The day the Queen died

I was making dinner when I heard the announcement.  The radio was on in the kitchen and Radio 3 was playing some or other music (no idea what it was) when someone suddenly said:  “We interrupt this programme … ”

And I knew.

It shouldn’t have been shocking but it was.  It was obvious things weren’t well with the Queen but it didn’t occur to me that she’d die.  I’d hoped, very hard indeed, that she wouldn’t.  If she did, I thought it would break Britain. 

When the announcer finished saying what he’d come to say, they played the National Anthem and despite having lived here for nearly 40 years, I still don’t know the words and probably never will.  I clung onto the radio for support (a good solid wooden one) and I cried.  Because it was sad.  Because the Queen was this granny-figure whom I quite liked, having never had a grandmother of any sort.  Because it meant that Britain, already facing appalling hardship this winter and with a truly dreadful new PM at the helm, felt, in that moment, utterly broken to me. 

This sounds frightfully dramatic.  What I mean by broken is that people are already angry and frightened.  The fuel hikes are going to be a killer and the whole economy feels desperate.  If you add sadness into the general mix of fear and anger, you’re not looking at a country with any obvious joy in its immediate future.  Some sort of miracle would have to occur to fix this all up – if, that is, it’s at all fixable.  I’m not sure if the miracle would have to be political or divine.  I don’t know what it would take. 

As for Charles, I quite like him, though I only started liking him once he got older.  It felt as if he had managed to mature into someone I could respect.  I like that he was into being green and organic and saving the planet decades before it became trendy.  He used to be called a tree hugger.  Now we’re all looking for trees to hug. 

RIP Queenie
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Microfiction:  how my tiny writing got me back on track

I seem to have lost the knack of writing microfiction.  It was never something I thought about.  Much.  Or ever, to be honest.  But then the pandemic hit and the first lockdown came along and throttled all my writing efforts quite utterly to death. 

Lots of people said to me, oh yay, lockdown, great time to write.  Well, no, not actually.  My life was structured in a way that I had time to write every week anyway and I’ve always treated it professionally.  I sit down at my desk at the same time every day and work for the same number of hours.  I didn’t have any problem with staying home during the pandemic.  In fact, I really liked it!  So I shouldn’t have had any problem with my writing during the lockdowns.  After all, not much had changed, right? 

But there were two aspects that had:  one was the anxiety.  That first lockdown was pretty grim.  No one in the world knew what was going to happen.  Nor did we know how long the lockdown would last.  “Over by the summer” was obviously not on the cards.  Suffering from major-league anxiety at the best of times, this shouldn’t have made too much difference to my writing either. 

It’s only in hindsight that I’ve been able to work out what it was that almost killed me off a writer:  working from home.  My desk space, a sacrosanct area in the corner of my teeny tiny lounge (usually full of washing), was no longer just my writing space.  I had to do my Real Life job there as well.  I tried very hard to keep the WFH job apart from my writing “job” using all sorts of tricks to separate the two activities.  I used a different keyboard – for the WFH job, I used the keyboard that came with my current desktop, a keyboard I really hate.  When I write, I use the old one from my last desktop (which I had to stop using because the OS system went out of date).  I used a different mouse.  I tried to wear different clothes (I was getting desperate).  I drank my coffee out of different mugs. 

It didn’t work. 

Slowly, the WFH job began to encroach on my writing.  My computer felt contaminated with work stuff.  My desk was cluttered with work stuff.  I got sick of swapping keyboards around all the time.  I found myself checking work emails on days I wasn’t even meant to be working (it was a parttime job).  I couldn’t get space from my job which meant I couldn’t get space from my writing either. 

My writing began to suffer.  Everything I wrote was rubbish.  My ideas died.  Then I stopped having ideas altogether.  It felt as if I’d never be able to write again.  This is where microfiction comes into the story.  One of my lockdown walks took me down to the river which was quite wonderful without the traffic.  There were some pleasure boats parked on the river which had wonderful names and while gazing out fondly at them, a tiny piece of descriptive writing suddenly popped into my head.

