Writers block … #iamwriting

As a general rule I think writers block isn’t a bad thing. It does dam up a steady trickle of tripe and when the tripe is from others, well, hallelujah, there’s absolutely no downside.  When I’m the one blocked, the world isn’t missing much. Those readers chewing their nails for the next EJ Lamprey, well, my last two novels sold a bit but enthusiasm was unexpressed. I’m as grateful because reviews would have been, at the least, puzzled.

(I wrapped up the ten book Lawns series at long and complicated length in 19 20, and Do-Over . . . well, Do-Over was written in one spectacular joyous evening when the dam, for once, broke. It then took TEN MONTHS to tease into a book and sank like a stone on publication which is a shame because it hung on to that lunatic rollercoaster feeling and I like it very much)

Do-Over was the exception that proved the rule in a long block and I do blame my new life. Three years ago on a week’s holiday in Spain, practically to the day, (tomorrow is the day) I saw this uniquely odd house. BAM.  It had stood empty for a couple of years, was so run down  the few viewers before me had stopped dead in the doorway – the sort of house agents start with, you know the pitch, the next one is a little above your budget but remember you do get what you pay for. 

Not me. I saw four more houses but beetled back to see this one again, walking around dazed with delight. I patched plaster-crumbling walls without even seeing them, completely overlooked sagging ceilings, furnished one particular room with my desk and bookshelves (a STUDY of my OWN for the first time EVER) and peopled it with ink-stained scribbling guests having a wonderful time. I flew back to Scotland still dazed and thanking Providence that I had just been made redundant and was free to sell up and dash out to start this new and dazzling life in my new and wonderful guesthouse.

Six months later I’d given up:  nothing had gone smoothly, my house simply wouldn’t sell, I was living on capital when every penny of it would have been needed in Spain, the dream wasn’t going to happen. Time to give up, take my house in Scotland off the market, look for another job where I was, behave like a normal not-far-off-retirement rational human being.

As a sign of acceptance, a last nod to the dream and what might have been, I wrote a story about what I was calling the Elefante Blanco, a book for children with a 9 year old protagonist.  I knew my fading memories of the house weren’t entirely accurate, so I wrote it as it should be. Why not? I’d never live there. I peopled it with the writer guests I wanted, and gave it an owner who could have lived such a life since it wouldn’t, sniff, be me. There were a few all-nationalities neighbours and very little about the Spanish town and the lifestyle because I knew very little about the Spanish town and the lifestyle. The Kidnap Caper got as far as a few beta readers  (finding 9 year old readers isn’t as easy as you’d think, by the way) and then suddenly everything started happening and my house was sold and it was all go go GO and the Elefante Blanco story belonged to an alternative world.

It was to be the last story in a long long time to flow effortlessly. For years writing had come as naturally as breathing, something that fizzed and jiggled and bubbled endlessly, and I told myself it was because the refurbishment was so very much bigger than anticipated (it always is) and my new teaching job was draining my creativity and I was soaking up impressions and life was so very different.

I’m one of those writers who has to write, if not from life, from the life I know, and I knew very little. Not that I ever knew everything, all those whodunits, I’ve never really seen a murdered body, certainly never tripped over a fresh one. I’d more than once phoned Police Scotland direct on some procedural stuff and they’d been endlessly patient and helpful.  My Spanish was and is exceedingly pidgin. Phoning any branch of the policia here was never going to be an option. Writers block may be a boon to the writing world generally but it is a personal anguish, a mental constipation which becomes very painful. A year ticked by, and another, and 2020 dawned and I’d started and discarded at least nine book ideas, every one of them stilted and laboured and going nowhere.

When a story did finally start scrabbling for a foothold it was an Elefante Blanco one, picking up all the adult characters from the Kidnap Caper. Harriet Gant, who owns and runs the Elefante Blanco, which is not quite this house, has a life which is not my life, friends who do not exist in real life but are taken from life, and a murder or two to solve  in a country where she is still finding her feet.  Total fiction drawing on actual fact, familiar stuff, and writing is once again and at last, FUN. Whoop whoop!

Brace yourself, dear reader, because if this one gets past beta readers it may eventually be published, but right now I’m happy for me and oh wow it feels GREAT to have that dratted block gone.

