As he drove, his hands clenched tighter on the wheel, his feet pushing harder down onto the pedals. Sixty, seventy, eighty. His very own white knuckle ride. Ninety, a hundred, a hundred and ten. Sweat pooled at the base of his spine, seeping through his linen shorts. Could he really do this? Why not? Now he had nothing to lose. One hundred and twenty, thirty…STOP. Feet slamming on brakes, autopilot mode engaged. Swerving, nearly not quite hitting. Her. Standing in the middle of the road. Wearing just a cotton sundress. Carrying a rose. The car span around and around, almost not quite tipping. Silence spun a web around him. Finally, finally the car came to a halt, nosing the shrubbery at the side of the highway.

He coughed. Shifted in his seat. Lifted one hand, then the other. Patted himself down. No obvious sign of damage. Cuts and grazes at most. Surely a miracle. If he believed in them.

She was beside the car now. Porcelain skin, fair hair, eyes wide with shock. “Hey, are you okay?” Biting her lip. Standing girlish.

“Fine,” he said, as if this was quite normal. “You?”

“Fine,” she said, a tremor in her voice. “I’m sorry, that was my fault. I could have killed you.”

He smiled. “I could have killed myself.”

He climbed out of the car. They stood a while in sun-soaked silence as the tarmac baked beside them.

“Where you heading?” he asked.

She looked down at the rose cupped in her hand. “Anywhere,” she said. She raised her head; blinked away tears.”You?”


A current of knowing flowed between them. He broke it to observe the car. “It doesn’t look so bad. I think I can fix it.”

She sat down on the bare earth and watched him as he worked. From time to time he cast a sideways glance, noticing her bare feet. Slim wrists. The tattoo on her ankle.

When he was done, he closed the bonnet, slid into the driver’s seat and tested the engine. It sputtered into life. He looked at her. “Lift?” She smiled, torch-eyed. Climbed into the car beside him. As he pulled onto the road he paused. “Your rose,” he said, pointing to the dusty patch of earth on which it lay.

“I don’t need it,” she said with a shrug. “Not anymore.”

He put his foot down on the pedal. And drove.

Written in response to the Creative Writing Ink photo prompt 20th October 2016



NaNoWriMo Day 26: The Impossible Dream?

Given the recent terror threats in Brussels, and the ridiculous amount I’ve had on at work, I could perhaps be forgiven for falling behind with my NaNo novel. Nonetheless it’s frustrating to be four days away from the end of the challenge feeling uncertain as to whether I will manage to complete it. I’ve had a good bash at translating my idea into a story, but along the way, as so often happens when you lack a solid plan, I’ve wandered off, allowing my characters to do exactly as they please, often with most unpleasing results. Still, in its current form my ‘novel’ (and I use that term in the loosest possible sense) stands at a not unimpressive 37,397 words – which is precisely 37,397 words more than I would have written had I note decided to partake in the challenge again. So I suppose whatever happens from here on in I should at least be proud of that. But now I’m so tantalisingly close to crossing the virtual finish line I’m not sure I can let it drop. Maybe four days is enough to cram in almost 13,000 words. Maybe this dream is not impossible. Maybe…Just maybe…


On Writing Autobiographically

During last night’s crime writing class at the City Lit we discussed characterisation. I told the group I was intent on making the protagonist of my latest story as unlike me as possible. Why? Because I’ve realised that, all too often, I write characters as if they were, in fact, me, and whilst Polly Courtney said at last week’s Writers’ & Artists’ conference that most people write their first novel autobiographically (“because they have something to get off their chest”), in my case I fear it might be more to do with laziness than self-expression. I worry that in writing characters who are based, no matter how loosely, on me, I’m closing myself off to a host of far more interesting and complex characters. Not only that, I’m failing to examine their personalities thoroughly enough to be able to fully inhabit them, as I’m assuming they would have the same thoughts and feelings as I would, when this isn’t necessarily (and indeed shouldn’t) be the case.

After a written exercise, wherein we were encouraged to introduce our characters by name (“My name is X…”) and elaborate on how they felt about that name, whether it had any connotations/associations etc., we had a group discussion. One of my fellow students said she didn’t like the character she had written about in the exercise – in fact, more than that, she actively disliked her. The teacher was concerned about this, and said that if a writer is unable to empathise with their protagonist they must at least be able to foster a sense of curiosity about them. For example, what experiences have shaped them into the person they are today (or at the time your novel is set)? Why do they hold certain viewpoints and like or dislike certain things?  

A useful exercise in characterisation, we learned, is to take your main character and write about them both ‘from the inside out’ and ‘from the outside in.’ In other words, write one paragraph ‘as’ them (a letter to a loved one, for example) and then answer a series of questions ‘about’ them (e.g. what is their favourite colour/food, what do they like/dislike etc.). One particularly pertinent and often revealing question is ‘What does he/she dislike most about him/herself,’ as it often gives rise to useful insights into their inner psyche.

