Monthly Archives: May 2013

A Significant (you’ll get the joke if you read the post) Opinion

libro

“I’m bored, can you come over?”
“Sorry, Miguel, I’m going out with my mum; but don’t you have a book? A book is a good friend.”


“So… what do you want to play?”
“Mafalda”, rights belong to Joaquín Salvador Lavado, better known by his pen name Quino.

As I’ve already mentioned, I work with children. Well, I work with adolescents. For the most part, they’re reasonably nice kids. I was obviously far more awesome than them when I was their age *takes off and polishes rose-tinted spectacles* but they can’t help that.

There was one girl who could frequently derail anything we were meant to be doing because of her weird and unfathomable beliefs or lack of them, causing me to stop everything and try and argue the point with her. She didn’t believe in dinosaurs. DINOSAURS! She didn’t come from a really religious family that took the Bible literally, or skip science lessons. She just thought it was a bit unlikely. She’d taken the evidence presented, and decided that the idea that millions of years ago these monster lizard creatures were stomping around to the Rite of Spring was a bit farfetched. Fair play to her, she seems to have come to that conclusion all by herself and she’s entitled to it, however bizarre.

The thing that saddens me most is that the majority don’t consider themselves to be readers. They are obliged to get books from the library to read during scheduled silent reading periods in English lessons; they spent countless hours reading texts and Facebook messages and celebrity gossip sites; they flick through football magazines; but they don’t read for fun.

I can allow that they are busy with other interests or with work (it’s a farming community and a lot of the kids are involved on family farms or in local businesses). I can even make myself believe that some of them genuinely aren’t interested in reading (sacrilege!) in the same way that I’m not really interested in Napoleonic siege weaponry, or the minutiae of Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy, or learning to play the accordion.

What I don’t like is when they blanket declare “Reading is boring!” and when asked what they have read and found boring, they shrug and say they don’t read. A couple of the girls said that reading more than half a page of text without a break gave them a headache. Boring, eh, I reply. Maybe you’ve just not found the right story. What are you interested in? Shrug. Adventure? History? Magic? Animals? Something realistic? Something fantastical? Frightened shrug.

I do think a lot of it comes down to losing the ability to concentrate or to persevere with things. They’re too used to instant information, and the idea that they might have to put in the effort with something is too much. That’s obviously a generalisation and I do work with a lot of kids who work extremely hard and never complain. On the other hand I do see a lot of kids throwing down their pens in despair when they have a reading comprehension question to answer that involves going back over the text to find a key piece of vocabulary and they don’t spot it within two milliseconds. I see kids Googling for things and not even clicking on the links in the results. If the answer isn’t in the preview summary or the link title, then the answer can never be found and doesn’t exist (never mind that they Google with whole questions instead of key words and can’t be broken of the habit).

I know this seems like a “kids today!” rant, but I am genuinely concerned that because they are not using their brains, teens are getting less intelligent. They are being spoonfed information and they get help sheets for everything so they don’t need to learn stuff off by heart. A lot of them barely know what order the alphabet goes in, or have to sing it through from the beginning until they get to the bit they need. They don’t know their basic times tables up to 12×12. They can’t estimate and work out if it’s a reasonable answer. I’m not suggesting everything on the whole curriculum is learned by rote, but they need to take in and retain SOME information, don’t they? I taught two girls last year who had been to a battlefield on a school trip having studied the battle in numerous lessons beforehand, and they still didn’t even know what two sides were fighting, or even who won.

One of the most common things I hear (apart from the insulting “Can we do something fun today?”) is “We learn way more English words with you than we do in English classes!” I firmly believe that their vocabularies are stunted because they don’t read! If I hadn’t read Terry Pratchett’s Mort at fifteen, how old would I have been before I saw and heard the word “epitome”? I learned from my dad’s old books that even if it’s written “twopence”, it’s pronounced “tuppence”. A bosun is a boatswain. Gunwale is pronounced “gunnel”. (I may have read a lot of pirate books when I was younger). You may think that’s quite weird vocabulary. It is. They aren’t common words.

What about “signify”? I was showing a group of seventeen year olds a French question containing “Que signifie ‘le fossé de générations’ en ce contexte?” or something similar, and they didn’t recognise “signifie”. OK, what English word does it look like? I asked. Silence. Gormless and vaguely frightened silence. Signify? I prompted, feeling a little afraid myself. A weak light dawned in one or two eyes but most remained stumped. Signify, I repeated, y’know, like “significance”. You’ve seen significance before? I think my tone was desperate at this point. Grudging nods from the majority. Progress! OK, what does significance mean? Back to clueless. These were kids doing their Highers or Advanced Highers (AS / A Levels) and somehow in none of their subjects they’d come across signify as a word.