The 5 minute nosejob – or – Why I chose paraffin wax

There was a point in the sixties where criminals in particular took joyfully to the appearance-changing properties of paraffin wax (the hard form of Vaseline) – injecting it under the skin at specific points could change the shape of your face. The effects, depending on how much you used, lasted weeks or months. No big surprise that there was a belated after-effect but then nearly everything injected into the human body carries a price. Paraffin wax was replaced with silicone. Whoops. More after-effects.

Right now the popular non-surgical rhinoplasty – changing the shape of your nose by injection, for an effect lasting several months – is done, according to the ever-useful source Wikipedia, using options like calcium hydroxyapatite, hyaluronic acid, liquid silicone, polyacrylamide gel, or packing the target area with microscopic plastic beads in bovine collagen – polymethylmethacrylate. Well those certainly sound healthier. However, they are relatively modern and the aftereffects of paraffin wax and silicone gel had sometimes taken 15 years and more to appear. Who knows.

The popular target areas are nose, chin and breasts – even a small correction can make an astonishing difference in appearance but oh my anyone who ever researched cosmetic surgery knows the prices are way, way out of line with any other surgery. Men and women alike will beg borrow or steal to look better. Anyone offering a quicker cheaper option to do just that has our undivided attention. (BTW, some surgeons will inject saline water as a preview:  the effects only last a few minutes but you get to see what difference the stuff with the unpronounceable name would make.)

So – what actually happens when you take the quick option? What happened to those who did? I had to do the research because I wanted to change a character’s appearance in a hurry in my Do-Over book. I eventually went with the formerly popular, no-real-skill-required, paraffin wax injection of the past. The effects would last for the few months required by the story, the character was in immediate deadly peril if he didn’t change his appearance, and the long-term risk was relatively small. The human body is never happy with foreign substances suddenly introduced and will protect itself by containing them as far as possible in the injection site. Over time, a granuloma forms, specifically called a paraffinoma when triggered by paraffin injection (so a siliconoma when triggered by silicone). The hard mass of the granuloma has to be removed surgically. A tragedy when we are talking cosmetic corrections now worse than the defect they corrected: but I stand by my choice for my story.

In terms of perfect proportions my nose is short for my face. Packing and extending the soft tip could balance my entire appearance. Would I go for non-surgical rhinoplasty? After looking this lot up? Hell no. Anyway I had dermal fillers several years ago for my daughter’s wedding and the memory of those gazillion tiny stinging injections still lingers. I’ll work on my lovely personality instead. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were personality injections available . . .

Ever researching on your behalf

Elegsabiff

Agatha Christie was NOT dyslexic – who on earth benefits from this fabrication? No-one dyslexic!

A (rumour) can circle the earth before Truth can get its boots on – variations of that have been attributed to Winston Churchill and Mark Twain, among others, and Terry Pratchett quoted it several times in a Discworld book so I’m sure some think Pratchett was the source. How very appropriate that a quote regarding fabrications is probably wrongly attributed most of the time.

I saw a blog written by a dyslexic saying he was in good company and quoting a long list of famous dyslexics including, to my surprise, Agatha Christie. Lots of general comments, none protesting her inclusion in the list. I was even more surprised when I looked it up, the internet agreed: oh yes she was, she had to dictate all her books, even the very first Poirot.

Oh no she wasn’t. Oh no she didn’t. Not according to her, anyway, and you’d think she’d know. Yes as her books started selling she had secretaries but not because she had dysgraphia (inability to tell a coherent story) (seriously???) or dyslexia. She may not have liked typing but she wrote a fair bit in longhand even when she had a dictaphone or secretary, while she was plotting.

Put it this way, in her autobiography she talked about the writing of one of her best books, Absent In The Spring. It’s a Mary Westmacott book, not a whodunit, and it is absolutely seamless, a book that flows without a check. She said the idea had been quietly in the back of her head for a long time and when the time came she wrote it in one sitting, 70-something hours without stopping: slept for 24 hours, read it back, and barely had to change a single word. That is quite possibly as far from dyslexia as you can get, and something that turns other writers green. It is something we all dream of. Check the autobiography.