The lesson, I suppose, is that if you don’t completely identify with your main character that’s fine, so long as you like them sufficiently to be curious about who they are and what makes them tick. What is certain is that during the creative process you’ll be spending a huge amount of time with this person, so it has to be someone you’re happy to hang out with – or you’ll likely have a pretty miserable time writing it!


NaNoWriMo: Grief, Exposed – Chapter Two

As it’s almost half past eleven and I’m a mere six hundred words from completing this year’s NaNo novel, I hope you’ll forgive me for not writing a blog post today and, instead, uploading the second chapter of the novel I’m currently trying so damn hard to complete (please do, however, bear in mind this is very much a FIRST draft, hence the fact it’s doubtless littered with typos, repetition and grammatical errors…):

The night had been long. Scarlett had never been so glad to see a sunrise, nor been so desperate to get on a train home to Cornwall. It was a four hour journey to Bodmin Parkway, from where Phil would pick them up – Jake having flatly refused to let Scarlett travel alone after hearing the news. Whilst she was grateful for his support, Scarlett couldn’t help but feel stifled. Would she ever be allowed to stand on her own two feet, or had her childhood illness left an indelible scar on her life that would never be given the chance to fully heal? “Hey, Scar, it’ll be okay you know.” Jake was sitting opposite her, the morning sunlight shining directly onto his face, highlighting the faint pock-marks on his skin from teenage acne and the bags under his eyes from lack of sleep. Most of the time he looked young for his twenty three years, but today he looked much older. Scarlett didn’t dare think what she must look like. She hadn’t washed her hair in three days and was still wearing yesterday’s clothes and makeup. After her mum’s call the only thing she could do was rock gently back and forth for hours, tears streaming down her face as she chanted her sister’s name over and over again. “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby…” Jake could only hold her as she rocked, his comfort failing to hit its mark, until they both fell asleep around four am. Their train left at nine. “How exactly will it be okay, Jake?” Scarlett asked in a tone that was both harsh and unkind. “They said they’d found a body, but that doesn’t mean it’s definitely her. Travellers die abroad all the time. It could be someone else, completely unrelated. Ruby’s probably fine…” His voice trailed off and he swallowed, his adam’s apple dropping down into his throat like a stop cock. “It’s a bit of a coincidence that she’s missing and they’ve found a body though, don’t you think?” Scarlett looked down at her hands in her lap. Musician’s fingers, her mum had always called them, whereas Ruby’s had been shorter and stubbier. Had been. Scarlett’s stomach clenched. Why was she already thinking of her sister in the past tense? Surely Jake was right and there was still hope? There had to be, because the alternative was too much to bear.

They said little else to one another for the remainder of the journey, Jake busying himself in his latest book – a Lord of the Rings-style epic about gremlins and ghouls in far off places – and Scarlett staring out of the window and watching the landscape rush by, thinking as she always did on train journeys that it was like looking at a single giant impressionist painting of the world. When the train pulled into Bodmin Parkway they disembarked and stood on the platform in the grey drizzle, searching the sea of faces for someone familiar. When her eyes alighted on Phil instead of her mum, Scarlett felt a jolt of disappointment. “Hey Scar,” he said, his lanky frame stooping so he could plant a kiss on her cheek. “Alright Jake?” It felt so normal, this greeting with her step dad, like the ones they’d had a hundred times before. But they all knew this was as far from normal as could be. The question was, which one of them would acknowledge it first? “Right then,” said Phil, taking Scarlett’s knapsack and swinging it roughly onto his shoulder. He had always looked older than his years, the early part of his life having involved heavy drug use and homelessness, but today he looked as if he’d added another decade to his actual age of forty seven. His face was unshaven and his greying eyebrows bushier than ever. The skull tattoo on his neck looked as if it had faded in the sun and his ears hung down like spaniels’ – the result of years of ear-stretching jewellery. Looks-wise, Scarlett had never known what her mother had seen in her step father, but he had a kind heart, and she suspected there weren’t many men who would take on a woman’s three young children, especially when one of them was recovering from a life-threatening illness. Phil might be odd-looking but he had been there for them – for her – and for that Scarlett would always be grateful.

They drove in a silence that was punctuated only by the occasional question from Jake in the back seat, enquiring after this neighbour or that, trying in vain to make normal conversation. When, at last, they were on the winding road leading down into Port Isaac Scarlett felt relief flood through her body. She was home. They drove through the narrow lanes until they reached the Church House at the top of the hill leading down towards the beach. There, they parked the car and walked down to the Piskie Shop that Scarlett’s mum, Jane, had run since they’d arrived in Port Isaac when Scarlett was seven, Ruby two and their brother Toby eleven. The outside of the shop had been painted since Scarlett had left and the delicate spines of its bay windows were now gleaming and white. When she pushed the door the familiar tinkle of the bell alerted her mother to their presence. She had been sitting on a high stool behind the counter, fiddling with one of the tiny pixie statues from the main display, but when she saw them she stood and ran towards them with her arms outstretched. Scarlett fell into her mother’s arms and the two embraced for what seemed like an eternity but must, in fact, have been only a minute or two. Phil and Jake stood either side, the tower of strength to the women’s fragile house of cards. When at last they pulled apart their faces were streaked with tears. Jane, too, seemed to have aged considerably since her daughter had last seen her. She seemed so small to Scarlett, dwarfed by her giant knitted cardigan, tracksuit bottoms and Ugg boots. She looked, to Scarlett, like a tiny, multi-coloured bird. Her grey-streaked dark hair was pulled back into a rough bun that revealed the flap of loose skin around her jawline. The skin itself looked dry, her lips cracked and pale. And the dark circles beneath her eyes betrayed her lack of sleep. “Darling,” she said, finding her voice. “I’m so glad you’re here. Shall we go back to the house?”