Do they all just walk around terrified all the time because people say words at them and they have no clue what most of them mean? I don’t mind language evolving or including new words, and getting rid of weird old ones that no one uses. Fine. I’ll keep saying “Hmm, that bodes ill” and “as is his wont” all by myself and be happy. But when there’s a poster for a charity up on the wall asking for school supplies to send to Africa because they’re “disparate” for books, pencils, etc and the kid who wrote it doesn’t even realise he means “desperate”, or that it’s more than a spelling mistake and has become a completely different word; I think there’s a problem.

So yes, I use cognates to teach French and yes that usually involves teaching them what the English word means at the same time. And yes, I do urge them to read in their free time. I’d settle for them getting to the end of a Mr Men book at this point. I don’t think there’s a lack of decent teen / YA fiction out there (in all genres). There’s certainly not a lack of fiction in general if they’ve got the balls to go for a “real grown-ups” book like a Bernard Cornwell or a Douglas Adams or a Neil Gaiman. I just wish they’d try a little harder to find something they’ll enjoy because once you’ve got it; the world is your oyster. Or toadstool. Or spaceship. Or crime scene. Or haunted shack. Or football pitch. Or prison cell. Or fairy kingdom. You get the idea.

“So, the French word for ‘flood’ in this context is ‘inondation’. Does that sound like an English word? …Inundate? If you’re inundated with stuff, what does that mean? …Guys? Example: ‘We were inundated with entries for the competition’. Yes, it can be a ‘Meet One Direction’ competition.

…Anyone?”

EDIT: I guess I stand corrected! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22714629

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Judging by the cover

On my way to work last week, I saw a Goth. Alone! In the wild! Like a baby crow fallen from the nest… I nodded hello, and she vaguely nodded back, looking confused. I nod hello to the few other walkers I see in the mornings – dog walker lady (and dog), beardy hat man, pink coat girl… – in solidarity to all early morning pedestrians. Rain or shine, there we are, caught in our rat runs. Monday to Friday, at least.

Anyway, this Goth. It might seem like I’m poking fun. I suppose I am, mildly, but only in a very self-aware way. I had a Goth phase myself, once upon a time. Well, in my late teens. The girl I saw on my walk was dressed in black (obviously), baggy trousers and black turtleneck, and the obligatory long leather coat. But it was almost like dress-down day. No Bride of Dracula make up, no dyed hair, no spikes or studs. She was probably on her way to work.

My friend Rob once told me that being a Goth wasn’t about what you wore. He said one of the Gothiest people he knew wore nothing but bubblegum pink. Would you peg her for a Goth if you saw her in the street? Doubtful. Someone a bit odd, certainly, but there we are. That’s our problem, not hers.

My Goth phase didn’t last that long. Just like Loki, I lacked conviction. I had a few friends of the Goth persuasion and I assimilated for a while. It was easier to have a group identity than to strike out on my own. I bought a couple of Siouxsie and the Banshees albums, dyed my hair purple and bought a mesh top to wear over a black vest. And a pair of Crims. Big baggy black jeans with huge deep pockets (big enough for a pad of A4 paper or a bottle of Coke) and straps and zips. Very useful. I lasted pretty much into my second year of Uni.

By that time, the friends for whom I had reinvented myself were at their own universities, or jobs, and I had found a new crowd. It was easier to carry on. But then I realised that, just as Rob had told me, it didn’t really matter what I wore. My clothing had been the ID badge that got me into the friendship group, but it was my great personality and charm and amazing modesty that kept me there. I stopped wearing the Crims, but I still have them. Occasionally I find them in the back of the wardrobe and laugh at myself. Oh dear.

My later Uni years were taken up with the working-with-children part of my degree and so I had to start wearing grown up clothes anyway. Unsurprisingly my friends were unaffected. It’s almost like books should not be judged by their covers…

And segue…

Cover art on books is really important. You’d think after all I just said that it wouldn’t be. After all, the saying has to come from somewhere. But, my God, people… The differences in cover art in different countries can be astounding as well as that of different print editions. I like pretty books. I like good books that are also pretty. I like good books. I prefer them to be pretty. I want to show them off. I don’t want to get them all rebound in matching leather hardcovers. I just want them to be classy and capture the feel of the book. I have a few examples.