That was the first piece of microfiction I ever wrote.  It’s still my favourite!  I still see those boats too!  After that, I used microfiction as a way to push my imagination.  I needed to teach myself how to get ideas again.  And it worked!

I certainly don’t see myself as a proper writer of microfiction – it has a number of rules and regulations and stylistic expectations which wasn’t what it was about for me.  Someone on Twitter said to me that I wasn’t writing microfiction, I was just writing first lines for a story.  Hmmm, well, no, not really.  In my tiny paragraphs, I could see entire novels, but then, it’s probable that I was the only person seeing those novels.  The tiny paragraphs worked for me but perhaps not for others.

I could generate ideas again.  I could write.  But more importantly, I could write something I actually liked.  My confidence as a writer returned. 

The microfiction remained as a legacy to that difficult period and I ended up only writing fifteen pieces.  Here is one of them.  To see the others, click here:  MICROFICTION

IDENTITY
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Book Review – Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


What a wonderful book! Full of books you wish you’d read as a child with hilarious scenes of Lucy reading those books and not wanting to do ANYTHING except read them. Very funny and very informative, it made me want to go out and read them all! Sadly, there were so many I hadn’t heard of that it made me wonder what on earth I read when I was a child. I was never without a book either but didn’t have her father’s dedication to keep her stocked up with books. By age eleven, I’d read every William book I could get my hands on (oh, the joy when my stepfather uncovered a box of them in his father’s garage – the original red covers rather battered but still intact!). But I was also reading Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels at the same age, as well as anything that could remotely call itself science fiction. There were no YA books at that time so I basically went from “Pookie puts the world right” to “Let’s hear it for the deaf man.” Many children’s classics I only discovered when I began reading to my daughter and it was then that the world of books really opened up to me. Reading such a fantastic range of books has made Lucy Mangan a wonderful writer. All her books are a joy but this one takes the crown.





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Beautiful Bloomsbury

During lockdown, I took many photographs to share on my job’s Facebook page.  I called the series Beautiful Bloomsbury.  To my mind, it was beautiful because there were so few people in it!  The first lockdown took place during the most beautiful spring imaginable with stunning fluffy skies and garden squares awash with colour.  No litter, no traffic, no nutcases, no noise.  It was blissful.

Here are some of those photos:

I discovered St George’s Gardens during lockdown. This flowering tree was particularly stunning as it greeted me on my early morning walk.

An angel of peace in St George’s Gardens
This square is for keyholders only. I felt as if I was looking into a secret garden when I passed it every day.
The small community garden in Marchmont Street was locked for two years. We all thought it would never open again.
Shops I’d never noticed before suddenly sprang out at me during my early morning walks.
It was wonderful to see Russell Square so clean and quiet.
Gordon Square was locked for the duration too. No idea why. It felt as if the council was herding people onto Russell Square by locking so many of the smaller squares. You’d think creating crowds was the last thing you’d want during a pandemic, but then, the council isn’t reknowned for its common sense.
British Museum. Quiet streets.
Pavement garden at the bottom end of Great Ormond Street.
Slightly beyond the Bloomsbury borders – the Royal Courts of Justice.
When Gordon Square finally reopened, the roses were gorgeous.
My place of work (at the time of the lockdowns) overlooking Gordon Square.
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How deep does this drought go?

I love Windy.  It was introduced to me by a work colleague some years ago and I used to sit poring over it obsessively – usually looking for rain.  No doubt you’ve heard me whitter on endlessly about the severe lack of rain in Bloomsbury (which is in central London in case you didn’t know).  It turns out I wasn’t making it up.  It’s not just that I love rain and “imagine” it never rains.  It really DOESN’T ever rain.  By March, I could have told you that we were heading for a drought.  A weather pattern had set in and seemed unlikely to change.  You get a kind of “instinct” about weather patterns that probably comes about when you live in the same area for a while.  For decades, even.  For way, way too long. 