They shut the Piskie shop and walked down to the bakery where old Mary was putting the freshly baked pies and Cornish pasties in the window display for the passing lunch trade – not that there was much of that, it being November, and a particularly fresh one at that. “Well I never,” said Mary as they walked in. “If it isn’t the prodigal daughter.” Scarlett blanched at the description, as did her mother, but they kept the smiles fixed on their faces with remarkable skill. “Afternoon Mary,” said Jane, “we’re just after some pasties for lunch.” Mary shuffled back behind the counter, her stoop more pronounced than ever, and pulled out some paper bags for the pasties. “How many are you after dear?” she said. “Is the whole brood back for the weekend?” At this Jane made a guttural noise, turned on her heel and ran out of the shop, slamming the door behind her with a bang. “Something I said?” Mary’s cataract-clouded eyes were awash with confusion. “No, not at all,” said Phil, “Jane’s just…had some bad news, that’s all. We’ll take seven pasties please. Meat ones.” Mary began filling up the bags. “Nothing serious, I hope – the news?” Phil smiled and handed over the money. “No, it’s nothing serious.”

Jane and Phil walked back up to the car, leaving Scarlett and Jake – on Scarlett’s request – to walk to the White House. The ten minute journey took them right down to the pebbly beach and up again to the other side of the bay. It was a steep climb but one that both Scarlett and Jake were used to doing. The White House sat on the crest of the hill, tall and proud like a sentry watching over its charges. Scarlett had loved it from the moment she’d laid eyes on it, even though back then its paint was peeling and its walls all damp with mould. She remembered Jane pulling up their battered old Volvo estate outside and the whole family – Jane, Scarlett, Ruby, Toby and their old dog, Clive – tumbling out of it, like a scene from the Waltons. The estate agent seemed dumbfounded by their love of the house but Jane, who had always had the gift of farsightedness, was delighted with it. With three young children and a divorce in the process of being finalised she was desperate to provide her family with a proper home. And, mouldy walls or not, this would be it. Her offer was accepted the very next day, and the five of them had been installed six weeks later, just in time for Christmas, which had always been Scarlett’s favourite time of year. Now the very thought of it filled her with dread. It was less than two months away. What if Ruby…No, she couldn’t think about that, not yet. She needed to get all the facts before she would allow herself to grieve.

Phil and Jane had passed them on the road, and when they arrived were carrying boxes of new stock for the shop into the house. As Scarlett and Jake pushed open the white painted gate into what Scarlett had always affectionately called the Sliding Garden – so named because of the sharp angle with which it sloped down towards the beach some hundred feet or so beneath – there was a clatter and a loud bark, followed by a blur of brown fur running straight at them. “Barney!” Scarlett crouched down to greet the family dog, an eight year old red setter that they’d had ever since Clive passed away when Scarlett was fifteen. Barney jumped and put his muddy paws onto her skirt. She laughed and pushed him gently back down, ruffling the soft fuzz of hair on the top of his head as he drooled happily onto the grass. She stood up and followed the hop scotch of paving slabs that led around the side of the house to the front door, stopping along the way to take in the view of the bay beneath. For now, the tide had been sucked out of it, leaving a string of pebbles and seaweed in its wake, like the aftermath of a party once the guests had all departed. Before long though, she knew, the sea would be back, crashing onto rocks and surging into caves, covering all in its way.