Fantasy books are great for cover art because of the range of character species, magic use, epic quests, weird settings and so on. But some do it better than others. One thing I do not like is the pseudo-CGI effect. This is evident on my bookshelf, alas, because of the versions of the Gemmell books I own. When I first read Echoes of the Great Song, for example, it was a lovely, well-thumbed old paperback that had this cover art:

Thanks, Amazon!  (Picture from Amazon)

Thanks, Amazon!
(Picture from Amazon)

I borrowed it from my friend. When I bought my copy, it looked like this: 

Oh dear.

Oh dear.
(Picture from Amazon)

and matches the other reprints all done in the same style with a Polar Express style figure on the front. I’ve seen a lot worse, and I’m not suggesting that cover art should be the same from the first edition and forever more, but it does make me a little sad. It jars with the old-fashioned fantasy content. Bloomin’ computers! Back to the Stone Age with all of us! Grr! *shakes pitchfork*

Joe Abercrombie is our next stop. When I bought my copies of the First Law trilogy’s three volumes, they all matched (hooray! Another bugbear –when the art/artist changes halfway through a series so they don’t match!) and were elegant and simple. Parchment and runes, and some bloodstains. Beautiful. Just enough gilt to give them some gravitas. Like this:

So classy! (Picture from Goodreads)

So classy!
(Picture from Goodreads)

For a while afterwards though, on one of my frequent Waterstone’s browsing missions, I found newer print runs had these covers: 

Oooh, sexy Ninefingers! (Photo from Amazon customer images)

Oooh, sexy Ninefingers!
(Photo from Amazon customer images)

by Chris McGrath who, I am reliably informed by the Internet, has done various artwork for the Dresden Files. Now, this isn’t a bad cover by any means. But the guy pictured here is a vicious barbarian called Logen Ninefingers aka The Bloody Nine. Say one thing about Logen Ninefingers, say he’s not a sexy dude. The guy on this cover looks scarred and like he handles himself in a fight, but he reminds me of Aragorn: gritty, but still with a full shelf of hair products. I know everyone imagines characters in different ways, but there are limits, and if anyone who has read these books imagines Logen Ninefingers that way, I urge them to seek professional help.

Interestingly, this cover art seems to have faded and been replaced with the original again, or at least, the parchment ones were visible where the portrait ones were not, last time I was in Ye Olde Book Shoppe.

Finally, a tale of differing cover art by language/country. I was working in Canada for a while, and I came across the French-language version of Greg Keyes’s Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series. They only had the French version in the shop, and it looked like this:

 

It makes me so happy. (Credit to Amazon.ca!)

It makes me so happy.
(Credit to Amazon.ca!)

Lovely, gentle, classic fantasy illustration that includes elements of the story (the broken tomb in the foreground, for one). It reminds me a bit of a Tarot card. Amazon reliably informs me that this is the English-language version available in Canada (and the US?):

 

Acceptable. (Guess where I got this picture? Yup, Amazon!)

Acceptable.
(Guess where I got this picture? Yup, Amazon!)

A bit less subtle, but those are at least two easily recognisable characters on the front: Aspar White the holter and Stephen Darige the novice/initiate. In my head Aspar will always be Sean Bean, but the guy on the cover will do. The versions I have all follow the same format:

 

I do like a nice vignette (Credit to.... Amazon)

I do like a nice vignette
(Credit to…. Amazon)

A block coloured cover with a cameo scene. Each book is a different colour, but the design is the same. I prefer this version to the middle one, but I really wanted the top one. I very nearly spent a lot of dollars on buying the whole series in French (which I would have been able to read, incidentally) just for the cover art. I still vaguely lament not doing so. I would have just looked at them. Like I do with all the pretty shoes I buy but can’t wear for risk of getting them dirty (Scotland is not disposed to delicate shoes).

Why does the cover art have to vary so much? From edition to edition the artist can change, I understand that, but on the same edition in different countries? Surely it’s cheaper and easier to have one design and pay one artist than to re-commission someone different for different language versions/countries. Is it to do with publishing rights?

I am coming to terms with my ability to see deep within a person’s soul and get to know them properly regardless of their outward appearance, but on my bookshelf I must have beauty. A shelf full of books is part of the décor of the room. It’s like a painting. To a bookshelf is where I will gravitate when in a new friend’s house. I want to feed my eyes before I feed my eyes!

Ebooks are on the rise, I know, and cover art (or dustjacket art) is becoming less important. But for me it’s part of the whole book experience. I savour the cover, knowing what lies within. Would you package a sirloin steak in a Mcdonald’s carton?

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Saturday Scrapes (Bonus post!) – WARNING, contains pics of blood

Dear readers, it may surprise you to learn that at times I can be stunningly useless at being a person. My epic tale begins at 5:20am on a Saturday.

