However – and this is an important point – I’ve learned a hell of a lot about writing over the last couple of years. I can certainly see why so many authors say that they’re embarrassed by their first finished (but unpublished) novel. I’d be embarrassed by mine if I’d finished it two years ago, and I haven’t even finished the thing yet.

However, I do have a finished short story which will be coming out in a New Street Authors anthology at some point soon. It’s urban fantasy set in Birmingham (UK).

Shelf Love Challenge: Why do I read the books I do?

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My TBR pile!

This month’s question is: Why do you read the books you read? Why do you gravitate towards certain genres and/or authors. How do you pick the next book you will read?

So, why do I read the books I do?

Good question. It’s something I’ve never really thought about – my favourite genres are fantasy, science fiction, and detective stories. My least favourite is literary fiction. Or poetry. The only poetry I really like is limericks.

I suppose I graduate towards genre fiction because I tend to prioritise plot and characterisation over beautiful writing; I can see why other people go all gooey over a well turned phrase, but it’s not my thing. Plus, I like magic, and as soon as you add a wizard it’s fantasy regardless of what else is going on.

When it comes to detective stories, a line from one of Dorothy Sayers‘ Lord Peter Wimsey books comes to mind: Lord Peter says to Harriet Vane, who is his wife and a detective story writer, that detective stories are “the purest form of literature we have”. He goes on to explain that in detective stories, good (almost) always triumphs over evil. Detective stories provide a vision of justice that we all hope is true, even if we fear that it isn’t. For the duration of reading the book, we can pretend that good always triumphs, the bad guys always get caught, and karma bites.

Science fiction and fantasy, even though they might seem very different, are actually very similar: both deal with worlds that don’t exist. The difference is that science fiction often explains very carefully how the handwavium works, and fantasy just says, “it’s magic; live with it”.

Sci-fi and fantasy therefore get an undeserved bad press because it’s all made up stuff, therefore not real, therefore not relevant. This ignores the significant problem that the characters in oh-so-respectable literary fiction aren’t real either. Sci-fi and fantasy deal with exactly the same problems as any other form of fiction, just with more dragons (or spaceships). Furthermore, because the setting isn’t constrained by reality, the author can set up the world to showcase a particular problem or situation. JK Rowling did this very well with the Harry Potter books. She set up a wizarding world full of unfairness and inequality, and then made Harry and his friends face up to all of it – bullying and the realisation that you can’t always trust adults in the first book; war, sacrifice, larger issues of inequality and the power of a corrupt government in the final books. Would it even have been possible to have dealt with these themes in a non-fantasy book? Even if it were possible, what kind of book would that turn out to be?

I suppose, then, what I also love about Science Fiction and fantasy, is that they usually end with hope. Even if the good guys don’t have it all their own way, even if the outcome is decidedly ambivalent, there is still hope for the future. There is still hope that, in the end, good really will triumph.

So, how do I pick the next book I will read?

The first thing is, Is there a book by one of my favourite authors that I haven’t read yet? I do have a few authors whose books I’ll pretty much always get as soon as they’re published.  Jim Butcher, Barbara Hambly, Lois McMaster Bujold, Kim Harrison, Kelley Armstrong, to name a few. For these authors, I’ll drop everything and read their latest offering.

Beyond that? It depends. Sometimes it depends on how I’m feeling: after a hard day, I can’t cope with anything emotionally demanding. So I’ll go straight for the mind-candy – those books that are just fun to read. Otherwise, I tend to read in phases. I’ll read a run of fantasy, then a run of detective fiction. Right now, of course, I’ve joined the #ShelfLoveChallenge so another factor is When did I get this?

One thing that doesn’t factor in, or hasn’t until recently, is recommendations. Until now, the only person I know who is really into reading is my husband. Although we both read voraciously, and we both read science fiction, our taste in books doesn’t actually cross over all that much. But I’ve recently started interacting more on Goodreads and Twitter, and it’s nice to make contact with other readers.  Not only is it nice to discuss books in general, but I’ve had some good recommendations – long may it continue.

So, if you’d like to link up and talk books, I’m, on Goodreads, and on Twitter. Drop me a line and say hello!

And here’s a link to my #ShelfLoveChallenge page.

In which I lament my lack of self-control – Kindle Oasis vs Kobo Glo HD

Kindle-and-KoboIt’s official. I have no self-control. Breaking strain of a KitKat.