“I got your favourite cake,” said Jane in a faux-cheerful voice as they pushed open the stable-like front door and put their bags down in the hall. Scarlett walked into the kitchen and attempted a feeble smile at the spread her mother had put out on the table – the best china tea set, a Battenburg cake and some scones with jam and what she assumed was freshly whipped cream. “I just wanted it to be nice,” Jane continued. “Although now I look at it everything just feels so…wrong…” Her voice broke and her tiny frame began to quake with sobs. Scarlett crossed the kitchen with a sweep of her long, and now also very muddy, skirt, and wrapped her arms around her mother. When the sobs had subsided she led Jane to the table and gestured for Jake to boil the kettle. “Come on Mum,” she said, “let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We don’t know all the facts yet.” Jane sniffed and pulled a tissue from the pocket of her cardigan. She pressed it to her nose and blew hard. “Is Toby coming?” Phil entered the kitchen, stooping to avoid hitting his head on the wooden beam above the door. “Yes, and Mia and Sam too.” Mia was Toby’s girlfriend, Sam her four year old son. Whilst Scarlett had nothing against either Mia or Sam, she had never felt entirely at ease around them. But then if she was entirely honest with herself, Scarlett never felt entirely at ease around her own brother. Growing up they had never been close and, rather than bringing them together, after her illness Scarlett felt the distance between them even more keenly. Toby had moved away as soon as he could, passing his A Levels with flying colours and securing a place at Warwick university to study law. It was little surprise to the family when passed his degree with first class honours and was made a partner at a law firm in Southampton. What was more surprising was the fact he gave the partnership up soon after meeting Mia on a night out with his lawyer friends, and promptly moved to Brighton to take up a more menial position in a local firm so he could set up home with Mia and her little boy. Jane, who was astounded enough that two of her three children looked set to excel in their careers (Scarlett being forgiven, as she always was, because of her illness), was more astounded still that her only son had fallen in love not only with a woman ten years his senior, but also with the woman’s son (Toby never hitherto having shown the slightest inclination towards women of any age, and certainly not towards children).

The sound of a car outside, followed by the squeal of a child’s laughter and the sound of shoes crunching on gravel alerted them to Toby’s arrival. Barney came bounding through the door into the kitchen with Sam in hot pursuit. “Doggy, doggy,” chanted Sam, chasing Barney around the table until he rolled onto his back and demanded to have his tummy stroked. There was no denying Sam was a beautiful child, as angelic as they came with his unruly mop of blond curly hair and eyes so deep and blue they were like rock pools. His cheeks bore perfect spots of pink, the rest of his skin being almost translucent in colour, as if he had never been exposed to the sun. This, Scarlett thought, was odd, since his mother’s colouring was of an entirely different hue. As if on cue Mia stalked into the kitchen. Dressed in skinny jeans, a mohair jumper and thigh high leather boots, she would have looked more comfortable on Bond Street than in a tumbledown cottage in deepest, darkest Cornwall. Her hair was, as always, coiffured to a standard of perfection that Hollywood film stars would admire. She pulled first Jane and then Phil into exuberant embraces, then stopped and looked across the kitchen at Scarlett. “Scarlett,” she said, “how are you?” Scarlett smiled a tight-lipped smile. “Fine, thank you.” The two women regarded one another, not with rudeness, exactly, but a kind of swarthy respect. Scarlett knew that Mia had once coveted a singing career, but that health issues had scuppered it before it had taken off. The fact that she was treading that same path seemed to make Mia more reverent towards her than she might otherwise have been, or at least that’s how it felt to Scarlett who, on her part, was merely bemused as to why a woman of Mia’s evident beauty and talent had ended up in a two bedroom house in Brighton living with her brother.

Toby brought up the rear of his family group, stepping into the house and bolting the door behind him. Ever since he was a child he had always had a commanding presence. People used to comment on his serious expression, as if he knew something that others didn’t; that a war was about to break out, perhaps, or possibly a plague. It was rare that anyone could make him laugh, a trait that had failed to develop even in later life. Scarlett knew Jane blamed herself for this inherent lack of joy in her son. He had been nine when she had separated from their father, the only one of her three children really old enough to understand what was going on. And, if his subsequent personality development was anything to go by, Toby was also the only one to have been seriously affected by it. Now he walked into the kitchen and shrugged off his heavy lawyer’s overcoat, taking a seat at the table and helping himself to a slice of the Battenburg cake that sat limply on its plate before even acknowledging his mother or his sister. “Mum, Scarlett,” he said as he chewed his first bite of cake. “Phil,” he added almost as an afterthought, turning the cake over in his mouth, observing the reactions of his family around the table. He sat back in his seat, swallowed hard and cracked his knuckles. “So,” he said, “what exactly is going on?”