Yes. On a Saturday, my brain likes to wake me an hour earlier than I would normally get up for work, refreshed and ready to go. Well, screw you, brain! I rolled over and resisted the urge to leap out of bed until my alarm went off at six.

Alright, I was still getting up earlier than I would for work, but that’s what you do when you’re having an ADVENTURE. The adventure prep was simple: shower, breakfast, dishes, check contents of bag, flail in a panic, make sure there’s no breakfast all over my face, DEPART.

I did all those things, readers, and also had time to stick a load of washing on and watch half of Britain’s Biggest Hoarders. So far, so high-functioning. The trouble is, I get massively paranoid about missing trains. I am happy to turn up to the station half an hour before my train is due to leave and sit on a cold, uncomfortable metal perch and wait. And still feel, even though I’m at the station and I can see the clock and it is telling me the time is still way before the departure time, that somehow I will fail to get on the train. I think it has to do with my need for a Plan (moreso, the need for said plan to actually unfold as planned).

Neatly dovetailed into this transport paranoia is a sudden inability to estimate how long it will take to get anywhere. I live a ten to fifteen minute walk from the station (time dependent on footwear, luggage, weather). I set out twenty five minutes before I the train time in the sunshine and flat shoes and carrying only a handbag. I didn’t even have a coat, hoping to minimise wind resistance. I was running late, actually; I’d planned to be out the door five to ten minutes earlier. I know how ridiculous this is, even as I’m writing it, but yes, I felt that I needed a good half an hour to do a ten minute journey.

This is because I needed to pick up my ticket from the machine and I am always terrified that there’ll be a huge queue, or some moron who is picking up tickets in advance for a journey he isn’t making for another week, and I’ll be hopping nervously in line behind them, watching the clock turn and turn and turn and get easily within eight minutes of the departure time. Just thinking about cutting it that close makes me feel anxious.

So, I’m on the way, and even though I do know that I will have plenty of time and that every time I have the same panic and still get to the station with ten to fifteen minutes to spare, I panicked. What does the body do in panic? Fight or flight reponse, readers, I hope you know where this is going.

I started to run. I was intending to Scout’s Pace for a bit, just to get a bit closer to my planned timeline (I was hoping to catch up to the parallel universe me who had set out on time). However, my graceful feline lope was cut off in its prime as I tripped and flew forwards. There was nothing to trip on. I’m just that feckless. So I flung my hands out and hadouken’ed the pavement. I actually slid, such was my momentum.

Well, that was embarrassing, I thought, pretending that I was not at all injured, and that tripping was somehow part of the plan. I got up, and immediately saw that I had a golf ball sized hole in the right knee of my jeans. Oh, and my palms were grazed and bleeding from where the heels of my hands had hit the ground first. But mainly I was annoyed at ripping my best jeans. Y’see, I was on my way to an ADVENTURE, by which I should explain I mean I was going to have lunch with my lovely friend. An epic quest, I’m sure you’ll agree.

So I dusted myself off and carried on running. Not only did I still have a train to catch, but now I’d delayed myself further by being so stupid as to fall down! I got into town and checked the time. I was two minutes from the station with fifteen minutes to spare. I allowed myself to use a cash machine and checked my hands. There was blood welling up in the main scrapes but I wasn’t dripping all over the place. Tell you what, though, they stung like hell.

Right Hand

Second hand down

 

Left Hand

First hand down (I’m an alt hand to leg runner)

In the station, to my horror, there were two foreign tourists using the ticket machine. One of them was consulting a piece of A4 paper. Oh, no, I thought, they’ve got a massive itinerary. I’ll never make it! (there were still twelve and a half whole minutes to spare at this point). Luckily they were already printing tickets and they were done within a minute of my starting a queue behind them. Now came the tricky part. I needed to reach into the pocket of my jeans to get my phone so I could see the reference number for the ticket, without brushing the harsh denim against my stinging, weeping palms.

Somehow, readers, I survived. I got my ticket and made it to the train. I found my seat and set about wondering how I was going to clean my wounds. I knew the conductor would be along fairly soon, and I wasn’t about to faint or bleed out, so I just found some tissue from my handbag and did a little recon swabbing. Only then did I think to check my knee. Obviously I knew my jeans had taken the brunt, but I assumed my knee was probably skinned or a little bit grazed. It didn’t hurt at all. I looked down. There was a stiff, dry patch of blood on my jeans. Not a spot or two, but a noticeable spread. Ah. I could see through the rip that my leg was a bit red.