I have bought a Kindle. Not just any Kindle. The most expensive Kindle on the market. The Kindle I said I would definitely never, not ever, buy. Because it was far too expensive to justify. And stuff.

In my defence, it was my birthday, and the far-too-expensive Kindle was partially paid for by birthday money from my husband and my parents, and birthday money – should you be lucky enough to be financially stable – is meant for buying frivolous things that you can’t otherwise justify (like Kindles), not ordinary stuff like socks.

I always said, I would never have a Kindle. I was a Kobo girl. I don’t have anything against Amazon (how could I, when Amazon made it viable to be an indie author?) but Kindles never tempted me – they were too big, too clunky, especially compared to my three Kobos. The big Kobo is waterproof; the little Kobo has a 5″ screen; and the Kobo that is just right is a 6″-screened piece of elegance, far nicer than any Kindle I’d seen. And half the price.

Up until now.

Up until Amazon brought out a Kindle that is more than 30g lighter than my late, lamented Sony PRS-T1.

I’m a gadget girl. Other women, or so I read, love buying clothes and shoes. I can be in and out of a clothes shop in under 30 seconds, trailing my poor husband like the tail of a kite: “Do keep up!” On the other hand, when he sneaked off to PC World without me, the cad, we had Words. Not that I wanted anything there in particular; I just wanted to look. So I completely understand the desire to spend half the morning looking at clothes and then not buying any. I just do it with electronics.

But… Kindle.

First Impressions

I bought the WiFi only version; not only am I unlikely to be so desperate for reading matter that I will need to buy a book where there is no WiFi, but in the unlikely event that that happens, I can use the personal hotspot function on my iPhone to provide WiFi. So, no need to pay the extra £80 or however much it is to get the 3G version.

It is slightly shorter than my Kobo Glo HD, and slightly wider, so it’s kind of square. There’s a wider non-screen part on one side, for holding, and that’s where the buttons are.

The case, which also contains half the battery, is a nice bit of kit. It just clicks into place, guided by magnets. There’s no fiddling around trying to get bits lined up – it just finds its own way. There is also no audible “click”. Very nice. There are also magnets in the flippy part of the case, so that when you fold it back underneath the Kindle for one-handed reading with the case on, it sticks there.

Setting Up

Setting up was very easy. It arrived already knowing who I was, so it connected to my Amazon account straight out of the box, as soon as I input the house WiFi password. It automatically connected to Goodreads too, but you can disconnect it, or change the account to which it connects, in the Settings (settings>reading options>social networks).

You can also connect your Kindle to your Twitter and/or Facebook accounts, which I have not done.

The Reading Experience

The on-off button is at the top, with the micro-USB port, if you hold it in your right hand. If you hold it in your left, they’re at the bottom. A nice touch is that the Kindle detects which way around it is, and flips the screen so that you can use it right-handed or left-handed. The buttons also flip, so the top button is always page-forward, and the bottom is always page-back. However, if you prefer, you can go into “settings” and swap them over so that the top button is “back” and the bottom one is “forward”. I’ve done that, because I have small hands and I had to stretch slightly for my thumb to hit the top button.

Comparison to my Kobo Glo HD

Neutral

  • The first thing I noticed is that the Kindle doesn’t have a traditional bezel – the reading screen is not recessed. It’s flat, with a sort of “bumper” around the very edge of the device. So, on the one hand, crumbs won’t get stuck on the edge of the reading screen… on the other, they’ll get stuck against the bumper instead. I do like the flat screen of the Kindle – it looks so much smarter and more modern – but there is still that crumb-trapping potential, so I’ll mark it as “neutral”.
  • The Kindle has two buttons for page turns; I never missed page turn buttons on my Kobo – but these buttons are nicely placed for one-handed reading.  I think I might mostly use the buttons, but, again, I was always perfectly happy with my no-button-touch-screen Kobo.
  • Strangely, without the light on, the white screen background on the Kobo is slightly whiter than than on the Kindle. But with the light on full brightness, the Kindle’s contrast is better than the Kobo’s. So, the Kindle screen appears to go from “not as good as the Kobo” to “better than the Kobo” depending on screen brightness. I always set my Kobo’s light at 9%, but the Kindle’s light needs to be set higher.