She’s been added to a very specific list and I don’t think that’s fair. A young relative of mine had partial word-blindness, not full-blown dyslexia, and that was still a battle that was hard fought. Overcoming dyslexia, or working around it, is such a struggle and takes such perseverance that it builds formidable character. No wonder there are positive role models and success stories! Winning against a disadvantage, especially fairly early on, shapes your life.

It helps with every challenge we ever face if we know others have fought and won, that it can be done. But – how valid is the list? What possible benefit is there in adding a commercially successful writer who taught herself to read at the age of 5? Where is the role model, the success story? She apparently had a poem published when she was 11. What are we to say to our dyslexic 11 year-old who, flushed with success, has achieved a short slightly lopsided barely-rhyming poem – that’s nice, pet, but we’re not Agatha Christie yet, are we? No-one’s going to publish that, are they? Go back and try again.

Whatever we struggle with in life is tough enough without setting fake goals. Just saying.

https://www.agathachristie.com/stories/absent-in-the-spring

Getting a whinge off my chest. Do you have a friend or relative who writes?

Nope, not bestsellers. Neither did I run the last company I worked for. Oh, you didn’t expect me to become MD of an international company – yet you do expect me to have a number one bestseller? You’re disappointed in me? Back OFF.

Family and friends are uncomfortable and embarrassed for our sake when they realize our books aren’t, and will never be, in the top 1%. Reality check. We KNOW that.

When I started work as an office junior my modest future plans included becoming competent, maybe a few promotions and Bob’s yer uncle, hasn’t she done well, she’s a manager now. Look around your family – of how many relatives can you say proudly, he/she is a billionaire running an international corporation? Logistically we can’t all be tycoons of commerce and we all know that.

And yet, somehow, with writing, that changes. Tell a relative or friend you’re writing a book, or your tenth book, or your twentieth, and they are very nearly resentful. What name do you write under? Have I heard of you? Why haven’t I heard of you? What sort of books do you write? Why do you bother if you’re not good enough at it to sell a million copies a day? Or that patronising give me a copy and I’ll see if I can find the time to read it. Gee, pass. You’ll either never read it, or you’ll say in surprise that it wasn’t that bad, or you’ll never, ever, mention the subject again. When you do, try to remember you just met your friend or relative’s (brain) child and you ignored it.  Got any kids yourself? That ever happened? Bet it felt great.

There are over 32 million books available in a market place like Amazon. Some are – well, there’s a review ascribed to Dorothy Parker. “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”  If you think that about your connection’s book, eek, dilemma. But if you are just disappointed that the book you’ve read isn’t the best you ever read – it would have been miraculous if it was. Your other relatives and friends probably aren’t the acknowledged leaders of their professions. Hell, they’re doing well if they’re middle management and turning in an acceptable performance. Will you attack them? What do you do? Are you the best in your company? Why bother doing it if you aren’t? Give me a freebie. And when you meet their children, be sure to check they are brilliant, accomplished and famous before you deign to acknowledge them.

Huh.

Chest whinge-free, feels great. Upward and onward to 2020.

 

 

 

And now for something completely different – restarting with a clean slate. #Do-Over http://mybook.to/Do-Over

There are some memories and experiences we could have done without, we’ve all been there. Like it or lump it, though, they are part of our structure, wobbly uneven bricks which are wedged into the whole. So be it – que sera, sera

For most of us, the memories we’d shed are of the friends who let us down, the relationships we really should never have had, stupid things we did arrggghhhh why?! Regrets, shame, guilt and the cringe-worthy ones which pop up at 3 in the morning. Move on, fast.

Moving on isn’t always possible. Some experiences destroy any chance of normal life, twist and distort personality and the future forever. Psychiatry, psycho-therapy, all the counselling in the world can’t reach through the scar damage or take it away, at best there is only the dismal hope of living with the damage. Childhood abuse, wartime atrocities, things seen which can never be unseen, mistakes made which can never be undone. They spread so insistently throughout your psyche that they will dictate the future forever and cannot be shut away . . .

Unless they could be. Do-Over is a story of three people with unbearable lives who are outside normal society, shut away where they can no longer hurt others or themselves. Their damaging memories are cut away but not out of kindness. They are destined to be used as disposable pawns in violent situations, terminated if ever they revert, guinea pigs for a new procedure which could offer new life to many in torture.