“Take a seat, everyone,” said Jane, finding her voice and shepherding everyone towards the table. She looked at Mia. “Perhaps Sam would like to take some cake and watch a DVD in the living room?” Mia nodded and Jane cut him a slice of Battenburg and took him next door to settle him in front of the television. When she came back the rest of the family had assembled around the table as instructed, leaving the seat at the head of the table for her, the matriarch. She sat down and pulled her cardigan around her. Phil reached across the table for her hand and nodded. “Right,” she began, “first of all thank you so much for coming. I wasn’t sure what to do when I first heard the news, but now that you’re all here I know this was the right decision.” They all stared at her, waiting. “This all started with a phone call the day before yesterday. It was from a staff member at a beach resort in Goa. A budget place, you know, for travellers. They said that Ruby had been staying with them for a week or so, but that she hadn’t been seen in two days – either entering or leaving the premises.” Her voice began to break again so Phil stepped in. “The man said Ruby hadn’t used her room in two nights or more. They knew because all guests are asked to leave their keys at reception when they leave the premises. Until Wednesday morning Ruby had been doing that, but then she stopped, just like that.” Phil broke off and fixed his gaze on the Battenburg. “And then yesterday they found a body.” Mia gasped. “A body?” Scarlett looked first to her mother and then to Toby. Neither raised their head. “Wait,” said Scarlett, “you didn’t know they’d found a body?” Toby shot a warning look at her across the table. “I wanted to protect her,” he said. “Until we knew for sure.” Scarlett frowned. “But we don’t know for sure, do we? I thought we didn’t know for sure that it was Ruby?” Jane dabbed at her eyes with another tissue from her never ending cardigan supply. “Darling,” she said with a sniff, “they think it’s her. She fits the description and…She was wearing her clothes.” Scarlett wrinkled her nose. “So? She might have lent them to someone. That’s what travellers do. Just because she was wearing her clothes doesn’t mean it’s Ruby. For Christ’s sake, there must be more evidence than that?” Phil shook his head. “That’s all we know for now, Scar, but we’re working on finding the money for one of us to go out there, you know, to identify the body and…bring her home.” Tears sprang into Scarlett’s eyes as if from nowhere, and she felt a surge of emotion so sudden and powerful it might just as well have been a tidal wave. “I want to go,” she said quietly. “Darling,” said Jane, “I don’t think that’s a good idea…” Phil looked first at his wife and then at Scarlett. “Scar,” he said, “I know this is hard for you, it’s hard for everyone. And that’s precisely why we” – at this he looked to Toby and back – “are trying to protect you all.” “We’re going,” Toby said, “me and Phil.” Scarlett looked to her mother for support, but Jane averted her gaze and stared silently out of the kitchen window at the sea beyond. “And that’s the end of it Scar, okay? We leave tomorrow.” Scarlett, who had never once stood up to her brother, nor indeed to any member of her family, before, rose to her feet and pushed back her chair. “No Toby,” she said. “That’s not okay. I’m coming too.”

NaNo 2013 Preview: Grief, Exposed – Chapter One

It’s the 25th November and, after a mammoth writing session today – during which I have somehow managed to write 8,000 words – I’m firmly on the home straight towards my fifth NaNoWriMo success. And what better way could there be to celebrate this most wondrous of occasions than by posting the first chapter of this year’s NaNo novel? (I hear you ask in breathless anticipation). Well, here it is….


It was dark by the time Scarlett reached the venue for her gig. Named with either deliberate irony or non-deliberate naivety, The King’s Arms pub was the polar opposite of anywhere an actual member of the royal family would choose to frequent. At first glance she wasn’t sure the place was even open, it’s grotty peeling exterior and two boarded up windows giving the impression of a derelict building that had long since closed down. But then the door swung open and a sliver of light proved that this was, in fact, an establishment doing current trade, albeit an uninviting one.

Scarlett shielded her eyes to identify the figure that had appeared in the open doorway and was now standing silhouetted against the light. “Jake?” The figure moved a step closer. “Who were you expecting? James Dean? If so I’m sorry to disappoint.” Scarlett took a playful punch at her friend’s arm and reached into the pocket of her house coat to find her tobacco. She pulled out the packet and pressed the pads of her slender fingers together to try and generate some heat. For the beginning of November it was still unseasonably clement, but her poor circulatory system was already denying her extremities the luxury of flowing blood.  “So what’s it like in there?” she asked, opening the packet and pulling out her rolling apparatus with the care and attention of a surgeon preparing for an operation. “Honestly?” Jake replied, relieving her of the packet so she could roll her cigarette. Scarlett shrugged in response. “I guess.” She took a generous pinch of tobacco and pushed it into the expectant rizla paper, noticing with disgust that she had once again bitten her nails down to the stubs. “Pretty horrendous,” said Jake. “A few coffin dodgers with one foot in the grave and a ropey looking hen party in the corner.” Scarlett rolled her cigarette and licked along its length with careful precision. She rested the finished creation between her lips and leaned into the warmth of Jake’s hand as he held up his lighter. “Great,” she said, inhaling deeply and watching as the smoke drifted out of her mouth and up into the crisp night air. “That’s just how I pictured my first gig in London town.” Jake’s boyish face screwed up into a frown. “Come on Scar,” he said, “don’t be like that. Everyone has to start somewhere.” It was true, she knew, but it did little to shift the feeling of disappointment in her stomach that had stamped all over the butterflies that had earlier resided there. She took two more long drags on her roll up, threw it to the ground and stamped it out with a studded boot. “Come on then,” she said, “show time.”