Kindle Wins

  • The Kindle Oasis is a pretty, pretty thing. It makes my poor Kobo Glo HD look thick and clunky in comparison.
  • Speed and responsiveness. I think the Kindle wins here. Mind you, I never felt that my Kobo was slow – but the Kindle just seems to be that bit snappier.
  • The Kindle is lighter when held without the case, and I can feel the difference. I can imagine that long periods of reading will be far more comfortable with the Kindle. This is possibly not just to do with the absolute weight – because the Kindle is only about 50g lighter than the Kobo (although that does, admittedly, work out at the Kindle being only 72% of the weight of the Kobo) – but also the distribution of the weight. As most of the weight of the Kindle is in the side closest to the hand, it feels even lighter than it is (law of levers, principle of moments, etc).
  • Integration with Goodreads. This is probably not an issue unless you actually use Goodreads. I do. So I’m thinking that this might be a major advantage for me. Let’s face it – we’re all a little bit lazy (some of us are a lot lazy). If you have to change to a different device to post that really great quote, you just don’t bother.
  • Amazon store. We all know that Amazon has more choice, at lower prices, than Kobo. Plus, I like Amazon’s store better.
  • Kindle app integration. This is one of those little luxuries that I never missed, reading on a Kindle, but I’m probably going to kind of like. There are those moments when you don’t have your primary reader – and if you read a book you bought from Amazon, it will sync across your devices. Not like my life is ruined if I have to go and find the page – but it’s nice not to have to.

Kobo Wins

  • The Kobo has many more fonts, and much more choice when it comes to setting up your font size and line spacing exactly how you want them. Compared to the Kobo, the Kindle is very limited indeed.
  • Kobo allows you to customise your homepage much more: it has a series of tiles which you can dismiss or move around. You get tiles for the last couple of books you’ve been reading, the last few books you added, and so forth. This is a better layout, I think, than Kindle, which uses a third of the screen real estate for recommendations. Kindle gives you an option to disable the home screen completely, so you just get your list of books. However, I quite like having the book I’m currently reading front-and-centre, and a link to my Goodreads want-t0-read list. But if I don’t want recommendations, I have to go without the other features of  the home page.
  • Kindle does not have a dedicated space for your currently-reading book: the big slot that looks as if it ought to be actually changes to whatever book you did something to last – whether that is reading it, or adding it, or whatever. Unlike Kobo, which does have a dedicated space for the last two or three books you were reading.
  • Kobo seems to be better at side-loading books. I have a lot of non-Amazon books, which I side-load with Calibre. When loading hundreds of books onto my Kobo (as I do every time I get a new device), the Kobo has taken several minutes to digest them, but not as long as the Kindle. The Kindle looks like everything is fine, but when you try to search for the new books shows “not yet indexed”. Looking on the internet, indexing sometimes takes hours or even days. 

Verdict

I am going to keep the Kindle, and it will become my primary reading device (and so I should hope, at that price).

For me, this was my first Kindle, so I get the “Kindle experience” for the first time, and I would not have bought the older Kindles: they are all bigger and heavier than my Kobo. The lightness of the Oasis was a major factor for me.

However, many of the things that push me in that direction are not completely related to the Kindle Oasis itself – more to its essential Kindleness: the integration with Goodreads, the link with the Kindle apps. I do really like the lightness of the Oasis, and its flat screen, but my Kobo was perfectly good. More than good – the Kobo is a very nice piece of kit in its own right.

Moreover, the Kobo has a nicer and more useful homepage, as it always shows the book you last opened, and you can rearrange it pretty much how you want.

So I’d say… unless you want an Oasis just because you really want the best Kindle out there, it’s a lovely piece of kit but ultimately not worth the price as a reader. But something that many reviewers seem to forget is that practical utility is only part of the reason why people buy a product. It’s like cars: a Toyota Aygo and a Porsche Boxer are both relatively small cars that will get you from A to B. But people still buy Porsches, because they don’t just want sensible transport – they want a luxury experience. The Oasis is like the Porsche of readers: expensive and luxurious, but if all you want is something to allow you to read ebooks, not the one to go for. If you’re a serious reader, and you want the luxury, and you’re more concerned about the physical form factor than having the ability to set up your text exactly how you want it, then the Oasis will give you what you want.

Making Origami Cranes

Origami CranesSomeone at work is getting married, and they’re going to Japan for their honeymoon. Someone else decided it would be a brilliant idea to give him 1000 origami cranes. It’s a Japanese wedding tradition that is supposed to bring good luck to the new couple.

So a box of paper and an instruction sheet appeared in the tea-room, and everyone who stands still long enough is being press-ganged into crane-making. Even me, and I don’t know if I’d recognise the chap if I met him!