Oooh, what's lurking under here?

What’s lurking beneath? – The brownish patch on my jeans is the blood stain

Upon rolling up my jeans leg, I was greeted with slightly more than a graze. A wet papertowel would not soothe this savage beast. To be fair, it looked a lot worse than it was. The actual gouge is about the size of a thumbnail (I was going to say ‘was’, but I’m not Wolverine!) but the area of blood was a lot wider, where it had seeped out during my run. The centre was the colour of jam in a doughnut; thick, crimson and gently oozing. The dried and drying bloodstain around the edge was a delicate pink. I did what any sane person would do. I took pictures of my injuries on my phone, already thinking about writing this post.

Mmm, jammy.

Mmm, jammy.

Then I found more tissue and did the old spit-and-scrub to try and clean the edges as best I could. A lovely lady passenger asked if I was alright and I recounted my fall in the style of an Anglo-Saxon saga poem, just to make it sound a bit less embarrassing. The best part was, it still wasn’t even nine in the morning. I kept my jeans rolled up and kept dabbing.

The train moved off and after the usual announcements, the conductor came through. I asked if there was a first aid kit I could use, or even just a couple of wet wipes and a plaster, or something. The conductor asked if I had fallen in the station and I said no. With hindsight I could have lied and maybe got a bit more urgency from the rail staff, but a. that didn’t occur to me, b. even if it had, I’m far too honest about this sort of thing and c. I wasn’t really that injured.

My knee was really starting to hurt. I guess it’s true that you don’t always feel pain if you don’t notice you’re injured. I mean, losing a limb or something I think you wouldn’t be able to ignore, but a graze like mine that I hadn’t even thought about, that’s fairly standard. As the journey went on and I bumped my elbow on the window, I discovered that was grazed, too. Just a scrape. I got a wet wipe and a big plaster from the conductor and steeled myself to lift the thick lump of wrinkled skin on my knee to check for trapped grit etc. That part was actually pretty painless. I was expecting the agony of having an amputation stump cauterised, but on that score I was disappointed.

More passengers got on and expressed concern, and their own shame at not having wet wipes or plasters to give me. Faith in humanity (and British self-deprecation) restored. With my knee safely protected from prying eyes and jeans fluff, I settled in for the rest of my journey.

Now, I had been planning (if you saw my Tweet) to work on a WIP on the train. This story (Murder Express) is currently in hand-written form. Not only was I now jammed in on the train next to a nice old man (who didn’t have any tissue to offer me and he was very apologetic about it) with two still open wounds – I felt like I’d bothered the conductor enough and really it was my knee that was the problem – but holding a pen and writing while scuffing my palms on the paper did not appeal.

So I listened to Under Milk Wood instead.

I texted my lovely friend and asked him to bring medical supplies to the station, explaining my idiocy. I felt like I had ruined the whole day. Gone were all attempts at looking like I’d made an effort and like a real person. I stepped off the train feeling like a schoolchild who’d fallen in the playground. We fixed up my hands and went in search of better dressing for my knee, eventually settling for some of those massive square pads with sticky edges.

It was a nice day, once I’d been triaged. The sun was shining and we had coffee, then lunch, then spent half an hour in the SciFi-Fantasy section (they aren’t the same thing, dammit!) at Waterstone’s loudly discussing, recommending, denouncing and holding forth about various books and series until we thought we’d better either buy something or leave. So we bought, and we decided to go sit in the sun and read for a bit. Maybe get ice cream.

A lazy afternoon followed, with tea and cake, and then beer, and dinner, and then I got back on the train.

I then had another mini-adventure. I know! What more could happen in one day?! This one was a battle of wits. A nice man opposite me saw me poking my knee and changing the dressing (yes, in public on the train) and inquired after my injury. He, unfortunately for me, was speaking Doric, the Scots dialect of the North-East. We had a lovely conversation, I think, as I tried my best to understand what the hell he was saying. I caught one or two words per sentence and filled in what I could based on his facial expression and most likely question/response. Before things could go beyond polite passenger chit chat, he got off. If he’d started discussing the philosophy of Descartes or something, I’d have been in trouble.

I made it home without further incident, I’m sure you’ll be glad to know. My knee dried out nicely overnight and is now mostly brown and scabby. My palms are still stinging, because I can’t stop using my hands, but they’re scabbing up, too. Do you think I can get a day off, tomorrow? (We don’t get the end of May Bank Hol). I am hideously injured, after all.

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Friday Confessions

I had a post all lined up but instead I thought I’d confess something: I have a bad relationship with failure.