It’s a quick thriller, not too heavyweight or gory, burgeoning hope and growing confidence, a million miles from anything I’ve done before.

Love you to read it, so it’s on the lowest price Amazon can offer for a couple of days.

Do-over cover

The autumn at last #livinginSpain

November already … it’s been ever so hot and only in the last few days has the temperature shifted grudgingly to the point where my summer duvet was retrieved from the storeroom, cat hairs brushed off, and returned to the bed. It’s still kicked to the floor by morning.  Duvet. Not cat.

It’s also been nicely busy, including lovely guests from the Shetlands who sold their holiday house here last year and have been back to Spain at least five times since but usually stay with friends, I got lucky getting them in August and again in September as they speak fluent Spanish and know everyone. They were slightly disapproving that my Spanish was so utterly poco and found out where and when the next local course was starting.  Most towns offer free Spanish classes to new residents and I have looked for them since I arrived: turns out the notices (and notices in Spain are never snappy brief things in large print, they are lengthy chatty communications and there are many) advertising the lessons had all been put up in, um, Spanish.  Anyway thanks to them I could join the new class starting in September: while my Pidgin Spanish has been handy, many of the words I chose to stress as being the closest to English (i.e. easiest to remember) are not going down well with Felipe, our maestro. NOT  alfabeto, he says sternly. Yes, it is a known word, but abecedario is more correct.

And yes we are doing verbs (los verbos), on Tuesdays. Sigh. On Thursdays we read tracts and translate them ourselves with dictionaries or smartphones, then take turns reading aloud and mangling Spanish in ways which have to be heard to be believed.  Last Thursday we covered Halloween, which was excellent: some words have come direct from English, as it is new to Spain, so a zombie is a zombie is a zombie.  A werewolf is either a werewolf or a hombre lobo. I mentioned that to a bearded friend of mine who said hang on, that’s my name in the village here! Fairies (fairies?) are fairies but witches on broomsticks are brujas en escobas. We are a very mixed bunch, between 10 and 20 turning up depending on the day. Many are English or Irish, but we have also an Italian couple, a Norwegian gent with the wonderful name of Thor, a Polish woman who has been going for years and helps out with translations ,  a gent from Algeria and my preferred study partner when we have to split into pairs, a Moroccan housewife who arrived in Spain a few months ago. As she otherwise speaks only Arabic we have no choice but to communicate in Spanish.  She’s doing private lessons and apps as well and is leaping ahead, and calls herself a casa mama rather than ama de casa  so I am not the only one rewriting the language.

Lessons are not the only sociable outings, I went to the last fiesta of the summer which is held annually in Los Tablones, a small village in the mountains, usual population about 200, fiesta population about 2000. Most guests start arriving for the evening shindig in the village square around 10 pm and spend a couple of hours catching up with neighbours and friends while laying the necessary foundations of beer or wine and tapas to provide essential energy for the night ahead. Around midnight the first band starts up so explosively the entire village vibrates.  The music is a complete mix of pasa doble and current hits in both Spanish and English, and when that band starts to flag cakes and doughnuts are served at all tables (free of charge) while the next, louder, band takes up the fallen instruments. We left at 4 am and my  ears were still buzzing three days later –

Los Tablones fiesta 2019 off web

I’ve also been through to an English evening in Granada where a very cosmopolitan bunch gather on Tuesdays to practice English, mainly business types but a fair mix from students up to jubilados. There must have been a  hundred of us there, lots of Spanish but also Japanese, Czech, French, German, Canadian, quite a few English, even a South African. As the Czech guy had worked in South Africa for several years we three broke the English-speaking rule briefly to exchange what fractured Afrikaans we could remember – as one does on a rooftop terrace in the middle of beautiful Granada.

Granada at night off web

The South African invited me along to his writing group, also in Granada, which was fun, but Granada is over 50 kms away, I won’t be going as often as I’d otherwise like.  October is also my birthday month – I tried to get out of my new Spanish tradition (well, 2017 and 2018)   of going out to lunch and should have stuck to my guns, from now on I shall absolutely stonily ignore the horrible things and if necessary avoid all human contact. I only cheered up two days later when I met up with friends-of-friends travelling through Europe in a motorhome, the exact pick-me-up I needed. I did drool a bit over their motorhome – two years has been long enough for me to remember my weeks living in my converted camper as heaven and forget all the less ideal aspects, and what a beauty this one was by comparison!  Restless? Moi?

campervan Peter and Gill

 

Should you die in Spain – there’s stuff you should know first #livinginSpain

Dying is the last thing I intend to do, but it seems where you die can make quite a big difference. Dying in Spain doesn’t only leave your British-trained friends and family with a language barrier to be surmounted, it is handled completely differently.