I am, however, the only person who has made cranes before. I used to make them when I was a kid – origami was a minor hobby. Over the last few (!) years, though, origami has fallen by the wayside. Life just got in the way – one thing, then another, then another.

Making cranes (I think I’ve made about fifty now) has reminded me how much I used to enjoy origami. It’s too easy to allow life to get away from you, and then you realise that you spend all your time chasing after things you don’t really want, and not spending any time on things you enjoy. You always promise yourself that you’ll get around to it – tomorrow, maybe.

So I’m going to start doing origami again, see how much I remember. I’ll keep you posted on how I do.

A week off… right?

Tweet... tweet

Tweet… tweet… tweet…

The Easter holidays means at least a few days off, and this year I got the big prize of 10 days off for only 4 days’ annual leave booked. Of course, I had lots of big plans about how I was going to hit a few deadlines and get ahead, learn what the hell Twitter is all about, write some of the actual novel (you know, the one I’m supposed to be writing), and maybe even do this thing called relaxing that is apparently really good fun.

Well, I got some of it done!

I did hit one deadline, but then ground to a halt (I’ll catch up next week, OK?). Relaxing – yep, managed to do some of that. Lovely slow mornings with my husband (also off work), drinking coffee and talking. And things. You know. And, because he’s on a sports team, we have to do some fitness stuff. Well, he does, and I go along too. Who knows what a drop-dead gorgeous man might get up to in the park? I have to go along to make sure he doesn’t meet some hussy who will take advantage if his sweet nature.

Only, there’s this hill. Seriously, it’s about a 1/3 gradient, and we have to run up and down it. Five times. Not relaxing. Makes me think again about the whole marriage business.

But, I have managed to figure out Twitter. I never quite understood it before, but apparently nearly everybody else in the world does not have this problem, and they’re all tweeting away like blackbirds in the springtime. Or bluebirds. I’ve finally got Twitter sorted out in my very visual mind as a giant cocktail party with all these conversations that you can eavesdrop on if they look interesting, or butt into if you think you have something scintillating and witty to say (in 140 characters or less). Of course, one then has to do the whole circulating thing, but fortunately there doesn’t seem to be a problem equivalent to having a plate of nibbles in one hand, a glass in the other hand, and then wondering how you are actually going to consume the nibbles… And unlike in real life, the object of the exercise is to get people to eavesdrop on you in turn.

And I managed to actually do some writing! Amazing! I’m now… wait for it… 60,000 words into the first draft. Some people call this draft zero; can’t quite get my head around that. Because if the first draft is draft zero, what did you have before you started? Anyway, whatever you call it, 60,000 words in, and I’ve got over a sort of narrative hump that was in the way (a bit like the hill in the park). I’m sort of closing in on the last quarters, so I’m probably going to end up around 80-90,000 words. However, I’m not getting all precious about word count; I’d far rather end up with a story that is just right, rather than stretch it out to get a couple more thousand words, or try to squash it into too small a space. We’ll see how it looks when I actually get to the end.

Of course, now I’ve just hit another narrative hump, but, hey, that’s life. Well, writing, anyway. Back to it…

Being a newbie again

Clay_Pigeons

Not this kind of clay pigeon!

I go clay pigeon shooting – English Sporting. I shoot pretty regularly, and I’ve been doing it for two or three years now. I’ve got competent enough at it that the instructor at the club suggested that I might want to think about training to be an instructor myself. Being a man who believes in seizing his chances, while we were having a few shots while clearing up the course, he suggested that I ought to try shooting left-handed. As he pointed out, if you have to instruct a left-hander, you need to know where they need to put everything.

It was weird.

Everything felt wrong; I couldn’t get the gun mounted comfortably (and mine’s got a straight stock that will do for a right- or left-hander), and I had to remember to put my feet the other way around and shut the other eye. I have perfectly balanced eyes, which isn’t good for shooting because it means that if I keep both of them open I can either look at the end of the gun or the clay, because if I try to do both my eyes cross, go blurred, and it hurts. So I have to shut my left eye when shooting right-handed – so I had to remember to shut the right for shooting left-handed. Then I tried to track the clay on a simple driven shot – coming nearly straight towards me. Right-handed, I can do it without even thinking. Left-handed, my lovely Miroku, which handles beautifully, felt like steering a shopping trolley. The barrel wobbled all over the sky except where I wanted it, and I nearly fell over because my entire body felt wrong.