Nothing annoys me more than this weird fallacy that it’s “always raining in London.”  Er, no, it isn’t.  In central London, it has been getting drier and drier as the years go by.  One year in five (ten?) you may get a number of showers.  And that’s it.  It seldom rains in winter and seldom gets cold enough to bother with a big coat.  It never snows.  It never rains in spring.  If you’re really lucky, you’ll get some rain in August, which is when all the schools are shut for the holidays.  Yes, I know, every year is not the same, but generally speaking, this is the pattern.  I remember thunderstorms in May.  I remember deluges on Wimbledon when they were trying to play tennis in July.  I remember carrying an umbrella.  I don’t actually know where my umbrella is at the moment.  I literally haven’t used it since last autumn although I can’t say when exactly.  I’ve checked my diary (I obsessively record rainfall) and can’t actually find any rain.  November was mostly warm and utterly grey, as was December.  And January, now I come to think of it.  Oh wait, here’s an entry at last – it appears it last rained properly on August 9th 2021.  That’s over a year ago.  So we’ve been in this rainless state for literally a year.  There have been occasions when the terminal greyness produced drops in the air – you’d notice them if one landed on your cheek while out walking.  But none reached the ground.  It’s not just the grass that is deader than the deadest dead thing you ever saw, but the streets and squares of Bloomsbury are littered with dead saplings.  No one waters them.  No one gives a shit.  Most people, from what I can gather in conversation, utterly love it when it doesn’t rain.  They never want it to rain.  They want it to be dry ALL THE TIME.  Hey fuckers – THAT’S CALLED A DROUGHT.

Back to Windy.  I’m not any kind of expert on reading complex weather maps but the “drought intensity” toggle is interesting.  Looking at this recent image, why does it seem to be telling me that the drought intensity in the south east of England and the centre of Europe is GREATER than in the Sahara desert?  I thought deserts were the driest places on the planet?  This is some of the information I can find about the drought intensity applicable to the south east (with my bit of London in it):

Drought intensity compares the actual amount of water available to plants with the values recorded for the given area during the same time period of the year between 1961 and 2010. Each drought intensity class represents a particular drought period return probability.

D5 (Extreme drought):

  • Soil: Soil is dry and dusty, long term soil moisture deficit
  • Precipitation: Severe long term precipitation deficit, severe risk of wildfire occurrence
  • Vegetation: Extreme drought impacts on crops, expected yield loss of 40 % or higher, drought impact on grassland is causing cattle feed deficiency
  • Water bodies: River flows and water bodies level on multiple-year minimum, small bodies of water may dry out

Obviously it’s going to be normal for the Sahara not to get rain.  That doesn’t mean it’s a drought.  It’s just desert conditions.  The fact that I feel as if I’m living in a burning hot dry dusty dustbowl of horror is, possibly, just my personal opinion.  And an obsessional one at that.  It’s funny how you tend to obsess about the things you don’t have:  rain, money, a government that cares…..

PS  I wrote this blog on Sunday and am posting it today, Tuesday.  Last night (Monday) it rained for ten minutes.  Ten whole minutes.  I hung as far out my window as I could go and got as wet as I could.  It was bliss.

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Book Review: The Small Hand by Susan Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A quiet novel of intense mood and atmosphere with moments of profound creepiness. Not particularly scary but definitely unnerving. I loved the premise of the story, the main character (who doesn’t want to be a dealer in antique books, travelling the world to weird and wonderful places to find them for disgustingly rich collectors) and the settings – from the English countryside to a hard-to-reach French monastery. I would have liked to have stayed in the monastery for far longer – it was by far the most interesting part of the book and promised more than it delivered. The writing itself was a pleasure to read with descriptions so evocative you are easily drawn in. Slight but intense, I enjoyed this hugely…..except for the denouement. I really didn’t buy the cause of all the spooky goings on and thought it lacked detail. I’m also not mad at everything coming out in a letter right at the end. It all felt a bit rushed and the twist lacked the kick it should have had. But worth reading for the beautiful prose alone.