Jake wasn’t wrong about the clientele. Inside, the pub was little more appealing than outside, though it was at least warm. The tobacco-stained walls were adorned with equally yellow pictures of bygone – and, to Scarlett’s mind, also somewhat questionable – ‘celebrity’ clientele. The crimson shag pile carpet was matted in places and covered up by newer looking rugs in others. In the non-boarded up windows were dusty displays of fake flowers, and on each table a candle wilted wax onto the surface beneath. The bar itself was made of dark mahogany and bedecked with gold plated horse shoes and other paraphernalia that Scarlett assumed must have sentimental value, for it was entirely devoid of aesthetic value. Behind the bar a woman stood polishing glasses. She was nearly as brassy as the ornaments that hung above her head, her hair a tumbling cascade of bleached blonde curls and her ample bosom creeping above the confines of her tight white top. She looked up as Scarlett approached and flashed a wary smile, as if scoping out her opposition. Scarlett did her best to return the smile. “Stella,” the woman said, putting the glass down and holding out her hand. “Scarlett.” They shook hands in what felt to Scarlett an oddly business-like exchange. “Right,” Stella said, appearing to feel the same way. “So the stage, if you can call it that, is over there. The PA system’s all set up, mike, amp and all that jazz. That’s all you need, right?” Jake picked up his guitar case from the floor. “And this, obviously,” he said with a lopsided smirk. “Okay then,” Stella said with an over-elaborate clap. “I’ll leave you two to get set up.” She peered in the dim light at her diamante-encrusted watch. “There’s half an hour until kick-off. It might be quiet now but trust me, by eight o’clock all the regulars will be in and you’ll have a great audience.” Scarlett and Jake exchanged doubtful looks.

To their surprise, Stella had been right about the imminent influx of locals. Within fifteen minutes a steady stream of people had more than doubled the head count inside the pub, and though they weren’t quite the hip Camden crowd she longed to perform in front of, Scarlett was relieved to see that at least some of them were under the age of fifty and enthusiastic looking. Once they had set up the equipment they ran a brief sound check. “Testing, testing, one, two, three,” said Scarlett. “Yes, very testing,” someone shouted from a dark recess at the back of the room. Scarlett’s stomach contorted in sudden, naked fear. “Very funny,” she said into the microphone with a theatrical roll of her eyes. “That’s right love,” a second disembodied voice shouted from the same general direction as the first, “don’t let that miserable bugger put you off.” Scarlett returned the comment with a slow smile, then looked to Jake and nodded. On her cue he started to play the familiar first few chords of the new song Scarlett had composed especially for the gig. She leaned into the microphone, closed her eyes and began to sing. When, some thirty minutes later, she came up for air and broke out of her trance, the audience burst into spontaneous applause so loud it made her jump. She turned to Jake and he beamed back at her. “Wow,” she said into the microphone, finding her voice and turning back to the modest crowd. “This was our first gig since moving to London from Cornwall and, well, we weren’t sure what kind of reception we’d get. You’ve been amazing, thank you so much.” She slipped the microphone back into its stand as a second round of applause began to fade and walked over to her friend. “Great going kiddo,” Jake said with a wink. “You weren’t so bad yourself,” Scarlett replied, noticing for the first time he had replaced his normally scruffy attire with a new pair of jeans and a round-necked jumper from Gap. “New threads?” she asked, and Jake’s face flushed red. “I just thought it might be nice to smarten up a bit. First gig and all…” Scarlett leant closer and examined his head. “Have you had a haircut too?” she teased. “Okay, who are you and what have you done with my friend?” Jake took a swipe at her and she ducked out of his way. “Come on smarty pants, let’s have a celebratory lemonade. I’d say we’ve earned it.”

It was just past midnight when they returned to the flat they shared above a shop on the Old Kent Road. They picked their way through the detritus of leaflets, newspapers and empty kebab packets in the communal hallway that was also shared by three other flats in the same building and walked up to the second floor. As soon as they got in the door Scarlett kicked off her shoes and threw herself onto the sofa, which was so old it sagged under her slight weight. She surveyed the room with a sigh, its drab décor and peeling damp-filled walls dragging her spirits down from the level the gig had elevated them to. “Make me some toast will you?” she asked Jake with an eyelash-fuelled smile, “with Marmite?” Jake rolled his eyes and left the room. “And a cuppa?” Scarlett shouted after him. “Don’t push your luck,” came the response, though she knew he would do as she asked. Jake, her dear friend, without whose unswerving support she might never have had the confidence to move to London and make a go of a career in music. Jake, who had brought her back from the brink more times than she cared to admit, even to herself. Unwilling to pursue that line of thought further she sat up and switched on the ancient second hand television they’d purchased in Camden market the previous day for ten pounds. The picture flickered into life to reveal a programme about India, and Scarlett’s thoughts immediately turned to Ruby. It had been a month now since they had driven to the airport to see her little sister off on her travels abroad, and since then Ruby’s contact with her family had been sporadic at best. But then, Scarlett knew, Ruby was not the type to spend hours in an internet café Skype-ing her friends (Scarlett was not at all sure Ruby had many friends), nor was she particularly fond of lengthy telephone conversations. She was a tomboy in that respect, as well as in others. One of Scarlett’s earliest memories was of running barefoot along the beach of Trebarwith Strand in a flimsy cotton dress, arms outstretched like an aeroplane, while Ruby, clad in thick corduroy trousers, a hoodie and wellington boots, explored rock pools looking for crabs. It was true to say her sister was an introvert by nature. Bookish, was a term that was bandied around a lot when she came up in conversation. ‘That sister of yours is such a bookworm,’ old Mary in the bakery had said to her one day. ‘Always got her head in some complicated looking book or other – it’s a wonder she doesn’t bump into things.’ They had all been surprised when, over breakfast some months previously, Ruby had calmly announced her intention to go travelling before taking up her place at Cambridge where she had a place to study chemistry. Nobody, least of all Scarlett, thought she was the travelling type, but then she could well understand Ruby’s need to break out of the tiny community where they had lived all their lives and see something of the world. Scarlett herself was grateful to Ruby for providing a much-needed catalyst for her own departure from the sleepy Cornish fishing village she had called home for the past twenty three years. The thought of what her life might have been like if she had stayed there forever made her shudder even now.