Then I missed.

And it hurt.

It was an extremely valuable experience, and not just for learning where all your hands and feet go when shooting left-handed. In some ways, I think I skipped the usual newbie problems when I started shooting: I took to it straight away. The instructor started me off on a 20-bore gun – the way he does most women – but swapped me onto a 12-bore gun after 25 shots, and I’ve used a 12-bore ever since. I’ve never had a problem with recoil, or with tracking the clay (knowing where to aim is a different question, of course!). And the thing about never having experienced a particular problem yourself is that you don’t really understand it in other people.

Shooting left-handed gave me a new appreciation for what it feels like to be a newbie. For the first time ever, my gun did not feel like part of me. It felt like a heavy lump of wood and metal that wanted to do anything except what I wanted it to, and my body felt weirdly twisted and off-balance. Plus the gun thumped me in the shoulder every time I fired.

For the first time, I realised that for some people, shooting is just not fun at all, because it’s awkward and painful and feels dangerously out of control. And if I ever do make it as an instructor, I think that will be the most valuable lesson I will ever learn.

New Street Authors

AlligatorThis Thursday, I am going to do a very scary thing.

I’m going to go to a writers’ group. It’s called New Street Authors, and it’s for self-published authors (present or future) in Birmingham.

As far as I know, they aren’t cannibals (though one should arrive half-an-hour early if one wishes to eat, so maybe they are…) and I haven’t been told that potential new members have to wrestle alligators. Possibly this is because there aren’t many alligators in Birmingham.

I met one member – David Wake – at the Asylum (steampunk event, not mental institution – just saying), and got talking. So, there we go. If this blog suddenly goes quiet after Thursday, you’ll know that either they are cannibals, or there really was alligator-wrestling, and the alligator won.

Being a member of a writers’ group is often recommended, and I can see why. It’s very easy to get too close to your own work, so you don’t spot the gaping holes in the plot, or that your main character is a perfect little miss-goody-two-shoes whom all right-thinking readers are going to hate. I think it’s a bit like parents who think their own little darlings are sweet and amusing, whereas everyone else knows they’re horrifically spoilt little brats who should have been drowned at birth.

Of course, it’s important to pick a group who are willing to actually say “your plot sucks, your main character is an idiot, your pacing flows like treacle in winter… but the font you’ve chosen is pretty nice.” Feedback that tells you where you need to improve is far more valuable (though difficult to accept) than praise. Since this group is all self-published authors, I’m hoping that this is the sort of feedback that will be on offer. It will also be nice (I hope) to meet up with and talk to other people who have already gone down the path I will be taking – and, later, people who are on the same path I am taking.

But there’s still that sense of… these people are real authors. And here am I with my 45,000 words of story which is in no way ready for anyone else to see yet. I haven’t finished the first draft, let alone done the major editing that I know will be required. I’ve never been to a writers’ group before – I’ve never been to a writing class before. There is a distinct feeling that these people are the real thing, and I’m a fraud – and it’ll take about four seconds for them to figure that out and feed me to the alligator.

Even if they don’t feed me to the alligator, will it be a case of “shut up until you’ve published your first book”? I hope not. Of course, one hopes that if that was going to be the case, they wouldn’t be inviting new people. But, hey, I’m nervous. I’m not a people person. I’m a lot more comfortable behind a screen, with a keyboard in front of me, than in a pub with actual people in front of me.

And, of course, this is my first step towards being a real writer. Not someone with half a story and a blog. Once I go out and meet real people, in the real world, I’ve made a commitment. I’ve told real people that I’m writing a book. And that means I can’t back out.

And that’s scary too.

No excuses left!

Well, there are always excuses, but I’ve got a lot fewer now than I had a fortnight ago.

My husband and I spent last weekend clearing out one of the bedrooms that had been a repository for Random Useless Crap (which had been useful at some stage), and rearranging it into a workroom for me, leaving him in sole position of the other bedroom as an office.

We’ve bought actual desks – one each – and I’ve got a new laptop to replace the creaky old desktop computer I’ve had for years (thus discovering that our home broadband isn’t nearly as slow as I thought it was). Now I just need a chair… we’re both using dining chairs that we got free some years ago from someone who was throwing them out, presumably because they have the tendency to come apart at inopportune moments. You have to balance quite carefully and not make any sudden moves…

But the result of all this industry and expense is that I now have somewhere in the house where it’s actually possible to work reasonably comfortably, and a decent-sized screen and keyboard with which to do it. Now all I have to do is find the time.