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Book Review: Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Or three weddings and a funeral! After the phenomenal misery of Confusion, this came as a bit of a relief. For some of the characters, anyway! Without giving anything away, one of my favourite characters meets someone who is just lovely and they have a lovely wedding and you can just FEEL the years and years of happiness and contentedness ahead of them, one of those long marriages that people one day in the year 2000 or so will go: wow, they really knew how to stay married in the old days! Well, I like to think that because God knows we could do with a bit of joy. There is another wedding which is so unstated and barely discussed that even the woman’s children don’t know their mother is getting married that day. But again – lovely that two lonely older people found each other. The third marriage is implied. You know it’s going to happen anyway because at the end of each book is the first chapter of the next book – so I already know they’ve been married for ten years and have kids. I seem to remember that the radio version (having pretty much dropped most of the contents of the 3rd and 4th volumes) ended at this point. And the Cazalet story does feel finished at the end of this book. Ms Howard wraps everything up and you feel you are done. But then, when knitting, casting off is NOT the end. You still have to sew up all the pieces! The funeral, by the way, is not unexpected or particularly sad, but it does change the lives of some of the characters in a big way. Poor Rachel is finally afforded some self-awareness and happiness. Characters that really stood out for me in this novel are Polly, who finds herself; the Duchy, who imparts some wisdom and support in unexpected ways; and Archie, who has always been a strange, peripheral character but truly finds his feet here – and joy. If this review gives you the idea it’s all very soapy – it isn’t! None of the Cazalet Chronicles fall into soapiness. The depth and power of these novels is astonishing: Ms Howard has a profound understanding of life at that time and the changes wrought by the war. These novels are described as “charming” – I think of them much more as an unflinching social commentary of that era. Wonderful stuff.



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Five tips to get you through your writing life

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Book Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils by James Lovegrove

Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils by James Lovegrove

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Most public libraries I’ve belonged to pride themselves in starting every series of books with the second one. My current library goes one better: it starts every series with the third one. I only realised when I got home that this was the third in a trilogy but I was so looking forward to reading it that I didn’t care. One day, I decided, I would read them all in order. Providing they were worth reading, of course. And they are! From the first page, it was love at first sight! I’m not the world’s greatest Sherlock Holmes fan but I have somehow managed to read every single story, mostly because someone once gave me a compendium (in teeny tiny print). I’m also hugely enamoured with H.P. Lovecraft, particularly since something I wrote once was compared to his work (at a time when I’d never heard of him). My most favourite adaption of his work comes in the form of a radio drama called The Lovecraft Investigations (no, not the Chronicles – that’s something else) which I’ve listened to so often that I have a very close familiarity with the world of Lovecraft, leading me to explore yet another giant compendium of everything he’s ever written. Combining the two worlds is, for me, just genius. The crossover concept is wild! I loved the feel of the book, the setting, the characters, the action-packed chapters, even the decorated chapter titles! Despite wanting to devour the story in one go, I read it slowly and deliberately to savour the superb use of language, the style, the descriptions, the wonderful atmosphere of the whole thing. James Lovegrove is a confident writer who knows his stuff.



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How to finish a story

This question came my way recently from someone who enjoyed writing and wrote a lot … but didn’t know when to stop the story.  So he just kept on writing and writing and had a number of novels and short stories to his name that he’d never finished.  I didn’t even have to think twice about how to answer him.  For me, there is only one way to finish a story:

You have to know the ending before you start. 

I’m sure there are other opinions on this.  I haven’t googled* it yet but I’m sure, when I go off in a minute to check it out, that I’m going to find all sorts of advice.  Some of it might be good.  Some of it I might disagree with.  Everyone has a different way of writing.  It also depends on how well the story is developed in your mind before you start.  Or how fabulous your imagination is – the one that miraculously produces exactly the right thing to write at the right time and comes up with a fantastic twist or ending that just works perfectly even though you had no idea that was where you were going.  Well, that’s just great!  Lucky you if you can work like this!  For the rest of us, it’s a slog.  And if you don’t know where your story is going, the slog is even worse. 