“Here you go, lazy cow,” said Jake, strolling into the room and handing Scarlett a plate of toast and mug of tea. She sat up and crossed her legs, folding her long skirt into her lap and pushing the multitude of gold bangles jangling at her wrist further up her arm so she could eat. She watched as Jake walked the length of the room and sat down on the armchair opposite. He had changed out of his new clothes into his old tracksuit bottoms and school athletics hoodie, and now looked more how she had come to think of her best friend; casual, slightly foppish with his too-long brown hair falling across his face. Jake went about his life in an unhurried way that Scarlett envied, exuding a quiet confidence that things would work out in the end, no matter how strenuous the journey. He was the only child of their neighbours in Port Isaac, Pauline and Nick. Nick was a fisherman with a similar temperament to Jake’s, which Scarlett supposed was where he got it from. When she was recovering from her illness she and Jake used to spend hours in their front room, looking out to sea and playing ‘spot Nick’s boat’ as Pauline kneaded bread for that night’s supper. When Scarlett first began to cut herself Jake wouldn’t leave her side, and he had been her protector and friend ever since. It seemed only natural when she moved to London that he would come with her, not least because they shared a musical ambition. Indeed Jake’s company was a stipulation of Scarlett’s being allowed to come to London in the first place, her mother feeling that she wasn’t strong enough to go all by herself. Not yet, she said. Not yet.

Scarlett took a bite of her toast and pulled her old Nokia out of the folds of her skirt. She hadn’t thought to check it all night – why would she? – but now she saw a number of messages, both text and voicemail, demanding her attention. “Turn it down a sec will you?” she asked, and Jake duly obliged with the remote. Scarlett put down her toast and held the phone to her ear. The first voicemail was from her mum. “Darling, it’s me, Mum. Can you call me back please?” That was odd, Scarlett thought, her mum’s voice had sounded shaky, unlike the normal cheery one she was used to. She pressed the button to move onto the next message. “Darling, it’s me again. I’m sorry to call so late but there’s something I have to tell you.” Scarlett felt a prickle of fear rise up inside her. “Everything okay?” Jake, as always, sensed her mood. He stared at her across the room, his brown eyes scanning her face for an answer. “Messages from Mum,” Scarlett said, keeping her voice as even as she could, “she needs to speak to me about something, urgently. I’ll call her back.” She punched in the numbers of her home phone and waited as it rang once, twice, three times. On the fourth ring there was a click and a man’s voice answered. “Hello?” It was Phil, her stepdad. “Phil? It’s Scarlett. I just picked up Mum’s messages. Is everything okay?” There was a moment’s silence on the end of the line. Scarlett pictured Phil’s time-ravaged face in quiet contemplation. “Let me get your Mum,” he said. “Hang on a sec.” Scarlett shrugged at Jake. He stared back at her, eyebrows knitted into a frown. “Scarlett?” Her mother’s voice came on the line. “Mum?” A strange choking sound emanated from the receiver. “Mum? What’s wrong?” Her mother cleared her throat in an attempt to compose herself. “Darling,” she said with considerable difficulty, “something’s happened – to Ruby.” Scarlett tried to suppress the panic rising up inside her. “What do you mean? What’s happened?” Her mother was crying now, sobbing uncontrollably into the receiver. “Scarlett,” said Phil’s voice, having taken charge of the situation. “Ruby’s gone missing in India. And they’ve found a body.”

No Pressure

It’s day 23 of National Novel Writing Month and, despite a flash stint this afternoon where I somehow managed to write two thousand words in about an hour, I’m still a rather woeful 5,165 words behind target. For some reason, however, I’m not feeling all that worried. I’ve got the best part of tomorrow and all of Monday to put the time in and, as I know from past experience, I work best under pressure so I’m confident I’ll manage to ‘win’ at NaNo once again and make it to 50,000 words before midnight on the 30th. The most encouraging thing is that despite struggling to find the time to get my word count up, I haven’t had a single moment of writer’s block since I started, which must surely be a good sign…?