Some people seem to be able to just sit down at a computer and start writing, and keep going until they have a complete story (like Stephen King, or like the Mad Hatter: start at the beginning, go on till the end, and then stop). I am not one of those people. I need a plan, with step-by-step instructions. Otherwise I tend to get lost, or stuck. And the week after next, for the first time since 2006, my husband and I are actually going on holiday. Real holiday, where you actually sleep somewhere that is not your house for more than two nights in a row. We’re going to a little cottage somewhere in the Peak District, and we’re taking our respective computers, and we’re determined to do nothing but relax, plot, write and… maybe do some other stuff.

However, the advantage of having had no time (in between cooking, cleaning, ironing, studying and working) to do any actual writing is that I’ve had quite a bit of time to think about the story and the characters. And my two main characters have changed; I realised that I had a big problem with my fantasy world – i.e., that really it wouldn’t have worked the way I had it. I also found another character presenting herself to my attention. The solution turned out to be that if I merged my main character with the new character, that made a change to the world possible that straightened out the problem.

I wouldn’t have thought of it – or at least not until several thousand words down the road – if I’d had the time to start writing a while ago. Of course, one change means that other changes happen – having changed my main character, my other protagonist also has to change. So I’ve now got two completely different people, and I’ve got to work out exactly who they are now. But, it should be a better story for it.

So, the week after next is The Week For Writing. Because if I can’t get a plot plotted with a whole week assigned to just that task (and maybe some other stuff…) then I have no hope of getting anything actually written.

Let’s see what happens. 🙂

#ThisGirlCan?

I’ve made the decision to get fitter, lose weight, and so on.

This means running.

Running’s pretty easy; you don’t have to go anywhere special to do it. You don’t need expensive equipment. You just put on your trainers and some sloppy clothes and hit the streets.

Except, it’s not that simple, is it?

You see women running, and they’re all skinny and fit, jogging easily with their bright-coloured Lycra and their purpose-made water-bottles and their headphones.

They are not like me. They do not puff and gasp, red in the face, hair everywhere. I don’t have all the right gear; my tracksuit bottoms don’t quite reach my ankles because either they’ve shrunk since I got them, or I’ve grown. It could be either, because I had them when I was at school, and, not making any specific statements about age… but I do have grey hairs.

In short, my whole appearance just screams “I’m not good at this.” I am neither efficient nor decorative. And, really, one is expected to be one or the other. If you’re whizzing past lesser mortals, you can be forgiven for crappy clothes. If you’re decorative enough, nobody cares how fast or how far you run.

So, my strategy? Run at night, when nobody can see. Only, of course, running alone as a woman may not be the smartest idea, so my husband has to come with me. He’s pretty nice about the fact that I slow him down.

So, #ThisGirlCan? It’s a media campaign by Sport England, intended to encourage women to do more exercise, and more sport. Research has, apparently, shown that what holds women back from physical activity is the fear of being ‘judged’.

When I first saw an advert, it pissed me off. Yet again, I thought, we have a bunch of people who think women need help and guidance. Of course women can. They don’t need to be told that. If women want to jog or cycle, or do karate or rock climbing, they can. They don’t need to be reassured that it’s still OK to be seen in public looking less than sexy and gorgeous.

Then I took a step back, and thought, “You who dare to run in broad daylight in your grotty old jogging bottoms, gasping and wheezing, may cast the first stone.”

Even though I’m generally pretty uninterested in what other people think (you only have to look at my wardrobe choices), I still don’t like running where people can see how unfit I am. And women-only gyms, or sessions, are not the answer.

In my experience, other women are usually much nastier than men. Men might call out a comment, but then they get on with their day; it’s just a joke that they probably don’t even understand is quite as confidence-sapping as it is (plus, you can put it down to male chauvinism and ignore it). Women, on the other hand, are spiteful. They’re not just making a joke; they deliberately set out to hurt, to destroy confidence, and to position themselves in a superior position in the pecking order to you.

So yes, #ThisGirlCan has a point. At the very least, putting pictures of women who aren’t skinny and fit, and who do their thing – whatever it is – without being prevented by the fear of what other people will think, might give some women the confidence to get out there and do what they want to do, regardless. Sometimes, that’s all it takes – the knowledge that you’re not the only one who wheezes and jiggles and looks as if she’s about to either melt or have a heart attack.