Not so uncommon. I mean, who likes to fail? My problem is the way I deal with failure or even potential failure. It isn’t that I bury my head in the sand; I know if I’m messing up and how, and generally what I might do to fix it, but I hate asking for help.

I don’t like being seen to fail. I think it all goes back to my school days, back when TV was in black and white and dinosaurs roamed the Earth (as I tell the kids I work with). I was an awkward, lumpy teenager with crooked teeth and a bizarre sense of humour. I wasn’t necessarily bullied or disliked (except by the one bully who was nasty to everyone indiscriminately) but I was teased a bit and it was no secret that most of my year group thought I was a massive weirdo. And probably a lesbian.

I wasn’t that sporty (though I did play on the school netball team for four years) and I wasn’t a class clown. I wasn’t really rich and I hadn’t really been anywhere interesting or exciting. I couldn’t show off or be noticed for any of those things. Luckily, I was pretty intelligent. For every class I was in that was separated by ability – most things apart from technology, RE, art… – I was in the top section. Not always the best in the set (I hated maths but natural ability kept my head above water) but usually in the top 5. English and French were my favourite subjects.

It should be no surprise that I was considered a bit of a swot. Expectations were high. I chose to take Drama as an exam course and one boy in my class directly asked me if I shouldn’t be doing business studies or something instead. Most were taking it as a doss subject or were the pets of the Drama teacher (last year accused of indecent contact with pupils, incidentally) but for me it was a companion to English and to Textiles, the technology subject I had chosen for my certificate course. Textiles was basically sewing. “Home Ec” or “Domestic Science” was sort of split by then into Food Technology (Cooking and Nutrition – many calorie tables later…) and Textiles Technology (Sewing and ironing). I enjoyed the acting in my weird, lumpy way, but I did like designing costumes for the school production and helping to make them.

It wasn’t that I didn’t place any value on “non-academic” subjects like the school version of Art and Music. I deeply admire people with artistic talent and am insanely jealous of them. I was mediocre at both Art and Music, and the one thing I really wish I could do is draw. I’m quite good at visualising and at making a model or product based on my thought-design, but I can’t draw. I can’t make the picture in my head come out onto paper as it should be.

Anyway, rambling again… Right. Failure. As I went through school and sixth form, the pressure I put on myself to perform well intensified. Being a swot was my Thing. It was what I did. If I wasn’t the geeky one with good grades, who was I? So I became increasingly anxious when there was something I wasn’t good at or couldn’t do. Like the coursework section of my A Level courses. I totally understand the need for coursework. Some people flip out in exams and completely crash even if they knew the answers before they walked in the door. Coursework lets people show they do know what they’re doing without the pressure of a PASS/FAIL in TWO HOURS situation. Trouble is, I need the pressure. Give me two months to do something and I can guarantee it’ll be done, but done in the week – or days – before the deadline.

The Geology department were not that strict on checking our coursework progress. They reminded us of deadlines and occasionally supervised us in the lab when we were recording data but they left us to it for the most part. I slacked off. The Psychology department (yeah, I took diverse A Levels) took a step-by-step approach and gave us structured deadlines for each section of our coursework. That was good; there was a bit of pressure and the teachers had a better idea of who was keeping up and who needed help. I kept up.

My Geology coursework was two days late. My Psychology coursework was bang on time.

Interestingly, I came out with a B in both subjects. The difference being, I suspect, that in Psychology I was generally good overall and In Geology I aced the exam and that pulled my mark up.

I knew, KNEW, I was struggling with the Geology coursework. I knew I was behind and letting a mountain of data analysis and hours upon hours of spreadsheet work build up. Every day it haunted me. Did I ask for help? Nope. Did I confess my awful crime? Nope. Did I, in fact, lie and say it was done when it wasn’t? Oh, yes.

In my head (and I know it’s wrong but this is how my brain works) I had developed a very black and white policy on success. Success and swottiness were the ultimate goals. Failure was weakness. Failure meant people laughing and judging. If I admitted I needed help, my whole persona and identity would come crashing down. If there was one thing I truly hated, it was being laughed at. I think that says more about the way I judge others, really. Sorry. I do admire the ability to be comfortable advertising your crapness. I am someone who is Good At Things. Admitting that I wasn’t good at something academic was to reveal that my whole self was a lie. People would tear me apart. Teachers would scorn me. Worse, people would mutter “But this is really easy! How can she not do/understand/solve this?” and I would be ASHAMED. A shame completely out of proportion to the problem.

So I let it snowball until there was no helping me regardless because it was too late and suffered the consequences.