In other news (yes, this is a boring update post – apologies to anyone who had grander designs in mind for today’s blog), the marathon training is coming on nicely. If – or should that be when – I complete tomorrow’s 105 minute run (gulp) I will have managed to tick off every session on this week’s plan, including a rather savage speed session on the treadmill this morning which I’m glad to have behind me. It’s still a long way off (this is only week three of a twenty week training plan) but my theory is if I put the ground work in now it’ll be a hell of a lot easier come the big day. Though something tells me when it comes to running a marathon there’s nothing ‘easy’ about it…

To write or not to write (not really a question)

Day twelve of NaNoWriMo and I’m proud to announce I’m three hundred and fifty five whole words ahead of schedule, having managed a short but intense stint of writing over the past hour and a half. It’s funny how sometimes the words flow like honey and other times they stick like mud. I can’t say I’m doing the best job of sticking to the story skeleton, or that in recent chapters I haven’t strayed somewhat off the writing piste where my chapter plan is concerned, but right now none of that matters – because right now those glorious words are tumbling out one after the other, like parachutists leaping from an aeroplane.

In recent days my inner critic’s been leaping around in my mind like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, brandishing its creativity-severing axe and wailing like a banshee. At times it’s been so hard to drown it out that I’ve been tempted to succumb, not just to this writing challenge but to the challenge of writing altogether. I’ve compared myself to others – the kiss of death for any aspiring author – and concluded my writing doesn’t make the grade. I’ve even questioned just how much I want to be a writer – if it’s worth the sacrifices and the pain I know I need to endure to get to where I want to be.

But then I’ve realised (as I always do) that it doesn’t matter if I’m not as good a writer as other people. It doesn’t really even matter if I ‘make it’ as a writer or not. What matters is that writing is a part of who I am – it’s what makes me tick. And until my dying day I will keep doing it – whether there’s gold at the end of the rainbow or not.

NaNoWriMo: Day One

It’s 1.14pm on day one of NaNoWriMo and as yet I haven’t written a single word of my new novel. Not perhaps the MOST promising start, but I’m not panicking just yet. Why? Because I HAVE A PLAN – and it goes a little something like this:

  1. Work like a demon (right through lunch) until 4pm
  2. Leave office and install self in caffeine-vending establishment (Café Nero and Costa both being less than 100ft from office)
  3. Write as if life depends on it until 6.55pm
  4. Walk five minutes to restaurant to meet friends
  5. Celebrate successful first day of NaNo with a glass of chilled Pinot Grigio

Of course the fact that a) I have about three days’ worth of work to cram into the next three hours and b) I’m still not at all sure how the first chapter is going to start are both somewhat concerning threats to the ultimate achievement of this plan. But as historically my best work has always been done under pressure I choose to regard these challenges as opportunities for greatness rather than barriers to success. The first day of NaNo is not a time to fall apart. It is a time to indulge in superhuman amounts of self-confidence.

I am a writing super hero. I WILL succeed.


Gearing up for NaNo No.5….

Today I have been planning out the story for my NaNo* novel, the chapter notes for which you can see in today’s photo. I wish I could say I’m feeling totally prepared this time around, but the truth is there will once again be a significant element of winging it. Still, on the positive side a plot and characters are at last beginning to emerge, like (slightly reluctant) woodlice, from the (somewhat rotten) woodwork of my brain. And, more importantly still, I’m starting to feel that old glimmer of enthusiasm to get started, and the accompanying excitement to see what comes out once the month is underway.

This will be my fifth NaNo novel, the main difference being that this time around I’m determined to edit my novel until I’m 100% happy to submit it to agents, rather than consigning it to a dusty folder in My Documents, never to be touched again. I did submit three chapters of my first NaNo novel (some years ago now) to agents and received one encouraging rejection letter in return, but nonetheless the responses were all rejections. The reason for that, on looking back, was because I hadn’t made any real effort to edit it – as in, none at all. And if I couldn’t be bothered to spend time crafting it into something amazing, how could I expect people to want to spend time reading it? So this time will be different, and if nothing else comes of it I will teach myself the art and discipline of editing for when I do finally write the masterpiece that will catapult me into the JK Rowling stratosphere. Well, a girl can dream…

*National Novel Writing Month – Budding novelists should check it out!

The Magic

I’ve just awoken from a lucid dream about one of the characters in the novel I’m planning to write for next month’s NaNoWriMo. The details I’ve been struggling to come up with when fully conscious presented themselves, as if by magic, when I was semi-conscious. Not only that, when I fully woke up and jumped out of bed to write those details down, the ‘twist’ in the plot I’ve been scratching around for over the past few days popped into my head, just like that. All of a sudden I am no longer ill at ease with my plot, but positively in love with it. There may still be (many) details to work out before I’m ready to start writing it in thirteen days, but instead of dreading it I now can’t wait to get cracking.

THIS feeling is what the writing process is all about, and it’s a feeling I haven’t had for a long time. Sometimes it’s such a battle just coming up with a plot, let alone developing the characters to bring that plot alive. And my inner critic doesn’t help, making constant digs about not being good enough. That’s why I love NaNoWriMo; because for one month every year I can commit to a writing programme so intense there is no time for introspection and self-criticism. It’s pedal to the metal all the way to the finish line, and whilst it’s not easy it is exhilarating. And that’s what makes it worth every minute.