 

Lend me your ears…

…and I will use them for hearing with, because mine currently aren’t working.

I don’t know what I’ve got, but I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, and it involves my ears being blocked. From the inside. No making an appointment to get my ears syringed and coming home with everything in Dolby surround-sound.

Currently, I’m existing on decongestants and painkillers, and generally being miserable.

It’s quite weird, not being able to hear properly (or chew food properly). I have to look at people directly in order to hear them; I wonder if I’m speaking too loudly (because I can’t hear myself very well). My balance is slightly off, and I feel like my mind is wrapped in a big pillow. I’m slightly disconnected from the world, as if there’s a barrier between me and it.

It’s been going on for several days, and it’s getting to the point where if you don’t lend me your ears, I will come and take them because I’m just that sick of not being able to hear.

Is this what it’s like to be really deaf? I mean, permanently.

In my last job, my second-in-department wore hearing-aids. She didn’t at first, and we started to suspect that she was a bit deaf when we had to yell two or three times to get her attention if she wasn’t facing us. Eventually, she went to get her ears tested and came back with two hearing aids. When she first wore them, she said that on the one hand (ear?) she hadn’t realised how many sounds she had been missing. Related to this, at first when she got the hearing aids, she found it difficult to pay attention to people, or to hold a conversation in a crowded room, because she would get distracted by background noise. I think this was because she had just lost the skill of listening to important sounds and tuning the rest out, so she had to relearn it. On the other hand, she said that sound through the hearing-aid sounded ‘artificial’, and she wasn’t sure that she liked it.

Then there’s Beethoven; deaf as a post. I’ve heard the joke that going deaf didn’t stop him hearing the music – it just stopped him hearing the distractions. But I wonder how he felt about it? Was the music in his head enough, or did he miss ‘real’ music?

What’s bothering me most is the feeling of not being quite connected to the world (although the rest of it isn’t much fun either). It’s playing Hob with my ability to concentrate. Do deaf people feel disconnected? Or is it the kind of problem you don’t have if you go gradually deaf, so you don’t realise you’re losing your hearing until you’re significantly deaf? If you’re deaf, what do you miss the most? How do you feel about it? Is it different for people who were born deaf, and if so, how?

A couple of my friends – a married couple – are disabled. The male half finds it difficult to accept that I can lift and carry stuff better than him. He’s an unreconstructed working class male, and my ability to pick up and carry heavy furniture hits him right in the manhood (even if I am careful with both ends of the bench). Intellectually, he knows it’s not his fault, but emotionally, he still feels shamed and frustrated by it. None of the rest of us resent having to do his share of the lifting and carrying, but he resents it enough for all of us.

It gets me thinking about disability… what does it mean, really? The word itself – ‘disabled’ – means ‘made-not-able’, as in, not able to do something. But then consider Douglas Bader – after losing both lower legs (one amputated above the knee, one below) he went on to become a World War II fighter ace. He could fly, drive, and dance (of which skills I possess only one out of three). Does he count as disabled? According to his biography, Reach for the Sky, Bader was certified – simultaneously – 100% disabled and 100% fit.

It makes me think, is it right to attach the ‘disabled’ label to someone just because they happen to have fewer legs than are issued as standard? Or because they are mildly dyslexic? Everybody with that label gets put in the same box, and once in the box, they’re not allowed to escape. Douglas Bader had to campaign hard to be allowed back into the RAF, despite the fact that he was capable of doing the job. Is a person still disabled if they overcome their disadvantage to be able to do everything any average person can do? If a person with no lower legs can do everything I can do, and can additionally do something I can’t, then who is disabled? Me or him?

In the UK, we have something called ‘positive about disabled people’. This means that, for companies subscribing to this, if you are disabled, you automatically get an interview for the job, if you fulfil the basic qualification requirements. This is supposedly because a disabled person might be disadvantaged somehow by being judged only on their application form. I fail to be able to get my head around this. Being in a wheelchair makes a person unable to complete an application form correctly? For dyslexia, yes, I could understand it, or any other disability that makes filling in forms difficult. But for all disabilities?