To this day I find it very difficult to ask for help. I would rather suffer quietly and worry and cry and get angry with myself for being stupid than to simply ask someone. Of course everyone has difficulty with something. It’s OK to need help. I know that. I am better than I used to be. But I still can’t shake the feeling that if I say “Sorry, can you just go over that again?” or “I don’t know the answer” or “I’m struggling with this, actually” that people will think I’m incompetent. I have been trusted with a task and I have betrayed that trust by being unable to complete it independently.

The best bit about this of course is that I work with children. I have to show them that it’s OK to need help sometimes. So I sort of allow myself to fail on purpose for educational purposes… yeah… that’s that I’m doing… *shifty eyes*

Have a good weekend being successful! Or not! That’s fine, too! (I’m already judging you…)

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Books and emotions

In the same way that there is a Meat Loaf song for every occasion, there is a book for every mood. I read to medicate my soul. Books are comforting and familiar, they don’t look at you in disgust if you haven’t showered, they don’t run away and they don’t talk back. Neither does a well-trained dog, but since I rent and I’m not allowed pets, books will have to do.

When I’m really feeling lost and out of touch with myself, I read Gemmell. Echoes of the Great Song or Winter Warriors usually. The stories are classic good-vs-evil, heroes-of-the-golden-age adventures and the derring-do of the main protagonists inspires me to take action in my own life. Gemmell anchors me to my late teens and a particular band of friends where I feel safe, and loved, and like people believe in me.

If I’m feeling sad, I find Pratchett. I need cheering up, but in a dry, dark way, and something like Jingo or Men at Arms does that. You know when you’re outside your own body, watching yourself lying on your bed listening to REM and feeling all Young Emo of the Year 2013, and you know how useless you’re being but you can’t snap yourself out of it? When you even sarcastically congratulate yourself on how productive you’re being in the hopes of angering your way out of a slump? That’s when I read Pratchett. Humour and satire that isn’t too silly, because in that mood silliness is contemptuous.

In an empowered mood, I read Valley of the Dolls. It’s glitz! It’s glamour! It’s actually quite bleak! But empowered-me pretends not to see the horrible parts. Valley is a guilty pleasure in some ways. It’s on my list of favourite books and I’ve read it many times. I sometimes feel like a hidden, fourth protagonist, if I’m really feeling puissant, observing the other three and carefully judging their actions. I sympathise, I cringe and cheer alongside them, but I secretly know I would have done it far better.

Anger makes me read angry books. Joe Abercrombie is my go-to for bitter rage. The First Law trilogy has a host of grotesques who are either as angry as me, or who give me a target for my unjust wrath. Barbarians, torturers, duellists, mages… all have their own grudges and agendas. All are out for what they can get and they don’t care who they tread into the dirt to get it. I do feel sorry for Major West, though. He’s always in the wrong place at the wrong time playing clean up for people who have royally messed up, or doing the difficult thing because someone has to. Major West makes me angry on his behalf.

On the seemingly rare occasion that I am in a happy mood, I read The Pyrates by George Macdonald Fraser. It’s a romp: an anachronistic, swash-buckling adventure with pirates and the Spanish Main, and natives and treasure and romance and sword fights and blackguards and the briny deep and silly accents. It takes historical figures and events, a bit of fluffing the actual year, the best of every pirate story you know, peppers them with awful jokes and modern references, and fires it at you from a cannon. My dad and I each own a copy – he got sick of me borrowing his and bought me an identical one.

When I get an attack of the romantic feels and I feel like wearing my ovaries on the outside for once, I have a few options. 1. Chocolat, which I will gush on and on about whether people want me to or not, 2. The Time Traveller’s Wife because oh, goodness, the feels, 3. Memoirs of a Geisha for its slow-burning love and lifetime of dedication. All three are guaranteed to be read snuggled in a blanket with chocolate to hand.

Of course, books can also evoke the whole gamut of emotions within me. I think the last book that really made me weep buckets was The Book Thief. It even tells you at the beginning how it’s going to end because most of the book is a “how we ended up here” thing, but somehow you manage to forget and then with a sense of impending doom you realise ohnonononononono… but it’s too late, you’re hooked, and the last few pages are blurry because of all the tears. Brilliant!

