Writing Plans – Past and Present

I had big writing plans for 2016, in spite of the changes that I knew were coming: the move to the UK, the separation, the job-hunting. I was going to finish my WIP and send it through to a mentor for feedback and structural edits. I was going to publish enough poems to be able to fill a collection and start sending it around to poetry publishers. Of course, I was going to continue blogging, both here and on the Geneva Writers’ Group blog, plus all the reviewing and contributing behind the scenes to dVerse Poets Pub and other sites.

Eh, well, no! None of that happened.

Picture credited to Gypsy Rose Lee, 1941: Women at Typewriter
Picture credited to Gypsy Rose Lee, 1941: Women at Typewriter

I struggled to put pen to paper with my novel: the subject matter just felt too close to certain things which I was experiencing, so I kept putting it off. I did make some progress on it during the wonderful writing retreat in Burgundy (about 10,000 words’ worth of progress), but after that it all got very quiet again. It now languishes at the mid-way mark, about 50,000 words or so. However, the screenwriting workshop I went on last Saturday, run by Resource Productions has given me a new appetite for tackling it. I don’t expect to turn it into a screenplay (I don’t know enough about film-making for that), but I can approach it in a new way, perhaps storyboarding, photography etc., so that I finally get the story out of me. Then at least I have some raw material to work with, instead of just having a jumble in my brain. I also discovered the scriptwriting software Final Draft, which may be helpful for structuring thought and writing for novels too (but it’s darn expensive).

I did send out some poems but not in any systematic way. Although a few were accepted, I still don’t have a decent enough bunch to fill a whole volume. I did send out a selection of about 20 for two separate chapbook competitions, but was unsuccessful in both of those. However, I did have a great spurt of poetry in October, when I visited my friends in Provence and some of those poems are amongst the best things I’ve written to date. I seem to have made a bit of a creative jump onto the next step in my progression, and I really hope this is permanent rather than just temporary.

As for reviewing and blogging, I’ve been rather lax with that, at least when it comes to other websites. I’ve cut down on my commitments to reviewing, the Geneva Writers’ Group (no more newsletters, only very occasional blogging), dVerse Poets Pub (no more hosting, only occasional visits). I don’t like doing this, mind. These were some of the most fun activities I was engaging in – but I felt I could not do them justice when they were constantly jostling with other dull but necessary aspects of my life.

This week, just before the Christmas holidays (during which I will take a break from everything but reading), I tried to finish off a couple of projects I wanted to send off in early January. Alas, my Microsoft Office documents seem to be having trouble opening up and saving. I also hear that Yahoo accounts have been compromised. Hurrah, more technological woe to sort out… it will be back to pen and notebooks or semaphore code and smoke signals for me.

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5 Days in Provence: A Working Holiday

Karen and Jack’s house in Provence may be a little corner of paradise, but I wasn’t just going to laze around in a night-gown and listen to harp music all day. I had tremendous plans going there: I was going to finish my novel and send it to my mentor for structural edits. But that was based on the flawed assumption I made back in early June that I would have spent a total of 5 weeks on the novel by now. Needless to say, that did not happen between July and October. I wrote precisely zero words since mid-June.

View from the window of my room
View from the window of my room

Having all the time in the world and inspiring landscape galore was not immediately productive, however. I wrote about 1500 words and rewrote a full outline of the novel, filling up any plot holes, but no more than that. Now, I could choose to focus on what I did not achieve, but for once I will focus on the positive.

Lulled to sleep in the evening and woken up in the morning by poetry (Karen has a whole room full of poetry books – 4 bookcases full!), it’s to be expected that I succumbed to my old passion. I read 13 books of poetry during those five days, so it was like bathing in sunlight. Of course, you know what it’s like with poetry collections,  you don’t read them cover to cover,  you find the poems that really resonate with you.

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Here are some which I would love to share with you, all by women poets (although I also read William Stafford and Peter Meinke, I spontaneously picked up women this time):

Let’s start a conversation. Ask me where I’m from.

Where is home, really home. Where my parents were born.

What to do if I sound more like you than you do.

Every word an exhalation, a driving out. (Vahni Capildeo)

I keep finding you in ways I didn’t know I noticed, or knew.
Every road, every sea,
every beach by every sea,
keeps lining up with what you loved.
Here’s a line of silent palm trees.
It’s as if you answered the phone.
(Naomi Shihab Nye)

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I caution you as I was never cautioned:

you will never let go, you will never be satiated.

You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.

Your body will age, you will continue to need.

You will want the earth, then more of the earth –

Sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond.

It is encompassing, it will not minister.