If you don’t know where your story is going, the reader will know and they’ll stop reading. 

If you let the story peter out, the reader will be left dissatisfied and disappointed.

If you cobble on some fantastic twist that you just made up, the reader will toss the book aside in disgust.  Because readers know.  They might not know WHY they don’t like the ending.  But they’ll know if it doesn’t work.

This isn’t about creating the perfect ending.  It’s just about actually managing to end a book well.  I taught myself to structure novels with the book Teach Yourself Screenwriting.  Yep.  I use the template for a screenplay!  I had actually wanted to write screenplays so studied this in minute detail and had a go at it, writing several (I even sent one to a favourite actor at the time – dear me, how embarrassing!  Hopefully it was binned before it was ever opened!).  The structure of a screenplay really appealed to me.  It ordered my thoughts.  It forced me to do a great deal of pre-writing, which meant that by the time I sat down to begin a novel, I KNEW the story.  I don’t work out every single scene.  And I certainly don’t stick to my treatment like glue – if while writing I see something doesn’t work out after all, then I’ll change it and work on the story shape a little more.  The thing with writing is that your characters come alive, the story starts to live, relationships grow, it all feels real.  Sometimes the way a character develops will dictate changes I might need to make to a story.  But it’s very, very rare that I will change an ending.  I’m wracking my brains here and I don’t recall a time I changed a planned ending – and they are planned! 

I’m going to quote directly from Teach Yourself Screenwriting.

WRITING BACKWARDS

Screenplays are written backwards.  That is:  the prime focus for both writer and audience is the final climax at the end of Act III.  So, having decided on your end climax – where you need to get to – you work backwards to make sure that everything in the plot – other climaxes, set-backs, decisions made etc – work 100% towards that scene and moment.  However, don’t get too disturbed if your end hasn’t come to you yet – it will.  (Raymond G. Frensham)

Yes, I know novels are different.  You probably don’t really need to break the story up into Acts.  For me, however, this works.  The tight structure of a screenplay gets my story moving.  It pushes me away from waffle.  This doesn’t mean my novels are short.  I used this method with my novel “V. Gomenzi” which is over 190 thousand words long!  I mean, it’s massive!  It had three threads in it which I had to juggle to keep straight.  But in the end, I knew, the focus would be on the main character himself, Vincent Gomenzi.  He needed to wrap up the story with a big bang.  The loopy timeline of another character (who will one day the main character of the 5th novel in the Fleet Quintet series) had to be wrapped up as well.  This was all fine and dandy.  I had no problem heading towards this spectacular ending.  But I wasn’t going to END the book with these Big Moments:  I needed a quiet, thoughtful ending.  SPOILER ALERT but I needed him to get back with the girl.  It was the moment I most looked forward to.  This bloody novel proved to be immensely difficult to write.  Totally my own fault for having such complex timelines, those three separate threads which had to wind together, and a massive story.  But the spark that kept me going was that final scene.  When I got to it, eventually, I screwed it up monumentally.  I had her open the door.  I had him go into the flat.  I had him them talk in the lounge.  She was cross and spiky.  He was exhausted and had experienced way too much in his battle against evil.  The conversation between them was a disaster.  I couldn’t get it right.  It all went flat.  My cherished ending, which I’d so looked forward to, died on the page.  And then I realised that, while this was indeed the proverbial happy ending, it was out of step with the rest of the novel.  I had to put the future into the reader’s mind, let them imagine it, not work it out for them.

So this is what I did.  When our heroine (she was the main character of the 2nd in the Fleet Quintet) sees our hero, she hugs him.  He hugs her back, relieved.  And then I go into future tense.  This is what it looks like:

When she opened the door, she stared at him, speechless.  He could not think what to say.  He could not say hello.  It was too little.  He put down his bag on the doorstep.  Warm air flooded out onto the cold landing.  It smelled like freshly baked biscuit.  Then she stepped into his space and wrapped her arms around him, tightly and fiercely.  Relief ran through him, through every vein, down every neural pathway, and he pulled her close, his hands in her hair.