I wonder how disabled people feel about it? I’ve never had the opportunity to ask. I wonder if they feel the same way as I would if I found out I’d only got an interview because I was female? Under those circumstances, my first thought would be to tell the panel where they could stuff their job, and their obviously low opinion of women, if they thought I wasn’t capable of getting a job without special treatment. My second would be, if they give me the job, can I be sure that it was because I was the best candidate? Or was it because they needed a ‘token female’, or because their recruiting department had told them they needed more women so they’d better appoint the next one that applied for a job? What would my potential colleagues think? Would they resent me? Would they think I’d only been appointed because of my gender? How would that affect my ability to do the job?

Positive discrimination is a difficult area. On the one hand, one might say that it’s necessary in order to get minority ‘representation’ in under-diversified areas. But on the other hand… what if minority groups don’t want to be part of that particular area and that’s why they aren’t there? I mean, an extreme example would be the severe lack of diversity shown by the low level of Muslim participation in the pork-butchering trade. They aren’t there because they don’t want to be there. And if they don’t want to be there, it would be wrong to force them to participate, and a waste of time and effort to try to persuade them, no matter what we think about ‘diversity’.

This leads me to think of communism. It may be apocryphal (and probably is), but I heard the following story:

A group of Westerners is on a guided tour of a Russian factory (during the communist era). Of course, all the factory people speak Russian, and the Westerners have an official interpreter with them so that they can understand what the workers say. They are introduced to one chap, and when asked what he thinks of communism, his words are translated by the official interpreter as: “Even though I have won a Nobel prize, I still work in this factory under the same conditions as everyone else and I am given no unfair advantages.” However, unknown to the official interpreter, one of the Westerners speaks Russian, and later on, in their hotel, he tells the others that what the Nobel prize-winner actually said was, “I won the Nobel prize, and I still have to work in this crappy factory for the same crappy wage. What do you think I think about it?”

Equality is important, but equality of outcome is impossible. People are not equal; we have to admit it. There are people cleverer than me (not many, obviously), more beautiful than me, more graceful than me, more likeable than me. Our gifts are not all the same. To enforce equality of outcome by artificial means – by steering people into places they don’t want to go, or preventing from them achieving things they could be capable of – is to destroy freedom.

The only equality we can assure is equality of opportunity, so that everyone has the opportunity to be free to make of themselves what they choose.

Equality of opportunity, however, is much harder to do than a top-down imposition of equality of outcome. It means that we can’t just say ‘we need more women; if a woman applies for the job, you have to appoint her’. It means we have to actively engage the female population and locate those women who want the job, and encourage them to apply on equal terms with the men. And then, if not many women apply for the job, then we have to accept that it’s probably because it’s not intrinsically attractive to most women and they’d rather be doing something else. The same applies to other minority groups; true equality means allowing everyone to be self-selecting, but making sure that the opportunities are there to be selected. No wonder it’s easier to enforce positive discrimination than to make sure that discrimination of any kind isn’t necessary and doesn’t happen.

Equality means treating people as people, not as the contents of boxes marked ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘Asian’ and so forth.

It matters in writing, too. How many times have we seen either the book or film where every single character is white, in defiance of probability? (ThirtySomethingBride talks about that on her blog.) Or, just as bad, the ‘token black guy’, or the ‘token disabled person’? But how do you manage to get it right? Do you have to do some kind of mathematical analysis of the characteristics of your characters’ social group and work out what proportion should be from which ethnic group, and whether you’ve got enough people that you need to make someone disabled (and if so, what disability should they have)?

Taking myself as an example, since I’ve admitted that I’m writing the world’s slowest-developing novel, one of my main characters is black. I don’t know why he is, but he is. He came into my mind that way, and I knew his history practically from birth. I don’t think I could make him not-black if I tried. I’d have to delete him entirely and start again. So I’ve got five main characters, of which one is female, one is a black male, and the other three are white males. According to Wikipedia’s article, the 2001 census said that 90% of the population of Britain identifies as white. So does that mean I have to make my black guy into a white guy because black people are now over-represented? (Women are different: there’s a reason why the team is only 20% female.) Does this mean that I now can’t add an Asian guy, because even if I upped the team to six, this would mean that ethnic minorities would constitute 33% of the team instead of the correct 10%? Does this count as positive discrimination, and/or unrealistic, and can I be criticised for that?

Sometimes, I think I should stick to something safe and simple, like alligator dentistry. This author lark seems to have more hidden dangers than the Australian Outback.

How do you deal with it? Do you ignore it? Do you consciously add in characters to make sure that your book has all the right ethnic/gender/sexuality/etc groups? Or are you in the happy position that it all comes naturally to you?