Meaning, it will feed you, it will ravish you,

it will not keep you alive. (Louise Gluck)

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I, like a river,
Have been turned aside by this harsh age.
I am a substitute. My life has flowed
Into another channel
And I do not recognise my shores.
O, how many fine sights I have missed,
How many curtains have risen without me
And fallen too…
And how many poems I have not written
Whose secret chorus swirls around my head
And possibly one day
Will stifle me… (Anna Akhmatova)

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This poem is dangerous; it should not be left

Within the reach of children, or even of adults

Who might swallow it whole, with possibly

Undesirable side-effects. If you come across

An unattended, unidentified poem

In a public place, do not attempt to tackle it

Yourself. Send it (preferably in a sealed container)

To the nearest centre of learning, where it will be rendered

Harmless by experts. Even the simplest poem

May destroy your immunity to human emotions.

All poems must carry a Government warning. Words

Can seriously affect your heart. (Elma Mitchell)

The result of this electrolyte bath of poetry? I wrote 25 new poems of my own. All requiring a lot of work still, but more than I’ve written in the 6 months January-June 2016. I will make sure I always have at least one book of poetry on the go at any moment in time.

Dead Darling (Fragment of WIP)

Yes, I am being a bit lazy here. Too much corporate work, worries about administrative matters and physical exhaustion to write anything new. Instead, I am offering you a ‘reject’: something I prepared earlier, but which didn’t quite make the grade.

You know the expression: kill your darlings (when it comes to writing). Here are some bits and pieces which have been trimmed away from the WIP. Melinda is the main protagonist; Graham is her husband. Below are pictures of how I imagine them in my head.

Graham got home at around nine every evening. He didn’t want any supper; he was careful to keep his figure trim, aware of his beer belly getting ready to pounce.  So she would eat the remains of the children’s meal herself, while he set up his laptop on the dining table. Still some work to catch up on, a few emails to send, a call or two to make. It was all she could to do get a ‘Hmmm, really, I see…’ out of him when she told him about her day.

Sometimes they wouldn’t talk for days. She’d droop off well before ten and go to bed. She was fast asleep when he slipped in beside her. She always fell asleep before she could read 2-3 pages, no matter how exciting the novel might be. Meanwhile, he needed time to decompress, he said, so he watched some satellite TV. In English of course, so everything was an hour behind.

When she woke up at 4 a.m., as she often did, and started worrying about the forms, the To Do lists, her own inadequacies, he was always lying on his back, his arms up beside him with fists clenched, like a baby. A clear conscience, obviously. Sometimes a little snore or occupying more than his half of the bed. She would sigh and creep to the very edge. Or get up and go to the children’s rooms, listen to their soft, sweet breathing and tell herself it was all worth it for them.

In the morning, she struggled to come out of that brief tangle of sleep to which she had finally succumbed. The early start was always far too early, getting the children ready for school, while Graham slept on. And so, with no fuss or awkward rejection on either side, their sex life had dwindled to nothing. Melinda suspected it wasn’t just her who was secretly relieved.

Other things too began to slip. The lazy Sundays in bed, with the children piling in with them. Graham was too tired now, needed to sleep longer, so she would be forever shushing them when they got too excited in their games of make-believe or else take them downstairs and plonk them in front of the TV. Their weekly ritual of ‘lunch at Daddy’s office’ also disappeared, because Daddy had more and more meetings on a Wednesday, the only day when they didn’t have school and had sufficient time to go to the centre of Geneva. After a while, it was no longer much of a day out for them anyway, the food was always bland and they had seen all of the museums that were suitable for children.

Even the family days out that had been the highlight of their week tailed off to nothing. Graham said he was too exhausted from his constant travels. He just wanted to stay at home and relax at the weekend, and she could understand that, she really could.

In the end, Melinda reflected, very little communication is required to keep a household running smoothly. Appointments were made and kept, bills paid with few delays, children picked up and dropped off with the right equipment in the right place at the right time. Food was prepared and ingurgitated, or not. The house was cleaned with the help of a Brazilian woman who came for two hours every week, spoke neither English nor French, and ignored Melinda’s sign language instructions, cleaning whatever she most felt like, rather than what needed doing. Melinda had to pick her up from the bus stop at the Val Thoiry shopping centre, but at least she didn’t demand the exorbitant rates of more professional, car-driving, trilingual cleaners who paid their taxes.

So it went on. Melinda clung to each thread of a routine, grateful that it gave her a reason to get up in the morning. Often, after dropping the children off, she would return to the house with a sinking heart, knowing that Graham would still be around. With shower and breakfast to negotiate, and perhaps an email or two to check, he was never very chatty in the morning.
When he finally left the house, after issuing her with a pile of instructions on what he needed done that day or later that week, she could breathe a huge sigh of relief and make herself a cup of coffee. But it was downhill from there.