In another moment, she would step back and invite him in. 

That conversation they are supposed to have in the lounge?  It’s all in future tense.  You know what she’s going to ask him.  You know how he’s going to have to answer her.  But then their embrace breaks and he realises he’s going to have to ask for her forgiveness on the doorstep.  So now we have the thought:  oh, he’s not going to get to go and sit in her lounge and explain stuff.  He has to do it here, on the doorstep, where it’s cold.  Then a small child appears in her nightgown, the daughter our hero did not know he had.  While our heroine puts the child back to bed, he steps into the apartment and closes the door.  The future has arrived and we’re no longer sure if it even contains that proposed scene in the lounge.

This is my favourite ending of all my novels and I love it because I worked towards it through TWO novels so it took YEARS to get there.  It had gathered so much poignancy along the way that the fewer words I used, the better it was.

Let me give you a much simpler example.  Not everything I write is huge and enormous and takes years!  A short story I wrote recently called “The planet with too much zap” comes in at under 2000 words.  For me, that’s barely a paragraph!  I didn’t have to do much structural work to it and it didn’t require weeks of editing.  But I knew the ending before I started.  I knew it even before I sat down to write the “treatment” which was all of 500 words long, barely a page.  The whole story leads up to that ending.  Without it, the story would have fallen flat on its face.

Another successful example:  I recently started work on the 4th in a series of seven.  Before I began I already had a whole lot of notes and ideas, written down as they occurred to me while writing the previous books in the series.  I already know what each book is about and I definitely know how the whole series ends.  I have a Huge Reveal in the final novel which I’m really looking forward to!  But I don’t know the fine details of each book’s story until I sit down and begin the pre-writing.  I was doing just that when I reached the paragraph in my textbook:  WRITING BACKWARDS.  Aargh, I thought.  I don’t have my ending!  I had to go off and think about it for a day or two.  At that stage, I barely had the story.  I knew who was in it and what the bad guy does and the amazing find in the book – but I had no idea how to bring all these factors together.

So I worked on that Act III climax.  This was not to be the final scene but it would most certainly dictate what the final scene will be.  As it was, the ending came to me quite easily – I decided to go for a big action climax and managed to find one.  The most important thing to note here is that by working on the ending, the story itself – still an amorphous mass of unrelated ideas at that point – suddenly began to form. 

Find the ending and you have found clarity for your story.

What if it all goes wrong?  This happened to me recently and it still hasn’t resolved.  (I’ve written about it in another blog – see link below).  Why did this story go wrong?  Why have I abandoned it?  Why was I tortured by it for months, losing sleep over it, losing my confidence as a writer, losing focus on what the story was supposed to be about?  In retrospect, I know exactly why:  I never knew the ending.  I thought I did.  I knew the main character had to meet up with another character and that they had to, um, talk.  Gosh wow exciting.  Not.  So despite some good writing in it and despite many rewrites and much editing, it still doesn’t work.  I still can’t get the ending.  Ironically, it’s the last story in the second collection of Exodus Sequence stories, so NOT being able to find an ending for it is absolute disaster! 

My advice?  Walk away.  Do something else.  Write something else.  Leave it alone.  Don’t go back to it until you know.  And then consider how much pain you would have saved yourself if you had thought up the goddamn ending FIRST!

*I have now googled this concept but Google has decided to misunderstand my question no matter how I phrase it.  So I think I should probably take a moment to emphasise that this blog is NOT how to end a story by finding the perfect ending.  Nor does it discuss all the different types of ending.  This blog is aimed specifically at those writers who tend to waffle on and on with no know goal and how to prevent that from happening.  If you know where you story ends, you’ll know how to end it. 

You can read about “V. Gomenzi” here

You can read about The Fleet Quintet here

“The planet with too much zap” has been published here

You can read the blog post “The story that refused to write” here

Teach Yourself Screenwriting is available here

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