In the UK the process between death and farewell takes a while: apart from anything else there’s frequently a wait of a week or more for a date at the crematorium, there could even be an inquest, and it means lots of time for that assembling of the bereaved for a service somewhere along the line. So if you want that sort of delay, do try not to die in Spain.

Say you’re in Spain visiting a friend who drops dead, or falls down the stairs and breaks their neck (don’t let’s dwell but these things happen) here’s what you do and don’t do

  1. Phone the policia on 112 (the operators speak English) who will arrive pretty quickly.
  2. Normally the policia will accept the death as an unsuspicious tragedy. There is no mortuary van or private ambulance system here. They will call the nearest funeral director.
  3. He will bring a body release form. If you sign that form, you have just committed to paying all funeral expenses. He won’t take the body if you won’t. So this is definitely the point to look in your friend’s wallet for any card showing pre-planned funeral arrangements. If there is one, all is well, the funeral director will take the body and deal with the plan-holders, who will also know what arrangements were desired.
  4. The default procedure is overnight at the closest tanatorio, cremation booked for the first slot available the next day, off in a plain basic coffin to the crematorium by hearse, there’s a service for any hastily assembled friends and relatives, the funeral director may choose to add a flourish or two such as releasing a hundred white doves, and in the fullness of time an urn in handed over. All done and dusted. If you signed that body release form for your friend, and there’s no funeral plan to bail you out, that’s several thousand euros, ta very much.
  5. Autopsies are, for the main part, only required by the State for car accident victims, and while the authorities pick up that tab, they don’t pick up the tab for any storage delays. This is a hot country. Storage at a tanatorio can cost up to 1000 euros a day depending on location, time of year, demand: hence the speed, hence the expense.

Take the bloke who dropped dead on holiday in a rented cabin on a Friday night – the policia came, decided there was nothing suspicious, and called a funeral director to collect the body. The couple’s travel insurance didn’t specify what it would cover and his distracted wife couldn’t learn more, or sort out any finances, until Monday. Okay, said the funeral director, I’ll be back Monday.

And he left, leaving the bloke on the floor of the kitchen.

Or the chappie who was on holiday in another part of the country. He was covered for death expenses, had his card with all the contact numbers, and the hotel phoned the funeral planners and his next-of-kin. Quite a shock for his son, but after two days he got his head together enough to phone the funeral company to ask what happens next, when should the funeral be . . . there was an awkward pause. Um. Your dad was cremated yesterday.

This is no criticism of the Spanish system, which is sensible, efficient, and the accepted way of life death – but it isn’t something you want to learn the hard way, especially if you fall in with an unscrupulous or overly sentimental funeral director and the costs spiral higher than those doves.

The lesson here for the future customer is if you want to make specific arrangements, make them in advance, and make them easy to find. The policia  routinely notify your banco, which will freeze your account(s) instantly, so it also makes sense for any couple with a joint bank account to have separate emergency funds. If nothing else, that will also pay for the rather nice Spanish tradition, in some areas, of a street party open to all in memory of the friend gone before.

A surprisingly large number of people plan to leave their bodies to medical research – unless you have a very unusual condition, that is no longer usually an option (anywhere – supply has exceeded demand) and even when it is you will still be expected to pay those tanatorio rates.

Although I’m not planning any imminent demise I don’t want to leave my daughter, who speaks no Spanish and lives a thousand miles away, tangling with technicalities: it seemed a good idea to get that useful card from English-speaking professionals tucked into my wallet, with a copy in my car documents. Too awkward to otherwise have some hapless guest here faced with the choice of either having to sign for my lavish arrangements, or stepping over my crumpled body at the bottom of the stairs for a few days, eh? So I am now sorted.

No doves.

Ever researching on your behalf,

Elegsabiff

fuller brothers funeral home

(from internet – copyright Fuller Brothers funeral home)