No matter how sunny the day, no matter how magnificent the view of Mont Blanc and its Alpine sisters, Melinda felt a dull despondency settling on her. She might crawl back into bed, sobbing for no reason, and find herself at school pick-up time with not much to show at all for her day. At other times she would be lickety-split quick about cooking, wiping kitchen surfaces, doing the laundry in the morning, only to collapse in the afternoon and find herself staring into nothingness, repeating: ‘I can’t take it anymore! I can’t take it anymore!’

But she had to.Melinda

Graham

Fragment from WIP: The Older Woman

Today I would like to share with you an excerpt from my WIP. I am enjoying myself almost far too much with this bitchy character (tentatively named: Betty-Sue) who contributes quite significantly to the story, but from the shadows. The person she addresses is the main protagonist, who also has chapters from her point of view.

What a skittish colt you were! How impossible to tame and befriend! But those who think it’s men who enjoy the chase have got it completely wrong. They can’t have had much experience of the stamina of women pursuing their prey, over months, years, even decades. The prey is usually a man, often a man with another partner, or, as in this case, a woman’s friendship. Us women, we think long-term.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to entice you with invitations to charity balls or ladies’ lunches. You hated those events, obviously felt sartorially challenged (quite rightly so!), unable to keep up financially, or perhaps you considered yourself so vastly superior to us intellectually?

I tell you now: underestimate the Trophy Expat Wives’ Brigade at your own peril. Many of them are second wives who’ve spent years plotting the demise of their predecessors. Or first wives who’ve swapped career ambitions and a frazzled lifestyle of never quite living up to expectations (as a mother, wife, worker bee, PTA stalwart) for an enviable pampered existence. Both of these categories now have a single role: keeping husbands happy and eternally grateful. They focus their formidable intellect, energy and ambition on staying trim, up-to-date and making sure no one gets to play the same nasty tricks on them that they played on the first wives.

For whatever misguided reason or childish prejudice, you let me know that this wasn’t your scene. I’d have to play the ‘intellectual game’ with you, while also appealing to your heartstrings. You East Europeans can sometimes be so heavy and sentimental! But that was fine by me. It would give me something to amuse myself over the winter months, when Geneva turns into a ghost town, while everybody migrates to the mountains and pretends to enjoy themselves doing strenuous sports (and après-skis).

I started calling you for short catch-up conversations, offering my help or advice on the practicalities of expat life.  You proved to be a harder nut to crack than I’d expected. Your replies were so gruff and curt, they bordered on the rude. I mentioned pet insurance (you didn’t have any pets, thank you), holiday clubs for the children (you preferred to take them skiing with you), season tickets for concerts or theatres (you couldn’t find a regular babysitter).

‘I don’t have any recent experience of babysitters. As you know, my children are all grown up now. But I could help you find an au-pair…’

‘Oh, no, thank you. I don’t fancy having a stranger live in my house,’ you said quickly, as if you’d been debating it internally for ages. ‘Anyway, I’m not working at the moment, so I can look perfectly well after the children myself.’

I thought perhaps you were secretly afraid that your husband might succumb to the temptation of a nubile foreign girl, darting half-naked in and out of shared bathrooms. I’ve never known a man so susceptible to feminine charms as your Graham, nor one so blind to women’s deliberate use of flattery as a weapon of mass seduction.

I could have told you, however, that you needn’t fear the oldest cliché in the book: master and servant relationship – or, translated into modern speak, father and nanny relationships. I could have told you that he was already busy getting entangled with a far more formidable adversary. But you were behaving so much like a sulky teenager, for whom I could do nothing right, that I didn’t feel like warning you. Besides, I usually have a strict policy of non-interference. True, I like to set things in motion. Rather like a puppeteer: setting the stage, preparing the props… But then I allow the puppets to take on a life of their own and get their strings snarled and knotted. Which, oh, they are so good at doing all by themselves!

And here is the image I have in front of me on the moodboard for this character: poor Jessica Lange, if only she knew what evil plans I have for her…

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Search for a Title

My WIP is saved in a folder on my laptop under the fetching title ‘Something’. That’s because I couldn’t think of a title (unlike with my first novel, where the title came first), but I didn’t want to faff around searching for temporary solutions.

Now it’s time to start thinking about a title. It’s crime fiction, it’s reasonably dark (not cosy), it’s about revenge gone badly wrong and a sense of waste of youth and not caring enough for other people. So here are some possibilities I brainstormed:

Beyond Revenge
Nobody’s Child         – these two I had to rule out, as there are too many identical book titles out there

Stop for Nobody
Nobody’s Son
No Revenge Too Bitter
Bitter Ever After

Then I mined the expat angle:

The Cosmopolitans (misleading, sounds like cocktails)
The Expat Circle (tame)
The Internationalists (sounds like non-fiction)

Perhaps I should go for proven successes:

The Girl with the Lover, the Coke and the Secret

So, do you have any favourites from those mentioned above? Or any better suggestions? Here is a little beginning of a synopsis if you want to help me brainstorm.