My friend Rivka is an author and her books have been known to provoke a strong reaction. She has an ongoing series called Masquerade which is at its most basic, a cautionary tale about vampires and sociopathy. The male protagonist of the first book, Tristan… my God, when I finished the book I wanted to hurl it across the room in unadulterated rage! Then I realised I was reading an ebook on my laptop and that probably wasn’t a good plan.
I see strong reaction – positive or negative – as a good sign. It means that I care one way or another. I have opinions about the characters or the story. I rarely these days read books which only garner a “meh”. Either I’m very easily-led or I’m extremely good at picking books that provoke a reaction. Reading a book is like signing a secret contract with my soul that states that the experience will teach me something. Whether I’m put through the wringer in a happy, sad, or ragequit way, it’s always a worthwhile experience. It shows me my limits. It pushes my limits. Reading is a way of navigating the dark forest of my insides where each book is a tiny fragment of the map.

…and now I’m feeling introspective. What’s my choice for that? A long stare at my nine shelves of maps before I give up and watch Avengers instead. Lovely.

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Suggestions

What it says on the tin, really… Anything you want me to write about? Are you dying to know my opinions on something? Do you have a writing prompt for me (like I need more things to write)? I’ll do short pieces (up to 1k) if you give me a prompt. Keep it clean.

I can’t tell you too much about myself. I work with children, and children have their snotty faces all over the Internet. I’m not writing anything inappropriate for them to see or that my employers wouldn’t like, I just want to keep this separate because work me and home me should be separate.

Don’t ask me what my favourite book is unless you’re prepared for a post a day for three weeks as I detail my top twenty and then refuse to pick one.

Guide me, otherwise you’ll be stuck with whatever drivel I can come up with on my own.

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The beginning

A beginning is a scary place to be. All that blank space ahead to fill in with something. You want it to be something profound, something meaningful… At school it was always important to write the first page of a new exercise book in the neatest handwriting possible, for appearance’s sake.

I have started many stories and rambling things that almost become complete. I am not someone who converts their tries very often, unless there’s a specific deadline to meet or people are relying on me. I have successfully completed NaNoWriMo four years running, in that I got to fifty thousand words, but the actual narratives remain unfinished on my laptop. Sometimes I go back and tinker, add a thousand words here and there, move things around… and then they sit for a while. And then November rocks around again and I have a new idea and off I go with a blank document again.

I have good intentions. I have excellent intentions, in fact, and they are leading me down a road to somewhere quite hot and full of sinners. I am determined – with all of you as my witnesses – that I will complete something (and hopefully many somethings) and do something with it and put it out there in the world.

I love writing. I love stories. I have read thousands from different genres, different cultures, in different languages, and I love the feel of them. There’s something about a good story that feeds the soul, even if it’s tried and tested and you know what’s coming around every corner and even if you have to stop reading for a while because it got too intense, or too sad, or too disturbing; it’s all good for your insides.

If I didn’t read for pleasure, I think I would actually go insane. I do not understand why people don’t like reading. I know it can take time to find a genre or an author or a trope that interests you, but the important thing is to keep opening new books and reading first pages until you get there. Each hardback is like the lid of a treasure chest. I love it.

Somewhere along the line, I started writing my own things. I remember sitting at our old Acorn computer in the box room at my parents’ house bashing away at the grotty beige keyboard writing a story. I wrote a story about Little Grey Rabbit where everyone cheered a lot. Yup. Fanfiction. Aged eight. I was ahead of my time, dear Internet. As I moved up through into secondary school English quickly became my favourite subject. Re-imagine the shipwreck at the beginning of Twelfth Night from the point of view of Antonio? You got it. Write a story to explain the rock cycle for Geography? No problem. Character POV diaries from our exam texts, updated fairytales, or ‘what happened next’; it made no odds to me. I sharpened my claws on 8mm feint ruled paper.

The Internet made it to our house. Dial up, ye gods. A whole new world opened up to me. I started roleplaying in chatrooms, telling my origin story to virtual taverns filled with mysterious travellers and rafters packed with dark elves. I started writing fanfiction again – consciously this time – and I think it’s probably still there on livejournal somewhere… I wrote original stuff, too, and pretty much all of it was high fantasy. I was heavily influenced by David Gemmell at the time.

By the time I went to university and got dragged into NaNoWriMo by an enthusiastic and competitive flatmate, I’d written a fair whack of stuff. All of it unfinished, a lot of it lost or password protected on the family computer which was pretty much the same thing since I used a different password for every document and couldn’t remember them all. Or the password to the master list of passwords, more annoyingly.

I want to go beyond beginnings. I want to make it to the very end and even further. I want to get to the end of a draft and then go back and edit and polish and tweak and prod the thing until I hate it and then fall in love with it again and publish it. That’s the dream, kids. A dream that began with a grotty beige keyboard and a child repeatedly misspelling ‘hooray’ as ‘horray’.

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